Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Copying the Whole KJV

The Wall Street Journal reports the story of a man who, though in poor health, is hand-copying the entire King James Bible. He has completed about three-quarters of the text and hopes to finish in 2012.
Intellectual curiosity, rather than religious fervor, led Patterson to the project. The idea came out of a conversation with his partner of 20 years, who died of a liver disorder in February 2010. A Muslim who owned a collection of handwritten Korans, he suggested that Patterson transcribe the Bible. The concept instantly appealed.
But he plans to donate the finished set of volumes to his church in Spencertown, New York. And a local artist has created a photographic journal and blog about his work.

The article cites an expert in Christian history on the rarity of such practices, citing the lack of a devotional manuscript tradition in modern Christianity. But I suspect that the practice is more common than we suspect, but poorly documented. Aside from well-publicized efforts like the calligraphed and illuminated St. Johns Bible using the NRSV text, the Missouri Springfield Journal reported in 2007 about a man who spent 40 years copying the KJV.

(One benefit of a blog like this is the ability to document such phenomena to get a better idea of how rare or common they are. If anyone has heard of other examples of modern Christians hand copying the BIble, please let us know!)

Heritage Librarians as "Ambassadors of the Book"

The University of Antwerp will host an international library conference on February 1-2, 2012, on the theme "Ambassadors of the book: Competences for heritage librarians." The conference website explains the goal:
It seems trivial, these days, to state that libraries have been challenged by recent technological, social and economic developments. On the other hand, these developments have not minimized the library’s mission as a memory institution, quite the contrary. Among the many roles that libraries will continue to play in the 21st century and beyond, their responsibility for the preservation of the written heritage is perhaps the one that is questioned least.
I am less optimistic that preservation remains widely acknowledged as a core service of libraries. Rhetoric about accessibility and digitization dominates discussions I've heard and read much more than memory preservation does. I think the organizers are right, though, that preservation remains the chief cultural role of libraries, especially research libraries. It is the one that corporate interests are least likely to replace.

Relic Armenian Manuscript Pages

The Los Angeles Times reported last month on the Getty Museum's legal battle to retain ownership of eight illuminated pieces of parchment from the 13th-century Zeyt'um Gospels. The Armenian Church claims the pages were stolen during the genocide of 1916 and the Getty does not hold legal title to them.

An interesting feature of this controversy is the debate over the moral issues involved not just in ownership of the pages but also over the ethics of separating a manuscript into multiple parts. On the one hand, the Getty cites common practice:
Elizabeth Morrison, the Getty's acting senior curator of manuscripts, said that "well-regarded … collections around the world" contain individual manuscript sheets. "The Getty in no way condones the practice of taking apart manuscripts, but we continue to collect individual leaves after careful examination proves that they have not recently been removed … with motives of financial gain."
Her argument, then, is that there are legitimate motives for taking books apart. Though not mentioned here, libraries and museums have often disassembled valuable codices in order to display more than two pages at one time. Once disassembled, though, they are more easily sold in pieces, and perhaps more valuable that way. Both for display and for profit, then, codices frequently get treated like bodily relics by socalled "secular" institutions.

On the other side of the argument is the claim that the pages "belong" with the rest of the manuscript.

Father Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk and executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., said that a whole work of art is better than a divided one, and that when a museum has the power to turn a fragmented manuscript into a complete one, it should do so. "It's better from an artistic perspective … it can [then] be studied by scholars as a whole object," said Stewart. . . . Acquiring individual sheets of a manuscript is improper, he said, unless the original work already is so fragmented or scattered that there's little chance it can be made whole. Museums must avoid "contributing to an improper fragmentation of a work. In this instance, it would not be a terribly complex matter to restore the whole."
Stewart invokes the needs of scholars to view a work entire, but also an aesthetic value of the integrity of the work of art. Only then does the article mention specifically religious considerations:
Beyond that, Stewart said, the Getty, which in recent years repatriated more than 40 artifacts to Greece and Italy after evidence showed they had been looted from archaeological sites, should consider that these works are still venerated: "Here's a living, breathing religious community, as opposed to classical antiquities."

This case illustrates clearly the contested values that can swirl around relic texts, especially those that have been partitioned and parceled out, as people are prone to do with relics. We have had the opportunity to observe these processes at work with various kinds of relic texts on this blog (click the label relic at left for more examples).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

All I want for Christmas is a Controlled Vocabulary...

...or, at least, to start a conversation about one.

A "controlled vocabulary" is a standard used in taxonomies to help control ambiguity about objects and resources. It cuts down on syntactic clutter.

What sort of clutter? Consider the word "football." The term means one thing in America, sure. As soon as we are out of the US, however, it could easily refer to what we yanks call "soccer," or even (in other parts of the world) rugby. As a descriptor, "football" is a poor one.

In the worlds of Iconic Books and Material Scripture, we have a similar problem. Our terms, especially terms like "book" and "text," are imprecise and (at worst) utterly confusing. Since these are the core objects of our discussions, it makes sense to take up discussions to adopt a standard of terms, a "controlled vocabulary," that will allow us to reduce ambiguities as we move forward in our research.

I am by no means the first person to call for such a move. Those who attended the third Iconic Books symposium in 2010 will remember Deirdre Stam's "Talking About 'Iconic Books' in the Terminology of Book History." I feel now - as I said then, as we were commenting on her paper - that this is the single most important matter facing our research. Hands down.

Now that SCRIPT is viable and attracting new members, we are at a perfect point to undertake a serious conversation about finding a scholarly standard for our bibliographic terms - a shared, controlled vocabulary that we can endorse and encourage the use of in all SCRIPT-related endeavors and publications. (Think of this is terms of the SBL Style Guide, for example - in principle if not in execution - offering a standard reference to writers in the field.) Now, precisely when things are still small and manageable, is the ideal time to put such standards in place.

I speak from bitter experience. In the process of writing my dissertation, I concocted an 80-page chapter where - in my utter ignorance - I attempted to develop a vocabulary out of whole cloth for theologians to talk about physical books. It was terrible; a Frankenstein's monster sort of affair. Moreover, it was executed in complete ignorance of the excellent groundwork in bibliographic studies that already exists.

It is my fear, if we don't establish such a standard, that my experience will be shared by many SCRIPT scholars to follow. Each will take their turn at the attempt to define their subject from the ground up, wasting time and effort that could be spent advancing the conversation in new directions.

