What is a Text?
What is a Text?
Inspired by my colleagues who started in 2014 the wonderful website prchistory.org where Michael Schoenhals presents a Document of the Month offering access to unknown details of PRC history this website introduces gems taken from the SASS Collection at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. This collection covers the book production of the People’s Republic of China and was donated by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) to our Institute of Sinology.
It contains approximately 100,000 separate volumes as well as a variety of periodicals (approx. 10,000 bounded volumes) published from the late 1940s to the early 1980s, featuring an assortment of publications ranging from translated Marxist classics to medical textbooks, from philosophical and literary works to agriculture handbooks and propaganda pamphlets, from popular youth magazines to academic journals. The major fields this collection covers are works on technology and science (19,000 volumes), economics, industry, agriculture, and commerce (15,000 volumes), history and historical science (11,000 volumes), as well as literature and arts (14,000 volumes). Due to its size and comprehensiveness in terms of topics and time frame, it can be understood as a library collection that enables deep insights into the life of individuals and socials groups during the Maoist era.
Their significance can however only be understood properly if the books are not seen as works written by one or many authors, but taken as texts embedded in various social, political, and cultural contexts. In his work Image, Music, Text (1977) Roland Barthes points out that in common usage text has already replaced work, with the latter being a concrete object that allows a haptic experience. Yet, in truth, it is not haptic experiences that shape world views, but rather their reading as texts. For a historian, a text is not simply a text to be read and understood but crisscrossed with elements that are influenced by social, cultural, political, or ideological assumptions that need to be carved out by the reader-cum-historian.
While a document surprises with a chance to grant access to an authentic representation of historical experience, a text by its very own character does not. The Latin origin of the word text — textus — means style or texture of a work, derived from the verb textere, i.e. to weave, join, or construct. In other words, while a document might be a direct representation of a past, a text creates its reality by situating itself in a specific historic situation, thereby requiring a narrative in order to have a proper effect. The insight that a text is a construct — either conscious or not — is a result of the linguistic turn. It has produced a large degree of uncertainty and insecurity whether a text actually conveys a historical truth, and if so, what kind of truth it is (Richard Evans 1997). The historian is — much like any text producer — not innocent in producing a reality by using a set of signs, which are not chosen randomly, but a result of conditionality (Bedingtheit) of historical interpretation. In other words, any reading of a text has to take into account the role of the historian whose subjectivity cannot be removed from the process of writing history, as argued by Reinhart Koselleck (1977).
It is the intention of the Text of the Month to give an introduction to some texts in the SASS Collection that allow to discover their conditionality (in terms of production and interpretation) and to reveal how this conditionality can be highly arbitrary and how it can change in reaction to changing historical circumstances (often called turns). We thereby hope to be able to reveal how livelihoods and world views of individuals and collectives were shaped from the early 1950s to the early 1980s. These introductions can surely be nothing more than small spotlights, yet can show how to readdress old questions by making use of forgotten or neglected texts, and it is these texts that are put into the foreground.
Barthes, Roland (1977): Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang.
Evans, Richard (1997): In Defense of History. London: Granta Books.
Howe, Susan (2014): Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives. New York: New Directions Books.
Koselleck, Reinhart (1977): Standortbindung und Zeitlichkeit — Ein Beitrag zur historiographischen Erschließung der geschichtlichen Welt, in: Theorie der Geschichte — Objektivität und Parteilichkeit (ed. by Reinhart Koselleck, Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Jörn Rüsen), pp. 17-46.