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An interview with Roger Chartier took place on the 25th May 2016 in the context of his lecture tour, organized by the CEFRES Platform (the Prague CEFRES - Centre français de recherche en sciences sociales, Czech Academy of Sciences, and Faculty of Arts at Charles University). The lecture “What is a book? An answer to Kant’s question”, referenced repeatedly during the interview, was held in Prague and published in the journal Knihovna (2017, No 1).

Roger ChartierRoger Chartier 

Mr. Chartier, in the presentation of your chair at the Collège de France entitled “The Written and Cultures in Modern Europe” you say that you “research the history of written culture in Europe between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. One and the same issue underlies all investigations in this field – the mobility of works. These migrations”, you claim, “involved the intervention, skills and decisions of many players.” Where would you see the main impact of your conception of the “history of the written” in the history of literature and literary theory?

That is not up to me to decide. But I can say this: In all the world, but mainly in the American world and the Spanish- and French-speaking worlds, there is, first, less emphasis put on purely formalist, structuralist, semiotic approaches and more attention paid to this process which makes texts become a book or which transforms what an author has written into a printed object or, in the past, a manuscript which is read by the reader. So it seems to me that, today, you can characterize the field of literary criticism as more directly connected with traditional bibliographical studies, with the history of authorship, literary property, intellectual property, with an interest in the interpretation, appropriation and reading of the text. There were different ways of doing this, so it's not entirely dependent on a new formal history of the book. This role could also be played by perspectives which extracted readership and reading from the text a long time ago: the theory of reception, the reader-response theory or other theoretical approaches that place an emphasis on negotiations, transactions between the social world, the discourse, the practices of the social world and the production of literary works as put forward by the new historicism, for example.

So I think there is a general perspective within which everyone might have their own expertise, a more fundamental interest – and there was some resistance against this, of course, particularly in France –, but where a historicization of the literary object is a general characteristic. We can assume, that, first, the new bibliography and, second, the history of books, were contributions to this more historical, sociological and cultural approach to what we call literature. And what you bring up with the title of the chair is also something inspired by Armando Petrucci – the fact that you have to consider written culture in its entirety, production and practices. And in this sense some texts which have an aesthetic purpose and which are intended to create an aesthetic response cannot be separated from other contexts. First, because the delineation of what is literary is mobile – it’s historical, it’s variable – so the frontiers that we take for granted are in fact a product of construction. That’s why I like to use, like Paul Zumthor, literature with quotation marks, when it applies to texts which were written before the invention of literature, which is to say before the 18th century. And second, because some morphological forms of writing could be identical: for example, those in the poetic drafts of the poets of the Trecento in Italy and those in notarial documents, sometimes because the poets were notaries or were, like Petrarch, the sons of notaries. What is at stake is, first, to create a more historical perspective of the category we use with a universal meaning: "literature"; and, second, to recognize this continuity or homologies and reciprocal influences between what we now call a literary text and other kinds of texts... And so what is behind this project is inspired by many different traditions. I have already mentioned the history of the written culture by the Italian paleographers and specialists of the manuscript period; but also not to be forgotten are the different legacies of physical bibliography which started to pay attention to the materiality of the text that  goes beyond what was traditionally the object of physical bibliography, or the new or material bibliography and the different forms of historicization of the category of author, work, literary property, the aesthetic categories governing the production of texts and so on.


Your research is, however, not limited to the modern period; against its background you also reflect on the changes of written communication in the digital sphere. Some months ago, our journal Czech Literature published a special issue on Literature, technology and media which focused on the problem of “literature distributed by digital media”. We could argue that while formerly the migrations of texts “involved the intervention, skills and decisions of many actors” the digital tends to reduce the complexity of publishing, distribution and acquiring of texts. Could this be seen as an advantage that IT provides for literature and actors in the literary field?

Yes, but when you talk of the distribution of literary texts by digital media, there is still an ambiguity – whether it is a digitally distributed text which has existed or could exist in the printed form, or another form where what is distributed is irreducible to anything else but the digital form. There is an important distinction to be made between the digitized and the digital – "digitized" not only because it is the digitization of texts which exist already, but also because it could be applied even for texts that for various reasons exist only in a digital form, but which could also exist, under different circumstances, in printed form.

