Saturday, June 2, 2012

Walter Mignolo, "Signs and their Transmission: The Question of the Book in the New World"

This long detour through the house of words leads me to believe that a more accurate translation of amoxtli would be biblos, papyrus, liber, or boc, rather than “book” or “libro,” as shown through a closer look at some of the Aztec words related to amoxtli:

Amoxcluiloa, whose roots are amoxtli and icuiloa, “to paint,” “to inscribe something;”
Amoxcalli, whose roots are amoxtli and calli, “house,” “room;”
Amoxitoa/amoxpoa, both of which have as their roots amoxtli; itoa means means “to say” or “to narrate something by heart;” and poa means “to tell,” to “summarize a process,” “to count.”

The translation of amoxitoa/amoxpoa, offered by Simeon as “lire un livre” (to read a book), is quite misleading if it is understood either in the sense of “to go over a written page with the eyes” or “to pronounce out loud what is written,” for the romance words “lire” or “leer” (to read) come from the Latin legere meaning “to collect” (lectio, a gathering, a collecting). The sense of “collecting is absent from the Nahuatl word designating the “same” activity, and the emphasis on “telling or narrating what has been inscribed or painted on a solid surface made out of amoxtli.” The difference is not trivial. It gives us a better understanding of the idea of the sign carriers in societies with alternative literacies.[1]

Now it is possible to attempt a definition of “book” which, contrary to that of “sign,” will be culture-specific: (a) a solid surface is a book as an object to the degree to which it is the sign carrier for some kind of graphic semiotic interaction; (b) a book as an object is also a book as a text to the degree to which it belongs to a specific stage in the development of writing (“pure writing,” according to Diringer’s classification) and the members of a given culture represent the system of graphic semiotic interaction in such a way that it attributes to the sign carrier (the book as an object) high and decisive functions (theological and epistemological) in their own organization.

According to this definition, the book as text implies “pure” writing, although “pure writing” does not necessarily imply the idea of the book. The necessary connections are founded in the presuppositions underlying cultural expression. A rereading of the seminal chapter by Curtius on “The Book as Symbol” (in his European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages), will show that he devotes a great deal of time to metaphors about writing; and he seems to assume that they are plain and simple synonyms of metaphors for the book.

Be that as it may, some example needs to be drawn from Curtius in order to back up our definition of the book as text. In 1948 Curtius called attention to the amount and the significance of the images that different cultures had constructed to represent their ideas about writing and the book. He began his survey with the Greeks, noting that they did not have any “idea of the sacredness of the book, as there is no privileged priestly caste of scribes.” What is more, one can even find a disparagement of writing in Plato. There is the familiar last part of Plato’s Phaedrus in which Socrates attempts to convince Phaedrus that writing is not an aid to memory and learning but, to the contrary, can only “awaken reminiscences” without replacing the true discourse lying in the psyche of the wise man, which must be transmitted through oral interactions. It should be emphasized that Socrates is mainly concerned with “writing” in its relationship to knowledge and transmission, but not with the “book.” If one thinks of the rich vocabulary associated with graphic semiotic interactions inherited from the Greeks and also remembers that the idea of the sacred book was alien to them, for they were more concerned with “writing” that with the “book,” it should again be concluded that to translate “biblos” as “book” implies imposing our meaning of what a book is upon theirs, rather than fully understanding their meaning of “biblos.” This observation, amounting to the general problem of “fusion of horizon” or “fusion of cultural expressions,” is also valid in the case where amoxtli is translated as “book.”

Contrary to the corrupted nature of writing in which Plato represented graphic semiotic interactions, nothing is found but the utmost praise (and with God as the archetypal writer) in Christianity. In this form of representation, the tongue becomes synonymous with the hand[2] and the Universe with the Book. While Socrates anchors knowledge in the psyche and conveys it through the oral transmission of signs, Christianity secures knowledge in the Book and conveys it through the graphic transmission of signs. One could surmise that “the idea of the book” may have entered into the system of representation of graphic semiotic interaction at the point when “writing” gained its autonomy from orality and the “book” replaced the “person” as a receptacle and a source of knowledge. It is quite comprehensible that when the word was detached from its oral source (the body), it became attached to the invisible body and to the silent voice of God, which cannot be heard but can be read in the Holy Book. However, the theological view of writing developed by Christianity and the epistemological view of knowledge provided by Socrates/Plato (where God is not only the archetype of the writer but also the archetype of wisdom) joined in the Middle Ages (Le Goff 1957: 90-97; Glennison 1988: 115-163) and continued into the Renaissance. Nature is the book that God wrote, and to know nature is the best way to know God. Curtius quotes a telling passage from Fray Luis de Granada’s Símbolo de la fé, in which Granada uses the expression “to think philosophically in this great book of earthly creatures” to mean that because God put us in front of the “marvelous book of the entire universe” we must read the creatures as live letters and thus, through them, come to know the excellence of their Creator.

