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New Histories of Writing I
2003 MMLA Meeting
Chicago, IL
08 November


Damian Baca, Syracuse University
Joddy Murray, Washington State University,Tri-Cities

Image Writing & Non-Discursive Symbolization:The Limitations of Alphacentric Historiographies


This paper aims to expose current historiography as Alphacentric: a history of writing that is always tied to the emergence of the alphabet. We propose that any "new" history of writing must also consider what constitutes writing in the first place, especially in the context of non-Hellenic, non-Western traditions of writing. If the definition of writing is expanded to include any surviving symbolization, then the possibilities of including the histories of cultures more reliant on diverse textual systems suddenly become available. Historiography, then, becomes the act of writing histories about symbolization in general, whether it be in the form of images and icons, textiles, architecture, ceramics, etc..

What this paper will do is twofold: 1) We will expand the term "writing" to be the production of "text" that may be discursive or non-discursive: "text" is a word that has come to mean any artifact of symbolization that can be "read" by an audience; and 2) We will demonstrate how such an expansion of the term "writing" can change historiography by reconstructing cumulative histories of Mexican-Amerindian codex writing. This in turn can also work against the "print dominance" found in most composition classrooms while attempting to expand what is considered legitimate products of composition-especially within the pressures of multi-genre, multimedia views of composition.

We do not intend to limit our examination of Mexican-Amerindian codex writing as a mere "alternative" narrative that ensures the staying power of "non-Western" traditions. Narratives, Malea Powell reminds us, are more than survival and endurance; they have the power to inscribe, re-inscribe, and un-inscribe our world (427). Such narratives are valuable to writing specialists, especially those concerned with how cultural identities in the Americas are shaped, destroyed, and sustained through official, resistant, and ritualistic uses of writing.

The narratives we telescope here illustrate the written responses to dominant historical narratives in the work of Mexican-Amerindian Codices, some of the only major Aztec poetic forms to survive after the transnational importation of Iberian customs. While we offer a brief overview of the colonial era manuscripts produced in the sixteenth century, our focus is primarily on the contemporary Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. Specifically, we argue that Mexican-Amerindian codex rhetorics have continually adapted, rejected, and revised dominant historical narratives of the West, that they continue to do so today, and that our analysis of the Codex Espangliensis can offer much to scholars in Rhetoric and Composition still searching for productive ways of examining "race," rhetoric, and the plurality of writing practices that thrived in America long before the arrival of the Puritan colonies and the rise of Western European education institutions-a task that requires an expanded conception of language beyond the discursive.

A Rejection of "Alphacentric" Language Theory

Historiography remains both a methodological as well as a disciplinary concern for contemporary scholarship. In our field, Composition and Rhetoric, the difficulties and rewards of historiography come in and out of vogue depending on the amount of historical scholarship being published at the moment. In 1988 and 1997, the Octalogs (I and II, respectively) published in Rhetoric Review testified as to how divergent our discipline is concerning the way history gets written. In the first Octalog, Nan Johnson, takes a position in the debate by saying, simply, that she "proceed[s] on the assumption that historical research and writing are archaeological and rhetorical activities" (9). Similarly, Janet M. Atwill, in Octalog II, proclaims how historians both conform and stretch the traditional forms of historiography: "I have submitted to the conventions of a patriarchal discipline, but I have tried to use those conventions to raise as much hell as possible" (25). There seems to be as many perspectives as there are historians, and it is this kind of rich debate about historiography that keeps at the forefront the important role histories (and narratives in general) maintain in directing, as well as authorizing, scholarly inquiry.

But as we look at the challenges and shortcomings brought on in part by the changing definitions of "history," very little attention is being paid to the way the changing definitions of "writing" impacts historiography. Walter Ong, in his influential and troubling book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World, does little to help historians of writing think broadly and across cultures because he consistently reinforces a notion of writing that privileges the alphabet as a precondition for "literacy":

Writing, in the strict sense of the word, the technology which has shaped and powered the intellectual activity of modern man, was a very late development in human history. Homo sapiens has been on earth perhaps some 50,000 years (Leaky and Lewin 1979, pp. 141 and 168). The first script, or true writing, that we know, was developed among the Sumerians in Mesopotamia only around the year 3500 BC (Diringer 1953; Gelb 1963). . . . It is of course possible to count as 'writing' any semiotic mark, that is, any visible or sensible mark which an individual makes and assigns a meaning to. Thus a simple scratch on a rock or a notch on a stick interpretable only by the one who makes it would be 'writing'. If this is what is meant by writing, the antiquity of writing is perhaps comparable to the antiquity of speech. However, investigations of writing which take 'writing' to mean any visible or sensible mark with an assigned meaning merge writing with purely biological behavior. When does a footprint or a deposit of feces or urine (used by many species of animals for communication-Wilson 1975, pp. 228-9) become 'writing'? Using the term 'writing' in this extended sense to include any semiotic marking trivializes its meaning. The critical and unique breakthrough into new worlds of knowledge was achieved within human consciousness not when simple semiotic marking was devised but when a coded system of visible marks was invented whereby a writer could determine the exact words that the reader would generate from the text. This is what we usually mean today by writing in its sharply focused sense. (84)

