Katie King – In Knots: transdisciplinary khipu
Statement of Research and Study Plans
For 2013 Folger Institute: The Orality-Literacy Heuristic (12 – 14 June), Fox & McDowell
They can be arranged like elegant circular maps or spread out as a curtain of knotted strings or stored like the head of a mop. The word “khipu” means knot in Quechua, a language of the Central Andes of South America, and khipu are Andean devices made of fiber (once) used for managing complex information. No longer just not able to make the cut for so-called “true” writing, today khipu have become both things to think about and things to think with, literalizing new materialities of a workaround concept we might still want to call writing or perhaps better rewriting, in the wake of rethinking so-called representationalism. (Quilter and Urton, 2002; Alaimo and Hekman, 2008)
Khipu, best known today in their Inka and some colonial versions (from 1400 to as late as 1824), are objects with stories to tell us, and not just about one orality-literacy heuristic, but about several. (Salomon, 2004:11-12) The term heuristic puts practice-based trial and error learning at the center of discussion here, and while orality-literacy relationships have been writ large in theory, in historical and cross cultural specifics they are just plain more complicated than that, full of local materialities that matter. But having to choose just one, either the global-theoretical or a single local time, place, object, is just too simple. Orality-literacy names a bunch of “things” in interaction with themselves. (Latour, 1993 ) Simultaneously processes, projects, and products, orality-literacy things range among: actual objects with stories, particular relationships constructed for particular uses and purposes, large meta- or master-narratives that assemble transdisciplinary “knowledge worlds” across incommensurabilities in bits and pieces, claims about cognition and culture, ways to defamiliarize the contemporary, and ecologies of media in pastpresents, where trying to keep pasts and presents from endlessly mixing somehow, turns out to be labor well lost.
Participating in the Fox & McDowell faculty seminar would allow me to share materials about khipu from the talks and writing I have been doing recently, and to get a sense of transdisciplinary audiences for my next book proposal and project which addresses some of these issues. How to communicate these issues in the very midst of their transformation and to various scholarly communities of practice is both exciting and daunting!
Khipu are transdisciplinary things. They exist as and among these processes, projects, and products. They string together and knot and unknot a range of large issues brought into existence as orality-literacy heuristics. One historian of khipu talks about “semiotic heterogeneity” – such that because they are not representations of speech,
both standardization and idiosyncrasy co-existed among khipu literacies. In other words, they varied in their types of convention and degree of standardization depending on which institutionalized relationships they brought into being. (Brokaw, 2010:262) Does something we might want to call writing require its opposite to be orality or speech in language? How khipu possibly functioned to coordinate complex systems, in another meaning of what we might want to call writing, helps us not only to understand past orality-literacy heuristics, but may well give us clues about what sorts of coordination artifacts we find ourselves creating and needing today. Khipu make apparent what those working out among Andean “writings without words” extensively connect across time and technologies: forms in which processing information does not have to jump a gap created by ideas about language. (Boone and Mignolo, 1994; Salomon, 2001)
Knotting and unknotting khipu “included” collectives and individuals into their “webs” of highly complex and multiply embedded Andean systems of social organization enfolding a range of environments: • both hierarchical but also contingently collective among possible groupings; with • different kinds of interactivities possible with each range of connection in attention, as well as • altered in cycles social, ritual, and environmental that do not recur in any simple way; and • always imperfectly “known,” in any time period, to any set of people, both cooperative but also complexly idiosyncratic. Khipu in this context have been called “reciprocity made visible” (Salomon, 2004:279), but more than just vision is involved in such haptic objects as they “allow one to use different parts of the sensorium for grasping the different variables.” (281) In pairs and used differently at different moments of social and ritual purpose, in some parts of “their use cycle” (278) khipu are simulation devices and at other parts agents in performance of duties and entitlements. Can all this properly be called writing? Why might we want to, for then and for now? (Quilter, 2002; Harrison, 2002)
It is incredibly exciting to get to the point in Early Modern Studies where we can talk explicitly about why orality-literacy binaries just don’t work! Yet how we got to these modernisms also matters: how and why the oral was invented, and for what sorts of cultural work when. These are questions and issues that have also preoccupied me over three decades, and my next book project that addresses them, “Speaking with Things,” draws upon this approach that has come to be called by some “thing theory” or “object oriented ontologies.” (Harman, 2009) Khipu as things thread through the whole book, knotting and unknotting assumptions built into the great divide infrastructure of orality-literacy. But stories about particular heuristics contributing to this transdisciplinary infrastructure are part of the book too. (Although in earlier drafts the working subtitle was “an introduction to writing technologies,” it seems to me now that it ought to be instead “an introduction to rewriting technologies,” in play with the computer rewriting systems that pair objects with instructions for their transformation.)
