Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Field Trip to Academe

I do not normally quote, even the man whose influence defines this blog, Jan Cox, since the posts here are an "example" of fresh thinking. But this pdf is a fascinating look at issues in modern historiography, in this case-- the invention of writing.
is a free download. 

Interesting stuff. And also an example to see how binary thought operates: although the ideas here are cutting edge, they are always within the realm of the mechanical.  The author is Reinhard Bernbeck, and a few words about him sets our stage:

REINHARD BERNBECK teaches Western Asian archaeology at the Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin. His ...interests range from archaeological knowledge constructions and their ideological underpinnings to power relations in Neolithic and early urban societies of Mesopotamia. He has done fieldwork in Iran, Turkey and other countries. Recently, he started field work at sites of the 20th century in Germany.

Bernbeck makes a case that:

[The first] writing system represented, therefore, a technological not a conceptual, innovation...The discourse about the invention of writing is perhaps exceptional, as a relatively large group of scholars explicitly addresses medium- and long-term processes of convergence, and thus criticizes imaginations of creativity and originality for the process of the advent of writing.

If you haven't read the article I cite, here's a gloss: what Bernbeck means is that the invention of writing, rather than being a singular, specifiable, event, is a culmination of many small occurrences (like collecting pebbles) happening over thousands of years. Bernbeck is disputing:

The story which ... simply mirrors the traditional narrative of great inventions and their consequential spread. De-dramatizing narratives insert the traditional creatio ex nihilo-discourse into a multi-millennia development of precursors of script in the realm of management practices....

[My] conviction [is] that 'innovation' is largely a matter of narrative framing rather than historical reality.

"De-dramatizing narrative" is a new phrase to me, but what he means is pretty clear-- what we call important inventions are the result not so much of a single man's genius, but the culmination of many small steps over a long time, in that direction.

Bernbeck concludes:

[I]nnovation is a discursively constructed phenomenon that depends to a large extent on the variable inclusion of relations between preceding conditions and consequences in narratives about innovations...


The second argument of my paper is concerned with novelty itself. Innovation discourses tend to glorify tangible objects and neglect practices that may be at the origin of their very existence. 

Bernbeck is a really good writer. Funny how good writing carries a persuasive power of its own. He has just about persuaded me with his arguments that being able to count comes before being able to read. "Numeracy precedes literacy." But back to his conclusions. We are interested in this as a demonstration of binary thought. You might think he was arguing against binary thought, but in fact, that never struck  his mind--- the constraints that speech presents, when any issue must proceed on a binary basis, everything is either/or, this or that. Though he tones it down a bit at the end (in good scholarly fashion)-- his thesis is that history is made not by intellectual giants but by an environmental chronological series of small steps, which are ignored when the credit is passed around by historians.

Well, yes. That is the way the mind works. Notice his division of the issue into TWO parts and two parts only: His own "De-dramatizing narrative" and the "dramatized construction with a strong tendency towards reification."  The latter means the constraints of material evidence as the only thing necessary to define something "new," which then becomes, in effect, a "thing": the invention of writing, is treated as an object.

What Bernbeck misses, is not just that his thinking is stereotypical in arguing on the basis of only two, alternative explanations. If it is not one, it must be the other. Bernbeck ignores the mastodon-like obvious: BOTH are accurate. The critical precursory steps, and the dramatic leap forward. BOTH are necessary....Both and ... And, some third. Which I will not elaborate here, not wanting to get us into Karl Jaspers and his ilk.

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