Republic of Letters: Acquiring and Organising Knowledge in the Digital Era

Merely digitising texts for preservation misses the key point. A sustained attention to textual protocols is needed as they are repositories of memories.

Between 1600 and 1800, Europe had informal networks of learning operationalised through exchanges of letters among scholars, poets, statesmen, thinkers, scientists, philosophers and various learned societies across the continent.

This circulation of letters, opinions, literary texts and knowledge across national libraries was informal, often unregulated and personal, handwritten and later printed. Yet it played a key role in shaping arguably the single most influential intellectual and cultural ‘movement’ (though it was hardly a cohesive movement) of the age: the European Enlightenment. This informal network came to be known as the ‘Republic of Letters’.

On India’s Republic Day, speculating around the idea of a Republic coded as a Republic of Letters (RoL) may produce some interesting ideas.

The circulation of global literature and ideas today through digital media constitutes a RoL. This constitutes the memories of the human race itself. Jerome McGann writes: ‘literature is an institutional system of cultural memory – a republic of letters’. McGann notes that ‘the digital migration of our museum and library archives is well underway and will continue. So is the development of an integrated digital network for connecting those resources’.

He calls for a sustained attention to textual protocols because, as he suggests, the texts are repositories of memories and inheritances. To merely digitise them for preservation is to miss the key point. What are our protocols for reading these texts? What are the institutional mechanisms of acquisition, coding, cataloguing and organising the materials?

Institutional mechanisms

First and foremost, the new RoL remains enmeshed in institutional forms and operations. It is determined by massive corporates such as Google, educational repositories such as JSTOR, archives such as MIT’s Shakespeare, and of course state-run projects. The RoL remains embedded in the processes of acquiring materials and norms of dissemination (such as Creative Commons) and state operations such as censorship and regulatory mechanisms.

The RoL is limited by the surveillance of those involved in the textual process, the authors and readers (for the last, see Reading Lolita in Tehran as an instance). Fatwas, bans, exile, surveillance and executions are common methods of ensuring that the RoL’s foundational textual process – writing and reading – are controlled.

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The RoL can be made subject to fear. Sarath of Ondaatje’s grand Anil’s Ghost says, ‘I wanted to find one law to cover all of living. I found fear.’ But even if fear is the controlling emotion in a nation, there is a RoL, one that acts against the institutional limits precisely because the RoL exceeds time and space, boundaries and barriers – as with the letters buried in the ground of Nazi camps, which are just now being discovered.

The RoL, even in incipient forms, causes states anxieties. Any state that seeks totalitarian power focuses primarily on any signs of a RoL emerging, and swoops down on its authors.

Second, the RoL depends hugely on the creation of a literary universe. The scholar Pascale Casanova has described a “literature-world… a literary universe relatively independent of the everyday world and its political divisions, whose boundaries and operational laws are not reducible to those of ordinary political space.”

Casanova’s work therefore calls for translations and translated texts from across the world to reconstitute the international literary space. She concedes that prizes such as the Nobel demand that for a text to be recognised, it must be universal: “the monopolists of universality command others to submit to their law. Universality is what they – and they alone-declare to be acceptable and accessible to all.”

Thus, on the one hand is the state’s exercise of censorship, terrorising its authors and publishers, proscribing books and telling literary scholars how to read (solely) for nationalist purposes – when, ironically, poets who write songs that become ‘national anthems’ have argued against nationalism.

On the other is the demand made by the publishing corporates and prize-juries that books, say from the Global South, must have a “universal appeal.”

Emerging out of contests

However, like political Republics, which we honour on January 26 in our country, maybe the RoL can only emerge out of contests, struggles and embattled positions as the authors fight to write, to be read. It is no wonder that today the RoL has so many exiled, fugitive writers – Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nuruddin Farah, Salman Rushdie – just as in preceding eras, it counted among its ‘Republic-ans’, Dante, Zola, Tom Paine, Voltaire, Joyce, Beckett and others.

Third, reading literature from across the world – while keeping in mind their contexts of origin and the politics that allowed or prevented the book’s publishing – must be accompanied by a scrupulous attention to its language, for it is in language that memories are stored.

To return to McGann, reading protocols that foreground common inheritances and legacies are important to us as a race. This ‘humane’ reading is, he proposes, the task of the literary reader, teacher and scholar. Radical readings that uncover the text’s racial, gendered or class politics also demand an attention to language – for as Jacques Derrida warned: ‘there is no racism without a language’. To be able to sympathise and empathise with distant suffering, to find resonances with the public emotions of a different culture demands this careful attention to the literary.

The RoL is built around these acts of reading and writing, hedged by institutions. The burden, if that is what it is, of preserving memories and cultural legacies is the task of the literary then the onus on readers to read remains undiminished even in the digital age.

Limited attention spans

The fact that reading skills now seem limited by the attention spans created from ‘screen culture’ is worrying because it suggests that our reading now focuses on quick meanings rather than in-depth engagement with a text’s politics. It is easy to say and predict that writings by subalterns, minorities and the excluded will deal with oppression. This is a given. The question that literary scholarship enjoins us to ask: how does the text talk about and bring us these themes? The ‘how’ is the mechanics of a text that we are likely to gloss over in our pursuit of the quick-meaning.

RoL hinges on careful expositions of the texts. Ideological criticism – whether right, left or any geographical direction – tends to generate the overdetermined because the commitment of the reader-scholar is to the ideology and not to the operations of a text. RoL’s attention to the history of words and meanings, traditionally, alerts us to subtexts and the buried. These subtexts are a historical legacy and need to be excavated as well.

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Both of these procedures, reading and writing – neglected arts in the field of the literary today, possibly engineered by the potent mix of lazy reading, Wiki-dependent teachers and the ephemera of the digital – are central to the RoL.

The RoL represents a human legacy. To recognise and refuse the ‘danger of a single story’ (Adichie) is the work at hand because recuperating the text’s unconscious, often forged in oppression, censorship and pain, is the responsibility of the reader.

A participation in a Republic beyond the nation-state, linking humanity itself, demands the right to a text, the right to read – and hence demands a campaign against censorship, bans, state action against thinkers, and the excesses against writers. The Republic of Letters is not limited by nationalism or geopolitical boundaries.

Like the humanities in general – and the Republic of Letters remains the Queen of the Humanities – the Republic is committed to something larger than a nation or a single race. Any democracy is always a ‘democracy-to-come’, as Jacques Derrida terms it, but it must be prepared for.

As there is no ‘democracy without literature, no literature without democracy’ (Derrida again), the preparation for a future democracy depends on the making of a Republic of Letters. If the world is still worth fighting for, as Hemingway said, then the fight is primarily for the Republic of Letters.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.

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