Scribbling: before and after the letter
Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘Scribbling: before and after the letter’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/scribbling/ and also provide the paragraph number as appropriate if quoting.
1. Scribbling, by Bessie Price
Bessie Price MS 6007, FM189, 5748-9, Cory Library
2. On the avant-texte
2.1 When does a letter begin and end, when does it stop or start being some other kind of writing? These questions feature in most of the WWW Curiosities and are considered here regarding preliminary writings, those that can underpin the writing of a letter, and also those that are separate from but hint at the letter that is dispatched and subsequently read by its addressee. An example is shown above (and is transcribed below), and comes from the Elizabeth (Bessie) Price letters in the Cory Library, Grahamstown. It is scribbling on a scrap piece of paper in Bessie Price’s handwriting. If she had been a famous writer, rather than a rather dusty missionary wife, then her scribbling might be referred to rather grandly as an avant-texte.
2.2 The term avant-texte refers to any writing that comes before ‘a text’, with text here meaning something that is considered ‘finished’, and is frequently used about literary production and the amended and edited drafts that writers work on and work up (for founding work, see Deppman, Ferrer & Groden 2004). However, it can and should be applied to the pre-production of all kinds of writing, and of course takes a particular form in the computer age when ordinarily such revisions can be made while leaving no apparent trace (Jensen 2014). In working on the avant-texte, analytical attention is directed towards, firstly, the process that the writer has engaged in and the clues this gives as to their purposes and practices; and secondly, what this then tells about the relationship between the ‘final’ writing and its avant-texte/s.
2.3 All well and good. But the presupposition that there is a ‘finished’ product to which an edited text bears a prior closely-linked relationship limits the utility of the avant-texte analytically to situations where there are such products and and discernible temporal relationships between them. In the case of the scribbling discussed here, this limitation is very problematic. How curious, and what more precisely are the similarities and differences here?
3.1 Fling wide the doors of an archive, any the archive, and open any collection of more than minimal size, and what is found? References in discussions of archival research may be made to flotsam and jetsam, to things washed up randomly, but in practice what are discussed are manorial rolls, correspondence by colonial governors, court reports, family papers, antiquarian documents concerned with neolithic monuments, business records… This is an orchestrated flotsam and jetsam, orchestrated by the analytical concerns of researchers in what is focused on, rather than the actual flotsam and jetsam.
3.2 Open the boxes of LMS missionaries in southern Africa, the Pringle papers, the Forbes family papers, the Bessie Price letters, etc etc, and what is revealed at the bottom – those boxes right at the end often labelled ‘miscellaneous’ – are dusty battered envelopes with random scraps, truly random scraps, things that the eyes of the vast majority of archival researchers turn politely away from because of disinterest. These are the receipts for pencils, small bits of paper, two lines of poetry copied out, odd buttons, one item lists, unused birthday cards, battered empty purses, cancelled 6d train tickets, empty envelopes with addresses and stamps torn off…
3.3 How to make sense of such things, both individually and as a set of things having consanguinity? The obscure scribbling by Bessie Price, one small item among a number of bits and scraps under the archive reference number of MS 6007, shown at the start of this discussion provides an example to base some thoughts about this around. There are many others examples which could be drawn on from most of the collections worked on as part of WWW research (with Forbes, Schreiner-Hemming, Pringle and the Emagusheni Trading Station particularly notably rich in their miscellanies of scaps), but this one is to hand and will do.
3.4 MS 6007 includes within it small pages torn from notebooks, drafts of paragraphs of letters, a printed top sheet to a sermon, the start of several pieces of religious reflection. It is a miscellany of over twenty items, for it is composed of things of different kinds or types, rather than being a compendium. It gives the impression of having been scooped from the back of a drawer, although of course there is no way of knowing this.
4. What to think of scribbling?
4.1 The scribbling starting ‘Wagon wheel n the Dutch Couple….’ is one item among this array of things. It seems to bear no relationship to any of the other items collected together under this reference number, although presumably they were all located together when donated or purchased and were therefore curated in this way. It is a scrap of paper, which is torn. It has crowded content, and there is writing in pencil on its reverse side which gives the impression of thought coming to mind after the pencilled writing on the top side. From differences in the writing, there are two pens used, and at least one pencil and probably two, and so it written on at least three and perhaps four times. It has no date, but it is internally ‘dated’ in the sense that seriality and a seeming one-after-another character to the scribbling is implied.
4.2 Inscribed on its top side are a number of separate sets of referrants, separated by the medium of their inscription. They are transcribed as follows (nb. a question mark in front of a word indicating a doubtful reading; ‘n’ is short for ‘and’):
Wagon wheel n the Dutch Couple.
Sechele n the £50 ?To Mr Thompson
Little Ma-Mary n the three baths.
Slap on the head.
“?Empty pots full of fat meat?”
The betrayed damsel.
