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Current Anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001

2001 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved 0011-3204/2001/4201-0001$3.00
How an Andean
Writing Without
Words Works
by Frank Salomon
Recent writings on khipus (Andean knotted-cord records) invoke
writing without words, a near-synonym of Gelbs semasiogra-
phy, to argue that some American media refer directly to cul-
tural things without functioning as a secondary code for
speech. Sampson suggests that in principle such a system could
constitute a nonverbal parallel language. However, no ethnog-
raphy actually shows whether Andean codes do so, much less re-
constructs lost ones. This study concerns a Peruvian village
which inscribes its staffs of ofce in a code without words.
Fine-grained ethnography over several inscriptive cycles shows
that staff code does function as a parallel language. In doing
so, however, it deviates interestingly from Sampsons model, for
it functions not to provide speech with a direct reference com-
plement but to detach some areas of practice from the realm of
discourse altogether. Considered politically, this seemingly exotic
method makes sense. Whether one calls it writing depends on
theoretical commitments in grammatology. Highly inclusivist
theories bear further development toward a more omnidirec-
tional ethnography of inscription.
f rank s alomon is Professor of Anthropology at the Univer-
sity of WisconsinMadison (Madison, Wis. 53706-1393, U.S.A.
[]). Born in 1946, he was educated at
Columbia University (B.A., 1968) and Cornell University (M.A.,
1974; Ph.D., 1978). He has been a visiting assistant professor at
the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (197882), held a
Fulbright Professorship at the University of Gothenburg (1985),
and served as associate director of studies at the Ecole des Hau-
tes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris (1986 and 1998). His
publications include Native Lords of Quito in the Age of the In-
cas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), (with George
Urioste) The Huarochir Manuscript (Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1991), and Patrimonial Khipus in a Modern Peruvian Vil-
lage, in Narrative Threads: Explorations of Narrativity in An-
dean Khipus, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and Gary Urton (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 2001). The present paper was accepted
for publication 7 vii 00.
1. I am grateful for support from many sources: the Instituto de
Estudios Peruanos, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foun-
dation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National
Science Foundation, the School of American Research, the Grad-
uate School of the University of WisconsinMadison, and the Wen-
ner-Gren Foundation. The presidents and ofcers of the Comunidad
Campesina de San Andre s de Tupicocha have been unfailingly gen-
erous, as have the vara ofcers of 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999,
and 2000. I feel particularly thankful to Hilda Araujo and her stu-
dents Milagros Silva and Karen Eckhart, for it was a late-night
discussion with them which helped re up the present train of
thought. Among many persons who helped at various stages are
Marcelo Alberco, Kildo Choi, William Hanks, Regis B. Miller, Mer-
cedes Nin o-Murcia, Leo n Modesto Rojas Alberco, and Justo Rueda.
Robert U. Bryson and Luz Ramirez de Bryson produced the graphics.
The apparent exception that the Inka state and its pred-
ecessors present to V. Gordon Childes famous judgment
of writing as fundamental to civilization (1951[1936]:
18081) is usually treated as a curious loose end. But the
question of howa state could redistribute goods and serv-
ices among millions of people over thousands of kilo-
meters without writing as usually dened is a loose end
long enough to trip up commonsense ideas about how
recording relates to complexity. The fact that some huge
states got along without writing should invite searching
questions about whether grammatological and anthro-
pological understandings of writing are really up to the
task of explaining relations among language, inscription,
social practice, and sociopolitical integration.
The Andean crux of this issue is, of course, the khipu,
a knotted-cord medium in use since at least the Middle
Horizon (ca. 6001000 c.e.) and widespread in Inka
times. The formerly slow-moving eld of khipu study
has regained striking vitality, showcased in compendia
by Mackey et al. (1990) and Quilter and Urton (2001).
But the code of the quipu, as Ascher and Ascher termed
it (1981), is not the only Andean code. This essay ana-
lyzes a lesser Andean code which looks very simple in
comparison with khipus. Its simplicity is a virtue for
analytical purposes. Here we can avoid some methodo-
logical puzzles such as the fact that, where khipu code
is concerned, we do not know where the threshold of
signicance lies (Conklin n.d., Elkins 1996) or howcords
refer to nonnumerical signicata (Pa rssinen 1992:3150;
Urton 1998). It also has another advantage for study: it
is a living practice.
The code consists of signs carved upon the staffs of
minor political ofce in the Central Peruvian village of
Tupicocha (Province of Huarochir, Department of
Lima). I will call it Tupicochan staff code or (using the
local word for a staff of ofce) vara code. It is probably
no accident that this code exists in a village that, ap-
parently alone at the turn of the 21st century, also pre-
serves a set of patrimonial khipus constituting the re-
galia of its traditional folk-legal descent groups. (These
are ayllus or parcialidades; I will translate both terms
as kinship corporation [Salomon 1997, 2001].) Staffs
are sometimes deployed together with the patrimonial
khipus. Nonetheless, the argument about staff code is
presented with an emphatic caveat that it is not to be
taken as a direct model for khipu interpretation. While
staff code alerts us to semiological processes that may
have gured in the genesis of khipus, it probably rep-
resents a different branch in an as yet unknown multil-
inear history of Andean inscriptive invention.
For theoretical purposes, should we put inscriptions of
social practice via insignia, icons, tallies, and other
things into a common frame together with writing
proper? Several nonphilological, nonanthropological
theorists say yes: the philosopher Nelson Goodman,
with his 1976 exploration of likenesses and distinctions
among visual media, the semiologist Roy Harris, with
his anti-Saussurean approach to signs as the visible pre-
cipitate of social action (1995), and the literary theorist
Jacques Derrida, with his argument that the properties
2 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
of writing in the common sense are only special cases
of far more general writing-like processes in the produc-
tion of meaning (1974[1967]). This essay proposes to put
their concerns onto ethnographic wheels. It suggests that
their very broad notions of writingor, less conten-
tiously, of inscriptionserve to alert ethnographers to
unfamiliar dimensions of what signs achieve in culture
and practice. Staff code appears to be working in almost
the opposite direction fromwriting proper: rather than
using signs to freeze and preserve spoken discourse, it
uses signs to marginalize speech and to create a mode
of interaction maximally distanced from it.
Exploring such a case may broaden our notion of an
ethnography of writing (Basso 1974) and help it inter-
pret systems which fail the common tests of writing-
ness. Admittedly, such a change would entail a sacrice
of clarity about what grammatology and the ethnography
of writing must cover. But it would also equip us to deal
with what is, after all, a large share of the human races
inscriptive inventionsthat rich accumulation of un-
wanted gifts with which ethnographers have beenpelting
grammatologists since long before Gelb invented the
term (most famously Mallery 1972[1893]). These splen-
did data now languish in oubliette categories such as
proto writings, partial writings, and subgraphem-
ics. They ought to be rescued.
If Not Writing, What?
Specialists in what I will call philological grammatology
(by contrast to the Derridean countertheory, which, con-
fusingly, tends in loose parlance also to be called gram-
matology) generally reserve the term writing for sys-
tems of signs which represent speech sounds, that is,
systems which employ glottography or phonogra-
phy. This position centers upon an argument descend-
ing from Aristotle through Saussure and Bloomeld,
namely, the notion of writing as a secondary code that
reencodes the primary code through which people refer
to things, speech (Olson 1994:3). Just about all im-
portant breakthroughs in decipherment from Champol-
lion to Knorosov have resulted from steadfastly follow-
ing the likelihood that inscriptions, no matter howmuch
they may look like icons for cultural archetypes (ideo-
grams), actually encode speech. Even signs without de-
terminate reference to words may be assembled by rules
patterned on those of speech (Marcus 1992:17). Signs
early in the evolution of a given script sometimes do
indeed begin as icons for things (usually concrete things,
not archetypes), but in practice such inscriptions are
taken to encode the sound of the things name. Signs
then become subject to the rebus mutation, in which
a sign stands for a sound as such. Once a sign may be
used to represent a sound, irrespective of any icono-
graphic value, it becomes a glottograph (or phonograph).
One or more glottographs encode an utterance. It is this
utterance, not its visual likeness in a secondary code,
that completes reference to whatever the speech act was
Many inscriptions, however, are not glottographic.
Gelb (1952) launched and Sampson (1985:2645) has re-
suscitated the term semasiographs to cover them. The
term embraces the generally ill-theorized area of mne-
motechnologies, pictography, notations, and to-
kens. Semasiographs stand not for the sounds of the
name of a referent but rather for the referent itself. They
are therefore said not to be in any particular language.
In Sampsons example, whether one verbalizes the se-
masiograph 1,000 as mil or one thousand depends
only on local habits about how to translate semasio-
graphs into words. Lest anyone think this simple system
of reference implies global simplicity, it is worth bearing
in mind that sheet music, chemical formulae, mathe-
matical notation, choreographic labanotation, and ma-
chine-readable waybills are semasiographs.
Because in any pure semasiography, speech sounds
need not be retrieved for a message to be grasped, some
take the concept as a heuristic for writing without
words (Boone 1994). Grammatologists do not agree
among themselves on whether this is an acceptable ex-
tension of the word writing. Daniels and Brights
(1996) compendium The Worlds Writing Systems, by far
the best conspectus of script research, does cover some
semasiographies. But in his theoretical keynote essay
Daniels enshrines as the real graphic McCoy only what
the countergrammatologist Derrida calls a certain kind
of writing. He demands a system of more or less per-
manent marks used to represent an utterance in such a
way that it can be recovered more or less exactly without
the intervention of the utterer (Daniels 1996:3; see also
DeFrancis 1989:21147).
Archaeology and ethnography report uncountable ex-
amples of apparent semasiographies, from Marshacks
Late Paleolithic lunar-cycle bones (1972; dErrico 1989)
through the partly pictorial Yukaghir love letter which
proved such an interesting bone of contention between
Sampson (1985:2829) and DeFrancis (1989:2635) to the
emergent worldwide conventions of computer languages
and icons. There is obvious doubt whether a term that
lumps iconological signs (which tend toward the logic
of visual cognition) with other, highly abstract signs can
cohere for long. But as a point of departure semasiog-
raphy will serve to focalize attributes of inscriptionthat
specialists in real writing push aside.
Philological grammatologists tend to reject the pos-
sibility of general-purpose semasiography. They use the
category for special cases like sheet music, where writers
share competences separable from any given language,
or mathematics, where the logic of grammar obscures
the logic of the signicata. Sampson (1985:30) is less sure
that general-purpose semasiography is impossible. He
imagines a limiting extreme:
There would appear in principle to be no reason why
a society could not have expanded a semasiographic
system by adding further graphic conventions, until
it was fully as complex and rich in expressive poten-
tial as their spoken language. At that point they
would possess two fully-edged languages having
salomon Writing Without Words F 3
no relationship with one anotherone of them a
spoken language without a script, and the other a
language tied intrinsically to the visual medium.
In fact no such language has been found, perhaps because
it would be unmanageably prolic of signs.
Staff code is surely not a general-purpose system. The
important part of Sampsons words for staff code analysis
is the argument about its functioning as a separate lan-
guage within the society that uses it.
Where is the entry into this language? Semasiographs
notoriously resist deciphermentthe more so when they
lack an iconographic dimension, as many Andean ones
apparently do. If one chooses semasiographics as a gate-
way, one gains theoretical versatility at the expense of
operational guidance. To get from this theoretical open-
ing to actual interpretation of signs, then, requires an
ethnography not of decipherment but of encipher-
mentof wordless semiosis in practice. By tracking the
creation of a series of inscriptions in three cycles of the
staff codes use and collecting retrospective evidence on
earlier cycles, it is possible to document an Andean se-
miosis: a process by which meaning is categorically con-
densed from social practice and lodged in visible marks.
Staff Ofces, Investiture, and the
Bootstrapping of the Civic Year
Engraved staffs of authority rank among the deepest-
rooted of Andean symbols. Pre-Hispanic deities were pic-
tured with staffs from the Initial period (ca. 1000 b.c.e.
[Moseley 1992:53]) through the Chavn or Early Horizon
period with its far-ung Staff God and Goddess (ca.
900200 b.c.e. [Burger 1992:19699]) into the Middle Ho-
rizon (6001000 c.e. [Bruhns 1994:24549; Isbell 1988:
180; Castelli 1978; Thomas 1983]). The Central Peruvian
coast yields Middle Horizon mummies whose staffs are
wound with cord so as to form emblems much like those
described below (Herrmann and Meyer 1993: cover). A
famous mummy ca. 1607 bore [a] staff named quillcas
caxo [engraved rod] (Huarochir 1992:120). In colonial
times the meaning of staffs shifted toward secular au-
thority (Espinoza Soriano 1960, Salomon 1980). Mishkin,
who took a close interest in staff hierarchies of the 1930s
and 40s, judged them to derive both from rural Iberian
forms and from pre-Hispanic precedents (1946:443; see
also Ordo n ez 1919). Unfortunately, ethnographers im-
pressed with the elegance of silver-clad batons scorned
the roughly cut sticks which could also embody au-
thority (Mishkin 1946:445) and therefore failed to catch
codes like the one discussed below.
Virtually all Andean communities formerly had hier-
archies of political ofcers called varayuq (staff holders)
in Quechua or varayo in Spanish, as Tupicocha still does.
The staff makes its bearer an executor of folk legality,
just as badges empower police ofcers with ofcial le-
gality. In Tupicocha, in contrast to some Cuzco-area
communities, staffs are not patrimonial objects. They do
not pass through generations of ofceholders, nor does
the mystique of the heirloom cling to them. On the con-
trary, each staff is replaced each year, as part of the ritual
reminding everyone that civic order must be continually
created anew. One receives a staff in the act of accepting
ofce. A staff is a stick of huarirumo or huarumo (Alnus,
When an alguacil or minor staff holder (deputy
of a major staff holder) is about halfway through his year
of tenure he must select wood and start preparing staffs
for both his own successor and his immediate superiors.
