Fraser 2008

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Robert Fraser, Book History Through Postcolonial Eyes: Rewriting the Script (New York: Routledge, 2008)

“Thought the subject of book history enjoys diverse roots — several French, some British and American — its main guiding lights have to date been drawn from half a millennium’s experience of print culture in the West. Admittedly, over the last few years, the discipline has demonstrated a cautious willingness to peer beyond this spacious lair. Hitherto, however, it has principally conducted this inquiry with outdated — and fairly parochial — equipment. Properly to account for the origins, developments nd proliferation of verbal diffusion in a global environment we require a number of drastic readjustments of vision, entailing for example a radical questioning of what we mean by a book, or indeed by a text. We will also need a broader approach to issues such as production, distribution, exchange, readership, audience and verbal authority than any so far espoused.” (Ix-x)

The problematics of print

1778 quarto, first book set in Bangla (Bengali) type — Halhed’s primer (3); printed in Calcutta; “occupies an iconic place in the print culture of Eastern India, and in 1978 the bicentenary of its publication was celebrated publicly in Calcutta” (5); preface describes English/white supremacy but also claims learning native language may “civilize” the colonizers

“did their book, and the many others printed in Indian typefaces in the decades that followed, represent a mere technical advance, or did they also, as some have insisted, involve a fundamental shift, even a revolution, in South Asian culture?” (6) — could se this as “the exporting of the European Enlightenment, the commodification of a language, the introduction to the east coast of India of a transforming technology of textual reproduction, even arguably the onset of ‘Modernity’ itself” (6)

1831, Robert Moffat using a wooden press in Kuruman, South Africa; dubbed “Segatisho” (literally, a sharp impression) (7) — print missionary tracts/literature in Steswana

Problems of “adapting and extending existing vocabulary in a language that possessed no traditional orthography” (9)

“At Kuruman we are therefore faced, not simply with the introduction of one technology into this part of Africa — that is the press — but with the simultaneous inception of two revolutionary undertakings: script and print together.” (9) — “In effect, they were not printing a written language, but reproducing a language that they had written down experimentally, specifically sot hat they might print it.” (10)

Halhed, Moffat, moments that represent beginnings of African / South Asian publishing — but were they “authentic revolutions, or were they accidental mutations?” (10)

“How much did such initiatives owe, not so much to the intervention of certain resourceful individuals, as to the pre-existent seedbed of local cultures? … Was print annexing Bengali and Setswana, or were Bengali and Setswana annexing print?” (10)

For book historians etc, “The Agest of Speech and Script were then superseded by the Age of Print, the consequences of which were apparently even more extreme” (10)

McLuhan, influence of early books that emphasized these shifts in colonial/imperial ways

McLuhan, Jack Goody, Eisenstein, Ong — paradigm — but “few of those involved in this debate possessed any firsthand knowledge of cultures beyond the West” (14)

Need a postcolonial perspective to see how limited this paradigm is

Difficulty of adapting scripts to movable type; intricate process requiring (local) skilled labor; diacritics etc.

“this was the scale of the challenge that was to face indigenous type founders the length and breadth of India as they reproduced acceptable fonts for langauge after language during the period up the the late 19c (and in some [laces beyond that) when the hand press would remain the dominant technology for printing” (17)

Reliance on local expertise for translation

“iif inn South Asia the challenges facing print culture were the result of script complexity and diversification, in sub-Saharan Africa they were, to some extent at least, products of an orthography gap” (20)

Arabic script regularly used along eastern coast of Africa and Saharan Africa to reproduce local languages; “Beyond Muslim-influenced Africa, however, writing systems had been relatively scarce” (20)

1820s to mid-20c, attempts at writing systems by Africans themselves and “interested outsiders;” Vai syllabary of Liberia (1820s), the Bassa Vah system in Liberai, the 37-letter Bete alphabet in Nigeria, the Bamum system masterminded in Cameroon by Sultan Ibrahim Njoya in late 19c, the Mende syllabary of Sierra Leone (1920)s, the Kpelle syllabary of 88 graphemes invented by Chief Gbili of Anoyea in 1934, N’Ko alphabet invented by Soulemanya Kante of Guinea in 1946

