Observation 1: Pseudo Writing
In Tristes Tropiques (1961), Lévi-Strauss describes a meeting with the Nambikwara tribe, who – he believes – are unable to write. In his view this goes without saying although what he found to be unexpected was they were also unable to draw – save for a few dots and zig-zags. A while after he had distributed some pencils to the tribes people he found they were making long wavy horizontal lines in an attempt to "copy" what he was doing in his own notebooks. They were "writing".
In discussion with Strauss, the leader of the tribe – going one better than his people – asked for a notepad of his own and in reply to Strauss’ questioning would reply by making wavy lines on to the paper. On making his marks he would with great care examine his lines, awaiting the "meaning" he felt would leap forth from the paper into his eye. This meaning, to his disappointment, did not come but he did not give up trying. With his tribe assembled he would produce a piece of paper from a basket covered with his scribbled lines and he would pretend to read from it. A true performance of Reading and Writing.
We can assume that he figured his subjects would not know the difference and that he – in his elevated position as tribe leader – was naturally well versed in the activity of writing. Or perhaps his belief was that through imitation, the combination of tool and surface would be a forgiving teacher, and they themselves would ascribe meaning to his gestures.
Perhaps the tribe leader's view was wiser than Strauss. If writing is a form of artificial memory,1 is it not natural to assume you would need to access it artificially? Did the problem lay with the artifice?
Whilst his performance may not have been the truest act of writing, perhaps it was the most authentic of writing gestures – as he believed the code and the meaning it contained would emerge from the collaboration of his manipulation of tool and surface. Something was just simply Lost in Translation. The fault could have been in the pencils inability to transform his noble communicative gestures. Or maybe it was the disobedience of the paper, with an act of insolence – fingers in ears – blocking out the message.
Of course, pretending is an important part of learning; as children we learn to write (and speak) through copying and pretending. Yet in adulthood our internal critic skews our levels of expectation and we become all too aware of the pretense. "Imposter Syndrome"2 is a recognised psychological trait common to many of us, it affects seven in ten people at some point in their lives. "Surely people can see through this charade and see I am an imposter?" My own "little voice" is currently saying something similar as I write these "wavy horizontal lines".
1. Lévi-Strauss, C. 1961. Tristes Tropiques. New York: Criterion, 290-93.
2. Jaruwan Sakulku, J. & Alexander, J. 2011. "The Impostor Phenomenon." International Journal of Behavioural Science, 6(1): 73-92.