There’s a neat article in Slate this week on the defacement of a panel on the Luxor Temple by a teenaged tourist from China. What interests me most is that instead of the typical ‘woe is me, vandalism’ narrative, the article (without defending the most recent episode) presents the broader social history of tourism-related graffiti and vandalism in Egypt. Not only is it not unusual (or new), but for decades there was apparently a virtual trade in graffiti tourism in Egypt among wealthy Europeans. And, of course, when we analyze ancient graffiti on ancient monuments (though alas, never ROMANES EUNT DOMUS), we learn far more about the everyday lives of individuals than would otherwise be possible: about travel practices, literacy rates, informal linguistic registers, naming practices, and so on. Because Greek and Roman soldiers and traders, two thousand years ago, hastily placed inscriptions on Egyptian monuments, we now have access to thousands of voices that would otherwise be lost. If the present activity of a tourist at Luxor is so much worse, why is it worse? Because it’s newer? Because it’s prohibited now?
Because Allen Walker Read, in his travels through the western U.S. in the early 20th century, thought to record often-crude bathroom graffiti, we now have Classic American Graffiti: Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America (even though, at the time of its first printing in 1935, he had to have it privately published in Paris due to its lewd content), and know far more about twentieth-century American English profanity and its folklore than would otherwise be possible. On the wall of a bathroom stall near my office at Wayne State University is a carefully-curated unit circle, no doubt put there as a mid-test aid for some hapless mathematics student – almost painfully re-inscribed, it seems, every time I return. We can see the same sort of thing in Quinn Dombrowski’s collection Crescat Graffiti, Vita Excolatur: Confessions of the University of Chicago. For my own part, I can attest that you learn at least as much about what francophones and anglophones in Montreal think about language policy by studying the graffiti on stop signs than you do from the text on the signs themselves.
Thinking about the production and consumption of these informal texts starts us on an interesting line of thinking about what sorts of textual productions we value, which we ignore, and which we stigmatize as befouling spaces that should remain pure. There’s no easy answer. In any case, the superficial scratches made at Luxor have already been repaired with no long-term damage. I’m hardly saying that we should tolerate all forms of vandalism (on public monuments or otherwise), or that there is nothing problematic with writing on ancient temples. But it’s worth pondering on what principles we decide what types of writing are authorized, and how they become authorized.