McGann and “The Rationale of Hypertext”

In his essay, “The Rationale of Hypertext”, Jerome McGann makes the case for de-centered, hypertext editions of literary works. According to McGann, who is a textual scholar, current critical editions (editions that offer authoritative versions of texts and include critical commentary or variants) are limited by the book form: “The logical structures of the ‘critical edition’ function at the same level as the material being analyzed. As a result, the full power of the logical structures is checked and constrained by being compelled to operate in bookish format” (Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web 56). Basically, books establish formal limits to the study of literature. Because the book determines how the scholar engages with the text, it constrains his analysis. Throughout the essay, McGann offers several examples of nontraditional texts that cannot be adequately represented in book form—poems set to music, based off pictures/paintings, or relying on the specifics of inscription/medium. In the example of Emily Dickinson, who often created her poems to fit the scraps of paper available, McGann explains that it would be difficult to combine the “facsimiles” (exact copies, or images of text) with appropriate scaffolding and criticism in a book form. The result would be too vast and unwieldy. McGann concludes that hypertext editions offer an opportunity for presenting texts in a more flexible way. He makes the comparison between hypertext editions and libraries (which are collections of texts, rather than a single text) and the internet (where information is connected through a network). He argues for presenting texts and all their variants, components, and critical materials in non-centralized form, so “when one goes to read a poetical work, no documentary state of the work is privileged over the others. All options are presented for the reader’s choice” (Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web  73). This dramatically breaks open the traditional text to new ways of reading, and therefore, of analysis.

I have one major question about McGann’s proposal. It’s obvious from his essay that his main audience consists of other textual scholars or literary scholars in general. I’m wondering how he might present such a proposal to students of literature, or people in other disciplines? Re-reading this text (I first read it several years ago, when I was much more idealistic and less familiar with teaching), I was struck by the pedagogical implications, or lack thereof. I’m not sure how students would interact with these “non-centered” texts. How would undergraduates, especially those who don’t have much experience handling the book, or experience with literature in the first place, have the confidence to confront and navigate through the hypertext edition? How could we scaffold the experience in a way that doesn’t constrain them? To spur your thinking, I’m going to link to the Rossetti Archive which is McGann’s project. I’m also going to link to one of my favorite online editions, on Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Both of these resources are non-centralized, and it’s up to the user to determine her engagement with them. How might today’s students (who are largely familiar with hypertext, but less so with literature) interact with these resources?

4 thoughts on “McGann and “The Rationale of Hypertext”

  1. Thanks for your reading and questions, Filipa! As a librarian, I was completely hung up on the lack of discussion of metadata in the readings for this week, especially McGann because he seemed to be the resident “computerizing” expert among them. I think it’s true that his focus, and that of many of the others, is scholarship, not pedagogy.
    McGann seems to think that a hypertext scholarly edition is the first book ever to be nonlinear, forgetting about reference works, including the OED, which he references. Oops. Librarian indignation break.
    McGann discusses another project he was involved with, The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, which he refers to as a “reader’s edition” vs. a “critical edition…sieved through a scholarly conscience.” He is unhappy with the book’s publishers for shooting down his ideas, and the book appears to be print only. But I bet professors and high school teachers know exactly how to teach from it.
    Should archives like Rossetti and Woolf contain teacher’s guides? Rossetti provides an introduction and tech specs (including a recommendation for using a dead browser), and Woolf has a user guide, which is help text, rather than a pedagogy tool.
    Your question about new scholars’ use of online tools has made me want to add a teaching aspect to my online project. They all should!
    But what would a “try this” look like for the independent non-scholar? How would an undergrad undertake research with one of these projects without being directed by a teacher driven class assignment? I feel like the students I work with at Barnard College, might find their way there on their own, while writing a research paper. I suspect they would find what they needed, but that they might not know how to take advantage of all the sites have to offer. Or they might be overwhelmed by how cool everything is and not know what to do with it. First years, anyway. Seniors writing theses would probably take the time to fully examine the offerings and/or get guidance from their professor or librarian. 

  2. Hi Filipa and Hi Jenna,
    Thank you for this provocation, Filipa, and for providing the links to the Rossetti Archive and Woolf Online. Though I enjoyed McGann’s enormous and rich vocabulary while getting a crash course in 19th century poetry, I thought McGann was blowing his own horn, so to speak, about the Rossetti project. So when I visited the site vs. just looking at the screen shots in the article, I was struck by the lack of sophistication in the design. It seemed like a Web 1.0 site that would be used in elementary schools, despite its content being scholarly. So in this respect, to Filipa’s point about including students in a project like the Rossetti Archive, perhaps it is actually an example of the type of non-intimidating, user friendly interface that students might visit due to its “look”, meaning the content might be intimidating but its home certainly isn’t. I was really shocked after reading his essay by the visitor experience to the Rossetti Archive which is very unsatisfactory in my opinion. When I’m busy researching, I usually don’t focus on such aesthetics, but after reading Manovich, I do feel that design and aesthetics are very important in research and information, as much as navigation is. The contrast to the Rossetti Archive, which does not do its literary content justice in either its creative or scholarly aspects, is Woolf Online which is slick and sophisticated, much like the content of the writer. I could go on, but I’ll leave it here for now. To be continued in class…

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