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Sunday, May 27, 2012

the scribe and the title

Almost all the titles are lost. That is, almost all the titles of the ancient Egyptian texts that we now possess are lost. “The title of the book, a summary of its contents, or the opening words, were at times written on the reverse side or at the outside of the scroll’s beginning, with the name of the author (“made by”) immediately after it. As scrolls generally lost their edges first, few titles have comedown to us. Fewer authors were identified..Sometimes, however, lists of titltes were written on the walls of temples or pyramids,though the books themselves have not survived. Small deeds and other documents at times were provided with titles. Onne book of the dead was entitled “Book of the Coming into the Day of Osiris Gathesehen, daughter of Mekheperre.” Long texts were sometimes divided by the chapter numbers, marked by ht, “house”.” (Leila Avrin, 91)

It has been a long time since Jacques Derrida published the chapters of On Grammatology concerning Rousseau and writing in Critique. Since that time, the phonocentric, logocentric paradigm in anthropology and archaeology has definitely shifted. The latest researchers on ancient Mesopotamia refer to a “cuneiform culture”, in which, contrary to the older school that saw writing as a tool captured by a scribal elite, literacy spread. Or a form of literacy, for  literacy as a uniform thing, a single kind of learned capacity, has been well and truly debunked, as archaeologists have made sense of the data they possess that show multiple forms of script and signs within script ‘domains’; they have also come to terms with such discoveries as that of Nippur and Isin, where the majority of houses so far excavated have turned up texts. Furthermore, archaeologists are now more interested in the evolution of  script types that went along with the evolution of materials on which the script could be impressed, scratched or painted, as cursive, a select number of syllobograms, and lighter materials that were easier to correct led to the invention of the personal  and business letter.

In the sixties and seventies, the Mesopotamian evidence suggested to some researchers, like Walter Ong and Jack Goody, that the invention of writing operated to change the very cognitive style of human beings. Goody’s essay on the list is The Domestication of the Savage Mind is still a tour de force survey of the effects of the text, although as he admits, his earlier notion of the text was too tied into the phonetic alphabet, which is seen as “easier” and more flexible to use, thus leading to the ability to “write down one’s thoughts.” This may actually be a property of the material one writes them down on and what one writes with – at least, the archaeologists coming after Goody have found that qualities he attributes to alphabetical writing are certainly present in pictographic or logographic systems.  

Here is the central claim, I think, Goody makes about lists:
“My concern here is to show that these written forms were not simply by-products of the interaction between writing and, say, the economy, filling some hitherto hidden “need”, but that they represented a significant change not only in the nature of transactions, but also in the ‘modes  of thought’ that accompanied them, at least if we interpret ‘modes of thought’in terms of the formal, cognitive and linguistic operations which this new technology of the intellect opened up.”

The idea, here, is not that writing itself changes modes of thought, but that writing devises do – hence, the importance of the list, or the written number. Marc Bloch, the most prominent opponent of Goody’s, has used his fieldwork in Madagascar to construct a case in which literacy, and in particular listing texts (for instance, genealogies) do not organize cultural “modes of thought”, but exist as regions within a largely oral culture. Bloch, in turn, has been attacked for the way he has elevated certain observations into generalities – that is, the way he has evolved what Clifford Geertz calls the “deep text.”

The title, I think, has not yet been enough looked at in this context – or Babel, depending on how you come down on the importance of ecriture. Certainly in oral contexts there are titles, but they seem, at least in my experience, to be very loose things. A typical titling episode would be x telling y to “tell that story about x” – with the title here being the “story about”. And in as much as this stimulus does hook onto a story, it does one of the works of calling a name – you call a name and the named thing comes. So too does the story. Interestingly, though, the “story about”, while it can tend towards a stereotypic norm (the story about the priest, the story about Mavis X, etc.) often varies in its composition. Similarly, titles can occur in oral speech that announce what is coming – not what has already been circulated. So, for instance, a person can be called into the office of his or her superior and the latter can say, I’ve called you in to talk about your tardiness (an example taken from my own life!). The monologue or dialogue that ensues has, vaguely, the title, “about X’s inability to get to work on time”. 

All of which is merely to say that oral speech does have self-labeling moments. Thus, when texts get titled, we are not speaking of a completely different communicative form from that which occurs in the oral quotidian. But I want to argue that the title is “freed” by the text, by ecriture. While it fulfills certain labeling functions, it also proceeds towards something as new, something resembling the name of a person, rather than the label of a person. When John Stuart Mill claimed that the proper name was a description, he was conflating label and name. And there is some warrant for that in names: the smith gets name Smith. But what Mill ignores, as a philosopher, is what is obvious to the sociologist: the name is enmeshed in what it means to be familiar with, to know, to love, to hate, etc. The name is not just used to label. Before children learn to use pronominal shifters, they often self-label – or so I have been assured by numerous mothers. Robert says, that chocolate is Robert’s, rather than that chocolate is mine,  because “Robert” is taken by the child to be an extension of himself in a way that “mine” – that code that refers to its message, to the tie between the individual word and the language system in which it is located – is not. “Mine” seems to be a communal dish which anyone can grab between their fingers and bite into  – “Robert’s” is a special snack reserved for Robert.

Textual devises don’t seem to have that same self-reflexivity. They seem to be labeling all the way down, so to speak. And yet if this is so, the title would simply be a label.

We know that this isn’t so. I would call this, the (en)titling instance, the moment in which the scribe enters into literature, in the broadest sense (visual, aural, scripted). The tradition that ascribes to the scribe a monopoly of power over the written meets, in this moment arising thieflike from within the devise itself, an inner movement that structurally breaks the monopoly.

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