By Eric Horwitz
Semiosis is second nature to us. The methods by which we transcribe and store information, the processes of creating and reading texts, are so baked into our everyday lives that we barely recognize them as inventions. People who we believe to be ‘ancient’ — civilizations who nevertheless succeeded many thousands of years of prehistory — believed writing to have been a miracle bestowed by heaven (Senner, 10-16). For our part, most of us seldom think about where writing comes from. If we do reflect on it, we might assume that writing is simply the best way (or the only way) to perform all of writing’s functions: our preoccupations are with the many hundreds of millions of bytes processed by a computer instead of the rote conventions of literacy. But that in the English-speaking world there should be some twenty-six visible orthographic marks and a handful of other numbers and symbols, that these should indicate English phonetics and be placed together to make words, that these words should be grouped into sentences with punctuation for clarification, that there should be this number of sentences on a page and that number of pages in a book, that a book should deliver information and move the heart within expectations of convention and genre, that there should be a library to organize these books, and that other languages though they use abjads, abugidas, or syllabaries, should be similar enough for translation — these are not inevitable developments.
By looking at the early history of writing I hope to isolate key moments of its adoption and development into the primary medium of the literate world today. At the same time I hope to explore other methods of data collection and meaning transference, other systems of semiosis, and speculate on their potential to act as modes of literary communication as complex as the written word. In doing so I risk a Whiggish and deterministic approach to history, I flirt with clumsy teleology and notions of progress. I hope that these extrapolations are understood as not one-to-one equivalences on an imagined great path of history, as they would be in an inelegant alternate history. I don’t intend here to elevate writing above speech, song and dance; nor to imply that my inspirations are in any way lacking their own semiotic richness and complexity. Rather, I intend this article as a playful investigation into possibilities, and as a reminder of how speculative fiction often presents as ‘universal’ what are really just the technologies and practices of a handful of recent powerful empires.
There is some difficulty in discussing the relative “complexity” of one type of communication compared to another. Is there a fundamental unit of information that can be used to measure the amount and efficiency of expression? Computer programmers of the twentieth century managed an impressive feat of not only engineering but also philosophy by reducing information to a binary: yes or no, zero or one. This makes some aspects of communication measurable: we might compare how efficiently two different file formats encode the same text or image, for example. Some have argued to use the term “infon” to describe a more generalistic unit of coding and decoding; these could be wavelengths, the stroke of a stylus, or any theoretical deliberate configuration of objects (Quilter & Urton, 81). However, this article is more interested in complexity as an aesthetic, literary and cultural concept, and so avoids quantitative approaches.
Origins of Writing
Writing as we know it developed much as agriculture did, not invented in one place but gradually over time and in multiple areas around the world. And as with agriculture, its origins are associated with speculation and controversy. Writing systems as different as Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mesopotamian Cuneiform, Chinese characters, and Middle American glyphs do seem to share a similar developmental pattern. The signs they used began as pictorial representations and gradually abstracted. As they did so the amount and complexity of information they could encode increased. There have been fierce disputes about whether this might also correlate with equivalent complexity in legal and political systems: perhaps scribes, faced with unprecedented difficulties in their social systems, may have adapted by stretching established conventions beyond their purpose and in doing so opened up new lexicalities (Senner, 43). Such claims certainly deserve caution. They are difficult to disentangle from the Eurocentric scholarship that has frequently failed to see complexity (aesthetic, cultural, political, or social) when it did not fit its ideas of teleology and superiority (cf. Trigger; Graeber and Wengrow).
With these caveats, we might take Cuneiform as an illustration. The earliest Mesopotamian scribes and accountants used carved or painted pictures to indicate the type or quantity of goods their city or temple had. These images would gradually become conventionalized for ease of use, they would indicate “bird” by drawing the same stylization of a bird using the same strokes and dimensions. This would then become abstracted, merely a few wedges in the tablet would be instantly recognized as shorthand for “bird.” Eventually readers would associate these marks not with their literal meaning but with the phonetics of the word indicated. Those few strokes of the stylus could be read not as indicating a bird but as the consonants “B” or “D” or a “BD” noise (Senner, 6-7). Here the “rebus principle” comes into effect. We use rebuses today as a children’s game: a picture of an eye, a yam, and a car tire becomes “I am tired.” By abstracting images to the sounds associated with them writers discovered their tools had become more versatile and had the ability to express more information (Senner, 5).