So it’s not first and foremost a question of old versus new media but a question of the categories that govern literary production and which are the categories of authorship, of the stability of the work, even in different instantiations, and the category of copyright. It's much more than a pure transfer from one to the other. Moreover, the digital world is a complete rupture, technically, with the traditional relationship between livre and livre, the book as an object and the work as a book. So this creates both possibilities and troubles: possibilities, which are not sufficiently exploited, and difficulties, because of all the compromises of the opposition or the coexistence between these two different worlds existing today. And this is a little blurred by the fact that we still have three main written cultures: there is still writing by hand, we read predominantly printed books – about 95 percent of the book trade is for printed books; an exception is the States, where around 20 percent of books are electronic books – but it doesn't matter if they are electronic or not, because these books which are in an electronic form belong to a catalog in which they could also or have also had a printed existence. So this is the main issue: there is a continuity, because we have these three kinds of textual cultures: manuscript, printed and digital. However, for the future it’s not a given that these three forms will survive, and no-one can say how they will be reorganized in relation to one another. In some American states, children at school are no longer trained in handwriting. Apprenticeship in literacy takes place right in front of the keyboard. In this sense, there might be no reason to write by hand any more. That’s why, first, it is impossible to prophesy the future, it depends on the situation: in another country access to keyboards will remain rare, difficult and costly. So this is another reason to destroy the illusion of globalization – the gap, the difference, the inequalities between different cultures were never as important as now.

So, first this distinction. Further still: Is the digital form of communication permeated in the process of composition, and are texts which are thought of as distributed by digital media different from texts distributed in another form? It's true for many digital texts, and I think all texts we use in communication, such as email or SMSes are different. They don't necessarily respect the traditional rules of spelling, the traditional rules of grammar and the traditional rules of civility. When we are dealing with literary creations – that is what I suppose you want to discuss – frankly I don't know. It depends on whether the author has a sufficient consciousness of the different forms of appropriation of the text in the digital form in order to create an implied reader during the process of writing the text, which would be different from the spontaneous implied reader constructed on the basis of the printed reception. So the question is: If the reader implied is a digital reader, is the author opening this text to his or her reader in order that they can contribute to the work? Is the author ready to abandon the idea of literary property? Is the author creating a text which immediately escapes his control because it would be open to appropriation? This depends, I suppose, on the way the author constructs the implied reader and his idea of the desired implied reader. Because there is an objective implied reader in a sense, which can be deduced from sociology, but there is also a desired implied reader – and what is being attributed to this reader in relation to the digital work. Is it only the capacity to use a text in a more fragmented way, thinking about discontinuous or hypertextual reading, or is the reader constructed as a co-author? Is the reader thought of as someone who enters into the text, transforms and transmits it in a series of waves of discourse? In this case, it would really be the death of the author.

In your lecture, you paraphrased Kant saying that the manuscript is the least imperfect representation of the ideal text which exists only in the head of the author as a kind of Text an sich. Let’s say that in the digital age the writer is writing on a computer and is publishing the text himself in a form where the text cannot be changed. He will insist on the authenticity of his text. But surely one could argue that although on one hand we lose the manuscript, the materiality of the manuscript, the hand of the author, which has only been “fetishized” since the 18th century, on the other hand everybody will get access to the “least imperfect representation of the ideal text”, because there isn't any other form of the manuscript – so a text issued directly by the author to the reader without an editor's cooperation and the information of the text by the editor and all the different agents who are working on a text in the printed universe.

This belongs to what I call digital communication – that is to say that an author can send his texts to the entire world, but with a qualification, because the form of the text will not necessarily and not exactly be the one the author had constructed visually; there could be a transformation of type, layout, of the material form in which the text is given on the screen. Normally, we have this possibility to change the type, the size of the characters, the layout, except if the text is absolutely fixed. But when it is fixed, without any possibility of changes, it is because we have shifted from digital communication to digital publishing. So I think that an author’s immediate communication of his work, of his poems or texts, with a potentially universal readership represents an extraordinary possibility. But, traditionally, publishing was considered a possibility to create an aesthetic or intellectual repertoire of texts that translated or expressed the intention of the publisher. There is also the idea that copy-editing makes the text more correct, controlled by rules, avoiding mistakes and naiveties, and the activity of publishing was also the activity of making the result of all this “public” –  by different forms of advertisement, interventions in the newspaper, in the catalogue of the publisher. So all these categories defined what it meant to publish a literary text. This created a filter that helped create something which was recognizable in the order of discourse. If we shift from literature to knowledge, in the relation between the publisher and the theories he has published, the editorial mediation guaranteed that there was no falsification, there was no absurd statement and everything was controlled by the community of knowledge. And thirdly, there was the possibility of making public beyond the publication of the text. I am not sure that the disappearance of this filter should be something necessarily positive for culture and society. And the idea of immediate communication could be wonderful in terms of bestowing freedom. But it's sufficient to read the immediate reactions of readers to newspaper articles in order to see the amount of absurdities and stupid points that enter into discourse. So the universe of communication is not only the universe of communication of beauty and of knowledge, it is also the communication of the worst aspects of what humanity can think or write. So I think I understand it is a question of equilibrium, but I refuse the idea that publishing would be a bad thing and that necessarily the universal communication of everyone’s ideas would be the materialization of a paradisiacal situation.