We quote this at length because Ong manages to state in this passage the more common perspectives concerning writing, especially as it is talked about in linguistic and archeological contexts. Though Ong manages to make some important points in this book about the connection between "literacy" and technology, this specific passage rather elegantly provides a glimpse into beliefs about writing that this paper most ardently refutes. From Ong, we can get a clear picture of what writing is not: that for writing to be "true" it must have an alphabet; writing must also must not be "interpretable only by the one who makes it"; that writing conceived as "any visible or sensible mark" becomes "purely biological behavior," and when this happens such confusion with semiotics "trivializes its meaning"; and, most damning for the history of writing, Ong's passage makes it clear that in order for writing to spawn the "critical and unique breakthrough into new worlds of knowledge" comes only through the creation of "exact words" from which a reader could "generate" the transferred thoughts of the writer. In other words, Ong defines writing-"in the strict sense of the word"-as a type of semiotics consistent with the sender-message-receiver (or "communication triangle") view of writing in which a thought is sent via a message to a receiver where it can be exactly and completely translated back into the original thought. We dispute this position in favor of a definition of writing that comes from an expanded view of language theory-one that allows for each of these elements Ong declares as outside the "true" sense of the term "writing."

Ong's view, then, is most certainly alphacentric in that he centers the very definition of writing on the precondition that it must have an alphabet: an abstracted symbol system that is wholly discursive in nature. In order to understand what we mean by "alphacentric" histories of writing, and to grasp why Ong's view of writing leads to the writing of such histories, we must first examine why the communication-triangle view of language fails as a model and, specifically, why language is made up of more than just discursive writing. Writing, as we wish to define it here, includes the discursive "word" in all of its forms, but it also includes the more non-discursive image as well. Susanne Langer first defined the terms "discursive" and "non-discursive" in her book Philosophy in a New Key. The discursive, the form of symbolization most common to composition classrooms, includes the kind of language-making in which we "string out" our ideas; it relies on language to be ordered, sequential, and adherent to the "laws of reasoning" often assumed to be synonymous with the "laws of discursive thought" (82). Discursive texts often take the form of the expository essay, the oral presentation, research and argument papers, and the common "modes" such as narrative and description, etc. The discursive is bound by semantic forms and, consequently, limits itself by those forms because it assumes that the "word" is the only means to articulate thought, and that anything that cannot be directly conveyed by discursive means-i.e., anything unsayable or ineffable-is mere feeling, or too "fuzzy" for serious study, or merely "biological," as Ong put it. The discursive, therefore, is commonly referred to as "verbal" or a kind of "literacy" opposed to speech. The discursive, therefore, is often what we consider to be "written" communication because, like this paragraph, it aims to convey one idea after another, as precisely as possible, with as few transmission "errors" as possible.

Conversely, the non-discursive is free of such ordering. In fact, its most apparent difference from discursive symbolization is that it often happens at once, is primarily reliant on image (taken here to mean both sensory and mental images), and that it comes to symbolize what cannot be said or written directly by the word. Here is what Langer says about the non-discursive:

Visual forms-lines, colors, proportions, etc.-are just as capable of articulation, i.e., of complex combination, as words. But the laws that govern this sort of articulation are altogether different from the laws of syntax that govern language. The most radical difference is that visual forms are not discursive. They do not present their constituents successively, but simultaneously, so the relations determining a visual structure are grasped in one act of vision. Their complexity, consequently, is not limited, as the complexity of discourse is limited, by what the mind can retain from the beginning of an apperceptive act to the end of it. [. . .] An idea that contains too many minute yet closely related parts, too many relations within relations, cannot be "projected" into discursive forms; it is too subtle for speech [. . .] But the symbolism furnished by our purely sensory appreciation of forms is a non-discursive symbolism, peculiarly well suited to the expression of ideas that defy linguistic "projection" [. . . .] the forms and qualities we distinguish, remember, imagine, or recognize are symbols of entities which exceed and outlive our momentary experience. (93)

Langer frames the difference between "visual forms" and "words" (her way of simplifying the difference between "non-discursive" text and "discursive" text) as differing primarily through "laws" that "govern" them. What Langer will clarify later is that images are not just "visual forms" but any form taken by the senses, and that these forms are necessarily more complex, in part because they are "simultaneously" received, and because it "contains too many minute yet closely related parts." Non-discursive symbolization, therefore, includes those "things which do not fit the grammatical scheme of expression" (89). It is symbolized language, but it is a form not limited to the "chain-of-reasoning" we require in discursive text. Its strength, in part, is that it suddenly can handle thoughts that are otherwise too complicated-unutterable, or pre-vocal even-and that there are connections through images that may lead to further articulation. The codices we will discuss later, for example, rely as much on their extra-communicative elements as they do their direct historical or contemporary references. The value of non-discursive text, therefore, is that it thrives and derives meaning from the complexity and ambiguity of its medium, whereas discursive language works best when it reifies and reduces complexity and ambiguity as it goes along.

