Carlo Severi: ‘The Universe of the Arts of Memory’

Figure 1. Pendant-type khipu; AMNH 41.2/7679; photo by Gary Urton (Urton 2014: 211, Figure 6).

“The Universe of the Arts of Memory” (Chapter Three), pp. 61-97, in: Capturing Imagination. A Proposal for an Anthropology of Thought by Carlo Severi. Transl. by Catherine V. Howard, Matthew Carey, Eric Bye, Ramon Fonkoue, and Joyce Suechun Cheng. Chicago: HAU Books, 2018

The comprehensive aim of this essay is to further develop the anthropology of memory which the author earlier proposed in his work The Chimera Principle: An Anthropology of Memory and Imagination (French ed. 2007; English ed. 2015). The latter opens with a discussion on Aby Warburg’s work on the biology of images in regard to Hopi pictograms. It is noteworthy to recall here that, for Warburg, the constitution of images goes beyond the claims of aesthetics, being rooted in an intricate psychological process that signals the anthropological explanation of the image as a cultural-biological function of man. This standpoint owes much to his study of religion and myth, what surpassed the ‘conventional’ ways of the history of art of his time. In “The Universe of the Arts of Memory” Severi just briefly turns to Warburg through Frances Yates, while outlining the idea formerly posited by Giambattista Vico on the myth of universal language, according to which human memory was initially preserved by means of images. Further, both the arts of memory and the myth of an original language reveal a double articulation as mental languages. For Severi to study memory means to study thought at work. Therefore, we can think of images or of different systems of graphic representations as inducements to thinking, and as means for the transmission and preservation of knowledge.

By virtue of his extensive fieldwork, as well as his notable bibliographical knowledge of social sciences and the humanities, in “The Universe” Severi explores several case studies from Indigenous Americas: pictographic traditions from Yekuana, Kuna, Great Plains groups, Northwest Coast visual culture, and Hopi, as well as Andean khipus.The author describes the logical elements that characterize the universe of the artes memorandi among Amerindians. The word universe, as in the chapter title, refers primarily to the set of mental operations implied by the use of these memorization techniques as well as by a specific group of cultures, keeping on mind the immense diversity of Amerindian cultures. 

Severi shows that in order to understand the logic of Amerindian mnemonics – namely, pictographs and khipus– a truly comparative anthropology is required, since in this perspective it becomes apparent that they are not imprecise hybrids that defy classification, but mental artifacts with characteristics and functions that can be understood in their own terms. In pursuance of understanding logic of memorization techniques in the Americas (and elsewhere), several shifts in perspective are necessary, being the fundamental one to contest the dichotomy between oral and written traditions. Thus a new definition of tradition is required: one that apprehends the precise nature of the multiple relations that link words and images, which cannot be defined solely in terms of semiotic means of expressing knowledge (as ‘oral’ or ‘written’ traditions) or through categories such as drawing, symbol, ideogram, pictogram, semasiography, writing, and so on. This new approach implies a combined comparative and reflexive research strategy, which accepts the existence of multiple conceptualizations of arts of memory beyond the Western framework.

In this essay and in other publications Severi has pointed that traditions which anthropologists have likely described as oral are often better thought of as iconographic. “In many cultures where social memory may appear to rely only on the spoken word, closer scrutiny reveals that images play an indispensable role in the transmission of knowledge. […] it is misleading to posit a symmetrical opposition between the domain of orality and that of writing. The counterpart of writing in many societies is not merely the spoken word but, more precisely, the hybridization of word and image in the form of a mnemonic device, most commonly in ritual contexts” (66). 

Severi is neither interested to determine whether pictographic systems or khipus are ‘true’ writing or ‘just’ mnemonic devices, nor to draw a fix line between ‘social’ writing and ‘individual and arbitrary’ mnemonic devices, since many Amerindian cultures fall outside this rather simplistic opposition: “the practice of social memory and the use of organized iconographies go together in these traditions, which developed arts of memory that cannot be reduced to either writing or to individual mnemonic devices” (69). 

As an example, let us have a closer look only at the Andean khipus (Figure 1), which still arouse debates among Americanists regarding the precise way this system of memorization might have worked. What are khipus, what is their logical status, Severi inquires, if they are not simply writing, mathematical symbols or memory aids? By methodical use of cords and knots (where certain qualitative categories were indicated by color, the way the knot was folded, or the direction of the cords), some khipuswere used for numerical calculations, while others to memorize texts containing anthroponyms and toponyms. Drawing from Gary Urton’s scholarship (1998, 2003), certain khipus recorded verbs or sentences; further, all khipus derived from a pre-Hispanic form of actual writing and were reduced to mere mnemonic devices by the violent transformations undergone by Inka society during the early colonial period; at that time fully grammatical constructions (e.g. subject–object–verb) were removed and replaced by attenuated, non-narrative representations mainly consisting of names and numbers. 

With this essay Severi shows that khipus as well as Amerindian pictography share the same internal logical structure and rely on the same mental operations: khipus are not only a form of writing nor mere mnemonic devices but, by virtue of both their common traits and significant differences, a coherent variant within the wider conceptual universe of Amerindian arts of memory. According to the author, these arts of memory can be defined in terms of three distinct relational orders: mnemonic (encoding/evocation), iconographic (ordering/salience), and logical (power/expressivity).

Lastly, one thing in this essay requires some precision: among the case studies explored, Severi mentions tangentially the Nahuatl and Maya peoples, by saying that in these traditions “pictograms designating proper names and their accompanying formulas are inserted into other forms of stable graphic schemata” (79). Hopefully, the author includes scripts in these ‘graphic schemata,’ since in Mesoamerica there were several hieroglyphic writing systems, that is, actual writing systems in the grammatological sense of a system of marks used to represent an utterance, excluding pictograms, being the ancient Maya script the most complex and mainly deciphered. This script is a combination of signs representing syllables (syllabograms) and words (logograms). Despite some written signs show high degree of resemblance with entities from the ‘real’ world, this iconic quality not necessarily refers to them nor characterizes them as ‘pictograms’ within this system. The fact that there were scripts in pre-Colonial Americas makes the nature of preserving memory and history through the (combinations of) graphic systems –which in certain situations include even material qualities of artifacts– even more complex.


Houston, Stephen, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, and David Stuart, eds. 2001. The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. 2011. Reading Maya Art: a Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson.
Urton, Gary. 1998. “From knots to narratives: reconstructing the art of historical record keeping in the Andes from Spanish transcriptions of Inka khipus.” Ethnohistory 45 (3): 409-438.
–––. 2003. Signs of the Inka khipus: Binary coding in the Andean knotted-string record. Austin: University of Texas Press.
–––. 2014. “From Middle Horizon cord-keeping to the rise of Inka khipus in the central Andes.” Antiquity 88: 205–221.

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