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Jack Goody

1986 The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

      The aim of this book is clearly stated by the author in his preface: “This book attempts to spell out some of the general differences between the social organization of societies without and with writing and the process of transition from one to the other” (Preface, p. xi).
      As for the methodology the author explains: “I am not concerned simply with differences for difference sake. In the first place I am trying to provide a more satisfactory explanation, for myself and for the reader, of certain widely used concepts, sociological and anthropological, historical and common–sense, that have been used to describe the major differences or transition s in the history of human societies” (Preface, p. xi).
      Chapter 1 is devoted to an analysis of the idea of 'word' related to religion, cults, and rites, distinguishing the concepts of “'a'/'the' religion”. The author moves on discussing about the 'boundaries' of religions, 'changing' of religions (i.e., conversion), 'obsolescence' of religion, 'incorporation or conversion', 'universalism and particularism', 'contradictions' in religion, 'specialization' (i.e., priests and intellectuals), 'endowment and alienation', the relationship between religion and power (and religion's autonomy), 'spirit cults and world religions'. Furthermore, writing and religion in Ancient Egypt are described, concluding the chapter with a description of the connection between ritual and writing.
      Chapter 2 is about the role of economic activities in the origin of writing systems in the Ancient Near East expanding the topic in the second part also to the relationship between writing and individual transactions.
      Chapter 3 focuses on the influence of writing on polity: internal administration (taxation, accountings and the census, correspondence, numbers and the control of time) and external administration (international treaties and the role of the ambassadors). In the second part of the chapter, the author compares 'writing–societies' with states without 'writing–administration'. More in general the chapter is about the creation of state and bureaucracy in different ancient and modern societies, with a section on writing in the colonial and national administrations. The chapter ends with a brief section about the ethical responsibility of writing.
      Chapter 4 present the role of writing in the codification of law and legal systems: starting with a definition of law, it moves to discuss the role of courts, constables and codes, the sources of law and the changing of rules during time, the role of tradition in judging, and legal forms of writing (contracts, testaments), the practice of oral legal procedures. The last part of the chapter explores writing and law in medieval England, and the relationship between 'the letter and the spirit of the law'.
      Chapter 5 summarizes the two aims of the book: 1) “outline the effects of early literacy on [...] human societies” 2) to strength the emphasis on means and mode od communication, avoiding any Eurocentric perspective. The authors highlines 'ruptures and continuities' in writing, from the learning process to the creation of classes of specialists (scribes); he also adds some remarks about the influence of writing upon religion, underlining tendencies and exceptions, comparing this situation to that of religious systems of societies without writing, ending with a reflection on writing in modern times.

[M. De Pietri – November 2019]