Bibliographic codes, pl. n.
The factors/components that attribute to the originality — or aura — of a literary work; a collection of a literary work’s “material instantiations” that locate it in time and space (Bornstein 6).
Let’s say you are sitting in your dentist’s office silently awaiting that root canal procedure you scheduled a couple of weeks ago — fearfully postponed a couple of times with paper-thin excuses — and now you are finally here.
You pick up a magazine — maybe even the smartest one in the pile if you’re feeling ambitious. I guess The New Yorker will do. After thumbing through the first few pages, you settle on a cartoon. This cartoon:
“Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where the media manufactures a war on Diwali, too.”
You piece together that this particular cartoon is facetiously commenting on how the media pinpoints and ceaselessly criticizes anything that might cause even the slightest amount of cultural insensitivity — in this case Christmas trees; and their clearly Christian agenda that should not be tolerated in any democratically sane society.
Underneath this cartoon is a web address where you can purchase the image. Now imagine the cartoon hanging on your wall or as your desktop background—has its meaning changed? What if it had been originally published below an article about the suspension of a middle school student for painting a Christmas tree in art class against the teacher’s instructions? Do you read the cartoon differently? What if you found out the cartoon had been published as a part of a private collection about the artist’s vendetta against social constraints on religious demonstration? Or what if the cartoon had been published in the Boston Globe, too, just a page away from Boston foreclosure listings?
Obviously, these examples are imagined, but what if they were the case? At what point is the meaning of the piece influenced by its physical positioning, by all the seemingly irrelevant marginalia and advertisements and diversions?
At all points. At least on some level.
And these are all examples of bibliographic coding.
What are they?
Bibliographic codes, as stated by George Bornstein, “point to a work’s ‘presence in time and space’” (Bornstein 7). Bibliographic codes are information about a text (i.e. where it was published, who it was published by, who the intended audience is, what revisions were made to the piece, and whether or not there were multiple varying editions of the piece) that add breadth to its meaning. At the beginning of his essay, “How to read a page: modernism and material textuality,” George Bornstein poses this question: “If the “Mona Lisa” is in Paris at the Louvre, where is King Lear?” (5). The validity behind this position is clear — as consumers of art and literature, we often find ourselves unconsciously attributing originality and bibliographic detail /authenticity to artifacts such as paintings and sculptures—assigning them cultural significance, recognizing their geographical importance, and emphasizing the overwhelming value of the original versions. Yet when it comes to literary works, we tend to simply acknowledge their “linguistic code,” or rather, the words that compose them. This begs the question, are, and should, literary works be considered self-reflexive?
According to Bornstein, no — limiting attention solely to the text ignores the aura inherent in the original body of work. In a definition that he borrows from philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, Bornstein defines aura as “the presence of the work of art in time and space” that is consistently lost through mechanical reproduction. Bornstein reiterates that, “aura emerges in part from the material features of the text. The original sites of incarnation thus carry with them an aura placing the work in space and time, and constituting its authenticity as well as its contingency” (7). In his book, The Textual Condition, Jerome McGann advocates for “a more socialized view of the text” by instituting a correlative approach to analyzing literature (7):
Correlative with this position is the argument that no single editorial procedure—no single ‘text’ of a particular work—can be imagined or hypothesized as the ‘correct’ one […] it must be understood that the archive includes not just original manuscripts, proofs, and editions, but all the subsequent textual constitutions which the work undergoes in its historical passages. (Qtd. In Bornstein 7)
McGann’s approach historicizes texts as opposed to aestheticizing them—drawing them closer to their place in time and space which, in turn, establishes a deeper meaning for them. Literature is not just a series of words on a page, linguistic codes, but rather a culmination of those linguistic codes in collaboration with bibliographic codes in order to place them within a more complex contextual setting.
In Bornstein’s case study for bibliographic codes, he uses King Lear as an example of an instance in which bibliographic codes can, and should, be utilized for complete and substantive analysis. Bornstein mocks the claim that, “we need to know what alternate versions to a text we are studying do or might exist, but we do not need to know that in order to choose just one version for exclusive attention,” arguing instead that we take these alternative texts into full and careful consideration (5). In the case of King Lear, Bornstein highlights the importance of the folio version, with its reader-friendly “streamlined action” that makes it the most commonly read edition—but to read this edition exclusively, we risk omitting the Mock Judgment Scene that can only be found in an earlier quarto version. Bornstein concludes that:
It would not be enough simply to choose any one of the versions in these or other examples: many of the multiple versions were authorized by the authors themselves, and we would want to have them all. Indeed, the literary work might be said to exist not in any one version, but in all the versions put together. (6)
Kevin J. H. Dettmar, offers an opposing stance to Bornstein, criticizing him for a multitude of reasons, the summation of which amount to, “Bornstein need hardly think of himself as having discovered that the Emperor has no clothes, since anyone who has worked on a literary anthology is only too aware of the sacrifices that must be made” (Dettmar 594). Among other things, Dettmar criticizes Bornstein for the depth of his argument, making numerous claims that Bornstein is simply reiterating and taking credit for a simple idea and notion that all literary scholars have already been taking into consideration. In this case, Bornstein is not re-creating the wheel, but rather showcasing it. Dettmar also presents a contradicting stance on anthologies, which Bornstein frankly condemns for lack of contextual placement, by expressing the opinion that, “something is clearly lost when an anthology is made (though Bornstein greatly underestimates the ability of editorial apparatus to suggest, if not restore, the original contexts of publication), but then, too, much is gained when poetry is anthologized, if only in terms of access” (Dettmar 594). Irrefutably, anthological presentations of poetry and literature displace them from their historical, political, and spatial contexts—scholars seem to agree on this—despite increasing access and availability.
