Carlo Severi, The Chimera Principle: An Anthropology of Memory and Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 375, 2015.
Carlo Severi’s book The Chimera Principle: An Anthropology of Memory and Imagination presents a clear theorization of how visual forms are central to ritual communication, memory and ultimately human thought in so-called ‘oral’ societies. This was already a seminal book for both Americanist scholarship and theories of the image prior to its translation from the French by Janet Lloyd; its translation is sure to generate further discussion as it presents an ambitious project deserving more attention in the English-speaking world.
Severi sets out to dismantle the distinction between writing and ‘oral cultures’ assumed to lack elaborate mnemonic techniques. By analysing Amerindian pictography and images from Oceania, he approaches graphic systems as an ‘art of memory’ rather than simply an unsuccessful attempt at writing. In order to show how memory is produced beyond oral narrative without writing, Severi examines how, in ritual, deliberately counter-intuitive images are ordered into sequences to become memorable. It is the chimera figure, a combination of heterogeneous features of different beings, that gives particular salience to an image – whether in Kuna shamanic songs or the iconography of Plains Indian pictograms. In the context of ritual communication, this mosaic of counter-intuitive images engenders the transformation of the identities of participants. In this process, Severi argues, memory is encoded in the ordering of images through a ‘parallelist’ structure, whereby ‘order transforms a narrative sequence into an alternation between formulae that are constantly repeated and a series of variations that are introduced one after the other’ (p.196).
For Severi, parallelism, like any technique of remembering, is a way of orienting the imagination that ultimately produces beliefs. For example, in healing rituals, a shaman becomes a ‘complex locutor’, a chimerical figure who oscillates between a predatory jaguar spirit, mythical characters and other beings. Such a plural presence in ritual communication introduces a temporal paradox in the image that constitutes social memory. Severi describes uncertainty as a perlocutionary effect of ritual performance, arguing that the tension between doubt and acceptance ‘characterizes the very act of belief’ (p.228), and as such is ‘a means of constructing a common memory’ (p.229). For Severi, belief is not necessarily coherent or systemic, but ‘is very often a matter of discourse interwoven with images that, far from imposing themselves as rules that should be obeyed, offer themselves up to personal interpretation suggested by a ritual context’ (p.235). The force of an image rests in its projection of something common or familiar into something extraordinary, unfamiliar or invisible. In this way, ‘belief’ has more to do with imagination than it does certainty, as any strange feature that leaves a mark on one’s memory has a potential role in establishing belief.
Severi takes inspiration from diverse perspectives in arguing for a close link between belief and projection in human psychology. He suggests that sound, whether in Kuna shamanic songs, Georgian folk music or the internal ordering of inarticulate utterances associated with autism, can acquire an autonomous existence that eludes speech but ‘maintains a profound relationship with meaning’ akin to the ordering of words in language (p.247). Such ‘infralinguistic’ communication, he argues, is precisely the kind of ritual communication in which ‘sonorous images’ have the perlocutionary effect of encouraging people to see what is usually invisible. By shifting attention from the content of representations to acts of projection by which belief is constituted (and memory encoded), Severi shows how parallelism ‘affects not only the representation of the world … but also that of locutors’ and is thus a ‘technique for generating new images’ (p.256).
Chapter 1 traces Severi’s engagement with the role of images in knowledge transmission to the idea of a ‘biology of images’ in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scholarship. He describes the work of Aby Warburg and other writers who, unlike art historians, saw in so-called ‘primitive art’ a complex process of cultural transmission, suggesting mental representations beyond what a particular image shows. Chapter 2 introduces pictography as a specific Amerindian mnemonic form. It describes the parallelist structure of the Dakota Bible, a book of nineteenth-century Native American drawings that Severi compares to the parallelism in Kuna pictograms and other iconographic traditions linked to ritual speech. Based on the principles of salience and order in Amerindian pictograms, he compares these traditions to graphic transcriptions of totemic names in Sepik art in Oceania. Chapter 3 brings together Severi’s argument about parallelism, the construction of a complex locutor in shamanic song, and the role of doubt and projection in the production of belief.