“Attempts by outsiders to inscribe the spoken languages of Africa by contrast were primarily driven by a desire to produce printed books. Wary of the sort of balkanization of writing systems to be found in South Asia, moreover, such interlopers preferred to concentrate their efforts on producing standardized alphabets with modifications on the basic Roman pattern that could be applied across the board for all African languages.” (20)

Karl Richard Lepsius, 1855 system with diacritical marks

Dietrich Hermann Westermann, 1927, Practical Orthography for African Language — “New Script” revising Lepsius

“Print did not therefore emerge against a background of technological nullity but drew on an existing base of skills and mechanical arts that fed and sustained it.” — like metalwork for making type (22)

e.g. lithography was taken up in South Asia because of centuries-old traditions of calligraphy and manuscript production (23)

Pg 24, useful chart

Scripts and manuscripts

Invention of Vai syllabary at end of 19c — signs linked to sounds of language, not repurposable to other languages like Roman alphabet

Print not known in India until 16th century, despite contact with China; “The main thrust of print culture in the subcontinent as a whole dates, as we have already seen, from the very late 18c, by which time the vernacular revolution had already set hard.” (33)

“Has manuscript production always and everywhere served as the natural ally of what Anderson called sacral languages and, if so, does it or did it at any time inhibit the growth of regional tongues as agents for the visual transmission of texts?” (33)

Must distinguish between shared languages and shared writing systems; any language can be written in any writing system

Arabic’s spread — Classical Arabic spread through Qur’an, Arabic characters used “to convey and conserve speech and text in local tongues” (34-5)

Arabic as language of literature

Usman dan Fodio, founder of dynasty of Sokoto, interested in literature transmitted through Arabic; Sokoto collection includes poems and prose of Usman's daughter Nana Asma'u, kept on loose sheets stored in a leather bag (gafaka or ngafakka); Scottish Hugh Clappterton (1788-1827) visited Sokoto and spoke a bit with Asma'u, left behind accounts (36)

Clapperton was shown books left behind by Captain Denham earlier, "objects of curiosity to the Fulani, not because they were books -- of which the local aristocracy had plenty -- but because they were printed" (36)

regarding the story of Nana Asma'u, "The theoretical point to grasp is this. We are here at a period of Sahelian history where European domination was still undreamed of, and the Muslim hegemony all-encompassing. The medium of that dispensation was writting in Arabic letters, which was clearly commonplace. The works thus encapsulated are frequently sacred, and the position of the Qur'an, couched in classical Arabic, is pivotal to education, spiritual and moral instruction and good governance. The result, however, was not, as Anderson would lead us to expect, a monopoly of literary composition by the Arabic tongue. The Fulani ruling class, for exaple, seem to have conversed amongst themselves in Fulfulde and Hausa, reserving Arabic for religious observance and debate, or converse with foreigners. Likewise they wrote their works in several languages, often in parallel versions, selcom privileging one above another. The script medium was sacral and Arabic; the language medium and the content, pace Anderson, were emphatically vernacular." (37-38)

arrival of print in 20c "produced in effect a restricted literary palette consisting of books in English alongside hausa texts in Roman type." (39)

example of Egyptian Book of the Dead -- loose collection of spells, never meant to be collected as an album, some sold with blanks to fill in name of deceased and place leave with the dead (39-40)

"While Lepsius in the pioneering days of Egyptology may have exercised a legitimate leap of the imagination by styling the stockpile of spells salvaged from various gravesites a 'book', none of those who wrote, purveyed, or utilized these documents would ever have thought of them in that light." (40) -- even more recently. scholars have contributed to misunderstanding by organizing them into "chapters"

example of Ifa divination, also, from Western Africa; choosing texts from an aleatoric process with 256 possible outcomes

Jai Singh's library -- 19c catalogue made under direction of British colonial rule shows how difficult it is to attribute authorship to many of the manuscripts in the library (44-6)

Indian classical "canon" also calls into question the nature of a text; no possibility of a stable text -- "Text is arguably no longer the right term." (49)