Outgoing ofcers may keep their own staffs, but I never
saw them displayed in homes. I think they are often
given to newly staff-holding friends for scraping and rein-
scription, though this is considered less than ideal prac-
tice. The actual act of incising the symbols of ofce onto
the staff is assumed to be a shared competence of men
with membership in the community rather than a re-
stricted literacy (Goody and Watt 1968:1120). If staff
makers consult mutually about design, this is a back-
stage, unofcial act relative to the regimen of ofcial
staff use detailed below. None of the people interviewed
said that such consultation did or should take place, but
it may happen in reality. One factor bearing on the co-
ordination of staff designs is the option of hiring an ar-
tisanhimself generally a past staff ofcerto relieve
one or more outgoing deputies of the actual task.
All this is expected to be nished by December 24,
when the community directorate meets to choose three-
man slates of eligibles to become the coming years staff
holders. By that date the new staffs should have been
nished and shown to the regulator (regidor, a high staff
holder) to make sure they are correctly inscribed. They
are not, however, collected and therefore cannot be col-
lated as a set. As we will see below, this matters for the
overall functioning of their signs.
Plurality of governments is the key to the induction
scenario and to much else about Tupicochas staff com-
plex. Two of Tupicochas governments use staffs. The
rst is the peasant community (comunidad campesina).
It came into being when, in 1935, the national state ju-
rally recognized the villages folk-legal constitution as a
traditional polity sharing land and water rights of pre-
Inka, Inka, and colonial derivation. From the folk-legal
viewpoint, the community is an emergent entity formed
by the union of the pre-Hispanic kinship corporations.
The other is the district government (gobernacio n), a
branch ofce of the national state. Tupicocha acquired
it by breaking from a neighboring district a few years
after recognition and thereby incurring responsibility for
executing national law (for example, military conscrip-
tion, census, and criminal justice).
Six staff holders who serve the community embody
the folk-legal supremacy of the village center, radiating
outward. Four staff holders who serve the district gov-
ernment embody the constitutional supremacy of Peru,
radiating inward. These contrasting perspectives on gov-
ernance imply discrepant rules of hierarchy depending
2. I thank Regis Miller of the University of Wisconsin Forest Prod-
ucts Laboratory for this identication.
4 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
Fig. 1. Community secretary Margarito Romero
scraping an incorrectly incised staff of ofce with a
piece of bottle glass so that it can be reinscribed and
conferred on the incoming staff holder. (Photo
Frank Salomon)
on which government one is observing, but the same
politico-ritual process must generate both. To under-
stand this will help in understanding not only what is
inscribed on the ten staffs but why it is inscribed in no
other way.
To create new staff holders, these two governments
assemble on New Years Eve at their respective seats: the
peasant community meeting hall and the district gov-
ernment building diagonally across the plaza. (The
church and the municipality, which complete the quar-
tet of public authorities, occupy the other two sides.)
Just before midnight, chimes from the belltower call
the dignitaries to their halls. While others keep to their
beds, ofcers hurry down murky streets, hunched against
the cold mist. The ritual atmosphere evoked is that of
fragments gradually assembling, building toward a so-
cially critical mass that will emerge at dawn as the
tender political organism of the newborn year.
The reason the investiture of staff ofcers, who are
actually the lowest part of the villages intricate political
hierarchy, must be the rst order of business is that they
are the mechanism for bootstrapping all the rest. It is
they who will, on New Years Day, clean and mark out
the sacred civic space (collca) for the two-day civic sum-
mit meeting (huayrona) that kick-starts the years public
business. Without staff ofcers in place on January 1,
there would be no way to begin.
Where the inscription is concerned, carvers propose
and the community disposes. Its outgoing regulator
judges staffs. The secretary of the community also has,
or in any case exercises, authority to correct those judged
wrong before investing new staff holders (g. 1). The
authority to ratify staffs changes hands with every com-
munity election. As a result, this authority responds sen-
sitively to changing political and folk-legal currents.
Through them the creation of signs is politically
In the rst stage, which starts before midnight, the
presidents (camachicos) of the ten kinship corporations
gather at the community hall with the communitys
board of elected ofcers (junta directiva).
Meanwhile, at the district government, the state-sal-
aried governorfor many years a curly-haired coastal
creole of conspicuously nonlocal habitswaits to re-
ceive outgoing staff holders. One by one, the outgoing
staff ofcers arrive carrying the staffs for their replace-
ments. Each places the new staff on the district gover-
nors desk (g. 2). As the staffs accumulate, the regulator
anxiously inspects them by candle- or lantern light. The
district governor, an institutionalized outsider, ostenta-
tiously ignores them but toys with his whip of ofce. It
is important to note that at this inchoate stage, that of
accumulation, the staffs are not arrayed in determinate
Stage 2 begins around 12:45 a.m., when the outgoing
staff holders walk in procession to the community hall.
The board greets them with drinks and, in some years,
hot chocolate with panettone and authorizes themto end
their year of ofce.
In stage 3, around 1:15 a.m., the outgoing staff holders
troop back to the district government to verify the
staffs. The regulator places them in array on the boards
desk. (Orders of array are discussed below.) He inspects
them carefully, since this is the last chance to correct
errors. This is done in virtual silence. Other staff holders
also anxiously study the array and occasionally pick up
or point to one, butand this becomes important be-
lowthis is not an occasion for discussion. It is all but
silent, with at most a brief comment such as Its OK
(Esta bien) or Check this one (Mire e sta). Staff holders
do look closely at each others submitted staffs. They
count insignia elements, moving their lips but not speak-
ing, or they run a thumbnail down the incisions to be
sure of the count. In 2000, for the rst time, the new
staffs were submitted with paper labels around them to
say which incoming ofcer was to receive each. If the
salomon Writing Without Words F 5
Fig. 2. Staffs (not in order) awaiting distribution on a table in the community hall after midnight on January
1, 1997. (Photo Frank Salomon)
regulator decides that any staff has an error, he word-
lessly reserves it for correction before reassignment.
In stage 4, about 2:20 a.m., the outgoing staff holders
go back to the community hall, this time in a more for-
mal procession, with all the staffs wrapped together in
their mantle or, in other years, carried by outgoing hold-
ers. The regulator arrays them on the boards desk and
formally surrenders them.
In the name of all the outgoing staff holders the reg-
ulator makes a speech of resignation, and the community
president replies with a speech of thanks. (Meanwhile
the district governor locks up his ofce and goes home.)
The president carefully studies the new staffs (g. 3).
Now is the time for any residual business, such as judg-
ing an outgoing staff holder who has failed in his duties.
Sometimes this part becomes long and contentious.
Then, at last, each outgoing staff holder in turn is asked
to walk out, call upon the three men named in the nom-
ination roster, and bring one back for investiture.
This is the political heart of the night. It takes place
amid fatigue and tension, because all but a very few men
try to evade staff ofce. Into the wee hours and beyond,
the board browbeats disheveled citizens torn frommuch-
needed rest, each determined to keep the burden off his
shoulders. Some recite complicated hard-luck stories or
protest that peers have owed staff service longer. Others
become enraged about intrusion on their careers (under-
standably, since village-bound staff service sabotages the
combined urban-rural strategies on which a young mans
prosperity depends). Still others mumble weak protests,
too sleepy to ght. A few rise to the occasion or at least
know when they are beaten. These accept ofce grace-
fully and get a warm round of applause. Invested with
staffs, they make their curtsies to the shrine of authority
and shufe home. When dawn dilutes the night, all of
the ofces should be lled. Usually some remain vacant.
By 6:00 a.m. the board has usually run out of nominees
and therefore takes note of failures in a closing acta or
minute. These cases must be dealt with, often with em-
barrassing acrimony, at the civic summit later on (g.
The Ambiguous Hierarchy of Staff Holders
Borrowing a metaphor from Ayacucho villagers, the eth-
nographer Hilda Araujo (personal communication, 1997)
aptly spoke of the community board and its staff holders
as respectively the head and the hands of traditional
legality. The job of staff holders is to carry out the de-
6 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
Fig. 3. President Miguel Chumbipoma inspecting the
incoming staffs for 2000. (Photo Frank Salomon)
Fig. 4. A staff holder making obeisance to the shrine
(pean a) of the meeting space at the huayrona or civic
summit meeting of 2000. (Photo Frank Salomon)
cisions of the head. They notify and remind people
about policies, detect infractions, and bring noncooper-
ators to justice.
How are the ten staffs organized? The system employs
three major contrasts. The rst is the above-mentioned
contrast between governments. The staff ofces belong
originally to the folk-legal internal hierarchy of the com-
munity, but the community, when it became state-rec-
ognized, conferred legitimacy on the states agency in
Tupicocha by lending it four staff holders as hands (g.
5). The two governments have quite different styles and
associations. Hands loaned to the district government
uncomfortably serve two mastersthe community that
they represent and the state that they obey.
The second contrast is that between the each major
staff ofcer and his deputy (alguacil). These form higher
and lower members of a pair. The deputy does jobs such
as corralling stray animals and carrying messages. Every
male member of the community is expected to ll one
assistant or deputy post and one major one, in that order,
preferably in his youth.
The third contrast is that among spatial jurisdictions
that I will call orbits. Community authority employs a
3. Tupicochans are justifably proud of the fact that their village has
no state-sponsored police ofcer and needs none.
threefold division of segregated concentric spaces. I will
refer to them as central, peripheral, and national:
1. Central. The community rules its center. The reg-
ulator (regidor), also called plaza boss (jefe de plaza),
symbolizes it. He maintains in-town law and order. His
deputy is called the chief deputy (alguacil mayor) or reg-
ulators deputy (alguacil del regidor).
2. Peripheral. The community rules the periphery, the
countryside. Two rural constables (alcaldes de campo or
simply campos) enforce folk-legal use of water, pasture,
and elds, each with his own deputy (Guillet and Mitch-
ell 1993:11).
3. National. The community rules in partnership with
the national whole beyond its own space. The commu-
nity and the district government articulate with each
other through special staff holders at the district gov-
ernors beck and call: the rst and second lieutenant gov-
ernors (tenientes de gobernador). The district governor
is a salaried national ofcial, but his two staff-bearing
lieutenants, as community hands executing extracom-
munity policy, are hybrid ofcers. Each lieutenant gov-
ernor has a deputy of his own.
In sum, the staff corps as a whole is somewhat at odds
with itself. It must at once cohere as a single formation
for civic ritual, uphold the supremacy of endogenous tra-
dition, and enforce subordination to the national state.
As we will see, this and other political binds help explain
its semiological practice.
What Was Inscribed on the 1995 Staffs?
To understand any inscription one must knowthe graph-
emes that make up the signary of sign set and their basic
syntax. There are just three graphemes (g. 6), sometimes
called the iniciales:
salomon Writing Without Words F 7
Fig. 5. Civil government in Tupicocha.
Fig. 6. The staff signary.
The rst is raya (stripe), a bar cut transverse to the
axis of the staff. In the annotations that follow it is sig-
naled R. It is sometimes also called tallarn (noodle).
The second is aspa (X). It will be annotated as A. In
common usage, to make an aspa means to mark with
an X or a check mark or even a thumbprint. An aspa is
specically not a member of the glottographic (alpha-
betic) set but simply material proof of personal attention
to the text (even by one who cannot read). This last detail
sounds small, but it is actually a rst clue to the way
staff code works. An aspa is neither a specic sign (i.e.,
mark) nor a sign for any referent but an indication that
a specic social relation has been achieved.
This is our
rst good lead: staffs work with signs that do not signify
referents but rather are contextually determined, perfor-
mative concretions of achieved relationships.
The third is pean a, a pervasive symbol in Huarochir
regional culture. It is an image of a two-step pyramid
surmounted by a cross.
Pean as mark sacralized bound-
aries. A physically constructed pean a is found in every
kinship corporation chapel, and others are used to mark
divisions between central and peripheral space or be-
tween communities. The spot where a work cross and
other insignia are planted to establish sacred space is
spoken of as the pean a. A drawing of a pean a on paper
4. The term aspa is unrelated to the alphabet. Its literal sense is
the crossing of two beams or threads crisscrossing on a spool.
5. In physical reality, the cross is always detachable from its pyr-
amid. Detachment-and-return is a vital ritual module on several
occasions. The word pean a strictly refers only to the pyramid. It
may be a replacement for the pre-Hispanic term usnu (Zorrilla
1979), and in strictest formality the term for such a pyramid is
pean a de la cruz. But the fact that the assembled whole is usually
called pean a shows that the pyramid is the less marked, more gen-
eral element of the set.
is posted over the door of a house in mourning. This sign
is the only icon used on staffs and also the only sign
implying reference to divinity.
As for basic syntax, a complete script statementthat
is, a whole staff in the sets documented in 1995, 1997,
and 2000consists of a P or nothing in rst position and
varying numbers of Rs and As in second and third. The
annotation P, 2R, 3A would mean, in vertical order, a
pean a, two rayas, and three aspas.
How do the pragmatics of social articulation affect
staff-code semiosis? We have already noted that the ten
staffs serve two governments that are incommensurable
and stand in an inorganic relationship to each other. Ev-
idence for slippage and unease between them includes a
tendency for villagers to forget the district government
staffs when asked to list staffs, unwillingness to accept
this ofce, uncertainty about where the district govern-
ment staff holders should stand when they stand in array
together with those of the community, and frictionabout
8 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
Fig. 7. The staffs of 1995.
their responsibilities. Despite much questioning I could
not get a clear or consistent explanation of how the two
subsets of staffs relate to each other.
