16.02.10, Bredehoft, The Visible Text

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Edward Christie

The Medieval Review 16.02.10

Bredehoft, Thomas A. The Visible Text: Textual Production and Reproduction from Beowulf to Maus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. 182. ISBN: 9780199603152 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Edward Christie
Georgia State University

Thomas Bredehoft's The Visible Text is the latest book issued in Oxford's Textual Perspectives series. The works in this series take as their purview the materiality of literary texts, the technologies of its production and reception. They intend to offer provocative readings of literature and simultaneously to push at the boundaries of the concepts of textuality and literariness themselves. Bredehoft's work argues convincingly for the "necessity of seeing as well as reading" literary texts (8). This is a case that has been repeatedly made in recent years, and here it is made in a manner as concrete and clear as it is conceptually sophisticated. Bredehoft's goal is, as he states in his epilogue, to remind readers that "multiple technologies and ideologies of text and textuality have been operative in every period" (157). While the spatial logics of medieval textuality in Old English or Gothic manuscripts, and the new emphases of digital textuality, are often presented as alternatives to the ostensibly linear logic of print, Bredehoft argues that "print itself is a more complex phenomenon" than is often allowed (157). The crucial analytical move of this books is thus to separate material strategy from textual ideology--showing how a combination of material practices and cultural presuppositions collude in the production of any given state of textuality. The physical disposition of text and (apparent) paratext, on the one hand, intersects with the ideological privileging of "production" or "reproduction" on the other. By examining medieval and modern textuality through this pair of binaries, Bredehoft thoughtfully complicates a received historical division between "medieval textuality" and the modern attitude to reproduction generally associated with the rise of print. He presents a conceptual framework that accounts for the subsistence of conflicting desires about authority in both ages: medieval and modern textualities contain the same ingredients, but in different proportions. While it has long been common to think of medieval scribes as primarily copyists, distinct from authors whom they laboriously and sometimes erroneously "reproduce," Bredehoft argues that we have tended to see them thus because of our own print-prejudice. Scribal work, in the Anglo-Saxon period, for example, was perceived as a productive at least as much as reproductive process.

The book has four chapters, separated by three brief "Interludes" that ease the transition between their quite different ages. From "Anglo-Saxon Textual Production," to "Gothic Textual Reproduction," and "Typographic Print Reproduction," the argument returns finally to "Comics Textual Production" (my emphasis), the story implied by these chapter headings is a cycle from an ideology of textual production through reproduction and back to production again. This cycle is frequently identified with the intervention of print technology. An important contribution of the book, however, is to demonstrate in detail how the ideology of production/reproduction varies independently from the materiality of texts so that a far more nuanced understanding of textuality in any period becomes visible. This observation offers an exceptionally useful corrective to the technological determinism that sometimes threatens to govern our thinking about textuality.

In chapter 1, focused on Anglo-Saxon textual production, Bredehoft proceeds from the provocative claim that Beowulf is not a text. Its lack of paratexts either signaling its participation in an ideology reproduction or mediating its meaning for a contemporary audience, the Beowulf manuscript stands rather as an artefact, a "thing in itself" that we must therefore encounter with different expectations. The textual culture of the Old English period, he goes on to claim, is defined by the tension between two competing ideologies: "productive" and "reproductive" conceptions of the book. This chapter presents evidence that, despite the importance of copying as a practice of Anglo-Saxon book production, contemporary readers (like Bede and Boniface in Bredehoft's examples) took a "productive" view of books. That is, they offered no privileged place to the exemplar, but thought of each iteration of a text as a "unique produced object or artifact." Proffering further examples from the works of King Alfred, and Ælfric of Eynsham, Bredehoft concludes that Anglo-Saxons did not universally assume a "hierarchical relationship of value between original and copy" (37) as we habitually do. This matters profoundly to our reading of Old English texts because "[o]ur entire theoretical perspective on which aspects of a medieval text are 'substantive' and which are 'accidentals' is built upon an understanding of scribal activity as inherently reproductive" (54). Guided by the recognition of a more "productive" ideology in Anglo-Saxon culture, we must radically re-orient our own interpretive assumptions.

By contrast to Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales is firmly set within a reproductive paradigm, a text defined by its paratexts. The argument of chapter 2 is thus that the differences between Ellesmere and Hgwyrt manuscripts of Chaucer's great work can be understood through a close examination of the Gothic ideology of reproduction. By contrast to modern conceptions of mediation, gothic reproduction aims at the mediation of a "moving target" (62-63). In the twelfth century, "the ideology of reproduction" began to gain a dominance it would retain throughout the later middle ages, though "unlike the truly mechanical reproduction of the later print era, Gothic reproduction accepted, and even traded upon, the vital necessity of individual local variation that made each iteration unique" (64).

