Accounting and Order
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Accounting and Order

Mahmoud Ezzamel

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Accounting and Order

Mahmoud Ezzamel

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About This Book

This book draws on ancient Egyptian inscriptions in order to theorize the relationship between accounting and order. It focuses especially on the performative power of accounting in producing and sustaining order in society. It explores how accounting intervened in various domains of the ancient Egyptian world: the cosmos; life on earth (offerings to the gods; taxation; transportation; redistribution for palace dependants; mining activities; work organization; baking and brewing; private estates and the household; and private transactions in semi-barter exchange); and the cult of the dead.

The book emphasizes several possibilities through which accounting can be theorized over and above strands of theorizing that have already been explored in detail previously. These additional possibilities theorize accounting as a performative ritual; myth; a sign system; a signifier; a time ordering device; a spatial ordering device; violence; and as an archive and a cultural memory. Each of these themes are summarized with further suggestions as to how theorizing might be pursued in future research in the final chapter of the book.

This book is of particular relevance to all accounting students and researchers concerned with theorize accounting and also with the relevance of history to the project of contemporary theorizing of accounting.

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Part I

Egypt, Order, and Scribes

1 Prologue

The aim of this book is to theorize the relationship between accounting and order, with a a particular focus on the performative power of accounting. The quest for order has been a major concern for all civilizations ancient and contemporary, and order is a key undercurrent, or as Giddens (1982: 43) suggests ‘a catch-phrase’, that explicitly or implicitly underpins debate in social theory. We are surrounded by all kinds of manifestations of order. We see order in the cosmos, in how stars and planets that populate the universe seem to be organized in particular ways that fix their relationship to each other. Our lives are ordered by the institutions of the state and government, with their organizing and disciplining proclivities. Institutions of education, work, and war, to name a few, insist on specific ways of organizing space, particular dress codes, configurations of internal organization, rules of attendance and absence, and ways of measuring performance and achievements which order and normalise its members. Our social lives are ordered not only by clock time but also by rules and etiquettes of social engagement. The management of household matters also entail ‘putting things in order’, be it the way furniture is arranged in different rooms or how the garden is planned and looked after. An assemblage of technologies of which, this book argues, accounting is an important part is typically called upon to construct and sustain these different types of order.
Accounting, with its technologies of inscribing entries, organizing accounts, naming, enumerating, and valuing objects and subjects, is a fundamental means of constructing and underpinning various forms of order. Focusing on the special case of financial accounting, Vollmer (2007: 578) notes “calculative practices, sophisticated models and theories of financial reckoning, number-processing technologies and tools, have turned out to be crucially implicated in the social construction of financial orders, institutions, markets, and realities”, and this argument extends to other domains beyond the financial. While several studies in the accounting literature have, either directly or indirectly, engaged with the notion of order and produced some valuable insights, the study of the relationship between accounting and order remains at an embryonic stage. In particular, the notion of order has not been sufficiently articulated or developed conceptually. Linkages made between accounting and order have tended to be too broad to provide an in-depth understanding of how these two constructs are connected. Lacking in the accounting literature is a detailed and compelling explanation of why accounting is connected to order, or how accounting constitutes order, and what specific characteristics accounting has that render it a technology capable of constructing and underpinning order. Moreover, there is little or no engagement with the question of how accounting can function as a performative ritual that produces and reaffirms order. Quite simply, the relationship between accounting and order in the extant literature remains underdeveloped. This gap is a major motivation for writing this book.
Drawing on ancient Egyptian inscriptions (where the cosmos and the worldly are strongly linked), this book intends to demonstrate how accounting is intertwined with order. Rather than attempt to develop an overarching theory of accounting as an ordering technology, the approach taken in this book is thematic theorizing. This will involve identifying a number of themes to which accounting and order can be connected and theorizing each theme. In seeking to achieve this aim, the book explores the following interconnected themes. First, how accounting legitimizes and preserves the status quo in society by constructing, reproducing, and sustaining order even though the precise form that order takes might be different over time and across space. Second, how accounting functions as an archive, a connective memory, a performative ritual and myth that constructs order in the cosmos, on earth, and in the netherworld. Third, how accounting inscriptions function as sign systems that produce and underpin order. Fourth, how accounting is connected to conceptions of sacred and secular time and space, and how this is linked to order. Fifth, how accounting functions as a mediating institution between gods, kings, and the populace by emphasizing restitution and reciprocity in religious, social, political, and economic spheres. Sixth, given that the creation and affirmation of order inevitably entails an exercise in violence, how do accounting technologies function as mechanisms of violence.


