Caption: The Rosetta stone, 1999. © Akg-images / Universal Images Group.
Is writing a cultural technique and a form of art?
Raymond Williams (1981) argued that writing is one of the main means of cultural production. He considered that the creation and evolution of the material vehicles of cultural production is a singular stage of the history of civilization, central to its sociology.
But what does this mean?
In support of this thought, the Rosetta stone, a piece of art composed mostly by writing, might be a practical example. It is also related to an interesting anthropological theory by Latin philosopher Lucretius.
The renowned black stone features writing in two languages (Egyptian and Greek) and three scripts (Hieroglyphic, Demotic and Greek). It was carved in 196 B.C., found in 1799 and deciphered by François Champollion in 1822. It was meant to be read by priests, government officials and rulers of Egypt. The stone, named Rosetta after the town where it was discovered (Rashid), is admired and carefully preserved in London’s British Museum. It offered a decisive tool for the understanding of hieroglyphics and Egyptian culture.
What makes this historical artwork even more magical is the association that could be made with the Lucretius’ theory of simulacra, inspired by Epicurus’s atomic system (270 BC). The Greek philosopher had believed that the world is constituted by atoms and depending on their clinamen (inclination) they meet and collide creating matter. Later, Lucretius (50 BC) developed the doctrine of emanations, starting to talk about simulacra, physical things that enter our bodies allowing us to feel them and see.
The complexity behind the sociological aspects of writing prompted Williams (1981, p.94) to consistently examine the disadvantages of a vehicle that marked for centuries cultural divisions due to the widespread illiteracy among the population. On the other hand he could not neglect the extraordinary power of writing as an agent of continuity and access; and the Rosetta stone is the living evidence of this beneficial aspect.
The relation of simulacra and art has been interestingly analyzed by Arthur Gell (1998, p.105) who suggested that if the look of things correspond to material parts of them, then the influence obtained on the spectator is similar, or equal, to the influence that could be received by reaching some tangible part of the piece of art itself.
In other words, looking at the Rosetta stone might not only represent a passive admiration of a unique piece of historical culture and art, but also and more importantly, the feeling of getting in contact with the ancient Egypt through a physical transfer.
Gell, A.(1998) Art and Agency. New York: Oxford University Press.
Williams, R.(1981) Culture. Great Britain: Fontana Paperbacks.