Christianity is not, of course, the only religion having a holy book or scriptures (take, e.g., the Koran, or the Torah). But it shares with these others the disequilibrium of power between the religions that possess the Book and those that do not. What is at stake here is the role played by “the book as a text” during the process of colonization carried on by literate societies. As a matter of fact, the role of the book in our understanding of the colonial period in the New World may not have been entirely exploited. One could, perhaps, profit by taking an example from J. Goody as an analogy. To practice the Asante religion, observes Goody, you have to be Asante. Due to the lack of written narrative that traces the border between the internal and the external space, between what is prescribed and permitted and what is proscribed and forbidden, the “idea” attached to the Asante religion varies considerably over time. Religions founded on alphabetic writing and the corresponding idea of the book are, concludes Goody, “generally religions of conversion, not simply religions of birth. You can spread them, like jam. And you can persuade or force people to give up one set of beliefs and practices and take up another set” (Goody 1986: 5). What is important here is not the “content” of the Book but rather the very existence of the object in which a set of regulations and metaphors were inscribed, giving to it the special status of Truth and Wisdom… Speaking, writing, and sign carriers, as well as their conceptualization, constitute one set of relations or network in which colonization took place. Thus, the spread of Western literacy linked to the idea of the book was also linked to the appropriation and defense of cultural territories, of a physical space loaded with meaning. The Western book became a symbol of the letter, in such a way that writing was mainly conceived in terms of the sign carriers: paper and the book, and the practices associated with reading and writing more and more came to be conceived in terms of the sign carrier; reading the word became increasingly detached from “reading the world,” as the tlamatinime would have preferred to say... Printed books facilitated the dissemination and reproduction of knowledge and replaced, in the New World, the practice of the tlacuilo and the function of the amoxli, thus contributing to the colonization of languages.

[1] I cannot resist the temptation to recall that, according to Curtius ([1948] 1973: 313), exarare (to plough up) could also mean “to write,” which, on the one hand, explains the comparisons between “book” and “field” and, on the other, the fact that legere is used in noncultivated Latin in the sense of “gathering and collecting.”
[2]Lingua mea calamus scribae velociter scribentis” (My tongue is the pen of a ready writer) (Curtius [1948], 1973 p. 311).


  1. Ibid., "A roll was conceptualized in terms of the frame, where either it stopped or was cut, and was called tómos (a cutting); hence our idea of "tomes." The Romans translated it as volumen, a thing that is rolled or wound up. Since long inscriptions, such as those dealing with the law or theological narratives, needed more than one volume, they were called voluminous. The Greeks also coined the word bibliotheke to name the place (boxes or rooms) in which biblos or papyrus rolls were kept. The ancient Mexicans also named the object after the material it was made from, amoxtli, and they derived from it the name of the place where it was stored, amoxpialoya, amotlacentecoyan. The logic of naming is the same: the name of the object derives from the material of which it is made, plus the name designating a place in which the object is stored.

    "One can surmise, after this collection of words, that there was a moment in the configuration of the the system of representation of different cultures in which the name of a tree was used to designate the medium on which graphic signs were inscribed and transmitted. The Spanish Diccionario de Autoridades, published in the eighteenth century, describes the "book" as a volume of paper sawed and covered with parchment or something else. It is quite interesting to note that eighteenth-century Spanish has already eliminated the connection with the Latin liber (the inner bark of a tree, on which surface the ancients wrote) and has retained only the equivalence between "book" and "work" (obra) or "treatise." Here I have in mind the comment made by Diringer after drawing the etymological map of the word "book:" "The exact connection," says Diringer, "between 'book' and 'beech tree' is not known." The comment draws attention to the semantic and not to the phonetic aspect of the word. I suspect a connection could be suggested by departing from the system of representation associated with the words, instead of taking into account only the change in their meanings."

  2. Ibid., "Curtius ([1948], 1973: 306) quotes a Greek epigram, engraved on a stone of a bibliotheke, which reads: "Say that this grove is dedicated to us, the Muses, and point to the books (ta biblios) over there by the plane tree groves. We guard them here; but let him who truly loves us come to us: We will crown him with ivy.""


    Siméon ([1885] 1963) gives, as the first meaning of amoxtli, "Plante abondante dans le lac de Mexico" and, as the second meaning, "livre, ouvrage."

  3. I don't get it.