You have been interested in the history of written culture since at least the 1970s. How have your views of the enterprise itself changed since then? Has the historiography of the written culture, of the book and reading and so on, changed retroactively in the context of new media landscapes?

First, this interest in the history of the book was accompanying a shift within French cultural history from a more quantitative, statistical or social history of culture towards attention paid to practices: the reading and not only the book, the performance and not only the text. This interest could focus, for example, on the study of a class of printed texts, as in the case of so-called popular literature, and try to understand what this corpus of texts was, how it was appropriated by certain publishing strategies, what were the modes in which readers could understand and use this corpus. But one could also start with more canonical works. I started with Molière. Recently I have written extensively about Shakespeare and Cervantes and I have asked myself how the work was transformed not only through its different editions, but also instantiations (translations, theatrical adaptations, festivals) and, finally, what meanings can be possibly constructed in different places and different times by readers, spectators or beholders appropriating one form of the work or another. And this remains my main field of work — what I say sometimes about digital work is not based on any particular technical expertise, but just on a comparison between what we could say about the contrast between the history of longue durée of the written culture and the discontinuity, rupture or innovation of today.

I don’t know what is at stake for this kind of project mapping the transformation related to the digital world. It could be connected with what some people in your institute take an interest in – modern editorial practice, for example. It could be connected with a different kind of research on reading practices, more sociological, about what people are doing with the new techniques in relation with more traditional materials or practices. For me, the most essential feature is twofold: on one hand the fact that for the first time in the history of written culture there is a separation between the object – a computer, iPhone, e-book and so on – and the text, because of course this screen is a receptacle or the vehicle not of one specific text but of any text that the owner of the object or the apparatus wants to read or wants to write on. This was never the case before. It was not the case with the codex or the printed book or scrolls in antiquity. There was always an object and a text within it – a specific work in a specific form. So the new devices represent a complete transformation of the relationship between the book as a work and the book as a material object. This association could have been proposed in different historical vocabularies, e. g., in the 16th and 17th centuries, by using the metaphor of the body and soul of the human creature, or in the Enlightenment by distinguishing between the owner of the book, who is not the owner of the discourse, and the owner of the discourse, who is forever the author. Today, this distinction between the soul and the body is much more complicated, because we have one body for a series of souls. And consequently, this also poses a challenge to the concept of literary property. This is, for me, the first and the most profound novelty of the present. The second one would be the relationship between fragment and totality. That is to say, the material form of the scroll or the codex, manuscript or printed, imposes on the reader a certain form of perception – visual, material, corporeal – of the work as such. Thus, he or she can decide to read only one passage, one paragraph, one chapter, but necessarily this paragraph, this chapter is located in the place in which it has a certain meaning in the totality of the work. When presented in its digital form, the same fragment could acquire autonomy, could acquire a kind of existence in itself, which could lead, finally, perhaps, to the disappearance of the word fragment itself, because the fragment supposes a totality from which it is a fragment. This is another world, a world of written units which could have their existence in themselves, be associated, separated and recomposed in very free ways by the reader. So, for me, these are the two main transformations of our relation to the written word introduced by the digital revolution.

