A Response to Steven Jones' Of and For the Web; On Having Built 'The Last Man Home Page'"
If it seems presumptuous on my part to announce, with maybe the fanaticism of a web addict, that Steven Jones' electronic edition of The Last Man is the way of the future for scholarly editing, I hope to show the validity of this claim in my short response to Jones' plenary talk. One thing is certain: that the world wide web is revolutionising modern scholarship in the way people think about texts and the notion of canon, as well as offering a new, unique, and unexplored potential to a literary work.
Anyone who has spent some time exploring Jones' edition cannot but be fascinated by the seemingly endless possibilities for learning and teaching (probably the two most important aspects of Jones' work) that this edition offers. "[A] Web edition," Jones remarks, "is ... potentially open-ended, always under construction in the good sense": new links to external resources on the Internet can be added constantly, and notes can be revised and expanded to include links to contextual works such as other literary texts, but also paintings and musical extracts as well. This last aspect is probably the strongest argument for a hypertext edition. Indeed, as Jones notes, "Web hypertext can emphasize for students and readers of literature of the past this exciting sense of multiple interconnections." Back in 1977 when he wrote the French version of 'Living On', Derrida was probably not thinking about hypertext, but a modern reader certainly finds the following quotation very suggestive of hypertextual possibilities:
[a text is] no longer a finished corpus of writing, some content enclosed in a book or its margins, but a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces (94).
An electronic edition might be the first 'physical' manifestation of Derrida's definition of a text no longer "enclosed in a book or its margins". It is therefore appropriate that, in his introductory remarks, Jones states that Shelley's novel is "a highly intertextual work, a story woven into a complex fabric of citations, allusions, contexts, and echoes."
Though it can be argued that Shelley never thought of her post-modern readership when she wrote The Last Man, I would like to suggest that the very construction of her triple-decker novel might, on the contrary, invite such a suggestion. Shelley refers constantly to her readers throughout the novel (as one can find out very quickly by using the search facility included in Jones' edition). At one point, she declares:
oh reader! Whoever thou art, wherever thou dwellest, whether of race spiritual, or, sprung from some surviving pair, thy nature will be human, thy habitation the earth; thou wilt here read of the act of the extinct race, and wilt ask wonderingly, if they, who suffered what thou findest recorded, were of frail flesh and soft organization like thyself.
Turning herself (through the persona of Verney) towards a future, Shelley invites her readers to do the same. As Betty Bennett observes, "readers are encouraged to question their own identities as well as their origins and their destinies" (I, li). The reader is repeatedly reminded of her/his active role in the reading process, and also in the writing process: because Shelley is aware of her readership, she inscribes within her work clues and riddles for possible readings. And here I will suggest that the nature of Shelley's novel, with its multiple readings (both in the sense of the potential interpretations of the work, as well as in the numerous literary extracts and echoes present throughout the novel) is rendered more accessible by the open-ended nature of hypertext. References are now made explicit through the presence of hypertext links and therefore can assist the modern reader perhaps less well-read in the classics. But at the same time, they add another layer to the novel by inviting more intertextual references within the same work, to other works (whether literary or political), and to other artistic media.
I will conclude my response by briefly discussing the technical aspect of an electronic edition such as Jones'. The use of HTML versus SGML is very much under discussion by scholars and computer specialists at present, but Jones makes a strong case for the use of HTML in his edition (and to a certain extent in all the works currently under construction for 'Romantic Circles') when he declares: "The web is limited and frustrating but it is, nonetheless, our only existing system of world-wide networked hypertext". I will add to Jones' remark a slight "mass media" digression, if you allow me. In the recent wildly popular film 'Men in Black', Tommy Lee Jones demonstrates the technology which will replace the compact-disc and Will Smith comments to himself: "I'll have to buy the [Beatles'] White album again". His comments exemplifies the recurring response of society to technological advances over the last fifty years: a system, such as the hi-fi, is promoted for a relatively short time before a new, more technically advanced one arrives on the market and slowly, but surely, becomes the new norm, displacing the old system (and all its various parts...). This is maybe even more true of computers which seem to evolve faster than our skill with Windows 95 (and look out, Windows 98 is on its way...). In any case, technology is often by nature ephemeral (fortunately still in terms of years rather than months) but one is still better off making the most of the present rather than holding out for tomorrow. As Shelley herself declares in The Last Man: "Let us not, through security in hereafter, neglect the present"?
I personally learned a lot from Jones' work, and I hope that my own work on Shelley's short-story 'The Mortal Immortal' demonstrates this. Building an electronic edition today does not involve as much technical knowledge as it did only a couple of years ago. Most wordprocessors now include the option to save a file in HTML, thus doing all the work of coding the document for you. So, unless you want to create a table in HTML, I would argue that as of today any scholar can capitalize on the creative potential of the world wide web for academic purposes. It now remains to be seen whether many will - let us all be optimistic, shall we?
--MLS (7 September 1997)
Alan Liu and Laura Mandell organised a session on 'The Canon and the Web' at the MLA '96, which dealt with several issues related to the use of the Web and the existence of literary canons. They will guest-edit, with Michael Gamer, a special issue of Romanticism On the Net on this topic in February 1997. back
Bennett, Betty. "General Introduction." The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley, Gen. Ed. Nora Crook with Pamela Clemit, 8 vols. London: William Pickering, 1996. back
Derrida, Jacques. "Living On." in Deconstruction & Criticism, Harold Bloom et al. New York: Seabury Press, 1979. back