LitFest Part 1 – Archive Shock: Adventurous Scholarship in Ted Bishop’s The Social Life of Ink

Niall Fink responds to the launch of Ted Bishop’s The Social Life of Ink, and reflects on travel writing, archival work, creative and scholarly mentorship, and the material connections between academic research and lived experience. 

Ted Bishop’s latest book, The Social Life of Ink, finally launched Wednesday night (Oct 22) Social Life of Inkat the Stanley Milner Theatre in Edmonton. I say finally because it has been more than a decade since his first book, Riding with Rilke, came out and because, personally, I have been waiting at least three years for this second one. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit first that I can’t write impartially about Ted Bishop’s work. He is a professor at the University of Alberta and he is on my examining committee. Beyond that, I like him. As Todd Babiak, another former student of his, put it on Wednesday, Ted has the remarkable ability to “wear [his] scholarship so lightly.” “Maybe that’s because my scholarship is so light,” was Ted’s reply. It’s hard not to like a teacher like that.

The Social Life of Ink comes out of more than a decade of archival research, which is hardly light scholarship. If there is anything light about his scholarship, it is because he works hard to unburden it from pretensions. Ten years to write a book? Apparently it’s all because he had so much fun travelling around the world to far-flung archives, hunting down the creator of the ballpoint pen or the Chinese poets who courted concubines with their erotic ink-verse. And writing about the adventure was even more fun, worth labouring over for years. At least, that’s the impression that Wednesday night, with its mix of stories and jokes tried for. I’m not convinced. There is more to Ted’s “travel writing” than Indiana Jones meets the English department.

I know this because three years ago, back when The Social Life of Ink was still “almost done,” I took a travel writing class with Ted. Like any good student, I read my professor’s book before the course. Riding With Rilke turned out to have as many German motorcycles as German poets, which was great. I had just bought a 650cc enduro motorcycle a year before. Our first emails were about riding the Alaska Highway. I had done it, Ted wanted to do it, and we didn’t need to establish why one would do it. Only later, when the term started, did we talk about writing. But these two conversations blended with one another, as they do in his first book.

The moment that crystalised this connection in Riding with Rilke is also the genesis of The Social Life of Ink; they share, on the most basic level, the same central problem of connecting scholarship with the physical stuff of life. When Todd Babiak, hosting the Q and A session Wednesday night, asked what prompted him to write a history of ink, Ted told a very familiar story (with a quick nod to Paul Stoller’s Sensuous Scholarship).

One afternoon, struggling to keep his eyes open while poring through an archive at Western State University, Ted came across a letter he had read dozens of times before in as many reprinted versions. Since the moment is described already in Riding with Rilke I’ll repeat it here in Ted’s own words. He writes:

I felt a physical shock. I was holding Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. I lost any bodily sense, felt I was spinning into a vortex, a connection that collapsed the intervening decades. This note wasn’t a record of the event—this was the event itself. This writing. And it was not for me. I had walked in on something unbearably personal. (34-35)

It was a profound moment of “archival shock,” (36) the moment that turned him into an “archive junkie” (which may be both the least pretentious and the most accurate description of an academic to date). It was a moment of connecting with words, the object of his years of study, as a physical object. A connection with the very ink of Virginia Woolf’s pen.

Which brings us to gallnuts. You can crack them up, mix them with a few toxic chemicals, and make ink. Doing this on a stage at your launch also makes for the kind of Youtube-able spectacle that sells books (the title of one of his early public lectures was “Crush my gallnuts baby and I’ll be with you till the end of time”). Ted freely admits that having the audience grind their own gallnuts, mixing them with a close-up projection behind you, and signing books with the ink the audience made might be, in part, a bookseller’s gimmick. But there’s another part to it too.

Recently, I have been reading the work of Eugene Gendlin (especially in Thinking at the Edge), as well Sondra Perl’s interpretations of Gendlin for writers (Felt Sense). Gendlin’s ideas are built on the premise that the body knows more than words can easily tell. Writing, when it is working precisely, is the body struggling to express what it feels tacitly. This is to say that writing comes first from from the body, situated in but not entirely dependent on the scripting of culture or language or a given discourse.

“The suicide note added nothing to my textual knowledge, but it added enormously to my corporeal knowledge, a knowledge difficult to quantify or describe,” Ted writes later in Riding with Rilke (page 36). While I hesitate to put words into Ted’s mouth or to oversimplify Gendlin’s ideas, there is a connection here to Ted’s “corporeal knowledge” that is indeed difficult to quantify or describe. To know a text as Ted came to know Woolf’s letter is more complex than knowing the words. It is also an experience of its smell, its texture, the colour of the ink, and of so many other details; an experience that goes beyond the words and connects a reader to the woman who wrote them and experienced those same physical things, and through her to the time in which she wrote and the emotions she grappled, and that ultimately grappled her.

At no point in our travel writing class did Ted expound on corporeal knowledge, or on embodied knowing as an answer to the postmodern impasse, or any of these esoteric subjects which no doubt inform his writing. What he did demand was that we produce writing that we could feel, and that he could feel too. I don’t recall his ever belabouring this point either, since all talking is by nature intuitive. At any rate, writing about motorcycles or about the smells on the street of New Delhi it is intuitive enough to write from a felt sense. But apply this message to writing about words, for instance the words other people have written or said about their own lives and experiences, and it is a much more difficult idea to communicate.

If his first book might be read as a rediscovery of books as physical objects that are not entirely unlike motorcycles, then The Social Life of Ink takes a reader deeper and further afield into written language itself. Grinding gallnuts and dipping a fountain pen in the ink connects Ted, along with his readers and his students (he had a class of grad students grinding nuts last semester) to the physical actions that created Pride and Prejudice, The Canterbury Tales, the Bible. While it might seem too obvious to mention that these texts were written in ink, it is also true that now, as you are reading this text on the ephemeral light of a screen, it is easy to underestimate the significance of what writing was. Forgetting that writing begins with a physical act, one risks becoming a kind of Asimovian disembodied mind, reaching through the archive for another disembodied mind. Grinding gallnuts returns us to a particular kind of power that written words can have, one that — and Ted hesitates to say this on stage, reluctant at the edge of elegy — might be forgotten as we hurtle through the digital age.

Ink has not been forgotten, of course. More and more of Ted’s students, by his own observation, are returning to handwritten notes and letters, simply for the experience and the permanence ink produces. His book is more celebration than elegy. But rather than Indiana Jones, I still see Ted more as a John Muir of the printed word, someone who invites readers on a walk through a wonderful place that might otherwise be neglected. I’m talking about those sleep-inducing archives, in case you lost me. They really are extraordinary places, worth writing about with a sense of reverence and adventure.

Niall Fink is a writer and MA student living in Edmonton, Alberta. Visit Niall’s website.

LitFest is an annual Edmonton-based literary festival that celebrates Canada’s  non-fiction literature and promotes Alberta’s literary production. It invites authors, publishers, scholars and the general reading public to engage in public dialogue for over ten days of readings, book launches, roundtables and tributes.

This year, the SNS was fortunate to have two young Albertan writers reflect on reading and writing non-fiction for The Conversation blog.

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