The dawning realization that in asking for a context-
free exegesis I was asking for the impossible gave a sec-
ond clue to the way in which staff signs work. By 1997
it was becoming clear that marks upon the staffs encode
the overall relationship among staff ofces and that this
relationship, though structurally important, is not ex-
pressed in any other way.
Staff signs, it seemed, constitute a writing without
words in a different and stronger sense than the one
contemplated by Boone and Mignolo (1994) in the book
of that title. It is not that they record information which
could be expressed in words but is not. It is rather that
they encode information which Tupicochanos organize
through means other than speech. The graphic act in-
volved is not a translation from language but an act of
unspeaking inscription: the direct condensation of social
action into visible objects without engaging in an
exchange of words about them. Nobody can decompose
and read the staff signs as words, though Tupicochans
readily read and analyze many kinds of alphabetic arti-
facts. Nobody spontaneously or under questioning can
give a gloss such as one aspa means second-ranking
deputy. Why? First, no such gloss is correct. The system
works not with unitary equivalences but with context-
sensitive sortings. Second, no social context exists in
which staff marks are verbalized.
When the outgoing community ofcers of 1994 met
in session from the wee hours to dawn to prepare for the
rites of succession, they displayed the staffs to be held
in 1995 (g. 7). What is communicated in these staffs?
The most obvious feature is the binary distinction be-
tween pean a-bearing staffs and those that lack them. All
but four lack not only sign P but a space in which it
would t. P was evidently irrelevant to these ofces. The
staffs that bore P were two rural constables. Their re-
spective deputies staffs bore blank spaces, as if to allude
to their superiors insignia, in places where P would t.
From this we conclude that (1) in the distinction P/0P,
P means rural or peripheral and 0P means village or
central; (2) of these P is the marked (more special, less
frequent, less dominant) case; and (3) the symbol P is
iconic of the important ritual division between village
and rural space, meaning that these ofcers authority
begins with the landmarka physical pean awhere the
countryside begins.
A second feature, the distribution of aspas, is as fol-
salomon Writing Without Words F 9
4A First and second lieu-
tenant governor
District government
3A Regulator Community [Center]
2A First and second rural
1A The ve deputies of
all the above
District government
and community
This distribution corresponds to stratication among
agencies of government. The national state commands
posts with high numbers of As, the community two mid-
dling but unequal Aranks (village center and community
periphery), and both jurisdictions some low ones. Aspa
distribution reects, in other words, a recognition in
principle of the supremacy of the national government:
while both national and local governments are entitled
to have ground-level delegates and enforcers, the former
stands supreme and the second subordinate.
A third feature, the distribution of rayas, registers a
quite different hierarchy, one among ofcers as opposed
to the jurisdictions that control the ofces:
6R First lieutenant governor
5R Second lieutenant governor, regulator, rst
rural constable, second rural constable
2R Regulators deputy
1R Deputy of rst/second lieutenant governor,
deputy of rst/second rural constable
It comes much closer to representing public sentiment
about the importance of each ofce by placing the com-
munity staff holders, who actually do the work of main-
taining politico-ritual order and protecting communal
interests in both town and country, as high as the pres-
tigious but usually otiose staffs commanded by the na-
tional state. It puts a wide space between the higher staffs
and the deputies who wear out shoe leather on their
behalf, thus building up the former, and it splits levels
of prestige among deputies, reecting the community
view that the regulators deputy is chief (mayor) rather
than lumping him, as does the jurisdictional bracketing,
with mere messengers.
A fourth feature is registered in syntactic practice. The
formula for a staff is emblem (Pvalues present, la-
tent, absent) followed by two token-iterative signs,
x Rs and y As, but it has an interesting wrinkle. The
token-iterative elements in those brackets which have
paired (rst and second) ofces are lined up as fol-
First lieutenant governor R A
Second lieutenant governor R A
First rural constable A R
Second rural constable R A
Deputy of rst lieutenant governor R A
Deputy of second lieutenant governor A R
Deputy of rst rural constable A R
Deputy of second rural constable R A
The schema shows the following regularities:
1. For all community ofces that govern the village
center, R before A signies the higher or rst status with
a pair and A before R the reverse. This applies to both
the communitys in-town functions and the national
government ofce. Both of the nonpaired ofces, those
of the regulator and the regulators deputy, regulate the
center and are marked with R before A.
2. Conversely, for all community ofces that govern
the periphery or countryside (that is, the rural constables
and their deputies), A before R signals rst status and R
before A the reverse.
3. The district government ofces, however, show, as
one would expect of an in-town authority, R before A in
the rst-status position, but rather than reversing to
show second status they retain R before A and diminish
the quantitative value of R.
The inorganic members of the setthe staffs attached
to a noncommunal authorityare marked by an irreg-
ular syntax. It is as if they were unaffected by the A/R
ordering rule because their jurisdiction is not divided as
center and periphery.
In short, the insignia coexist with a verbally labeled
hierarchy of titles, but that is not what they encode. This
set, on close reading, embodies at least three separate
takes on the relations among the staff authorities and
registers the dissonance among takes.
For the purposes of semiology, the interesting point is
that none of these analyses is expressed in words or in
any code external to staffs. The characters form an or-
derly notation of social relations, but the variables and
some of the relationships which they notate do not have
verbal names. When I discussed them with a highly in-
telligent consultant who has himself directed staff work,
we were able to reach common conclusions, but only
after an awkward discussion in which he found himself
forced to invent circumlocutions as abnormal as my
Does Staff Code Possess Its Own
In observing the New Years Day political cycle, it was
noted that there is next to no scope for verbal discussion
of the proceedings. What talk does take place is sociable
chitchat, ostentatiously off the point. This makes an ob-
vious exception to the usual meeting-house loquacity.
Taciturnity is even more surprising when one takes note
that this is the rst occasion on which the new set of
staffs comes together. Since they have been produced in
ve separate pairs and preinspected and precorrected as
pairs, the risk of disharmony or error is far from negli-
gible, and this is the source of tension that chitchat must
cover over. As noted above, any suspected anomaly will
be pointed out at most with barely audible murmur or
only a gesture. It then devolves on the regulator and/or
the secretary to decide whether to set the problematic
staff aside.
This is an eloquent silence if ever there was one. As
did my difculties in interviewing about staff signs, it
raises the question whether there is a metalanguage for
discussing staff code as there is for discussing alphabetic
10 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
Fig. 8. Justo Ruedas method of reading staffs.
writing. There appears to be strong variation among cul-
tures in metalinguistic disposition even apart from lit-
eracies and genres (Mannheim 1986). In order to learn
more about any possible verbal metalanguage concerning
the staff code and about its variation over time, detailed
interviews were undertaken in 1997 with three men who
had been active in the hierarchy and who are regarded
as costumbreros, experts and loyalists of customary law.
The ndings highlight two striking functional differ-
ences from the written word.
The rst is that the verbal muteness of the staffs
extends also to their metalanguage. As noted above, there
are only two intervals when authoritychiey the reg-
ulator and the community secretarycan impose cor-
rect signs on a submitted stick: during preinspection
between December 24 and New Years and, as a last re-
sort, during the interval from New Years morning to the
January 23 civic summit. On none of these occasions
as observedadmittedly, less than the total of 18 rele-
vant encounters
did the regulator or secretary say any-
thing like It has one aspa too few. Rather, if they saw
a fault, they simply conscated the stick and made the
correction themselves. It is in these intervals of reserved
action, not particularly secret but not public either, that
inscriptions are corrected to match the model of har-
mony that constitutes their envisioned suite of power
for the incoming year.
By exploiting the privilege of the expert and out-
sider I was able to elicit such remarks, but no other
ethnographic moment gave me such a clear feeling of
pulling teeth. The ofcers clearly felt uncomfortable.
Their replies were untypically curt. I was apparently em-
barrassing them, even when we were in private, by ask-
ing them to do something inappropriate, and yet I had
too high a rank to be atly refused. At rst I thought
they were mistakenly taking my question as a challenge
to their expertise in custom (this being a common
source of anxiety), but it later proved that the difculty
was more intellectual and more fundamental than that.
I had naively assumed that verbalizing the ordering of
incisions on a staff was analogous to spelling out a
wordthat is, a neutral, technical metacommunication
in which the contrast between sound signs and visible
signs was not in and of itself signicant. However, this
proved a faux pas. The staff set is not an analogue for
words as the alphabet is. Instead it registers social knowl-
edge that one does not put into words in the rst place.
It is an alternative to words. The metacommunication
of words is words about words (e.g., spelling out, whether
in sound or on paper). The metacommunication of staffs
is handover, alteration, and acceptance or rejection of
initials: carving about carving.
The proof that verbal metalanguage is not the crucial
mechanism is that there is no standard way of verbal-
izing staff incisions and yet this does not compromise
the viability of the staff as collective product. Having
opped at a discursive method, I interviewed by asking
6. That is, ve paired submissions in three iterations plus three
New Years cycles.
men to sketch staffs (on paper, in dirt, or with chalk on
a shovel handle), without simultaneous questioning.
This worked much better, but no amount of ex post facto
dialogue yielded a uniform metalanguage.
When Justo Rueda drew staff inscriptions, he regis-
tered gure 8 (left) as the sign for rst lieutenant gov-
ernor. In other words, he drew what my and Leo n Mo-
desto Rojass notation calls 6R 4A. When I asked him
what design he had just drawn, he replied, Five degrees
(grados) and ve aspas. Disconcerted, I asked him to
point them out for me. The result was the clarication
of gure 8 (right). Justo Rueda reverses Leo n Modesto
Rojass notion of the relation between character and de-
limiter or gure and ground. In other words, he reads
spaces as characters and incisions as delimiters. To him
a degree or grado is a space separated by lines and an
aspa is a space adjacent to an X. The two agree on the
utterance, but since they had no occasion to analyze
it together in terms of a code exterior to itself, they did
not have any shared terminology for doing so.
The third consultant was Marcelo Alberco Espritu.
He also agreed that the rst lieutenant governor should
have four signs that are neither rayas nor pean as. He
called these signs puntos (points) rather than aspas. For
staffs that had only one point, he drew the same X that
others call aspa, but for staffs with multiple points he
used another convention. In order to indicate the four
points of the rst lieutenant governor, he drew the upper
part of g. 9. There was a clear space between the two
salomon Writing Without Words F 11
Fig. 9. Marcelo Alberco Espritus method of reading
aspas as puntos.
horizontally deployed lines of zigzag. I was puzzled be-
cause I did not see any aspas. Points appeared to me
to number 7 or 14 (if one took them to mean peaks,
vertices) or 18 (if puntos meant loci). In response to
my question where the 4 points were, Marcelo drew the
lower part of gure 9.
The interesting inferences here are (1) the absence of
consensual analyses of the sign, (2) the poverty of con-
sensual verbal metalanguage for analyzing the sign, and
(3) the fact that these decits do not impede the func-
tioning of the sign as a vehicle to integrate social action.
Indeed, as we have seen, to verbalize norms about in-
signia is only to foment confusion.
This schema recalls Sampsons assertion that to the
degree that a society develops semasiography, it moves
toward a situation of two fully-edged languages hav-
ing no relationship with one anotherone of them a
spoken language without a script, and the other a lan-
guage tied intrinsically to the visual medium (1985:
30). Sampson acknowledges that to think of the latter as
a general-purpose language is to contemplate an unreal-
izable extreme. But within the connes of a special-pur-
pose code, the staff incisions realize his theory in the
strongest possible form: unlike well-known insignia,
which have precise verbal equivalents and are easily
transferred to the verbal medium, these occupy a func-
tional space all their own.
Variable Array: Contextual Meaning and the
Productiveness of Staff Code
In the early stages of this research, I asked interviewees
to set, or sketch, the staffs in rank order (segu n sus
rangos respectivos). Each pondered at length, treating the
question (to my surprise) as a hard one, and then provided
an array. But their arrays did not match. Moreover, elic-
ited arrays deviated conspicuously from the natural
arrays visible in actual staff use, and this natural class
seemed to vary widely within itself.
My premise that staffs stood in xed rank order to each
other was to prove false, but the poverty of verbal me-
talanguage for discussing what staffs say prevented
staff experts fromtelling me so. Still less could they state
what turned out to be the key to arrays: the correct
array depends on the folk-legal structure of the encoun-
ter, inected by the political contingencies of the
For example, after the stroke of NewYears 2000, when
the incoming staffs had been accumulated on the desk
of the district governor, the regulator, with the intense
concentration of someone doing a puzzle, arranged them
in the following order:
First lieutenant governor
Second lieutenant governor
Deputy of rst lieutenant governor
Deputy of second lieutenant governor
First rural constable
Second rural constable
Deputy of rst rural constable
Deputy of second rural constable
Deputy of regulator or chief deputy
Regulator or plaza boss
(Note that the use of rst and second removes doubt
about the proper direction of reading.)
This array looks completely wrong in comparison
with the array used at the community hall, but it snaps
into clarity once one notices that it embodies the system
as seen by the district governor in his own building. The
district governors own two staff-bearing lieutenants top
the list, and their respective deputies follow. The two
rural constables in charge of land and water use formthe
middle of the list, followed by their deputies. The end
of the list is the most interesting part, because in it a
master structural polarity trumps the common ordering
that puts a main ofcer above his deputy. The last two
positions show the deputy for village-center affairs, fol-
lowed and not led by his boss the regulator. The sense
of this is that the regulator and the district governor are,
in the context of this nights events, polar opposites, so
they need to be maximally distanced. As we saw above,
the ritual of the night shuttles back and forth between
their respective seats. The regulator rules (as his title
regidor proclaims) the innermost domain of the political
system, with his seat of ofce being the inner chamber
of the community hall. It is he who regulates the internal
affairs of the staff-holder corps, for example, by approving
inscriptions. The district governor rules the outermost
orbit, and his seat of ofce is the mini-Lima lodged in
the district government. He sits so far from the inner
ethos that it is his custom to pretend ignorance of it.
(Although I rst took this for racially tinged disrespect,
I later came to view it as part of the modus vivendi that
makes an awkward relationship livable.) To manifest
this polarity is the overriding logic of this particular ar-
12 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
ray. To reconcile two contextually appropriate rules of
ranking that yielded contradictory arrays was the puz-
zle involved.
By contrast, when staffs are displayed inside the com-
munity hall, which is the regulators own seat, the reg-
ulator leads the array. Order in the community hall
places ofcers of the central orbit rst and those of the
peripheral orbit last. Those of the national orbit do not
report to the community, so they are not present. The
totalizing view as seen from the community becomes
more visible on one occasion when the community is
forced to deal with it, namely, in nominations. It is re-
vealed in the nomination list of eligibles prepared on
December 24, 1999. On that occasion, the regulator and
the board dealt with nominations in the same order that
had been shown them in the distribution of As and Rs
on inspected staffs:
Regulator 3A 5R
First rural constable 2A 5R
Second rural constable 2A 4R
Regulators deputy 1A 3R
Deputy of rst lieutenant governor 1A 2R
Deputy of second lieutenant governor 1A 2R
Deputy of rst rural constable 1A 2R
Deputy of second rural constable 2A 3R
(The anomalously high A and R count of the last ofce
is commented on below.) The two missing ofces, the
lieutenant governors, were nominated from the district
government.) The community board set the order of
nomination not by the district governmentcommunity
polarity but by the consideration that was probably up-
permost on their mindsthe relative weight of these
ofces as assertions of the communitys interest.
A third logical possibility arises where the peripheral
or rural (campo) orbit becomes paramount. This in fact
occurs on the many occasions when the community as-
sembles at its elds, pastures, or high canals for collec-
tive labor or gathers to conduct the annual boundary
inspection. At such outdoor meetings, the planting of
staffs and work crosses establishes the ritual and social
context. In these arrays, as one would expect, the staffs
of the rural constables precede the rest, and their re-
spective deputies precede other deputies.
It should at this point be clear that no single hierarchy
ranks these ofces or the signs that stand for them. That
is why I only created confusion by asking consultants to
rank them in order. The hierarchy of staffs is contex-
tually determined. The actual determination is quite
complex. It is grossly framed by the relation among ju-
risdictions in respect to a given event, but the person
who places staffs (highest member of the hosting orbit)
must also take into account all the realpolitik factors
which are actually on the minds of those present.
At this point, silent inscriptionthe public concreti-
zation of a reckoning of the roles and problems at is-
sueemerges as a subtle art. The person who executes
it sometimes dgets with uncertainty or tries out mul-
tiple arrangements before settling on one. Onlookers, if
they feel politically uncomfortable with a solution,
sometimes express themselves audibly but not verbally,
with scofng grunts or mumbles of discontent. They
mean that the person in charge should think about re-
arranging. Once in a while somebody will go as far as
indicating a staff he considers misplaced and saying
over there (allacito, pointing with the chin). Such ver-
bal-gestural interventions usually seem more like
would-be-helpful kibbitzing than like challenges. On the
whole, however, participants stubbornly, consistently,
and (I think) unconsciously keep the whole process quiet.
And yet it is at this point, in the midst of verbal in-
hibition, that one can begin to use the term writing
in a weightier way than merely alluding to inscription.
The crucial fact is that staff process is productive. The
array of a given set of staffs in different situations yields
wordless but unpredictable, nonpredetermined state-
ments about those situations. They therefore approach
the properties of utterance. And since they do this word-
lessly, they also approach, as Sampson suggested, the
productivity of a parallel system of utterancesa lan-
guagedisconnected from speech.
Indeed, in the abstract, one could say that the year-
long, politically choreographed movement of the staffs
through space, time, and society inscribes upon Tup-
icocha the unpredictable event history of 365 days.
Whereas the ensemble considered simply as an ensemble
and in synchrony might be considered to deliver a con-
stant message we could coarsely sum up as There are
ten minor ofces arranged in pairs (etc.), the ensemble
in diachrony might be considered as delivering a series
of messages about its deployment in practice. But it
would not be sensible to call the utterances of staffs
in action a historiography, because the removal of the
staffs after each function maintains a continually clean
The Staff Code: Reinvention in Practice
So much for the synchronic langue and the everyday
parole of incised sticks. What about staff code over longer
periods of time? How does staff diachrony compare with
that of writing proper? The answer is that staff code
proceeds through time in a manner radically different
from normal writing. Table 1 compares six versions of
the staff hierarchy: the observed ones of 1995, 1997, and
2000 and the ones recalled by men who directed the
system in the 1950s1980s. What diachronic comparison
reveals is a second major functional difference from
writing proper as important as its distance fromwords.
As a code, staff inscription is strikingly inconsistent over
time. Writing as we know it goes through time by pro-
ducing varied messages in a constant code; the staff cor-
pus produces a constant primary message in a varying
The code itself is an emergent of each years social
reproduction. It is, in other words, an integrative product
of the relations in process. There is no guarantee, and
apparently no need or expectation, that this will take
place in the same way every year. Participants create its
salomon Writing Without Words F 13
table 1
Staff Code Inscriptions as Recalled (1950s1980s) and Observed (19952000)
LMRA 1-1-95 1-1-97 1-2-97 2-26-97 3-29-97 1-1-00
1LG 6R, 4A 4 puntos 0P, 6A, 7R 0P, 6R, 4A 0P, 6R, 4A 6R, 4A
D of 1LG 1R, 1A 1A, 2R 0P, 4R 0P, 1R, 1A 0P, 1R, 1A blank 2R, 1A
2LG 5R, 3A 3 puntos? 0P, 5A, 6R 0P, 5R, 4A P-space,
5R, 2A
5R, 4A
5R, 4A
D of 2LG 1R, 1A 1A, 2R 0P, 3R 0P, 1A, 1R 0P, 1R, 1A P-space,
5R, 2A
2R, 1A
RpPB 5R, 3A 3 puntos 0P, 4A, 5R 0P, 5R, 3A P-space,
5R, 2A
0P, 5R, 3A 0P, 5R, 2A 5R, 3A
D of RpCD 2R, 1A 1A, 2
0P, 1A, 2R 0P, 2R, 1A P-space,
3R, 1A
3R, 1A
3R, 1A
3R, 1A
3R, 1A
1RC 1P, 4R, 3A 1P, 1R 1P, 3A, 4R 1P, 2A, 5R 1P, 2A, 5R 1P, 2A, 5R 1P, 2A, 5R 1P, 2A, 5R
D of 1RC 1R, 1A 1A, 2R 1P, 2R P-space,
1A, 1R
1P, 1R,
1A, 1R
1P, 1R,
1A, 1R
1P, 1R,
1A, 1R
1P, 1R,
1A, 1R
2RC 1P, 4R, 2A 1P, 2R 1P, 2A, 3R 1P, 5R, 2A 1P, 1R,
1A, 1R
1P, 3R, 2A 1P, 2R, 1A,
1R, 1A, 1R
D of 2RC 1R, 1A 1A, 2R 1P, 1R P-space,
1R, 1A
1P, 3R, 2A 1P, 1R, 2A 1P, 3R, 2A
note: Abbreviations of ofces: 1LG, rst lieutenant governor; D of 1LG, deputy of rst lieutenant governor; 2LG, second lieutenant
governor; D of 2LG, deputy of second lieutenant governor; RpPB, regulator, also called plaza boss; D of RpCD, deputy of regulator,
also called chief deputy; 1RC, rst rural constable; D of 1RC, deputy of rst rural constable; 2RC, second rural constable; D of 2RC,
deputy of second rural constable. Abbreviations of signs: A, aspa or X; R, raya or bar; P, pean a or stepped pyramid with cross; punto,
conjoined aspas in the reckoning of Marcelo Alberco Espritu. Abbreviations of consultants: JR, Justo Rueda; MAE, Marcelo Alberco
Espritu; LMRA, Le on Modesto Rojas Alberco.
symbolism as they go. Thus successive iterations yield
not varied messages in a constant code but varying code
that reects the political constitution as inected by the
emerging political constellation of the new year. Since
the referent of the staff inscriptions as a set is a group
of simultaneous relationships, their mutual synchronic
t and not their longitudinal consistency over time is
the prime concern. Their historicity takes the form of
code variation and not message variation.
Staff Code and the Pace of Change
This variation is not drift but the silent registry of social
reasoning. For historical depth, let us consider differ-
ences among the three systems that the veteran staff-
holder directors recall.
In the staff set remembered by Leo n Modesto Rojas
Alberco from ca. the 1970searly 1980s, two character-
istics stand out. First, with regard to distribution of A,
he differentiates two discrete classes of ofcers. Those
who give commands to a subordinate have As and the
others lack them. At the same time, this bipolarizing
tendency goes with a countervailing tendency toward
continuum in the distribution of rayas. In R terms, staffs
display an uninterrupted continuumof importance, from
rst lieutenant governor (7R) down to deputy of the sec-
ond rural constable (1R). In sum, Rojass array hyperdif-
ferentiates. It does this dually: it maximizes the distinct-
ness of each ofce from all others, and it makes a sharp
break between two sorts of rank that somewhat resem-
bles the break between warrant ofcers and noncoms in
the military. It may be relevant that Rojas, while a major
promoter of community self-government, also belongs
to the generation whose politically formative years co-
incided with the Velasco Alvarado military regime.
The code recalled by a man 16 years older than Rojas,
Marcelo Alberco Espritu, emphasizes a different set of
norms, presumably an idealized version of the system
he helped carry out in the 1950s60s. Table 1 contains
his scheme as translated from his distinctive points
verbalization to the notation I devised with Rojas. Unlike
Rojass scheme, which goes to an extreme of splitting
and graduating (there are no overall equationsno two
matching staffsin his system) Alberco inclines toward
bracketing or lumping. (Two point staffs look alike,
with 3 puntos, and four deputy staffs look alike, with
1A, 2R.) In other words, he and his peers, when they
integrated this system, interlocked themselves witheach
other mostly by establishing correspondences that clar-
ied who was peer to whom.
Third, in working with Justo Rueda we get a viewpoint
a decade or so older than Albercos. His distinctive way
of explaining staff incisions as white gures separated
by black divisors has been described above. This
scheme makes R (delimiter of grado) and A, in that order,
necessary constituents of all valid signs. Aside from his
radically different verbal treatment, the most striking
thing about Ruedas scheme is that it maximizes syn-
tactical simplicity and regularity by focalizing this in-
stantly noticeable gestalt-level vareme. The shape
formed by a bar-topped X is the common denominator
14 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
among all ofce symbols. In substancethat is, the
organization of inequalityRuedas system does not dif-
fer much from Albercos or the 1995 array, but it differs
in the rhetoric (so to speak) of presenting that
Whereas Rojass scheme emphasizes gradation and Al-
bercos emphasizes bracketing, Ruedas emphasizes har-
monization. His set of staffs comes closest to being a
uniform. It might correspond to a round of integrative
practice in which the staff holders tended to cohere as a
corps more than they do now.
Staff Code in Ongoing Transformation,
The recalled sets given by older experts may be distorted
by idealization (chiey in the direction of enhanced reg-
ularity according to the individuals notion of the rules).
But this idealization itself serves as a heuristic guide to
understanding the not-so-ideal practice of staff use, since
it has shown us how a synchronic set coheres when it
coheres perfectlyas perhaps occurs mostly in
This helps to clarify how the sets actually did vary
over time. In other words, the varied ways in which the
same message was inscribed over three observed cy-
cles1995, 1997, and 2000reveal through their sign
logic a pattern which actually does match identiable
changes in social practice.
This interpretation may be taken as a decipherment
in a special sensea sense appropriate to the idiosyn-
crasy of mute inscription. Decipherment in this case can-
not be the recapture of a verbal artifact by reading a
sample of a known code, for there never was a verbal
artifact. Nor can it be the recapture of a lost code-reading
skill, for there never was a skill of reading in the sense
of reading-out. Rather, deciphering mute inscription is a
matter of recapturing past operations of social interac-
Comparing the 1995, 1997, and 2000 observed data
sets, one can trace the following tendencies:
First, an intelligible trend emerges in the relation be-
tween major staffs as a set and their deputy staffs as a
set. Irrespective of the specic number of As awarded
the staffs, in successive years the number of Rs attributed
to deputies of any given major staff holder rose. In 2000
the rise was universal and striking. It will be remembered
that Rs correspond not to the dignity of the jurisdiction
that the ofcer enforces but the esteem in which his
individual ofce is held. In recent years, migration to
Lima and declining enrollment in the community have
shrunk the pool of eligibles more and more, with the
result that it becomes necessary to call on younger and
younger men. Young men in their teens perceive deputy
posts as almost servile. The upgrading of their dignity
of ofce is a response to pressure from below. It will be
borne in mind that deputies are the ones who actually
manufacture staffs. There is a certain democratic un-
dercurrent in their being well placed to bid tacitly for
political relief through the staffs they submit. Faced with
the demographic facts the community boards of 1997 and
2000 allowed these ofces more dignied R-ratings vis-
a` -vis the rest of the set. The change is particularly no-
ticeable in the staff for the deputy of the second rural
constable, which is often the point of entry for young-
sters doing their rst service.