“The beginning of a narrative, of a discourse, of a text, is an extremely sensitive point—where to begin? The said must be torn from the not-said, whence a whole rhetoric of beginning markers.” (Barthes, 1977: 129, original emphases)
“O that I might find unknown phrases, strange expressions, new speech not yet uttered, free of repetitions, not sayings such as the ancestors used.” (The Author of the Lamentations of Khakheperreseneb, translated by Assmann, 2002: 171)
In writing a book, there are always the questions of how and where to begin in addition to signalling the ambition intended to be realised by writing. As Barthes’ quote suggests, to begin is to make a choice of what to say and what to leave unsaid. While it may be more or less possible to assess the impact of what is said on a work, the author will never know exactly what impact the ‘not said’ has on a book he or she has written, and will likely have to be content with a feeling of remorse as to what could have been. The struggle to decide where to begin, what should be said, and what should be left unsaid betrays an immense sense of responsibility born out of an appreciation of the potent power of writing, for readers as well as for authors. For as Barthes (1977: 142) notes, “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” This important caveat should serve as a warning that in writing a book such as this, others might have chosen different beginnings and/or elected to say things not said here.
To mark the ambition of this book, this section is prefaced with a quote from an ancient Egyptian scribe which expresses his desire to be original by producing rather than re-producing. Seemingly for this scribe, originality must be free of repetition and can be achieved only by authoring ‘new speech not yet uttered’. This demanding ambition is thought provoking.
First, idealistic as it may be, the quote nonetheless embodies an aspiration of producing scholarly work. Whether ‘originality’ can ever be free of repetition is at this stage a moot point. Second, the quote demonstrates that the demands posed by scholarship have hardly changed over millennia; originality is a long celebrated quality of human experience rather than the preserve of modern times. The novelist Hemingway (Phillips, 1984: 22) underscores the importance of originality; when writing to a friend in 1932 he states “the one thing that I will not do is repeat myself on anything”. Third, the ambition of this scribe is distinguished not only by being ancient, but also by coming from outside the seemingly dominant Western cannons of scholarship. This reinforces the view that claims to knowledge creation and scholarly achievements never completely reside within the boundaries of a particular culture. For example, in the field of literary criticism, Said (1991) has lamented Eurocentric Western styles of scholarship because they “exclude more than they include” (p. 21) and “reinforce(s) the known at the expense of the knowable” (p. 23). Such concern with inclusivity that Said so clearly adumbrates is no less important in the case of accounting academia. One of the ambitions of this book is to bring to light some of the original and thought-provoking ideas of the ancient Egyptians in the hope that this will enrich the project of understanding and theorizing accounting with insights coming from outside the dominant Western scholarship.
This last point bears closer scrutiny and elaboration. The case of ancient Egypt is most intriguing in terms of its uptake in Western scholarship. A brilliant civilization stretching over three millennia is frequently engaged by Western scholars as the exotic Other that helps define and confirm Western identity as part of the Orientalism project (Said, 1978). Alternatively, the history of ancient Egypt is inscribed in Western annals of Egyptology that populate library shelves in a few specialist departments as a remote and antiquated history that is marginal to contemporary thought and the history of ideas. Even in the few occasions when some Egyptian texts are analyzed by non-Egyptologists, they are typically drawn from secondary sources thereby denying original sources the right to speak for themselves.
To clarify, the concern in writing this book is not to seek to replace a Eurocentric claim to knowledge with an Egyptian-centric alternative. Nor is it to show that some themes in Western knowledge, for example, originality, have been invented first in another culture. Rather, the aim is to destabilize the perception that a particular culture is the fountain of worthwhile knowledge to the exclusion or marginalization of others. Instead of being interested in the origins of ideas, the concern here is to articulate the socio-political, economic, and religious contexts within which accounting inscriptions emerge and how they can be fruitfully theorized. History, whether remote or recent, matters and has a significant import for theorizing accounting. Ibn Khaldun (1379/1991) has suggested that history is concerned with knowledge of human social organization which he equates with civilization. For him, history is a fundamental and noble discipline or art that should be taken seriously. More recently, Barthes (1973: 101) has sought to reverse the traditional emphasis that places “Nature at the bottom of history” to one where Nature itself is understood as historical. For Barthes, history is fundamental to the study of the ‘human condition’. This interest in history has spread to other cognate disciplines such as economics, management, sociology, and literary theory (see Said, 1991: 167-168). Despite this, much accounting scholarship proceeds as if history matters little. By drawing upon ancient historical material to demonstrate its immediacy and relevance to the theorizing of accounting, it is hoped that this book adds to the work of scholars who seek to position history at the centre of intellectual debates in accounting.
Before providing a synthesis of the key arguments of this book, a number of issues relating to method are addressed.


In studying ancient Egyptian inscriptions, a number of pertinent problems arise concerning: remoteness/distance of author from source material; translation; source lacunae; textuality and its connection to practice; selection of inscriptions for analysis; and theory engagement/theorizing.

