Response to J. Stephen Murphy, "The Death of the Editor," Essays in Criticism 58, no. 4 (Oct. 2008): 289 - 310. Also available online [Gated]. My attention was brought to J. Stephen Murphy's essay through comments and links on twitter. Predictably, given the audience one is likely to find on twitter, the comments were not especially friendly to Murphy's criticism of existing digital archives. I'd like to offer here a more extended version of my initial response to Murphy's essay; in seeking to defend the electronic archive against some of Murphy's criticism, I will focus on one of the figures Murphy discusses, Jerome McGann, not (despite my presence here at UVA) because I am a student of McGann's (I am not), but because McGann's is the work I am most familiar with (a fact that likely is a consequence of my presence at UVA). Of particular interest to me was Murphy's attempt to link the editorial theory of digital archives to Roland Barthes' essay, "The Death of the Author." This linkage is crucial for Murphy's argument, but I think it fundamentally flawed, for reasons that I elaborate below. It should be admitted at the outset, though, that Murphy's complaints about existing archives are often reasonable. When Murphy notes that a Google search for Blake's "The Tyger," does not lead to the Blake Archive, he has identified a real problem. But it is a problem that is much more complicated than Murphy allows: improving one's PageRank at Google is not a simple matter--especially with other big players looking to secure that ranking, sites like and (A search for "Song of Myself" turns up some valuable links in the top 10, but alas! not the Whitman Archive). Murphy also worries that electronic archives provide no usable reading text. For the student just becoming acquainted with a poem, digital archives are not especially helpful. Murphy writes, "If a user consults a site like the Rossetti Archive in the process of looking for 'The Blessed Damozel' (result no. 11 on Google on 22 April 2008) or the Whitman Archive looking for 'When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd' (result no. 10 the same day), he will find multiple versions of each poem and a wealth of textual and critical information, but he will find no guidance as to the version he's likely to be reading in class the next day. Neither site designates a base-text, and I am unaware of any electronic archive that presents a copy-text edited version." This too is a reasonable concern; digital archives sometimes provide so much material that the student's desire to simply get to "the poem itself" (of which, more anon) can be thwarted. At stake here is a much broader question, I think, about the role and function of the digital archive.Is a digital archive closer to a scholarly edition or to the Norton? Finally, as Murphy notes with respect to the Blake Archive, some archives are rather frustrating to navigate. Indeed, the Blake Archive's origins in the Web of the mid-1990s are all too evident from its structure and interface. That said, the interfaces of both the Rossetti Archive and the Whitman Archive have evolved, and are rather pleasant to navigate. One can grant Murphy each of these points, however, and still disagree with his conclusion. For while I would suggest that these legitimate complaints are incidental products of a technology and critical practice still in the process of developing, for Murphy they are more than this; they point, in the final analysis, to certain fundamental assumptions about the role of the editor. Murphy's legitimate concern about how archives are constructed (a concern that is shared, it shouldn't need stating, by the designers of digital archives) here shades into a reading of the thinkers Murphy groups under the label "the New New Bibliographical Studies." The focus of such thinkers on the material history of texts, for Murphy, is an expression of the waning importance of the author in the wake of poststructuralism generally and Barthes in particular (I bracket entirely how fair Murphy's treatment of Barthes, or poststructuralism is here). The anti-authoritarian thrust of Barthes seems to eliminate the need for the editor at all. Murphy explains,
My point is not to fault the Blake Archive in particular or to condemn electronic archives in general. They are an amazing resource for literary study at all levels, providing unprecedented access and new ways of looking at historical texts. . . The problem is that, while we might be preserving texts to an unprecedented degree, if the only online options are electronic archives and transcriptions of outdated, flawed editions, we run the risk of losing something valuable as well: not just the editor, who has been turned into an archivist, but also an understanding of texts as objects of interpretation and argument, or the products of interpretation and argument.
