Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Review: Arqueología de la palabra

Bryn Mawr Classical Review (Reviewed by Roger Wright)

Ana Rodríguez Mayorgas, Arqueología de la palabra: oralidad y escritura en el mundo antiguo. Barcelona: Edicions Bellaterra, 2010.

Ana Rodríguez Mayorgas works at the Instituto de Historiografía Julio Caro Baroja in Madrid, having also spent time at the University of California in Berkeley. Hitherto she has written on orality and literacy in Rome, but in this useful book she extends her vision to all the previous civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean as well. She is one of those who see no great divide between what we call prehistory and history. The main perspective developed in this account is that writing and orality were not opposed to each other in ancient civilizations, but complementary. There is certainly a distinction to be made between primary orality (in societies where no writing exists at all) and secondary orality (where the two modes coexist, as now), but in Ana Rodríguez's view society has not necessarily changed greatly with the initial advent of the latter. It is has often been thought and said that writing was developed as an aid to memory, although Plato accused writing of sabotaging the art of memory. Jack Goody, who developed the idea that the advent of writing into a society changed human psychology irreversibly even for those who could not write, but, as Ana Rodríguez points out this work can hardly be taken to mean that everybody in a literate community is logical and rational. So Ana Rodríguez sensibly looks at many relevant contexts separately, rather than aiming from the start for generalizations. Even so, one generalization that emerges is that, although writing gives the possibility for decontextualization, it rarely if ever lost contact with its oral context in the period considered.

Ana Rodríguez takes the view that the development of early writing systems is not a single phenomenon, given that they are so different. Even ancient cave paintings were, in her view, intended to convey a message. The earliest specific writing systems were logographic (fortunately, it seems that nobody now argues that they were ideographic), in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and also (giving a quick but interesting glance across the Atlantic) Mesoamerica.

No comments: