The written word — an ancient tool of oppression

The advent of writing is generally viewed in terms of its significance as a cultural advance — less attention is given to its political implications. Yet it looks like the most important function writing originally served was in the management of slavery and the regulation of society.

The BBC’s Sean Coughlan reports on efforts to understand proto-Elamite, the world’s oldest undeciphered writing system, which was used in an area that is now in south-western Iran over 5,000 years ago. The script was imprinted in clay tablets.

These were among the first attempts by our human ancestors to try to make a permanent record of their surroundings. What we’re doing now – my writing and your reading – is a direct continuation.

But there are glimpses of their lives to suggest that these were tough times. It wasn’t so much a land of milk and honey, but porridge and weak beer.

Even without knowing all the symbols, Dr [Jacob] Dahl [director of the Ancient World Research Cluster at Oxford University] says it’s possible to work out the context of many of the messages on these tablets.

The numbering system is also understood, making it possible to see that much of this information is about accounts of the ownership and yields from land and people. They are about property and status, not poetry.

This was a simple agricultural society, with a ruling household. Below them was a tier of powerful middle-ranking figures and further below were the majority of workers, who were treated like “cattle with names”.

Their rulers have titles or names which reflect this status – the equivalent of being called “Mr One Hundred”, he says – to show the number of people below him.

It’s possible to work out the rations given to these farm labourers.

Dr Dahl says they had a diet of barley, which might have been crushed into a form of porridge, and they drank weak beer.

The amount of food received by these farm workers hovered barely above the starvation level.

However the higher status people might have enjoyed yoghurt, cheese and honey. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle.

For the “upper echelons, life expectancy for some might have been as long as now”, he says. For the poor, he says it might have been as low as in today’s poorest countries.

If we think of writing as an observer’s record-keeping we might imagine some kind of proto-historian assuming the task of creating these first tablets, yet their content as described above makes it clear that these texts had a purely utilitarian function — they were records for the ruling class. Indeed, the creation of writing was likely one of the necessary conditions that facilitated the development and expansion of ownership.

Before the Neolithic Revolution and the first development of agriculture, as wandering hunter-gatherers, our ancestors had virtually no possessions. Without the ability to accrue personal power by being able to control material resources and stockpile food, social groupings — as can still be observed in the last remaining contemporary hunter-gatherer societies — were naturally egalitarian and cooperative.

For inequality to develop we had to stop moving around and start acquiring property and the maintenance of property required writing: a kind of spell-keeping through which an audacious idea — this is mine — could be invested in objects that lay outside the owner’s physical grasp. Writing constituted proof of ownership and the power of writing to codify inequality was no doubt enhanced by a separation between the literate and the illiterate — those who used writing and those who were used by writing.

As the record above reveals, agriculture ‘worked’ by keeping a working class on a starvation diet — fed enough to till the land and harvest the crops, but too weak to rebel against the well-fed land and slave owners. Sustained and pacified with junk food and mild intoxicants — sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

And the order which assigned bountiful rewards to a few and meager provisions for everyone else was enshrined in the written word — the representation of who owned what. Whatever could be written in stone could thereafter be treated as an unalterable fact, not subject to negotiation or easy modification.

A modern echo which also evokes a sense that a dangerous power is contained in writing is offered by the West African shaman, Malidoma Patrice Somé.

At the age of four Somé was kidnapped by Jesuit missionaries who raised and educated him. When he reached twenty, he ran away and returned to his tribal village but struggled to readjust to his native culture because he was now literate. He writes:

As an educated man I had returned [unlike the by-then-common migrant worker], not as a villager who worked for the white man, but as a white man.

It all boiled down to the simple fact that I had been changed in a way unsuitable to village life, and that transformation needed to be tamed if the village was to accept me as I was. People understood my kind of literacy as the business of whites and nontribal people. Even worse, they understood literacy as an eviction of a soul from its body — the taking over of the body by another spirit. Wasn’t the white man notorious in the village for his brutality, his lack of morality and integrity? Didn’t he take without asking and kill ruthlessly? To my people, to be literate meant to be possessed by this devil of brutality. It was not harmful to know a little, but to the elders, the ability to read, however magical it appeared, was dangerous. It made the literate person the bearer of a terrible epidemic. To read was to participate in an alien form of magic that was destructive to the tribe.

If much earlier in human evolution, language liberated imagination, yielding a world of new possibilities, writing served primarily to restrict those possibilities through the creation of laws and codified social structures. Even now, consider who wields more power with the written word: a celebrated author or a Supreme Court justice? Creative writing goes mostly unrewarded while a lawyer can earn $1,000 an hour for producing the most turgid, mind-numbing prose.

If we want to use writing but not be used by it, we must never confuse the rigid form with its fluid content. Writing solidifies language, but the power of language resides in its constant malleability. Words should be chewed, not swallowed whole.

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Comments

  1. Steve Zerger says:

    The development of writing as a tool of domination profoundly affected human relations with the natural world as well. David Abram has an excellent book – The Spell of the Sensuous – which traces the development of writing from early pictorial representations through the modern alphabet and the increasing abstraction and distance which this created between humans and their habitat.

  2. -
    words are like stones
    you find on the ground

    you can pick them up
    and carry them ’round

    but sooner or later, you got to
    throw them back down
    -