Theses Doctoral

The Progress of Error: or, the Recursive Eighteenth Century

Boone, Alice Lee

Digital archives of early modern printed materials—on Early English Books Online, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, Google Books, and Project Gutenberg, among others—are rife with scanning errors, incomplete metadata, typos, and other odd, frustrating artifacts of mediation. Each technological change in writing brings its own version of problems in preserving and mediating our print history—problems which may, paradoxically, proliferate errors as they seek to correct prior mistakes. “The Progress of Error” traces a history of these fractious, recursive, debates about error correction and mediation in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when editors, printers, and critics squabbled over the best means of preserving classical texts, Shakespeare, Milton, and early English ballads. I argue that the literary past is literally made of mistakes and attempts to correct them which go out of control; these errant corrections are not to be fixed in future editions but rather are constitutive of Enlightenment concepts of mediation, criticism, sensory perception, historicity, and agency.
Editor and satirist Alexander Pope played both sides of the error correction and creation game, translating and editing texts at the same time as he reveled in satire’s distorting lens and its potential for correcting others’ moral and intellectual failings. Classical editor Richard Bentley, a target of Pope’s scourge in the first edition of the Dunciad, practiced extraordinary editorial hubris in insisting that he could conjecturally correct not just typos in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, but entire lines that he felt were blots on the poem’s design and style. Lewis Theobald followed Bentley’s intellectually provocative but over-reaching, bombastic style when he turned his scrutiny onto Pope’s editorial methods: his Shakespeare Restor’d was a method composed of broken lines and phrases as he animadverted on his rival’s work. Less sharp-tongued but even more ambitious, Thomas Percy undertook a gigantic editorial vision of composing a world history of poetry in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and related editorial projects, many of which were left unfinished: a hodgepodge of misprisioned scale and poetic scope. Correction’s effects thus extended beyond fixing a particular error in a poem or play; the protocols engendered new technologies of social behavior in print and new forms of mediating agency.
I am fascinated by those printer’s errors and scanning glitches, those moments when mediation goes awry. Following Marshall McLuhan, media historians Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have used the term “remediation” to consider how digital technology refashions media across forms and genres. With McLuhan’s background in early modern literary criticism in mind, I adapt the term for the study of print technology. I fold in related meanings of remediation—to remedy a mistake, to intervene in a situation, to renovate a landscape—to describe an emergence of literary effects generated by the iterative interventions of textual error correction. I pay attention to editors’ critical vocabularies of mediating conjectures, surveying prospects, and sifting through reams of information. The same debates about errors in perception and transmission of knowledge which engaged Enlightenment philosophers such as Francis Bacon, George Berkeley and John Locke took place on the margins of pages as editors debated how to use these new tools of mediation. My dissertation historicizes and breaks down these protocols and interactions into their smallest radical units—errors—with the goal of theorizing how these procedures have come to constitute both objects of study and critical practices in the field of literary study. It is a meta-reflective experiment in mediating among fields of book history, media theory, experimental poetics and digital art, and disciplinary histories to ask questions about where we may go next.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Davidson, Jenny M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 21, 2015