Episode 154: The Three Phases of Textual Fluidity

This is something that I have been using recently in some dissertation chapters and a journal article I just sent out that I think needs to be teased out just a bit more. If you have been reading my earlier academia related posts you’ll notice that one of the main critical theories that I use is Textual Criticism. Simply put, this particular method of analysis focuses on seeing the process of authorship as it goes from idea, to manuscript, and finally to publication. There’s a few critics who I use to define some of the more nuanced aspects. George Thomas Tanselle is one of the big kahunas in the field (if this critical theory interests you then I recommend you check out his Brief Rationale of Textual Criticism, a fairly short book with big ideas). Next up is Peter Shillingsburg from whom I amend the concept of the different performances that go into publishing and make the umbrella term of “authorial performances”. And finally, John Bryant who coins the term “textual fluidity”, a metaphor I am about to take to its logical extreme.

Let me start by saying that textual criticism was not designed with serialization in mind. Odds are, my adaptation of its tenets to deal with work being published over for which the publication process is fairly drawn out may make me the hero/enemy of the field if they ever see any of academic writing. Tanselle in particular has some interesting ideas that serve as the basis/launchpad for my discussion. He states that publication takes place in three stages: the work, the text, the document. The work is almost abstract and something that only the author has access to (think the realm of ideas). The text is what the author publishes but only through documents which is what readers actually get. Think of it this way, JK Rowling (who is one of my main examples of authorship in print) took a lot of notes and such as she was figuring out how to write the work of Harry Potter. She later got a manuscript accepted and edited a million times over before it became published. That first book was part of the text but we as readers got documents (individual copies of the book) that contained the text. If you underline a passage or something you alter the document not, the text itself. Only JK Rowling can affect the text pre and post publication. Now, within serialization we have that the seven books make up the entirety of the work. Technically, the spin offs are additions to the work but not to the actual narrative but that’s something for another post. In serialization, authors have to divide the work into different installments. The text thus becomes an aggregate as more parts are added to it and it grows but the individual parts of the story are contained within distinct and different documents. So, the work (when properly planned out like in the case of Wizard Supreme Rowling) should be pretty much the same size, the text will start small and grow through subsequent publication into the size of the work, and the documents will remain the same size through out. Except for omnibus editions and other collections but again, something for another time.

Now, here’s where the metaphor part gets interesting. Textual fluidity exists because the ideas are free flowing once the work starts to become concrete. Editors and friends chime in with ideas, notes are written and discarded, maybe even go through some different editions after publication happened. In this way, the text is changing in many ways, thus it becomes fluid and dynamic. If the text is like water, then it’s other forms may exist much like the phases of waters. The work is steam, almost ephemeral and unperceivable by the reader as the author contains it. The text is water, free flowing and changing as it goes through different channels; visible but not something once can see clearly defined. The document is ice, an encapsulated form of the text that is tangible to the senses.

Let’s go over the phases once again:

gaseous work

fluid text

frozen document

I think I’ve successfully married Tanselle’s and Bryant’s concepts but there is still one more step I wan to take. Another critical theory I engage is comparative media studies. Basically, it’s how the medium of publication alters the text. Now, let’s get back to the previous water metaphor. When water freezes it takes the shape of its previous container. In nature you get a lot of craziness (which is why snowflakes are so unique) but in your home, odds are you have ice cubes, ie cubes of ice, because there is a tray specifically designed to hold water in such a way which then fits easily in your next drink. However, there are a ton of novelty apparatuses that can make that same water into different shapes, like this one that makes Death Star ice that you didn’t know you wanted until know. So, medium of publication gives shape to the document as it freezes. Knowing that a particular medium has this kind of output weighs heavily on narrative production as the text becomes complete.

This is why, I’m studying authorship of serial fiction in different media, eg print, comics, and webcomics. The process of publication, and thus the form of the document, is different in each one so the way the text is perceived is heavily influenced by medium. Changing the document without altering the text accordingly can lead to some odd narrative outputs but again, that is something to be discussed later on.


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