inscription, graphology, media, writing, material, epigraphy, postcolonial, pictogram, petroglyph, antiquarian, Cotton Mather, Early America, Native America, indigenous, Dighton Rock
Inscription offers a capacious term used across different disciplines to defamiliarize and expand our conceptions of writing. For art historians and epigraphers it provides a term for writing that extends beyond the material substrates of paper and ink, such as painting, carving, weaving, or stamping. For philosophers, postcolonial theorists, and media theorists, it more broadly encompasses nonbook or nonalphabetic forms of writing from khipus and tattoos to record grooves and electronic circuits. In earlier historical senses, inscription commonly refers to writing that is painted or carved, while also being closely linked to genres of memorialization, gift offering, and public display that cross into print and manuscript. Widely read, collected, and commented on, inscriptions have a rich literary history closely tied to yet also distinct from the history of the book.
At the heart of these overlapping disciplinary and historical meanings are questions concerning the limits of the book medium for apprehending the history of writing and communications as well as the boundaries and social dependencies of what we are able to recognize as writing. Inscription thus offers a useful term for a problem animating several interrelated fields of inquiry in material texts and early American studies. For as Juliet Fleming has recently reminded us, we do not know what writing is. The twentieth century’s attempts to essentialize writing and distinguish it from regimes of orality and illiteracy have largely collapsed under the combined pressures of postcolonial, anthropological, and philosophical scholarship, as well as in response to the epochal shifts in our use and forms of access to writing produced by the ongoing digital revolution. In response, scholars working in a range of fields have called for a new theoretically informed investigation of writing conceived without words or beyond the book form. Inscription, in each of the several senses we might use it, pushes us toward such an investigation: of the materials, techniques, and social and psychological investments that make up a particular culture’s writing world in the broadest [End Page 691] possible sense, and of the play of politics and power that enforces its consciously conceived boundaries, especially at the point of intercultural contact or historical technological shift.1
Scholars working on Native American material texts and communications systems have long been engaged in such a project to undo and revise restrictive conceptions of writing. From Elizabeth Boone and Walter Mignolo’s landmark collection of essays to Matt Cohen and Jeffrey Glover’s more recent edited collection, such work has brought together research in different geographic areas and periods to challenge deeply engrained assumptions concerning the superiority and teleological advancement of speech-based writing over other visual, symbolic, and multimedia systems. Through this work, and the contributions of other scholars, including Lisa Brooks, Hilary Wyss, and Philip Round, a complex picture has emerged of the fraught intersection of indigenous and European communications systems and Native peoples’ shifting forms of access to representation at the moment of encounter as well as in the subsequent centuries of adaptation and survival. In reconsidering the limits and possibilities of the book medium, the archive, and what we count as “literature,” research on the heterogeneous “mediascapes” of Native and Atlantic communication has transformed our sense of Native presence in American history—even as it continues to confront the difficulties surrounding texts and objects that often resist our intellectual and disciplinary categories.2
The turn to material texts in early American studies has overlapped with and derived motivating energies from this research and encourages the recognition of a broader field of inscription even for scholars who remain focused on the printed book. Scholarship of the past twenty years marks a series of steps in this direction, beyond the old teleologies of “print culture” and alphabetic literacy toward a new consideration of the great variety of [End Page 692] media forms within the world of print, as well as the contingencies that sustain any material or conceptual dominance of the book among other media forms. African American studies has offered particularly important contributions to this shift—for example, in Lindon Barrett...