As in the first chapter, the argument begins with close attention to visual patterns: the garbled inscription, or "pseudo-text" that emerges in the transmission of ampullae containing Becket's blood. Under the logic of the copy it is easy to perceive this garble as a flawed iteration of an authoritative original, which could thus be understood as a text that transmitted an assumed meaning much like that of its original, despite its literal illegibility (66). Narrative examples of a reproductive ideology gaining ground follow rapidly from the consideration of these widely circulating artifacts: the History of Geoffrey of Monmouth, presented as a translation of an ostensible original, the Lais of Marie de France likewise represented as translations and bounded by paratexts (prefaces and epilogues). These texts construct for themselves a history of transmission and a purpose to "preserve and transmit" (72) that suggest a self-conscious investment in textuality as an essentially reproductive activity. Unlike the reproductive ideology of the age of print, however, the reproductive nature of the text in the Gothic period is an "occasion for productive textual, visual, and translational variance rather than problematic failure" (93).

Chapter 3 attempts to trace the emergence of a fully print-oriented paradigm of reproduction. From an initial persistence of the Gothic textual ideology in the age of incunabula, Bredehoft argues, the print ideology familiar to us under which the text-as-edition, and after it the facsimile, is viewed as a reproduction of a virtual text: not the multiform, but nevertheless material, text of the Gothic, but an ideal original (98). The case studies in this chapter range across time from Caxton's first printed editions of The Canterbury Tales, to More's Utopia, to Shakespeare's Folios, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and The Lord of the Rings. In the changing position of authority claimed in the paratexts of Shakespeare's folios, to give one example, Bredehoft sees a developing view of textual authority that is nevertheless consistent from the first in the attempt of the edition to define itself as offering authoritative access to meaning through reproductive processes that simultaneously render the authorial text invisible.

"The genre of comics," Bredhoft argues in chapter 4, "takes its very form as a critique of typographical print reproduction...eschewing typography and insisting upon the value of the author's or artists' handwork" (129). This chapter thus makes the case that comic books enact a "new configuration of the very practices, principles, and ideologies of texts, technologies, and reproduction" and thus though the critical study of comics is still relatively new they are "of the utmost importance for understanding contemporary textuality" (131). Comics differ from other collections of images, in that they "demand an act of interpretive reading across the boundary between juxtaposed elements" and they differ from literary texts in that they require no language at all. They thus "focus our attention on the question of whether the image functions textually or paratextually" (135). In his key example, Bredehoft points out how Spiegelman's Maus comics deliberately transform paratexts of other works into textual and literary aspects of their meaning making (144).

This volume offers a thoughtful and cogent response to some persistent debates in the history of textuality. To the close student of textuality, however, this work may seem to range quickly over territory that has been offered rigorous treatment elsewhere. Bredehoft's ideas about reproduction and "remediation," for example, seem to me to illuminate our understanding of the shifts from manuscript to print or from print into digital media no further than Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin's Remediation (1998), to whom he acknowledges his debt. Likewise, I think that to address the "moving target" nature of Gothic representation ought to involve at least alluding to Paul Zumthor's characterization of mouvance, which precedes Cerquiligni's observations about the essential variability of medieval text. The concepts of supplement and paratext in which Bredehoft anchors his analysis are more difficult than his even-handed story sometimes wants them to be. The logic of the supplement, indeed, entails that the distinction between text and paratext is by definition slippery. Certain contemporary genres, like comics, might be remarkable in their systematic and self-conscious elision of this boundary. But, the point of the Derridean concept of the supplement is precisely that the trick through which one kind of text both appears to be "extra" and simultaneously to exercise authority over another is precisely that: a trick. In none of the texts considered in this book, then, should paratexts be taken at their word. Though that observation is part of the conclusion of Visible Text in other parts of the book text and paratext have been held more firmly separate. Finally, Bredehoft seems, especially as he draws to his conclusion, to take for granted the ostensible "linearity" of print, whereas his own observations in this work suggest to me a fruitful method for questioning even this encrusted concept.

Despite these criticisms, this is a lucid and valuable work in its overall perspective. Focusing as he does on concepts of production, reproduction, originality and supplementarity, Bredehoft demonstrates that there is nothing eclectic in considering Old English manuscripts and comic books side by side: they both transmit attitudes about meaning and authority in their co-articulation of word and image, in their articulation of relationships to supposed "originals." Seen within this history, the digital text is less revolutionary than it is sometimes imagined; nor is it as intangible as its metaphors sometimes suggest. New technologies have brought even further into view the ways print editions "remake texts and textual artefacts into the image of print-based textuality" and thus, as Bredehoft asserts, the time is ripe to "read these other textual objects in their own terms" (164).

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