Monday, June 20, 2005

Why you can't Dig up a Nation-State

Jacob Taubes used to say that there were some books whose essence was conveyed in the title. I recall that among them was Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit: the great point of the book was that Geist (which means more than "spirit"--it includes thought, so it's the thing that stands behind both intellectual and spiritual things) has a phenomenology, that you can learn what you need to know about it by thinking about what it does. Up til then it had seemed to be graspable only by either art or metaphysics--Hegel argued that its mechanisms were traceable in history. What's so wonderful about that wasn't that he was right but that he made Fredric Jameson possible. I know that sounds silly. What I intend to convey by that is that he laid the philolosophical foundation for a view of history in which the material and spiritual, technology and culture, are understood to be legible as a whole. And if you can possibly do it right (it's HARD) this is the best (only) way to do history and culture--heck, to do anthropology, literature and--yes--philology.

There are other books, less important but also interesting, that give away their main point on the first page. Ian Hodder's Symbols in Action: Ethnoarchaeological Studies of Material Culture, is one. (BTW anyone who dismisses, out of hand, the intellectual breadth of Evangelical educational institutions should ponder the fact that the University of Chicago's mighty Regenstein library had to Inter-Library-Loan me this baby from Wheaton College).

On the first page, Hodder describes those similar clusters of objects people dig up out of the ground ("Israelite," "Mongol," "Chinese") as "material 'cultures.'" This is a rare case where the scare quotes pack a punch, rather than suck the air out of the room: you look at the typography, wonder why he's put it in quotes, and then you think: "Ah, he's asking how we know they're cultures at all--precisely how do we get from clusters of pottery styles to structures of thought and action?" Once you question the assumption that artifact types directly correlate with culture--like ethnic boundaries and self-identification, let alone language or "race" (can't possibly type out enough scare quotes to deflate that one) you're left with a gaping hole at the center of your method: you dig up a pattern and call it a culture, while knowing nothing at all about what the people who made it thought about it.

Hodder, being a professional archaeologist, has to build around this gaping hole, but I don't know how successfully he plugs it. I ponder the consequences for Biblical Studies here

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