The Place of Commentary in the Global Turn
—Suzanne Akbari, Institute for Advanced Study
The ‘global turn’ in history requires something different from every subfield — whether literary history, economic history, social history, or intellectual history. While certain methodologies lend themselves to a globalizing perspective, those that are linguistically intricate are more difficult. How can we enable conversations across disciplines, across language groups, across cultural formations?
Commentary offers us a way in: the visual layout of commentary reveals assumptions about the relative status of text and gloss, while interpretive prompts in the marginal or interlinear commentary tell us about the relationship of teacher and student. Beyond these, material evidence of use — whether lecture notes scrawled hastily in the margin, or vivid rubrication to highlight key points to be memorized — illuminates the practices of commentary to be found within premodern scholarly communities.
By bringing together researchers working on highly specific and local commentary traditions, and encouraging the sharing of research findings across disciplines, language groups, cultures and discourses, we can produce a global account of commentary that derives its strength from the intensely local focus of each tradition. Beyond this productive tension of the global and the local that underpins the Practices of Commentary project as a whole, we also seek to think about commentary in transhistorical terms. What do modern practices of commentary — via social media or within online communities — reveal about premodern practices? And what might premodern commentary tell us about our own discursive world?
The Global Gloss
—Markus Stock, University of Toronto
Conventional categories, concepts, and perspectives governing scholarly discussions about practices of commentary can be dramatically enhanced by a global perspective on commentary. Why were certain reading and exegetical practices so startlingly widespread and tenacious across cultural and temporal boundaries? How could they inform our ideas about general concepts of commentary? Which practices of commenting and commentary do script-based cultures develop and foster? How does the very gesture of commenting suffice to enhance the status of a text in different linguistic or cultural formations? Is it the ‘gloss’ that establishes the notion of a ‘text’ (and not the other way around) in a variety of these formations?
Thus, one of the main questions for me is which basic categories and premises might allow scholars from a wide range of disciplines to engage in a rewarding transcultural conversation about commentary studies.
How does a ‘global’ perspective modify disciplinary perspectives? This question, of course, cuts both ways, and it is of equal importance to ask:
Which categories concerning commentary are too specific to one particular tradition to impart to others, and would therefore require specialists’ mediating work to even begin a productive transdisciplinary discussion?
Which categories central to commentarial traditions in certain languages or cultures might be completely foreign or antithetical to the study of other cultures’ practices of commentary? And how might we mediate such disjunctions? Are umbrella terms such as “commenting” and “commentary” even appropriate to describe the variegated but overlapping set of interpretive practices that thrived in communities of very different sorts? What terms might supplement these, enabling further de-siloing of specialist work?
In this way, our project could stimulate dialogue regarding the potentials and the challenges that arise when we de-territorialize disciplinary methodologies and paradigms, while at the same time accounting for historically rooted ways of reading and commenting.
Towards a History of Global Commentary
—Amanda Goodman, Department for the Study of Religion & the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto
In what ways, and to what extent, would the decentering of commentary studies change our scholarly practice? What might it disrupt? What might it reveal? As we embark on this five-year SSHRC project to write a history of global commentary, I can imagine a number of unique insights and challenges that might arise as we incorporate the learned traditions, local histories, and linguistic particularities of interpretive communities that have not yet been accounted for in dominant studies of commentary. This expansion of scholarly horizons will not only require new sets of premodern sources with which to think, but also contemporary conversations with scholarly voices from outside the Anglo- and Euro-centric worlds.
Here I offer up some preliminary questions: What happens when the commentarial traditions at the center of our inquiry are based in, say, a medieval Tibetan monastery, a Central Asian scriptorium, or a Chinese imperial library?
Stepping further back, we might ask: Does the status of ‘the text’ shift as we move around the global map? Does the definition of ‘the page’ depend on the format of ‘the book’ in which it appears? Does a difference in script result in a difference in reading practices? Is there such a thing as a ‘global gloss’? Is the act of translation always an act of interpretation? By taking a global perspective on the modes of commenting established in the past, we have the opportunity to reconsider the future of our fields of study, making room for new questions, new methods, and quite possibly new research results.
— Jeannie Miller, Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto
One of the most exciting aspects of a global approach in the humanities is that it demands a collaborative approach between scholars working on different traditions and within different scholarly conversations. Rather than aiming at a synthetic history of commentary globally, a more interesting approach is to draw on a rich variety of specialists to depict this history as it appears from various angles. What does global history look like, for example, from the perspective of the commentary tradition on Sanskrit texts? From this perspective, what standard elements of the Quran commentary tradition appear set in relief, as oddities?
One core element of commentary its translational function, of making a text meaningful for a different time, place, or community.
This is most apparent in multi-lingual commentary traditions, which have often done the heavy lifting in mediating the exchange of knowledge and intellectual practices across linguistic, temporal and geographic boundaries. Many commentary studies offer snapshots of moments of global exchange.
By compiling a broad variety of these snapshots, we can also assemble a historical resource for re-examining our role today as scholars in the humanities, to the extent that commentary is always a part of our practice when we work with texts. What can history tell us about the art and politics of making texts meaningful across time, space, language, and genre?
The Global Turn
—Walid Saleh, Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto
My first understanding of the notion of global, in the sense that a tradition was not a self enclosed story, started when I compared the Islamic commentary tradition to the Jewish commentary tradition and eventually the Eastern Christian. This is now a well trodden path of inquiry. Admittedly, one would not call this global––we are in the Mediterranean basin still, and the connections between these traditions are not hard to document. In some cases the grammatical theory itself was shared (as in the case of Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac). In others, entire philosophical hermeneutical tools were held in common. Indeed, medieval Arabic, Hebrew and Latin philosophical languages all calque upon Greek.
It is, however, my slow realization that to be meaningful, this medieval global turn has to encompass writerly cultures of the pre-modern world in a true global sense. The meeting of velum, papyri and paper technology in the 9th century was not a coincidence; the need for dictionaries, lists of verbs, and tools for writers was universal. Schools for training scribes are as old as writerly civilizations themselves.
The need for a more global comparative approach to the commentary tradition was solidified by my realization that much of the commentary tradition has been neglected or pushed aside in our writing of the intellectual history of premodern societies. Both the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement reshaped the hierarchy of texts and the gloss and commentary in the various forms that existed were seen as degenerative if not repetitive. One has to rediscover the gloss so to speak.
A global comparative approach will help us understand the pre-modern intellectual tradition in a far more historical manner, it will also allow us to ask questions that we do not usually ask if we remain in one tradition.
Background image: British Library. Egerton MS 872, fol. 199r. Pentateuch with the Hafṭarot, Five Scrolls, and Rashi’s commentary, 1341.Source: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Egerton_MS_872