For those who have never thought about these issues before, let me suggest two starting points for discussion. The first (shorter) is G. Thomas Tanselle's "The Arrangement of Descriptive Bibliographies," from Studies in Bibliography, Volume 37 (1984) and available online here. In the article, Tanselle suggests the second (longer) starting point, which I'd like to also include here, Principles of Bibliographic Description, by Fredson Bowers.

What is needed, ultimately, is a set of terms upon which we agree, that we will use moving forward to reduce ambiguity in our scholarly conversations. Tanselle and Bowers are two sources I have come across in my own research, but I have no doubt many readers of this blog have encountered others that they might suggest. Please do.

My hope (my Christmas wish!) is that this discussion will be taken up across all quarters of the SCRIPT universe in the next couple of years. I encourage my colleagues to follow Deirdre Stam's lead, and to present papers and perhaps whole conference panels where options for standards can be presented and debated. I also encourage robust discussion on these blogs about the question.

There are well-established, robust standards of bibliographic description out there. Let's share them, search out new ones, and eventually decide on the one that will best serve our scholarship. Then let's agree on it, use it, and move forward to the frontiers.

I'm very interested in suggestions and responses. Please share them in the comments below! Thank you, and happy holidays,

David Dault, Washington, PA

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thousands of rare books go up in flames in Cairo

Huffington Post has reported today that the "Institute d'Egypte, a research center set up by Napoleon Bonaparte during France's invasion in the late 18th century, caught fire during clashes between protesters and Egypt's military over the weekend. It was home to a treasure trove of writings, most notably the handwritten 24-volume Description de l'Egypte, which began during the 1798-1801 French occupation."

Thousands of volumes have been damaged, and many are burned beyond recovery. "This is equal to the burning of Galileo's books," Zein Abdel-Hady, who runs the country's main library, said.

The full Huffington Post article can be accessed here.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Norms for reading postures

I recently responded to a query on the SHARP discussion list that may be of interest:
My SHARP query: in conjunction with my research on graphic novels, I'm looking at the normative act of reading--how readers are supposed to use their hands, not move their heads, NOT move their lips, not move their fingers over the words, not underline passages, not write in the margins, etc., and how they are supposed to sit rather than stand or lie down or kneel, etc. (except with regard to public readings of liturgical texts, obviously). I'd be interested to know if anyone has done work or is presently working on the relationship of hierarchical codes inscribed in the book object to the physical acts involved in reading. My sense is that reading was physically engrossing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and progressively less so in the 19th and 20th. Morris, Gill, Morison, Warde all have notes that point to the disembodiment of reading, and I assume that somewhere there must be a mid-20th century book or film or filmstrip that actually depicts for children how they are supposed to comport themselves nicely as they read, but I haven't located one, and if anyone has, I'd be grateful for a citation.

Michael Joseph
Rutgers University Libraries
My response:

In compiling and analyzing a pictorial database for the Iconic Books Project, we noticed the significant role of art in promulgating norms of reading behavior, especially posture. This appears as early as ancient Egyptian portraiture and ritual texts, shows up famously (though not uniquely either in time or culture) in late medieval and renaissance depictions of Mary's Annunciation, and remains a prominent feature of contemporary illustrative photography and art.

Posture varies, of course, depending on the material form of the text and also the situation of its use. In many religious communities from antiquity to the present, for example, liturgical reading takes place standing while devotional reading is usually depicted in a seated posture--often simultaneously in congregations where the liturgist reads the scripture from the pulpit while congregants follow along in their own Bibles. Maybe the increasing publication of genres for private use has led to emphasizing sitting modes of reading to the point of disembodiment (an idea that echoes devotional, even mystical reading practices), but I should point out that standing to read publicly remains the norm, even (especially?) in academic conference presentations.

Beyond these general observations, though, I can't point out much specific bibliography. Study of the embodied and material uses of texts is in its infancy, especially comparative study that begins to generalize about norms of reading and their social significance. That makes it, for me at least, a very exciting subject to work on!

Jim Watts
Syracuse University

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Publishers embellishing physical books

The Herald-Tribune reports a publishing trend of embellishing book covers and adding pictures to sell physical books:
Many new releases have design elements usually reserved for special occasions — deckle edges, colored endpapers, high-quality paper and exquisite jackets that push the creative boundaries of bookmaking. If e-books are about ease and expedience, the publishers reason, then print books need to be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning, not just reading.
It seems to be working:
There are indications that an exquisitely designed hardcover book can keep print sales high and cut into e-book sales. For instance, “1Q84” has sold 95,000 copies in hardcover and 28,000 in e-book — an inversion of the typical sales pattern of new fiction at Knopf.
The attempt to create books that are beautiful objects not only emphasizes beauty over against e-books, but also permanence:
... “If we believe that convenience reading is moving at light speed over to e,” Mr. Schnittman said, using the industry shorthand for e-books, “then we need to think about what the physical qualities of a book might be that makes someone stop and say, ‘well there’s convenience reading, and then there’s book owning and reading.’ We realized what we wanted to create was a value package that would last.”

... In October, the British novelist Julian Barnes underscored that point when he accepted the Man Booker Prize for “The Sense of an Ending” by urging publishers to pay attention to aesthetics. “Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree that it is a beautiful object,” Mr. Barnes told the black-tie crowd in London. “And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

Exhibiting iconic books

Nate Pederson on Fine Books & Collections points out:
A tip to any public libraries struggling with declining patronage: go digging around in your vault!  The public library in Windsor, Ontario discovered a Bible from 1585 languishing away in its vault earlier this year.  Librarians promptly put the book on display and saw a 40 percent increase in visitors last month. 
In my paper on "Iconic Electronic Texts" for the Religion & Media Workshop in San Francisco last month, I argued that the same motive drives many digitization projects. Libraries and museums put there most iconic books online in hopes of bringing more people through their doors to see the real thing. Once there, they may buy physical momentos of the relic text, ranging from cheap postcards to expensive facsimile reproductions of the entire book. So, far from detracting from the appeal of physical books, digitization provides new means for marketing their display as relics.

Libraries symbolizing hope and ideals

This fall brought several news storis showing that libraries--respositories of material books--continue to function as powerful symbols of the ideals of free thought, empowerment and counter-culture. The most obvious example was the "People's Library" that sprang up at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York and was frequently highlighted in news coverage of the event.

This picture (from The People's Library, scroll down to October 11) captures much of the library's symbolic interest. "Literacy, Legitimacy and Moral Authority" reads the sign above the donations box. The media interest reflected the sentiment that the library was somehow representative of the movement. After police evicted the protestors, ruined books were displayed in front of the New York Public Library to portray repression of the movement (from The People's Library, scroll down to November 20).

