Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

"Closed Circles": Edward L. Keenan's Early Textual Work and the Semiotics of Response

Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

"Closed Circles": Edward L. Keenan's Early Textual Work and the Semiotics of Response

Article excerpt


Historians are at times divided in their views by "closed circles" of arguments based on differently prioritized premises. An instance of this occurs in the responses to the early textual work of Edward L. Keenan and his challenges to the traditional dating, attribution, and textual relations of four Muscovite texts. Preference is frequently given in the responses to arguments in a different register-to semiotic description and content interpretation over internal text-structural analysis-and even within the same register, to an appeal to textological over text-critical principles.

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Edward L. Keenan has had, by any measure, a successful career in academia and has received many accolades and awards, yet much of his work is not widely accepted and continues to draw sharp criticism. Keenan himself has referred to his own views as "heresy". Although he used this term specifically in regard to his challenging the traditional dating and attribution of the Kurbskii-Groznyi correspondence, many would extend it to include some of his other views as well.

Although Keenan discusses a broad range of issues in his studies of Muscovy, the present article focuses specifically on the use of textual criticism in his early research, which led to his "heretical" views, and on the scholarly responses to it. As such, this article is not intended to be a full review of all the problems involved with the dating and attribution of these texts but merely intended to highlight certain crucial methodological points involved with textcritical work and the reactions to it.1 In particular, I will focus on the tendency to respond to textual arguments in a different register-namely, by means of content or literary arguments, countering "structural" analysis with "semiotic" description. In the sense I am using it, semiotic description involves the signification or outward meaning of the text and its relationship to the outward meanings of other texts. Structural analysis, in contrast, delves into the internal order of the text and its relationship to the internal order of similar texts.2

Structural analysis is fundamental to semiotic description and content interpretation. Furthermore, structural analysis, on one side, and semiotic description and content interpretation, on the other, are done better when informed by each other. Graphically, the fontological study of a source can be represented as in figure 1.

The structural analysis helps historian to ascertain the testimony of the source. Then the historian works toward the "meaning" of the source, which meaning provides an explanation for how the source came to be the way it is. That explanation, in turn, supplies a means for further structural analysis in an on-going interactive process. That process is short-circuited when the historian bypasses structural analysis and proceeds to give meaning to testimony without regard for provenance, attribution, dating, and so forth of the source.3

Characteristic of this general tendency to respond in a different register to textual arguments is Isabel de Madariaga's recent rejection of Keenan's work: "I am not qualified in linguistic and textual analysis. But as a practicing historian I cannot accept the validity of Keenan's theories on historical grounds."4 She then goes on to affirm the "rules of reading" proposed by Paul Bushkovitch: "The first and principal rule, which is most relevant to my research is: 'A text is what it says it is about. . . ."5 A widespread assumption among scholars in the field, as exemplified by de Madariaga's comment, seems to be that the semiotic, outward testimony is to be preferred to the results of the structural, internal analysis. The "practicing historian" then does not need to deal with the "linguistic and textual analysis," which in any case may be perceived to carry with it a taint of suspicion as though some kind of philological prestidigitation is being perpetrated, especially when that linguistic and textual analysis challenges what "[a] text . …

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