Shopping List for the Hungry Mind 4

Reading: Myths of the Archaic State (2005, Cambridge) by Norman Yoffee.

Solving the problem of the emergence of “pristine” complex societies — in other words, early states or “civilizations” — takes up lots of time and energy in archaeological circles. Two geographic areas have received the lion’s share of attention: Southwest Asia (Mesopotamia) / Egypt; and Mesoamerica (Mexico and upper Central America). Other important regions include China, the Andes, the Indus Valley, West Africa, and Southeast Asia (Khmer civilization). Many of the historical states and civilizations with which we are familiar, e.g. classical Greece and Rome, are in fact examples of “secondary” state development. In traditional models of primary state development, groups of people give up simple, egalitarian socioeconomic systems in favor of powerful new institutions such as kingship and markets (social and economic stratification), armies and police forces, codified laws, and bureaucracy. Wittfogel’s hydraulic hypothesis argued that state-like institutions emerged in Southwest Asia to control irrigation projects otherwise unmanageable by local villagers. Other models emphasized increasing warfare over limited resources as an important causal factor leading to organized societies. All models have in common both rising population pressure and some form of circumscription — geographic, social, or both — that prevented local populations from migrating out of areas under pressure. Many models also draw extensively from historic or ethnographic examples, the polynesian chiefdoms of Hawaii being a particular favorite. At the point of transition from tribe or chiefdom to state, fertility goddesses supposedly gave way to a hierarchy of male-dominated gods that ideologically mirrored the new patriarchal social structure.

The author attempts to go beyond traditional models by examining the “limits of power” in early complex societies (41). One of the strengths of Yoffee’s book is that it competently cites and discusses the literature from almost all of the areas of pristine state development: Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, China, the Andes, and Mesoamerica (including not only Teotihuacan but also Monte Alban and the Maya). Few authors are as comfortable as Yoffee outside their narrow geographic focus. Since I’ve only just begun this book, I can’t say much more at this point. But I do recommend Myths of the Archaic State to anyone who has taken at least one undergraduate archaeology course. Interested parties with little or no formal background might wish to first become familiar with key concepts and terms. Several archaeological reference works can be accessed online from the Libraries’ eBooks page. ABC-CLIO eBooks has two encyclopedias of archaeology; the Gale Virtual Reference Library includes the 5 volume Encyclopedia of Anthropology; and Oxford Reference Online makes available the Concise Dictionary of Archaeology.
Watching: Rome (HBO).

Eye candy abounds in this sensational series from HBO. The production values are incredible, outdoing most movies. Especially if you have hi-def access, the series is worth it for the sets alone (soak in the Julii villa to see what I mean). The costumes and jewelry are also stunning. I don’t care if the history is 100% accurate (it isn’t) ; the various directors follow known cultural and historical details far more carefully than, for example, Mel Gibson in his recent disappointment, Apocalypto. OK, I’m sure folks in Rome, be they nobles or plebs, didn’t spend every minute of every day scheming for position, or quite literally fighting for their lives. But Rome rather convincingly demonstrates the seedier side of life in this great Metropolis, and I think that’s rather novel and brilliant. Think about it: How many other shows about the ancient world have allowed you to imagine what it might have been like to live in an ancient, pre-industrial city of one million people! The series finale aired last night. I would recommend finding the DVD.
Listening: Gord’s Gold, 2 CD’s worth of Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits

One of my colleagues recently told me that Gordon Lightfoot holds iconic status in Canada, something akin to that held by Bob Dylan in the United States. While I somehow find that hard to believe, Gord’s Gold is well worth a listen if you appreciate seventies singer / songwriters. This 2-disc set of course includes all the big hits, such as Sundown (love it!), Carefree Highway, and the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It also contains Cotton Jenny, Old Dan’s Records, and several other less-well-known gems. Cheesy? Who cares? Enjoy!!

David Murray

Reading: The Last Novel by David Markson (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007).

My favorite living novelist? No question, it’s David Markson. Markson writes his own genre of “seminonfictional semifictions” which are “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like.” In short bursts Markson mixes biographical bits about artistic and historical figures, unattributed quotations, and brief segments from the voice of the protagonist, here named “Novelist”. The collage-like assemblage of these elements read with an ongoing and building rhythmic pace that generates emotion and paints a picture (more real than any realist novel) of the true varieties of experience. Unlike anything you’ve ever read (except another Markson novel), the knowledge contained within is in itself an education but one that reads with the verve of the best of novels. This novel, hopefully not his last, is forthcoming in May (I have a copy for review), but the library has a few of his previous works.

Watching: The Office (NBC (Thursdays 8:30), DVD, or iTunes).

Ostensibly filmed as a documentary or reality television show (it’s never made clear), this sitcom, based on a British series of the same name, takes on the most banal of situations, the life in a small office, and proves that any setting can be the raw materials for great entertainment (dare I say, art?). The viewer is plunged into the small office of a paper company in Scranton, PA and, like a new employee, slowly learns about the habits and quirks of the employees as they go through their rather dreary existence. The show is hilariously funny but also laced with emotional moments that are the all the more moving for their sharp contrast to the humor.

Listening: “The Beautiful and the Afternoon” by Robert Sarazin Blake (Same Room Records, 2007).

I’ve seen Robert Blake perform twice over the past couple years. Once in the basement of a chaotic West Philadelphia house. Once in the a very tiny bar upstairs from an Indian restaurant. Both times he stood before the crowd with his guitar and no amplification at all. He is a modern day folkie, drawing on a style that is part Woody Guthrie, part punk rock. He sings songs of romance, travel, and politics in a rough yet melodic voice accompanied by an often off-kilter guitar strum. His last album “Still Kissing Last Night’ Smoke Stained Lips” beats out all other albums for number of times played in my iTunes library, and this new one is on it’s way to catching up.

Derik Badman

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