Michael Lieberman posted pictures on Book Patrol showing the book theme in the protestors' signs, too.

The theme of libraries as tools of empowerment and liberation also appeared in the New York Times' story about the Read/Write Library's new location in Chicago:
Formerly known as the Chicago Underground Library, Read/Write rejects the selectivity of traditional libraries and collects “anything from university press to handmade artists’ books to zines made by 13-year-olds,” Ms. Taylor said. “We want to give people a much broader sense of who’s out there.”
That is rhetoric more frequently associated with the internet, but here motivating an all-volunteer effort to preserve and present a material collection.

The Nicholas Kristof in the NYTimes also highlighted work to extend literacy by founding libraries around the world:
John Wood handed out his 10 millionth book at a library that his team founded in this village in the Mekong Delta — as hundreds of local children cheered and embraced the books he brought as if they were the rarest of treasures. Wood’s charity, Room to Read, has opened 12,000 of these libraries around the world, along with 1,500 schools.

Kristof makes the virtues of literacy very clear: "Schooling is cheap and revolutionary. The more money we spend on schools today, the less we’ll have to spend on missiles tomorrow."

These stories illustrate the fact that books and libraries continue to function as powerful material symbols of people's hopes for a more equitable, enlightened and peaceful world.

Burying Outdated Missals

On November 27th, use of the new translation of the Roman Catholic Mass became mandatory for English-speaking congregations. The Washington Post's coverage of the change emphasizes the more conservative tendencies of the new version, which replaces on produced in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council. But what drew my attention was this parenthetical comment:
Millions of books are being replaced; each parish must buy its own. (What becomes of the old books? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recommends burying them on church grounds or in a parish cemetary.)
The statement of the U.S. Bishops' Conference also suggests ritualizing the disposal process by saying a blessing when retiring the outdated books. It notes that because books used in the liturgy are blessed, they should be treated "with respect."

The collection of essays edited by Kristina Myrvold, "Death of Sacred Texts," surveys how various religious traditions handle this problem. Dorina Miller Parmenter's essay in that collection points out that Christian traditions tend to have fewer mandates regarding the disposal of sacred books than some other religions, but that lay Christians often voice discomfort at simply trashing or recycling Bibles or other sacred texts. The bishops were responding to queries motivated by such concerns when they issued these instructions.

This is not, however, just a religious concern. Unease over book destruction or disposal is widespread Sacred texts only provide more focused examples of a broader concern, as several previous posts (here, here, and here, as well as the entries under the label "disposal" at left) have observed.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Presentations at AAR/SBL 2011

Members of SCRIPT (The Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts) were active presenters at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), November 18-22:
  • Jim Watts (Syracuse) talked about "Iconic Electronic Texts, or How Ritual Makes Virtual Texts Material," in the Religion and Media Workshop's day-long session on "What’s Next for Texts: Scripting Religion in a Networked World" (November 18)
  • Dori Parmenter (Spalding) and Yohan Yoo (Seoul) presented to the AAR's Arts, Literature, and Religion Section's session on "The Arts of the Book: Reading Images, Looking at Words" (November 20)
  • Jason Larson (Bates) talked about "The Iconic Gospel as Monument: Gospel Books as Imperialized Sites of Memory in Late Antiquity" to the SBL's Religious World of Late Antiquity Section's session on "The Materiality of Texts / The Word as Object" (November 20)
  • David Dault (Christian Brothers) presented "'It Fell from Heaven': The United 93 Crash Site Bible as Icon and Totemic Object" to the AAR's Religion and Popular Culture Group (November 22)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


The Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT) has issued an open call for papers for its May 4-5 concurrent meeting with the EIR/AAR in Waterloo, Ontario.

Please consider joining in doing new research on iconic books and performative texts. Click here for details about SCRIPT. Click here for online membership form. Membership includes an online subscription to Postscripts, which later this year will publish the papers from the third Iconic Books Symposium in 2010.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Creating Relics of Endangered Alphabets

Tim Brookes has been documenting the world's alphabetic heritage by carving specimens on local curly maple in his Endangered Alphabets Project. The website explains his motivation:
Every one of the Endangered Alphabets (Inuktitut, Baybayin, Manchu, Bugis, Bassa Vah, Cherokee, Samaritan, Mandaic, Syriac, Khmer, Pahauh Hmong, Balinese, Tifinagh and Nom), carved and painted into a slab of Vermont curly maple, challenges our assumptions about language, about beauty, about the fascinating interplay between function and grace that takes place when we invent symbols for the sounds we speak, and when we put a word on a page—or a piece of bamboo, or a palm leaf.

The text in each case is Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Brookes chose these alphabets because:
Writing has become so dominated by a small number of global cultures that those 6,000-7,000 languages are written in fewer than 100 alphabets. Moreover, at least a third of the world’s remaining alphabets are endangered–-no longer taught in schools, no longer used for commerce or government, understood only by a few elders, restricted to a few monasteries or used only in ceremonial documents, magic spells, or secret love letters.

The Atlantic, in describing his work, commented: "Letters in carved wood filled with black enamel paint ... make everything sharper and convey something of the awe of ancient inscriptions." Brookes art should certainly serve the purpose of relics, which is to contain and preserve things of great value, in this case, alphabets.

(h/t Fine Books and Collections)

The burden of saving a book collection

In June, numerous media outlets (e.g. 1, 2) reported on the problems of Shaunna Raycraft of Saskatoon. She saved a collection of 350,000 books when a neighbor threatened to burn them. She and her husband brought a small house onto their property to store the books, but the weight of 30 tons of books threatened to collapse the building.
Raycraft tried selling the books on eBay, and to collectors and used book stores, but no one wants the task of sorting through them. ... "We are kind of at a standstill," said Raycraft. "I work at two jobs. My husband is a full-time student. We have three kids and no time. And no money. And so we're at the point now where were looking at having to burn some of the books ourselves."

The news coverage prompted almost twenty people to volunteer to help sort and dispose of the books. I have not found any later reports of how that effort is going.

Internet (Physical) Archive

The Internet Archive was founded in 1996 to build an Internet library to offer permanent access for researchers, historians, and scholars to historical collections that exist in digital format. But this year it announced that it is also creating a physical archive to back-up its digital collection.
A reason to preserve the physical book that has been digitized is that it is the authentic and original version that can be used as a reference in the future. If there is ever a controversy about the digital version, the original can be examined. A seed bank such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seen as an authoritative and safe version of crops we are growing. Saving physical copies of digitized books might at least be seen in a similar light as an authoritative and safe copy that may be called upon in the future.

