Justin Evans's Reviews > Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City

Mesopotamia by Gwendolyn Leick
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Jun 27, 12

bookshelves: history-etc
Read in June, 2012

Another one for the 'great topic, awful book' category. I could have given it two stars, but I'm tired of giving out stars for effort and intention.

I wrote an undergrad thesis on Epicurus, so I'm used to making a lot of interpretation out of a very little evidence. I was very proud when I handed in my first full draft; my supervisor, a world-renowned expert on that stuff, told me I'd convinced him, and my heart nearly exploded. Then he told me that I had to re-write the whole thing, because it was totally unreadable. A rough couple of weeks there, but my thesis was much the better for it (and still pretty much unreadable, to be honest).

When Leick handed in her first draft, her editors were obviously on coffee break, and decided to just let her get on with it.

Among the pearls of wisdom she hands over to us about previous researchers, the one most characteristic of her prose style is the claim that "In his [Hans Nissen's] accounts he stresses the environmental importance for culture formation." Apparently Leick needs a grammar lesson, so here's one: 'environmental' in this sentence is an adjective. It modifies the word 'importance,' which is a noun that really should be followed by 'of'. She means, I know, 'the importance of the environment'; what she wrote, unfortunately, means 'the environmental importance for culture formation (presumably the formation of human culture) [of something unnamed].' Leick also dislikes pronouns, so Leick's sentences in this book by Leick often become, like, repetitive in the extreme, and this is clearly something that Leick is, like, comfortable with. As if that wasn't distracting enough, the most common words in this book are 'may,' 'perhaps' and, confusingly, 'must.' And paragraphs usually start with the infamous undergrad constructions "Although x... (insert five lines), actually y," thus effectively burying what the reader would like to know under a stack of almost functionless verbiage.

Style, of course, isn't the sort of thing for which academics are renowned, but we're usually okay with structure and organization, because we can just copy whatever the last person did. Leick decided to get original with it. The book is 'structured' thus: ten chapters, one ancient city per chapter. Each chapter is 'organized' thus: over-long discussion of the archaeologists who dug up the old cities; incredibly brief history; random thoughts suggested (I can only assume) by whatever it was Leick had for breakfast. She's an anthropologist, and seems to have left her theoretical brain in the fifties: she deals with each city more or less synchronically, i.e., instead of telling a historical narrative, she just describes whatever the human species has been lucky enough to dig up. Given that almost everyone is unfamiliar with almost all of the cities she's describing, that means you're faced with a barrage of undigested factoids, occasionally anchored by a name you might remember from Sunday School (Nebuchadrezzar! Hammurabi!) Because she's too hip or disciplinarily bound to actually narrate history, you'll have no way of linking the chapters together, and will become increasingly frustrated as she refers to historical events without explaining them.

Now, if you're unfamiliar with human civilization, you will learn a few things. For instance, people have religions, commercial concerns, they eat food, we live with political structures, and we have a very bad habit of trying to kill each other. You might think that it would be helpful to organize a book around these themes, but not for Leick, who prefers to bring up ancient religions at the end of each chapter, often by summarizing the plot of some epic or hymn. In chapter after chapter, plot will be summarized.

Finally, Leick is/believes herself to be remarkably good at uncovering the ideological agenda of previous anthropologists, historians and archaeologists (i.e., they were orientalists), as well as contemporary bureaucrats and politicians. This is odd, since she's so bad at reflecting on her own ideological biases. A rough guide to her interpretation of evidence is: the less we know about a place, the more likely it is that the place in question was radically democratic, individualistic, anti-hierarchical etc... Apparently men and women in the B.C. 3000s approximated the gender politics of the nineties and the sexual politics of the 60s. Free love! Girl Power!

This is actually less fatuous than my favorite paragraph, however:

"The ziggurats in the context of the southern city were as urban in their connotation as the downtown high-rise skyline is in our age. In our capitalist world, skyscrapers accommodate corporate business and symbolize dynamic enterprise, with straight sides and almost invisible taper emphasizing essentially democratic values. In Mesopotamia, the ziggurats suggest eternal values and a hierarchical social order... Skyscrapers only became possible after the invention of electric lifts! The ziggurat was functional, too."

i) in what other context could we possibly be?
ii) feel free to explain the democratic symbolism of skyscrapers to: those who work there; those who work there as janitors; those who don't work there; those who work there as security; those who security are employed to keep out etc etc...
iii) doesn't the structure of a skyscraper symbolize hierarchy just as much, if not more, than a squat ziggurat?
iv) is she surprised by the idea that skyscrapers are only possible with electric lifts? are we meant to be surprised? And why bother writing that sentence at all? She doesn't go on to explain the material conditions for the construction of ziggurats (e.g.: "ziggurats were only possible after improvements in brick making"). She doesn't describe the functionality of skyscrapers. How are those sentences connected *at all*?
v) doesn't the reliance of skyscrapers on electric lift technology suggest that they aren't essentially symbolic at all, but rather driven by the desire to use urban land most effectively? and that any symbolism is the result of specific architectural intention (like the awesome 'vagina' building in Chicago) rather than height?

You could do that kind of analysis on the whole book. Nice pictures but.

Rant over.
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message 1: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Tell us what you really think, Justin Evans!

I hope you don't think it's creepy that I suddenly keep voting for all your reviews... They just happen to be entertaining me more than any actual books at the moment.


Justin Evans Not at all Jessica! I had a great time writing this, glad you enjoyed reading it. Don't read the book. Really.


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