The arts of memory: Comparative perspectives on a mental artifact. Revised and updated by the author. Translated by Matthew Carey

Carlo Severi


For linguists, anthropologists and archaeologists, the emblematic image always and everywhere preceded the appearance of the sign. This myth of a figurative language composed by icons—that form the opposite figure of writing—has deeply influenced Western tradition. In this article, I show that the logic of Native American Indian mnemonics (pictographs, khipus) cannot be understood from the ethnocentric question of the comparison with writing, but requires a truly comparative anthropology. Rather than trying to know if Native American techniques of memory are true scripts or mere mnemonics, we can explore the formal aspect both have in common, compare the mental processes they call for. We can ask if both systems belong to the same conceptual universe, to a mental language—to use Giambattista Vico’s phrase—that would characterize the Native American arts of memory. In this perspective, techniques of memory stop being hybrids or imprecise, and we will better understand their nature and functions as mental artifacts.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau2.2.025