How does it apply to Johnson?
In rereading Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poetry today, we often forget to acknowledge the historical presence of her work. As an African American female writer, Johnson faced adversity from multiple angles. Lorraine Elena Roses and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph appropriately recreate the adversarial atmosphere of a black and female writer:
They were expected to identify themselves as either black or female, but never both. Beyond the formal English in Johnson’s poetry is the imploring tone of a woman, and of an Afro-American, seeking an audience in a society which respected neither. Rejected by white women and ignored by black men, Afro-American women were not permitted to comfortably support both causes. Such was their legacy in a society stratified by race and gender. (Roses & Randolph 203)
Faced with such a selective audience, how then can we really identify Johnson’s true intentions as a black, female author if they are consistently being masked, shunned, and indirectly censored by societal restrictions and implications? Bibliographic codes—page layout, cover design, publisher, price, print run, notes, dedications, spacing, word choice, etc.—that help establish substantive and revelatory claims.
Georgia Douglas Johnson is well known, in large part, for her poetry that has been published in The Crisis—though she has a few of her own published books of poetry and various dramas. Many of her poems published in The Crisis, however, have been altered or changed due to editorial influences and adaptations, so while she is still credited as the author of these works, are they really completely representative of her intended meaning?
What do these changes by editor W.E.B DuBois convey about the message that Georgia Douglas Johnson was trying to get across, and retrospectively, the message that the magazine was trying to get across? Generally speaking, editorial editions and adaptations of poetry are much more inclined to pander to the ideas and messages that society, the editors, and publishing companies wish to convey—yet what can be said of their meaning to the original author? Do all editions and publications of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poetry represent her ideology or only those that have not been edited down, reworded, or otherwise changed?
Georgia Douglas Johnson is notorious for avoiding the topic of race in her early collections of poetry, so what does that say about her poetry that appears in The Crisis, a magazine funded and distributed by the N.A.A.C.P (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), or her published collection of poetry in Bronze that has been strongly identified as racially charged? In a letter written to Arna Bontemps, Johnson confides that, “My first book was The Heart of a Woman. It was not at all race conscious. Then someone said she has no feeling for the race. So I wrote Bronze. It is entirely race conscious” (Roses & Randolph 203). Johnson found that it was best to limit her writing about race and racial conflict because she believed that, “if one can soar, he should soar, leaving his chains behind” (Qtd. In Roses & Randolph 204). These two quotes alone seemingly link the poetry that Johnson was producing with the expectations of her work by society—almost alarmingly so. In what ways does her adherence to societal expectations of her writing already imply meaning? Would she still decide to write about race if she was not expected to by her peers? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. By investigating her poems in their original contexts we are able to establish a deeper understanding of Georgia Douglas Johnson and her poetry—avoiding writing her off as just another “black” or “female” writer, while at the same time not immediately throwing her into the modernist canon—at least not without proper analysis with bibliographic codes, first.
How do we fit in?
Bibliographic codes — copies of The Crisis, Georgia Douglas Johnson’s independently published material, and other sociological instantiations (such as publisher and intended audience) — allow us to explore her work through a much more thorough lens. By applying bibliographic coding to Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poems published in The Crisis, and evidencing claims based on other articles published alongside her poetry, editorial adaptations of her work, page layout, and other historical and contextual information, we are more equipped to discover the true intended meaning of her work. Acknowledging the spaces in which her poetry has been published, especially in the case of The Crisis, is crucial when it comes to fully understanding Georgia Douglas Johnson as a poet and writer.
Bornstein, George. “How to read a page: modernism and material textuality.” Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page. NY: Cambridge. UP, 2001. 5-31. Print.
Dettmar, Kevin J. H.. “Review of Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page.” James Joyce Quarterly 39.3 (2002): 590–595. Web.
McGann, Jerome J. The Textual Condition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1991. Print.
Photograph of George Bornstein. n.d. University of Michigan. Faculty History Project. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Roses, Lorraine Elena, and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph. Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Literary Biographies of 100 Black Women Writers, 1900-1945. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1990. Print.
Shwartz, Benjamin. Daily Cartoon: Friday, November 13th. 2015. Cartoon. The New Yorker, n.p.