My Textual Condition

“I know more, but I am also more uncertain.” – Jerome J. McGann (91)

I begin with a quote from The Textual Condition because it succinctly captures my experiences in this course thus far. While I have developed a vocabulary and a critical framework to discuss the materiality of texts, I also grow ever more uncertain as to what kinds of arguments I can make from this body of knowledge and how they might relate to my interests in race and colonialism. I feel as if I have been handed a powerful set of analytic tools, and I do not yet know how I might use them to make the kinds of literary-critical arguments that I hope to develop. My pet book for this course as well as the most crucial primary text for my thesis is Daniel Defoe’s novel Colonel Jack. On the one hand, my thesis discusses intersections of biopolitics and realism in Colonel Jack, on the other hand all of my writings for this course engage with Colonel Jack’s material features such as textual differences in various editions, marks of ownership, and illustrations in the text. This has created a kind of schism in my thinking where discourses of race and power become incommensurate with matters of textuality and bibliography. I find myself reenacting the separation between “hermeneutics” and “scholarship” that McGann argues has “seriously weakened literary-critical work along all its disciplinary lines” (97). I know more about Colonel Jack and this knowledge has made me more uncertain about how I am studying this book.

Following our class’s rich discussion in the BPL on October 26, I feel part of this uncertainty slowly giving way to lines of analysis that relate critiques of power to book history methodologies. Crucially, I observed that literary-critical arguments can be bolstered by paying attention to the materiality of the text by allowing us to reimagine a readerly experience of textual engagement. While I argue in my thesis that Colonel Jack teaches conceptions of race grounded in white supremacy, studying the book’s material conditions gives us a window into who this text was teaching. Paying attention to the book’s format, illustration, binding, price, and other textual features points towards the book’s audience upon initial publication, and seeing how these features change over time allows us to see how the book’s audience also shifts (or remains the same). Thus, when we see that the first edition of Colonel Jack in 1722 is devoid of illustrations and color yet is more expensive than its 1738 fourth edition, which features both colored-font and a full-page illustration, we might be to see how the text’s intended audience’s preferences have changed. Even though the price of this book goes down (from six shillings to four shillings) in the intervening sixteen years between the two editions, it still represents a significant sum accessible primarily to the literate middle-class and other relatively privileged demographics. Yet, the fact that by 1738 you get more “bang for your buck” when you purchase this text, underscores that the bourgeois reader’s engagement and expectations of the text have changed significantly: the metropolitan readership has raised its expectations of the variety of textual features sought for in the literary marketplace. How might this strengthening of the literary marketplace, as represented by the growing sophistication of its readership, be related to the transatlantic trade in slaves and commodities that enriched the eighteenth-century English economy? Did the money made through English colonialism underwrite the innovations in print technology that allowed for books to be produced with more features at a cheaper cost?

I do not yet have an answer to these questions, but the fact that I have managed to pose them represents a way for me to link “scholarship” with “hermeneutics.”

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