The fields of textual studies and bibliography have undergone tremendous change in the last several decades, both in the formal and theoretical understanding of text, and in the application of editorial processes that lie beyond the erstwhile Anglophone paradigm of copy text editing. Two prominent factors instrumental to this change are: the impact of greater theoretical reflection upon the methods of critical editing and specific research questions; and the profound intensification of the role of digital technology in structuring and processing research materials. In recent years scholars have addressed the impact of both of these factors on textual studies (rarely are they dealt with together, or potential relations between them explored). Now seems an opportune moment to examine exactly what kinds of rewards, and perils, might present themselves to textual critics at such a time in the history of textual scholarship. What are the potentialities opened up by genetic editing or social text editing? Which of the promises of editing in the digital domain – extravagant and otherwise – are worth pursuing? Is the notion of the complete text a mere daydream, or something tangible when theory, method and technological innovations converge?
This paper will outline some of the potentialities of contemporary thinking in textual criticism, and will seek to examine the validity of certain claims for textual completeness or superior methodological rigour. Beyond this, the notion of a general theory of text will be proposed and examined. The promise of such a theory is to be found in the convergence of textual criticism and hermeneutics in recent editorial theories and methods. Friedrich Schleiermacher’s ideal – where the establishment of a text and the interpretation of its substance are two parts of the same process – may have renewed purchase in an environment where editorial decisions are not assumed to be value-free or self-evident, and where any interpretive move is bound up in the presumed status of the text. Can textual studies move towards a general theory of text? Is such a thing desirable, or too grand a concept to act as anything but a distraction from the empirical realities of editing? How might digital editing practices inflect the question of a general theory of text?