This post is about an asymmetry in the current disciplinary configuration of literary studies: scholars of my generation often possess detailed professional knowledge of how the books of their period of study, as physical objects, were made. Yet very few of them have an account of how the utterances in those books were made, apart from the patently inadequate notion of word choice (“words in their sites,” as Ian Hacking once put it) and, perhaps, familiarity with classical rhetorical tropes and figures. In the 60’s and 70s Linguistics provided the primary technical resource the discipline literary criticism; now that role is filled by descriptive bibliography.
The general asymmetry has a bevy of local expressions. My colleagues are more likely to have studied how the ink and paper of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was made than how Shakespeare made the sentences in Hamlet. They are surprisingly likely to have spent time writing about William and Isaac Jaggard’s contributions to the volume relative to Shakespeare’s own. Their working vocabularies are more likely to include bibliographic terms like catchword and signature than the distinction between intensional and extensional meaning that is of great import in the philosophy of language. They are far more likely to read and cite D.F. McKenzie arguing that the material form of texts determines their meaning than the work of Noam Chomsky (or any other linguist, for that matter) arguing that the syntactic form of sentences determines their meaning. They are more likely to have performed a collation than a syntactic parse, though they may well have done some sentence diagramming (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentence_diagram) in primary school. They think lots about textual instability and little if at all about scope ambiguity, lots about compositors and little if at all about compositionality, lots about the conventionally meaningful elements of a title page and little if it all about the conventionally meaningful elements of a sentence. I’d wager that more of them know how to differentiate stab-stitched bindings from sewed bindings than count nouns from mass nouns (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Count_noun). And of course the attention to books as physical objects is just one element of the larger turn, across the humanities, from the study of language to the study of media – material substrates and technologies through which communication takes place – and perhaps more generally still from “representations” to materiality, objects, and “things.”
A few qualifications are in order. There is evident vagueness built into who is included in “my generation of scholars” and what counts as an “adequate” account of language – vagueness that for the moment I don’t plan to dispel through stipulation. And I’m really speaking here about North American literary academia plus Oxbridge and London Universities. In countries where English is not the first language, as well as in non-Oxbridge UK universities outside of London, students of English literature frequently study linguistics along with the English language. (As a point of reference, here are the institutional affiliations of the editorial team of the journal Language and Literature: University of Huddersfield, UK, The University of Nottingham, UK, Universidad de Granada, Spain, Jean Moulin University, Lyon, France.) Scholars of Old and Middle English Literature are much more likely to have devoted time to the study of the English language and its history than scholars who study Early Modern or Modern English, though I can’t speak to how often this extends beyond establishing fluency and factual knowledge to theoretical matters. It is also plausible, though not clearly the case from where I sit, that comparatists working across multiple languages are more likely to engage with the technical study of language.
More obviously, it is inherently difficult to generalize about what people know: there are a lot of people out there, and they don’t always exhibit their knowledge in person or document it in published scholarship. I am acquainted with many scholars whose wide and voracious reading has led them to corners of linguistics and the philosophy of language that were not otherwise part of their coursework and training. (My own education in linguistics has been entirely extracurricular.)
Finally, I don’t doubt that my sense of this disciplinary asymmetry is perspectival, in part a product of selection bias. I work on the early modern period, the era of what Elizabeth Eisenstein called the “Printing Revolution,” and as a frequent denizen of the Folger Shakespeare Library, I am unusually likely to meet and socialize with a particular subset of early modern literature scholars: those who choose to leave their home institution and travel to a library filled with physical early modern books and those who get funding to do so. I have friends and colleagues who work on marginalia, typography, fonts, punctuation, bookbinding techniques, miscellanies and anthologies, Sammelbände, paper and ink making, printhouses, booksellers, waste paper, secretary hand, commonplacing, title-pages, and more. A surprising number of them have tattooed early modern printer’s marks, punctuation marks, manicules, or other reader’s marks somewhere on their body.* This milieu is not everyone’s milieu.
