Monday, February 23, 2009

Acquiring a body of light through speech

Here's how to do it: read Seth Sanders' essay in this collection of early Jewish and Christian Mysticism studies:

It investigates mysticism as linguistic practice by comparing Babylonian and Second Temple Jewish journeys to heaven. Previous debate focused on how the first heavenly journeys emerged and whether they were vision or fiction: did people think they could actually become angels? It contains some of the core arguments of my forthcoming Myths of Revelation (in revision for Brill) draws on linguistic anthropology to reexamines Jewish mysticism’s ancient Near Eastern roots. The experiences behind the texts are lost, but we can historically trace the possibilities they generated through verbal performance. Rather than an essence, Jewish mysticism was a constellation of new genres and ritual roles that let participants realize ancient Near Eastern myth under the imperial politics of Hellenism. And seeing mystical discourse concretely, as both textual interpretation and ritual action, raises new questions: how do changes in written participant roles affect our very idea of human nature and its limits?

Mythic and Ritual Genocides in the Bible, or, Why We Should be Afraid to Read Atrocities as Stories and Why We Need To.

A talk for students of the Trinity College Religion Department on what many have seen as the most morally difficult part of the Hebrew Bible: divinely commanded genocides, and trying to figure out how we can respond to them in a way that is moral but not anachronistic.

Those who wish to remind themselves of the worst parts of the Old Testament are invited to glance at Joshua 6-8 and I Samuel 15, which look rather fictional, and compare it to the actual 9th-century BCE inscription of Mesha, king of Moab (also mentioned and fought against in the Bible), who uses precisely the Biblical vocabulary of ritual genocide to claim:

“And I killed all the people of the city as a sacrifice for Kemosh and for Moab. And I brought back the fire-hearth of his uncle from there; and I brought it before the face of Kemosh in Qerioit, and I made the men of Sharon live there, as well as the men of Maharit. And Kemosh said to me, "Go, take Nebo from Israel." And I went in the night and fought against it from the daybreak until midday, and I took it and I killed the whole population: seven thousand male subjects and aliens, and female subjects, aliens, and servant girls. For I had put it to the ban for Ashtar Kemosh.”

It will draw on the pioneering work of Lauren Monroe, "Israelite, Moabite and Sabaean War-herem Traditions and the Forging of National Identity: Reconsidering the Sabaean Text RES 3945 in Light of Biblical and Moabite Evidence," Vetus Testamentum (2007) 318-341.

As well as Bruce Lincoln's wonderfully challenging little essay, "Myth and History in the Study of Myth: An Obscure Text of Georges Dum├ęzil, Its Context and Subtext" in his Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology & Practice (Chicago, 1991)

And perhaps Michael Taussig's wild, intelligent, loosely-argued but usefully provocative "The Language of Flowers".

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Mythic Foundations of Western Political Thought

Says Seth: An argument that I started having with myself about where politics comes from. I picked it in my first book, and this semester I have the chance to share this argument with 7 intrepid students.

Course Outline

It’s often assumed that religion is just a cover for politics: having God on your side justifies anything, no matter how costly or self-serving. But what if it’s actually the other way around--what if religion is the source of politics? If not, why did ancient people treat kings like Gods, and why do we still obey rulers we've never met? We will study myths of foundation and order from the world's first states in Mesopotamia and their legacy in the Bible. In these myths God gains sovereignty by slaying Leviathan, the cosmic dragon. We will analyze some alternatives that Western political thought offers: are they more reasonable? Did the West ultimately abolish Leviathan or has it merely replaced it with its own myths?

Mark Lilla The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West
David Graeber Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Cambridge textbook version)
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology
Simon Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry
Benjamin Foster Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature

David Miller Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction
Marc Van de Meiroop A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 - 323 BC
God, The Holy Bible (HarperCollins study bible or any other version)

1. Tuesday, January 20 Introduction.

2. Thursday, January 22 Political Philosophy as a Great Separation
Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God
“The Crisis,” “The Great Separation”

3. Tuesday, January 27 Separation and its Discontents
Lilla, “The Ethical God,”
Add/Drop Period ends. Last day to declare a class Pass/Low Pass/Fail.