And as you said, there is a potential contradiction between the two more recent terms in the humanities. People who were studying traditional literary texts are now obliged to consider the material form in which these texts were communicated to the reader. The same situation marks the history of art; there is more interest not only in paintings, but also in the framework and all material elements, including those that inscribe the representation of textuality. Likewise, in anthropology, there was an emphasis upon materialité, the anthropology of the object, a particular interest in the agencies, as it is said, of the non-humans. So, there is a material turn and it seems to me that the digital turn could run contrary to it and complicate things, because the materialité of the digital work has nothing to do with the content transmitted by it. It seems that we are confronted with a challenge as regards how to associate the material turn, which obliged us to come back to the different forms of embodiment of symbolic production, and the digital turn, because the digital is more and more the manner and the apparatus in which these symbolic productions are appropriated. It’s a great challenge for the library, it’s a great challenge for scholarship and it’s a great challenge for society as a whole.

Two related questions: You mentioned the sociology of reading and the research that we do at the institute. Can we or should we go back to the quantitative methods of the school of Annales? Data mining is one of the key expressions in the humanities nowadays. Could it provide great opportunities for the history of reading in the present age? Or is it a big illusion of future historiography? Secondly, as a historian of the written culture, you work with archives and the written materials they conserve, but what about the historians of the (digital) future? You touched upon this in your lecture; however, what are they going to work with?

Yes, there were reactions against the traditional domination in the field of cultural history of the model of quantitative approach that was constructed for social demographic and economy history. We wanted to replace, as I said, the statistics of prisons, of texts, of any form of cultural artifact by questions of appropriation, interpretation, uses, which was not necessarily addressed by statistics, but by other kinds of approaches, in terms of reconstruction of these cultural practices. Nevertheless, the condition of possibility of this was, of course, to have a kind of mapping of the inequalities in the distribution of these texts; who had books and who didn’t, what kinds of books related to some social classes, and so on. So I think there was a more balanced vision of the articulation between the quantitative analysis of the uneven distribution of printed or manuscript objects and the question of their interpretation by different readers – be it a reader in his or her singularity or as a member of an interpretative community. And also since, at least in some forms of literary criticism, as developed by Franco Moretti, for example, a huge data basis is used, the idea is that first you have to map literature, the facts of translation and edition, and also the idea – introduced more recently – of distant reading, that is to say thanks to this data basis you can “read” hundreds of different novels at the same time. In my eyes, this creates an urge to return to close reading in the tradition of structuralist and formalist approaches, or even in the analysis of cultural practices.

It seems to me important to counterbalance distant reading with close reading and always to show that it’s necessary to go into the most detailed analysis of the vocabulary of rhetorical forms, of the relationship between the literary text and practice, the object and the discourse of the social world. And you cannot do this except at the level of very close reading and detailed analysis. For example, why is it important to understand what Hamlet’s tables were when he says “My tables, my tables” after the ghost has said to him, “Remember me”? Or why is it important to understand what is the nature of the “librillo de memoria” that Don Quijote encounters in the Sierra Morena left by Cardenio? These objects are of a specific nature which was never understood previously, that is to say you can write and you can erase, and you can write without pen and ink, and of course in both situations, it’s connected with the topic of memory and writing. In the Sierra Morena chapter, you have this opposition between Sancho, who has no memory, but only speaks on the basis of the memory of tales and proverbs, and Don Quijote, whose memory is his library, and in between you have this object which belongs to the written culture but which is also capable of erasure – erasure as a condition of memory. It’s a detail, but you can enter into a literary analysis of these two moments of two major works on the basis of something which has to do with the history of written culture. So we defend this form of approach, because only on this scale can you do this. Another example: in the literary cartography by Moretti, the Atlas of the European Novel, there is a map of the translations of Don Quijote where we find a German one in 1648. But in that year, only twenty-two chapters of Quijote had been translated into German. So it’s not the same thing to map the 1648 German translation and the 1612 English or 1614 French translations, which were translations of the entire work. So I think sometimes this dream of databases, the dream of “cartography”, is forgetting that you have to go into detail to understand what is mapped and what the data you put in your database mean.

And secondly, yes, of course it’s a great anxiety for any library or archive, the difficulty of archiving digital work. It’s firstly a challenge for any form of genetic criticism, because of course the erasures are no longer visible on the paper and never lead to a sequence of literary drafts for any author. They are immediate on the screen and perhaps kept on a storage device, but the retrieval is completely different from following a series of Flaubert’s or Zola’s drafts, sketches, i.e., stages of the work. So that’s the first issue. And the second issue, even more general – what can be archived from one day of digital communication and publication in the world? Some have suggested to companies and administrations to take samples of one week or two weeks that would be given an archival status. And here I am not yet speaking about the discussion concerning the possible erasure or disappearance of digital data. So it is clearly an issue for genetic criticism, for libraries and for the archives to think about this question of retrieving, in one manner or another, the data or following the process of writing.

