As a scholar working in the field of Deaf Studies who thinks daily about the fraught triangulation of written language, signed language and spoken language, I was intrigued by Bill Brown’s recent call to “extend textual materialism beyond the manuscript and the book and to expand the ways of locating physical detail in a sign system, which is how we make matter mean” (25). Brown issues this call in an introduction to a series of articles on textual materialism in the January 2010 issue of PMLA in which he traces the complementary and contradictory ways that book history, “theory,” digitality, and thing theory/material culture studies combine. Drawing on Jacques Derrida and Jerome McGann, Friedrich Kittler and Jonathan Goldberg, Brown helpfully illuminates a way to think outside the book, and, I believe, even allows us to question claims (some of which Brown quotes) made about the possibilities of divorcing reading from materiality.
A key question that textual materialism forces us to confront is how far a literary work “can be said to ‘transcend’ the object” (25). Brown’s illustration of the complications of distinguishing between “material object” and “text” is particularly relevant to the conversation we have been having here at the Floating Academy about reading serially. Brown writes:
The experience of Great Expectations is a different experience as mediated by its serial publication in All the Year Round, its illustrated serialization in Harper’s Weekly, its three-volume publication by Chapman and Hall, the six-volume interpoint Braille edition, and the most recent Penguin edition, let alone your Kindle, your iPhone, your headphones. But we’re still willing to say that each experience is the experience of Great Expectations. Across those very different mediations, the novel in some sense remains the same; and, indeed, different experiences of the novel may have less to do with the edition than with the individuated habit of reading or the particular scene of listening. (25)
If this is true, my question is: What is it about the novel that “in some sense” remains the same across mediums and reading experiences? What do we mean when we describe “the experience of Great Expectations“?
Brown, Bill. “Introduction: Textual Materialism.” PMLA 125.1 (January 2010): 24-8.