Distance of Author from Source Material

At least three dimensions of distance can be identified in the context of the ancient Egyptian inscriptions examined in this book. First, the temporal remoteness of the original sources. Second, the geographical distance between the location of the source material and the place where an author writes. Third, the cultural distance separating an author from the context of the source material.
Time remoteness of the source material poses serious challenges to a contemporary writer: in offering an account of a remote history how does one connect with its sources? This book is not concerned to establish a linear trajectory of development over time leading to the present, but rather to unearth and articulate the contexts in which specific accounting inscriptions emerged and to examine their connection to order. But how does an author do this? A contemporary writer is located outside the time and context of the remote past, and is left typically only with a set of incomplete inscriptions or texts to work with. Egyptologists or archaeologists have in addition to inscriptions physical artifacts in the form of ancient sites, their strata, and findings including human remains to base their work on which is likely to compensate partly for their temporal remoteness from the histories they write. However, this wealth of information is hardly, if ever, exploited by or accessible to accounting researchers and it is important that this shortcoming is made clear from the outset. Compared to an Egyptologist or an archaeologist, an author writing on ancient accounting history will clearly miss out on much useful material which could yield a more refined understanding of how a society functioned and how it was organized. At the extreme, this could lead to a disembedding of the study of ancient accounting inscriptions from the contexts that give them meaning and which they in turn impact. One way to ameliorate this limitation is to consult a much broader set of texts than those specifically related to accounting. To address this problem in writing this book, translations of the originals of many ancient Egyptian inscriptions that have survived, including those dealing with myths, cosmology, wisdom, stories, mathematics, engineering, architecture, religion, and medicine were consulted. Further, a number of the locations to which many of the texts analyzed in this book relate were visited by the author, and several artistic representations have been examined with some reproduced in the book.
Addressing the challenges posed by geographical distance can be extremely demanding, particularly in the case of ancient Egypt. Not only are the sites and many objects located in Egypt distant for someone writing in the UK, but also an enormous number of manuscripts and artifacts are scattered around the world. As a result of this dispersion, much of the relevant source material has been translated by Egyptologists from ancient Egyptian into several contemporary European languages, especially English, French, German, and Italian, and many of these translations have been consulted by the present author.
In writing a book such as this, cultural distance is a major concern as lack of cultural appreciation can compromise the analysis. In part, as an Egyptian who lived in Egypt until 1970 I am writing as an ‘internal’ and in part, because I left Egypt in 1970 to live and work in the UK, I am also writing as an ‘external’, so this book is likely to exhibit some of the attributes of both modes of writing. It is also hoped that the extensive consulting of non-accounting inscriptions from ancient Egypt has further helped the present author in managing the problem of cultural distance.


There are still many texts that have not yet been translated from ancient Egyptian into contemporary European languages, and the only way to access them is via knowledge of ancient Egyptian, a daunting task and one not attempted here. As to the large number of texts that have been translated into European languages, there is the familiar problem of how close are these translations to the original texts, especially given the temporal remoteness of ancient Egyptian inscriptions. To what extent, for example, can we sensibly describe exchange of goods for a price as being equivalent to ‘market exchange’? How legitimate is it to speak of an ancient economy as a means of describing the creation, accumulation, and distribution of ancient ‘wealth’? Are we entitled to use terms such as ‘tax’ to describe levies imposed by an ancient state on its subjects? Does the term ‘accounting’ have a meaning when used in the context of the remote past similar to how it is understood today?
The problem of translation haunts all students of history. Moreover, the lack of an appropriate vocabulary and means of accessing and writing about historical material is a serious handicap. In considering the study of historical experience in literary theory, Said (1991: 169) argues:
“cultural, theoretical, or critical discourse today provides me with no vocabulary, no conceptual or documentary language, much less a concrete body of specific analyses, to make myself clear. For the most part our critical ethos is formed by a pernicious analytic of blind demarcation by which, for example, imagination is separated from thought, culture from power, history from form, texts from everything that is hors texte, and so forth.”
All the limitations spelt out by Said ring true in the study of ancient Egyptian inscriptions. Moreover, there is the concern with the constitutive power of language and its effect on forging particular constructions of the remote past; researchers do not reproduce the past as much as create it via the language they employ. Previts and Bricker (1994) use the notion of “presentmindness” to refer to this concern: the use of present-day notions to write about the past produces understandings that could be significantly different from those held by ancient peoples.
Notwithstanding these challenges, it is argued in this book that there is much scope for carefully adapting notions such as ‘state’, ‘economy’, ‘markets’, and ‘accounting’ to the ancient Egyptian context. For many, this is a controversial issue given the c...

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