Second, in the national orbit represented by the district
governor and his four staff holders, a shift in syntactical
usage has occurred. It was noted above that in 1995 the
two orbits that unambiguously belong to the community
used a reversal of syntax (A before R, R before A) to
signal, respectively, rst and second of a pair. This ap-
plied to the deputies whom the community lent to the
national orbit, the rst and second lieutenant governors
deputies; the rst and second lieutenant governors them-
selves were set a bit apart from the intracommunity hi-
erarchy by not using this distinction. It will also be re-
called that the deputy posts of the rst and second
lieutenant governors are unpopular ofces because they
put their incumbents in a serving two masters bind.
In 1997 the insignia for the deputies of the rst and sec-
ond lieutenant governors were in disarray. (Erroneous
cases may not be disallowed under the present meth-
odology, since disarray no less than array is the imprint
of integrationor its failure.) By 2000, these two dep-
uty posts had absorbed a new pattern: they followed the
same rule as their masters, the lieutenant governors. Put
into words (as no one ever would), the gesture signals
that the villagers cede a bit of the communitys authority
over its staff holders in order to relieve the incumbents
of the two masters dilemma and let them simply obey
the district governors agenda. It remains to be seen
whether this will relieve the chronic problem of lling
these roles.
The third, fourth, and fth tendencies all share one
political import but take place in semiologically different
ways. All three register the increasing distinctiveness of
the peripheral or rural orbit from the other two orbits.
The third tendency is syntactic, like the second, but
more fundamental and puzzling. Through 1995, a uni-
versal rule, never contravened in sets as remembered by
older men, required that As and Rs form separate groups
and not be intermingled. On New Years Day 1997the
last possible moment for correctionsthe community
secretary noticed that someone had marked an incoming
second rural constable staff with P, 1R, 1A, 1R. This
interspersed pattern, which looked like FXF, was si-
lently set aside and scraped off. Nonetheless, the same
FXF appeared again in February and March 1997 on
the rst rural constables deputys staff, and it stayed
there. Not only was this repeated in 2000, but this time
FXF was also carved onto the second rural constables
staff and stayed there. FXF has great naked-eye sali-
ence. Its increasing popularity in the peripheral or rural
orbit would seem to mark an emerging sentiment that,
although of the same substance as other staff authorities,
the peripheral orbit, like the district government, par-
takes of a distinctive order. The 2000 community board
salomon Writing Without Words F 15
tacitly agreed to let this formulation show by not cor-
recting the staffs.
One may take this as a subtle move in a political con-
ict which has troubled the village of late: the increasing
assertiveness of the municipality in affairs outside its
spatial jurisdiction, for example, in rural canal construc-
tion. (The municipality, it will be recalled, does not itself
command any staff holders.) Because the mayor who
leads this expansionism is a powerful, able, and faction-
ally strong man, one rarely hears the community assert
at opposition. But this split is actually the main polit-
ical event since 1995. Innovation in the 19972000 staffs
works almost as if to say The rural sector speaks a
different languagea claim to authoritative discourse
in its own orbit, as the national orbits own syntactic
peculiarity implies for a different one. However, the new
vareme also has a conservative dimension: if one tal-
lies numbers of As and Rs without regard to this novel
syntax, their respective numbers come out as conven-
tional rankings by the older system.
The fourth tendency is the disappearance of the char-
acter P-space (i.e., the leaving of an unincised area at the
tops of some staffs in the location that P would ll were
it present). P-space was used in 1995 on staffs of deputies
serving rural constables; it was, then, a sort of implied
pean a. (Unfortunately, the notational system I used in
interviewing elders does not reveal whether they re-
membered P-space as an older norm, because at the time
I had not yet perceived the issueand, as usual, verbal
help was unavailable.) P-space has a structural vulner-
ability: since staffs are carved at separate times and
places, each carver must guess how much blank space
to leave at the top. In 1997 a number of staffs outside
the peripheral or rural orbit appeared to have P-spaces.
The community board seemed a bit puzzled about this
at the New Years morning inspection. They slid the
staffs along each other as if measuring (but neither ac-
tually measured nor discussed them). In the event they
did not recall any of these for correction. The result was
that when the staffs were arrayed, P-space could no
longer be visually associated with the peripheral or rural
orbit. In 2000, nobody made P-spaces. Some staffs had
more than a P-space of blank wood, others less. None
were corrected on this score.
The fth tendency is probably a compensation for the
fourth: The staffs that would have had P-spaces in 1995
nowhad Ps, that is, explicit pean as. P is the most naked-
eye salient of all signs, so this change more than restored
the visual distinctiveness of the peripheral orbit when
staffs are arrayed or when a single staff is planted at a
work site to show under which orbit the work falls. One
might argue that this is simply a determined allomorphic
shift, not an instance of the new code for a new year
But the gain in explicitness and conspicuousness is so
emphatic that it makes sense to attribute it greater im-
portance: at the time of writing (March 2000), as never
before, there is no longer any shading of the pean a
usage to make the peripheral orbit quartet of staffs over-
lap the rest. That is, one can no longer say that any
member of the peripheral orbit resembles a member of
the other orbits by lacking pean a. Today, as a set, the
peripheral orbit looks just plain different.
I suspect that this is an imprint, in wordless inscrip-
tion, of public resistance to what people see as the an-
ticommunal policies of the 1990s Fujimori regime. The
peripheral orbit enjoys great public legitimacy as the
quintessentially campesino orbit, as opposed to the two
orbits which, respectively, enforce duties common to all
townsfolk and to all Peruvian citizens. For example, it
is the pean a-carrying ofcers who take the lead when
the village approaches the grandparents (abuelos, i.e.
pre-Christian deities) who own their irrigation water.
This is the most sacred of all identity-marking cere-
monies and the least similar to national or urban
norms. To make its champions more distinctive is to
underline a feeling of we, the campesinos. The staff
change is a bit like orally overstressing the rst word of
the phrase peasant community. This is, in my opinion,
a sign of resistance to the undeclared direction of Fuji-
mori-era agricultural policy, which is to neglect the jural
peasant communities in favor of private agroindustry.
(The community, for example, can at best get temporary
project grants, while the other government agencies have
permanent budget lines.)
The ve changes reviewed above are, in a sense, only
one change: a broad effort to improve an always-difcult
integration of roles in a complex and partly inorganic
system, in the face of additional neoliberal political
stresses, by marking its parts as more functionally spe-
cialized, more different from each other, and more
Why Write Wordlessly?
In his lucid, underappreciated summary of the writing
without words problem, W. C. Brice, who made im-
pressive advances with Linear A of Crete, sums up the
strictly scriptural pluses of nonphonetic script: (1) It
is independent of any language, therefore international.
(2) It can be brief and instantly perceptible. (3) Lig-
atured combinations and differences of relative size and
position among signs make possible a wide range of
subtle distinctions of meaning, more economically than
in scriptio plena. (4) One need only learn a small number
of signs (1976:43). All these comments apply to staff
code. But the Linear A samples in question are records
of transactions and are subject to pressure for explicit-
ness rather than for implicitness as in Tupicocha.
The work of this essentially wordless code is (in Roy
Harriss terms) integrational and not telementational.
That is, it serves not to get ideas across but to coordinate
actions, as the positions of pieces in a chess game do.
Indeed, this game is specically a wordless one for rea-
sons related to the reasons that chess players talk only
through their pieces.
One may well ask why Tupicocha chooses to arrange
part of its polity using a set of signs even more isolated
from language than chess pieces are. After all, a staff
16 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
bearing initials like 1RC for the post rst rural con-
stable would seem to do the job. Indeed, in Ayacucho
Department, whose staff customs otherwise resemble
Tupicochas, staffs are incised with combinations of al-
phabetic messages and icons. Moreover, to explain Tup-
icochan usage it is not enough to speak of carryover from
an age when literacy was uncommon, because on the
whole the village has enthusiastically alphabetized its
internal process. One must look for a positive reason it
was better in this case to use a set of signs without al-
phabetic value or verbal counterparts.
It is worth noting that the discussion up to this point
has been thoroughly political. The actual task of inte-
grating a staff corps was explained with emphasis on its
fractiousness. The inorganic and uncomfortable articu-
lation between centralist state and self-governing com-
munity produces a two masters dilemma. Giving staffs
to young men creates the uncomfortable situation of ask-
ing junior members to coerce senior ones. These are just
some of the innite crosscutting conicts of interest that
make a little town a big hell in the Spanish cliche . It
is helpful, therefore, that when a new rural constable,
for example, sets about cooperating with a new lieuten-
ant governor they take as common badges highly abstract
signs referring to nothing but the fact that they have
embarked on a joint task.
These signs are partly insulated from political elec-
tricity by being nontranslatable and empty of proposi-
tions and even of connotations. In all states, function-
aries go to extremes in seeking colorless, repetitive,
connotation-poor signsboring signsto articulate both
their mutual and their external relations. The staff sys-
tem carries this logic to its extreme. The reason for ex-
tremism might be sought in the dilemma that arises
when the hands which execute the gritty work of co-
ercion are in other contexts close neighbors, kin, busi-
ness contacts, afnes, friends, or enemies. The whole
matter suggests the need for a counterweight to the Geer-
tzian and Turnerian emphasis on symbolic polyvalence
and richness. Sometimes poor symbols are the best.
The fact that noniconic, nonverbal signs grow in the
very guts of community politics also helps one under-
stand the surprising nding that staff code is at the same
time highly integrated (synchronically) and extremely
unstable (diachronically). The pattern that emerges in-
scribed in each new staff set is the direct reection of a
current political interaction, inuenced by speculations
about the kind of integration among government organs
which might be useful in the coming year (bracketed,
hyperdifferentiated, solidary . . .). Options are not (so far
as I know) overtly negotiated. Nonetheless, it is literally
impossible to articulate the staffs as a set without mak-
ing implicit statements of this sort. The act of making
them is, in effect, the crystallization of prudently re-
served ideas about how the community directorate will
manage its agents. Not speaking of these ideas creates a
segregated domain from which many disruptions are
By this route, a purportedly unvarying message
(There are ten ofces, arranged in pairs, in three juris-
dictional orbits, and so forth) is expressed in a code that
varies. To the surprise of any researcher beguiled by the
notion of tradition, it varies much faster than the insti-
tution it represents, much faster than alphabetic norms,
and even much faster than oral language. The ability to
vary on the formal level has apparently helped the bare-
bones institutional message remain the same. Had the
staff hierarchys emblematic frame (a term from Har-
ris) allowed less exibility, political friction might have
demolished the staff system in Tupicocha, as it already
has done in many Andean villages (Isbell 1972). Perhaps
it is more than coincidence that Tupicocha, with its ex-
travagant-seeming semiological pluralism and political
complexity, has proven more stable in constitution than
conspicuously traditional villages.
The ambience within which this symbolic systemcon-
nects the logic of writing and the organization of so-
ciety (Goody 1986) could hardly be more different from
the restricted elite ambience from which, according to
Marcus, Mesoamerican scripts emanated.
Andean villages create annually rotating, specialized
political hierarchies among peasants who otherwise are
jealous of their status as equals. According to ideology,
differences in authority are steep but change hands
quickly. Every political actor eventually sends code mes-
sages. Their symbols are few and easy to learn, means
of inscription cheap, and competence evenly spread, and
therefore messages do not mystify or exclude. By refrain-
ing from metalanguage, participants leave each other no
means to get a critical wedge into staffs except actually
modifying them. Since their physical control is strict,
this is (theoretically) not an entropic factor. Such a mech-
anism has functional value in a would-be egalitarian set-
ting in which the right to criticize, normally respected,
would impede the crucial bootstrapping of political
Like every ideology, this one is a mixture of self-insight
and self-deception. In fact, differences of wealth do
strongly affect political process, including staff recruit-
ment. What staff code propagandizes for is not the
political ambitions of a person, lineage, or polity, as in
Mesoamerica (Marcus 1992:11), but the ideological prop-
osition of an order that claims to be intricately hierar-
chical in synchrony and yet egalitarian in diachrony.
A second issue about the logic of writing and the or-
ganization of society arises when one remembers that
staff code forms part of a mostly alphabetic system of
political signs and records. Is staff articulation in some
way derived from alphabetic process? Does it feed back
in? In other words, do staffs and books forman integrated
legible whole as, for example, prose and numerical tables
do in monographs? The answer is that conventions seg-
regate themmore markedly than texts and numbers. The
nearest thing to an alphabetic congener for staffs is the
act recording nomination rosters and investitures. How-
ever, the Tupicocha community treats this as an unvar-
ying list of role assignments. Books hold no description
or image of staffs themselves and no recognition of the
implicit variance teased from staff signs above. Staff
holders deliver written documents but do not sign them
salomon Writing Without Words F 17
and are not responsible for producing any. Nor are their
errands as such recordeda striking exception in a com-
munity always meticulous about recording other citizen
Lodging staff-holder functions below the documentary
threshold perhaps has to do with the fact that staff hold-
ers conduct the minimal, lowest-level encounter be-
tween instituted authority and real individuals. Keeping
this bottom tier of political signs insoluble in the al-
phabetic medium which otherwise saturates relations
from low to high suggests a tacit substory to the explicit
social contracta set of prior communal understandings
not reducible to and not expressible in the system of
integration which the community accepted by being ju-
rally recognized.
Theorizing Silent Inscription
Writing without words at rst seemed to mean a way
of conveying things that could be said in words but are
not. Then it appeared to be a matter of saying things that
cannot be said in words because there are reasons not to
give certain properties of relationships verbal names.
Even this was not enough, for staffs do not exactly have
content in the sense of ideas to communicate. I have
abstracted above what an aspa may be said to have stood
for in 1995a relational increment of jurisdictional pres-
tigebut my gloss is by no means the verbal token of
an idea in the mind of participants.
Rather, staff signs in their grouped inscriptions are the
actual index (in the strictest Peircean sense) of rational
solutions guarded by their own abstractness and impli-
citude. Staff signs distill, coordinate, concretize, and dis-
play the ongoing thinking of the collectivity, but they
are not meant to be squeezed ex post facto for thought.
