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Signs of the Americas

A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu

Signs of the Americas

A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu

Indigenous sign-systems, such as pictographs, petroglyphs, hieroglyphs, and khipu, are usually understood as relics from an inaccessible past. That is far from the truth, however, as Edgar Garcia makes clear in Signs of the Americas. Rather than being dead languages, these sign-systems have always been living, evolving signifiers, responsive to their circumstances and able to continuously redefine themselves and the nature of the world.
Garcia tells the story of the present life of these sign-systems, examining the contemporary impact they have had on poetry, prose, visual art, legal philosophy, political activism, and environmental thinking. In doing so, he brings together a wide range of indigenous and non-indigenous authors and artists of the Americas, from Aztec priests and Amazonian shamans to Simon Ortiz, Gerald Vizenor, Jaime de Angulo, Charles Olson, Cy Twombly, Gloria Anzaldúa, William Burroughs, Louise Erdrich, Cecilia Vicuña, and many others. From these sources, Garcia depicts the culture of a modern, interconnected hemisphere, revealing that while these “signs of the Americas” have suffered expropriation, misuse, and mistranslation, they have also created their own systems of knowing and being. These indigenous systems help us to rethink categories of race, gender, nationalism, and history. Producing a new way of thinking about our interconnected hemisphere, this ambitious, energizing book redefines what constitutes a “world” in world literature.

288 pages | 11 color plates, 31 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Culture Studies

Latin American Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


"Signs of the Americas pierces through five centuries of prejudice to show how indigenous sign systems have wielded worldmaking powers. . . . Signs of the Americas paves new paths for many academic fields. Of course, the book gives Latinx studies, Latin American studies, and Native studies new ways of narrating the history of the western hemisphere. In turn, the book offers anthropology and literary studies sophisticated techniques for theorizing collective creativity. Most importantly, the book raises questions that cut across disciplinary formations. Now that we know how indigenous sign systems have influenced poetry, can we see how they have shaped other genres?"

Carlos Alonso Nugent | ASAP/Journal

"In Signs of the Americas, Garcia sets sparks flying by inviting us to explore the literature and theory created by 20th and 21st century writers who deploy sign systems that, according to the creation myth of European hegemony, alphabetized thought supposedly superseded and destroyed. . . . Signs of the Americas not only pries open a fascinating archive but also forces us to question the organizational principles that govern intellectual history and cultural criticism in this hemisphere."

David Gutherz | New Books Network

"Edgar Garcia’s Signs of the Americas ranges across disciplines in pursuit of a startling thesis: Nonalphabetic sign systems, such as petroglyphs, hieroglyphs, and even the still-undecoded Incan knot-writing known as khipu, have exerted a decisive influence on the Anglophone, Hispanophone, and Indigenous literature of the Americas. In substantiating this claim, Garcia synthesizes research in an unusually broad range of fields, including literary theory, Indigenous and ethnic studies, anthropology and ethnography, and the history of ideas."

Len Gutkin | The Chronicle of Higher Education

“Garcia’s excellent book demonstrates how indigenous sign systems such as pictographs, petroglyphs, hieroglyphs, and khipu continue to communicate to all who know how to activate and interpret them . . . These signs continue to make meaning in that dynamic area between the ‘archive’ and the ‘repertoire,’ animated through use and practice. Signs of the Americas, drawing on contemporary art, activism, and legal practice, makes a compelling argument about why we all need to understand these highly expressive and powerful sign systems.”

Diana Taylor, New York University

 “Signs of the Americas reconceptualizes literary studies by foregrounding objects often subsumed or overlooked in modern and contemporary inter-American literary texts. Garcia rehearses a complex of ideas and forms—signs and situations, structures and events—in his proliferating arguments. Each chapter is a dynamic case study, producing startling combinations of poetic figures, geographic locations, and methodological frames. Signs of theAmericas is an ambitious, energizing, and original contribution to various fields of cultural scholarship.”

Roberto Tejada, University of Houston

“In Signs of the Americas, Garcia pries us away from received notions. He reveals that pictographs say more than we have previously thought. Bold and conceptually beautiful . . . Garcia’s poetics of anthropology and ethnography pay off very well here, especially his agility in framing figures to argue for creativity and agency.”

Doris Sommer, Harvard University

"In his book Signs of the Americas, poet and critic Edgar Garcia reinforces how a visual sign works poetically, echoing in deep time and space. Signs as poems can reflect the inherent rhythms within that space. Disordering time itself, signs and poems can, as Garcia writes, 'inflect the time horizons of past, present perfect, present, future, and future anterior.'"

Chicago Review of Books

"The book’s interventions attend to world-making through archival research across the arts, and with intersecting implications for how hemisphere speaks to itself via its inhabitants... Liberatory existence, poetics, and imagining the next moment before it arrives from a knowledge of the moments we have, this is an honest, necessary engagement. And at its core it is Garcia’s."

Contemporary Literature

"In this groundbreaking study of the overlooked yet primary influence of indigenous sign systems on Pan-American poetics, Garcia theorizes that sign systems like pictographs, hieroglyphs, petroglyphs, and khipu, rather than being “dead” and calcified systems of meaning and exchange, are very much alive and living in the skin of American (and transnational) poetics."

On the Seawall

"When people talk about form, they often mean something like canonical forms that come from white artists in the United States and Europe, and Garcia has tried to think about what indigenous form is, what the native forms of the Americas are, and how that viewing of contemporary works of art, literature, and even legal philosophy and environmental activism changes when we change the formal frameworks in which we understand these works."

Latinx Spaces

"Signs of the Americas moves deftly across continents, archives, and historical periods. Garcia is undaunted by questions about our experience of time and space within and without literary forms, joining scholars like Mark Rifkin, Chadwick Allen, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith to critically engage the 'semiotic regimes' that produce so much static in our attempts to understand how we differently perceive our shared world."


Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface: Threshold Magic

Introduction: Unnatural Signs

Chapter 1: World Poetry and Its Disavowals: A Poetics of Subsumption from the Aztec Priests to Ed Dorn

Part I: Pictographic Metonyms

Chapter 2: Pictographic Kinships: Simon Ortiz’s Spiral Lands and Jaime de Angulo’s Old Time Stories
Chapter 3: Pictography, Law, and Earth: Gerald Vizenor, John Borrows, and Louise Erdrich

Part II: Metalepsis and Hieroglyphs

Chapter 4: Hieroglyphic Parallelism: Mayan Metalepsis in Charles Olson’s Mayan Letters, Cy Twombly’s Poems to the Sea, and Alurista’s Spik in Glyph?

Part III: Khipu and Other Analeptic Signs

Chapter 5: Death Spaces: Shamanic Signifiers in Gloria Anzaldúa and William Burroughs
Chapter 6: Khipu, Analepsis, and Other Natural Signs: Cecilia Vicuña’s Poetics of Weaving and Joaquín Torres-García’s La Ciudad sin Nombre

Afterword: Anthropological Poetics



Modernist Studies Association: Modernist Studies Association--First Book Prize

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