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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.


The presence (or absence) of compositional precursors and leftovers raise for critics and editors methodological, epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic questions: What gets collected and preserved? What does not—for what reasons? How can these materials be interpreted? And to what ends? A draft may refer to written materials that never attain printed form as well as early manuscript compositions and fair copies, typescripts, digital text, scribbles, doodles, leftovers, or other marginalia and extraneous materials that may or may not find their way into archives. The manuscript draft came of age following the invention of printing, although unfinished or working drafts only began to be self-consciously collected with the emergence of the state archive in the late 18th century. The draft is, therefore, intimately connected to the archival, whether the archive is taken as a material site, a discursive structure, or a depository of feeling. Any interpretation of drafts must take into account the limits and limitations of matter including the bare fact of a draft’s material existence or its absence. In the 20th and 21st centuries, there have evolved a diverse network of theoretical approaches to interpreting drafts and compositional materials. Scholars of drafts may ask questions about authorship, materiality, production, technology and media, pedagogy, social norms and conventions, ownership and capital, preservation or destruction, even ethics and ontology. However, these investigations have been most pronounced within four fields: (a) media theory, histories of the book, and historical materialisms that investigate the substance, matter, and means of production of drafts as well as the technological, pedagogical, and social norms that mediate writing, and the cultural/historical specifics of these materials and media; (b) textual editing, which establishes methods that regularize (or complicate) how scholarly editions are produced and related mid-20th century New Bibliography approaches, which illuminated some of the limitations of manuscript-and-edition blind close reading, especially by the New Critics; (c) French genetic criticism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, which engages with French post-structuralism and psychoanalysis to look at writing as a dynamic and developmental process that has both conscious and unconscious components; and (d) legal scholarship and debates concerning rights to ownership and possession of manuscripts and drafts and their publication, which developed between the 17th and 21st century. These discussions, and their elaboration within national and international legislation, resulted in the invention of copyright, moral rights, and changed understanding of legal rights to privacy and property as well as a division between material and intellectual property, the use and destruction of that property, and the delineation of rights of the dead or the dead’s descendants. The draft manuscript came to be endowed with multiple bodies, both fictive and actual, for which individuals, institutions, corporations, and even nations or the world at large, were granted partial ownership or responsibility. From the late 19th century, the catastrophic legacy of modern warfare and its technologies, including censorship, as well as movements in historical preservation, cultural heritage, and ethics have affected policies regarding ownership and the conservancy of drafts. The emergence of digital and on-line textual production/dissemination/preservation in the late 20th and 21st centuries have broadly transformed the ways that drafts may be attended to and even thought. Drafts must finally be seen to have a complex and intimate relationship to the authorial body and to embodiment, materiality, subjectivity, and writing more generally. Drafts—particularly unread, missing, or destroyed drafts—lie at the border between the dead object and living text. As such, the purposeful destruction of drafts and manuscripts initiates an ontological and ethical crisis that raises questions about the relationship between writing and being, process and product, body and thing.