The academic study of manuscripts and texts has been built on the question of interpretation: the proper understanding of a text, we think, is discovered through the recovery of its meaning. This assumption, which derives in large part from the Reformation context for the development of printing in Europe, has led to two kinds of scholarly blindness. First, all other uses of written text are marginalized; and second, text-as-meaningful has become fetished in theory.
To assume that there is only one form of literacy is no better than to assume that there is only one kind of kinship, or one kind of exchange.
Indeed, the much earlier invention of printing in East Asia had little to do with egalitarian access to meaning; it was a state-sponsored effort to harness the recitative power of texts for political ends. A history of artifice and technologization of text elsewhere in the world (and very likely in pre-print Europe too) is impossible within this paradigm. In this talk, I will show several examples of the ritual handling and performance of manuscripts and texts in the Himalayas. In these actions, the primary meaning does not emerge from interpretation, but through procession, consecration, repetition, and a range of other non-interpretive practices. By comparing Tibetan and Newar practices, we will see that even within the broad Mahāyāna understanding of the ritual power of texts, there are significant differences in attitude towards mechanization and oral performance.