As the Internet Archive has digitized collections and placed them on our computer disks, we have found that the digital versions have more and more in common with physical versions. The computer hard disks, while holding digital data, are still physical objects. As such we archive them as they retire after their 3-5 year lifetime. Similarly, we also archive microfilm, which was a previous generation’s access format. So hard drives are just another physical format that stores information. This connection showed us that physical archiving is still an important function in a digital era.
They are therefore creating a facility that can accomodate up to ten million items in long term storage.

They are accepting donations of large collections and libraries. Their comments about the donors feelings are pertinent to this blog:
Working with donors of books has been rewarding because an alternative for many of these books was the used book market or being destroyed. We have found everyone involved has a visceral repulsion to destroying books.

Arcimboldo's Librarian

Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol lays some markers for tracking the influence of Giuseppe Arcimboldo's painting, The Librarian, in the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Arguing over digital texts

In July, James Glieck writing in the New York Times Sunday Review, meditated on the digitization and web publication of rare manuscripts and books by libraries around the world. He celebrated the advantages of open access for historical research and derides critics of digitization such as Tristam Handy, who wrote in the Guardian that "it is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent: its rhythms and cadences, the relationship of image to word, the passion of the argument or cold logic of the case." Glieck responded:

I think it’s sentimentalism, and even fetishization. It’s related to the fancy that what one loves about books is the grain of paper and the scent of glue. ... We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. ... Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.
Glieck did notice that desire for the material book, at least rare books and texts, continues unabated which he finds "odd":
Oddly, for collectors of antiquities, the pricing of informational relics seems undiminished by cheap reproduction — maybe just the opposite. ... Why is this tattered parchment valuable? Magical thinking. It is a talisman. The precious item is a trick of the eye. The real Magna Carta, the great charter of human rights and liberty, is available free online, where it is safely preserved. It cannot be lost or destroyed. An object like this — a talisman — is like the coffin at a funeral. It deserves to be honored, but the soul has moved on.
The label "magic" is the oldest (really: thousands of years old) put-down of scribal culture. This blog concurs with recent scholarship on magic that such polemics obscure transactions of real social power, whether in the form of magical objects or material (or, for that matter, digital) texts. We should therefore remember that a digital text, after all, is composed of matter too. It can certainly be destroyed (rather easily, in fact), and even all the copies of a text can disappear (less easily, but very likely as years turn into decades and centuries). When that happens, I doubt its soul will be any easier to find that those in human bodies.

E-Books and Print-On-Demand in the News

A busy spring and summer made me neglect this blog. It's time to dig into the accumulated pile of news of (iconic) books in the news. Doing so immediately reveals one advantage of procrastination: I can now pull together a series of items of about the rise of e-publishing.

In April, the American Association of Publishers revealed that the number of e-books sold in February surpassed the number of hardback and softback sales together. Digging further into statistics showed, however, that e-books grossed the published $90 million, print books still grossed $215 million. By September, the Association was reporting that e-book sales were taking market away from mass-market paperbacks in particular. And Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol pointed out the trend that the headlines missed:
While much of the focus has centered on the meteoric rise of e-books and their effect on the publishing industry it is the print-on-demand segment that has really taken off. In 2010 there were almost 8 times the number of print-on-demand titles then traditional titles!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

APHA Conference Early Bird deadline approaching

For folks who might be interested in attending the 2011 American Printing History Association conference in San Diego this fall, the deadline for Early Bird registration is this Thursday, September 15th.

The theme this year is "Printing from the Edge":

What have been the transformative moments in printing history that have changed the direction of printing, typography, papermaking, bookbinding, or book design, and moved us to a new edge? What are today’s frontiers? Where is tomorrow’s edge?
The conference takes place October 14-15 at UC San Diego. More information can be found here at the APHA website.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

SCRIPT-related events at the AAR/SBL

Iconic Books and SCRIPT events will be taking place during the simultaneous meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in San Francisco:

Friday, November 18, 9:00-4:30 - "What’s Next for Texts: Scripting Religion in a Networked World" - The Religion and Media Workshop

Sunday, November 20, 9:00-11:30 am - "The Arts of the Book: Reading Images, Looking at Words" - AAR's Arts, Literature, and Religion Section

Sunday, November 20, 1:00-3:30 pm - "The Materiality of Texts / The Word as Object" - SBL's Religious World of Late Antiquity Section

Monday, November 21, 6:00-8:00 pm - SCRIPT ANNUAL MEETING: Library Bar, Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter Street

Dault on NYTimes, Vatican and Bible

David Dault, on Material Scripture, compares Kenneth Woodward's characterization of the editors of the New York Times wielding cultural power like the "Magisterium" with the power of editors of mass-marketed Bibles. Dault had already compared Bible editors with the magisterium in his doctoral dissertation, and now brings the leading American newspaper into the same set of comparisons:

What interests me about Woodward's assertion above is the ideological power that is brought to bear when these magisterial effects are wedded with certain types of material objects. That editors and corporations control the content (and therefore, to an arguable extent, the possible readings) of books and newspapers is plain. But the Bible is not an ordinary book, just as the Times is no ordinary newspaper, in terms of the relative cultural power wielded by both.

By virtue (is this the proper word?) of their respective material presentations, the editorial decisions that go into the construction of an imprint of a Bible version or an issue of the Times are of an elevated ideological nature. Words in the New York Times are different, in their weight and influence, than similar words found in the Chattanooga Times, for example
Dault's comments are well worth reading and digesting in full. But including the NYT in this set of comparisons highlights one difference between mass-produced Bibles on the one hand and the newspaper and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: for the latter two, prestige is vested in the institutions they represent and only derivatively in the documents they produce and distribute. Bibles, on the other hand, carry their prestige for being the material objects that they are; their publishers and editors are as likely to derive prestige from the product they produce.

Digital Destruction of Values

Alan Kaufman wrote an essay in Evergreen comparing the decimation of book culture by digitization to the holocaust:

the awful scene is reoccuring everywhere: venerable, much beloved bookstores closing and that portion of the populace who cherish books—an ever-shrinking minority—left baffled and bereft; a silent corporate Krystallnacht decimating the world of literacy.