The most important aspect to this distinction between discursive and non-discursive text is that image becomes language "in the strict sense of the word" because it is defined as language. Image can even be discursive, as in the form of charts, graphs, and icons in ideographs. But by allowing non-discursive elements of text to be considered on par with discursive elements of text, we are displacing the alphabet from the center of notions of writing. The term "writing," therefore, becomes a term inclusive of the rich complexity inherent to non-discursive symbolization. It is no longer limited, or reduced, to simply those types of symbols for which Ong would deem trivial, interpretable only by the author, or even less "true" (84). In the end, one of the most vital roles for images is that it embraces cultures with diverse symbol systems as "literate," or, in Ong's terms, able to achieve "breakthroughs" in "human consciousness." This type of historiography (and view of language) is then capable of accounting for both the discursive and non-discursive aspects of human activity, thereby providing a view of writing responsive not only to a panoply of other (non-Occidental) historical cultures, but also to current trends in digital discourse-trends that call for increased attention to visual, multi-genre, and multi-media composition practices.

In order for us to write non-alphacentric histories, therefore, the first thing we must do is expand our theories of language beyond its discursive bias. There have been many theories of language, and many have their merits for their particular disciplinary audiences. In fact, Composition and Rhetoric scholars are always necessarily theorists in language, even if such a theory remains subsumed by whatever emphasis or specialization is currently occupying the discussion (a point that I.A. Richards originally voiced years ago).1 If we are to theorize writing beyond an alphabetic system, then by necessity we must also come to theorize language beyond the discursive.

How does redefining our view of language to include image and the non-discursive open up possibilities for historiography? The following discussion attempts to answer this by proposing that inclusion of images in our conceptions of language frees it from the more linear, non-affective, enthymemic set of resources found in discursive text; more than the one-to-one correspondence between sender to message to receiver; and more than any supposition that language is primarily a set of (arbitrary) linguistic sign systems useful in communicating thought transparently. Once such view of language, the Shannon-Weaver view, posits language within an informational paradigm useful in just this kind of communication-a practical way to move a message between sender and receiver. Indeed, this role for language is acceptable and necessary. However, even the Shannon-Weaver theory of communication eventually acknowledges the complexity that emerges from human symbol systems.2 And as Langer states, "If the mind were simply a recorder and transmitter, typified by the simile of the telephone-exchange, we should act very differently that we do" (New Key 36). Language for Langer includes all symbol systems, some of which-specifically ritual, art, and dreams-are not exclusively external to the individual, nor are they necessarily intended to convey the "facts of consciousness" (36). It is too often the case that the communicative role of language becomes the entire concept of language; that in our efforts to clarify our discursive texts, we often overlook the pivotal role of the non-discursive within language. In contrast, the view of language proposed here necessitates and values all that language-specifically image-can do: its affectivity, circularity, ambiguity, incongruity, and even its ineffability.

We must stress, however, that the main consequence of Langer's insistence on including both discursive and non-discursive symbolization in her theory of language is that it broadens the term "language" itself. Language becomes all symbolization: the language of poetry, math, music, textiles, food, commerce, violence, inaction, and even silence. The world is text because we read the world as symbols, and, in turn, create symbols to be read.3 Jacques Derrida acknowledged this in Of Grammatology, and his notion of the sign continually rewriting itself is consistent with the way language is viewed here: what we know about the human ability to symbolize is that we must, and that we do it often, and that language itself recreates itself as it goes along.4 We create and produce symbols whether or not we are educated or uneducated, within a community or alone, naïve or wise, destitute or wealthy, sleeping or awake. Language consists of more than its discursive function, more than the traditional sender-messenger-receiver paradigm. Rather than consider language to be primarily communication in the absence of noise, we prefer to think of language as encompassing all of our powers to symbolize.

