Just clinging to the end of page 99 in my dissertation is a tentative question: “but should it really be that the presence of a model, even a very strict one, inhibits improvisation in the making process?” In this part of my dissertation I am in full swing unpacking the making process in a rather unique industrial space—a warehouse tucked into the Sonoma, California countryside that produces Tibetan Buddhist texts by the hundreds of thousands. On this and the surrounding pages I grapple with an anthropology of making that is deeply suspicious of the corresponsive capacities of machines and the stifling influence of models, both of which supposedly undermine the skill and creativity of the artisan. The making that takes place in the Sonoma bindery, however, is all at once thoroughly industrial and mechanized, governed by a strict, ritually dictated model, and enormously creative and skillful.
This particular thread about work, machines, making, and creativity is only one in my dissertation’s wider endeavor to follow the social and physical making of Tibetan sacred things across a community of Californian Nyingma Buddhists. In the months since I defended my work though, this question about making under strict parameters has lodged in my anthropological consciousness, spawning more about the nature of skill in labor, anthropology’s nostalgia for craft and its trappings, and perhaps the discipline’s broader nostalgic tendencies. These questions have taken hold of my work in a way I did not intend or expect.
What page 99 holds for me is a reminder that as authors we maintain only a measure of control over texts. The writing we deem finished may turn back toward us and accost us with the very questions we thought we were asking. This realization is not un-ironic for a dissertation about the social lives and agency of books. Page 99 of my dissertation may not encapsulate the whole especially well in terms of its arguments, but it does embody a reminder of the more central lesson my fieldwork held: that texts—even our own—have lives, power, and the chimeric ability to morph at every reading.
Amy Binning. 2019. Printing as Practice: Innovation and Imagination in the Making of Tibetan Buddhist sacred texts in California. Cambridge University, Phd.