This framework suggests an overall trend in the development of writing systems across different cultures, but it would of course be reductive to believe that all literacy followed it exactly. Chinese characters today comprise a series of logograms whose interpretation and pronunciation are suggested by the use of indicators known in English as “radicals” or by the conventional processes of creating compound characters (Senner, 189-192). On one theory, Sumerian writing started by collecting clay tokens to symbolize the size and types of debt held. People would eventually impress these tokens into the clay pots or hollow spheres that held them, gradually the impressions themselves replaced the tokens (Senner, 27-40). The former example illustrates that a complex grammar can manifest in dramatically different ways. The latter example shows how a tactile method of data transference can translate to a visual one. Both reveal that the human impulse to semiosis and the articulation of increasingly complex ideas can spring from any number of sources and adapt with the materials and circumstances of the writer.
In the rest of this article, I want briefly to imagine two semiotic systems, inspired by the quipu of the Andean region, and certain Caribbean dancing traditions. How might the dominant semiotic technologies of the world today have been different if they were based — not on the parchment scroll, the codex, the printing press, the Jacquard loom, the difference engine, the personal computer and so on, but rather — on knotted strings, or on dance? Might such forms, had the written word not occupied that niche, have relayed all the cultural and scientific utterances of modernity? And might we learn to see our familiar semiotic systems differently, by comparing them with these imagined alternatives?
The Loom Library
Andean quipus are a particularly interesting example because of their range, standardization across a wide area, diversity of use, and long history. One singular discovery may even date early forms of quipu as far back as the Caral-Supe civilization, roughly four and a half thousand years ago (Solís, 29; Mann 1008). Forms of quipu were certainly used by the Wari and the Incas. Messengers would run across the Andes holding aloft a primary string of usually cotton wool with secondary and tertiary strings dangling from it (Quilter & Urton, 61). These strings were knotted in distinctive ways, but while their meanings can be theorized about there is as of yet no definitive “translation” of all quipus (Urton, 1-2). As Hyland and Hyland describe, “During the Inca period, quipus were employed for recording numerical data, such as tribute amounts and demographic information; however, Spanish chroniclers wrote that these cords also encoded narratives, such as royal biographies, and were sent as letters from one leader to another. While we can read the numbers on about two-thirds of the quipus known to exist and have gained some understanding of accounting quipus, Andean narrative quipus remain a mystery.” (Hyland and Hyland 122-123).
Of further interest to our speculation is that the structures resembling the quipu seem to appear in Quecha society everywhere: from quipu-like bridge and clothing construction (Urton, 63-65) to oral narratives that contain a central “cord” of theme or perspective and circular action around it like the ply of a thread (Quilter & Urton, 34-46). This supports the enormous narrative potential of the quipu, and offers circumstantial support that the quipu may have been more than a utilitarian device of record keeping. Storytelling conventions and even genres could be conventionalized within the structure of the cords.
Some historians have speculated that quipus were merely personal mnemonic devices with no standardized encoding beyond the whim of an individual messenger, others strenuously dispute this (Urton, 54). Those in the latter group have been careful to map out the knot types, directions of the string fibers, materials, positions, and colors of the quipu (Quilter & Urton, 61, 68, 70, 77) in attempts to locate patterns and rediscover narrative meaning. The quipu-inspired constructions of Chilean conceptual artist Cecilia Vicuña speculate on the communicative potential of elements as heterogeneous as ply and texture and color and their utilization for encoding complex messages. Her Quipu Womb stretches quipu knotting to a colossal scale – large enough to fully enclose a human being – and dyes it a bright red, playing with the idea of medium as a message (Vicuña). Her Quipu Inscribed conjures a more direct relationship with writing, projecting unfinished sentence fragments unto unspun wool (Vicuña). The piece seems to ask: what poetry have we lost? We see the grammatical forms but only grasp at their intention.
Other quipu researchers detected patterns in the number and location of assorted knots, and the materials and colors used, that may resemble a computational system of binary oppositions. Conservative calculations indicate that one secondary cord could contain enough encoded data to equal one word if mechanically interpreted into the Quechua language. But if the quipu had their own assumed network of connotations and associations beyond spoken language their capacity for meaning exponentially increases (Quilter & Urton, 82).
