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Lee Morrissey

Literacy is a measure of being literate, of the ability to read and write. The central activity of the humanities—its shared discipline—literacy has become one of its most powerful and diffuse metaphors, becoming a broadly applied metaphor representing a fluency, a competency, or a skill in manipulating information. The word “literacy” is of recent coinage, being little more than a century old. Reading and writing, or effectively using letters (the word at the root of literacy), are ancient skills, but the word “literacy” likely springs from and reflects the emergence of mass public education at the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, then “literacy” measures personal and demographic development. Literacy is mimetic. It is synesthetic—in some languages, it means hearing sounds (the phonemes) in what is seen (the letters); in others, it means linking a symbol to the thing symbolized. Although a recent word, “literacy” depends upon the emergence of symbolic sign systems in ancient times. Written symbolic systems, by contrast, are relatively recent developments in human history. But they bear a more complicated relationship to the spoken language, being in part a representation of it (and thus a recording of its contents) while also offering a representation of the world, the referent: that is, literacy involves an awareness of the representation of the world. Reading and writing are tied to millennia of changes in technologies of representation. As a term denoting fluidity with letters, literacy has a history and a geography that follow the development and movement of a phonetic alphabetic and subsequent systems of writing. If the alphabet encodes a shift from orality to literacy, HTML encodes a shift from verbal literacy to a kind of numerical literacy not yet theorized.


Dirk Van Hulle

The study of modern manuscripts to examine writing processes is termed “genetic criticism.” A current trend that is sometimes overdramatized as “the archival turn” is a result of renewed interest in this discipline, which has a long tradition situated at the intersection between modern book history, bibliography, textual criticism, and scholarly editing. Handwritten documents are called “modern” manuscripts to distinguish them from medieval or even older manuscripts. Whereas most extant medieval manuscripts are scribal copies and fit into a context of textual circulation and dissemination, modern manuscripts are usually autographs for private use. Traditionally, the watershed between older and “modern” manuscripts is situated around the middle of the 18th century, coinciding with the rise of the so-called Geniezeit, the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) period in which the notion of “genius” became fashionable. Authors such as Goethe carefully preserved their manuscripts. This new interest in authors’ manuscripts can be part of the “genius” ideology: since a draft was regarded as the trace of a thought process, a manuscript was the tangible evidence of capital-G “Genius” at work. But this division between modern and older manuscripts needs to be nuanced, for there are of course autograph manuscripts with cancellations and revisions from earlier periods, which are equally interesting for manuscript research. Genetic criticism studies the dynamics of creative processes, discerning a difference between the part of the genesis that takes place in the author’s private environment and the continuation of that genesis after the work has become public. But the genesis is often not a linear development “before” and “after” publication; rather, it can be conceptualized by means of a triangular model. The three corners of that model are endogenesis (the “inside” of a writing process, the writing of drafts), exogenesis (the relation to external sources of inspiration), and epigenesis (the continuation of the genesis and revision after publication). At any point in the genesis there is the possibility that exogenetic material may color the endo- or the epigenesis. In the digital age, archival literary documents are no longer coterminous with a material object. But that does not mean the end of genetic criticism. On the contrary, an exciting future lies ahead. Born-digital works require new methods of analysis, including digital forensics, computer-assisted collation, and new forms of distant reading. The challenge is to connect to methods of digital text analysis by finding ways to enable macroanalysis across versions.