The work is the term previous generations of literary critics used to refer to a singular piece of writing, no matter where or in what form that piece of writing appeared. In fact, the term "work" suggests nothing about the materiality of writing, but rather assigns a kind of platonic ideality to that writing. As a work, King Lear, for example, cannot be located physically in the sense that that which is King Lear is a thing whose properties are stable and known. The material record of King Lear resisits such an essentialist view, as disparities between surviving printings of the play differ to the extent that critics consider the play to exist in at least two completely different versions.

The term work has come generally to be replaced in critical discourse by the term "text," whose etymology has more

Click here to go from work to text.

Certainly text has replaced work. And this transition from work to text is part of an epistemological shift that can be located in the nineteenth century with the advent of Marxism and Freudianism. These movements relativized the relationship between the author, the reader, and the critic in the case of literature. Such relativization gives rise to a new object, the text, which stands in opposition to that concrete and sealed off entity, the work. But I take issue with what you call the platonic ideality of the work, the work as Platonic Ideal (From Work to Text 1).

Surely this is a common conception of the The Work and one that you have heard before. The work is a pure entity, perfect in the mind of its author/creator. It is the ideal. But the work must always be instantiated for it to be received. Its instantiation is text.

No, there you have it wrong. It is the work that is the instantiation. The work is material, occupying a portion of what I like to think of as book-space. Remember, it is the text and the text only that must not be thought of as a defined object. And, anyhow, it would be useless to attempt a material separation of works and texts (From Work3).

But that’s precisely what you’ve just done. You said yourself that the work is concrete, to be found in bookstores and card catalogues and such, and the text…

Is a methodological field (From Work 2).

A methodological field. Well, no matter. What you’ve forged is a material distinction.

Perhaps, but what I’m saying is that the material distinction is too simplistic. It may have worked in the past, but this new notion of text exceeds boundaries. It cannot be contained in a material distinction as in work is material and text is immaterial, or, as you would have it, vice versa. Remember, the Text is experienced only in an activity, a production. The text cannot stop at the end of the book.

The text is a wiki.

Why not? Why does text exceed boundaries and work doesn’t?

Because the work represents a direct link between signifier and signified. The text enacts an infinite deferral of the signified. It is all play, all irreducible meaning, all plurality. Text is an explosion, a woven and ever entangled cloth. Text is legion. “My name is legion, for we are many.” All languages circulate freely in the text space. No one takes precedence (From Work 2).

What does it mean that you have aligned text with the devil?

I think we need to add another language here, another voice, if you believe in that? We have talked about the work-text distinction as it is configured in post-structuralist theory…

What is that, circa 1977?

How is this distinction configured for book historians?

Of course, there is no uniform response, but I think for book historians the definitions of the two terms is reversed. Work becomes what was previously postulated as text and text becomes what was previously postulated as work. The reversal is fascinating. Everything old is new again and everything that was bad is good for you, because there is, inherently a judgment being made here.

The term “text” was, for a long time, absent from this discussion. There was simply the “work” and the “expression” of that work. The work is always an abstract entity and it exists only, as you’ve said before, in a Platonic sense in the mind of its author. Thus we can never have a true experience of the work, because we can only receive the expression of that work is some kind of realized way. But the realization can only ever be an appropriation of the work; it never quite reaches the work itself (Barwell 419).

So then this is a materialist distinction.

OK, yes there is a distinction between the abstract ideal and the materialist expression.

And the work takes precedence. There is a valuing of the work over and above the expression of that work . The expression can only ever be an approximation, a copy of the work.

Here you’re raising questions of authenticity, which I’m not prepared to speak on. I can tell you that the goal of textual scholarship, of book history, as it were, is the recovery of the work. Of course, the recovery of the pure work is impossible. But some expressions of the work come closer to the work than others. Textual scholars are engaged in the search for the ideal expression for the ideal text, that is to say, the text that comes closest to the author’s intention for the work.

Sorry, but if we verify that position, book history is always a failure because it can never fully recover the work. It also makes the project of book history appear painfully dull.

But this project has received an ongoing reconceptualization since the 1970’s. Such is the nature of a burgeoning discipline, if you even want to call it that. Book history is, at its core, concerned with materiality and not abstractions. Let’s confront those various forms of materiality for their own sake. What can such forms tell us about the culture in which they were made and the people who made them.? In other words, we need to switch our focus here from the ideal work that can never be accessed to the material expressions themselves. These material expressions can tell us much regardless of the author’s intentions.

Is that to say that the work no longer has a place in book history?

Certainly not. The precedence of the work or the ideal text has been at the heart of any sort of textual scholarship for centuries. It has not been displaced by text, even if academics like to believe that it has. Even those scholars who praise the multiplicity of the text often display a veiled yearning for a perfect work that is immune to material fluidity.

Perhaps the emphatic distinction between work and text has been destabilized.

And even more so with the introduction of electronic texts. I think electronic texts have revitalized questions of materiality and abstraction. Such questions are particularly relevant when approaching literature as a unique artistic form. George Bornstein captured the essence of the work/text divide as it is conceptualized in literary studies. He asked the question “If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is King Lear?” (qtd. in Voss and Werner ii)

That’s a fascinating question. Can you repeat it?

If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is King Lear (Bornstein, qtd. in Voss and Werner iii)?

…Is there an answer?

I don’t know. Probably.

I guess the question presupposes that everyone would agree that the Mona Lisa is in fact in the Louvre.

Are you just being irritatingly polemical here?


Maybe. Maybe not. I mean the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre. But isn’t that just one Mona Lisa. There is another Mona Lisa, the one that Marcel Duchamp famously appropriated, somewhere in New York, I think. There is another on a postcard that you’ve sent to your cousin in California. There is yet another on the side of a bus in Lyon advertising a new da Vinci exhibition. Aren’t those all Mona Lisas?

Sure, but wouldn’t you say that there is one Mona Lisa that is more real than all the others. And wouldn’t you say that that real Mona Lisa is in the Louvre?

I don’t know. I want to say that all the Mona Lisas I mentioned are real Mona Lisas. I don’t know what makes one more real than another. Maybe it has something to do with temporality and proximity. Duchamp’s Mona Lisa may be the Mona Lisa that I ever see. I buy a poster of this Mona Lisa and look at it for twenty years. Finally, at the age of 35, I go to Louvre and see da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It is disappointing—quite small, and even when I am standing twenty feet in front of it, quite far away. In this case, the poster of Duchamp’s Mona Lisa may be more real than what you call the actual Mona Lisa, da Vinci’s, which is in the Louvre.

But wouldn’t da Vinci’s Mona Lisa be the work, and Duchamp’s or anyone else’s be the text.

Sure, I think that’s the idea… I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t really believe in the distinction between work and text. Maybe there are only texts. There are only texts. Everything is text.

It’s really not such a great question, because the Mona Lisa is really really disappointing. It’s quite small and you can’t even get close to it. Wow. That’s a big claim and I’m hesitant to espouse it…But we’re forgetting the other half of the question.

Because it’s more difficult.

Where is King Lear?

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