Decolonial Book History

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Vai syllabary:

Mayan codices:

Fraser 2008

Twyman 2001 -- on how lithography was used to reproduce "non-Latin" scripts

Eugenia Zuroski, "This Ship We're In":

  • "An eighteenth-century studies worthy of sailing alongside the canoe toward a decolonized future would have to begin by acknowledging the field’s legacy as a colonial construct designed to legitimate one set of cultural values and ideologies at the expense of others—and committing to reinventing the field as a site of anticolonial refusal. “Diversifying” the field and making it more epistemologically “inclusive” clearly have not been sufficient to transform the original colonial mission. In fact, as Rinaldo Walcott has argued, institutional diversity initiatives tend to function as an extension of the institutional consolidation of white authority, not as a challenge to it. It’s now past time to overhaul institutional leadership in structure as well as substance and radically to reimagine the communities to whom we consider our scholarship both useful and accountable."

Matt Cohen, "Time and the Bibliographer: A Meditation on the Spirit of Book Studies," Textual Cultures 13.1 (2020): 179-206)

" But I believe that there are several spirits haunting the study of books, several kinds of relationship to time, that allow us to see ways it can respond to the serious political challenges posed by an engagement with indigeneity." (180)

" In today’s moment, with the global return of tribalism, racism, nationalism, and religious hypocrisy to power’s center stage, it is worth returning to the question of the relevance of bibliography. It is a time when, at least at the seats of power in the United States and some other places, books seem to have become almost meaningless. McKenzie’s strategy was not to constrain bibliography in self- defense, but to expand it, to go on the offense. What is our course? Bibli- ography will need new allies in order to survive the effects of the current collapse of the old conservative order (and perhaps of the liberal one as well). Indigenous ideas about media, about what constitutes a “process”, and about the historical and political meanings of recorded forms, are key not just to transforming the imagination of the study of books, but to grow- ing and enriching its life in, and in relation to, the world." (181)

"Bibliography, I will contend, has for the most part functioned within a colonialist set of assumptions about its means and its ends. But at the same time, having been at times in something of a marginalized position them- selves in their departments or professions, its practitioners have developed unique tools, passions, and intellectual focuses with decolonial potential." (181)

"to think about bibliography in relation to Indigenous stud- ies is less about introducing particular systems of thought or analysis than it is about relations and an orientation toward time." (181)

"Bibliography, like other metrical tools of colonization, has long both been trained on Indigenous people and appropriated by them." (183)

justifying lack of work on indigenous cultures because they did not have written texts / scripts -- comparing indigenous media to western books and writing

"So what, then, do books have to do with Indigenous media? The reso- nance for analytical purposes may have less to do with media continuities, and more to do with the concepts of time and the kinds of deep attentive- ness and passion required both to preserve and make sense of records of various kinds." (185)

Indigenous methods of keeping alive stories/histories: "The risk of loss is a creative force. Responsibility, dedication, sympathy and spirit are the keywords, not accuracy, authenticity, history, or even truth. Counting, making words count, is a metaphor. It is not collation; it is keep- ing alive. Preservation, the task of the storyteller, the textual editor, and the bibliographer, is based in shared principles here in some ways, but with an orientation unfamiliar to us from the writings of many great bibliographers. Mohegan, Nipmuc, and Wampanoag language revivers today are using the translations made by their ancestors and John Eliot to bring back spoken Algonquian languages and to create stronger tribal communities; colonial- ist preservation is turned to cultural restoration." (188)

"Storytelling about books and their production and circulation might begin to redress or repair both history and the relationships that have been built on hitherto absent or incor- rect histories." (190)

"To reimagine bibliography’s relation to indigeneity is to be asked to turn to book study’s animating spirits: its attentiveness to the relationship between a desired past and the processes by which accounts of the past were generated; to information production processes that are both material and immaterial — McKenzie’s “printers of the mind”, if you will — and to the desire to preserve, to extend the voices or the labors of the past into the present and future. This may mean doing bibliography with different chronicities and evidentiary standards in mind; with different communi- ties’ protocols and well-being as guides; with different collaborators than customary; and with a more explicit political awareness than has often attended bibliographical work." (190)

back to origins, D. F. McKenzie and insistence that all recorded media may be subjected to bibliographic methods of investigation