The comparison prompted ridicule from Newsweek (note Kaufman's response at the bottom). But though overstated, I think Kaufman's piece is important for emphasizing the sense of sacrality that many people attach to books. He also points out the dualism inherant in the electronic separation of text from physical artifact:

[Mass media] in subtle ways positions the destruction of book culture like so: “books” in and of themselves are nothing, only another technology, like the Walkman or the laptop. What is sacred are the texts and those are being transferred to the Internet where they will attain a new kind of high-tech-assured immortality. Like dead souls leaving their earthly bodies the books are, in effect, going to a better place: the Kindle, the e-book, the web; hi-tech's version of Paradise.

... The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now Der Book. Hi-tech propogandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form of technology; that society would simply be better-off altogether if we euthanized it even as we begin to carry around, like good little Aryans, whole libraries in our pockets, downloaded on the Uber-Kindle.

Further, we are told that to assign to books a particular value above and beyond their clearly inferior utility as a medium for language is to mark oneself as an irrelevant social throwback. ... As to the bookstore, it is like the synagogue under Hitler: the house of a doomed religion. And the paper book is its Torah and gravestone: a thing to burn, or use to pave the road to internet heaven.

... To me, the book is one of life's most sacred objects, a torah, a testament, something not only worth living for but as shown in Ray Bradbury's ‘Fahrenheit 451’, something that is even worth dying for.

... Not since the advent of Christianity has the world witnessed so sweeping a change in the very fabric of human existence. Behind the hi-tech revolution is an idea of Progress that in many regards resembles the premises of Christianity itself. The superseding of the new way over the old, of the New Testament over the Old Testament, the discrediting of the traditional as inferior or even evil, a sense of powerful excitement about the revolutionary, and of course, most importantly, the promise of heavenly immortality over the temporal limitations of the wasting physical body—the accursed haptic book versus the blessed Holy Ghostly Internet—all these earmark the hi-tech pogrom against the book.

Heinrich Heine, the early 19th century German Jewish poet, wrote: “"Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people." The advent of electronic media to first position in the modern chain of Being—a place once occupied by God—and later, after the Enlightenment, by humans—is no mere 9/11 upon our cultural assumptions. It is a catastrophe of holocaustal proportions. And its endgame is the disappearance of not just books but of all things human

The benefit of Kaufman's over-heated rhetoric is that it make very clear that books are about values. We pursue the study of iconic books in order to explain why books carry such values. Commenting on Kaufman's article on the SHARP list, Bill Bell notes that "it has for generations been conventional to invest books with human characteristics." He provides three examples:

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. - Charles W. Eliot

The scholar only knows how dear these silent, yet eloquent, companions of pure thoughts and innocent hours become in the season of adversity. When all that is worldly turns to dross around us, these only retain their steady value. - Washington Irving

For friends... do but look upon good Books: they are true friends, that will neither flatter nor dissemble. - Francis Bacon

I think Kaufman is right that e-texts do not carry values the same way. Why that is the case must have to do with our own embodied natures. The realms of values--religion, ethics, literature, aesthetics--require physical artifacts with which our bodies can interact. The ephemeral texts cascading down my computer screen do not fill that bill very well.

Ark of the Covenant in Zimbabwe

The Ark of the Covenant--that fabled container of the most iconic of texts, the Ten Commandments--has had considerable impact on the folklore and practices of several African peoples. Now the BBC reports that a replica of the ark that is possibly 700 years old has been placed on display in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The "ngoma lungundu" belongs to the Lemba people - black Africans who claim Jewish ancestry. They say the vessel was built almost 700 years ago from the remains of the original Ark ...

Tudor Parfitt, who rediscovered the artefact three years ago, told the BBC he believed it was the oldest wooden object ever found in sub-Saharan Africa.

"On each corner there is the remnants of a wooden ring, and obviously at one point, it was carried by inserting poles through these two rings on either side," he said.

"Of course in the biblical account, that's precisely how the Ark of the Covenant was carried across the wilderness."

The BBC's Steve Vickers in Harare says the vessel was unveiled to great fanfare at the city's Museum of Human Science.

Lemba leaders from across Zimbabwe attended the ceremony, along with government ministers

This ceremony demonstrates once again the political as well as ethnic legitimacy that can be at stake in the preservation and display of iconic texts, or their reliquaries.

Scroll, Codex, E-Book

Lev Grossman, in "From Scroll to Screen" in the New York Times today, makes a very important contribution to the comparisons between paper books and e-books. He rightly points out that the most important precedenct for this technological change in book production is not the invention of printing by Guttenberg and others, as much tech PR maintains. It is rather the invention of the codex and its adoption by Christians in place of the scroll that dominated ancient literature. Now as then, the material form of the book makes a big difference to how readers use it:
But so far the great e-book debate has barely touched on the most important feature that the codex introduced: the nonlinear reading that so impressed St. Augustine. If the fable of the scroll and codex has a moral, this is it. We usually associate digital technology with nonlinearity, the forking paths that Web surfers beat through the Internet’s underbrush as they click from link to link. But e-books and nonlinearity don’t turn out to be very compatible. Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term. It’s no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That’s the kind of reading you do in an e-book.
... Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized. ... But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games. The codex won out over the scroll because it did what good technologies are supposed to do: It gave readers a power they never had before, power over the flow of their own reading experience.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A/V Texts: E-Reading with Music

Betsy Morais on The Atlantic's blog, offers some fascinating thoughts on the future of e-reading: add a soundtrack to your e-book.

For those of us interested in sacred texts, what would you pair with, say, the Rg Veda's opening chapters, Kojiki on the Sun Goddess, or the book of Revelation? (Of course, we know the Revelation one: "Ride of the Valkyries"!)

The final paragraph goes some way toward delineating the power of the medium on the message:

What plays on inside a reader's head might be the ultimate value of reading. In silence, the mind can parse through a phrase without distraction, and attention can be paid to meaning more than pace. As Blaise Pascal wrote in 1670, "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." Then again, a soundtrack that performs the words on the page might shut out the incessant whirring of the world to provide, for those who want it, a way of plugging yourself into a book.

Of course, it all reminds me too of Friedrich Kittler's Heidegger-inspired fear of everything being reduced to The Code...

Friday, June 24, 2011

King James Version Anniversary Celebrations

The 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorized Version, popularly known as the King James Version, has stimulated various commemorations and celebrations. The King James Bible Trust was established to organize and track commemorations of the anniversary; its website tracks events around the world. It shows that events are being organized to commemorate and further ritualize all three dimensions of this iconic translation.

