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Ephemerality and versionality

I know I said my next post would explore some aspects of the connections in Shalamov, and that will be coming up soon, but for now…

At the inaugural UCL Centre for Digital Humanities Decoding Digital Humanities event, a wide-ranging discussion initiated by our reading of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction at one point turned to the question of the ephemerality of digital media. Comparisons were made with the development of a written literary culture out of an originally oral culture, which meant that for a very long time nobody really worried about preserving texts, canonical version, etc — hence the lost plays of Shakespeare, and such like. The assumption that such things are important is relatively recent. So the question is, does the multiplicity of voices on the internet more closely resemble an oral culture than a written one, and to what extent is it therefore necessary or desirable to preserve everything that appears on the net? On the one hand, there are plenty of sites out there whose disappearance would be no great loss to humanity. On the other hand, as it is possible to preserve these things, if we’re not going to do so, we need to have a serious debate about why, and about the value, or otherwise, of preservation. What, in any case, does preserving a website mean, given that they change so rapidly? Is it such a huge task already that it can only ever be selective, as in the British Library’s Web Archiving Programme? If that’s the case, who gets to choose, and on what basis?

This is an interesting topic in itself, but it set me thinking about related questions in twentieth-century Russian literature, where much more recent circumstances have resulted in the existence of multiple versions of literary texts, uncertainty about which one is the canonical version and about whether such a thing as a canonical version can even be defined. This happened for two main reasons. First, published works of socialist realism were frequently subject to demands for changes to correct ideological errors or reflect changes in policy. Herman Ermolaev, Censorship in Soviet Literature, 1917-1991 (Lanham, MY, and London: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997) gives a good account of this process. For example (p. 103) he describes how Alexander Fadeev’s The Young Guard, despite having won the Stalin Prize in 1946, was criticized in Pravda in 1947 for failing to show the significance of the party in organizing resistance during the war, among other things, so the author had to produce a new version, which was published in 1951. Which, then, is the ‘real’ Young Guard, and how do you interpret a book that exists in more than one version?

You might say that in the case of a hack like Fadeev it hardly matters, but the second source of multiple versions tends to involve much more significant writers. This is, of course, the practice of writing ‘for the drawer’ and the distribution of works in samizdat and sending things out of the USSR for publication (tamizdat), which inevitably resulted in the existence of different versions. You see this sort of thing all the time — there are differences in some of the versions of Shalamov’s stories that first appeared outside the Soviet Union and the ones that are now considered canonical and included in both the printed editions of his collected works, and the on-line versions. At times one can say for sure, because of things Shalamov says in letters, which is the correct version, but often not. Have the versions we now usually accept as correct become so purely because they were the ones that were most readily available? Is that any basis for canonicity, and where does it leave the other versions? Possibly the role of accident in establishing such things is far greater than we like to think, but normally we don’t at least have other versions on the sidelines posing the question of whether we have chosen the ‘right’ one. Then there’s the case of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle, where the author changed the original 96-chapter version to produce the 87-chapter ‘lighter’ version which he felt would be more likely to be published in the USSR. It wasn’t, of course, but it was the shorter version that was initially published abroad, and certainly this one became the accepted text in English (the 96-chapter version was only published in translation last year). Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, maintained that the longer version was the correct one. Again, what are you supposed to do? Personally I find the revisions to the plot in the shorter text make it a more compelling story, but that doesn’t seem like a particularly good reason for choosing it over the other.

It seems to me that the first thing you have to do in a situation like this is compare the different versions properly, and as that is a difficult thing to do accurately with the human eye — not so bad with poems, perhaps, but pretty much impossible with something like In the First Circle — it’s an ideal job for a computer. Using diff, a file comparison utility such as this one, you can have a full record of all the differences between texts in an instant (diff3 does the same for three texts), and usually with some fairly strong graphic representation of the differences, as with Kompare). I know this is all a bit vague, because I’ve only just started thinking about it, and haven’t actually done any tests yet (I’ll let you know when I have, but in the mean time thanks yet again to John for putting me on the right track), but I think it could provide some very interesting data that would be an excellent starting point for analysis. I just wonder why nobody seems to be doing this, because it strikes me as pretty obvious. There are loads of excellent digital resources in my field, but most of the digital projects you come across are basically about gathering/digitizing materials and putting them on the internet. That’s important and useful, but is anyone actually using these resources to try anything new?

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