Setting aside the controversies that continue to surround actual quipus, how might they inspire speculative fiction writing about knots and string as a semiotic medium? One intriguing possibility would be to write a society in which such knots do function mnemonically but, far from being ‘mere’ mnemonic devices, are powerful neurological prostheses, allowing users to accomplish extraordinary feats of storytelling or data storage and analysis.
Alternatively, we can imagine how familiar literary phenomena might be different if they had evolved using knots, rather than paper and ink or pixels of light. What therefore does the ‘knotted novel’ look like? Perhaps readers would develop expectations of certain poetic forms from the direction of the ply and the types of knots. Perhaps cross-genre experimentations could be attempted through the combination of disparate elements. Imagine the potential use of irony by the juxtaposition of one unexpected element toward another. Knotted epics could manifest as conversations, entire weaves of fabric instantiating debates or love letters or correspondence. The image of the postmodern quipu weaver springs too readily into our minds, figuratively deconstructing the narrative by literally deconstructing the cords. Cecilia Vicuña work is an example of such cross-media experimentation.
Then there is the library of knots. Here the vision once more converges with that of a machine; the collection of organized cords must after all resemble a loom. Pull one lever and the encoded threads warp one way; it conveys the combination, the encoding is read, maybe a copy is spun for you to take home; pull another lever and the screen of cords and knots stretches taut, there is a shimmering along the weft as a mechanism drags along different elements and there is the other item of your query. How might parallels to cryptography and computer coding manifest in the loom library? Could we imagine something like social media woven from these knots and threads? A quipu argument? One hastily tangled knot after another as disputants slander each other, tying previous utterances and uninvolved parties into their thread, both parties inadvertently creating a collaborative artwork— to an observer unfamiliar with writing would even the pettiest arguments look like art?
The Dancing Computer
Other methods of meaning transference are perhaps less mathematical and more spiritual. Some traditions practice transference of embodied knowledge, a less precise but more holistic method of communication (Daniel, 57). Nevertheless, it is not impossible to make similar extrapolations and speculations as we did with the quipu.
Caribbean dancing traditions such as Haitian Voudu or Cuban Yoruba provide an interesting example. Authorities ranging from Christian missionaries to Scooby Doo depict these acts as disorganized bacchanalia, unaware that physical motions can encompass a vocabulary as dense as any paragraph. On the contrary, they are intricate ceremonies whose every motion or element conveys an important message. They demonstrate a dizzying syncretism. The enslavement and displacement of people from so many nations could not but produce new expressions upon collision, not as deliberate a creation as the familiar visualization of food in a pot but instead, as the impact of an asteroid is said to have produced the moon. The syncretism was not merely intercontinental but intracontinental, deriving grammar not from some conglomerate Africa, America, or Europe, but many distinct nations (Daniel, 3). But variegated elements across colonies and languages maintain mutual intelligibility. The dances are all communal affairs to reinforce social cohesion (Daniel, 1). They are intended as liturgies, structured rituals like a Catholic mass; they consist of ordinaries, rites to designated deities, and transubstantial communion (Daniel, 149-162). They are group acts, the spectators are also participants. The priest does not stand alone to deliver the homily, instead the dance is a mechanism by which every attendee produces the homily.
They were of course hardly monolithic. Some were festive and some were solemn, some were satires of their colonizers’ practices and others were genuine embraces of certain Catholic principles. All borrowed from different African nations in different proportions with one emphasizing Yoruba memory, another Fon, and another Kongo-Angola (Daniel, 105-147). In Cuba early areítos could involve up to thousands of dancers all performing in unison but each with their own spatial configuration (Daniel, 119). Haitian radas were a literal invocation of traditional Fon and Yoruba deities called lwas. Through the dance the performers would embody the entity; the dancer is said to be “mounted” by the lwa as a rider mounts a horse (Daniel, 9).
One more element of interest is the coding within motions of the body. Yvonne Daniel explains that “[w]ithin religious concepts of the [African] Diaspora, the body is mapped by the divinities themselves, and the specialized tissue of the given part of the body, with its associated internal organs, is understood within its anatomical and resulting psychological function” (Daniel, 74). Certain body parts themselves are associated with different lwas, and therefore also the connotations and domains of those deities (Daniel, 75-79).
