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Writing as bureaucracy vs. writing as magic

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 06, 2018

Chinese oracle bone script.jpg

Michael Erard pokes away at the “administrative hypothesis,” the idea that ancient writing had its origin in accounting bureaucracies and existed primarily as a function of state power. There’s just as much evidence, he argues, that states and proto-states co-opted already-existing symbols used by pre-state farmers to keep tallies and mark time, and more provocatively, by priests who used writing as a script for prophecy, narrative, and magic spells.

Over and over, what we see is that writing is more like gunpowder than like a nuclear bomb. In each of the four sites of the independent invention of writing, there’s either no evidence one way or the other, or there’s evidence that a proto-writing pre-dated the administrative needs of the state. Even in Mesopotamia, a phonetic cuneiform script was used for a few hundred years for accounting before writing was used for overtly political purposes. As far as the reductive argument that accountants invented writing in Mesopotamia, it’s true that writing came from counting, but temple priests get the credit more than accountants do. ‘Priests invented writing’ is a reduction I can live with - it posits writing as a tool for contacting the supernatural realm, recording the movement of spirits, inspecting the inscrutable wishes of divinities.

It’s a complex argument, because it has at least two parts:

1) writing wasn’t invented by states (even writing for accounting purposes);
2) writing has been invented for reasons other than an accounting function.

So most of Erard’s examples are arguing against one part of the most robust version of the adminstrative hypothesis, rather than refuting it outright. This is hardly a knockout blow, but it makes for some notable asterisks. (I wish there were more here about China.)