Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

How Maya Hieroglyphs Got Their Name: Egypt, Mexico, and China in Western Grammatology since the Fifteenth Century1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

How Maya Hieroglyphs Got Their Name: Egypt, Mexico, and China in Western Grammatology since the Fifteenth Century1

Article excerpt


In this essay, I explain how certain Mesoamerican practices came to be thought of as "hieroglyphic" "writing." I argue that an awareness of this history can offer new perspectives for New World scholarship. The first part of the essay provides a survey of six centuries of Western discourses on hieroglyphic writing-discourses that are surprisingly global in scope and authorship, connecting Egypt, Mexico, and China. Within this global context, Western discourses on specifically Mesoamerican hieroglyphs have, from the sixteenth century to the present, repeatedly raised two basic issues. One, Are New World hieroglyphs truly writing? Two, Can these texts be trusted? Given the enduring legacies (and prejudices) of the categorizations of European invaders in Mesoamerican scholarship, the second part of the essay asks what happens if we displace (but not ignore) the categories of "hieroglyphic" "writing" and consider instead Mesoamerican philosophies and materialities of seeing. Overall, I argue that our inheritance of early modern categories and assumptions has important implications for Mesoamerican hieroglyphic research.

As you begin working with the Mayan calendar and familiarising yourself with the solar glyphs, you may notice that you are attracted to certain glyphs, some even more than your birthday glyph. This is normal, and it will change as time goes by because your spiritual and emotional needs are rapidly evolving. The glyphs you are most attracted to will be the ones that are most beneficial to you at that moment, so trust your intuition and meditate on the ones that appeal to you. Be aware that the solar glyphs will communicate with you telepathically-this is a two-way connection. You are encouraged to ask questions and then relax and listen quietly for the telepathic answer.

The absence of writing is an important element of the situation [the conquest of Tenochtitlan], perhaps even the most important. Stylized drawings, the pictograms used among the Aztecs, are not a lesser degree of writing: they note the experience, not the language.

- Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America3


MAYA HIEROGLYPHS make repeated appearances in the writings of William S. Burroughs (fig. 1). In his 1962 "The Mayan Caper," a reporter for the Evening News travels back in time to observe first-hand the use of Maya hieroglyphic books ("codices"). Burroughs's surrogate begins by providing the reader with a brief description of Maya texts: "The Mayan writings have not been fully deciphered, but we know that most of the hieroglyphs refer to dates in the calendar, and these numerals have been translated-It is probable that the other undeciphered symbols refer to the ceremonial calendar-"4

Through a combination of spirit-possession surgery, queer sex, and mushroom consumption, Burroughs's intrepid reporter brings himself to the prehispanic Yucatan. There, armed with "a vibrating camera gun sewed into my fly, a small tape recorder and transistor radio concealed in a clay pot," he becomes an agricultural worker and surreptitiously documents the role of Maya books in social control. He discovers that Maya priests used the hieroglyphic "image track" of the codices to generate a non-verbal "sound track." This "continuous music like a shrill insect frequency . . . followed the workers all day in the field." It functioned as a telepathic system of governance- governance based not on verbal commands, but on the control of thought itself: "I have explained that the Mayan control system depends on the calendar and the codices which contain symbols representing all states of thought and feeling possible to human animals living under such limited circumstances-These are the instruments with which they rotate and control units of thought-"5 Through additional acts of sex and spirit possession, Burroughs's reporter gains access to the temple-concealed codices, rearranges their sound and image tracks, triggers a worker revolution, and brings about the collapse of Maya society. …

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