Voicing Abstraction / Wave #9 ESSAY October 2023

Cognitive Semantics, Image, and Creative Imagination

Gabriel Pareyon

The theological burden imposed by colonization impairs the appreciation of an indigenous system of thought and interpretation of the world. Therefore, de-theologizing indigenous semiotics opens possibilities for recognizing this system of thought and interpretation. To this end, cognitive semantics serves as a tool to initiate an exploration of key concepts in the Nahuatl language, as access to the forest-sign of the Indigenous Cosmovision; in other words, as an epistemic entry-point into Teponazcuauhtla.

Cognitive semantics is a useful theoretic framework for investigating the formation of emergent meanings from the combination of words or word segments. In Spanish and other Indo-European languages, their study supports the analysis of the composition of metaphors, metonymies, and neologisms. Per the diphrasism, used in Nahuatl for the study of a third meaning between the binary composition of two attached terms, cognitive semantics extends this type of study to the agglutination of parts of a term, characteristic of the Nahuatl language as an agglutinative language.

For example, in the study of the epistemic proximities between two terms so similar as teuhtli and teutl, or that of their dialectal variants dialects teoctli and teotl. The developed proposal until now would hardly be the beginning of an enormous undertaking, as much linguistic as philosophical and aesthetic, to explore the semio-cognitive richness of ontologies in indigenous languages. For now, I must limit this topic by saying that according to this focus, there is a special type of conceptual metaphor: ontological metaphors, which map relationships between experiences through a conceptual transfer in function of an idealized physical space, in such a way that parts of the experience of an abstract character are chosen and considered discrete entities to grasp larger sets of meaning. Critically, Teponazcuauhtla operates through the ontological metaphor of a "forest of resonances" whose design obeys an imaginary realism in which the incisions of the teponaztli connect to an infinite range of particularities. Unlike the Western canon, which judges all basic atoms as equal, there is no way to generalize equality in Teponazcuauhtla because the world is neither made of identical monads nor a uniform substance. Instead, each peculiarity is itself diverse. In other words, exact symmetry does fit in some specific cases in Teponazcuauhtla, but Teponazcuauhtla does not fit in the subset of the exactitudes or the subset of the equalities.

This subject was of great interest to Helen Escobedo (1934-2010), an intellectual and creator who lived in Nepantla and lived in a permanent state of liminality between both extremes of the world: the Western and the Indigenous. On one occasion, probably in 2008, we traveled from the south to Mexico City to visit her adobe house with her on the outskirts of Tepoztlám, Morelos. Most of the conversation during that trip was about the concept of perfection within art. Awkwardly, she told me that in 1963 she had brought the principal representatives of Finnish design and architecture to the UNAM. The subject fascinated me since I was studying for my doctorate at the University of Helsinki. I can summarize her discomfort in these words: "After learning the details of design and production in popular craft workshops in Mexico City and observing a series of urban aesthetic aspects, the architect Alvar Aalto confessed to me the substantial difference he saw between the art of Mexico, and that of Europe in general, and Finland in particular. The problem,” he said, “is that Mexicans do not know the criterion of perfection."

My immediate reaction to those words was to explain to Helen, from the social anthropology of our days, that it is inadequate to judge an entire culture from the paradigm of another very distant and different culture. More specifically, if that conversation had been possible in the present, I would have spoken about Teponzcuauhtla and its necessarily twisted branches as an existential criterion for Mexican idiosyncrasy that, of course, affects the most varied manifestations of its own culture. However, I will repeat that the exact symmetry and perfection that Aalto was referring to is a particular case, discernible from some of the possible corners within Teponazcuauhtla.

Ironically, after he visited Mexico Aalto’s last work leaned toward the Neo-Baroque, according to Finnish critics. I can’t say whether Helen directly exerted some influence in that sense, but I cannot ignore the possibility. What is true is that Mexico and Finland share, in very different ways, a past and a present with a violent colonizing burden, especially from within their autochthonic communities. Elsewhere, such as in New Zealand, the 21st century has brought new critical and transformative airs in which the old imperialistic archetypes are being questioned by a growing influx of indigenous voices from within the local academies and institutions that are being transformed by those same voices: even the Elizabethan theater, once an undisputed and universalist emblem of civilization, is in question for as long as it has been used as an "imperialist canon." It is worth considering, then, whether, for example, the Cervantes canon has not had a similar use in Mexico through a universalist exaltation that facilitates the justification and permanence of the colonial model and which instrumentalizes the crushing of indigenous cultural resistance.