In the performative dimension, the Trust is sponsoring a "competition for young composers, using texts from the KJV" in choral compositions. Many commemorations focus on reading the KJV aloud: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London began its 2011 season with an eight-day long "unstaged cover-to-cover reading of The King James Bible recited between Palm Sunday, 17 April and Easter Monday, 25 April" (ICN March 22).

In the semantic dimension, various lectures, symposia and conferences are focusing scholarly attention on the KJV. The largest is probably the Society of Biblical Literature's International Meeting which is being held in London in July in honor of the anniversary. Twenty-four papers will address the nature of the translation and its literary influence, themes that are also getting attention at the society's annual meetings in Atlanta last November and in San Francisco this coming November.

In the iconic dimension, many libraries and museums are mounting exhibits in honor of the anniversary, ranging from displays of a couple of historic copies such as at Auburn University to the larger display in the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lambeth Palace. Some museums have seized on the anniversary to stage more general exhibits about Bibles, such as at the University of Toronto and the "Passages" exhibit of the Oklahahoma City Museum of Art, a "14,000-square-foot interactive, multimedia exhibition for all ages." A collaboration between the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, the American Library Association, and the National Endowment for the Humanities is offering three copies of a travelling exhibit to forty U.S. libraries in 2011 through 2013.

All this activity ritualizing the three dimensions of the KJV should reinforce its prestige in English-spearking cultures, despite the competition from ever-more translations in more contemporary idioms.

The Ezekiel Plates

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israel Museum is trying to date the mysterious Ezekiel Plates. These 66 stone tiles containing the entire Hebrew text of the book of Ezekiel were reportedly found in the traditional tomb of Ezekiel in Iraq.
... each marble or black basalt tile is about 12 inches square and contains raised lettering on one side in an ancient Hebraic script, with no spaces between the words. Examples of such raised lettering are known from the distant past, though most ancient stone tablets had the words etched or chiseled into the stone.

... the tiles were supposedly found over 100 years ago when visitors to the traditional tomb of Ezekiel in the small Iraqi town of Kfar al-Kafil, located about 50 miles south of Baghdad, noticed a stone tile had fallen off the inside of the burial chamber. Oddly, its back side contained an ancient lettering which had been deliberately hidden, facing the wall. Other tiles were removed and similar inscriptions were found on their back sides as well.
An explanation for this tomb inscription may be provided by the Talmud:
... there is an old Talmudic tradition that Israel's prophets and other great sages were often buried with copies of their writings. One such Talmudic legend held that the original book of Ezekiel was buried with the prophet in his tomb and was left there to be revealed in the last days.
That may not help in dating the text. But it does suggest that the Ezekiel Plates may be examples of eschatalogical texts that were created to be buried until a future or last age (see my previous blog entry, Burying Iconic Books).

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tripitaka Koreana (3)

I have twice already blogged about the Tripitaka Koreana (here and here), the 13th-century collection of 88,000 wooden printing blocks of Buddhist sutras stored and displayed in the Haeinsa monestary in Korea. On Sunday, I was lucky to see a procession in Seoul that began the cellebrations of the millenial anniversary of the carving of the original set of printing blocks. Participants carried reproductions of the print blocks on their heads or backs through the streets of the city, preceded by palanquins containing more blocks and followed by dancers and soldiers in period costumes. It was a vivid example of how ritualizing the iconic dimension of texts allows broad participation by lay people who are unlikely to have the linguistic skills necessary to read and interpret these Chinese texts.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Imitation Bible

The Good Book: A Secular Bible by British philosopher A. C. Grayling offers alternative content to the Christian Bible, but imitates its form, including two columns of text on each page, King James-sounding English, and familiar section titles, such as "Genesis," "Parables," and "Epistles." The collector of the volume explained the format to an audience in Virginia, reported The Christian Post: "Part of the success of the religious Bible is the function of the way it's organized, the way it presents itself," said the professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. "When you print something double column, chapter and verse, it's a very accessible, very inviting format." (The publishers, however, do not seem to have gotten on board: the book does not look very Bible-like.)

Reviews of the format have been decidedly mixed. The Telegraph called it "cheeky," while the New York Times review complains about Grayling's failure to cite the sources of his material and wonders, "Is this book an odd joke? A parody of the Bible?" The Guardian offers a more flattering account by focusing largely on Grayling rather than his book.

I haven't seen a copy of The Good Book yet, but it sounds as if Grayling has attempting to preserve the Bible's iconic form while replacing its semantic content. His mistake, I think, lies in failing to realize that the social power of scriptures is generated by being ritualized in semantic, iconic and performative dimensions. A Bible without a network of congregations to ritualize it is no Bible at all.

Ten Commandments (movie) Commemorative Gift Box

Paramount Home Entertainment is marketing its 55th anniversary gift set edition of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments in iconic style. As the New York Times reports:
It’s all packaged inside a dictionary-size box with a lenticular 3-D image of the Red Sea on the front; when the sea is “parted” on a built-in hinge, a plastic reproduction of DeMille’s sacred tablets rises majestically into view. The tablets themselves split open to reveal the six discs, which contain both DeMille’s famous 1956 version of the story starring Charlton Heston and his 1923 silent feature with Richard Dix that was his first pass at the material.
But the article complains of "tacky" execution: "And what’s worse, the tablets don’t work: the clasps holding the discs in place easily come loose, allowing the discs slip and slide against each other." But then, the complaint that the Ten Commandments don't work is hardly new ...

Library Use Statistics: Up!

Bookseller Timothy McSweeney, produced a six part report on "The State of Publishing" in February that emphasizes, as he puts it:
The good news is that there isn't as much bad news as popularly assumed. In fact, almost all of the news is good, and most of it is very good. Book sales are up, way up, from twenty years ago. Young adult readership is far wider and deeper than ever before. Library membership and circulation is at all-time high.
I find the statistics that he gathered on library usage particularly interesting:

The more libraries I spoke with, the more I realized they are not only doing well, but that they did, in 2010, easily surpass historic rates of user growth in all fields—most importantly, borrowed items and registered borrowers.
McSweeney's statistics did not go unchallenged. Jane Friedman of Writer's Digest disputed his statistics on library usage, publishing and readership and Jeremy Dibbel of PhiloBiblos finds them "incomplete." The debate over the future of the book seems to be hamstrung by the fact that there is no agreement about the book in the present, or even the very recent past.

