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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

incantation and writing

Generally, I am on the side of Tim Ingold – who is on the side, mostly, of Derrida – in his book, Lines. In some ways, Ingold reproduces the grammatological gesture of the early Derrida. For instance, Inglold, too, devotes time to a lesson in writing. The scene of writing in Lines is derived not from Levi-Strauss, however, but, more Englishly, from Winnie the Pooh.
“Eeyore, the old grey donkey, has arranged three sticks on the ground. Two of the sticks were almost touching at one end but splayed apart at the other, while the third was laid across them. Up comes Piglet. ‘Do you know what that is?’, Eeyore asks Piglet. Piglet has no idea. ‘It’s an A’, intones Eeyore proudly. By recognizing the figure as an A, however, would we be justified in crediting Eeyore with having produced an artefact of writing? Surely not. All he has done is to copy a figure he has seen somewhere else. He knows it is an A because that is what Christopher Robin called it. And he is convinced that to recognize an A when you see one is of the essence of Learning and Education. But Christopher Robin, who is starting school, knows better. He realizes that A is a letter, and that as such it is just one of a set of letters, called the alphabet, each of which has a name, and that he has learned to recite in a given order. He is also learning to draw these letters. But at what stage does he cease to draw letters and begin instead to write? “
This question hovers very much over any contemporary family with a child in pre-school. Adam has spent the last year in a fight with the number 5. It is a number that, he claims, he can’t draw. It is a curious problem, since he can draw 3 and even the difficult 4. But 5 in Adam’s hands tends to turn into 3. 

Ingold considers the answers produced by the question of the drawing/writing divide (which one notices in the Pooh example almost fatally puts into motion the various hierarchical divides – of human vs. animal, of the schooled (literate) vs. the unschooled, or savage, of the scission between the preschooled child and the child who is “starting school” – that play out in the last 500 years of history) and goes through the various classificatory responses that attempt to sort out what is going on. There is the difference he starts out with, deriving from Nelson Goodman, between script and score (“The script, he argues, is a work, whereas in the case of the score the work comprises the set of performances compliant with it.“) He considers Vygotsky’s idea that children, making their first letters or numbers, ‘do not draw, they indicate, and the pencil merely fixes the indicatory gesture.” And finally he considers Roy Harris’s argument that the difference between notation and spelling signifies a cardinal epistemological shift.
Ingold, however, wants to argue that whatever shift is indicated by the difference between Christopher Robin and Eeyore’s view of “A”, spelling or writing is still a special kind of drawing. 

Adam’s problem with 5 is not a problem with its place in the number system. He knows how to count to ten – and even to one hundred, when singing the song about counting to one hundred. But I would emphasize something different than indication or spelling. I would emphasize incantation. 

To my mind, Adam’s knowledge of counting to ten is incantatory knowledge. This doesn’t mean he can’t apply it. He loves, in fact, to count things. Holes in shoes that shoestrings go through. Fingers. The number of pancake pieces on his plate that he has to finish. But these numerating instances are, I think, incantatory instances as well. 

Charms with incantations written on them are pretty common objects in the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Incantations are generally taken to be nonsense words, formulas that do not correspond to words or phrases that make sense in the language in which they appear. For the Greeks, they were part of the repertoire of medicine. In one of Pindar’s poems, Aesclepius uses incantations, pharmaka (drugs) or pharmaka (charms) to heal patients. The classical scholar Roy Kotansky quotes a text by Cato which recommends healing a fractured bone not only by binding the area with bandages, but also by binding a broken reed at the same time, waving about a knife, and uttering the phrase Motas Vaeta Daries Dardares Astataries Dissunapiter. This phrase is “nonsensical” – the equivalent of abracadabra. 

But it is a mistake to claim that the nonsense has no larger sense. Incantatory phrases are handed down. They are written. They are remembered. They are formulaic. But the reference of the word or words that form the incantation is not on the normal route to denotation. It is hip hopping down another road, a backroad. 

I’m not sure that viewing the 5 as an incantatory object is going to solve Adam’s problem. That will be solved mechanically as he keeps going to school. But it does shed some light on the way children pick up on phrases, and will repeat them for the joy of the phrase. Which later on becomes part of the reception or creation of verbal art. 

One more story from Ingold. 

“In some cases, the elements of a notation are clearly also depictions. That the ox-head hieroglyph, the precursor of our letter A, is a depiction becomes obvious if we compare it with the way oxen themselves were drawn in Ancient Egypt (Figure 5.4). We would not hesitate to say that the glyph is a drawing of something other than itself, even though it is also incorporated into a script. Another well-known example may be taken from recent ethnography. I refer to Nancy Munn’s (1973b) celebrated study of the Walbiri, an Aboriginal people of the Central Australian Desert whom we have already encountered, in passing, in Chapter 3. Both men and women among the Walbiri routinely draw designs in the sand with their fingers, as they talk and tell stories. This drawing is as normal and as integral a part of conversation as are speech and gesture. The markings themselves are standardized to the extent that they add up to a kind of vocabulary of graphic elements whose precise meanings, however, are heavily dependent on the conversational or storytelling contexts in which they appear. Thus a simple straight line can be (among other things) a spear, a fighting or digging stick, or a person or animal lying stretched out; a circle can be a nest, water hole, tree, hill, billy can or egg. As the story proceeds, marks are assembled into little scenes, each of which is then wiped out to make way for the next (Munn 1973b: 64–73).”


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