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?