Image Writing and Historiography

Michael Ann Holly's book, Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of Image, demonstrates how historiography and image writing may function to turn the hermeneutical gaze of the historian inward. Like many historians in Composition and Rhetoric, she attempts to negotiate what is perhaps the most pressing question in all historiography: How do we write history and come to terms with both our desire for truth and our acknowledgement that truth is unattainable? Holly provides a possible compromise to this question near the end of her book:

Narrative arises at that point in between where observer meets the observed, and if both poles must be textually conceived, as a poststructuralist agenda would have it, then at least a performative space is opened up for examining the grammar of the architectonic exchange. Each tries to tell the other its story. And when the histories seem to enliven rather than entrap and deplete the objects of the past, then both the empiricist obsession with evidence and the poststructuralist revulsion at truth claims become less pressing . . . Resistance to both closure and mastery is the key. (186)

By reconciling both the empiricists and the narrativists as legitimate histories, and by calling for their layering in the production of the two in historical scholarship without making any attempts at mastering truth, Holly makes a methodological argument. But the primary thesis of this book is not necessarily a methodological one-it is a rhetorical one.

Through the use of examples found in a range of influential texts within the field of art history, Holly resurrects the subject/object debate in light of the rhetoric of images: specifically, she wants "to consider the ways in which the binary opposition between subject and object can be regarded as perpetually unfixed, as historically 'on the move'" (7). She guides the reader through several very clear (and well illustrated) examples of medieval, Renaissance, baroque, and contemporary art histories in order to show how historians are constructed rhetorically by what they study as indicated by their own compositional narratives. In the case of the Renaissance, for example, Holly examines the compositional style in Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: An Essay (1958). By comparing the rules of perspective first posed by Leon-Battista Alberti in 1435 with Burckhardt's text, Holly shows how historical data actually dictate to a degree how historians write: "Burckhardt's history is a part of what it is looking at. Instead of being an analytic of the period, his history is an analogue of a Renaissance procedure. Subject and object interpenetrate. Cause and effect scramble their linearity" (48). Holly repeats this claim using examples from several other prominent histories in her field. She repeatedly shows how "representational practices encoded in [artifacts] continue to be encoded in their commentaries" (xiii).

If it is true that historiographers see their histories through contemporary lenses, Holly argues that the very same historiographers were, to some degree, also designed to see them according to the artifacts own rhetorical purpose. Holly's two major themes concerning historiography are clearly developed throughout the book: "[f]irst, perhaps it has never been true that historians of either art or culture can easily escape the lure of casting their histories in the shape of those objects they have set out to investigate," and "[s]econd, it follows that the historian, as a special kind of spectator, is herself or himself always already anticipated or implicated in the formal logic or play of the works she or he is describing. The author is never exclusively on the outside" (79). In reviewing these points, any scholar about to undergo historical research might take into account how they will map out the past as well as consider if "centuries-old light has been illuminating [their] gaze all along" (208). Not only must historiographers contend with what they see, but also whether they were predestined to see it a certain way in the first place. Self-reflexivity becomes even more important to such histories, especially for those more geographically and chronologically distant.

One of the ancillary aspects of the book which was particularly remarkable was Holly's characterization of the historical imagination, or "the way we see and shape the world of the past" through invention (9). Holly focuses not only how historians compose their narratives, but also "how [the imagination] sets us (its scholars) up as spectator-historians to see things in certain rhetorically specific ways according to its own logic of figuration" and that "we may be striving to look at its visual traces without realizing that those works of art are also forever looking back at us" (xiv). Just as archival work, for example, allows us to "see" imaginatively some new narrative of the past, the historian is also becoming part of the work studied: "The historian is caught up in the lure of the gaze and has mapped herself or himself onto the screen, taking on the coloration and playing the part that the work on the other side has preordained" (24). Invention through the imagination plays its rhetorical part on both sides of the historical timeline. It is imbued with everything the historian brings to the archive, and the historian, consequently, becomes similarly affected by the artifacts waiting there. Holly also reminds historiographers about the myth of discovery and the difficulty such archeological metaphors present. Metaphors such as "digging deeper" or "uncovering" belie an enlightenment rhetoric bent on discovering Truth: "In purging our historical consciousness of the idea of depth, of latent truths lying beneath manifest clues, [we] return to the surface of interpretation and linkages that lie there" (138). These archeological metaphors tempt the treasure hunter inside us, betraying even further the impossibility of cool objectivity.

Past Looking answers the call for "transdisciplinarity" of research and methodologies from other fields of study. Holly's book attempts to address "a crucial problem in late twentieth-century historiography: the question of 'adequacy,' or at the very least 'suitability,' in historical representation (7). As she illustrates using Burckhardt's traditional history of the Renaissance, old methodologies die hard-the lure of claiming empirical truth through history remains strong. She says, "I think it is intriguing to contemplate why many historians, not to say most twentieth-century thinkers in general, are driven to think perspectivally, compelled to create worlds in which all things fall into place. In this sense . . . perspective is not liberating. It is dogmatic and doctrinaire. It admits no disjunctions or contrarieties into its scheme. By contrast, the medieval treatment of space could be construed as creatively freeing" (50). By this description, such "perspective" can be likened to the penchant for discursive text because it too privileges the clear and unemotional, the scheme of sequential analogue, and the unambiguous.

Just as Rhetoric and Composition begins to digest new histories which vacillate between traditionalist and non-traditionalist methodologies, Holly's book becomes especially important. By examining the nature of "the gaze," or seeing, or looking back into history, Holly the art historian foregrounds epistemological and phenomenological concerns with postmodern and poststructuralist theory in order to emphasize how the "figural logic of the [artifact] effaces the writer and puts in his or her place the logic of semantic space: two narratives tattooing each other across historical distance" (176). In doing so, Holly finds some middle-ground for writers interested in "seeing" and "looking" into the past without falling victim to the illusion of intransigence. She also opens up a space for image writing to become analyzed historically without necessarily being rewritten through an intra-European, alphacentrist viewpoint.

The Codex as Image Writing

De-naturalizing this history is vital to reading codex image writing, as too many in the field have biased their theories on evolutionist and colonialist narratives that obscure Mesoamerican and Mestiza writing as pre-literate. George Kennedy's ambitious Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction, for example, reconstitutes Mexican-origin peoples as cultures without writing and ranks them on a great rhetorical chain of being and social order midway between the animal world and Ancient Greeks. Glyphs in Oaxaca, however, situate the earliest known evidence of North American writing between 650-700 B.C.E. The glyphs, about 2,700 years old, would not only establish early Mexicans as plausibly the first writers and teachers of writing on this hemisphere, but they would also locate the cultural province of México as potentially one of the earliest on the planet to advance a complex inscription system. These historical legacies are important, as codex writing references this past while simultaneously addressing today's world. Rather than attempting to preserve or re-create a Mesoamerican "authenticity," Mexican-Amerindian codex writing instead generates new visions of history and identity to be realized and inscribed, "from Columbus to the Border Patrol."

In particular, we hope these stories will add to the larger project of including non-discursive symbolization into our definition of writing-one that is not contingent on having a Western alphabet in order to be legitimate. We want these codices to lead to what Jacqueline Jones Royster cites as inventing "other ways of reading" the history of writing while promoting a critical intervention in the politics of composition instruction in the present (3). Such hermeneutic reconstructions of our world, however, call into question the dominant histories of writing that recast the intellectual provinces of greater México as mere peripheries in the disciplinary imaginary of Rhetoric and Composition.5 The wish-horizon of Hegelian Enlightenment, still virulent in the field, proscribes a single road for progress, imagining the story of writing and writing instruction advancing East to West. The field's largely unquestioned global trajectory initiates in Ancient Greece, then Rome, then Western Europe, until finally growing mature in America but only in the North and not until the 19th century, during a critical stage of EuroAmerican nation-building.6

The stories we offer are an invitation to examine how codex image writing has continually created "new" literacies: new ways of speaking, writing, and reading that promote anti-colonial translations of history and memory in the Americas. Our method will be to read codex technologies as rhetorical texts: places and performances of meaning-making which provide arguments for and against certain things, namely, the dominant historical narratives of what José David Saldívar in Border Matters calls the "transfrontera contact zone," spaces of colonial encounters imposed by global capitalism across the México/United States borderlands.

Mexican-Amerindian image writing is thus a distinct enunciation, grounded in the lived experiences of the peripheral colonial world. These expressions illustrate new potentials that surpass the limits of post-Enlightenment rationality-yet these are not projects of deconstructionists or postmodernists, as such critics continue to center European modernity as their organizing horizon. Instead, these "subalternized" representations posit new articulations of our time that provide not only much-needed correctives to historiography, but political expressions better suited to current material realities for both the "Global North" and "Globalized South." In place of the uni-linear developmental "Composing East-to-West" wish-horizon, Mexican-Amerindian codices invoke the idea of Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel's transmodernity: a hermeneutic reconstruction of temporal and spatial correlations across the globe, in which it becomes possible to perceive multiple histories and memories coexisting, without assumptions that all civilizations follow a single Occidental, alphacentric trajectory. The following analysis addresses how the reproduction of codex technology is displacing the global design of the Civilizing Mission. Particularly, we focus on the Civilizing Mission's consequent oppositions of "civilization/barbarism," "literate/illiterate," "first world/third world," "developed/underdeveloped," and "Indianism/Hispanophobia" across the transfrontera contact zone. The emerging language processes in texts such as the Codex Espangliensis not only displace Western oppositions but also allow for possibilities beyond such dichotomous reasoning.