You have been working extensively on the history of reading. Do you think that the internet offers us new opportunities for research on reading? I am especially thinking of the huge amount of images of readers which can be found online and which could be used for research on reading practices.

To understand the representations of a practice presupposes an understanding of the practice of representation. But sometimes this excess of images, particularly in PowerPoints, is completely disconnected from the comment on the reason, the language, the intention, the codes, the convention of the representations; and why should we not use images of reading on the internet? That's very interesting. On the web, you can have a corpus of images, but to understand it you also need information that is not in the picture itself, you need a reference to the code of representation, to the intention of the image, to its modalities of circulation, etc. If not, you can say: 30% of people read in bed, 25% in a study room… Well, why not? It's not false, but it doesn’t indicate the reasons for different representations of reading practices. You must emphasize the fact that these images were not made for us. They are made for another reason: to denounce a form of reading, to memorize it, to prescribe or to proscribe it... and this is the relationship between database and close reading. But sometimes the databases are so proficient that you have no time for close reading; I completely understand that.

What do you think of Kittler’s critique of Foucault’s discourse analysis that it is limited to the alphabetic universe and it stops before the emergence of new media like film, that you cannot apply discourse analysis to sound recordings or film reels and so on?

Well, even if Foucault has no perception or knowledge of these techniques, he imagined at least at the beginning of the inaugural lecture to Collège de France L’Ordre du Discours, for instance, a work without authorship, without attribution to an author, that is to say a textuality in which the waves of discourse will be the place where every new discourse is inscribed. Remember, it’s a wonderful beginning of this lecture saying: I am inclined not to have to speak in the first person and what would such discourse be like, which is paradoxical in this situation of an inaugural lecture for a chair of the Collège de France, but nevertheless it was this dream or the idea that there could be another form of discursive transmission, which would be liberated in a certain sense from the author function or from the enclosure of the work. And we discussed this in the digital work: is it possible to imagine a new form of writing and some, albeit marginally, have experimented in creating an open work that is not stable and doesn’t allow for any form of copyright, that is a collective production of writing and re-writing. So I am astonished that Foucault, on the basis of his reflection on the author function, was imagining this kind of situation. And secondly, it would be Gumbrecht’s concept of latency: some texts contain meanings that cannot be activated in their present, but exist as a possibility. You can say the same thing with Kant: Was ist Aufklärung? Enlightenment is when everyone as a reader could take action as a writer for the entire society of men, the cosmopolitan society of men, ideas, reforms, judgments, the critical use of reason. There was no technical possibility in the late 18th century for this. But today some definition of the digital world could be just this idea that potentially everyone as a reader could be transforming into a writer and participate in the public space. Sometimes, media studies – not necessarily Kittler – leave me a little doubtful, because, for me, the starting point seems to be the distinction of the logic which is proper to each medium. An example: at the time of the dominant structuralist mode of thinking, there was the idea of the universalization of reading: you read everything, you can read the city, the landscape, the image. But what happens to reading if reading is any form of deciphering? So it seems to me you have to establish, first, the specificity of the production and the appropriation of any of the discourses; it is absolutely necessary to take into account different forms of symbolic production, but it is also fundamental to recall that each of these forms has its own logic of production and interpretation or appropriation. So this is the reason why I am sometimes a little puzzled by media studies which, particularly with the interest in the technology of communication, are bringing us back to this question of the universality of some concepts that are not universal.


You already touched upon this: What is the position of the author connected with a certain philosophical or literary work today – what has happened to the author function in the present time? Has there been a major change already? Should such a change, if it occurred, be thought of in terms of “epistemic breaks” or “ruptures”, as Foucault (and others) tended to call certain transformations?

