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Writing that Isn’t

Pseudo-Scripts in Comparative View
Stephen Houston
p. 21-48

Notes de l’auteur

I thank Christopher Woods and Edward Shaughnessy for their invitation to present at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing, and Xiaoli Ouyang for her hospitality at Fudan University in Shanghai. This essay was written by Houston, with valuable input at an earlier stage of its preparation from Felipe Rojas of Brown University. Its first version was prepared while Houston served as the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art ; the present essay resulted from his tenure as the Kislak Chair at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. Welcome comments and leads came from John Baines, Stephen Chrisomalis, David Lurie, Guolong Lai, Haicheng Wang, Matthew Stolper, Jeffrey Tharsen, Niek Veldhuis, Pascal Vernus, and Marc Zender. Cate Brigden of the James Castle Collection and Archive, Boise, Idaho, was most helpful with permissions to use the works of James Castle. Help with figures also came from Inga Calvin (University of Colorado, Boulder), Sophie Gong (Xu Bing Studio, Inc.), Alice Howard (Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford University), Melanie Munns (University of Mississippi Museum), Gregory Nagy (Center for Hellenic Studies), and Valerie Woelfel (St. Paul, Minnesota). Caterina Guenzi and Lysa Hochroth contributed editorial advice, and further assistance came from Aline Malavergne and Valérie Ton That.

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BY COMMON UNDERSTANDING, writing is a graphic means of recording sound and meaning. It is not language per se, but a selective expression of that basic human attribute, as leavened and mediated by writing itself. Other messages come through as well. Think of emoticons, which encapsulate facial features and emotional states, or, in Christian contexts, a cross that is affixed to the names of the dead. To most scholars, systems of writing do not just operate as mere vehicles for language. They shoulder a variety of meanings, some not directly accessible by phonic means and also compel attention to the times, places, and people behind them. In Germany or southern Pennsylvania, for example, use of fraktur declared allegiance to ethnic identity and tradition ; when rejected by the Nazis in 1941, its absence revealed their racist or aesthetic disdain for that font. To extract a script from its setting overlooks much of what makes it work as a communicative device.

Seldom considered, however...

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Stephen Houston, « Writing that Isn’t », L’Homme, 227-228 | 2018, 21-48.

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Stephen Houston, « Writing that Isn’t », L’Homme [En ligne], 227-228 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2020, consulté le 18 janvier 2020. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lhomme.32974

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Stephen Houston

Brown University, Department of Anthropology, Providence (USA) –

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© École des hautes études en sciences sociales

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