Codex Rhetorics of Resistance

Through the denial of Western historical centrality, "subalternized" Mexican-Amerindian subjects transcend binaries such as "First world/Third world," "Developed/Underdeveloped," and "Mesoamerica/later America" by engaging both yet neither at the same time. Mexican-Amerindian writing practices have continually adapted to new ways of social life while at the same time retaining roots in older pre-Columbian communicative forms. The Amerindian codices, then, are discursive manifestations of continuity and adaptation that comprise this survival. Further, codex technologies offer powerful critiques of the dominant historical narratives of Western expansion, colony, and the border in an age when such things are hotly contested.

Historically, the rhetorical work of Mexican-Amerindian pictography was one of the only major Aztec poetic forms to survive the brutal campaign of the Western alphabet. The codex "books" were productions of paper, hide, or woven cloth; marked on one or both sides and folded, rolled or left flat; and sometimes protected with wooden end-pieces. The Náhua provide one of the earliest Mesoamerican expressions for writing: tlacuilolitzli, which means both "to write" and "to paint." While the tlacuiloque composed the books' images, it was the tlamatinime who assumed ownership as well as the task of textual interpretation.7 Traditionally, the codices were tools of the Mexican intelligentsia to record genealogies, migrations, other political affairs, and origin myths. Of the pre-Hispanic era, only twenty-two codices survive, along with fifty-four commissioned immediately after the conquest of Tenochtitlán in 1521.

Spanish colonial powers, in the interest of reconstructing Amerindian memory and history, commissioned new productions. The Codex Mendoza, for example, was written in 1542 by the order of Virrey Mendoza and recounts the history of the fall of México-Tenochtitlán. Such colonial-era books, although penned by Mestiza and Indigenous writers, initially provided the dominant narratives of Aztec history as seen and authorized by Spanish imperial eyes; juxtaposed images of Aztec pictography, the Spanish-Iberian alphabet, and an alphabetized Náhuatl weave a narrative of the imposed transformation of Indigenous writing practices and cultures. The codex was thus becoming a technology of psychological violence, a tool to colonize Amerindian memory.

Of particular interest to writing specialists is the illustration of coexisting and conflicting inscription systems in a single text. Pictographs juxtaposed with Náhuatl and Castilian reflect competing rationalities and histories; a palimpsest of divergent traditions and ideologies where a Tlaquilo Cosmos and Ibero-Christian world converge. More than hybrid expressions of cultural dichotomies, the codices are fractured enunciations in response to colonial relations of power that disfigure the Amerindian literate world as a "barbarian" exterior to a "civilized" Occidental center. These textual admixtures work to destabilize the idea of the Western letter as a naturalized and valorized element of written communication while calling into question the integrity of Western distinctions between "orality," "writing," "image," and "painting": in other words, the term "writing" must embrace both discursive and non-discursive language forms if we are to legitimate and create histories for these codices.

During the first three generations after Cortez' invasion of México, pictographic image writing remained strong between both Indigenous and Mestiza writers, yet Western scholarship has traditionally focused on the subjugation and erasure of Aztec agency during the colonial sixteenth century. Contemporary re-readings from Cora Lagos and Elizabeth Hill Boone, however, seek new translations by emphasizing the power and validity of pictographic writing independent of and separate from the accompanying alphabet script. We must begin to "read" the pictorial image, Lagos argues, as the nexus, the common space where information is established and authenticated; "it is in the image more than in the writing where the contact between cultures is performed" (86).

From this framework, we can cultivate an understanding of a present-day codex emergence, the 2000 Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol, perhaps the most revisionist codex ever assembled, and one that directly addresses current forms of dominant Western historical narratives. Here, the authors tell a story of civilizing missions, colonial conquests, and rhetorical heterogeneity using poetic Spanglish, Chiconics, Aztec pictography, 20th century Mexican iconography, and transnational corporate imagery to weave yet another retelling of history. This time, in 1492 Noctli Europzin Tezpoca, an Aztec sailor, departs from the port of Minatitlan aboard a small flotilla. Eventually, Tezpoca discovers a new continent, and proceeds to name it "Europzin" after himself. In November 1512, Aztec soldiers begin their conquest of Europzin in the name of the "Lord of Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding." The reversal of Europe and Amerindia in the Codex Espangliensis's telling of world history works to dislodge the integrity of the Civilizing Mission as it has operated in the past and is still understood today.

The alphabetic script in Codex Espangliensis intersects various texts from performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, whose publications combine cyberculture and Chicano/Latino art. Numerous panels of the codex include references to his 1996 The New World Border, "a kind of post-Mexican literary hypertext" (ii). Throughout Border and Codex Espangliensis, Gómez-Peña references the collapse of "three-worlds" theory, the post-1955 Bandung Conference mapping of global social space. The breakdown of the opposition between First and Second worlds, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, makes it possible to imagine beyond the production of the Third World and to define post-national modes of collective identity in the transfrontera contact zone. From New World Border, Gómez-Peña argues that the "old colonial hierarchy of First World/Third World" is being supplanted by "the more pertinent notion of the Fourth World," explained as the "conceptual place where the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas meet with the deterritorialized peoples, the immigrants, and the exiles" (7). Readers of the codex are confronted with transnational flows of cultures and persons in the "Fourth World," spaces where the binary between Indigenous "noble savages" and Mestiza "ignoble savages" is undermined.