The break for Foucault was the following chiasmus: until the 17th century, in a very loose chronology, the texts we call today, and I quote, “scientific” required a proper name, the name of an authority, while after that the scientific statement could be accepted only in relation to and in conformity with the state of science and the name of the author had no importance. Conversely, for him, anonymity could be the normal regime of the circulation of texts we now call literature, whereas in the 17th and 18th centuries attribution to the author becomes the fundamental principle of the functioning of this discourse, and when the author is disguised by a pseudonym people, literary critics and even readers, want to know who the author is. That’s the reason why there is this poetic beginning of his lecture, for an author of today: he has integrated the author function. At the time, it was just a dream to liberate oneself from the author function. It was this inversion that, in a vague chronology (in the 17th or 18th century), finally located this chiasmus. Is the situation different now? Yes, because the consequence of this was of course the sovereignty of the author, the fact that the author’s name can lead to characterizations of the texts themselves. If the author is recognized as such, what he has written belongs to literature; if it is not recognized as such it belongs to what we write every day without any literary status. Many people know the author without reading any of their work. Foucault’s idea to substitute the author by the work was a powerful way of thinking. And now, on this side of experimentation with a new form of writing, digital writing, that is to say creating digital objects, which are, first, multimedia, and second, open and mobile, you can have a form of erasure or dissolution of this author function accepted, claimed, examined. But, of course, it’s a very, very marginal sector, the digital work – and not the digitized work. There is perhaps an attempt to do what Foucault dreamed of, at least in the rhetoric of his lecture; but could it be realized in the production of this digital work? It’s not a digital “book”, because it generally crisscrosses different forms of symbolic production: sound, music, images, film and written text. But we should not exaggerate today the importance of this because it’s very marginal. Why? Because there is a profound resistance to what Foucault described, that is to say the relationship of the reader with literature is still dominated, first, by the reading of the printed book – ninety-five percent of books which are bought every year in European countries are printed books and not digital or digitized books. And, second, the sovereign figure of the author remains fundamental: literary biography, the presence of the author at a book fair, even a certain notoriety regarding authors’ public statements or interviews, and so on. So I think there is a tension and a strong resistance of the order of discourse as described by Foucault and sometimes new media try to incorporate and to transfer that, not without difficulty. For example, the author function, literary property, copyright, the fixity of the work. But of course, the beauty of this technique is to make possible just the contrary. And it’s what happened with digital communication and perhaps that’s the reason digital publication is challenged or could be subverted if you ceased to introduce the criteria of the order of discourse, as described by Foucault, within the digital technique, but introduced just the claim, the practice of digital communication within the world of digital publication and consequently the writing of texts, scientific or literary.

There is also the problem of national traditions in the humanities. (We are having this conversation in English.) Your important book Au bord de la falaise is mainly based on new readings of Michel Foucault, Michel de Certeau, and Louis Marin. On the other hand, Friedrich Kittler’s Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900 is mainly based on German material, even if, for Kittler, the writings of Foucault already play an important role in the 1980s. What is the significance of the vernacular, national cultural perspectives in today’s humanities – and especially in the study of literature – as opposed to the global or globalized point of view?

It’s a central issue, you are right. I cannot profoundly discuss German scholarship, because my access is limited to what has been translated and I don’t have a vision or knowledge of this entire media or literary field. My reference could be the aesthetics of reception, it could be the work by Gumbrecht, the work of people working on France like Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink or Rolf Reichardt. What I can say in my defense is that in the German or English, and even French, traditions I have never seen quoted authors who, for me, were as important as German authors. There is whole tradition of the Italian history of the written culture and the name of Armando Petrucci is as fundamental as any of the German colleagues. Petrucci is completely ignored in general, whereas he established a new way of thinking about the written culture and the relationship between “literature” and non-literary texts. Secondly, I think one of the best ways in which modern editorial practice, the reflection of the relationship between philological approach, bibliographical approach and strictly literary approach, is the Spanish tradition of editing and literary criticism. For me, the best literary critic and editor today is Francisco Rico. Beyond this, many people have never quoted any form of Spanish literary work in their work, whereas for me he is as fundamental as any of the English or American critics, who are quoted by everyone, because almost everyone reads in English. So we are living in an intellectual or scholarly world where there is nothing global, nothing universal, but enclosure of the bibliographies and references in one language – the language of the author – and another language, which is English. And today we are suffering a reduction in the number of translations. It’s difficult to publish translations, it’s expensive, there is not necessarily a readership and in many cases people think if someone writes in Spanish that will be of interest to people who are in departments of Spanish literature, so why translate for people who are able to read the original text? The danger is particularly strong in America, where the imperial outreach of the language created close to absolute blindness to what is not translated. For me, it’s a question of mobilizing people, to say: you have to make an effort, perhaps to learn more languages, but also to have curiosity, to consider that outside of your scope of preferences something can be important. Subsequently, it’s a technical problem, and different ways of overcoming the lack of knowledge of language can be found, but first there must be the curiosity, the attention, that lead to overcoming traditional enclosures.