The problem is not with electronic archives per se, but with the editorial theory which informs them. "Recent criticism of the Greg–Bowers approach to editing and of the theories and practices of the textual scholars (A. W. Pollard, R. B. McKerrow, W. W. Greg) identified with the New Bibliography carries on this tendency towards a greater objectivism, but this New New Bibliography attempts to secure that objectivity not through the expertise of the editor but through his evacuation." It is this supposed "evacuation" of the editor (an unfortunate phrase) that allies the New New Bibliography with Barthes; just as Barthes wishes to declare the death of the author, and the birth of the reader, for Murphy the New New Bibliography similarly wishes to do away with the editor, giving texts over to the reader (which is how Murphy understands what current digital archives do). Indeed, for Murphy "The Death of the Author" is the death of editor; with the author gone, what is an editor to do? Murphy's appeal to the "Death of the Author" is at the heart of how he understands texts--as "intentional objects." If texts are intentional objects, then when the author dies, so too does the editor; the editor and the author are (to quote Phil Collins) "two hearts believing with just one mind." That one mind is "intention." If the text exists as a material object (a mere document), it is only to embody this intention; for this reason texts are not "material objects" but "intentional objects." The editor, for Murphy, sorts through the messy historical reality of "documents" (not texts), in order to produce the "text," separating the intentional wheat from the material chaff. And in this way, the editor is (or, for Murphy, should be) the author's advocate, the priest of intention in the sinful world of materiality. "Literary interpretation," Murphy suggests is unlike linguistics (and "electronic editing"), because it "has no choice but" to take "the intention of the author into account." Intention is Murphy's answer to the crucial question, "what is a text?" And it is on these grounds that Murphy draws the crucial distinction with McGann. McGann describes texts not as intentional objects but as social, empirical phenomena,
Like cells or thunderstorms (and unlike a triangle, or time), texts are empirical phenomena. Consequently a theoretical study of them will necessarily be materialist in character in character and constrained to negotiate itself through the study of highly particular cases. But because texts--like revolutions and families, but unlike cells and thunderstorms--are social rather than natural phenomena, our textual knowledge is deepest when it is most personal and most historical. (Textual Condition 177)
In responding to McGann, Murphy quotes only the beginning of this statement--the description of texts as empirical phenomena, like cells or thunderstorms. And according to Murphy, "McGann misses the crucial difference between documents, which are empirical objects, and texts, which are intentional objects. Every time we notice a typo, every time a text is edited or revised, every time students with different editions talk about the same text in class, we are making that distinction." So, to McGann's social-empirical approach to texts, Murphy's offers one that relies on intention. But Murphy is to hedge his definition of the "author," lest he be accused of "intentional fallacy." He notes, "that [literary interpretation] need not construe the identity of the author as only the writer whose name appears on the cover of the book." Murphy is willing to let the naive notion of the author go by the wayside, but some notion of the author must be preserved to anchor Murphy's key term--intention. Given this distinction it is surprising that Murphy chooses to focus on Barthes' "Death of the Author," without discussing Foucault's entirely more apposite essay, "What is an Author?" For surely it is Foucault's reflections that are more relevant to the issues at stake here. But Foucault's absence is significant; for with Foucault comes the character absent from the drama that Murphy would like to stage. As the essay continues, we can't help but suspect that neither the editor, nor the author, has simply died; and some foul play is afoot, "the theorist" (whether we call him Roland or not) seems to be the prime suspect. But there is a frame up going on here; and with Foucault comes the character sure to reveal Murphy's own machinations--history. And it is history, not authority, that really separates McGann's conception of the text from Murphy's. The focus of figures like McGann on the material history of texts and their publication is not, as Murphy would have us believe, the product of a Barthesian anti-authoritarianism for which all readings all equally valid, but is instead a product of the complexity of the material histories of texts themselves. In yoking the "New New Bibliographical Studies" to Barthes's essay on the "Death of the Author." Murphy avoids the real difference of opinion he undoubtedly has with McGann and others. Are texts "intentional objects" created by an "author," or are they material objects existing in history? This is not necessarily an either/or proposition; but it is not a question Murphy never seriously engages. Murphy brushes against this crucial question, but reduces it to a debate about the value of authority itself. It is the anti-authoritarianism of Barthes's essay that Murphy wishes to locate (incorrectly I believe) in figures like McGann. This rhetoric is most evident when Murphy writes,
I fear most of all that this attitude towards editing represents a larger phenomenon, in which expertise is equated with elitism and an anti-intellectual spirit of preservation is celebrated in the name of egalitarianism. One way to avoid authoritarianism, after all, is to deny the existence of any authority. This attitude is not the exclusive province of the creators and advocates of electronic archives. Its range extends beyond the internet. I have already traced it back to the New New Bibliography and suggested that digitisation’s exponential increase in storage capacity enabled the theory of critics like McGann and Shillingsburg to be put into practice.