Yet even taking these qualifications into account, I believe the disciplinary asymmetry remains. We can characterize it more definitely by speaking not about the knowledge of individual scholars but about the institutions that train them. At the University of Virginia’s Rare Books School (rarebookschool.org), founded in 1983, academics across disciplines mix with “antiquarian booksellers, book collectors, bookbinders, conservators, curators, rare book librarians, teachers, and professional and avocational students of the history of books and printing” (https://rarebookschool.org/admissions-awards/faqs/). At this “mainstay of bibliographical education in the United States and the English-speaking world,” (https://rarebookschool.org/about-rbs/a-brief-history-of-rbs/) scholars can take courses in “The Printed Book in the West to 1800,” “The Book in the Manuscript Era,” “Printed Books to 1800: Description & Analysis,” as well as courses in paleography, papermaking, illustrations, photographic printing, typography, and bookbinding (no less than nine courses on bookbinding are listed on the website.)
For each of the past 17 years, the Texas A&M Book History Workshop has offered a 5 day workshop in which “participants to create a complete facsimile of an eighteenth-century pamphlet by setting, correcting, and imposing type on an English common press, then printing the book in three octavo formes.” (https://printinghistory.org/texas-book-history-workshop/). Workshop activities include “casting type in a hand mould, setting type and preparing it for the press, printing on a period-accurate common press, papermaking, creating marbled and paste papers, and experimenting with a number of book illustration techniques.” (https://library.tamu.edu/book-history/about). Participants do not merely study books, they “experience a complement of practices used to create books.” In the words of R. B. McKerrow, that experience includes “all the processes through which the matter of the work before them has passed, from its first being written down by the pen of its author to its appearance in the finished volume.”*
So far as I know, there are no comparable summer programs geared to provide literary scholars specialized training in what happens as a text is “first being written down by the pen of its author.”
This doesn’t mean that students and professors of literature receive absolutely no such training, only that the linguistic paradigm in which they are trained is (looks at watch) more or less a century old. A literary theory course built around the Norton Anthology (https://media.wwnorton.com/cms/contents/NATHEORY3%20TOC.pdf) will include extensive passages from Saussure’s Cours (1916), selections from two essays by Roman Jakobson, and a chunk of J.L. Austin on performative utterances. (The Rivkin and Ryan theory anthology drops the Austin and adds Derrida on semiology.) And of course so much of literary theory, through structuralism and post-structuralism, depends on the foundation of structural linguistics, with more or less explicitness. Even if they haven’t spent time with Saussure, scholars are likely to have encountered in later theorists – Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, Althusser, Kristeva, Butler, Hall, etc. – the notion that the linguistic sign is an arbitrary pairing of signifier and signified that gains its identity only as part of a larger system of differences. This foundation serves as a support for one of the core activities of current humanistic inquiry across disciplines – antifoundationalist, historicist, lexical semantics – which has persisted largely unchanged through so many claims to methodological novelty over the past several decades.
What about graduate programs and the courses they offer, since this is where the profession reproduces itself? Short of a big data analysis of grad curricula, I am wary of making claims about a domain this big. But a leisurely morning stroll through the current course offerings of a dozen or so top programs reveals a regimen of explicitly labeled book history (and/or bibliography) courses, spread across institutions. Courses with an explicitly linguistic topic or aim are almost entirely absent; a lone exception, of precisely the sort that seems to prove the rule, is the graduate course “Linguistic Theory and Poetic Structure,” offered by a linguist, John Bowers, at Cornell University.
There’s certainly more work that can be done to establish and characterize this asymmetry. But I want to move on to the question that I’ve been pondering for a little while now: how did this come to be? How come current Shakespeareans study in great detail how a leather binding is stitched, embossed, and stamped, without having more than a rudimentary account of how the sentences written by Shakespeare were produced?
I think the most crucial part of the answer has to do with the current disciplinary organization of knowledge. Because there are whole departments of Linguistics devoted to studying language, with a faculty, major requirements, grad programs, and course offerings, and so on, the burden of studying and understanding language has been effectively offloaded. Book history, by contrast, has nowhere else to live, no disciplinary home of its own, outside of departments of Literature, History, and scattered programs in Media Studies, communications, etc. (That it also lives in libraries, archives, and rare book shops is another thing altogether.) Grad students who want to understand recent theories of how language works – how we produce and understand utterances we’ve never witnessed before, how the meaning of those utterances is composed of the meaning their parts, etc. – can take courses in Linguistics… in their spare time, with spare credits, which is to say rarely if at all. What gets offloaded gets forgotten or left out.
