Superattention and the Scholarly Editor

In documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’s blog entry of 10 April 2008 (which discusses Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire), Vanderbilt psychology professor Dan Levin offers a critique of people who worry about (and catalog) continuity errors in movies. Levin offers a critique which might apply equally well to scholarly editors:

ERROL MORRIS: And here’s my question. Why are people so interested in continuity errors in movies? What’s that about?
DAN LEVIN: I don’t know, maybe it’s about being the expert. Being the person that sees something that other people don’t see. Being aware of the deep workings of the movies or something like that. That’s my guess.
ERROL MORRIS: The person who pays more attention than anyone else?
DAN LEVIN: Yeah, the super attentive person, there’s this kind of idea that “I’m super attentive, I have a super attention system. I see all this stuff.”
ERROL MORRIS: But your belief would be, of course, that since they super attend to all this stuff, they’re probably ignoring something else.
DAN LEVIN: Yeah, they’re not paying attention to the stuff they should be paying attention to, which is the story, the ideas of the filmmaker, all this cool stuff. And a lot of psychologists have argued if you’re really paying attention to all this detail stuff, you’re missing the good stuff. You’re missing what you need to be paying attention to[….]

I would reply that the “detail stuff” is what anchors us to fact and helps inform our understanding of the act of artistic making. The artists mostly know the details, and they mostly have reasons why some details matter and some don’t. Levin, to me, suggests that vanity (and perhaps the desire to excel at snarky cocktail conversation–those scholarly editor cocktail parties are a riot, what with our emendations and accidentals livening up the whole proceeding) drives those who focus on details. I will merely say that to determine what one “should” pay attention to derives from the interest of the examiner. To me, the textual alterations are the “cool stuff.”

Perhaps the mistake of another filmmaker in a New York Times interview will suffice to illustrate my point. When Robert Altman described himself as feeling like Stowe’s Eva on the ice being chased by dogs (Kornbluth, June 1997), Altman’s mistake (he meant Eliza) went unremarked by his interviewer. It seems likely that the editors of the New York Times did not notice either. They knew the important stuff, and a factual error that two generations earlier would have marked Altman and his interviewer as lunkheads was allowed to stand (though a reader’s letter noted the error). To cite Uncle Tom’s Cabin but falsely remember the white child as the one fleeing slave traders is to indicate something profound about cultural amnesia (even if one must recognize Stowe’s clear hierarchy of mulatto over pure African–in matters other than Christian forbearance). By cultural amnesia I refer to the reading of antebellum slavery through the lens of minstrelsy. Postwar minstrelsy’s deep workings included obscuring the horrors of antebellum slavery and thereby detracting attention from the South’s effort to re-impose practical slavery through disenfranchisment, erosion of civil rights, legal racial terrorism, and the organized extra-legal terrorism of lynching.

Similarly, when John Updike in his review of Gates’s edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin unknowingly exchanges Dinah and Prue, the editors of the New York Times magazine did not notice. Updike in “Down the River” explains Uncle Tom’s attempt to console Dinah, a “hapless servant.” Prue is not a servant to the St. Clares, and Dinah is far from hapless. My interest here again is that the editors/fact checkers for Updike’s review failed to notice the error. Had the book under review been Huckleberry Finn, would such an obvious error–i.e., confusing the Duke and the King, an error which I submit you would be unlikely to recognize without double-checking–have gone undetected?

If we push a little bit on Altman’s and Updike’s mistakes, I think we can at least detect signs that the minstrel remaking of Stowe’s work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century continues to influence our contemporary reading. Maybe continuity mistakes in film and literary criticism are just what Levin say–the stuff that we need not pay attention to when paying attention to the good stuff–but mistakes, in addition to indicating that our cultural elite are not familiar enough with Stowe’s work to notice the error–may indicate a widespread cultural tendency to discount the continuing relevance of slavery’s legacy. Those who ignore the “deep workings” may also be missing something. But it may be the “important stuff” that they’re missing.

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2 Responses to Superattention and the Scholarly Editor

  1. Errol Morris says:

    I agree. The study of errors – continuity errors and otherwise – connect us to the world. The problem could be expressed somewhat differently. How do we distinguish between errors that lead us to the truth, and those that lead us into further error? I am writing about this… And I found your remarks extremely helpful. Thanks.


