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Humanist Archives: Jan. 27, 2019, 6:25 a.m. Humanist 32.388 - humour, objects and the McGann-Renear debate

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 388.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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        Date: 2019-01-26 21:08:05+00:00
        From: lachance@chass.utoronto.ca
        Subject: What Are Objects?


David Hoover's contribution of "chad" (Humanist 32:383) and its amusing
though likely erroneous acronym has led me to consider that humour is one
way of encountering what Jerome McGann (after Kristeva?) calls the
semiotic dimension of text.

This essential character of poetical text helps to explain why content in
poeisis tends to involve more broadly "semiotic" rather than narrowly
"linguistic" materials. The sonic and visible features of text are, so far
as the poets who make these texts are concerned (or the readers who engage
them), nearly as apt for expressive poetical purposes as the semantic,
syntactic, and rhetorical features. Each of these features represents a
field of textual action, and while any one field may be individually
(abstractly) framed in a hierarchized scheme, the recursive interplay of
the fields produces works whose order is not hierarchical.

My source text is McGann's contribution to a debate with Allen Renear
(What is text? A debate on the philosophical and epistemological nature of
text in the light of humanities computing research)

As I mentioned on an earlier posting to Humanist, my interest in the role
of humour was peaked by the discourse on overlapping hierarchies.

I have visited the record of the positions taken up by McGann and Renear
often but it is only recently that I have noticed that one may read the
position statements in reverse order of presentation. That is, starting
with the import of McGann's remarks on linguistic/semiotic and the
hierarchical/recursive dimensions of text, one can tumble the order of the
five theses put forward by Renear:

intentional: texts are, necessarily, the product of mental acts

real: they have properties independent of our interests in them and our
theories about them.

abstract: the objects which constitute texts are abstract, not material,

linguistic: texts are linguistic objects; renditional features are not
parts of texts, and therefore not proper locations for textual meaning.

hierarchical: the structure of texts is fundamentally hierarchical

Such a tumbling exposes a different syntagm -- one where the areas of
disagreement are preceded by areas of potential agreement with one core
area untouched. In my reading at this late distance, I believe that Renear
and McGann agree on the intentional nature of text and its independence.
As evinced by McGann's remarks quoted above, there is disagreement on what
constitutes a meaning-inducing feature and on the status of hierarchal
structure. What remains a mystery to me in reading these position
statements is the thesis that text is abstract (or that it is material).

McGann does comment on "abstract" in an Aristotelian frame

This ground, explicitly "abstract" (Renear 1997), represents a view of
text as essentially a vehicle for transmitting information and concepts
(final cause). Text is "hierarchical" (formal cause) and "linguistic"
(material cause), and it is a product of human intention (efficient

Is there another way of viewing "abstract"? Text as a space traversed by
forces, marked by intertextuality. Textual objects are in part defined by
their mobility. Text as a machine for sometimes scrambling information...
a drawing away from? The text would draw away from its material base and
equally from its mental supports. It might be tempting to locate text
_between_ materiality and intentionality but its locus might be

And the collision of textual objects sometimes leads to humour (and/or
discovery) I have in mind here the diagrams on jokes found in Arthur
Koestler, The Act of Creation.

* That elsewhere might be in the social. McGann in the above quotation
about the place of the abstract references Renear, Allen. "Out of Praxis:
Three (Meta)Theories of Textuality". Electronic Text: Investigations in
Theory and Method. Ed. Kathryn Sutherland. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
107-26. If one were to consult that reference, one would find only one
instance of the lexeme "abstract"

In the jargon of software engineering, content objects let the author or
transcriber deal with the document at the 'level of abstraction'
appropriate to their roles: identifying a text object as a quotation,
paragraph, or verse line is an authorial task, while making decisions to
italicize or centre a title is the task of a typesetter or designer.

This notion of levels of abstraction read in the light of the positions
expressed by both McGann and Renear leads me to ask if there is not a
useful distinction to be made between text objects and content objects
(note how Renear's formulation accommodates a plurality of objects (in
number and nature?)).

Francois Lachance

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