"So in considering bibliography’s future through its potential within the decolonial project, it is less a matter of learning new textual con- cepts by exploring other cultures. That might still be a colonial project. It may instead be a matter of considering basic professional, social, and methodological assumptions of the field on one hand, and on the other, of considering how these have sustained a certain technical and emo- tional orientation of the field that is in keeping with its animating spirits of humanism, of preservation, and of maintaining a community of fellow- feeling around the material legacies of textuality." (195)

looking past authorship

"Given bibliography’s longstanding connections with regimes of ownership, access, and mon- etary recompense whose grounding premise is the individual, what other modes of approaching its work might be available?" (196)

need for more collaboration

"All this would be one thing if it were not happening in an institutional context in which, in many other fields, collaboration — publishing with other faculty, postdocs, and students — is normal and even necessary to the same promotion. But book studies and its related humanistic dis- ciplines remain dependent upon this Romantic vision. Bookselling as a profession, the publishing industry — these are also dependent upon the idea of the inspired and inspirational individual author. To challenge this idea may require being more explicit about what we lose when we displace the unitary notion of the author, not just what we gain in realizing that, for example, the history of minority resistance movements is a history of necessarily collaborative authorship, even in the most separatist circum- stances. At stake seems to be the degree to which book studies, as currently conceived, can or should continue to articulate itself as a function of the coherence of a profit-driven commodity system, in which books constitute a powerfully flexible kind of capital (new, used, and rare)." (196)

" If a world that isn’t just about authors is one we already understand, what might book studies look like in that world? Altering the traditional formal properties of a research or historiographical project, understanding it as fundamentally the outgrowth of shared desires — even if it’s not a collaboratively created project — could help make the study of books a different kind of activity. An engagement with indigeneity and its histories under colonialism is one source not just of inspiration to that end but also of mutually beneficial partnerships." (197)

" So what if in shaping the next emergence of book studies we look beyond the academy? Could we — like McKenzie summoning Karl Popper’s humane deductivism, a new philosophy for his moment — bring the new perspectives of ecocriticism, an Anthropocenic framework, and post-custodial approaches to cultural preservation into the heart of bibliog- raphy and textual analysis, into the very structure of its real-world, social endeavors, not just to our methods or attitudes as researchers and writers? If any field could help render a humane post-humanism, it’s book studies." (198)

"Where is the most creative and inspirational work with books happening right now, work that might energize bibliography in the near future?" (199)

" and what might it mean for these damaged survivors of colonialism to be thought of as the source of a bibliographical authority equivalent to the scientized, analyzed artifact of Tanselle’s imagination? Each act of textual recovery can be made a social act in connection with an Indigenous community, but as I have been suggesting, it is not just about Indigenous communities. The collaborations with communities more broadly speaking that have always characterized the careful study of books can be increased in number and in breadth of outreach — can become an explicit value, not just a gesture, like the final sentence in Greg’s theoriza- tion of copy-text." (200)

"So what is next for book studies, for those of us raised in the wake of McKenzie’s scholarship? What does bibliography do, mean, or look like in a world of digital archives and libraries; the Internet of things; portable computing in the form of the smart phone; a move to the post-critical in humanistic work; and rising contests over globalism, populism, and fun- damentalism? In one guise or another, these questions are preoccupying scholars of the book and of the screen, but their very form — their grasping for novelty, evolution, technological transformation, and a sense of loca- tion within a historical arc — suggests that McKenzie’s criticism of what we might call colonial bibliography has not yet fully registered in bibliographic thinking." (201)

notes from Marina Garone Gravier presentation

Notes from Marina Garone Gravier presentation, “New Directions in Indigenous Book History,” March 23, 2023,

Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, referring to the books that Hernán Cortés received as a gift from the Mexica, and he recounted it in the Crónica de la Nueva España (1557 - 1566).

“"Some books were sent [...], whose letters were [...], geroglyphic, of which at first the Egyptians used. They were figures of men, animals, trees, herbs, which, painted, declared, as we do by our letters, the concepts of those who wrote, although confusingly; these books were not like ours, but like rolls of greased paper, which when unrolled gave to understand what they contained. This paper was made of certain leaves of trees; it looks like brown paper, although smoother and whiter"

Also descriptions in works by Pedro Mártir de Anglería, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, José de Acosta

Distinction between “true and good” books and idolatrous books of indigenous peoples of Americas

What got documented by the colonizers was bias toward those languages and genres they recognized as languages and genres

First printing press in Mexico City in 1539 — typographic print had impact on which languages could be reproduced and recorded by colonizers


  • Breve compendio de todo lo que debe saber y entender el cristiano en lengua otomí, by Fray Guadalupe Ramírez, published in Mexico in 1785
  • Grammar in the general language of the New Kingdom called Mosca, by Fray Bernardo de Lugo, printed in Madrid in 1616.xvi In this work in the Chibcha language of the viceroyalty of New Granada, we see that in addition to the letters of the Latin alphabet, a lowercase and uppercase gamma letter, a wounded h and a 3 are used to represent some of the sounds.

Spanish Bibliography of Indigenous Languages of America, elaborated in 1892 by Cipriano Muñoz y Manzano, better known as the Count of Viñaza

  • 1188 titles of which 958 can be dated, with relative precision, between the 16th and 18th centuries, with 240 languages documented

Need to develop a “historical anthropology of the book”