There's what we know, there's what we don't know...

~or, Sometimes you write your dissertation with the body of knowledge you have, not the body of knowledge you want.

I have started the real research phase of the dissertation, and I don't know about you but for me that means picking a secondary source almost at random and hoping it points me in the right direction. There are a series of questions I'd like answered, and at this point it's as though I'm just issuing subpoenas to everyone in the field of English literature in order to define the scope of the inquiry. I'm not entirely certain what's out there. So far, I've seen my buzzwords in quite a few places, but they're being deployed without, I think, careful attention, and no one I've yet read (SO early to say this with confidence) has yet referred to "durability" in quite the way I think they need to. This gives me hope.

First things first: if you're in this field, you should read David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery's The Book History Reader. The 2nd edition is available new in paperback for under $50. It's simply no longer reasonable to participate in literary studies without at least a smattering of book history. As always, I'm coming a bit late to the game, and while I've read a number of the works excerpted in the reader, I have also encountered a number of perspectives hitherto unfamiliar to me. As an eighteenth-century person, I've also gotten into the bad habit of undervaluing periods not my own, which has left me a bit ignorant regarding manuscript production and oral culture. This in turn has left me unable to appreciate fully the impact of print, which has in turn left me a blithering idiot. Thus do I blither on, but to a lesser extent for the survey this book provides.

I was struck today by what I'm calling the Myth of Knowledge until someone tells me what proper scholars call it. The shorthand for it is my frustration at not being able to know everything, and the suspicion that short of my possessing total knowledge, I'm really just making things up. In reading Elizabeth Eisenstein's important The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, I was uncomfortable with what I perceived as a number of abstractions and assessments supported by individual examples. I don't accuse her of shoddy scholarship--leagues and leagues from that; honestly, it's quite the book. But I began to wonder at what point it is -- how much knowledge we have to possess -- in order to draw a conclusion.

For example: say I'm writing about the usage of a particular term in a given period. The word "widget" is used in this context, in these genres, to mean this, applied to that, etc. In how many texts does it have to occur before I can fairly assess what was at work? If I find it in 1000 texts, and there are 10,0000 to look through, is that enough? What if there are 100,000 texts to search? As if I could ever look through that many? If I don't discover the term and what I think is a telling usage in 51% of extant works from the period, am I not fooling myself? And what happens when I discover the single example of a text in which the term is used in a way that does not come into general use for another century? Just because one guy thought about the same thing a bit differently than everyone else, to what extent is my argument unraveled? What is the value of the individual counterexample?

And here's another question, which stems from D. F. McKenzie's reading of the punctuation in the epigraph opening Congreve's authorized version of "The Way of the World" (1710). He compares it to a slight misquotation of the epigraph by Wimsatt and Beardsley in "The Intentional Fallacy." A comma here, a comma there, and you get a whole different interpretation. I'm reminded here of an episode of The West Wing, in which Toby discovers a potential typo in the U.S. Constitution. Could be a comma, could be a smudge; if a comma, a substantive difference results. If a smudge, a smudge. Now then. To understand Congreve, I have to understand his times, what it meant to write, what it meant to write as a dramatist, what it meant to bring out a version of your play in print or manuscript, and therefore what the differences between print and manuscript were, how those differences affected his position as author and playwright, and so on and so forth. One must historicize. What did it mean to "toil" in 1710? What connotations did the word "wrought" carry? And once I know that, can I even be certain that punctuation worked the same way in the early 18th century? McKenzie suggests that the commas isolate and emphasize a particular phrase. I think he's probably correct, and I don't mean to challenge him on this particular point. Rather, I'm using it as an example to demonstrate the impossible depth and breadth of knowledge required to understand what we might think of as the simplest thing about a text. Commas probably did serve the same function as they do now, though based on some of my students' writing, there's no reason to think that the use of the comma and other syntactical devices hasn't changed dramatically over the years. (Some of my students seem to just write a paper and then sprinkle punctuation marks over it like glitter. But that's for a different day.)

Texts, like people, emerge out of ridiculously complex systems that are scarcely understood in their own times much less hundreds or thousands of years later. If I don't fully comprehend everything that went in to the creation of a text, how can I make an argument about it that isn't some discrediting percentage of rubbish? I'm trying to recreate dinosaurs and I have to use frog DNA to fill in the gaps. We all know what happens when you do that. Raptors try to eat you.

Which brings me to yet another problem I've had with some of the criticism I've been reading. These very clever fellows go back and do the research and present pictures of the past that are utterly contradictory. That's fine, you say; that's the nature of the beast. Some people are going to claim that the printing press was better than scribal culture because it cut down on errors and texts didn't have to get more and more out of whack with every generation. Others are going to remind you that a shoddy printer who was in it for the money would have made things worse precisely because he could work faster without carefully checking his work. That's how you get your "Wicked Bible" of 1631. Sheesh, says the poor printer, you leave one "not" out of the seventh commandment, and everyone goes nuts. (The following lovely moment occurs in Walter Ong's contribution to the Book History Reader: a paragraph ends with, "The printing press simply represented a handy means of multiplying indispensable texts even more rapidly and accurately than was possible under the pecia system." Three sentences later, we get: "more than 2,000 copies of Aristotle's works have come down to us from the and 14th centuries" (151). Accuracy, ha!) But fair enough; different research turns out different results, that's no problem. What we're going to discover is that everything was far more complicated, that everything was going on at once, and that unless you do read everything you can you're going to leave out some nuance, some exception, some thing or other that would have given you "truth" at the expense of clarity.

And this is not to mention the somewhat disturbing tendency a few of these scholars have to treat what they have found in history as though it were available to those alive at the time. Did Pope have the understanding of literacy rates and manuscript v. print production that we have now? I sincerely doubt it. In order to better understand the system of literature at any given period, I should think we'd have to synthesize what was with what was perceived. To which side of the equation you give more weight depends, I suppose, on the sort of work you're trying to write. I scarcely understand how one can write anything that doesn't need to wrangle with both, particularly in the eighteenth century, which I associate with almost staggering self-awareness. There is a system; there are agents within it that can, at best, merely think they know that system. Mmm, dense!

I imagine that those outside the humanities must look at these problems and wonder what on earth we imagine to be the point of these tomes we write -- these theories we offer that can never amount to much more than hopeful essays and well-intentioned approximations. If we're not going to get at the thing as it is, I wonder if we shouldn't construct from the pieces of history whatever we think is useful to us now and for the futures we wish to design. Or more properly, because we already do this by default, why we shouldn't do it without hiding behind the skirts of science. I suppose, though, that that way lies a kind of fascism.

Or Enlightenment.

In thinking more about this, as I will, I think a large part of the question is weighing the benefits of sampling against those of an actual census. We're fine with polling data, too, but I don't think anyone would want an election decided by it. If you want real credibility you have to count the votes. Most of them, anyway.

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