Technologies of Writing, Archive, and Knowledge Production

AHA Session 46
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Room 402 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Ruth Mostern, University of California, Merced
The Audience

Session Abstract

Archives are filled with documents written with a plethora of mediums of inscription, from stone, woodblock, brush, pen, and typewriter to computer.  Their end user mines them for information but rarely stops to consider the technologies used in producing them.  Yet the archive is not just an abstract database of information, but a rich tapestry of inscriptions.  In fact, even the database that seems to render the archive into a searchable depository of information is part of this scriptural economy, since its algorithms determine the ways in which the user interfaces with its contents.  This panel explores the ways in which technologies from stone engravings to the computer mediate archival knowledge.

Although each of the three presentations focuses on a very different medium of writing, all are concerned with the materiality of the archive.  They understand the semantic content of the text in relation to its visual, haptic, and even acoustic or olfactory characteristics.  This includes examining the way in which the instrument of inscription and its support affect the meaning of the document, along with the layout, letterhead, stamps, seals, locks, and envelopes.  For digital media this means examining the way in which the document interfaces with the writer and reader, whether through a screen, a keyboard, stylus, voice, or otherwise.  This approach calls for a visual semiotics of the archive.  Whereas art historians have long had techniques for analyzing images, historians have only recently begun to show interest in the multi-sensorial aspect of knowledge production.

This panel looks at writing, both as a contribution to the history of the book and within the broader context of the materiality of the archive.  It draws upon the knowledge of librarians and archivists, who are regularly engaged with the material task of handling sources, whether physical or virtual.  And it asks whether historians can develop an iconology, to use a term publicized by Erwin Panofsky in art history, or graphesis, a term recently developed by Johanna Drucker to refer to the analysis of graphical forms of knowledge, for written documents.  The panel takes a global approach to writing, with papers that range from early writing practices in East Asia to contemporary digital media and include a century when typewriting was essential to the authority Asian languages.  In so doing it seeks to bring to the attention of all historians, irrespective of region or period, the rewards of taking into account the materiality of the archive.  After short paper presentations, the second half of the panel will consist of discussions among the presenters and the audience.

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