My understanding of deformance thus far is perhaps best summarized by my defining it as interference “by later critical responses” (101) associated with a work.  It is a complex layering of interpretations of an object whose original is irreversibly transformed by and associated with its responses.  Meaning is produced and created by critical investigation of these interpretations, thus creating even further interpretations that add to the deformance.  Such interpretation is what McGann continually refers to as hermeneutics.

In discussing his definition of deformance, McGann backgrounds it with what seems to be his motivation for the entire concept of deformance: Emily Dickinson’s quotation fragment referring to reading and interpreting backwards.  As he says,

We use Dickinson’s proposal for reading poems backward, then, as an emblem for rethinking our resources of interpretation.  It is a splendid model for what we would call deformative criticism (109).

Through critical deformance, a work “is forced to take on meanings of which it was not originally possessed” (110).  Examples include associating works written years apart with each other in one location, such as translations or critical commentary of a text; changing the typesetting or layout of an original piece; or marking up a text (physically with ink or virtually with XML tagging, for example) to provide additional layers of meaning.  Interestingly, McGann states, “forgery is the most important type of deformative scholarship” (115).  Forgery and other deformative practices contribute by providing instability and uncertainty to the interpretation, allowing “outside-the-box” analysis, as it were.

Finally, McGann provides an excellent summary of his deformance topic by dividing it into four possible distinct types (117).  These types include 1) reordering, 2) isolating, 3) altering, and 4) adding.  The first type, reordering, includes interpretations that “read backward,” or reorganize, stemming out of Dickinson’s foundational idea of the topic.  That is, by perhaps stripping a piece of its constructed order, this kind of deformance creates a new analysis out of a different, or maybe even unorthodox, reading.  The second type, isolating, includes adding new levels of interpretation by reading only certain parts of a text, such as plucking out certain parts of speech from the rest of the text and forming a meaning from them.  This might allow one to see in a poem, for example, the tone that might be created by the verbs a poet chooses to employ.  Altering, the third type of deformance delineated by McGann, comprises the inclusion of variants of words or altering spatial organization by means such as typography, spacing, or punctuation.  The breed of deformance might not even be an intentional result.  Even typesetting errors could influence the spacing of a poem and entirely change its meaning, for example.  Finally, the fourth type, adding, includes the addition of information not extant in a previous version of an object; this type is where markup plays a role and where TEI makes its entrance.  These various types can work simultaneously with one another.

In short, I would argue that deformance can inform any number of ways of gleaning interpretation from a work by applying other critical lenses to it.  It is the viewing of a work not simply as the work itself, but as the work invariably connected to all its associations and responses.

Examples of radiant texts:

An example of deformance acting upon one of Charles Brockden Brown’s poems (marked up with TEI-P5) (click for zoom):