If Teponazcuauhtla manifests a revelation to unlearn the modern in Mexico, it is a tremendous possible measure thanks to cultural resistance. In the renowned Novo-Hispanic painting representing the Christian baptism of the Tlaxcalan nobility, two centuries before the painting was made, we observe the sonorous presence of the teponaztli, almost imperceptible among the baroque variegation of the allegorical components. This is, in my opinion, a symbol of rebellion and resistance in which the most hidden is the most piercing. The jungle of symbols is also a space of internment and parenthesis in time, waiting for better conditions for existence. In this scene of apparent spiritual submission, the semiotic vortex is not in the bowed head of the nobleman being baptized surrounded by whiteness but in the stone altar, from where Teponazcuauhtla's omnipotent power seems to emanate. That resonance is not baroque nor modern or pre-modern: it encompasses vast temporal lines that merge with the orography and the migrations of the peoples that have inhabited Mexico since its prefiguration.


Comparing and falsifying the notion of religion with that of art serves, in this case, to rupture the supposed obviousness of God and the gods and their rhetorical halo imposed as research archetypes for indigenous peoples, as well as to rupture the notion of perfection as a guiding criterion applicable to Mexico's cultural manifestations.

The concept of unity concerning modernity obeys the politics of homogeneity formulated from the beginning of the religious doctrine at the service of the State. Along these lines, misunderstanding the supposed universal defeat of indigenous cultures because of their inability to compete with the churning capitalist machines of design, distribution, and diffusion of the only possible culture is opposed to the purpose of deconstructing the symbolic conquest as a necessary and unfinished task.

The irritability of the communities of art historians, in this respect, is due to a refusal to unveil the structure that connects the Judeo-Christian patriarchy with the capitalist apparatus and with its secular structures of teaching, safeguarding, and consolidating a singular and indivisible knowledge.

Advancing toward a logic, a mathematics, and an aesthetics beyond the most elementary level of the creative idea, computation, and design demands the exploration of the deep semiotics of the original cultures and their historical imaginary. An example of this is to transcend the idea of indigenous numeration and geometry through comparison with Euclidean mathematics and to delve into the meanings through its symbolic construction in the formation of concepts such as those seen here, to which we could add other key concepts, such as nepohualtzintzin (the study of quantities), tepohualtzintzin (harmonic analysis), or tloque nahuaque (the set of extremes and their integration).

Cognitive semantics applied to indigenous languages lends itself, in this sense, to an exploration of these concepts because of their great coherence and existential expressiveness, far beyond direct lexical comparison since, among such different linguistic families, "Not only do the semantic fields not overlap," says Paul Ricoeur, "but the syntaxes are also not equivalent, while the idiomatic turns of phrase do not transmit the same cultural legacies."

Together with the above, it is worth asking how indigenous thought could impact the arts, science, and philosophy in Mexico in the immediate future, through this type of semantic and semiotic depth. To achieve social and cultural enrichment in this sense, it would be necessary to undertake a profound change in public education policies and, in general, in cultural practices. For now, we are left with the following uncertainties: Why are there so few indigenous researchers heading academic projects and indigenous scientific publications in Mexico? Why, at least in Mexico City, since 1566, have there been no government heads from the barrios and pueblos linked to indigenous history? Would de-theologizing Mexican cultural and scientific institutions also be "de-whitening" them? Is theological purity linked to institutional racism throughout Mexican history?

The aberration of wanting to identify Mexican gods appears in parallel with the unredeemed obsession of referring not to the inhabitants of the Indus River basin in Asia as Indians but to those of Anahuac or of conceptualizing "Aztec emperors" instead of trying to understand the significance of the huey tlatoani. This is why I have said that this semantic practice, at an epistemic depth, is comparable to the terraplanist and geocentrist obsessions. I wonder if it is possible to reach a consensus in pursuit of greater clarity and logical systematization or if we will remain erratic and omissive.


This essay was excerpted from a talk titled "Teponazcuauhtla,
Una epistemología para la mediación entre el arte-signo verbal de la Civilización Occidental, y el bosque-signo de la Cosmovisión Indígena" given at MUAC/UNAM in 2022.

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