The Copy’s Posture

A recent roundtable explored textual production and the nature of the copy, drawing upon examples from the manuscripts of the Middle Ages to the comic books of Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman. For this event, sponsored by the Unit for Criticism and Interpretative Theory and Program in Medieval Studies, Shawn Gilmore (English), Allyson Purpura (Krannert Art Museum), and I were invited to respond to Thomas A. Bredehoft’s presentation of his forthcoming book, The Visible Text: Textual Production and Reproduction from Beowulf to Maus, and to share our thoughts over on the Unit’s blog, Kritik.

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By posting another version of my response below, I hope to provoke a consideration of what the text presents or re-presents.

My text might remind those who attended the roundtable of the broader discussion from that evening, and stimulate further reflection. For others, the text cannot remind of an experience not experienced, but must instead function in another way. Should this ensuing text then be understood universally as a “copy” of an oral performance? Or is it a “copy” of that which is posted on the Unit’s blog? A “copy” of an abstract idea? Or would the text be better conceived as another iteration, a different embodiment of an ephemeral performance? Is it a new articulation of the text, which now relies on shapely letterforms to communicate, rather than my particular vocalization of its words?

Mak-Unit-croppedFramed with different paratexts here on the IPRH’s blog, and in a different typeface, we can contemplate to what extent the following text is a copy of the version posted on the Unit’s blog (depicted at right).

I invite you to examine both iterations as an exercise in thinking about textual production, reproduction, and reception. Would we assert that the two texts are the same, and that they effect similar readerly experiences? And for those who attended the roundtable, I ask you to consider what lived event (if any) the text re-presents.


The Posture of the Copy, A Response to Thomas Bredehoft
Bonnie Mak
October 28th, 2013

I am pleased to have been invited to respond to Thomas Bredehoft’s presentation, because it offers an opportunity to think about the nature of textual transmission across a range of time periods, platforms, and genres, and to consider the question of reproduction, which has re-emerged in the last decade, owing in part to our new-found ability to make, share, and use digital representations of historical objects and texts with relative ease.

As Dr. Bredehoft points out, the Middle Ages offers us an alternative understanding of the transmission of text, one that operates outside the stemmatic ideologies of the last century. In this alternative model, the active excerpting and re-mixing of authoritative works is encouraged, and is more significantly the way in which one could demonstrate virtuosity. This creative mode of textual transmission—in which commonly-held knowledge is re-crafted and re-purposed—suggests that text itself is not necessarily a thing to be reproduced, but is instead a call to action; a site of production; a place of aesthetic experience.

And a re-made text, in turn, might be valued for its ability to inspire, stimulate, expose, remind, and immortalize. Thus, each iteration of a text functions in its own way, and engenders its own performance. Although a text might recall or refer to pre-existing work, it communicates uniquely through its own particular configuration.

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And when I say its own configuration, I do not simply mean a specific order of words and phrases; I also mean their material manifestation on the page. Indeed, written text, in its transmission of words, has a visual, visible expression that can also be read and interpreted, as Dr. Bredehoft observes. Medievalists, of course, are attuned to the graphic disposition of text from palaeographical study, in which the specific style of handwriting or layout of the page can help to isolate the provenance of a manuscript, or make claims about writing and reading communities. Similarly, book artist Johanna Drucker draws our attention to the aesthetic expression of the printed word. Experimental typography and artists’ books—and indeed comics—celebrate letterform-as-image, and play with the communicative abilities of visual composition.

If such overtly designed spaces are sites in which writing is image, we might consider how their more mundane counterparts are also sites in which writing is image, these latter examples choosing instead to avoid drawing attention to the shapes of their letterforms. The apparent lack of designerliness could then be re-read as a particular aesthetic that exploits the visual expression of the page in a different way. Namely, this aesthetic seeks to erase its own mediating presence, and might be analyzed as a careful rhetorical move that positions text as copy. Such texts are presented with an interface that seduces the reader into imagining that there is an exemplar, close by, but always just out of reach.

The online textual transcription in CourierCourier typeface screams, “Don’t look at me! Look through me!” and pretends not to be an iteration to be examined on its own terms. So, too, does the printed or digital facsimile that conceals itself in the self-conscious embodiment of something else. Such examples, I think, also participate in the deliberate re-crafting of text, which may include a strategic deployment of paratext. They are products that don the visual expression of the copy to generate an effect. Their rhetoric is one of reproduction, cajoling readers into abdicating the responsibility to think critically about sources.

From the fair copy made with an author’s idiosyncratic hand, to the true copy that transmits a clerk’s purposeful and efficient pen-stroke; from the printed diplomatic transcription to the digital facsimile, across different genres, platforms, and technologies, we might consider how “the copy” could be a pose, a posture of a text that is always, in each manifestation, original.


Thanks to the director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, Lauren Goodlad, for granting permission to post an iteration of my response here.

Bonnie Mak is author of How the Page Matters (University of Toronto Press, 2011), which explores the page as an expressive interface across medieval manuscripts, early printed books, and digital media. She holds appointments in GSLIS and the Program for Medieval Studies, and is guest editor of the IPRH blog for the current academic year.

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