Visitors’ Books as a Socio-Discursive Site: The Materiality and Ideology of Handwriting in a War Commemoration Museum.

Chaim Noy

Visitors’ books (VBs) are a unique type of written communicative medium, in which writing can sometime assume a semi-ritualistic state. Situated in museums and exhibition halls, galleries, hotels, parks, and the like, and available for public reading and writing, VBs and guest books afford a public space of discursive articulation of expression that lies “in-between,” enmeshing the individual and the collective, the aesthetic and the ideological, and the spontaneous and the institutional. This paper focuses on the socio-discursive practices that are performed in relation to writing in (and reading) VBs. The primary corpus on which the paper draws are texts inscribed by visitors in VBs, observations conducted near them, and interviews with visitors who inscribe in (or else read) the pages of these books. The paper conceptualizes VBs as socio-discursive sites, where meanings and identities are fervently expressed, validated or contested, vis-?-vis “acts of inscription.” Hence the present focus is less on the content of texts visitors inscribe, and more on the conditions within which inscriptions are generated. Via ethnographic and processual approaches, cultural processes of entextualization (Silverstein & Urban, 1996) in particular, cultural and institutional-ideological contexts are studied. The paper conceptualizes these books as agents or actors that dynamically operate in the spaces of museums, and constitute interactive and ideologically charged exhibits therein. Interestingly, these handwritten actors are only partly under the ideological regulation of the site in which they are presented for visitors, and hence tensions can be observed between the site (context) and the book (text), or between museums’ physical spaces and the discursive spaces of the VBs. The corpus under examination includes two volumes of VBs, located in a War Commemoration museum in west Jerusalem, Israel. Each of the volumes covers a time span of approximately a year, and includes an average of 1600 entries. The corpus offers an impressively rich variety of graphic representations and thematic expressions. Both the representations and expressions are studied in relation to the semiotic characteristics of the institutional site in which the books are located. In this regard, physical (material) and semiotic-spatial dimensions and affordances, intertextual and ideological chains, and issues concerning the (romantic) linguistic ideology (Bauman & Briggs, 2003; Silverstein, 1976) of handwriting are discussed. Specifically, the VBs at the War Commemoration museum amount to a site of expression of and participation in ultra-nationalist ideologies via inscriptional acts of commemoration, as well as a space of contest between secular and fundamental, messianic worldviews and graphic symbols.

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