But before we leave the subject, I need to point out an observation that Jane Friedman makes about McSweeney's in a postscript to her critique:
I have been a longtime fan of McSweeney's. As my colleagues at Writer's Digest could tell you, I would repeatedly bring their publications  to team meetings and say: THIS is what we need to do. I admired how their physical production was as much a piece of art as the writing contained inside. It made the print product worth having and worth investing in. I think a segment of print publishing may end up going in this direction. (Book as talisman, as keepsake, as identity giver.)
It is natural so see iconic books and e-books as opposites, but my recent research suggest their relationship is much more complicated. More on that later ...

Group Identity and the Possession of Texts

Groups (families, ethnic groups, religions, nations) make texts iconic when they base ownership claims on some kind of historic identification with the texts, their authors or previous owners. The problem is, of course, that these identity claims often come into conflict with those of others. Many such conflicts rage over texts and other artifacts in Western museums, but I know of few that illustrate the stakes for group identity as clearly as the argument over who should get the Iraqi Jewish archives.

Alex Joffe in Jewish Ideas Daily describes the situation of the archive discovered in 2003 by American troops in a building of the Iraqi secret police:

The earliest item dates to 1568, but most of the other materials are from the late-19th and early-20th centuries.Judeo-Arabic manuscripts, Torah scrolls and mantles, children's primers, family photographs, letters, all seized from Iraq's long-banished Jews. Through a confluence of initiatives involving the U.S. military, the Iraqi opposition, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, the trove was transported to the U.S. where it was freeze-dried, conserved, and photographed. It remains in the charge of the National Archives and Records Administration and the Center for Jewish History.Representatives of the Iraqi Jewish community in Israel have staked a claim to the trove. But so, for its part, has Iraq itself, whose new Minister of Tourism and Antiquities has named the return of the archive as a top priority.
After recounting the history of Jewish persecution in Iraq, Joffe asks: "By what right should a society that barely tolerated and then expelled its Jews, and that loathes and forbids the presence of Jews now, be given 27 cases of Jewish documents and books?" He suggests: "International refugee law provides for 'non-refoulment': that is, refugees must not be returned to a situation where they would be put in jeopardy. Might a similar principle be considered for antiquities?"

Monday, April 25, 2011

SCRIPT Program

Here is the program of SCRIPT's panels in its concurrent meeting with the AAR-EIR in Syracuse on May 6-7. The program for the entire conference is available here.

ICONIC BOOKS (Friday 12:00-1:30)
  • Nancy Menning “Wunderkammern as more than iconic: Watts’s model of scriptures and the Book of Nature”
  • David Dault “The Strange Case of the United 93 Bible: Tragedy, Iconicity, Materiality”
  • James W. Watts “Iconic Electronic Texts, or How Ritual Makes ‘Virtual’ Texts Material”
TEXTS AND IDENTITY (Friday 1:45-3:15)

  • Marcie Middlebrooks “The Inner Spirit and Outer Performance of Korean Buddhist Shinhaeng-dam Stories”
  • Steven Christopher Johnson “Empowering Oppression: LGBT Gaudiya Vaishnava Scriptural Interpretation”
  • Margaret Robinson “Pride, Performance and Praise: Bisexual Anthology as Bible”
TEXT AND COMMUNITY (Friday 3:30-5:00)

  • Chris Duncanson-Hales “RastafarI ‘Q:’ National Geographic “Modern Ethiopia” and “Coronation Day in Addis Ababa””
  • Cecile Marie Wilson “The iconic status of the original manifestos seems confirmed by AMORC’s recent emulation of them.” 
IMAGE AND BOOK (Saturday 8:30-10:30)

  • Karl Ivan Solibakke “The Gospel of the Haunted: Arnold Daghani’s What a Nice World”
  • Glenn Jonathan McCullough “Blake’s Job and the Alchemical Tradition”
  • Judith Oliver “A Multi-Media Performance of the Easter Liturgy In A Nun’s Choirbook from Late Medieval Germany”
  • Jason Neelis “Rebirth Narratives in Gandhāran Buddhist Literary and Material Cultures – Different locative tendencies in early manuscript fragments, art, and pilgrimage accounts”
SCRIPT ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION (Saturday 10:45-12:15) with Brent Plate, David Dault,
Joanne Waghorne, and James Watts.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

SCRIPT membership & Postscripts

SCRIPT membership now includes an online subscription to current and back issues of Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts and Contemporary Worlds, which later this year will be publishing a special issue containing the papers from the three Iconic Books symposia held in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Memberships including that subscription are $70 (45 GBP); student memberships without the subscription cost $15. Apply for membership at the Postscripts SCRIPT member's page.

The Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT) was founded in 2010 to encourage new scholarship about the social functions of books and texts that exceed their semantic meaning and interpretation, such as their display as cultural artifacts, their ritual use in religious and political ceremonies, their performance by recitation and theater, and their depiction in art.

The society sponsors programming at existing regional and international scholarly meetings and at colleges and universities. Next month, SCRIPT is sponsoring four panels meeting concurrently with the Eastern International Regional Meeting of the AAR in Syracuse (May 6-7). We welcome ideas for other programs and venues to host them. For more information, see www.script-site.net.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Burying Iconic Books

The University of Chicago's Martin Marty Center is showcasing Max Moerman's essay, "The Death of the Dharma: Buddhist Sutra Burials in Early Medieval Japan" on its Religion and Culture Web Forum this month. The essay originally appeared in The Death of Sacred Texts, edited by Kristina Myrvold.

I was asked to write a short response to Moerman's essay. It concludes:

... Book and text rituals, which include their public performance and interpretation as well as their physical display and manipulation, serve to focus the attention of communities on enduring values. They cherish texts that contain those values as material representations of them, as relics of their faith. Anxiety about the future fuels efforts to reproduce and preserve those texts, so that they become material guarantors of cultural and religious persistence and, in Moerman's words, “a rhetorical center around which other personal, familial, and political anxieties converge” (p. 86).

Find the rest of it, as well as two other responses, here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

MLA CFP on Religion & History of the Book

From SHARP-L comes this call for papers:

Religion and the History of the Book

Special Session for the 2012 MLA convention

How technologies of inscription have shaped religious thought and practice; how religious discourses have affected the form of the book and other textual media. Send 250 word abstract to travis_decook@carleton.ca by March 15, 2011.

Friday, February 4, 2011

SBL CFP on Materiality of Texts

The call for papers for Novembers's Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Francisco includes this request for a thematic panel on "The Materiality of Texts / The Word as Object":
At some point in the development of sacred texts, readers became aware of them as material entities. How did this awareness affect their adornment, both inside with ornate calligraphy and illuminations, and outside with ornamented covers? How did this development influence ritual practices? What happens to our understanding or even interpretation of text when it depends as much, if not more on the materiality of the text than on the words themselves? How does thinking about the materiality of ancient texts (and attendant technologies) provide insight into the development of ritual practices and other embodied ideas of the sacred?

