Pleasures of Contamination: David C. Greetham’s Influence on Textual Scholarship, Past and Future @ MLA 2021

David Greetham’s work is a big influence on my Veil of Code project, and he was someone who inspired me to become interested in textual scholarship many years ago. I was saddened to learn of his passing in spring 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was reaching North America. As a tribute to David, and to draw attention to the continuing value of his work, Kathy Harris and I organized the roundtable described below for the 2021 Modern Language Association conference. You can also find this proposal posted on the blog of the MLA’s Committee on Scholarly Editions, who co-sponsored this panel along with the Society for Textual Scholarship. I am very grateful to these co-sponsors, and especially to Kathy and our other panellists, Paul Eggert, Amanda Licastro, Sarah Lubelski, and Jerome McGann, for enabling us to pull this roundtable together on very short notice, and during a time of great disruption and uncertainty.

Illustration of the roundtable by Jojo Karlin ( @jojokarlin), used with permission.


For this MLA Convention 2021, the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions and Society for Textual Scholarship are co-sponsoring a roundtable discussion that considers the work of textual scholar, David Greetham, and his consistent focus on the textuality of all kinds of cultural works—their entanglement of meaning, intention, and materiality—as the unifying idea in a body of work whose diversity runs counter to textual scholarship’s tendency to specialize by period, national tradition, or medium. With a turn toward the future of the humanities, aside from brief statements, the focus will be on discussion.

Session Description:

David C. Greetham changed the way we understand textual scholarship in the English-speaking world. As the author of provocative and erudite books and articles, as one of the founders of the Society for Textual Scholarship, as a former member of the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions, and as a generous teacher and mentor to his students and peers alike, he set the stage for textual studies’ entry into the twenty-first century. With his passing in March 2020, textual studies and its related fields have occasion not only to remember his contributions, but also to take up Greetham’s many intellectual provocations to think radically and adventurously about the role of textual studies within the humanities, broadly speaking. As he argues in his final book, The Pleasures of Contamination: Evidence, Text, and Voice in Textual Studies, the notion of textual critics and editors as guardians of textual purity is less productive than its alternative; instead, he suggests, “contamination may be seen as normative, healthy, and necessary: a textual (and human) condition to be celebrated rather than condemned” (3-4). In his sometimes irreverent but always deeply learned studies of the production, transmission, and reception of texts, Greetham gave us forms of textual scholarship for a messy, imperfect world. 

This roundtable looks back on Greetham’s ideas, but also forward to their evolving relevance. All of the roundtable participants share Greetham’s enthusiasm for the idea that the concept of text is the locus of all discussions, scholarship, and pedagogy, whether literature, architecture, tweets, paintings, music, or anything of potential cultural value in the twenty-first century. Greetham’s consistent focus on the textuality of all kinds of cultural works—their entanglement of meaning, intention, and materiality—is the unifying idea in a body of work whose diversity runs counter to textual scholarship’s tendency to specialize by period, national tradition, or medium. His fearless curiosity and willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries are qualities that the humanities will need in the twenty-first century. 

The intended audience for this roundtable will obviously include those who knew Greetham’s work and shared its influence, though we are equally committed to reaching audiences who are new to textual scholarship—especially early-career scholars and those who do not self-identify with textual studies as a field. 

Consider the following questions for discussion during our roundtable (we invite a robust conversation with the audience and among panelists): 

  • Greetham always considered “teaching and lecturing as branches of the entertainment industry . . . and generally performed with energy and a good dramatic sense of the occasion” (Textual Transgressions 44). With this goal, he managed to engage his graduate students in robust intellectual conversation that allowed for their individual explorations. How can we use his capacious strategy in our own teaching and mentoring?
  • Given that many graduate programs are struggling to balance breadth and specialization, how was Greetham able to embrace the breadth of textual studies and open it out to other areas like digital humanities and media studies? How has the kind of outreach he practiced been received and reciprocated in these and other fields?
  • In Greetham’s Theories of the Text, The Margins of the Text, and Textual Transgressions, he took great pleasure in this idea of “contamination” or (as Derrida says) embracing “archive fever.” How does Greetham’s idea of contamination speak to the evolving nature of multi-modal or multimedia texts?
  • Twenty years ago in Theories of the Text, Greetham explored different branches of critical theory to establish the broad relevance of the concept of text. In similar fashion, throughout his work he treats a remarkably broad range of cultural artifacts and media types as texts, from arias to remixed cartoons to word processor files. In Greetham’s work, the concept of text goes hand-in-hand with a radical commitment to breadth. What, then, are the advantages and limits of the term text? Does the word resonate differently now? 

