Ideography

This week’s rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is The Prestige of Writing: ?, Letter, Picture, Image, Ideography, by Haun Saussy, who is currently a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Yale.

This work contains a memorable, wry disclaimer:

WARNING. The following section contains passages from the writings of Ernest Fenollosa which may be objectionable to some readers. The reproduction of these statements does not indicate endorsement or approval of their content by the author or editors, who decline all responsibility for any damages, direct or incidental, that may be attributed to the reading of them.

The author explains: “The need for such a disclaimer was brought home to me by the reactions of two sinological colleagues who refereed an earlier version of this paper.” Just in case anyone’s wondering why that might be the case, see Fennolosa, Pound and the Chinese Character, by George A. Kennedy, and The Ideographic Myth, by John DeFrancis.

Here is the introduction:

The disparagement of writing is a motif common, I suppose, to all traditions that have writing. Writing is often seen as inadequate to represent speech or thought. But another response to the inadequacy of writing has been to exalt some other kind of writing — occasionally a language reformer’s pet project, but more frequently the writing of the angels, the writing of the citizens of some utopia, of the scholars of some faraway kingdom, or of the forces of nature itself. Imagined writings of this sort telescope critique and critique’s wishful compensation. They attribute wonders — praestigia — to a medium most often noticed in its falterings.

Since Chinese writing became known in Europe, it has often been pressed into service as the model of this perfected writing. This enthusiasm must appear outlandish to those whose ‘native’ writing-system is Chinese. But it is not enough to show that the indigenous and foreign perceptions of Chinese writing are at variance, or even that the tales told of Chinese script do not stand up to linguistic scrutiny: there is an inventive element to all intercultural interpretation, a fit between its observations and the intellectual needs of its proponents, that expert testimony simply shoves aside. The proper way to analyze an intellectual tangle of this sort, it seems to me, is not to hold it to the standard of specialist univocity, but to situate it ethnographically among the conceptions it echoes or answers. Which aspects of which utopias still beckon, and which have definitely gone on to feed intellectual history, is another question deserving patient consideration.

This is issue no. 75 of Sino-Platonic Papers. It was originally published in February 1997.