  2. wraabe says:

    Hmm. Errol Morris (not Erroll, as I mistakenly put in my original posting) seems to have responded to my blog entry. How could I misspell Errol? Well, I know of Errol Morris only vaguely (have read a few NY Time blog entries and checked wikipedia, from which I learn it would be hard to have escaped his work), which says something about me. Were I a student of documentary film, I may not have made the error or I might have corrected it while double-checking. I’ve corrected the earlier post now, because it seems more important after the comment. I apologize for the earlier error.

    But to the matter at hand. I regard the term “error” as liable to over-use in textual scholarship, aside from the sense of “obvious error,” which even if permissible should be used with caution. Many errors that editors declare “obvious” are not obvious during even fairly careful reading. The tools of scholarly editing alert one to textual alteration, on the basis of which one can more confidently assert that one reading is an error. When I electronically collate two versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (newspaper and first edition), I find many “errors” that no one has previously seen in the book. But I’m inclined to be cautious about emending, though under some editorial principles I would emend. I sympathize with a dilemma described by editor Noel Polk. After wracking his brain he ultimately decided that Faulkner didn’t know how to spell kindergarten. Even if one’s author might be careless–as Stowe is often accused of being–an editor has to decide whether any possible interpretation might offer a reason for what seems on first glance an error. If the purpose is to establish an authoritative text (few serious editors any longer claim to establish a definitive text), the editor has a duty to decide.

    But even whether one must decide depends on the critical approach taken. John Bryant has advanced the compelling claim that the task of textual criticism (and scholarly editing) is to illuminate the consequences of alteration. I argued, for example, that the difference between “cheer” and the dialect form “chirk” in Alcott’s “Eli’s Education (which could be thought as a simple editorial correction) resonated with Gilded Age culture’s sense of the purpose of education. Truth is found less in the author’s or editor’s choice than in interpreting the apparent need to correct the manuscript dialect form. Bryant in The Fluid Text says that in textual alteration one detects the “energy of a culture.” Error alone is inadequate to deal with the majority of textual alterations (and I suspect that is true of most forms of adaptation).

    More interesting that simple error–but ultimately an area of which error, however understood, is a part–is the artistic maker’s interaction with a culture. If a word, concept or visual image is unacceptable for one reason or another, we can begin to understand what social institutions (and actors within them) choose to suppress, police, or control. We may also simply find individual ignorance, as Polk did with Faulkner’s kindergarten or I did with regard to myself and the spelling of Errol. But the task of deciding whether an artistic maker errs or responds to cultural influences is finally a matter of interpretation.

    To formulate terms in which a translation to another media (from media adaptation to language translation, but also a scholarly transcription) mis-states, abridges, errs is an important method for detecting larger concerns. An interpretation of any type can be wrongheaded or inadequate, and one’s argument can be weak or strong, but textual variation and continuity errors are often compelling facts, which can support larger claims.

    To close with yet another example, the censorship of Richard Wright’s Native Son for the Book Club (see Rampersad’s Library of America edition) provides a lesson in the author’s difficult task of maintaining continuity when one of the work’s key scenes is suppressed. Moreover, the Book Club editors appear to have thought that Black male homosocial sexuality was a greater threat than Communism. I hesitate to make a larger claim about the relative threats of Black male sexuality versus Communism, but that the Book Club editors were more concerned about the former in Wright’s work seems undeniable. The many later textual variations (in which Wright had to re-write after he accepted Book Club cuts of the masturbation scene) alter Wright’s work significantly. The earlier version is artistically tighter in linking the masturbation scene to the murder, but I suspect that some later cuts streamlined the action of the novel, though Wright may never have considered such cuts without the Book Club’s censorship. I haven’t looked closely enough to offer a larger interpretation, but the current state of my knowledge must suffice for a blog post comment.

    We distinguish insignificant error (with little meaning outside of the recognition that humans err) from significant error by acts of interpretation. The act of devoting attention to small things is one of the tools in our arsenal, and the use of this kind of attention can sharpen vague impressions.

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