Reimagining Textual Studies

Statement about the conference “Areas and Disciplines” by Lydia Liu

Members of our panel are asked to reflect on the situation of philological traditions and address the question of what it means for scholars to engage in textual practices in the 21st century. I understand that we are faced with many kinds of pressures coming from globalization, worldwide immigration, the hegemony of digital and statistical thinking, and the loss of prestige of humanistic studies in general. And there are also intellectual pressures from within our own disciplines that discourage the development of innovative ideas and new methods.The field of Chinese studies, for example, mirrors all those problems but to a different degree. The good news is that there is a fast growing scholarship on classical Chinese texts which has been stimulated by the exciting new archaeological discoveries of ancient texts in China since the 1970s. This paleographic work, meticulous and rigorous, is in the process of transforming the landscape of canonical classical texts—not just Confucian and Daoist texts, but also ancient historiography, poetry, music, astronomy, mathematics and religion—but such news does not travel well. With few exceptions, this scholarship is confined to its own island of classical studies, like other such islands organized around individual languages and civilizations. It is extremely difficult for scholars to break out of established linguistic boundaries and raise larger questions about the epistemic implications of their work for global humanistic studies, partly due to the limitation of any scholar’s ability to master more than a few languages and scripts in his or her lifetime. The situation seems to call for cross-area collaborations across “philological traditions”.

But before we can agree on the value of such collaborative work, however, we need to reflect on the idea of “philology” itself. Whenever I use this word, I am tempted to put it in quotation marks because I have longstanding ambivalences about it. To my mind, philology is grounded in a theory of language that is foreign to those who work outside its conceptual limits, especially those who work with a writing system that does not take the representation of language or speech sounds as its primary concern. And I am not talking about the familiar distinction between phonetic and ideographic writing systems because that distinction is part of the problem, not the path toward a solution; nor am I concerned with the proper definition of the square-character writing system known as wenzi in Chinese scholarship. The main difficulty here is the non-recognition of radical difference in a medium that is irreducible to linguistic difference, or cultural difference, or racial difference. This non-recognition has long impeded the development of innovative ideas and new methods from arising in comparative textual studies, and always with political consequences. Until we recognize and respect that radical difference, I don’t think that comparative or collaborative work across areas and regions, however well intended, can promise a meaningful “pluralization of epistemic cultures and communities across disciplinary and political-territorial boundaries” as envisioned by the conference organizer. In my presentation, I am going to provide a couple of concrete instances to illustrate these issues and make a few suggestions as to how we might reimagine textual studies that could make some kind of epistemological difference to today’s humanistic and social sciences.


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