Synopsis & Analysis by CLAUDIA RAPP (UCLA):
The Third Interdisciplinary Symposium on Iconic Books met at Syracuse University, October 1-3, 2010. It continued a successful series of inquiries that began in 2001. At that time, Jim Watts responded to an idea by his doctoral student, Dorina Miller Parmenter, who suggested that the seminar on "The Idea of Scripture" he had developed for the Department of Religion was lacking a crucial dimension, namely attention to the specific value that sacred scriptures in written form carried in their respective cultures.
Now the project can look back to a proud record of a completed dissertation (Dorina Miller Parmenter, 2009) and another in progress (Jason Larson), three successful conferences, two thematic journal issues (Postscripts 2.2-3, 2006; volume 6, forthcoming containing the papers of this symposium), the launch of a scholarly society (SCRIPT), and the nucleus of an internet database of images of iconic books.
This year's conference, the third in the series (2007 at Syracuse, 2009 at Hamilton College), brought together scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and cultural perspectives, from anthropology, sociology, history and religious studies to library science, and from the ancient Near East to contemporary Korea.
The challenge to report on a rich smorgasbord of offerings can best be met by focusing on three large themes: the book, the concept of iconicity, and issues of use.
The evening lecture by William Graham ("'Winged Words:' Scripture and Classics as Religious and Cultural Icons") set the tone for subsequent discussions by enlarging the frame of inquiry through the introduction of the concept of the "classics." He discussed the notions of cultural vs. religious classics. Both acquire iconic status because of the impact they exert over time in shaping cultural discourse, but only the latter point to a transcendent reality. The juxtaposition of these concepts establishes a convenient boundary, yet one that proves to be sufficiently porous in concrete application in order to accommodate a wide range of phenomena. Vincent Wimbush ("Making Do With the Fetish: Scriptures and Vernaculars") showed how Olaudah Equiano, a black man in 18th century England, was using Scripture in both senses in order to serve his needs, as a religious text and as a cultural classic, reference to which enabled him to claim his own identity as "British." Karl Solibakke ("The Pride and Prejudice of the Western World: Canonic Memory, Great Books and Archive Fever") similarly showed how the European canon of "classics," i.e. works of literature and scholarship, was intentionally fetishized in 20th century America as “The Great Books” to the extent that they received almost scriptural status.
In thinking about the book, it is helpful to employ the categories introduced by Deirdre C. Stam ("Talking about 'Iconic Books' in the Terminology of Book History"), based on terminology used by librarians and rare book dealers. They move on a sliding scale from the material to the immaterial. In the most concrete sense, the book is a tangible object, with distinctive features of physical appearance. Several papers at the conference spoke to this theme from different cultural traditions (Jacob Kinnard, "Why is it Better to See a Book than Read it? Further Reflections on the Buddhist Representation of Manuscripts"; Dorina Miller Parmenter, "Iconic Books From Below: Ritual Uses of the Christian Bible"; Zeev Elitzur, "Between the Textual and the Visual: Borderlines of Late Antique Book Iconicity"; Brent Plate, "Looking at Words: On the Typography and Design of Book Pages"). At the next level of abstraction comes the text. The text can be an object, if it is written in a specific script and preserved in written form, but a text can also just exist as an object of memory that is recited orally. The move to orality becomes even more pronounced at the next level of abstraction, that of words. But even words, when they are pronounced are not necessarily, and not entirely, immaterial. Sound is, after all, subject to the laws of physics. Joanne Waghorne showed that words and sounds can be captured ritually in Gita celebrations of sacred text ("A Birthday Party for a Sacred Scripture: The Gita Jayanti and the Embodiment of God as the Book").
To these categories of book, text and word should be added a further dimension, that of the message. It is the message that points to the transcendent and thus distinguishes a religious classic from a cultural classic. The transcendence of the message endures, even if it is re-packaged (Tim Beal, "The End of the Word as We Know It: The Cultural Iconicity of the Bible in the Twilight of Print Culture"; also Parmenter). It is here also that the concept of a sacred language can play a role (Laurie Patton, “Women, Sanskrit and the Idea of the Book: Cross Cultural Meditations on Writing and Public Display”). Finally, it is worth thinking about an abstract message that is embodied or en-fleshed, although not necessarily in an individual person, as Krystina Myrvold ("Engaging with the Guru: Contemporary Beliefs and Practices of Guru Granth Sahib") and Joanne Waghorne suggested.
The second theme that ran through the symposium is that of "iconicity." Jim Watts in his Postscripts 2006 article introduced three dimensions: semantic, performative and iconic. These are helpful categories that could be further expanded, but it is worth asking whether these all have the same value. Or is it rather that the iconic is the primordial category that can be explained with reference to the semantic or interpretive, on the one hand, and to the performative or ritual, on the other? In very concrete terms, questions were asked about the source of iconicity: does it reside in the message that is conveyed by a text or a book? Is it the lifestyle or religious status of the scribe that imparts an iconic character to a book? Is it the interpreter of a message or of a text who lends it special authority? Or perhaps the performer or reader? Or yet again the person who observes the performance or interpretation of a text? Another way to gage the iconicity of a book is to look for manifestations of its value, whether market value on the book market (Stam), cultural value (in William Graham’s sense of cultural classics), or its performative power. Patrick Graham's paper, for example, addressed the double iconicity of the book, as depicted in illustrations in books of the early Reformation period, as a source, but not as a locus, of authority ("The Tell-Tale Iconic Book: The Hermeneutics of 16th Century Biblical Illustrations"). Jim Watts compared the different stakes that ancient and modern scholars and public leaders have in iconic texts ("Ancient Iconic Texts and Scholarly Expertise").
The third theme that many papers touched upon was that of use. Several aspects came to the fore: scribal activity (Claudia Camp, "Possessing the Iconic Book: Ben Sira as Case Study"; also Plate); reading practices, whether conceived of as performance or as ritual, as recital or as repetition (Patton); the display of words or text and whether this occurs in a public or a domestic setting (Larson, "Gospels as sites of memory in Christian Late Antiquity"; also Patrick Graham); ownership and its meaning for the object or for the message (Yoo, "Possession and Repetition: Ways in which Korean Lay Buddhists Appropriate Scriptures"; Malley, "An Anthropological Theory of Scriptures"; also Beal); memory (Arnold, "Texts and the Conquest of Indigenous Lands"; also Larson and Solibakke), and the question of privileged or non-privileged access to the message, to the word, to the text or to the book (Beal, Camp, Patton). It is especially in this last context that issues of gender would repay further study.
Comparative studies are most successful when undertaken in dialogue as it reveals the strangeness of things that had been taken for granted. The value of this conference consisted precisely in the presence of many fresh ingredients that, in combination, made for a rich feast of new ideas.