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Imagining the Americas in Print

Books, Maps and Encounters in the Atlantic World

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Michiel van Groesen

In Imagining the Americas in Print, Michiel van Groesen reveals the variety of ways in which publishers and printers in early modern Europe gathered information about the Americas, constructed a narrative, and used it to further colonial ambitions in the Atlantic world (1500–1700). The essays examine the creative ways in which knowledge was manufactured in printing workshops. Collectively they bring to life the vivid print culture that determined the relationship between the Old World and the New in the Age of Encounters, and chart the genres that reflected and shaped the European imagination, and helped to legitimate ideologies of colonialism in the next two centuries.

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Isabel Laack

This chapter first discusses the fundamental methodological problem of performing research and writing history in a postcolonial world. It reflects patterns of hegemony and epistemic violence, questions objectivity, and discusses the limits of our understanding of the Mesoamerican Other. This chapter briefly presents the available sources about Nahua culture and analyzes the main historiographical challenges. The theoretical background of the study is introduced, including the approaches of the Aesthetics of Religion, Visual Religion, and Material Religion, as well as the research on “sacred scripture” and material text practices. The study’s objectives are delineated and problems of inter- and multi-disciplinarity discussed.

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Isabel Laack

Abstract

This chapter summarizes the interpretative results of the study by drawing on its initial objectives and research questions. In short, the study aimed at reassessing previous academic representations of Nahua religion, scripture, and sense of reality in constant dialogue with the available primary sources. It began with revaluing common understandings of Nahua religion and ended up examining complex forms of Nahua being-in-the-world, analyzing the Nahua concept of scripture, reconstructing Nahua semiotics, and discerning their interrelations. The result is a complex interpretation of the Nahua sense of reality, Indigenous semiotics, and pictography as an expression of embodied meaning.

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Isabel Laack

Abstract

This chapter broadly outlines Mesoamerican history and the living conditions, society, and way of life of the Nahuas who lived in the Central Highlands of Mexico in the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries. Challenging traditional presentations of Nahua culture as homogeneous, Nahua religion is presented as highly diverse within a varied and multireligious Mesoamerican and Postclassic Central Mexican context.

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Isabel Laack

Abstract

After tracing traditional myths about the creation of the cosmos and the human world from the Central Mexican perspective, this chapter analyzes the basic elements of Nahua cosmovision. The Nahuas experienced themselves as deeply embedded in a dense fabric of social and cosmic relationships based on concepts of body and person very different from modern European concepts. Living properly as a Nahua, that is, living a healthy and moral life, meant staying in balance with the external and internal cosmic and social environment. These are core aspects of the Nahua sense of reality and provide the foundation for any deeper analyses in the following chapters.

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Isabel Laack

Abstract

Nahua concepts of reality have been commonly interpreted through the lens of European ontological theories. With regard to the “sacred,” Nahua deities have typically been compared with the Greco-Roman pantheon or the idea of philosophical monotheism. Considering the baffling fluidity of Nahua deity personae and the flexibility of forms in which the deities existed, this chapter suggests adopting an alternative interpretation for understanding Nahua deity personae as cosmic force complexes based on the Indigenous notion of teotl, which is best described as a kind of force or essence underlying all being in a myriad of forms. In this context, it is argued that the Nahuas did not envision a fundamental dualism between the material world on one side and some immaterial essence on the other, based on the discussion of the deity Yohualli Ehecatl, the Nahua concept of nahualli, and Indigenous ideas of ultimate reality.

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Isabel Laack

Abstract

This chapter analyzes Nahua ideas of epistemology. As evidence suggests, the Nahuas thought everyone could experience most aspects of reality through the corporeal senses, whereas only specially gifted people (such as shamans) who possessed nonordinary senses could experience further aspects. Despite this, reality was generally better understood by all in its intensified form within objects and phenomena of exceptional beauty and brilliance. The Nahuas, training their young in various types of schools, had knowledge experts, among them the tlamatinime (wise wo/men), the tlacuiloque (painter/scribes), and people with special insights. The Nahuas understood knowledge as inspired by cosmic forces and expressed in the arts, including the writing system.

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Isabel Laack

Abstract

As the Nahua world was a world in motion, so humanity was part of this motion, influenced by it and attempting to interact with it in both deeply practical and puzzling aesthetic ways. Contrary to typical depictions of the Aztecs as a pessimistic, fatalistic people, it is argued that they believed they had far-reaching agency in counteracting human and divine transgressions against the overarching balance of forces to influence the cosmos and its future in beneficial ways. They also believed that certain duties were required to keep the cosmos in constant motion. Ritual performances offered an important means for interacting with the forces of the cosmos. Based on recent academic ritual theories, this chapter demonstrates that Nahua rituals were highly dynamic affairs and sensational events that stimulated sensory experiences and used many aesthetic objects that were understood as materializations of the deities. The center of many rituals was the teixiptla, a personification of particular deities in material or human form. Apparently, the teixiptla was not so much a material “container” for an immaterial essence but the temporal realization of specific teotl forces. Thus, the teixiptla was not a (material) signifier referring to a (transcendent) signified but a conflation of the signifier and signified into one.

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Isabel Laack

Abstract

This chapter analyzes Indigenous ideas about the relationship between the linguistic sign and reality. The Nahuas cherished a powerful oral tradition performed in multimedia contexts. The two colonial documents known as the Cantares Mexicanos and the Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España, which contain alphabetic transcriptions of Nahua songs, have been interpreted by influential scholars as remnants of an Indigenous “literary” tradition. This chapter reconstructs the motivation behind this invention of tradition and discusses the history of the songs’ contested interpretations. Confronted with the highly complex structure of Nahua linguistic expression in the songs, this chapter examines some characteristics of thinking in Nahuatl and Nahua imagery. While Nahua imagery has traditionally been understood as metaphoric, it is argued that it worked metonymically. Finally, evidence suggests that Nahuatl was considered a natural language directly depicting reality in its sound.

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Isabel Laack

Abstract

After a short historical overview of the evolution of writing systems in Mesoamerica, this chapter analyzes Nahua pictography with a general description of the glyphs and signs, visual imagery and structure, and reading styles. Then, social text practices concerning “reading” and performing are examined, and discussed whether the European concepts of book and author match Nahua writing practices. After presenting Indigenous ideas about the materiality of books and paper, the intertwinement of orality and literacy in Nahua culture is considered in more detail by debating the issue of flexibility in the textual performances and challenging the projection of theories from the orality–literacy debate on Nahua culture.