You could say that they impress the social process rather
than expressing it.
Such inscription comes to bury discourse, not to praise
itwith all the ambiguity this famous praeteritio sug-
gests. The reasoning that went into organizing a given
years staff holders is, so to speak, entombed in the things
that it has become. This gives those things authority. By
the very fact that they exist and can be seen anywhere,
Tupicochans know that the authoritative process is now
embodied beyond argumenteven beyond expression.
Yes, staffs analytically mean the processes and the
ideas involvedthat is, these can be partially extracted
working backward through context-based exegesis, as
has been done abovebut that is a side effect. It is not
what they are for. And yet staffs do praise discourse
in the sense that this special-purpose discourse renews
the possibility for difcult and necessary civic discourse.
Burying Caesar made Caesarism possible, as Hocart
(1969) rst noted.
In the end, does it make sense to put such an un-
writing-like system into one theoretical frame with
writing proper? How theorists respond depends on
what they think inscriptions really inscribe: discourse,
interaction, or processes of cognition. Let us sketch the-
oretical alternatives in this order, with a view to choos-
ing ethnographically powerful approaches.
Philology is interested in inscription of discourse.
From the strictly philological viewpoint of which De-
Francis seems the most determined champion, there is
little reason to call staff code writing. Not only does it
fail to do what his true or general writing systems
do, namely, transmit an unrestricted variety of verbal
utterances, but it fullls a specically contrary function.
Some philological grammatologists, such as Pulgram
(1976) and Hill (1967), expand denitions of writing sys-
tems to include those whose signs purportedly encode
aggregates of discourse above the logographic level. (For
example, they see the few signs on a wampum belt as a
maximally elliptical record of a many-symbol discourse
such as a treaty.) But the model does not work ethno-
graphically for Tupicocha, where the actual production
of signs follows anything but a discourse-recording
Ignace Gelb (1952) and later Wayne Senner (1989:6) left
philologists a margin to stray farther by dening writ-
ing minimalistically as a system of human intercom-
munication by means of conventional visible marks.
We have taken note of Sampson, a writing-centered lin-
guist who explores this margin. Staff code looks at rst
glance like a semasiographic writing by Sampsons cri-
terion. The idea proved powerful in spotlighting visible
signs as parallel language. But on second look, staff code
would t Sampsons view of how such language works
only if that view were expanded perhaps beyond his in-
tentions. His usage depends crucially upon the idea of
direct reference: a note of sheet music refers, nonver-
bally, to a culturally stereotyped sound, and so on. But
signs on staffs do not refer directly to semantically iso-
lated and named things. The semasiography model
provides the exit route from a theoretical trap but then
brings us to an unforeseen hazard.
Three theorists outside the philological (and anthro-
pological) traditions think the paramount task is to over-
come such hazards by establishing comparability within
a vast family of sign systems. Do their widely diverging
semiological eld theories help?
The rst theory is Roy Harriss argument that writ-
ings are symbol sets which come into being by virtue
of their employment to integrate action, regardless of
their relationship to speech. For him, signs inscribe in-
teractions. Even if the likeness of speech becomes the
primary integrative property, the social event integrated
inevitably leaves its trace in attributes outside the reach
of Saussurean code modeling, such as the instantiation
of the event in a given typography or on a meaningful
surface. The sign does not exist outside of the context
which gives rise to it; there is no abstract invariant which
remains the same from one context to the next. Nor, a
fortiori, is there any overarching Saussurean system to
guarantee that invariance (Harris 1995:22). Harriss ap-
proach could deal squarely with the wordlessness of staff
code. For him, signs of writing are normal precipitates
of many activities to which speech is marginal. The pos-
sibility that a habitual disjuncture from language might
18 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
form part of the habitus shaping a specic semiological
practice ts well within his vision. Integrated action
might well leave visible tokens which are not keyed to
semantic isolates with names. This opening leaves
spaceethnographic spacefor nding out when and
why silence becomes a systematically exploited prop-
A second attempt to locate glottography in a wide eld
of commensurable systems is that of Nelson Goodman.
Goodman, however, sees inscriptive methods as ways to
organize and convey cognition, summing up their variety
as languages of art.
One of his languages accommo-
dates properties of Tupicochan staff code very well, but
it does not do so under the rubric of writing. Rather,
Goodman denes a range of inscriptions called notations
in a special sense of the word. Typical members are sheet
music, ID numbers, or knitting instruction codes. Good-
mans subtle exploration emphasizes the fact that no-
tational signs, unlike speech-mimicking written signs,
function by referring bidirectionally to unique compli-
ance classes. Alphabetic writing and speech fail this test
because they create unique compliance only unidirec-
tionally. The phrase Nelson Goodman, philosopher
complies to a single entity, but if one starts by contem-
plating this entity one nds that speech/writing provides
no single phrase corresponding to the entity. One could
just as well say man in loafers. This difculty does
not occur under a true notation, such as Goodmans so-
cial security number (1976:12773).
For Goodman, one precondition of making experience
notationally inscribable is anterior atomization, a con-
vention that the eld of signieds consists of discrete
ranges on identied variables. Any given instantiation
of the Tupicochan staff code in synchrony could be con-
strued along notational lines, thanks to the fact that
it implicitly segments the phenomena at stakepaired
ofce, orbit, jurisdictional prestige, prestige of ofceas
anteriorly atomic.
A Goodmanesque reading therefore has formal power
and points to anthropologically interesting possibilities.
It suggests that the realm of the legible is constituted
differently in different cultures not just by what class of
acts (speech, ritual gesture, etc.) receives a sign in a cor-
responding mimetic code but also by the prior formal
conceptualization (conscious or not, spoken or silent) of
the properties of that class. Whether the signicata are
consciously held semantic isolates need not be crucial
as long as they have the right formal properties, such as
discreteness. Perhaps in order to be inscribable in a cer-
tain way, life has to be lived in a certain way. The vice
versa of this proposition provides an interesting func-
tional circle.
The third and most sweeping attempt at a theory of
writing overarching particular methods of inscription is
of course the Derridean challenge to philological gram-
matology. As does Goodman, Derrida nds the roots of
inscriptivity in the problem of organizing cognition, but
7. I thank William Hanks for pointing out the relevance of this
he approaches this problem at a far more general level.
He does so by a corrosively negative method. Derridean
deconstruction of reference into aporias (undecidable is-
sues or puzzles), diffe rance, absence, and misunder-
standing (Bennington and Derrida 1993:2442, 7084;
Culler 1982:103) may serve to demolish false certainties
about familiar systems, but it discourages ethnographers
from seeking a toehold in unfamiliar ones. How could
one ever distinguish our aporias from theirs? How-
ever, a selectively Derridean approach need not become
a counsel of despair (Culler 1982:102):
If writing means inscription and especially the du-
rable instituting of signs (and this is the only irre-
ducible kernel of the concept of writing), then
writing in general covers the entire domain of lin-
guistic signs . . . the very idea of institution, hence
of the arbitrariness of the sign, is unthinkable prior
to or outside the horizon of writing (De la gram-
matologie p. 65/44). Writing-in-general is an archi-
e criture, an archi-writing or protowriting which is
the condition of both speech and writing in the nar-
row sense.
Cullers exegesis of the path onward from this turn of
the Derridean argument, namely, the path showing how
archi-writing is not a technology but a general attrib-
ute of engagement with experience, has a usefulness
comparable with Goodmans. Whereas Goodman sees
experience dissected into code by multiple more or less
conscious analytical conventions within a given culture,
Derrida sees subjective experience itself as graspable
only insofar as archi-writing gives it form. By archi-
writing he means an unconscious cognitive process of
sorting sense impressions into mentally manipulable
and expressible parts. This process inherently lags be-
hind the sensorium. Speech no less than writing there-
fore yields an array of symbolic doublets for the unreach-
able presence of things which was already lost during
cognition. Writing is a supplement to speech, but
speech is already a supplement to real presences that
are graspable only ex post facto, in their absence, through
ordered play with their uncertainly anchored semiolog-
ical tokens (Culler 1982:104).
The Derridean view seems less helpful than Harriss
or Sampsons in explaining why specic codes work as
they do, since it emphasizes only their commonality, but
it has an advantage: unlike theirs, it answers the question
Why inscribe at all?
Everyone knows which person holds which ofce
anyway. If staffs signal that the holder is acting in his
ofcer role, why not just use blank staffs? In Tupicocha,
the fact that the system of instituted contrasts among
ofcerstheir tacit mutual political contract prior to in-
scriptionvaries subtly fromyear to year creates the sort
of situation which Derrideans recognize as demanding
supplementation. We gain a sensation of catching
things ungraspable presence (illusorily, according to ad-
herents) by separating them from all other things and
salomon Writing Without Words F 19
Fig. 1. Jurisdictional orbits in Tupicocha. T1, Tupicocha when it was only a community with its center (C) and
periphery (countryside) (P); T2, the district, with new villages forming within the periphery of a community; T3,
Tupicocha today, with its new villages recognized as anexos.
exteriorizing contrasts within the web of instituted
contrasts. Tupicocha catches and holds the new social
thing eetingly present in the New Years political
process by inscribing a visual supplement to the political
process that, in becoming complete, is already becoming
absent and available only through its symbolic
Such an approach would put all of a cultures varied
means to evoke effects of presence and of historical
reality on a seamless common ground. ADerridean eth-
nography would open the way to a notion of culture as
an array of kinds of writing which, together, form not
so much one endless chain of supplements as multiple
inscriptions for differing ranges of instituted con-
trasts, mutually insulated or connected by translata-
bility for local reasons. If we could relate the demand for
different kinds of presence and . . . reality to more
down-to-earth aspects of social practice (such as the need
to segregate particular single-stranded relationships), the
ethnography of writing could rise from a specialist to
a generalist role.
What such maximalist theories of inscription promise
to anthropologists is an increase in our power to interpret
the human range of inscriptive practices. Whether we
want to use the word writing to totalize themas Harris
and Derrida do is less important than providing an even
heuristic footing for the study of inscriptive modes in all
their unfamiliar propertiesincluding, for example, the
power to produce closure and silence.
hi lda arauj o
Departamento de Ciencias Humanas, Universidad
Nacional Agraria La Molina, Lima, Peru. 16 ix 00
Wherever staff holders operate they appear as an insti-
tutional group subordinate to the authorities created by
the state for the Andean communities. However, in Tup-
icocha a systemic reelaboration has been carried out to
ensure that at each level of the authority hierarchy there
is a decision-making administrative unit (AU) and an
effective operative unit (OU). At every level of executive
authority there must exist a head (AU) and one or more
hands (OU), depending on the scope of their jurisdic-
tion. The creation by the state of the district government
was seen by Tupecos as the creation of a head without
hands: How can he exercise his authority in the
whole district? So the community has endowed him
with two levels of hands (rst and second lieutenant
governors, deputy rst and second lieutenant governors).
By the same principle a hand is assigned to the mu-
nicipal government. Nevertheless, the existing older
hands supporting the water management authorities
created by the state are maintained, a hand is given
to the community president, and so on.
My gure 1 helps visualize the jurisdictional orbits.
T1 corresponds to Tupicocha when it was only a com-
munity with its center (C) and its periphery (P). Adistrict
is formed when new villages emerge within the periph-
ery of a community (T2). The present situation of Tup-
icocha is that of T3. When they comply with certain
requirements, new villages petition the original com-
munity to be recognized as anexosthe political units
below the district capital. This becomes complicated be-
cause the anexos have different degrees of political au-
tonomy and resource administration with respect to the
mother community. The jurisdictional orbit of the gov-
ernor is the entire district: the mother community and
its anexos.
The reelaboration of the political authorities of the
community and the district of Tupicocha was carried out
as follows: The state created the salaried post of district
governor but without hands. The community en-
dowed himwith two major hands (rst lieutenant gov-
ernor and second lieutenant governor), and these were
then endowed with their corresponding hands (deputy
rst lieutenant governor and deputy second lieutenant
governor). The rst and second lieutenant governors
have the highest rank, since their jurisdiction covers the
20 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
Fig. 2. Hierarchical relations. G, governor; TG, lieu-
tenant governor; R, regulator; AC, rural constable; A,
deputy. Aspa numbers at right.
Fig. 3. Dynamics of the system. UO, operative unit;
UA, administrative unit; G, governor; TG, lieutenant
governor; R, regulator; AC, rural constable; AM, chief
deputy; A, deputy. Raya numbers at right.
entire district (mother community and anexos). Because
the countryside (mother community) is much larger than
the town, the rst and second rural constables would
seemingly follow next in rank order, but since in the
center/periphery opposition center (town) is of higher
rank than periphery (countryside), the regulator is placed
immediately below the rst and second lieutenant gov-
ernors and followed by the rst and second rural con-
stables, who manage the countryside. All the deputies
occupy the lowest rank; they are hands of hands (g.
Given the Huarochiri custom of expressing hierarchi-
cal relations in terms of sibling age-ranking, I have used
a kinship diagram here, but it should be understood as
a representation of the levels of the hands (operative
units) on the basis of the extent of the district and com-
munal jurisdictions and of the social rank assigned by
the community to these orbits: higher to center, lower
to periphery. The aspa numbers (g. 2, right) account for
the hierarchical order following the reelaboration, with
no necessity for words by those who share this cultural
schema. The aspa distribution on the staffs is a mapping
of the reelaborated hierarchy of Tupicocha political
How, then, does the system work? How are authority,
control, and supervision exercised? What is the dynamic
of the political system? The governor organizes all the
major ofcers with a head, the rst lieutenant governor.