The panel will be co-sponsored by three program groups: Religious World of Late Antiquity, Art and Religions of Antiquity, and Social History of Formative Christianity and Judaism.

NYC Private Libraries

Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol has mined the online photographs of the Museum of the City of New York to put together a collection of pictures of the private libraries of famous New Yorkers, such as this one of Thomas Edison in his library:

Bindings for Interior Designers

Some custom book binders have found a profitable business in creating custom mathing bindings to make libraries match the work of interior designers, according to a New York Times article from last month.

In this Kindle-and-iPad age, architects, builders and designers are still making spaces with shelves — lots and lots of shelves — and turning to companies like Mr. Wines’s Juniper Books for help filling them.

Jeffrey Collé, a builder of vast Hamptons estates that mimic turn-of-the-century designs, wouldn’t think of omitting a library from one of his creations. A 16,800-square-foot Shingle-style house on 42 acres in Water Mill, N.Y., comes with a $29.995-million price tag and a library Mr. Collé had built from French chalked quarter-sawn oak; with about 150 feet of shelf space, there is room for more than 1,000 books.

It’s up to the buyers or their decorator to fill that space, said Mr. Collé, who has collaborated with Bennett Weinstock, a Philadelphia decorator known for his English interiors, on some of his libraries.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

SCRIPT call for papers

The first open call for papers of a meeting of SCRIPT has been extended until January 31st. SCRIPT will meet concurrently with the Eastern International Region of the American Academy of Religion at Syracuse University, May 6-7. We invite paper proposals on all aspects of the iconic and performative dimensions of books and other texts.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Library Girl

Librarians are a not-infrequent theme of love songs (think "Marian the Librarian" in Music Man), but this great song by Reina Del Cid is the first I've heard from the librarian's perspective, or at least the perspective of the library work-study student. Enjoy!

Lyrics (dedicated to "To all kindred nerds"):

Shelving books on the night shift
It takes some time, but I guess I like it
Dewey's decimals keep me company

Out the window, you are dancing
With those girls who can't stop laughing
Lip-gloss, too hot, fake-baked drama queens

You were drinking a margarita
I was reading My Antonia
I got to thinking that

I don't fit inside that world
And I'm not like those other girls
Oh no, I'm not, I think a lot
But please don't be afraid

Just 'cause I navigate the media
And use encyclopedias
It doesn't mean that I don't need
A boy just like you to talk to

Set my cup back on its saucer
At the coffee shop, reading Chaucer
With my iPod on my favorite track

The girls you're with get turtle lattes
Decaf, skim-based, extra frothy
But you and I both drink our coffee black

You were talking about ACDC
And I was playing my Puccini
I got to thinking that

Repeat Chorus

You can buy me a margarita
And I will lend you My Antonia
You can take me to ACDC
And I'll play you my Puccini
It doesn't matter that

I don't fit inside that world
I'm not like those other girls
Oh no, I'm not, I think a lot
But you are not afraid.

That I navigate the media
And use encyclopedias
It doesn't mean that I don't need
A boy just like you to talk to

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Logos Made Flesh

Interesting little piece in the Sunday NY Times by Steven Heller, a regular there on graphic design. Heller has several excellent books on graphic design and culture, including the recent, "Pop: How Graphic Design Shapes Popular Culture."

Of note is the connection made between the simplicity of a corporate logo and the potentially magical, talismanic properties it might invoke. There is the wonderful, ongoing power of visual symbols, and capitalism's necessary reliance on the imaged fetish.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Risks of Reading the Constitution Aloud

The Washington Post reports that the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives plans to open the new session on January 6th by reading the Constitution aloud. They will also "require that every new bill contain a statement by the lawmaker who wrote it citing the constitutional authority to enact the proposed legislation."

The article goes on to quote some who dismiss these new rules as "symbolic flourishes" and "cosmetic." That is a typical reaction from a culture, especially academic culture, that has been trained for millennia to underestimate the power of rituals. But I wonder if the Tea Party advocates of these ceremonies understand their social effects either.

The U.S. Constitution, together with the Declaration of Independence, has long been ritualized in both its semantic dimension (the court decisions and legal commentaries that make up the vast literature on constitutional law) and its iconic dimension (most obviously in its shrine in the Rotunda of the U.S. National Archives which provided a memorable backdrop for Pres. Obama's speech about Guantanamo Bay in 2009). But ritualization of its third, performative, dimension lags behind. Since Congress established September 17th as Constitution Day in 2004, however, this annual event has included recitations of the Constitution's preamble by dignitaries and school children.

In a 2004 article analyzing the movement to establish or defend Ten Commandment's monuments in court houses, I suggested that it was an attempt to gain for the Bible the same iconic recognition as the Constitution. The ritualized readings of the Constitution in Congress and elsewhere could conversely be understood as (subconscious?) efforts to grant this document the status of scripture. Andrew Romano observed in Newsweek that Tea Party's rhetoric of constitutional rhetoric echoes the Christian right's rhetoric of biblical reverence in the early 1990s. Rep. Ron Paul has been the most explicit but hardly the only right-wing politician to suggest that the Constitution is divinely inspired.

Analogies between the U.S. Constitution and the Bible are actually not new. Soon after ratification it was being hailed as a product of divine providence. People still regularly repeat Supreme Court Justice William Johnson's description, in 1823, of the Constitution as "the most wonderful instrument ever drawn by the hand of man." The country's history has witnessed periodic attempts to ritualize its performance regularly through school recitation competitions and public pageants. But statements like Rep. Paul's quickly draw withering criticism from religious leaders and commentators fearful that the Bible's unique status in Christian culture may be challenged. Though many cultures and religions employ multiple scriptures without any difficulties, Protestant Christianity tends to emphasize the Bible's sole authority. Thus ritualizing the Constitution's performance, like its iconicity, risks splitting conservative religious support.

Nevertheless, repeated ritual practices frequently generate beliefs as much as reflect them. Once Congress starts reading the Constitution, it is unlikely that any American politician will try to stop the practice at some future time. This ongoing tradition of public readings could spawn imitation in other settings and may, as Tea Party supporters hope, generate even greater reverence for the country's foundational document. Doing so, however, will highlight the question of its status relative to religious scriptures in general and, in mostly Christian America, to the Bible in particular.