4. Thursday, January 29 Why The State?
David Graeber, Fragments 46-70
David Miller, Political Philosophy chapters 1 and 2

5. Tuesday, February 3 The Foundation of God’s Kingdom
from Foster, Before the Muses “The Valorous Sun; Hammurabi, King of Justice”
from van de Mieroop, the Old Babylonian Period
First 3-page paper: Examining an Argument in Political Philosophy:
From any of the readings, analyze in depth one argument about one point
First page: analyze how the argument works and what it is trying to accomplish, what is at stake in this particular debate.
Second page: go through the evidence and steps. Be precise, citing the most decisive phrases and sentences by page number (no need for block quotes) and, every time you cite, analyze what it's accomplishing in the argument.
Third page: where would you go from here? If not fully convinced what would you need to decide? If convincing what can you do with it now?

6. Thursday, February 5 The Slaying of Leviathan
from Foster, Before the Muses “The Epic of Creation”

7. Tuesday, February 10 The State’s Ancient Other: The West Semitic Ideal I
Thorkild Jakobsen, “Primitive Democracy in Mesopotamia”

Read the two very short, but important, letters from Adad (the local West Semitic version of Marduk) to Zimri-Lim in Foster 143-144.
What theory of legitimacy is implied in the second letter? How does it compare to the theory of legitimacy Hammurabi propounds in the epilogue to the laws? How does it compare to the theory of the Epic of Creation?

8. Thursday, February 12 Negotiated Sovereignty: The West Semitic Ideal II
From Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, Baal epic

9. Tuesday, February 17 Divine Myths of Justice: Yahweh Dethrones the Gods
from Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, Kirta epic
Psalm 82

10. Thursday, February 19 Human Myths of Justice: Absalom Dethrones David
II Samuel
from Herodotus, History

11. Tuesday, February 24 Human Myths of Justice: Killing a Tyrant
From Livy, Roman History
From Dumezil, “Myth into History” in Archaic Roman Religion

Thursday, February 26 No class--Trinity days

12. Tuesday, March 3 Classical vs. Biblical Political Myth
Foucault, “Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Critique of Political Reason"

13. Thursday, March 5 The Messiah: the death and resurrection of a political myth
Isaiah, Suffering Servant
KTU 1.161 Ugaritic funerary ceremony
Daniel 7 son of man
Gospels Son of Man passages
SECOND PAPER: The Ideals of an Ancient Myth

14. Tuesday, March 10 Is the State a Machine for Happiness?
from Aristotle, Politics

15. Thursday, March 12 Is the State a Ritual Device?
From Aristotle, Politics
Dupont, Florence (1989) ‘The Emperor-God's Other Body', in Michel Feher et al. ( eds) Zone 5: Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part 3

Tuesday, March 17 SPRING VACATION

Thursday, March 19 SPRING VACATION

16. Tuesday, March 24 Religion as a Tool for Politics
Machiavelli, from Discourses on Livy

17. Thursday, March 26 Politics as a Tool for Religion
Hocart, from Kings and Councilors

18. Tuesday, March 31 Politics as Cosmology
Geertz, from Negara
Quentin Skinner, review of Geertz

19. Thursday, April Jurisprudence as Myth and Ritual: The Medieval King’s Two Bodies
Kantorowicz, from The King’s Two Bodies: An Essay in Medieval Political Theology
THIRD PAPER: A Medieval Political Myth

20. Tuesday, April 7 The Return of Leviathan
Hobbes, from Leviathan

21. Thursday, April 9
Hobbes, from Leviathan

22. Tuesday, April 14
Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”

23. Thursday, April 16
Lincoln, Religion, Empire and Torture

24. Tuesday, April 21
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology

25. Thursday, April 23
Lilla, Stillborn God
FOURTH PAPER: Modern Political Myth

26 Tuesday, April 28
Simon Critchley, “Crypto-Schmittianism”

Take-home exam.