One chapter already drafted for my book tells the story of how the so-called “oral formula” is created in the 1930s in what is now Bosnia-Hercegovina as a mix of “things”: people as well as objects, processes as well as infrastructures, and among complex systems. These work together in late modernisms (ironically) to separate carefully “nature” from “culture” and “the oral” from “the written.” Classicist Milman Parry, his student, fieldwork assistant and collaborator Albert B. Lord, and their network of singers and other native informants and collectors, transcribers, and support staff work hard to ensure the purity of oral-formula. How their recordings were made so as to count as “not writing” – removing all influences of writing and reading in their “invasions” – involved not only choosing carefully who to record in that recently Post-Ottoman region, but also toggling back and forth in a uniquely local invention between twelve inch aluminum discs, each holding about four minutes of sound. Over 3500 of these discs, altogether weighing more than half a ton, were used to record off the power of an automobile battery the oral-formula in its “natural” setting. The invisibility of the devices and people in the work of modernist purification allows the data collected to become the very essence of “epic,” transferred back through time to Classical Greece, in The Singer of Tales. (Lord et al., 2000)
My last book described shifts in media ecologies over the 1990s and after. (King, 2011) How in this next one to position some of the now classic issues in orality-literacy among feminist new materialisms and object-oriented ontologies, is a piece of the work necessary for this “Speaking with Things” manuscript, and transdisciplinary khipu are helping me and others to do some of this repositioning. I would love to share what I have been working on with others in the Folger Institute faculty seminar on the Orality-Literacy Heuristic, with an eye to its contributions to and implications for research in the early modern humanities.
Alaimo S and Hekman SJ. (2008) Material feminisms, Bloomington: Indiana.
Boone EH and Mignolo W. (1994) Writing without words: alternative literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham: Duke.
Brokaw G. (2010) A history of the khipu, New York: Cambridge.
Harman G. (2009) Prince of networks: Bruno Latour and metaphysics, Melbourne: re.press.
Harrison R. (2002) Perez Bocanegra's ritual formulario: khipu knots and confession. In: Urton G and Quilter J (eds) Narrative threads: accounting and recounting in Andean Khipu. Austin: Texas, 266-290.
King K. (2011) Networked reenactments: Stories transdisciplinary knowledges tell, Durham: Duke.
Latour B. (1993 ) We have never been modern, Cambridge: Harvard.
Lord AB, Mitchell SA and Nagy G. (2000) The singer of tales. Cambridge: Harvard.
Quilter J. (2002) Yncap Cimin Quipococ's Knots. In: Quilter J and Urton G (eds) Narrative threads: accounting and recounting in Andean Khipu. Austin: Texas, 197-222.
Quilter J and Urton G. (2002) Narrative threads: accounting and recounting in Andean Khipu. Austin: Texas.
Salomon F. (2001) How an Andean "Writing Without Words" Works. Current Anthropology 42: 1-27.
Salomon F. (2004) The cord keepers: khipus and cultural life in a Peruvian village, Durham: Duke.
KK sites for reference:
Professional website: http://katiekin.weebly.com/
Pinterest talksites: http://pinterest.com/katkingumd/talksites/
Design affections: http://affectdesign.blogspot.com/
Cafe break: http://transkhipu.blogspot.com/
Media things: http://thingmedia.blogspot.com/
Writing Technologies: http://www.ntu.ac.uk/writing_technologies/Current_journal/King/index.html
Online Intro to Writing Techs: http://writtechintro.blogspot.com/
Demo & Experiments: http://demoexper.blogspot.com/
Feminist Subjects: 2 Studies: http://fwtfemsub.blogspot.com/