Fourth World multiple temporalities furthermore compel the reader to reside in the early 21st century era of late global capitalism while simultaneously inhabiting the Spanish colonial sixteenth century. We are thus confronted with an invitation to "read backward," to consider both pre-Columbian and colonial forms of prenational territorialization as well as forward to think about newly emerging frontiers and regional logics that revise dominant historical narratives. Transnational corporate imagery of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Disney, and telecommunications reside along savage depictions of "barbarian" Mexicans, Mestiza/os, and First Nation's Peoples. On one panel, cannibal Aztecs are seen distributing body parts of Disney's principle animated character, Mickey Mouse, thereby critiquing both Civilization/Barbarianism and Development/Modernization under the banner of global colonialism across the México/United States transfrontera contact zone.

For years after the United States Congress passed NAFTA in 1993, debates about the treaty provoked rhetorics of border crossing and crisis. Legacies of these debates form a thread of images throughout Codex Espangliensis with blurred distinctions between "free trade art" and "free art." Thomas Foster, in "Cyber-Aztecs and Cholo-Punks," suggests that NAFTA represents both a misfortune and a new opportunity

to the extent that transculture and border crossing could be domesticated as "conservative diplomacy," it also proved that the idea could be reappropriated for less conservative purposes. But that reappropriation could only be accomplished through the admission that the border is no one's exclusive property or territory, neither NAFTA's nor Gómez-Peña's. (48-9)

The rhetorical work of Codex Espangliensis therefore highlights the futility of clearly distinguishing between assimilationalist transcultural forms and resistant ones. On one hand, the rhetoric of border crossing can be a subversive and critical act. On the other, such articulations can be exploitive, whether emerging from the political right or the left.8

In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha writes of "the danger that the mimetic contents of a discourse will conceal the fact that the hegemonic structures of power are maintained in a position of authority through a 'shift in vocabulary'" (241-2). The Codex warns of such a shift in diction from geographical colonialism to cultural imperialism, from Cortez to Free Trade, from "Columbus to the Border Patrol," a shift that maintains power structures through a veiled rhetoric of popular culture and advertising. Critically reading such colonial power provokes what Clair Fox identifies as a "global border consciousness," a strategic departure from the site-specific concept of the México/United States borderlands. Gómez-Peña mirrors such a shift to globalize the border when he acknowledges: "the border is no longer located at any fixed geopolitical site. I carry the border with me, and I find new borders wherever I go" (New World Border 5).

Also in this fractured narrative, "illustration/annotation" merge in dialogic negotiation between dissonant literacies and divergent reading practices. Here, new modes of Mexican-Amerindian rhetorical historiography imply new ways to interpret history, rhetoric and composition, thereby having substantial implications for both historians and writing students. When in history did "America" become literate, literary, and rhetorical? When did "writing" begin in North America? According to whose measuring stick? What counts as writing and what does it mean to be "literate?" What does it mean to be "civilized?" In the context of these crucial questions, historians of writing might read codex technology as a "new" vantage point to rethink the relationship between supposedly expanding notions of literacy, composition, rhetoric and Mexican-Amerindian image writing. The codices evidence precisely what the dominant historical imaginary erases and what the field of Rhetoric and Composition lacks: co-evolutionary or parallel histories of writing, rhetoric, and rational thought in the Americas.

Rethinking rhetoric and writing from Mexican-Amerindian textual legacies advances a more constructive understanding of parallel writing systems and rationalities in America, yet such thinking also promotes a critical intervention in the politics of writing instruction in the present. Such an intervention might involve departing from the colonial matrix and denouncing dominant alphacentric narratives of writing-or perhaps facing the reality that writing specialists today may need to look far beyond the myths of a Greco-Roman horizon toward its challenges and mutations on a global scale. In this sense, any consideration of Mexican-Amerindian subalterns as active and central historical agents in the planetary narrative of the historiography of writing motivates a decided departure from the field's hermeneutical gaze.

Works Cited

Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. 2 vols. New Brunswick: NJ: Rutgers UP, 1987.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Boone Hill, Elizabeth. Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

---. "Introduction: Writing and Recorded Knowledge.' Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Ed. Elizabeth Boone Hill and Walter Mignolo. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 3-26.

Dussel, Enrique. "Europe, Modernity, and Eurocentrism: The Semantic Slippage of the Concept of Europe." Nepantla: Views from South 1.3 (2000): 465-78.