The semiotics of dance again offers opportunities for extrapolation and speculation. Consider the mapping of conceptual domains to different parts of the body, their gestures, motions and inclination. Could the various abbreviations that occurred within early writing — pictures stylized as pictograms, the emergence of logograms and the rebus principle — also occur with dance? If so, then perhaps such dancing could express “infons” with a standardized vocabulary and grammar. This might then be distinct from sign language as we know it: instead of a gestural adaptation to an existing verbal world this would be a language that is etymologically and genetically within the body: where ‘language’ and ‘body’ might not even be intelligible as separate categories. Would it be possible, given such semiotics, ever to be silent?
So what of a dancing computer then? Rituals themselves might encapsulate its database. It would be a technology that implies reading and writing as a communal experience, where literature is not created and possessed by one author but rather a shared activity among many. This should not be such an alien concept. We may attribute The Iliad to Homer but he is hardly the possessor of that story as any of the thousands of oral historians and storytellers of Ancient Greece. Across most cultures there are folk tales, fables, jokes, songs, legends and histories that have no author as such, or whose author is more like a character in the narrative than any identifiable historical figure.
Individual dancers would not know the trillions of potential infons communicable by the dancing machine any more than an average reader would have memorized the encyclopedia. They would know a practical amount of grammar and vocabulary applicable for everyday interactions and perhaps some specified language appropriate for their profession. Instead they would bring their queries, curiosities, and taste for idle diversions to regularly scheduled rituals. The entire community assembles and “boots up” the dancing computer, the highly specified interactions of rhythm and gesture constituting nothing short of its “code.” The querant would ask their question through motion, passing through the ritual until an answer is formed. The interactions hold data and computational power exponentially greater than any individual could: the people form an entity greater than the sum of their parts.
Much of science fiction relies on Eurocentric understandings of progress and technology the same way a fish does not know water. Recent years have seen a flourishing of Indigenous futurist writing and scholarship, expanding notions of the possible and the plausible. New opportunities for speculative fiction open up when we look at the fundamental and invisible practices of modernity and understand them as historically contingent adaptations to specific circumstances. Of course, writers who seek inspiration from traditions suppressed by colonialism — and above all writers drawing on inspiration well beyond their own cultural backgrounds — run the risk of appropriation, misrepresentation, or erasure. But if speculative fiction is to do justice to the diverse possibilities of the future, it cannot ignore the diverse realities of the past and present.
It is necessary to emphasize that the loom library and the dancing computer are only fictions, intended to inspire and to provoke. This article should not be confused for a comprehensive survey of existing practices and cultures, nor as an unlikely expose on long-hidden historical practices. It is an act of researched whimsy. I sketch these imaginary devices and communication methods as an invitation for readers to consider the unseen technologies of their own lives, and how a truly speculative fiction could interrogate them.
Eric Horwitz is a librarian and author from New York City. He has been published in Daily Science Fiction and Not One of Us. You can find him at ethorwitz.com
Daniel, Yvonne. Dancing Wisdom: Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Voudou, Cuban Yoruba, and Bahian Candomblé. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago. 2005.
Mann, Charles. “Unraveling Khipu’s Secrets.” Science. 309 (5737): 1008–1009. doi:10.1126/science.309.5737.1008. 2005.
Quilter, Jeffrey and Gary Urton, editors. Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in
Andean Khipu. University of Texas Press, Austin. 2002.
Senner, Wayne, editor. The Origins of Writing. University of Nebraska Press. 1989.
Shady Solís, Ruth. The Caral-Supe Civilization: 5000 years of Cultural Identy in Peru. Zona Arqueológica Caral – UE-003 / Ministerio de Cultura. 2005.
Trigger, Bruce G. ‘Writing Systems: A Case Study in Cultural Evolution’. Norwegian Archaeological Review 31, no. 1 (January 1998): 39–62. doi.org/10.1080/00293652.1998.9965618. 1998.
Urton, Gary. Signs of the Inka Khipu, Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records. University of Texas Press, Austin. 2003.
Vicuña, Cecelia. Quipu Inscribed, 2008. Performance with unspun wool and projection. American Museum of Natural History, New York.
Vicuña, Cecelia. Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens), 2017. Wool, dye, rope and thread. EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens.