Baggage Allowances: Diasistema in Manuscript Culture (2/2)

Posted by: MFLC Team 4 years, 8 months ago

by Ella Williams

A manuscript is of course a multilayered object even before starting to move. During the meetings of our research group, we spoke of diasistema, a concept developed by Cesare Segre as a way of thinking about manuscripts’ relationship to the text(s) they contain. According to Segre, every authorial text operates according to its own, unique, system. When a scribe copies this text into a manuscript, he / she introduces a new system of decoding and recoding the text, in line with his / her competence and stylistic preferences, such that the new manuscript represents both the original (authorial) system and a second (transcribed) system. If a third scribe then copies this text into a new manuscript, the latter contains three co-existent systems: that of the original, the first copy and the new copy. Bearing in mind that many textual traditions survive in dozens - if not hundreds - of manuscript copies, the diasistemic grid can become mind-bogglingly complex.

Although Segre was primarily concerned with manuscripts’ transmission of textual systems, it is worth considering whether a similar line of thinking could apply to other elements of a manuscript’s make-up. For just as every scribal copy preserves and adapts the text of precedent scribes - the author, other copyists or, more frequently, both - to produce an individual system of production, so too does every illuminator, decorator, rubricator and binder fashion his / her craft by adapting pre-existent models. Perhaps, therefore, we can see manuscripts as carrying multiple “diasistemi”, a layering-upon-layering of different copying acts, stylistic inheritance and adaptation, which are both textual and decorative. And if, as Segre suggests, this layering of systems is continually increased by our engagement in a text, by the way in which it is “mentally transcribed and interpreted” by us, such that “as we master a text, we unconsciously begin a new diasistema”, then texts, and the manuscripts which contain them, exist not as fossilized systems of representation, but as ever-evolving mediators between their producers and users [Cesare Segre, Semiotica filologica, Torino: Einaudi (1979) p.67; translation my own].

Thinking of manuscripts as carriers of multiple diasistemi, of accumulating the stuff of their wanderings, reminds me, in some ways, of the medium we are building to contain their descriptions and to trace their trajectories and relations with other manuscripts: the online database, a central part of the MFLCOF legacy. Perhaps it is through apparatus such as this, a product of collective influence and placeless evolution through time, that we will no longer try to fix our manuscripts to a singular location, or to narrow the field of their possible associations. Perhaps, instead, we will begin to adapt our questions to their multiplex identities, to the processes of diasistema at the heart of their production and reception - indeed, to make some room for their baggage.