Foster, Thomas. "Cyber-Aztecs and Cholo-Punks: Guillermo Gómez-Peña's Five Worlds Theory." PMLA 117.1 (2002): 43-67.

Fox, Clair. "The Portable Border: Site-Specifity, Art, and the U.s.-Mexico Frontier." Social Text 12.4 (1994): 61-82.

Gómez-Peña, Guillermo, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000.

Gómez-Peña, Guillermo. The New World Border. San Francisco: City Lights, 1996.

Holly, Michael Ann. Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1996.

Kennedy, George. Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lagos, Cora. "Confronting Imaginations: Towards an Alternative Reading of the Codex Mendoza." Colonialism Past and Present: Reading and Writing about Colonial Latin America Today. Alvaro Bolaños and Gustavo Verdesio, Eds. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. 79-95.

Langer, Susan K. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. 3rd edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1942, 1951, 1957.

---. Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953.

León-Portilla, Miguel and Earl Shorris, ed. In the Language of Kings: An Anthology of Mesoamerican Literature, Pre-Columbian to the Present. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2001.

Mignolo, Walter. "Globalization, Civilization Processes, and the Relocation of Languages and Cultures." Cultures of Globalization. Eds. Frederick Jameson and Masao Miyoshi. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. 32-53.

---. Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

"Octalog: The Politics of Historiography." Rhetoric Review 7.1 (Fall 1988): 5-49.

"Octalog II: The (Continuing) Politics of Historiography." Rhetoric Review 16.1 (Fall 1997): 22-44.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.

Powell, Malea. "Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing." College Composition and Communication 53.3 (February 2002): 396-434.

Richards, I.A., Speculative Instruments. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

Saldívar, José David. Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Schiappa, Edward. "Toward an Understanding of Sophistic Theories of Rhetoric." Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. 64-81.


1 Speculative Instruments by I.A. Richards (New York: Hartcort, 1955), pp. 115-116.

2 See The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1949).

3 This claim is one of the main tenets in cultural studies, and it has become a cornerstone of postmodern studies. It is perhaps the case that my view of "text" is much broader, however, than even this. "Text" is not just discursive; text is also non-discursive. Therefore, text can not only be a photograph of a puppy; text can also be the images and feelings read in an abstract expressionist painting of a puppy as well.

4 "In all senses of the word, writing thus comprehends language. Not that the word 'writing' has ceased to designate the signifier of the signifier, but it appears, strange as it may seem, that 'signifier of the signifier' no longer defines accidental doubling and fallen secondarity. 'Signifier of the signifier' describes on the contrary the movement of language: in its origin, to be sure, but one can already suspect that an origin whose structure can be expressed as 'signifier of the signifier' conceals and erases itself in its own production" (7).

5 And here we are confronted with the epistemological double bind of any so-called "alternative" rhetoric. Either Amerindian rhetorics are so different from Greco-Roman ones that they cannot be considered Rhetoric proper, or conversely, to be accepted, Amerindian rhetorics have to become similar and assimilated to Western conceptualizations of Rhetorical practices. Rhetoric, then, has become a trademark of the Western world and a yardstick by which to measure the discursive products and effects of other societies. While Rhetoric now belongs to the West, "alternative" rhetorics are something that other societies might have as "objects" to be studied by those who imagine themselves as intellectual decedents of those who invented the idea of Rhetoric as well as those who invented the academic field of Rhetoric and Composition. In either case, provincial Western categories predetermine and fossilize the terms of debate. This paper offers no quick resolution, but instead seeks to question how canonical articulations of Rhetoric and Writing constitute a preferable alternative to those emerging from its peripheries.

6 The groundbreaking thesis of Martin Bernal's controversial Black Athena reveals the cradle of the Rhetorical tradition as a conceptual byproduct of early 19th century Aryan-Germanic racism that made it rationally and emotionally intolerable that Greece would have received its higher culture from Africans and "Semites." The prevailing Aryan Model of history, to use Ed Schiappa's vocabulary, is itself a "reconstruction," a fabrication premised upon the irrational cornerstone of the Western European Enlightenment. In "Europe, Modernity, and Eurocentrism: The Semantic Slippage of the Concept of Europe," Enrique Dussel understands the uni-linear diachrony Greece>Rome>Europe as an extension of the Aryan Model. This fiction navigates across the Atlantic to the Americas, forming yet another continental East-West progression via Manifest Destiny.

7 Tlamatinime are described as philosophers, women and men who studied "proper discourse" (León-Portilla 73) at the conservatory called the Calmécac.

8 In Border Matters, José David Saldívar argues that theoretical abstractions such as "subaltern" "Fourth World," and border crossing result in a shift to dematerialize the actual geography and materiality of border (158). The problem with such rhetoric, Saldívar warns, stems from cutting off the trope of the border from its lived experience and therefore reproduces a detached logic of exaggeration and stereotyping.


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