The Chimera Principle

An Anthropology of Memory and Imagination

Carlo Severi

The Chimera Principle

Carlo Severi

Distributed for HAU

Translated by Janet Lloyd with a Foreword by David Graeber
375 pages | 96 halftones | 6 x 9
Paper $35.00 ISBN: 9780990505051 Published April 2015

Available in English for the first time, anthropologist Carlo Severi’s The Chimera Principle breaks new theoretical ground for the study of ritual, iconographic technologies, and oral traditions among non-literate peoples. Setting himself against a tradition that has long seen the memory of people “without writing”—which relies on such ephemeral records as ornaments, body painting, and masks—as fundamentally disordered or doomed to failure, he argues strenuously that ritual actions in these societies pragmatically produce religious meaning and that they demonstrate what he calls a “chimeric” imagination.

Deploying philosophical and ethnographic theory, Severi unfolds new approaches to research in the anthropology of ritual and memory, ultimately building a new theory of imagination and an original anthropology of thought. This English-language edition, beautifully translated by Janet Lloyd and complete with a foreword by David Graeber, will spark widespread debate and be heralded as an instant classic for anthropologists, historians, and philosophers.

Review Quotes
Veena Das, Johns Hopkins University

“The translation of The Chimera Principle: An Anthropology of Memory and Imagination is a major event in Anglo-American anthropology. Remarkable for its scholarly depth, its ability to recast the whole field of memory and imagination through its relation to visual and sound images, and above all its complete mastery over comparative ethnography, this book is a stunning landmark in anthropological theory.” 

“Here is an ambitious, comparative anthropology of mnemonic arts proposed with special attention to visual imagery and related ‘techniques for constructing memorable knowledge.’ Severi has conducted extensive research among Kuna peoples of Central America and is influenced by the brilliant ruminations of the cultural theorist Aby Warburg (1866–1929). Severi calls for recognition of deliberately ambiguous ‘ways of organizing differences’ to propose particular understandings ‘that do not recognize any pre-established center of epistemological priority.’ ‘Oral cultures’ represent knowledge in teasing instability and incompletion, he asserts, for community members seeing an Apache pictograph or hearing an Iatmul myth are expected to fill in details from their senses of how the world works and what is at stake during a given performance event. ‘A society’s memory is never single,’ Severi reminds readers, and ‘every … memory is, inevitably, the memory of a person’ bound to forget details and invent replacements. Exegeses further vary according to political and aesthetic needs of the moment. Through a ‘chimera principle,’ counterintuitive juxtapositions of heterogeneous ideas, references, and parts-of-wholes (think gargoyle as a synonym of chimera) instigate imagination, even as wisdom is recalled and creative problem solving is undertaken. . . . Recommended.”
Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford
“This highly engaging and deftly written book is the fruit of exemplary scholarly work and is likely to become an indispensable reference for future research on the anthropology of memory and the so-called ‘oral’ cultures. . . . The Chimera Principle is an exceptionally detailed and analytical work of great academic value, which can nevertheless be read by non-specialists and be of interest to a broad and diverse reading public. Putting the old argument about the supposed fragility of memory among so-called ‘oral’ societies, as well as the common view that pictography was either a communication system that is forever lost to us or an ‘unsuccessful attempt to invent a type of writing,’ on an entirely new basis, The Chimera Principle is a fascinating work that makes an important contribution to the anthropology of memory.”
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