Towards a Marginalist Economy of Textual Genesis

—Daniel Ferrer,

The title of this paper can be interpreted in different ways. Marginalist economy, as far as I can understand, is an economic theory that stresses usage rather than production costs and subjective preference rather than objective usefulness, in other words it considers consumers choices as a decisive factor in the determination of value. In this respect it could be said to be similar to our approach in this conference: by studying the reading notes of writers, we are introducing a measure of reception theory in the study of the production of the text. We are interested in the writer as reader, the producer as consumer. Such an approach makes more conspicuous the axiological dimension that is necessarily present in genetic criticism.

This title also alludes to an opposition between two categories of note-taking writers: the “marginalists” and the “extractors”.1 The extractors, such as Winkelmann or Joyce, cut up the text they read and store it, in what is supposed to be a concentrated and quintessential form but is de facto a mutilated state, in notebooks or notesheets that play the part of a maturing cellar in which the harvested fragments are left to rest, to mellow and ripen together for some time in order to turn them into suitable ingredients, or serves the function of a decontamination chamber in which they are quarantined before they are admitted into the work. The other class of writers, the marginalists, such as Voltaire or Coleridge, do not dismember the text they read, they preserve its contextual integrity, but they brand it with idiosyncratic marks, adorn it with commentaries of all kinds, embrace it with their own writing (a lover’s embrace or a bear’s hug), plant the seeds of their own creation in the interstices of the text, like those insects who lay their eggs inside the living body of their preys so that their offspring may feed on its palpitating substance.

The difference between the two categories is important for it reflects deep-rooted attitudes. It should not, however, be overstated. The parasitical or vampirical aspect that we have just described is inherent in every kind of reading note, whether it is inscribed in the margin or on a physically separate medium. So is the attack against the integrity of the work: the marginalists respect it only superficially, for there is violence, not only in the rather radical physical treatment that some of these writers apply to their books (marring them with foul scribblings, scarring them with their nails, dog-earing their pages, breaking their spine, and sometimes dismantling them...), but in the very fact of selecting a passage, of marking a section, at the expense of the work’s cohesion and unity. Taking this into consideration, marginal notation can be considered as the best representative of the economy of note writing (and perhaps of writing in general). The material contiguity, the spatial imbrication, the direct confrontation between the printed text and the manuscript notes, are a visible projection of the less palpable dialogic interplay that governs the relations between texts.

Edgar Allan Poe is the first to have understood this, and the first to have produced a theory of reading notes in his introduction to a series of articles published under the name of “Marginalia”. My title, therefore, should be taken above all as an allusion and homage to this brilliant piece of writing and I would like to suggest that this whole conference should be placed under its auspices. I will reproduce it here (with its idiosynchrasic spelling), flanked with textual fragments that mimic the process of marginal notation it describes. Only the notes in the left margin are genuinely (that is to say, originally) related to Poe’s text: Valéry published those marginalia to his partial translation of Poe’s “Marginalia” in 1927 (in the journal Commerce). The others2 are my own choice, selected in the hope that they would throw light on Poe’s text and on each other, demonstrating the dialogical powers of juxtaposed utterances.3 Stendhal was a contemporary of Poe, while Proust, Peirce, Bakhtin and Valéry were, in a sense, contemporaries of each other, but the texts quoted here remained unpublished during their lifetime or were published in spheres that were so far apart that they could not have influenced one another.

To make these pages look more like those of an annotated book, I have underlined a few phrases. They could serve as key-words for this conference. I will only comment briefly upon them and the problems they raise, for I am sure that they will come up, again and again, in our proceedings.

Love of the thing, agreeable, pleasure, unburthen...: We should not allow ourselves to forget the element of dilection (and conversely of rejection) present in writing in general, and particularly in notetaking. Writing is always the expression of a preference: we chose to write rather than not to write (even if many writers claim that it is not a choice but a compulsion), we chose to write something rather than something else, implicitly, or explicitly if there is a deletion. We chose to occupy the margins of our book rather than leaving them to their pristine virginity. We choose to annotate such and such a passage — and not to annotate others. We may annotate a passage because we particularly love it — or, very often, because it irritates us particularly. Between aversion and fascination, between the text of the other as foil and the text of the other as mesmerizing model, there is all the range of implicit and explicit dialogism.