This touches also the question of mobility of works, on which you are working. It seems that in the modern humanities – in the sciences it is clear already – English is the only vehicle of translations in order to be read everywhere. In your lecture, you pointed out that the author communicates his content only in a very concrete form; thus, a change of form implies also de-formation of content, if I understand well. Isn’t translation also such a deformation of intellectual content?

I understand, but at the same time, translation can be one of the ways of overcoming the situation we describe. So, form or not form, it is necessary to accept translation as a means... It seems to me that in the field of cultural history the study and analysis of translation is an important part of literary criticism, the history of the book or of media studies. It’s important to look at translations in the past in order to be more conscious of what happens when a book is translated. In recent years, I have worked on some case studies doing close readings of translations of certain books from the early modern period which were among the most universally received in Europe. Castiglione’s Il Libro del Corteggiano and Las Casas' Destruction of the Indies are two examples. And there you can follow what is transformed by the translation. It could be a word, of course, it could be the title. In its different translations, Las Casas’ book never has the same title because it's a contextualization of the translation which led to the title. Sometimes, the reason could be the status of the book. A fascinating example I have studied is Norbert Elias, who said that there are two fundamental books: Machiavelli for court politics and Baltasar Gracián for court civility. And he used the translation of Baltasar Gracián’s Oráculo manual of 1647 into French by Amelot de la Houssaie, from 1684. And Courtain invented the title L'homme de cour and decided that the book was applied to court society, but the word corte does not appear in Baltasar Gracián's Oráculo manual. And here something very complex in the work of the Jesuit Gracián, that is to say a universal moral, but appropriated only by the people who are able to understand his book in the difficult style of Gracián, was transformed by Amelot into a kind of manual for the court chair. It's a profound transformation and Norbert Elias, whom I admire, was completely wrong to say that Baltasar Gracián’s work was the first manual for courtly civility. It was only the French translator who interpreted it like this about forty years after the publication. So this is a striking example which creates interest, it seems to me, for translation and also the question of the untranslatable. It's a significant topic. Some authors were considered untranslatable. There was an entire discussion about this, in the 17th century, in the case of Gracián, who was seen as untranslatable. Or in contemporary times there are discussions between authors and translators as to whether to keep some words in the original language and to put a note, or whether it is necessary to translate the entire text.

In general, words considered untranslatable were translated. In the case of Gracián, it was the word despejo, which is a form of sprezzatura, another untranslatable but nevertheless translated word coined by Castiglione, meaning the manner to exercise all virtue with ease, in a natural, spontaneous manner. Amelot says in his dedicatory to the King that it's a word than cannot be translated. But there is one aphorism, of which the title is “El despejo” and Amelot translated  it as “Le Je-ne-sais-quoi”.

How do you perceive the relation between orality and written culture today? What is the relation between the techniques of writing and “secondary orality”, as Walter J. Ong called it? One could consider, for instance, that we are recording this interview, but it will be published in the written form.

