Medieval Literature: Texts and Interpretation

Medieval Literature: Texts and Interpretation

Medieval Literature: Texts and Interpretation

Medieval Literature: Texts and Interpretation

Excerpt

TIM WILLIAM MACHAN

One of the most basic divisions in the labors of literary critics has been that between textual and interpretive studies. Today, of course, a label such as “textual criticism” or “literary interpretation” scarcely designates something monolithic and static, for the theoretical diversity of both can be almost overwhelming. “Textual criticism” conjures images of recension, best-text editing, eclecticism, various kinds of bibliography, and the “socialization” of the text. “Interpretive studies,” on the other hand, implies Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, historicism, and old-fashioned New Criticism. And all of these approaches, in turn, admit a variety of refinements and specializations. But as diverse as each of these disciplines is, they are nonetheless often perceived and enacted as if different from each other in at least one very general way: textual critics construct texts which literary critics then interpret. And to this extent their essential objectives and methods have often seemed to be distinct.

The perception of these disciplines as distinct is, however, changing, as an awareness of the complementary nature of textual and interpretive studies continues to grow in the scholarly community. The work of such critics as Jerome McGann on literary production as “a social and an institutional event,” D. F. McKenzie on “bibliography as the study of the sociology of texts,” and Hershel Parker on the editorial consequences of New Critical aesthetics has underscored the fact that just as there can be no value-free literary interpretation, so there can be no value-free textual criticism. This work indicates that textual and interpretive studies of any orientation are not in fact potentially complementary but necessarily so.

In theory many critics would happily accept such a proposition, but in practice much criticism continues to be resolutely textual or interpre-

A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 100; Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (London: The British Library, 1986), 5; Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons, Literary Authority in American Fiction (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1984). I would like to thank my colleagues Michael McCanles and Russell J. Reusing for their very helpful comments on early drafts of this paper.

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