The Principle of the chimera

An anthropology of memory


The principle of illusion

An anthropology of memory

Whether based on adornment, body painting, masks or pictograms: it seems that people ‘without writing’ have memories that are labile, unstructured and bound to fail. The ‘mnemonic aids’ that historians specialised in the history of writing discuss in relation to these traditions are regularly described as aborted attempts to reproduce the external form of an object, or simply as a graphic means to express elementary concepts.

This book presents us with the results of a vast anthropological investigation led in Indian America and Oceania. It analyses a number of these visual devices, whilst addressing the contexts of ritual enunciation that they imply. It also demonstrates a completely different hypothesis: the fact that an illusionary channel of representation exists where non-western mnemonic arts are invented. There is nothing imitative about these ‘mnemonic aids’ whose form captivates the eye and invites you to decipher them. They are a visual testimony of a series of mental processes condensed in images that are simultaneously efficient, intense and fragmentary. A new field of research is opening owing to the study of these iconographic and oral traditions and it concerns both the history of arts and social sciences in equal measures: an anthropology of memory.

The author

Anthropologist, Carlo Severi is the Academic Director at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences) and the Director of Research at CNRS (the (French) National Centre for Scientific Research). A member of the laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale du Collège de France (Laboratory of Social Anthropology of the Collège de France) since 1985, he is currently an associate of the Department of Research and Education of the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac. His major works include: "La memoria rituale" (La Nuova Italia, 1993 ; trad. esp. Abya Yala Ediciones, 1996) and "Naven ou le donner à voir" (with M. Houseman, CNRS Éditions-Éditions de la MSH, 1994; éd. angl. Brill, 1998). In 2003, he edited the special edition of the journal "L’Homme" devoted to image and anthropology.


  • November 2007
  • Format : 19 x 20 
  • Price : 34 €
  • Number of pages : 372
  • ISBN : 978-2-7288-0393-4 – ISSN 1761-2160
  • Diffusion - distribution : Les Belles Lettres