In the same way, he organizes all the minor ofcers with
a head, the deputy regulator, also called the chief deputy
(g. 3). The rst lieutenant governor, as the major hand
of the governor, operates through the second lieutenant
governor in the anexos, through the regulator in the cen-
ter (mother community), and through the rst and sec-
ond rural constables in the countryside.
The chief deputy coordinates the work of the deputies
in the three jurisdictions (anexos, center, and periphery).
He reports to the regulator, and the regulator reports to
the rst lieutenant governor. In cases of emergency the
governor calls the rst lieutenant governor and the reg-
ulator for information on what is going on at the two
levelsto call the deputy regulator would be an offense
to the regulator.
The placement of the rayas on the staffs of 1995 is a
mapping of the dynamics of the system of political au-
thorities. These act as the major hands under the gov-
ernors control, forming the operative unit of the rst
lieutenant governor, their administrative unit, who op-
erates through them in their respective orbits of control:
in the center through the regulator, in the periphery
through the rural constables, and in the anexos through
the second lieutenant governor. The deputy regulator is
the administrative unit for the minor ofcers (deputies)
and receives a special designation (chief deputy). He is
the operative unit for the regulator, his administrative
unit, and the regulator is the operative unit for the rst
lieutenant governor. With two heads (administrative
units) at each of the two levels of ofcers, the control
dynamics of the system become very effective. At left
in gure 3 I have indicated the system dynamics, show-
salomon Writing Without Words F 21
ing that there is no absolute distinction between admin-
istrative and operative units except at the extremes. Each
ofcer is the operative unit of his immediate superior
and the administrative unit for the ofcers of the next-
lower level.
Why do the staffs of 1995 present the structure of the
political authority system and its dynamics? And why
do Tupecos want their staffs to memorialize the public
order? After more than 25,000 deaths, 1995 marked the
end of the rst period of the Fujimori presidency. All
Peruvians felt a deep need to reelaborate the sociopoli-
tical order. The terrorist leaders were imprisoned, and
Fujimori was reelected. In the Andean communities
young people began to return for their community estas
without fear of being arrested as terrorists; refugees from
the violence returned to their communities. Andean
traditions once again ourished in rural Peru. In Tupi-
cocha the staff inscriptions expressed the deep need for
order experienced by the whole country. The staff in-
scriptions express community members memory of how
order is created in the world of the community and the
I agree with Salomon that the pean a in the context of
the staffs establishes the identity of the staff holders of
the periphery and also with the explanation he gives for
the staff arrays in 1997 and 2000.
roy harri s
Department of Modern Languages, University of
Oxford, Oxford OX1 2JD, U.K. 20 ix 00
Salomons paper on the engraved staffs of Tupicocha
seems to me an excellent example of the insights af-
forded by adopting an integrational approach to all forms
of human communication that operate by means of tra-
ditional marks or artifacts. Salomon refers in this con-
nexion to my book Signs of Writing (1995), but the basis
of integrational theory is set out more comprehensively
in Signs, Language, and Communication (1996) and In-
troduction of Integrational Linguistics (1998). For me,
whether particular forms of communication are to be
called writing is in the end a relatively trivial matter
except in one respect: to agree without demur that signs
of the kind Salomon describes are not writing proper
(a phrase which he rightly puts in scare quotes) is already
to reinforce the ethnocentric view of writing that has
dominated Western thinking on the subject for centuries.
Salomon refers to Childe (1951[1936]) for the treatment
of writing as diagnostic of civilization. This is com-
mon among 19th-century anthropologists. Tylor, Ox-
fords rst professor of anthropology, unhesitatingly
adopted the (Western) concept of writing as drawing the
line between barbarian and civilized peoples, but
the idea itself, along with the notion that people with
alphabets are culturally superior to people with non-al-
phabetic writing, goes back to Rousseau and beyond (for
discussion, see my Rethinking Writing [2000]).
Lack of rst-hand acquaintance with the Tupicocha
situation prevents me from passing any judgment on the
detail of Salomons interpretation, but if what he says is
roughly right, the signs he describes would be classied
in integrationist typology as (1) non-glottic (as opposed
to glottic) writing and (2) script (as opposed to chart).
Again, the labels are not important in themselves, but
the semiological criteria on which they are based cer-
tainly are. And these criteria simply are not recognized
in the traditional Western account of writing proper.
So the issue is not whether, by kind consent of the tra-
ditionalists, we are allowed to extend the termwriting
to cover forms of writing without words (thus accepted
as second-class citizens in the alphabetic state) but
whether, when due account is taken of the whole range
of human graphic practices that we now know to exist,
the traditionalists have any viable theory of writing at
As far as I know, the integrationist account is the only
serious competitor to the modern version of traditional
thinking incorporated into Gelbs grammatology.
Sampson (1985) presents semasiology as a hypotheti-
cal possibility for writing but does not explore it any
further: in other respects his analysis of writing is just
as traditional as Gelbs. Integrationists tend to avoid the
term grammatology, precisely because it is associated
with Gelbs approach and, more recently, with Derridas.
From an integrationist point of view both Gelb and Der-
rida, far from solving any theoretical problems about
writing, add their own mythology to the traditional ac-
count. That is one reason I am far from happy with being
bracketed by Salomon as a theorist who, like Derrida,
uses the term writing to totalize the whole range of
inscriptive practices. That seems to put the emphasis
in quite the wrong place. I am not clear what Salomon
means by inscription, but as far as integrationists are
concerned not all inscribed marks are written signs and
not all written signs are inscribed marks. Thus writing
and inscription are by no means coextensive, but for
reasons quite different fromDerridas. Derrida stands the
traditional wisdom on its head by treating speech as a
form of (invisible) writing instead of writing as a form
of visible speech. But, although arresting, this inversion
is far less radical than it initially appears, for Derrida
offers no alternative account of human communication,
whereas integrationism does.
If, as a semiologist (Salomons description of my ac-
ademic trade), I had to pick out one observation fromhis
paper as summarizing what it is more important for pre-
sent-day anthropologists to understand about writing, it
would be the following: Participants create its sym-
bolism as they go. But I would add: And that applies
not just to the Tupicocha staff signs but to alphabetic
writing as well.
walter d. mi gnolo
Literature Program, Duke University, Box 90257,
Durham, N.C. 27708, U.S.A. 26 ix 00
Salomons article is a rich and complex piece in which
the argument unfolds in three interrelated lines. The rst
22 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
is the description and demonstration of how the staff
works and worked in the past as a solid surface for sign
inscription in Tupicocha. The second, less well devel-
oped, is a hint at an explanation of staff inscriptions and
social roles as a statement made by indigenous com-
munities seeking to maintain their autonomy vis-a` -vis
the Peruvian state and, more particularly, the Fujimori
state. The third questions the concept of writing from
the perspective of the material inscriptions on Tupicocha
staffs, an argument that involves staff and social roles.
Salomons report presents a case of material sign in-
scription on solid surfaces that are not commonly con-
sidered appropriate for writing, even writing without
words. Solid surfaces for writing have been identied in
their neutrality in relation to social functions. For ex-
ample, stones, bark, and hides, unlike staffs, are not as-
sociated with social roles or endowed with a social func-
tion (e.g., meaning). It is an open question whether the
community considers the inscriptions on the staff a
supplement to the function already attributed to it or
constitutive of its function (that is to say, whether the
staff would have any social function without the sign
inscriptions), whether or not inscriptions would be con-
sidered writing. Salomon here offers a timid Derridean
Everyone knows which person holds which ofce
anyway. If staffs signal that the holder is acting in
his ofcer role, why not just use blank staffs? In
Tupicocha, the fact that the system of instituted
contrasts among ofcerstheir tacit mutual politi-
cal contract prior to inscriptionvaries subtly from
year to year creates the sort of situation which Der-
rideans recognize as demanding supplementation.
From this conclusion Salomon can emend Harris and
Goodman and at the same time offer a new perspective
on writing without words. He concludes, indeed, by
stating that whether we want to use the word writing
to totalize them [i.e., theories of inscriptions] as Harris
and Derrida do is less important than providing an even
heuristic footing for the study of inscriptive modes in all
their unfamiliar propertiesincluding, for example, the
power to produce closure and silence.
Here he is missing an opportunity to make a stronger
and more radical claim. What he is not clearly saying
but pointing to in his account of Tupicocha staff inscrip-
tions is, rst, the matching of, on the one hand, mouth-
sounds-ears and, on the other, handsgraphic-signseyes
and, second, the fact that either set can be and is used
to coordinate human (lets accept that for simplicitys
sake) interactions. Looking at things in this way may
allowus to circumvent the concept of language, whose
paradigmatic example in all Western and modern debates
(from linguistics to semasiology to grammatology) has
been alphabetic writing in the Greco-Roman tradition
(Mignolo 1994, Leibsohn 1994, Boone 2000). If we follow
this road, then we can at once get out of Western met-
aphysics, a set of assumptions that underlies Harriss
critique of writing and the more radical Derridean de-
construction of Western metaphysics by pounding, pre-
cisely, on the presuppositions that sustain the Western
philosophy of language.
We could move in two complementary directions that
would take Salomons argument beyond his own explicit
claims. The rst would be to start from a concept of a
sign without supplement. A green sign hanging from
a frame that bridges the highway instructs drivers that
there is some information regarding directions and exits.
What directions to follow and what exits to take are not
included in the rectangular green sign, and it cannot be
read from one-quarter of a mile away. Drivers can know
at that point only that a rectangular green sign contains
instructions regarding directions and road exits. As they
approach it they can read the instructions. The instruc-
tions in alphabetic writing function similarly to the
icons of food, lodging, and gas on the blue signs that
precede road exits. The crossed-fork-and-knife icon is not
alphabetic writing, but its function is similar to Mich-
igan Street, Exit, 34 miles (Prieto 1968:91105). I see
the words on the green sign and the icons on the blue
signs not as supplements but as constitutive elements
of the signs. Now, if we consider that one of the functions
of human-made signs is to provide instructions and to
regulate a domain of interactions among human agents
(Maturana and Varela 1987:20550), we can suspend the
idea that signs stand for things, and therefore it is
possible to replace theories of inscriptions based on the
ideas that language is denotation and writing represents
speech with theories that explain them as instructions
in human interactions.
The second direction is indicated when Salomon sit-
uates Tupicocha in the context of Peru and, more spe-
cically, in relation to its president, Alberto Fujimori.
After describing the changes registered in staff inscrip-
tions in the past ve years (19952000), Salomon con-
cludes that at least one of them (the fth tendency)
could be interpreted as an imprint . . . of public resis-
tance to what people see as the anticommunal policies
of the 1990s Fujimori regime. . . . a sign of resistance to
the undeclared direction of Fujimori-era agricultural pol-
icy, which is to neglect the jural peasant communities
in favor of private agroindustry. However, the ve
changes (or tendencies) that Salomon describes, when
taken together, could be interpreted also as a broad ef-
fort to improve an always-difcult integration of roles
in a complex and partly inorganic system, in the face of
additional neoliberal political stresses, by making its
parts more functionally specialized, more different from
each other, and more dignied.
Fine, but lets take a step back. Writing without
words, or whatever we agree to label it, in Tupicocha
is a kind of writing within the ofcial writing of the
Peruvian statethat is, alphabetic writing and the Span-
ish language. Spanish is at best a second language for
Tupicocha speakers. It is curious that Salomon pays no
attention to this fact, since it brings us to the very front
yard of Peruvian colonial history and present forms of
global coloniality (neoliberalism, the Fujimori regime).
salomon Writing Without Words F 23
And once we enter the terrain of coloniality, Western
metaphysics and its Derridean deconstruction are also
on slippery ground. The effort to correct previous the-
ories of inscription from Derridas deconstruction of
Western metaphysics seems wrongheaded, since, in fact,
the corpus that Salomon describes shows precisely the
regional limits of Western metaphysics and its universal
ambitions. This is what I mean by saying that Salomon
is missing an opportunity to radicalize his argument. His
shortcomings in this respect are consistent with his
blindness to coloniality. It is as if he had forgotten his
own radical statement about the impossibility of writing
history in the colonial Andes (Salomon 1982) and jumped
on the bandwagon of reading Andean history from West-
ern metaphysics instead of moving in the opposite
gary urton
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Colgate
University, Hamilton, N.Y. 13346-1398, U.S.A.
10 ix 00
Salomon has produced an exceptionally informative and
stimulating ethnographic description and a rich and deep
analysis of a set of communicative practices in the An-
dean community of Tupicocha. We have long known of
the general importance of staffs of ofce in Andean sys-
tems of political-ritual ofce holders (varayuqkuna), but
we have never (to my knowledge) had access to a study
containing this level of ethnographic detail or this depth
of analysis concerning their creation and manipulation
and especially the annual inscribing of signs on the staffs
themselves. Salomons study should send ethnographers
of the region back to their eldnotesif not back to the
eld!to attempt to recover unrecorded instances of the
highly complex system of signing elaborated so carefully
and thoroughly in this article.
I have one major question that I would like to raise
regarding Salomons interpretation of the data he pres-
ents. This concerns the characterization of the kind of
signing system that is represented by the three-sign vara
code. I would ask whether the data presented warrant
the characterization of this signing systemas a writing
system (with or without words) or whether, instead, the
vara code and its manipulations might be said more prop-
erly to constitute the signs and formulas of a local (po-
litical) calculus.
I recently, quite coincidentally, had the experience of
asking one of my Colgate colleagues, a mathematician,
what his research was about. He replied with some con-
sternation that he could not, in fact, explain his research
to me in ordinary words. Upon reection, and as I re-
called Salomons comments about his difculties in elic-
iting explanations of the vara code from his friends and
informants in Tupicocha, it struck me that perhaps the
reasons for the inexpressibility of these two bodies of
knowledge and practicemathematics and the vara
codemight in fact be identical; that is, the coding/sign-
ing systems used in each case were not designed to pro-
duce narrative-discursive types of accounts but, rather,
are the calculi of forces and relationships at play, and as
arrayed, in the respective domainsone in the abstract
space of pure mathematics, the other in the complex
interactions and relations among political forces in a
contemporary Andean community.