This disciplinary division tracked onto one of the biggest intellectual divides of the second half of the 20th century. By the latter 1960s, language took on entirely opposed functions for the opposing camps. For Foucault and the humanities work he inspired, language was the “mankiller,” the premier “positivity external to Man” that constituted human being historically, producing it as a contingent “figure,” and the goal of studying language was to detranscendentalize the claims of the human sciences. Around the same time, by contrast, the study of language in the Chomskyan paradigm became the most prestigious domain for the production of truths about universal human nature. It purported to establish the biological transcendentals and species-specific endowment of human beings abstracted away from cultural and historical difference. Once it was clear, circa 1980, that literary studies would embrace the detranscendentalizing project, claims about language beyond the cultural specificity and contingency of the lexicon became suspect.
Language itself became a divided terrain: to the linguists went grammar, generality, and universality; to humanists went words, arbitrariness, and cultural specificity. Book history lent itself rather easily to the historicizing project, or at least travelled alongside it without conflict, since the material supports for communication, publication, and distribution vary quite dramatically across periods and cultures; better still, book history compensated for the tendency to idealism of various linguistic, social, and cultural constructivisms precisely because of its hard-nosed and workmanlike empiricism (see “the new boredom”). In this sense, book history didn’t come “after theory” at all but was theory’s easy companion and (depending on what one supposes is the current status of “theory”) survivor.
A further element of an answer has to do, I think, with the strange character of linguistic knowledge, as part of what has sometimes been called the “unrepressed unconscious”: unconscious because readers may to one degree or another share Shakespeare’s linguistic knowledge – know very well how to comprehend his lines – without knowing what they know; unrepressed because that knowledge is gained through experience (a controversial claim in linguistic theory), it never appears explicitly in conscious experience in in a way that could be forgotten or pushed into the unconscious. Scholars sit down to look at the 1623 Folio already possessing most of the linguistic knowledge they need to read and understand it, and they unconsciously learn the rest just by reading Shakespeare and others of his linguistic community. In short, you don’t need a graduate course for that.
Early modern printers, publishers, compositors, papermakers, and typesetters possessed a rather different kind of knowledge. They learned their craft by consciously watching others operate a hand press and by operating it themselves. Likewise, a scholar sitting down to inspect an early modern book does not already possess the expert knowledge of its production but must reconstruct it, based on artifacts from the period and the evidence of the book itself. When scholars learn how a book was made, they learn it consciously and explicitly, knowing what it is they know. That’s what classes and summer schools are for.
Still more speculatively, much of the rhetoric around book history has to do with visibility, experience, and tangibility: the object of the book is there to touch, to inspect, and even, potentially, to take apart and put back together again. You can see and handle the tools of the printer’s or binder’s trade, try out for yourself the techniques of production, and hold in your hand the final product: the book itself. McKerrow’s “process” is open to “experience” and direct inspection in a way that the process of making or understanding an utterance is not. (Chomsky observes, somewhere in Rules and Representations, that the primary barrier to such inspection is ethical rather than technological.) In a discipline that otherwise tends to abstraction, scholars have obviously found in the touch of the material book a kind of consolation that attribute value charts or categorical constituency trees or the rules of a context free grammar do not offer.
*I’ve heard that linguists sometimes get Wug tattoos, but I’ve yet to see it in person. But linguists also strike me as less likely to get tattoos overall. I don’t have the confidence to offer an analytic for this difference.
*R. B. McKerrow, “Notes on Bibliographical Evidence for Literary Students and Editors of English Works of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Transactions of the Bibliographical Society12 (1911–13): 220. Quoted from Todd Samuelson and Christopher L. Morrow, “Empirical Bibliography: A Decade of Book History at Texas A&M,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 109, no. 1 (March 2015): 83-109.