The presider and roundtable participants represent a range of Greetham’s peers (Eggert, McGann), former students (Harris, Licastro), and other scholars who engage with his ideas in their own work (Lubelski, Galey). The participants represent a range of career stages and critical approaches, as well. Aside from brief three- minute opening statements, there will be no position papers or formal presentations, and the focus will be on discussion and audience participation, guided by the questions above. 

Organizer & Presider: Alan Galey ( U of Toronto  

Expertise and Scholarship: Alan Galey has published widely in textual studies and related fields, and his research has been recognized by awards from the Society for Textual Scholarship and the Association of College and Research Libraries. He is director of the graduate program in Book History & Print Culture at the University of Toronto. His current book project, The Veil of Code: Studies in Born- Digital Bibliography, draws on the spirit and substance of David Greetham’s work by extending the theories, methods, and mindsets of textual scholarship to the study of digital materials, from ebooks to digital music to videogames ( 

Organizer & Speaker: Katherine D. Harris ( San Jose SU 

Expertise and Scholarship: Katherine D. Harris, Professor of Literature & Digital Humanities, has published widely in textual studies, history of the book, bibliography, digital humanities, and digital pedagogy. With David C. Greetham as her dissertation advisor and mentor, she went on to publish Forget Me Not: The Rise of the British Literary Annual 1823-1835, The Forgotten Gothic: Short Stories from British Annuals 1823-1831, and Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities. Harris’ mixing of textual studies and literary criticism in both her scholarship and pedagogy reflect Greetham’s capacious style of mentoring and his prescient anticipation of the digital humanities field.

Speaker: Paul Eggert ( Loyola U Chicago (appearing remotely)

Expertise and Scholarship: Paul Eggert held the Svaglic Chair in textual studies at Loyola University Chicago, where he is now Professor Emeritus. From the late 1980s he found David Greetham’s shameless boundary hopping an inspiring example. A lot of editing and general editing intervened before Eggert’s theories of the editorial act – in some ways a reply to Greetham’s centralising of the text concept – were expressed in The Work and the Reader in Literary Studies: Scholarly Editing and Book History (2019). This followed Biography of a Book (2013), and the award-winning monograph Securing the Past: Conservation in Art, Architecture and Literature (2009). 

Speaker: Amanda Licastro ( Stevenson U 

Expertise and Scholarship: Amanda Licastro is Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric at Stevenson University, and has published on writing studies, digital media, and pedagogy. Reading about David Greetham’s course in Jerome McGann’s essay was one pivotal reason Amanda applied to do her doctoral studies at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Upon admission, Amanda took two courses with David before he became a member of her orals and dissertation committees. Her dissertation, which won the Calder Prize in Digital Humanities, and the subsequent publications “The Problem of Multimodality,” and “The Past, Present, and Future of Social Annotation,” are heavily influenced by David’s guidance and scholarship. 

Speaker: Sarah Lubelski ( Ryerson University 

Expertise and Scholarship: Sarah Lubelski holds a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada at the English Department at Ryerson University. Her PhD thesis, defended in 2019, is titled A Gentlewoman’s Profession: The Emergence of Feminized Publishing at Richard Bentley and Son, 1858-1898, and was the recipient of the iSchools Doctoral Dissertation Award. Her postdoctoral research on gender and publishing intersects with David Greetham’s writing on feminism and textual studies, and on questions of power and identity in editing and publishing work. As an early-career interdisciplinary scholar, she brings a vital perspective on the future of textual scholarship. 

Speaker: Jerome J. McGann ( U of Virginia (appearing remotely)

Expertise and Scholarship: Jerome McGann is an award-winning literary and textual scholar, and one of the most influential figures in these fields. His most recent books are The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel and A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction. His work has been in dialogue with David Greetham’s since the early days of the Society for Textual Scholarship. Like Greetham’s, his work established an early and influential link between textual scholarship and what is now called digital humanities, and has consistently focused on the importance of philological thinking to the humanities generally.