Chapter 4 makes clear that Severi is not simply excavating a technique of ritual communication in ‘oral’ societies, but also one among people of European origin whose religious iconography expresses conflict and paradox in their historical encounters with other cultures. Severi addresses ‘antagonistic’ memories by describing the emergence of the Ghost Dance in the nineteenth century among Plains Indians, a messianic cult promising the resurrection of dead warriors and ultimately the vanquishing of whites. As Native American prophets had widespread influence in claiming to be the true son of the God of Christians, Severi argues that the Ghost Dance constituted a paradox through which prophets asserted themselves as similar to but different from the Christian God, and thus ‘remained perfectly faithful to the indigenous tradition, not the Christian one’ (p.268). Making a clear argument for cultural continuity in this context, Severi explains how prophets came to embody a ‘paradoxical I’ through ritual action, using the same parallelist technique of transforming or combining images into a chimeric figure. It was this reflexive application of contradictory ontological features, characteristic of Amerindian shamanism, rather than syncretism, that gave Apache prophets their intensity and power in the Ghost Dance.
Severi then turns to people of Spanish descent in New Mexico and the religious iconography of the rural Penitente Church to show a similar mnemonic technique in their images. In recreating themes from medieval iconography, Hispano-American sculptors inserted new images indicating traces of social conflict with Native Americans, a kind of ‘iconic contamination’ or ‘polarization of images’ from which new and intensified meanings emerged. In contexts like these, Severi observes, a chimera reveals not just cultural continuity, but also a confrontation between two opposed fields, the coexistence of contradictory elements in unresolved conflict. In this way, even if the cultural worlds of Apache and Hispano-Americans are quite different, they remain at least comparable.
Severi’s attempt to describe widespread mnemonic techniques across indigenous America, and his generalized argument about the function of images in the transmission of knowledge, make this an ambitious book. It recalls a lecture I attended in 2005 where Maurice Bloch noted anthropology’s retreat from generalized questions about humanity, and the tendency to instead emphasize particularity and difference through detailed ethnographic description. Bloch argued that while this particularism was a logical result of serious fieldwork that challenged the errors of nineteenth-century evolutionism, anthropology should be in a better position today to theorize humanity in general terms – alongside other disciplines. Severi in many ways answers this call, asking us to rethink the relationships between image, language and thought in comparative perspective. His analysis is couched in a critique of the evolutionist tendency to view ‘oral’ cultures and their iconographies as limited versions of those with writing, and his approach is decidedly interdisciplinary insofar as he uses historical sources, ethnography, psychology and long forgotten works on ‘ornamentation’ to support his argument. Instead of presenting an in-depth description of a single place or people in its particularity, Severi’s comparative approach evokes both an ethnological tradition with scant readership in the UK and the ambitious theorizing rarely seen in contemporary anthropology.
Severi’s book makes an especially important contribution to the study of memory, which has become one of the largest subfields of anthropology at the same time as it tends to follow the cultural particularism identified by Bloch. I see The Chimera Principle as a Lévi-Straussian project in proposing a general model for understanding Native America, but also implying that such memory techniques are part of a shared human process by which knowledge is transmitted – a process that can be discovered through formal analysis. I wonder how much a broader English-speaking readership will appreciate the scale of either of these arguments. Though Viveiros de Castro has been influential in describing multi-naturalism as a specific Amerindian ontology, such concepts have come under attack as being too generalizing to the point of implying essentialism. Given this risk in Severi’s argument for the efficacy and prevalence of parallelism in Native American ritual communication, it is fortunate that Severi, in addition to presenting detailed visual representations to support his argument, manages to incorporate his analysis of Hispano-American Penitente iconography into this book. And yet, in all cases, Severi focuses primarily on memory as a question of cultural continuity. Though his conclusion that ‘an anthropology of memory can evolve toward an anthropology of the exercise of thought’ (p.329) should be welcomed, at times in the book memory becomes almost indistinguishable from thought or cultural transmission.
Severi’s book left me wondering what bearing certain aspects of this visual ‘art of memory’, such as the chimera or the ‘paradoxical I’, might have for other visual forms in the Amerindian world. Even if Kuna and Plains Indian pictograms share a parallelist logic, how might this apply to the pictography of more hierarchical peoples of the Americas, whether ancient Maya glyphs or images from the Andes? One of Severi’s strengths is in drawing convincing comparisons between distant places and the innovations of seemingly hybrid images in messianic objects used by nineteenth-century Apache prophets. What perhaps remains to be established is how this alternative to our own arts of memory might also be useful for understanding visual forms of communication that Western scholars have discussed outside or beyond what might generally be classed as ‘oral tradition’.