Purpose, deliberately, library, recherché...: From a genetic point of view, the fact that a writer selects a particular passage (elects it, promotes it over the others) indicates that he sees it as relevant, positively or negatively, to his work. Guimarães Rosa would draw lists of words not to be used. The reasons for selection (a vague intuition that something may perhaps become useful in the future or a lucid recognition of something that was sought for a precise purpose) can never be fully determined, but what we may infer about them gives us a very important insight not into the writer’s aesthetic positions but into the aesthetics actuated de facto by the genetic process. What we see on the page (of the annotated book or of the notebook) is only part of this evaluation process. The selection procedure has begun earlier, with the acquisition of the books (the composition of the writer’s library is certainly relevant for a genetic study) or even with the taking down of a reference for possible future use.

Only to ourselves, interest for others, some other hand than my own, altered my mind...:Poe asserts that the marginalia writer is talking only to himself. One could rebuke him for the deceptive simplicity of this statement, if he was not the first to alert us “to the possibility of [his] having, in some instances, altered [his] mind” and even “to the impossibility of [his] not having altered it often”. Such a Peircean conception of thought as a constant dialogue between successive versions of a shifting self is strikingly illustrated by Stendhal’s habit of dating his marginal notes and of often revisiting them, countersigning past impressions with (dated) marks of approval, qualifying them or building up from them with new (dated) annotations.

This splitting of the reading and writing subject and this deferral of self-communication are not the whole story, however. Marginal notes often take the ostensible form of an address to the author of the printed text, particularly when a disagreement is expressed (see Nietzsche’s exclamations of “Äsel!” in the margin of the philosophers he is reading or the abundant scorn poured by Voltaire on the ignorant and the bigoted among the authors in his library). Of course, the annotator knows very well that those insults and retorts, confined in the margin of a privately owned volume, will never be read by their addressee, and that this kind of dialogue is bound to remain asymmetrical and virtual. But a book is not as intimate a space as a manuscript. It is not normally reserved to the use of its owner. Some annotations are explicitly written for the benefit of a particular future reader – or written in reaction to a previous annotation by another reader. The potential audience of future readers is not necessarily limited to close friends and family. We have all experienced, to our annoyance, that some people have the urge to annotate books in public libraries, in spite of the fact – or because of the fact – that their annotations will pass under the eyes of many strangers. Coleridge himself had the compulsive habit of scribbling in the margins of the books he borrowed from acquaintances or from circulating libraries. If such notes are not a mere cathartic discharge (Poe’s “unburthening”) or a simple way of maintaining concentration – in which case they are not meant to be read by anyone, the author is not even talking to himself – then they imply a more complicated structure of interlocution. It seems that we should look for a three-agencies relationship such as the one described by Freud in his analysis of “tendentious wit”, where the teller requires a listener as an ally against a third entity, the butt of the hostile or obscene joke.

Between, secure, paste...: The reading note is an intermediary. Part of its fascination certainly lies in the fact that it is a meeting point between two minds and that it gives us an almost voyeuristic insight into their intercourse, but in the case of a writer’s note it is above all an interface between texts: a previously written text, present in its printed form, and an incipient new work, virtually present in its first manuscript traces. In this respect it reverses the usual relation between the private and the public spheres of writing: the published book becomes the point of departure of the avant-texte instead of its telos. The “imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste”, used by Poe to secure the slip of paper meant to receive the overflow of his reactions to the page he is reading, can be taken as the emblem of this articulation between books and manuscripts. Tenuous and transparent, it is potent enough to ensure that “something sticks”. Even if the material connexion is broken, it will leave a trace that, with luck, can be detected by expert eyes. The slip of paper that penetrates the book and leads away from it to the workshop of another book is also a good figuration of the relation of continuity and dialogue between reading and writing, printed texts and manuscripts.