In my reading of this article, Salomon makes clear that
the signs of the vara code are inscribed in ordered sets
fromyear to year in accordance with some fairly complex
and precise calculations of shifting power vectors (e.g.,
the community center, its periphery, and the national
government) and their changing relations over time. The
inscribed varas represent and reect these changing re-
lationships in the local calculus of power; in short, the
vara code seems to exhibit the traits of the signs of al-
gebraic formulas more than the sentence-level construc-
tions of narrative writing. Thus, Tupicochans, like most
mathematicians, resist stating in ordinary language the
meanings of the formulas they produce precisely because
those sign sets and arrays are not about the ordinary
matters discussed or the normal types of discourse units
employed in everyday conversations.
When Salomon asked his informants both to explain
the meanings of the signs produced in the vara code and
to rank-order the arrays of signs, this would be equivalent
to asking mathematicians to rank-order and explain the
number-letter ligatures (e.g., 2a, 3x, 5y) used in algebraic
formulas. Mathematicians would be unable to comply
with this request (as were the Tupicochans) not because
they did not know the meanings of the individual signs
or how the two parts of these sign ligatures were rank-
ordered in nonalgebraic contexts (i.e., 1, 2, 3 . . .; a, b, c
. . .) but rather because the ligatures themselves were
expressive of standardized units for expressing vectors of
power(s), relationships among magnitudes and/or sets,
and other such interactions of forces at play within a
local environment. These latter seem, from Salomons
ethnographic account, to be precisely what the separate
signs, as well as the ligatures of these signs (i.e., the
iterated sign arrays), of the vara code express.
Thus my question is whether the manipulations of
this particular very small (three-sign) signary constitute
a part of the history of writing or, instead, represent
an extraordinary case study in the history and contem-
porary practice of a local (Andean) system of calculus. If
the latter is the case, then we should not expect that the
vara code and its analysis will have any specic rele-
vance for the study of literacy and writing (with or with-
out words).
frank salomon
Madison, Wis., U.S.A. 13 x 00
First of all, I want to thank those who offered their
thoughts. I will respond in ascending order of generality,
from ethnographic to theoretical issues.
24 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
The ethnographer Hilda Araujo has extensive eld
knowledge of the area concerned. Her comment consists
primarily of an alternative description of the staff-holder
hierarchy in the Tupicocha polity, based in part on a
structural model of pre-Hispanic derivation which she
sees as underlyingly persistent and in part on an alter-
native functional account based on relations of com-
mand as observed by her. Her account differs from mine
most importantly in asserting that a single overall rank-
ing hierarchizes the staffs rather than the historically and
contextually variable ranking I described.
Araujo sees political rank as built upon a pervasive
notion of ascending paternal generations as increments
of authority and of senior-to-junior sibling relations as
comparably ranked. Sons are hands of paternal
heads. When Araujo writes about the Huarochir cus-
tom of expressing hierarchical relations in terms of sib-
ling age-ranking she is alluding to the 1608 Quechua
source (Huarochir 1991). In origin myths, corporate de-
scent groups at all levels are contrasted by their respec-
tive birth order from putative ancestors whose miracu-
lous nature increases with the sociological width and
genealogical depth of the social grouping they symbolize
(B. Isbell 1997). Within this paradigm, the seeming par-
adox in Araujos gure 2, namely, that metaphorically
brother ofcers can be of metaphorically equal sen-
iority (rst with second and fourth with fth), is an au-
thentic paradox of the original; the apical human ances-
tors were born of a clutch of eggs. Eggs do not have
knowable birth order. An implication of equality re-
mains even when fraternity is a metaphor for precedence.
Thus, in terms of pure structure, Araujos gure 2 is an
acceptable and ingenious alternative account of the way
aspas were deployed for 1995. Indeed, to some degree I
accepted such an argument by noting that one reason for
the verbal reserve of staff operations is the un-natural-
ness of junior mens being asked to coerce seniors.
But two points remain to debate. First, I did not observe
in visible or audible form any rhetoric of parental or
sibling ranking among staff ofcers. If this purportedly
abiding structure is the template for the insignia, one
would expect a rhetoric of paternity or generational sen-
iority to cling to the head-hands relation and one of
sibling seniority to the staff peer relation. Although hijos
(children or descendants) and hermanos (brothers or sib-
lings) are acceptable vocatives in some ritual contexts,
I did not hear commanders of staffs address staff holders
so. Second and more important, there remains the ques-
tion of mutability. Under Araujos analysis, why do staffs
of different years differ? If she is indeed adducing an un-
derlying invariant structural model, it will not satisfy
the data until one knows how its redeployment in dif-
ferent years could yield the observed variation in sign
patterns over time.
Araujos gure 3 offers an alternative explanation of
the disposition of rayas in 1995 based on operational
relations of command rather than structural attributes
of statuses. Her observation that ofces are administra-
tive or operational depending on the direction one looks
from is useful. I did not see operations that conrm all
the specic links she draws; for example, I did not see
actions showing that the rst but not the second lieu-
tenant governor operates through the rural constables.
Nonetheless, Araujos high standards of observation and
subtle native grasp of Peruvian Spanish warrant taking
this argument seriously and regarding it as clarifying the
way staff ofces are actually used. Figure 3 does not lead
to a different conclusion from mine about what rayas
effectively encode, namely, public sentiment about the
importance of each ofceif anything, it reinforces it
by clarifying what importance means operationally.
Turning fromstructural toward political analysis, Wal-
ter Mignolo and Hilda Araujo both want to go farther in
emphasizing the political implication of staffs as insignia
of the local order and especially as responses to stresses
that the Fujimori regime (1990) has created. Araujos
emphasis on staff process as a proud assertion of a self-
created order which the grindstones of terrorismand mil-
itarism failed to crush is well taken. However, applaud-
ing indigenous . . . autonomy vis-a` -vis the Peruvian
state (as Mignolo puts it) overshoots the mark. Even
Fujimoris local opponents concede that most villagers,
at least up to July 28, 2000 (the date on which the pres-
ident took ofce for a constitutionally and electorally
dubious third term), saw his regime as a bulwark against
chaos despite its unfairness to some local interests in-
cluding those of the jural peasant community. The local
spirit of resistance is better rendered as loyal opposition
and a demand for morality than as indigenous repudia-
tion of the state, for indeed Tupicochans do not consider
themselves indigenous as opposed to generically Peru-
vian (Salomon 2001). The fame of the Quechua manu-
script which their ancestors helped create (Huarochir
1991) has misled Mignolo into supposing that Tupico-
chans are Quechua-speakers, but in fact, like all modern
Huarochiranos, they are monolingual Spanish-speakers.
Two clusters of theoretical issues arise in the com-
ments. The rst is an area of approximately common
concern between Mignolo and Harris. Both want to pro-
mote a theory of signs more radically opposed to phil-
ological grammatology than the Derridean one as they
see it. Mignolos emerging theory seems to converge
with Harriss published one more than Mignolo con-
cedes. They differ chiey in that Mignolo sees wordless
signs and verbal ones as being exteriorizations
of prospective orientations and addresses to a
worldinstructions is Mignolos termrather than
precipitates sedimenting ex post facto from interactions
in it and to this degree supplementing in the Derridean
sense. Mignolo seems as attracted to a semiology of will
or assertion as Harris is to one of integration. It seems
that Mignolo fears that construing nonphonetic signs on
lines that partake of a Western metaphysics of inter-
pretation (whose premises are not identied) puts one
on a short slide toward servile membership in Ramas
(1996) colonial lettered city. Pending clarication of
the metaphysics argument, it seems a misreading to
take the analysis of staffs as a linear extension of textual
criticism. On the contrary, the rendering of staff code
offered here retains and implements the emphasis on
salomon Writing Without Words F 25
incommensurability which my (1982) Literature of the
Impossible essay proposed. The ensemble of staff signs
is a product of at least 400 years practice in developing
useful combinations of sign systems wherein some com-
ponents specically eschew verbal translation or sys-
tems of reference easily transposable to literacy. It is
for this reason that I used the word insoluble in char-
acterizing the way staff code establishes a substorey
of civic symbolism in which writing is irrelevant to the
communal bond. Recent researches on meaningful tex-
tiles, such as Zorns (1988) caution about reading fab-
rics and Arnolds (1997) thoughtful paper on how fabrics
concretize culture, can be taken as additional cautions
about treating material condensates of Andean categories
as soluble in ordinary reading.
The second area of theoretical debate has to do with
reasons for the verbal silence of the staff code. It is a
brilliant insight on Gary Urtons part that the small sig-
nary of staffs may be small for reasons similar to those
for the small number of signs used in equations. His
characterization of staff signs as resembling ligatured ex-
pressions of calculus like 2a, 3x, or 5y provides a par-
simonious tool for making formal sense of the code. On
this view a given set of staffs is like a set of equations
or inequations among roles, each role having as its sym-
bol an algebra-like formula for its relative standing. As
a mode of formally describing the makeup of staff signs,
this makes excellent sense and is a real improvement.
It has an ethnographic payoff, too, in helping us envision
the coherent suite character of a staff ensemble.
Urton holds that this mode of formulation casts doubt
on whether staff inscriptions are closely enough related
to normal types of discourse to be relevant to literacy
and writing. For an object to be relevant to literacy and
writing, he judges that it should include a visible ana-
logue to the sentence-level construction of narrative
writing. But is sentence-like construction a reliable
touchstone for relevance to a broadly conceived study of
writing (whether phonographic or without words)?
Even if one wants to retain the denition of writing as,
essentially, visible language, one needs at a minimum
to leave room for the fact that not all language artifacts
are sentences. If the archaeology of writing is going to
inform our exploration of unfamiliar inscription sys-
tems, insistence on sententiality may be presentistic and
heuristically unhelpful. In the remote past, as in the pre-
sent, the particular syntax of signiers called a sentence
is only one of various syntactic frames. It may not be
the most relevant one. Goody (1986:55) sums up his vast
reading of studies about early writings in the Middle East
and Egypt by noting that lists, tables, and other nonsen-
tential frames developed a different kind of language,
introducing extensive formulae and omitting verbs, be-
fore narrative writing took shape. Had they chosen sen-
tence-level construction as a threshold for relevance to
writing, researchers would have had to class these forms,
which do have undisputed phylogenetic relevance to
true writing, as irrelevant.
I am among those who, like Ehlich (1983), think that
the establishment of [inscriptive] convention is a kind
of social problem solving . . . and that is what the in-
vention of writing amounts to (Coulmas 1989:9). Goody
considers it evident that the problem solutions concre-
tized as sign sequences could yield sentential readouts
from early phases. Olson (1994:65114) persuasively ar-
gues that it was as a result of such operations, at a rel-
atively late stage of grammatogenesis, that such struc-
ture-types as sentence became conceptually available
and hence available as models for complete inscrip-
tions such as narratives. Daniels (1996:3), a strong par-
tisan of the philological model, goes so far as to say that
the sending of messages, and the writing of books for
posterity, are happily accidental byproducts. The earliest
uses of writing seem to be to communicate things that
really dont have oral equivalents.
In archaeological cases the absence of oral equiva-
lents for at least some early information arrays did not
stop rich elaboration of correspondences between verbal
and visual signs, eventually including sentential ones.
Not so with Tupicochan staffs. They seem to point in a
different direction. I agree with Urton that no elaboration
of the staff systemwould yield writing in the usual sense,
but I disagree about why. If some nonsentential forms
like those contemplated by the Near East experts, per-
haps expressible in ligatured-formula syntaxes, link up
with and feed back on speech while others, as in the
staffs or other reserved and verbally taboo signs, are seg-
regated as parallel language, the reason cannot be just
the distinction between calculus and sentence. Goody
(1986:54) cites from Baines (1983:575) an Egyptian text,
ca. 1200 b.c.e., in which a cowherd is made to speak in
calculi of form Nx, namely, Emmer: 3 sacks; Barley: 2
sacks, etc. Whoever created this text either thought cal-
culus-like nonsentential syntax a believable speech pat-
tern or thought the transition from such syntax to sen-
tences transparent. Whether one thinks like a
Tupicochan or like this Egyptian is likely to be a question
inseparable from attributes ones culture attaches to the
signicata in question. In math, those attributes may be
relationships which the logic of grammar tends to ob-
scure. With staffs, I have suggested, the attributes may
be social relationships which the interminability of dis-
course tends to subvert.
In either case, as we stand at the outset of a more open-
ended study of inscriptive practice, it seems a reasonable
initial hypothesis that inscriptive solutions have taken
shape around the problems they address, just as scripts
have taken shapes inuenced by the properties of their
inventors respective languages. If one chooses to bifur-
cate the study of inscriptions between cases relevant
to literacy and writing because, seen in retrospect, they
increasingly approximated speech and cases irrelevant to
it because they created areas of graphic practice con-
strained by rules other than those of speech, one may
gain an advantage in zeroing in on speechlike properties
in objects. That leaves a big agenda for studying the other
branch. It might be an important component of the re-
lation among inscription, complexity, and cultural con-
sciousness. Unlike Harris, I do not think it is vital to
claim writing as the term for both branches, but I do
26 F current anthropology Volume 42, Number 1, February 2001
think it important to refrain from assuming that our
historically conditioned ways of dividing these domains
(in the above case, algebraic versus grammatical syn-
taxes) give general guidance about relations between
speech and visible sign.
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