Editing Popular Literature: Variability and Performativity in Mixed Literary-Oral Literature and the Feasibility of an Open Access Electronic Text and Research Platform for these Text Genres

Project: Research project

Grant Program

Social Policy Grant

Project Description

Among the most effective means of disseminating Islamic knowledge among the populace in pre-Socialist Central Asia were popular literary genres in local vernaculars. Among these are hagiographies, heroic narratives and admonitory advice literature, other kinds of texts are linked to special calendar or live-cycle events like Ramadan verses or lamentations of the dead, but also to certain professional activities. Due to their allegedly marginal literary importance concerning elaborate style and refinement, these genres are as a rule much neglected by research, especially edition philology. Some scholars have already
addressed the mismatch between the importance of these texts and the attention they received for editing (e.g. Adarkar 2007, DeWeese 2007, see also Stewart 1991, 1994).The neglect has two main reasons: First, scholarly editing has a tradition of focusing on literary expressions that, often written by prominent authors, emanated from court or scholarly circles while popular texts were traditionally not deemed sophisticated enough to merit an edition. A second reason is grounded in the very character of these texts: They often oscillate between written and oral forms of transmission, have multiple variations of a core text or topic, and are difficult to grasp with traditions methods of edition philology. Their importance is also often downplayed
by local religious specialists who defame their content as nonconforming with Islamic teachings and their air of spirituality as superstition. The texts express, however, central moral and religious concerns in a language adapted to the specific audience in language choice but also in style. In these texts, prominent figures and episodes from canonical Islamic writings are transformed in ways that make them accessible in a Central Asian setting. They are, for instance, stripped of their Middle Eastern, Arabic characteristics and relocated in a Central Asian setting. This delocalization and subsequent indigenization (Renard 1993: 16) pervades not only literary works, it leaves marks in the natural and cultural landscape by relating sacred narratives and figures to specific Central Asian places. One of these so-called “small genres” is specific to the wider region of
Central Asia, the crafts’ manual or crafts’ codex of conduct (in Chaghatay kasb risālasi, in Persian risāla-yi kasb, also kasbnāma) (see Tosheva 2002, Dagyeli 2011). These texts contain obligatory religious knowledge, saints’ narratives and
discuss aspects of a pious way to earn a living from crafts and services. Disseminated, recited and performed in multiple languages within a wide geographic area (from Khorasan to Delhi, the whole of Turkestan including today’s Xinjiang and Kazakhstan) bevor the advent to various hues of socialism, modernism and Islamic puritanism during the 20 th century, the risāla survives today only in vestiges and leads a niche existence, predominantly in museums and archives. Nils Lykoshin and some other colonial observers recognized the texts as allowing insight into the “minds of our Central Asian aborigines,
especially the lower ranks of the uneducated Sart and Kyrgyz” (Lykoshin 1901) although most dismissed the texts as superstitious (see Dagyeli 2011: 16-17). A large text corpus of risāla has already been collected by me and my Uzbek
collaborator Sharifa Tosheva in a previous project (Around 350 texts from 45 professions). We did not to select one textual variation at the expense of others (see for previous reprints and editions e.g. Gavrilov 1912, Andreev 1923, Kassim 1927, Sarraf 1973, Mokri 1977, Sugawara 2004, excerpts in Schluessel 2018: 74-88). The problem remains, however, that one more or less randomly discovered variant of these texts is taken as a basis for the edition. While taking the most well preserved, and preferably autograph, manuscript of a text works well for classical written literature of single authors, it does much less so for popular, folkloristic texts like the risāla. Since the one “original text” does not exist here, but rather filiations of textual traditions clustered around a narrative core with frequent cross-references, omissions and Wandertopoi, an edition
that is based on one variant inevitably violates the character of these texts. We thought to bypass this fundamental problem by adding important variations at the margins of the text chosen for the edition and by choosing texts representing the whole spectrum of the genre, with more and less narrative, religious and doctrinal shares, mystic and more mundane samples,
complete and incomplete copies. While this approach does more justice to the genre, it produces a very voluminous manuscript (as of today, it would render at least 1,000 printed pages) and still privileges the material in sometimes unsatisfying ways. Furthermore, the risāla abounds with terminology that is not necessarily archaic but almost forgotten even within Central Asia
because the work techniques, tools and labour processes are no longer used. Here, contextualization from other sources like photos, sketches and additional text material is necessary to make sense of the text. While looking for alternative ways to publish the texts in a meaningful way that does justice to the peculiarities of the genre, I came across several examples of electronic text and research platforms that provide historical material in a way similar to a book but with multiple possibility for referring to contextualizing material, e.g. embedded links to pictures, additional sources, biographical information etc. The possibilities offered by approaches in the digital humanities look like a promising option to present the risāla material in a more holistic way, taking into account performative faculties of the texts (see Dagyeli 2017), contextualization and the literary environment. It would also allow for the corpus to grow while being available online for it is never precluded that hitherto unknown text are found in an archive or in private holding. Its major benefit would, however, be that it allows open access for everybody interested in the topic and the sources. This is especially valuable within Central Asia itself where access to archives is often difficult. Besides the immediate benefits, this project will also be a major step in the field of Turkology for applying new technological
possibilities to the source material we study.
Effective start/end date2/1/201/31/21