Flinging the Files, Flinging the Foucault

Dissertation FilesEven though the daytime temperatures are still punishing here at Feral Cataloger headquarters, the feline staff are sensing the change in the angle of the sun and starting to pack in extra helpings of Sea Captain’s Choice. I’m also responding to the internal shift that comes from a lifetime of making the start of school year my season for renewed focus on desk work. Last fall marked a decade since my Ph.D. graduation, and I was faced with the painful realization that the dozens of boxes filled with books and papers from my doctoral days no longer deserve the space they’re hogging in the garage. Since deriving publications from my dissertation will not turn me into an “adoptable faculty member,” the garage space can be put to better use–perhaps for stockpiling cases of Turkey and Giblets paté in case of an earthquake. So this fall I am flinging all the files. As I go through the paper, though, I can’t but act like the doting parent who snaps pictures of her children’s school masterpieces to archive the memories. A blog post or two about my research seems like a fitting digital scrapbook to memorialize the hard work and deep thought that are stored in the boxes.

The boxes in the garage remind me of the research I intended to do after graduation. My academic career was supposed to be devoted to cross-cultural empirical study of the conceptual principles of cataloging and bibliography. The dissertation came into being as Michel Foucault threw down a gauntlet with this statement: the author-function “does not affect all discourses in the same way at all times and in all types of civilizations.” I wanted to somehow test his assertion that authorship would be constructed differently in traditional China. The Sikuquanshu, that monumental manuscript library commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in 1772, threw down another gauntlet: its 3474 book summaries were available in 1500 facsimile volumes at the UCLA Library, and they challenged me to prove I could read classical Chinese and imperial edicts and put my summer course on Manchu script to use. The Sikuquanshu is an open window into the minds of the bureaucrat bibliographers of the eighteenth century–what else could I have studied that was more important?

I used to have trouble justifying how a dissertation with the title “What is an Author in the Sikuquanshu?” addresses the concerns of LIS. There was snideness from some faculty at UCLA: “Why doesn’t she go to the history or literature department if she doesn’t want an LIS degree?” The research wasn’t about library operations or information-seeking behavior, and flinging Foucault was simply not done under the tutelage of my advisor in the 1990s. In this RDA century I can easily explain the connection to you: the qualitative study I did was about what we now call relationship designators, and that is going to be very handy as I work on the current chapter in my cataloging textbook.

Research wonks will want to know that I calculated a 1-in-k sample, bought the Chinese input method emulator program for Windows 95, and photocopied 352 of the tiyao (summaries) out of the encyclopedia-like volumes, then read and transcribed data from the lot in Excel. Yes, this was a dissertation with limited twentieth-century technology-everything was done by manual input off paper.

Here are some of the things I learned about how the imperial bibliographers used “relationship designators.”

  • The normal situation was single authorship. In 86% of cases, the bibliographers placed only one person’s name in the bibliographic description, and the most common relationship specified between person and work in the description was 撰 zhuan (composed or written by). That relationship designator was chosen for 71% of all cases across four classes.
  • There were differences among the four classes of works with regard to relationships. In Histories (shi 史), multiple authorship participants occurred more frequently than in Classics (jing 經) or Masters (zi 子) or Collections (ji 集). In Histories there was a greater variety of words chosen to describe the functions of names; in Histories the authorship participants compiled (zuan 纂), and collated (jiao 校), and the bibliographers often used words that highlight the fact that historians were often writing for imperial history projects. In the Collections class, which contains many writers’ posthumously published works, the bibliographers also included the names of printers and relatives who transmitted an author’s legacy.
  • Biographies in the summaries accompanying each book were also an important feature. The bibliographers were building a collection for the emperor’s purposes, so they took a bureaucrat’s perspective. Their goal was to portray writers as loyal Confucian officials, even if their lives did not quite fit into the template. An author in  the Sikuquanshu is a man with an official biography, a life beyond the name in the bibliographic description.
  • As a contemporary cataloger, my favorite cases were those in which the author was questionable or not known. The bibliographers were very scrupulous about assigning some kind of relationship indicator to every work they summarized, so 4% of the sample was marked 舊本題 jiubenti — “old editions are labeled …” to show questionable attribution—and 1.7% had the phrase 不著撰人名氏 bu zhu zhuanren mingshi–“the writer’s name is not recordedto show anonymity.  Being part of the evidential research movement (which looked for historical and textual evidence to justify editing decisions), the bibliographers carefully collated these books with questionable pedigrees. Almost half the time they found an author for the work or found evidence to overturn the traditionally assigned author, but they retained the traditional names and anonymity in the bibliographic description. They imagined themselves iconoclasts who were correcting errors, but that rebel attitude didn’t extend to changing the labels presenting the old attributions!

On that note I will leave you to ponder the disjuncture between bibliographic description in eighteenth-century China and that of today–while we can recognize the words in the Sikuquanshu descriptions as separable elements, perhaps their function for the library’s chief reader (the emperor) was a snapshot of the work that couldn’t be altered. Would it be recognizable by the emperor as the same work if the names were corrected?

You’ll probably head back to Facebook now, but before I quit for the day and feed the staff I will reread some of my favorite moments in the dissertation. Like footnote number 294 on the Thirteen Classics that were carved in stone as part of the Sikuquanshu project (they had typos)! And the really fun subsection on page 202 about the annual distribution of Uighur muskmelons to the Sikuquanshu staff (junior staff got 1/4 melon each)! And the graph in Figure 4–it’s still awesome!

Spending about five years of my life in the company of the Qianlong emperor was a cool thing. It’s too bad that my Chinese history advisor was right: the market for this knowledge dried up in 1912. Oh, and was Foucault right about cultural difference? Yes and no. Chinese authorship as seen by the literati in the high Qing is hardly an exotic “other,” even though its situation in a system of imperial patronage is more extremely circumscribed than European authorship of the same time. But that’s an analysis that someone else in mainstream academia will have to do, because these files are being flung.


About Cheryl Boettcher Tarsala

author, researcher, educator in the realms of cataloging, bibliography, and authorship
This entry was posted in authorship, China. Bookmark the permalink.

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