I. Even-Zohar: "The Role of Literature in the Making of the Nations of Europe: A Socio-Semiotic Examination"


    Khalifs and Kings, Emperors and Czars, as well as "simple people," were all known to attend performances of verse and prose literature in numerous times and places. Moreover, in such states as China, writing poetry according to accepted models was a mandatory qualification required for an administrative position.

    Yet none of these examples amounts to the creation of "literature" in the sense of our study. For they do not contribute to making literary activities function in the way they eventually did in European history. So while activities of a literary nature as such are not unique to Europe, it is our argument that the roles played by such activities in organizing European life may indeed be unique. Wherever they are observed in non-European countries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they are not so much a continuation of the previous literary activities of those countries as a new activity borrowed through contact with European nations.

    It would be appropriate to clarify here what "Europe" refers to in this study, in particular what its spatial and temporal borders are taken to mean. It would be tempting to confine this discussion to the eighteenth and later centuries, as this chapter in European history seems to be conspicuously clearer with regard to our subject. Nevertheless this easier path will not be taken, and although I will examine that period in some detail, this discussion will begin with the birth of Western civilization. It is my belief that we are discussing here a very salient feature of World history, and this history could in fact have taken a completely different route than its actual outcome.

    It would serve no purpose to attempt to suggest a definitive answer to the question regarding whether or not textual activities are universal in the sense that they would have emerged under any circumstances, or whether they are the consequence of some accidental development which took place in the making of the World's first civilizations. In modern socio-semiotic theory, including the economic and historical fields, one is inclined nowadays to eschew deterministic generalizations. However, once a feature can be detected, analyzing it from the first link in a long chain of events is now accepted practice. Along these lines, whether the emergence of "literature" was inevitable, or occurred by chance at the dawn of civilization, is a question that may be impossible to resolve. What can be observed, however, is what has happened since it emerged. Thanks to developments in historical and archaeological research, we can now reconstruct at least some of the major links in Western literary history.

    The first literate and literary civilization we know of is the Sumerian aggregate of city states in Mesopotamia. Features invented in, or introduced by, Sumerian civilization can be detected for millennia in cultures which gradually, in what seems to be a chainlike process, seem to have "inherited" them. The preoccupation with texts, both written and recited, figured prominently in Sumerian culture. While elite groups had the exclusive privilege of accessing these texts directly as both new producers (writers) or perpetuators (performers), at least some segments of the masses were exposed to these texts on various festive occasions. While even the rise of multiple stelae (with Hammurabi's Code of Law, and the detailed self-laudatory descriptions of achievements recorded by almost all rulers) cannot serve as evidence to accessibility and operationality of texts, it can at least bear witness to the intention of these rulers to perpetuate and to propagate texts about themselves.

    Most importantly, by establishing and consolidating schools (é-dubba) as an institution of power, Sumerian culture also introduced the socio-semiotic institution of the canon. Both school and canon served to organize social life basically by creating a repertoire of semiotic models through which "the World" was explained by way of a cluster of narratives, inter alia, which were naturally tailored to the liking of the ruling groups. These narratives turned out to be very powerful in imparting feelings of solidarity, belonging and ultimately submission to law and decrees which consequently did not need to be enforced by physical means alone. Thus, Sumerian culture was the first society to introduce both textual activities as an indispensable institution, and the utilization of this institution for creating socio-cultural cohesion.

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AS/SA nº 1 (1996): 2 of 11

© 1996 Even-Zohar
© 1996 AS/SA

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