The essays in this volume examine various means of preserving and transmitting information utilized by Mesoamerican and Andean peoples. They also address the issues of writing and literacy. This book should be read in conjunction with Joyce Marcus’ Mesoamerican Writing Systems (1992).
The descriptive contributions—especially Tom Cummins on Andean modes of information transmission, John Pohl comparing Mixtee and Aztec codexes, and Dana Leibsohn on maps—are of broad interest and should reach a multidisciplinary readership. The editors’ mildly argumentative tone, however, is hardly a matter of substance. If writing is defined as the redaction of speech, then most of what is treated in these essays is not writing. But if writing is defined as the recording of information, then ideographs, mixed logosyllabic systems, or even knots in quipus present no problem.
The editors oppose an “evolutionary” notion of types of writing systems. They question the assumptions that such systems should represent speech in a language-specific way; that systems representing the pronunciation of words provide more information than those composed of ideograms; and that alphabets provide such information more economically than syllabaries. Taking the position that no writing system conveys total information about what it represents (facial expression, body position, intonation), the editors argue that information is lost in exchange for phonetic detail, and that the “alternative” recording systems of Mesoamerica and the Andes should be considered legitimate forms of writing that may have been superior for their purposes.
Criticism is directed at linguists, who may not recognize themselves in the editors’ characterization of what they do and believe. Again, it is a matter of definition: what are current linguistic concerns? Who exactly is a linguist, and who is not? The term linguistic is used very differently by Derrida and Foucault (invoked by contributors) on the one hand, and people employed in departments of linguistics (who also figure in this book’s references) on the other. Unfortunately, the appropriation of defined technical terminology from linguistics and the metaphorical use of it by nonlinguists (Mark King, for example, on p. 127) leads to bafflement among linguist-readers and resentment among writers when linguists refuse to understand them.
This volume would have benefited from more editorial attention. A cumulative bibliography not only would have served readers more conveniently and avoided redundancy but would have promoted greater consistency in reference form and spelling. Also, Walter Mignolo provides English translations of Spanish quotations while Cummins does not; and although Leibsohn’s name is in the running footers of “Primers for Memory,” it is missing from above the title.