Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts

Alan Day (Editor‐Compiler, Walford’s Guide)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Day, A. (2000), "Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 3, pp. 139-156.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Incorporating his 1985 Panizzi Lectures, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (British Library, 1986; cf. LR, Vol. 37 No. 3, 1986) and his “Sociology of a text: oral culture, literacy & print in early New Zealand”, based on an address to The Bibliographical Society, and printed in its journal, The Library, in December 1984, the late Professor McKenzie’s purpose here was to illustrate “how the material form of texts crucially determines their meanings”. To achieve this, he seeks to unify critical theory and textual scholarship to demonstrate that “works of lasting value” assume different forms and meanings when they are reproduced, re‐edited and re‐read.

He begins in classic academic fashion by first considering what bibliography is and how it relates to other disciplines, beginning with Sir Walter Greg’s definition: “what the bibliographer is concerned with is pieces of paper or parchment covered with certain written or printed signs. With these signs he is concerned merely as arbitrary marks; their meaning is no business of his”. For his part, McKenzie contends that, although this definition has so far stood the test of time, it may not do so for very much longer. Writing with evident and persuasive erudition, he argues that when the bibliographer is asked to explain these signs, as opposed to describing, or simply copying them, they assume a symbolic function. On this foundation he builds his argument that “bibliographers are no longer fully served by description, or even by editing but by the historical study of the making and the use [reviewer’s italics] of books and other documents”. To illustrate his point he embarks on a long disquisition on two versions of just four lines from William Congreve’s prologue to The Way of the World, and asserting that “by abandoning the notion of digressive bibliography and recording all subsequent versions, bibliography, simply by its own comprehensive logic, its indiscriminate inclusiveness, testifies to the fact that new readers of course make new texts and that their new meanings are a function of their new forms”. All this is dependent on the ways in which texts are re‐read, re‐designed, re‐printed and re‐published. Persuasive though this critical analysis might be, it is not entirely convincing. A niggling doubt insists that the bibliographer’s task must be concerned primarily with what the author of a text originally presented, not with what redesigners, re‐printers, and re‐publishers might do with it for whatever motive or intention. The bibliographer’s art lies in cutting through all such “revisions” or “interpretations”, and returning to the “true” text. On this basis Greg’s definition needs reaffirming, not diluting.

The wily McKenzie has a ready response. He follows the familiar academic practice of constructing an outwardly plausible and incontrovertible hypothesis and then proceeds to dismantle it brick by brick. Since textual criticism “must have as its object a ‘true’ text, one different from each of its defective versions, some notion of the text in a form its author intended was indispensable”. But, he continues, “that concept too has largely collapsed” especially in circumstances “where an author revised a text and two or more versions of it happen to survive, each of these can be said to have its own distinct structure, making it a different text … It follows therefore that, since any single version will have its own historical identity, not only for its author but for the particular market of readers who bought and read it, we cannot invoke the idea of one unified intention which the editor must serve”. And then the clincher, “historically there can be no logical reason for editing one version any more than another”.

“The Sociology of a text: oral culture, literacy, and print in early New Zealand”, a bibliographical investigation into the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by 46 Maori chiefs, 6 February 1840, whereby, according to the English version, they ceded to Queen Victoria the sovereign rights they exercised in their respective territories, which, although printed first, is in effect a case‐study applying the theories, arguments, and principles McKenzie advocates in his main text. He examines the history, methods, and the results of employing European technology, in the form of the printing press, to translate traditional Maori memory records to a written record practice within an absurdly short timespan. In the event, the Maori chiefs put their marks on a document none of them could read. The impossibility of reconciling the English and Maori interpretations of the Treaty, in other words to arrive at an “ideal” text that the Greg definition of the bibliographer’s art could recognise, is witnessed by recent New Zealand history when the political and economic implications of the Treaty have been fundamentally reviewed by the Waitangi Tribunal. In the 1990s, Maori landowning, fishing and forestry rights have either been restored or compensation paid. In short, McKenzie justified his title and proved his point.

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