But such Barthesian egalitarianism, the denial of the existence of any authority, seems explicitly at odds with the historical specificity to which McGann so frequently appeals. A character in McGann's dialogue, "Beyond the Valley of Production" (in The Textual Condition) puts the matter quite well, succinctly laying out the difference between Barthes and McGann: "we may think of a 'text' as something else--something more determinate--than the fluid medium for free interpretative play which Barthes had imagined. The 'text' one works with is particular and material." Not Barthesian free play, but history of particular and material instanciations of textual forms. The New New Bibliography, indeed, has had productive exchanges with literary theory; but figures like McKenzie and McGann are best understood not through the lens of the heady, subversive, liberatory mode of poststructuralist French theory that Murphy invokes. Instead they are more accurately viewed as part of the broader tendency of literary study towards historicism of various stripes (including, of course, the new historicism) in the wake of the New Criticism's decline. And with the waning of the New Criticism, so too waned a theory of the "text itself" (the quotation marks here should themselves be in quotation marks--I borrow them from McGann). And all of this, brings us back to the digital archive. The digital archive earns Murphy's ire insofar as it represents a Barthesian abdication of authority of the editor's role in favor of meanings run amok. It is this equation of "The Death of the Author" with the New New Bibliographical Studies, and thereby with existing digital archives, that allows Murphy to come to this conclusion: "We need to be careful about electronic archives and other modes of minimalist editing becoming expressions of a post-ideological aspiration, which believes that all things are equal, so all things had better be preserved, and which regards arguments as nothing more than personal biases." But turning to the Rossetti Archive itself (or the Blake Archive, or the Whitman Archive, or many others), this is not what one sees at all. Even if one can grant Murphy's other complaints about digital archives some validity, they are surely not arenas of free play. Indeed, consider McGann's comments in his introduction to Collected Poetry and Prose of Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
The texts in this edition are prepared from the scholarly texts of The Rossetti Archive, meaning I have here chosen texts that in my judgment are the best "reading texts" from those made available in the archive... Since The Rossetti Archive makes available all documentary states of all of Rossetti's works, as well as multiple copies of many, the reader of this edition should know that the present texts are those designated in The Rossetti Archive as "Readings Texts." This designation, in The Rossetti Archive, was determined by exhaustive comparison of all available and relevant documents. Readers interested in assessing these choices can consult the editorial materials in The Rossetti Archive. (xxviii - xxix)
As the Rossetti archive, alongside the recently published Collected Poetry and Prose of Dante Gabriel Rossetti attests, one does not need to choose a digital archive at the cost of a clean reading text--or even choose the digital at the cost of an old-fashioned book. One gets in the Collected Poetry and Prose exactly the sort of editorial judgment that Murphy fears is disappearing, but combined with the freedom to understand the larger reality of the text's history. (I shall say here, and say once only, what I have often thought in private; the biggest problem with the Rossetti archive is Rossetti. There, I said it.) References
  • Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991).
  • Jerome McGann, ed., Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Collected Poetry and Prose (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2003)
  • J. Stephen Murphy, "The Death of the Editor," Essays in Criticism 58, no. 4 (Oct. 2008): 289 - 310.