Lecture: McGann's "The Rationale of HyperText"

On “The Rationale of HyperText”

Originally published online in 1995, Jerome McGann’s “The Rationale of HyperText” is an argument for the use of hypertext/hypermedia as a tool for textual scholarship (see also), especially textual criticism and the creation of scholarly editions. McGann begins his argument with the section “The Book as a Machine of Knowledge” in which he discusses the scholarly tools and practices we’ve developed to use printed books to study other printed books – “facsimile editions, critical editions, editions with elaborate notes and contextual materials for clarifying a work’s meaning” (par. 8) as well as “critical editions, calculi of variants, shorthand reference forms” (par. 10) – all for the purpose of highlighting the constraints (the limits) the medium of print presents us. As he argues as he concludes this section, “history has slowly revealed the formal limits of all hardcopy’s informational and critical powers” (par. 12).

Much of the rest of McGann’s essay consists of a series of five case studies (the examples) that illustrate the specific challenges to and limitations of print as a medium textual scholarship: the limits of representing non-textual media and features (Examples A, B, C, and D), and the financial and spatial (size) issues inherent in the production of printed books (Examples B, C, D, and E).

Using his own Rossetti Archive as an example of how hypertext/hypermedia overcomes the limits of print addressed throughout the essay, McGann argues that electronic text and hypertext/media are revolutionary:

“The change from paper-based text to electronic text is one of those elementary shifts — like the change from manuscript to print — that is so revolutionary we can only glimpse at this point what it entails. Nonetheless, certain essential things are clear even now. The computerized edition can store vastly greater quantities of documentary materials, and it can be built to organize, access, and analyze those materials not only more quickly and easily, but at depths no paper-based edition could hope to achieve. At the moment these works cannot be made as cheaply or as easily as books. But very soon, I am talking about a few years, these electronic tools will not only be far cheaper, they will also be commonplace. Already scholars are creating electronic editions in many fields and languages, and are thereby establishing the conventions for the practise of HyperEditing. The Rossetti Archive is one project of this kind.” (par. 65)

McGann argues that hypertext/hypermedia allow us to think outside the printed book, to think in terms of creating critical archives of material rather than simply producing critical editions (a print-based concept) in electronic form (par. 61).

Why We’re Reading “The Rationale of HyperText”

McGann’s “The Rationale of Hypertext” does a number of things for us:

  • By examining the limitations of print in the production of textual scholarship, it furthers our study of the materialities of media.
  • It offers an introduction to the the concerns of textual scholarship and the production of scholarly editions (facsimiles; critical editions; representation of text and its material context; the addition of contextual and explanatory commentary, material, and media).
  • It suggests the possibilities of using hypertext/hypermedia in overcoming the constraints of print and in producing a deeper, richer context for texts that are more akin to archives instead of editions.

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