visual systems of recording and/or communicating infor-
mation in Pre-Columbian America have always been diffi-
It to categorize. Equally, the topic has been difficult to ar-
ticulate in a single word or phrase, because the Pre-Columbian situation
seems to defy the usual meaning of words such as "art" and "writing."
In organizing the roundtable, "Art and Writing: Recording Knowledge
in Pre-Columbian America," the first part of the title, "Art and Writing,"
was constantly a problem. Because there is that tendency to think of
writing as visible speech and an evolutionary goal, the word "writing"
when it pertains to Pre-Columbian America begs to have quotation marks
around it. In indigenous America, visibie speech was not often the goal.
The word "art," too, carries with it modern Western notions of art as
something visual to be appreciated and enjoyed but something separate
from communication. Thus, the word combination "Art and Writing"
seems to polarize the two and set up an either/or situation, where a
visual system is either "art" at one end or it is "writing" at the other. The
intention, of course, was the opposite. What I wanted to convey is that
art and writing in Pre-Columbian America are largely the same thing. For
example, the Nahuatl word
means both "to write" and "to
paint" (Molina 1970: second pagination 120). They compose a graphic
system that keeps and conveys knowledge, or, to put
it another way, that
presents ideas. And it is this view of Amerindian recordkeeping systems
that should replace the old, limited notions that have previously been
In this essay I mean to focus on
of writing-one could say
the structure and technology of writing-rather than the
writing, social or otherwise. Writing is much discussed these days par-
ticularly by semioticians, literary theorists, and anthropologists who are
interested in issues of sign and meaning, hermeneutics, "I iteracy" and
orality, and writing and power, to name but a few topics.1 There are
rich paths to be followed here with respect to Pre-Columbian America,
but they would take the discussion in other directions and diffuse my
purpose, and they are premature in this introduction. Walter Mignolo
profitably walks some of these roads in his closing essay. My own pur-
pose here is more fundamental. Most of the scholars who think and write
about writing consider writing to be alphabetic writing, normally refer-
ring to one of the modern alphabetic scripts; this tends to rest as a basic
assumption from which their arguments grow. My intent is to confront
this common definition of "writing" and our notions of what constitute
writing systems, to explode these assumptions. We have to think more
Elizabeth Hill Boone
I ntrod uction:
Writing and
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