Practice: Even if our main focus is the writer as reader, whether we like it or not, we have to take an interest in the “common reader”. If reading is an intimate act (Valery Larbaud compares it implicitly to onanism), it is also a social practice, the result of an intense training. We must learn to know something about “common reading”, about the cognitive and social aspect of reading practices, if only to find out how different the reading procedures of creative writers are. We should be aware of the norm (if there is such a thing) in order to understand the exceptional and its deviations (if any). Unfortunately, this is far from being the case: we know more about the reading habits of Nietzsche and Flaubert than about those of the average nineteenth-century German professor or French bourgeois.

Even if our knowledge was greater than it is, however, we should be wary of simplistic historical or sociological explanations or generalizations. Take three eighteenth-century writers: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Winklemann. Winkelmann remained throughout his life a copious and compulsive extract maker. This seems easily explainable by the fact that he was a poor librarian, the son of a shoemaker, and had no books of his own – but Montesquieu was a rich aristocrat, with a magnificent library and a host of secretaries, and yet extract-making, in his own hand or in the hand of his amanuenses, was an important part of his writing procedure. On the other hand, Voltaire, who was a close contemporary of Montesquieu, made no extracts but scribbled abundantly in the margins of the books of his extensive library.

In such matters, it is not easy to determine what is the relevant historical context. Some practices seem to have remained in use for very long periods, through very different social conditions and intellectual climates. The Medieval scholastic techniques of textual extraction were apparently still influential in the eighteenth century, and traces of them can be discerned in the habits of writers like Flaubert and even Joyce, through his Jesuit training.

If reading as decipherment is generally the object of codified pedagogical procedures, reading as a technique of assimilation is not taught with equal intensity in every country and at all times. At some periods, it is hardly taught at all, so there is no prevailing model. Some writers, moreover, find that current practices are not congenial to their needs and have to invent or reinvent their own notetaking techniques, sometimes making a series of adjustments over time until they have found the most suitable mode.

Memorandum: With the help of a (bogus?) quotation from Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Poe playfully delineates a negative ars memoriae, but we know that in these matter the positive is inseparable from the negative: without the possibility to forget, there would be no remembering. Stendhal’s remarks reveal a complementary aspect: for him, the point was not to remember the annotated text, but to remember his own reaction to the text, so that he could build up from there on his next reading. He also would note in the margin the memory, apparently unconnected with the book, that was prevalent in his mind while he was reading. The difference between the marginalia and Poe’s despised “mere memorandum” (if there is such a thing), is that the marginalia is not simply the setting aside of something that will be later retrieved intact in order to be used. The mode of storage and the place (locus memoriae) of deposit are not neutral: they affect the usage that will be made of them. Where a phrase or idea has been originally found is an important genetic fact, even if that source is undetectable in the final text, but the context of its first inscription and the form it took is also significant: was it noted in direct contact with the source (like the embryo of Mario De Andrade’s modernist classic Macunaima scribbled in the margin of a German book of anthropology)? deliberately transported on a selected notesheet (like Joyce’s late Ulysses notes) or in the relevant section of a dedicated copybook (like Joyce’s Scribbledehobble notes or most of Virginia Woolf’s reading notes)? or was it randomly jotted in the undifferentiated space of an all-purpose notebook? Even the uniform surface of a neutral receptacle is often individualized a posteriori by a series of idiosyncratic marks (Joyce’s or Walter Benjamin’s systems of sigla), or soon becomes differentiated by the inscriptions it bears, making up a context for each other. The relevant memory, then, is not the mechanical memory of repetition, but the elusive “memory of the context”.4

Context, fabric of intelligibility, circumscription of space, imbedded, transfer, ghost of a conception...:

As we have seen, determining a limited historical and sociological context can be a reductive and misleading gesture. The study of textual production calls for a very extensive conception of spatial and temporal contextualisation. This is particularly true in the case of reading notes, always caught in a very intricate web of relationships. For instance, a marginal note inscribed by Coleridge in a volume of Shakespeare’s Sonnets takes the form of a recommendation to his new born son, or rather to the person his son will become when he is old enough to read Shakespeare (and his father’s note), but it is also explicitly an answer to a previous note made by Wordsworth on the same page— and implicitly a dialogue with Shakespeare. The relation to the present (an exchange with a contemporary poet) is intertwined with a relation to the past (an assessment of the cultural heritage) and to the future (a literary and moral testament). Such complexities raise problems of presentation that cannot be solved satisfactorily by traditional means. The current edition of Stendhal’s marginal notes has chosen the option of regrouping most of them chronologically in order to make up an artificial diary. The good point of this mode of presentation is that it relates the notes to a succession of historical or individual moments and regroups scattered remarks that were written on the same day in the margins of different books and manuscripts. But what is lost is the spatial context of the page of inscription. It is important in itself: as Poe points out, a material characteristic such as the size of the available margin has important consequences for the mode and style of what is written – but it is even more important in other respects: as a direct reflection of the dialogic relation to the adjacent printed text and as a witness to a different kind of temporal connection, the interaction with other layers of notes inscribed on the same page at different periods.

Poe discovers that marginalia can often be transferred, i.e., severed from their locus of inscription, without breaking the “exceedingly frail fabric of intelligibility in which the context was imbedded”, or rather that the “acumen and imagination of the reader” can usually be trusted to reconstruct that fabric. The reason for this is that the marginalia carries with it “the ghost of a conception” of the original context. Because they are strongly dialogic, marginalia are deeply affected by what Bakhtin calls the counterstatement and they bear traces of it that the reader can interpret. Sometimes, however, the ghost is too faint for anything of the context to be recovered — or, on the contrary, the multiplicity of the context produces confusing signals. Poe could rewrite his notes as he transferred them. We do not have such a privilege, but it is the duty of the geneticist to supply not only the original context of inscription, in all its spatial and temporal complexity, but also each of the contexts that have presided over the various states of development. Only hypertextual presentations make this possible. They allow us to include each reading note (and more generally each element relating to the genetic process) in an unlimited number of paths, interrelated dynamically across an unlimited number of maps. This is probably their most useful function for us. The faculty to add unlimited layers of annotations to the notes, to pile up marginalia on marginalia, is a mixed blessing, because the absence of any limitation implies loosing the “marginalic” qualities of terseness and concentration associated by Poe with the “circumscription of space”.


1  Daniel Ferrer, “Un imperceptible trait de gomme de tragacanthe…” in Bibliothèques d’écrivains, ed. Paolo D’Iorio and Daniel Ferrer (Paris : CNRS Editions, 2001), 18.

2  Mikhail Bakhtin,  Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics,  ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson ‘Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1984). Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers, vols. 1-8, ed. C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss and A. W. Burks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-1958). Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, Vol I-IV, ed. Jean-Yves Tadié, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Gallimard: Paris, 1987-9). Stendhal, Souvenirs d'égotisme, Œuvres intimes II, ed. V. del Litto, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Gallimard : Paris, 1982).

3  The reader of Finnegans Wake will recognize a structure somewhat similar to that of Book II, chapter 2. He is free to speculate whether (Proust being Issy)Valéry is Shem and Peirce is Shaun, or the other way around.

4  Daniel Ferrer, “La toque de Clementis : rétroaction et rémanence dans les processus génétiques”, Genesis 6 (1994): 101.  English translation by Marlena Corcoran, “Clementis’ Cap : Retroaction and Persistence in the Genetic Process”, Yale French Studies, 89 (1996): 231-5.


En s’appuyant sur le texte fondateur d’Edgar Poe, “Marginalia”, on pourrait définir les principes une économie marginale de l’écriture, qui s’appliquerait d’abord aux notes de lecture inscrites à même les volumes par les écrivains “marginalistes”, puis aux notes prises dans des carnets ou des cahiers par ceux qui appartiennent à la catégorie des “extracteurs” et enfin à toute écriture dans la mesure où elle est le résultat d’un dialogue avec ses contextes mulitples.

Pour citer cette page

Daniel Ferrer, «Towards a Marginalist Economy of Textual Genesis», Item [En ligne],
Mis en ligne le: 04 juin 2009
Disponible sur:

Notice bibliographique

« Towards a Marginalist Economy of Textual Genesis » in Variants 2/3 : Reading notes. Amsterdam / New York : Editions Rodopi, 2004, 7-18 (p. )

AccueilContactL'ItemRSSPodcast — Site propulsé par Lodel