Statement about the conference “Areas and Disciplines” by Shamil Jeppie
To set Africa beside philology on first glance would raise eyebrows in many scholarly circles even in “African studies”. Africa and linguistics fit together much more comfortably it will be said. Philology is a discipline suited to the societies with mature written cultures while African languages are voluminous and a fertile field for comparative and historical linguistics. But where are the old texts for study, for “reading slowly”? Ethiopia is cast as an exception, with the situation for the rest of the continent not much to be concerned about. Yet there are outstanding examples of philological studies on texts in the Arabic script that long pre-date the coming of European colonialism (to Africa South of the Sahara; the North is not Africa, as Hegel saw it). But this intellectual output appears in scholarly organisation to be filed under “Islam” more than “Africa” or “Islam in Africa,” (therefore pre-empting the thought that these were “Africans who happened to use Arabic and of the Islamic religion”) although this situation has been changing in recent years. The Arabic Literature of Africa series of Brill (since 1994) and the numerous catalogues of various libraries’ Arabic mss published by Al-Furqan Foundation have signalled important developments – creating necessary instruments for philological investigations. But new studies have to be brought into conversation with the increasing interdisciplinarity in the humanities. Thus the notion of “textual cultures” that brings together research in palaeography, calligraphic styles, codicology, philology, history of the book and of reading, literary studies, and the recent turn to studies in the formation of archives is the way to proceed. Starting from the latter – the constitution of collections – we can come to understand a local process and politics of collecting and emergence of “archival consciousness” at certain points in the past (and present). Books often moved across vast distances and communities of practitioners were associated with their (re)production; and entire collections moved or were moved involuntarily. While histories of these processes are still to be undertaken for the most part this should not preclude the “return to philology” [cf.de Man (1982), Said (2004)] but with the benefit of the new knowledge of textual culture. It also means retooling the new generation of scholars coming into the field of the study of a continent with books (of various lineages and reproduced in a scribal and mechanical mode).