Write and wrongs

3100 BCE. On the origin of writing.

Writing is a strange invention. One might suppose that its emergence could not fail to bring about profound changes in the conditions of human existence, and that these transformations must of necessity be of an intellectual nature. The possession of writing vastly increases man’s ability to preserve knowledge. It can be thought of as an artificial memory, the development of which ought to lead to a clearer awareness of the past, and hence to a greater ability to organize both present and future. After eliminating all other criteria which have been put forward to distinguish between barbarism and civilization, it is tempting to retain this one at least: there are peoples with, or without, writing; the former are able to store up their past achievements and to move with ever-increasing rapidity towards the goals they have set themselves, whereas the latter, being incapable of remembering the past beyond the narrow margin of individual memory, seem bound to remain imprisoned in a fluctuating history which will always lack both a beginning and any lasting awareness of an aim.

Yet nothing we know about writing and the part it has played in man’s evolution justifies this view. … If we ask ourselves what great innovation writing was linked to, there is little we can suggest on a technical level apart from architecture. … To establish a correlation between the emergence of writing and certain characteristic features of civilization, we must look in quite a different direction. The only phenomenon with writing has always been concomitant is … the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system and their grading into castes or classes. … At the time when writing first emerged, it seems to have favored the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment. This exploitation, which made it possible to assemble thousands of workers and force them to carry out exhausting tasks, is a … likely explanation of the birth of architecture. My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of writing is to facilitate slavery.

Claude Lévi-Strauss Tristes Tropiques

(To follow up on the preceding post about empires before history: Lévi-Strauss acknowledges that there have been empires without writing, but argues that the lack of writing kept them from enduring long.)


3 thoughts on “Write and wrongs

  1. Erik

    Have followed your blog with interest, but this seems a naive account of the origin of writing. Have you seen Schmandt-Besserat’s account? In her version (consistent with archaeological evidence as far as my admittedly limited knowledge goes) trade and the need for accounting led to the origin of writing. In the Sumerian world you see a gradual transition from instrumental counting with tokens (5 tokens = 5 sheep) to abstract counting with symbols that look suspiciously like the tokens. So I would restate, perhaps overstate, it “the primary function of writing was to facilitate exchange”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Weaving history | Logarithmic History

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