For years, I’ve dreamt of writing a piece with this title. I’d just never had a legit academic excuse to do so… until now. I’m writing on an airplane over the Atlantic, after a five-day editoria-palooza for the critical/genetic edition of Aimé Césaire’s complete works due from Planète Libre in 2013. The team directly in charge of establishing the text is about 12-13 deep, and all of us were locked at the CNRS for about 8-9 hours a day while Paris mockingly continued outside room 124. Now, I’ve been a member of the editorial team long enough to vouch that Césaire scholars/editors are indeed an agonistic and motley crew. As you can imagine, already three days in, we were starting to feel team-lag. This is how I explain the passion that went into a debate between me and Prof. Jean Jonaissant over, you guessed it, a comma.
Before the debate, we were studying the notes génétiques in Daniel Delas’ edition of Discours sur le colonialism on the projector. Many team members had started working on the project long before ITEM became involved, at the time of ARCHIVOS (cf. L. Senghor’s complete works), and they needed some catching up to do on proper génétique annotation and conceptualization. Others had never worked on editorial projects at all and this was all new to them, so Wednesday was solely dedicated to talking about the editorial protocol using concrete examples. The debate between Jean and I arose over the presence of a comma next to a period in a genetic footnote. The note read something like this:
R – texte texte,. PA – texte texte.
For those of you not familiar with this notation, the period is there to separate different variants in two different versions of a given text (In the Anglo-American tradition we use the semi-colon). In other words, there is a version named R and a version named PA. In the version named R, the last variant at this particular moment of the text is a comma. The period that follows the comma is there to signal that we are about to explore the variants in PA. Ou la! Jean would not have it because the rules of French typography and classic rhetoric did not permit a comma to be next to a period. I tried, unsuccessfully against a senior scholar, to show that this had nothing to do with typography, philology, rhetoric or aesthetics, that it was a simple arbitrary marker making the notation as efficient as French allows, while reproducing the historical typography character by character. Nope. In the end the result read something like this:
R – texte texte une virgule ajoutée ici. PA – texte texte.
Somehow this preserves the patrimony of the Académie Française and makes it more legible to the common reader. How it does this, beats me. Because all of this was new to most of the team, I understood that Jean’s reaction to the génétique praxis came in part from a just resistance to the added work implied in learning a new code and applying it to an extremely malleable text (La tragédie du Roi Cristophe), but I think part of it came from a general tendency in the team to prefer a clean text with a good interpretation, rather than a historical one with minimal interpretation. For someone who was had solid training in “diplomatic,” it is troublesome to see this fetishism for the monstrous new offered as a gift to the author, as if the new editors can replace the ones of the past in the form of an obsequy.
At this point Nicolas Martin-Granel anecdotally introduced the concept of “livisibility” to help the team think through the ultimate goal of a genetic edition. A text should be both lisible (clean, pleasurable to read) and make itself *visible *(revealing all historical traces). Surely, the Césaire team is not the first one to find itself going back and forth between these things in the history of the ITEM or textual criticism in general, but it is one of the few places where this sort of question has been posed with such serious intent in relation to a Caribbean author, to Caribbean texts. Which brings me back to my original question: Does a , matter in the Caribbean? Or should I ask, Does a *comma* matter in the Caribbean?
Leaving aside the question of oraliture for the moment, to me the answer is an evident YES. Textual history consists of very specific material objects with very specific imprints. Still a child of modernism, I prefer to be shown rather than told, and even more so when it comes to graphemes. The problem is, of course, that until now, the way we have shown the history of texts has been at best clunky. When Jean reacts to the footnote, he is not alone. More than half of those present in the room may as well had been reading ancient Greek. Reading an apparatus has always required the mastery of a certain language, a certain logic, usually requiring a separate section to instruct the reader. Furthermore, each new school of editorial practice brings with it a different sort of apparatus, and the reader is asked to retrain once more. No surprise then, that in 2010, textual history is still susceptible to negotiation.
Once the false problem of livisibility has been solved, the question of commas in the Caribbean takes a new turn: As long as we don’t sacrifice the typographical and rhetorical legacies of our masteries, why not have our commas? To the question posed this way, there will be less nays in the audience, I’m sure. It is then that scholars can start asking the more important question of the role proper of textual history in understanding our cultural legacy and mandate.
In the aftermath of earthquakes, hurricanes, plantations, revolutions, tourists and volcanic eruptions, what means a tiny unpretentious pause? Don’t our authors change their texts because they want us to forget? Shouldn’t we honor the implied desires behind definitive editions? To me it is precisely the monumental understanding of history that a comma questions, critiques. No, we shall not respect desires of definitude, because it is the old publishing system that lost us in that house of mirrors, and after its mighty fall, we cannot close our eyes again. A variant comma is there to remind us that the Caribbean is not a dead letter; that the plantation of tourism is and is not the same as the sugar plantation; and even more importantly, that our authors write in particular historical circumstances, that their texts are not platonic ideas of themselves. From the Latin virgula (virga, twig), originally a dash /, in English from Greek (κόμμα, cut off), the comma is a rod, a mouse pointer, asking you to pause here, here, and here, not to continue pell-mell, but to stop, and think. Having much to do with St. Augustine’s insistence that the Bible be read according to church doctrine, the comma is there to make us reflect, but also to entreat us to collaborate on a standard. The commas are there for me to go on, God knows.