Exactly, and it will be probably... not censured, but transformed into more correct English and translated. A translation of a translation, then – because I am thinking now in French, I am speaking more or less in English and you will be transforming this into a text, the text will be edited and translated into Czech. The classical situation in the 16th and 17th centuries was that many translations were translations of translations. Particularly French was often an intermediary language between Spanish or Italian and other languages. But to answer your question: What is involved in this transformation? I think the starting point is the distinction made by Jack Goody between what is made possible by any form of writing, alphabetic, hieroglyphic or pictographic, and what the flux of orality implies. All the relations with discourse are deeply transformed by this difference of nature – you cannot archive oral discourse in the same sense as the written text, which can be subjected to manipulation, reordering, reuse and so on. So it was a starting point, this book, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, which was the original text by Jack Goody, because he wanted both to look at the effect of the introduction of writing in Mesopotamia or Egypt, using secondary literature, or in some parts of Africa, using his experience as an ethnographer and anthropologist. And he wanted also to criticize the way anthropology used dichotomies and oppositions, which are proper to the written culture and are not pertinent when people have been narrating myths or imagining classifications. So the domestication of the savage mind was a critique of structural anthropology and the way it reduced the complexities, the uncertainties, the openness of orality or practices of oral cultures to the categories of the written text. Once you have accepted this radical distinction – and you can locate the work of Ong or others in this context – you can understand two other phenomena: first, the oral transmission of written texts, and second, the transcription of oral discourse. And this is what we have done, more or less. The oral delivery of the written text – all the forms of orality, preaching, drama, political discourse, which suppose generally a text as something that is conveyed, be it a fully written text or just sketches and drafts – all these forms raise the issues of the  oral transmission of the text, of the techniques used by  people listening to the text (stenography, short-hand techniques as in the 16th and 17th centuries) to transcribe and “steal” the text, of the opposition to the publication of the sermons or the plays,  considered as inseparable from the oral performance. And, conversely, the transcription of oral discourse raises the question of meaning, because in orality the meaning is not only discursive, it’s also produced by gestures, expressions, punctuation and intonation. I have worked on the question of how and when punctuation became grammatical and syntactic, and was no longer considered to be a form of presence of the voice in the text – expressed by the length of pauses, pitches and emphasis. So it’s a network of problems that were important elements in the transformation of literary studies. It was clearly a return to the idea that there is a voice in the text, which was classical in antiquity. There are more problems, obviously, because this voice could be the voice of the text, “voces paginarum”, or the voice of the reader reading out loud, but also be the voice of the author in this different form of reading his or her work as a modality of its publication. The English word “lecture” is precise: you have to read something you have written, so a form of oral communication of reading and perhaps in contemporary society there are more forms of settings of these practices than previously. Inversely – not from text to orality, but from orality to the text – even before new media came along many books were dictated, books which were conversations. And if you accept the starting point that these are different forms of communication and follow different kinds of logic, you can conclude that sometimes it is perhaps too easy a solution to make a printed book on the basis of orality; the control of the rigor of expression is different. In digital technology you have the idea to reinstall within the written word something which could belong to the expression of orality in communication: emoticons, now emojis, all indicate the register of the written word, which is not immediately decipherable. It’s easier to know that something is ironic in a situation of communication in which people are face to face than in written utterances – so you put a small smiley that you should laugh at this passage. It was perhaps the last form to imagine a universal language which would be able to communicate emotions or feelings or sentiments without using the written language. In the 18th century there was a lot of research about this idea of an immediate language, which is a language of the expression of the body, for example, the definition of a new form of ballet, “ballet d’action”, which could have been seen in the 18th century as able to communicate not only expressions, but also ideas, concepts. Perhaps some uses of digital technology are inscribed in this perspective.

In digital media you have the text, but you also have the possibility to combine it with videos and images, to mix media modalities...

Yes, you can mix it, but not every time for each of these productions. Even if what you say is absolutely true, an immense majority of what is conveyed by the digital world is still the written word, from the blog to the email, and from access to digitized text, a newspaper, a journal, works and so on to the reading of original digital works. Perhaps one of the most important effects of the invention of printing press was to reinforce scribal culture. Because, of course, many printed objects were printed forms on which someone has to write something – a certificate of pilgrimage, an administrative document, a bill of exchange and so on. So a strong incitement to write by hand was created by the printing press and thus perhaps this question of the digital world, which allows visual communication, video and so on, could also have as an effect the reinforcement of writing practices that would not necessarily follow the rules of the tradition of the written word; but nevertheless all these people who are texting all day are also writers of texts. So it’s a difficult to evaluate what is the contribution of the digital world to written culture. On the one hand, some people lament the deterioration of the rules of grammar, of spelling, even of civility – you cannot write emails with the traditional epistolary civility. But on the other hand, this digital world has created a huge increase in writing, which theoretically could lead to another form of communication. From a technology, one cannot deduce, in a straightforward way, its uses. But many commentaries are based on this, either for applauding the best because everyone is mastering all the possibilities of the digital world, or for deploring the worst, since the technique implies consequences that could be considered negative. But as Walter Benjamin stressed, technologies produce effects, just more ambivalent than the ones we expect.

Interview by Michael Wögerbauer and Richard Müller.

Vyšlo v České literatuře 2017/5. Česká verze ke stažení zde.