A conquering alphabet for marginal use

The Darker Side of the Renaissance
August 11, 1995

As the title of The Darker Side of the Renaissance announces, Walter Mignolo, professor of romance languages and literature at Duke University, sets out to sully yet another sacrosanct shibboleth of western civilisation. Even his own academic specialty is not spared in this revisionist indictment of European culture as it came to be imposed in Mesoamerica in the hundred or so years following the Spanish conquest of 1521.

Three categories once considered among the noblest achievements of Renaissance humanism are singled out for Mignolo's "semiotic" attack: Latin-style alphabetic writing in books; cause-and-effect linear history; and Ptolemaic planispheric cartography. By the time of the Renaissance, he avers, western civilisation was cognitively predisposed to take for granted these "sign-systems", and they per se are here charged with having "denied coevalness" to Amerindian cultures. Alphabetic writing is the principal villain in this thesis, because, as he states, it had the effect not only of "colonising native linguistic traditions but prevented Europeans from appreciating "alternative ways of organising knowledge". The author makes no bones about this cultural relativism being almost genetic. Pre-conquest Amerindians, he attests, would have been better off by never having been exposed, because they, conversely, are predisposed to pictographic writing, egocentric map-making, and orally transmitted, cyclically-repeating "spatial" (as opposed to western "linear-temporal") history.

Mignolo admits that his intention is to "de-colonise," ie "deconstruct" a la Jacques Derrida, these European Renaissance impositions - in his words, "by spatialising time . . . through enactment instead of representation . . . While cognition as representation presupposes a world outside the organism that is, either mentally or graphically represented, cognition as enactment implies that the organism constitutes and places itself in the world by constructing an environment through a dynamic domain of interaction." Mignolo likewise agrees with Edmundo O'Gorman that "America" as traditionally represented in self-glorifying western history is really an "invention" of European imperialism designed to "marginalise" indigenous Amerindians, and also with Edward Said that non-western cultures are the endangered victims of oppressive, expansionist "Occidentalism".

Unfortunately, such a dualistic "oppressor-victim" view of cultural history impels the author to ignore the contradicting ambiguities which so delight the less moralistic historian. While his exposition of 16th-century Spanish literary history is admirable, he insists on treating the Spanish colonisers, especially the Christian missionaries, as if they were forever oblivious of indigenous Amerindian pictorial sign-systems. While such obliviousness did become evident in later generations (in my opinion, for reasons having more to do with Counter-Reformation politics than semiotics), it was surely not the case during the first 50 years following the conquest. The original mendicant friars arriving in the New World after 1523 not only tried assiduously to learn native languages and design liturgies to take into account native rituals and sacred spaces, they also made extensive use of didactic pictures (lienzos), painted sometimes even on indigenous amatl bark paper and composed with images especially styled to instruct their native catechumens. Mignolo makes no mention of this, nor of the fact that the friars created their own version of hieroglyphic script in order to communicate within the natives' own sign-systems.

Proof of the friars' adaptability to indigenous "ways of organising knowledge" and the success they achieved in touching the hearts and minds of the Amerindian people is the fact that the Christian religion, much syncretised yet remaining essentially Catholic, is still dominant everywhere in Hispanic America. As the distinguished historian C. R. Boxer has studiously observed: "Even where indigenous Christians became impatient of the Iberian colonial yoke, they did not wish, as a rule, to abandon the faith the Church Militant had implanted in their forefathers".

My sternest criticism of Mignolo's methodology, however, is reserved for his monolithic "victim" view of 16th-century Amerindians. Present-day scholarship has increasingly revealed not only how sophisticated, but how diverse indigenous civilisation really was in Mesoamerica, divided, by the way, into some hundred separate, rival, and frequently warring linguistic communities (including 28 different Mayan language groups alone). It is wrong to judge all Amerindians as having reacted uniformly to the Spanish invasion, even to their "marginalisation".

Applying the author's own approach of "enacting" the Amerindian self-view from "within", one observes, for example, the 16th-century Mixtecs of Oaxaca, for decades brutally oppressed by the imperialist Aztecs, willingly submitting to Spanish suzerainty in order to save their unique language and culture from "colonisation" by fellow Amerindians. The Tlaxcaltecs too so hated the Aztecs with whom they shared the Nahuatl language that they furnished Cortes with thousands of troops, and subsequently regarding themselves, not the Spanish, as the true conquerors of the Aztec empire (even dining on Aztec captives to the horror of their Spanish allies).

Nor is it correct to claim that all Mesoamerican history was conceived cyclically or writing systems pictographic. The Classic Maya, for example, kept an accurate chronicle of sequential events (dated to the year, month, and day) stretching stretching back 4,000 years. Furthermore, Mayan hieroglyphs were not pictographic but logographic-phonetic, the distinction being that the logograph is an abstract symbol signifying a particular word or idea and need not be a rebus picture. The Mayan logograph was also combined with phonetic signs, meaning that Mayan writing, just like western alphabetic writing, was intended to replicate the sounds and syntax of speech. Mignolo has obviously not kept up with fast-breaking research on Mesoamerican linguistics. He makes no mention, furthermore, of the work of James Lockhart whose extensive translations of 16th-century Nahuatl documents reveal that Nahuatl-speaking Amerindians as early as the 1540s were eagerly learning Latin alphabetic letters because they were now able to record word-for-word the oral eloquence of their native tongue.

In sum, I believe that Mignolo's elaborate thesis misses the point. Alphabetic letters, like metal tools, wheeled vehicles, the wax candle, and many other European imports entered Amerindian culture by natural selection, willingly assimilated into constantly evolving indigenous life because they worked better.

Sam Edgerton is a professor of art history, Williams College, Massachusetts.

The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonisation

Author - Walter D. Mignolo
ISBN - 0 472 103 X
Publisher - University of Michigan Press
Price - $39.50
Pages - 426

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