What is a Text?

Johnny Kondrup, University of Copenhagen

Though a key term in the humanities, “text” is surprisingly poorly defined. Even among textual scholars, who have a common approach to text, its ontological status is disputed. For example, in his Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age (1996), Peter Shillingsburg argued that text and work were immaterial entities, whereas the document was material. In Hans Walter Gabler’s Text Genetics in Literary Modernism and Other Essays (2018), by contrast, it is argued that text and document are material entities, while the literary work is immaterial.

The confusion is not likely to be clarified unless one makes use of a differentiated concept of text. It must be recognized that a text is multidimensional and that its different dimensions or levels are not of the same ontological status.

I develop this differentiated concept of text, inspired by scholarly editing and making use of terms from Scandinavian bibliography. My investigations take their point of departure in the elementary operations which textual scholars perform when, for example, they examine the textual sources, emend errors and transcribe a text. My intention is to think the text in continuation of what we do with texts. In that way, a structuralist (and idealist) notion of text as a sequence of signs can be gradually expanded, and more materialist dimensions of textuality incorporated.

Johnny Kondrup (born 1955) is professor of Scandinavian Literature at the University of Copenhagen, president of the Society for Danish Language and Literature, and chief editor of Dansk Editionshistorie (The History of Editing in Denmark, vols. 1-4, 2021). He has published several articles on textual theory in Danish and German and his books include Editionsfilologi (Textual Scholarship, 2011).