German ?Day miss n bleeding
N. huts n calico windows
?Helen. Wild ?woman
Scorpions. Sheeps’ tail &c
?Cond ?V- last page – Mary – Ann – Robert – two accidents
then ?Mamy ?unreadable. John. Mrs Ross. ?old ?Jim. Red House.
Old Paul unreadable unreadable
Love one another
4.3 What is added when the crowded pencilled similar items on the other side of the torn paper are taken into account? This conveys the sense of rapid thoughts and memories unleashed by the start of recollection indicated on the top side of the paper. It also has overlaps of names that occur on both sides of the torn sheet, and it implies more of a direct relationship between the scribbling here and something that could be described as before’, ‘a text’ in the sense used earlier.
5. Scribbling and writing ‘before’
5.1 Scribbling is a well-known aspect of writing, something that almost everyone who can write is likely to engage in at some point. Scribbling is what Roland Barthes (1986) refers to as an intransitive verb, for it conjoins writer and addressee in a particular way, one where there is neither ‘you’ nor ‘I’. Scribbling is not so much producing notes to self (as Jack Goody  indicates about lists) as it is the writing of thought as it pops or plops into conscious mind and doing this in a shadowy shorthand way within the truncated scripting involved.
5.2 There is no third party reader (the researchers and their readers) for scribbling because there is no second party reader (an addressee), unlike any eventual letters. Scribbling sometimes hints, sometimes not, at emergent ideas for writing ‘a text’ in the finished sense; and it is not intended for any reader, perhaps not even the scribbler-as-reader. Perhaps I can ‘read’ more of it than most – Sechele, Ma-Mary (but not the baths) and other names, the German missionary, calico at windows, sheeps’ tails, are for instance familiar from reading the rest of Bessie Price’s writings. However, issues in reading in the sense of comprehending this and other scribbling are analytically irrelevant to understanding it, that is, to understanding it in its own terms. Scribbling is not meant to be read, it is meant to be written; that is its purpose, its raison d’etre.
5.3 Also, a few of the elements of this particular scribbling and its continuation on the other side of the torn piece of paper can with some straining be loosely associated with ‘finished’ Bessie Price letters/writings, although most cannot. However, this lacks analytical relevance too, both to this example and to scribbling generally. An appearance in scribbling does not necessarily mean ‘avant’, does not mean there is any clear evidence that this scribbling came ‘before’ or indeed is in any other way directly related, or that a text presumed to be ‘after’ actually was so.
5.4 So what is scribbling and what to do with it?
6. The scriptorium and the laboratory
6.1 Elsewhere I have drawn on Michel de Certeau’s (1988) idea of writing practices as usefully thought of in metaphorical terms as forming a kind of writing laboratory (Stanley 2015, 2016). In part this acts as a scriptorium for producing writings – a shared, social, sociable activity making use of a canon of acceptable practice while also having local and emergent aspects occurring in exchanges between figuration members. In part it acts as a laboratory, in which experimental, diverse, happenstance and occasioned forms of writing are produced, and these are all over the place in canonical terms, including at the borders. And of course in practice these are not stark binaries, but tendencies and with much activity occurring at either ends and in the large between.
6.2 Scribbling can be located therein, as a writer (in the case of Bessie Price, a letter-writer) at work on foundations, not necessarily ‘to’ anything, just quotidian rumination. This is to see scribbling avant the avant-texte, or perhaps just simply different from it. The avant-texte in epistolary terms involves the marks of writing of an ‘I for you’ kind, to be worked up as part of a communicative exchange. But avant the avant-texte is a mind rendering itself to itself, externalising shreds and shadows of thought, in order to treat these as… to treat them as what? Perhaps as simply external, thereby becoming an object; perhaps also as an aide memoir of ‘I was thinking something like this’ kind. This is to see scribbling as also writing ‘after the letter’, in the sense of being able to materialise thinking after letters (A, M, S, T, C and so on) have been used to write and so bring stasis to a process of ruminative thinking.
6.3 Some shorts final observations. There are no verbs in this scribbling by Bessie Price. However, as has been indicated, there is a good deal of interesting intransitivity. And this helps see more clearly the crucial difference between the submerged ‘I’ of scribbling, and the framing ‘I-to-you’ of letter-writing.
Roland Barthes 1986. The rustle of language. University of California Press, pp.11-21.
Michel de Certeau 1988. The writing of history. Columbia University Press.
Deppman, J., Ferrer, D. and Groden, M., 2004. Genetic criticism: Texts and avant-textes. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Jack Goody 1977. The domestication of the savage mind. Cambridge University Press.
Kyle Jensen 2014 Reimagining process: Online writing archives and the future of writing studies. Southern Illinois University Press.
Liz Stanley 2015. The scriptural economy, the Forbes figuration and the racial order: Everyday life in South Africa 1850–1930. Sociology, 49(5), pp.837-852.
Liz Stanley 2016. Settler colonialism and migrant letters: the Forbes family and letter-writing in South Africa 1850–1922. The History of the Family, 21(3), pp.398-428.
Last updated: 14 October 2017