Saturday, April 17, 2010

Obscene Pseudepigrapha and What Dead Sea Scrolls Scholars Could Learn from Fredric Jameson

Behind [Jameson's] project lay the understanding that social life is ‘a seamless web, a single inconceivable and transindividual process, in which there is no need to invent ways of linking language events and social upheavals or economic contradictions because on that level they were never separate from one another.’

Benjamin Kunkel showcases the demand that social theory makes on philology in his lively LRB introduction to Jameson: texts are woven in a seamless web with life, and if our work doesn't register this, our work is inadequate. Scholars of ancient Judaism have begun vigorous attempts to do this, but I'm not sure it's quite happened yet. Carol Newsom's careful and pioneering Self as Symbolic Space has as its goal investigating how the Qumran community
constituted itself as a sectarian society. Key to the formation of the community was the reconstruction of the identity of individual members...Persons who came to experience themselves in light of the narratives and symbolic structures embedded in the community practices would have developed the dispositions of affinity and estrangement necessary for the constitution of a sectarian society.

It begins with a clarion call to see how the Scrolls interanimate, that is, how living human beings would have formed themselves together with the texts they read and prayed. The potential is nothing less than an empirically based view of texts in practice. A mere four hours of a life of devotion in the desert might draw on five different texts of five different genres. A devotee might arise with a particular prayer on his lips, wash himself according to specific rules, see by the sun that the year had advanced further into a period of light, know by signs on his own body that he himself had this many portions of cosmic light in him, and sing together with his fellow members a song portraying the singing and movement of angelic bodies in a heavenly temple awash in unseen light. An average snippet of a day would not just "refer to" but act out, and not just act out in isolation but enact in mutually informing practice, genres of private prayer, ritual law, calendar, physiognomy, and communal prayer.

But the rest of Newsom's book reverts to "merely" an excellent piece of scrolls scholarship: a literary reading of two big texts in succession. A column-by-column close reading of the Community Rule followed by a column-by-column close reading of the Hymns of the community. The notion of interanimation is basically dropped (I'm not sure if the word, let alone the analysis, occurs after the beginning), and the clarion call fades, though the quality of her analysis never lets us forget its promise. What remains is a model of how one might read personal experience off of the literary features of individual texts, but also the nagging question of how much further Newsom could have gone.

The tools exist for us to push responsibly further: the linguistic anthropologist Robin Shoaps, who has recently published an important study of the social life of a remarkable piece of a Guatemalan village's communally produced obscene Pseudepigrapha, The Testament of Judas, has articulated a theory of "communicative ecology" that synthesizes key insights about genre from Mikhail Bakhtin and participation from Erving Goffman. It might help us put our intuitions about interanimation to work in new ways.

Why good social theory is like Midrash

One trait of postmodernism unmentioned by Jameson was the special difficulty critics and thinkers of recent generations have experienced in conveying their thoughts except through the medium of someone else’s; intellectuals today tend to offer their commentary on the world by way of comments on another’s commentary. Jameson has been unique, however, in his extremes of inclusion or ventriloquism. He seems to have detected some aspect of the truth in virtually any body of work he’s discussed, and so to have recruited more, and more various, thinkers into the march of his own thoughts than any rival theorist.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

First Thought on The Qeiyafa Ostracon

The ostracon discovered in July 2008 at Khirbet Qeiyafa hints at a new direction for cultural interaction in the early Iron Age southern Levant: not only is it the longest known Proto-Canaanite inscription and the only letter we have in that script, it also suggests a literal new direction in how its writer formed its letters, and thus about how some people at that time learned to write. The direction in which it has heretofore been taken is rather older. It quickly caught the public and scholarly imagination for reasons that may not have had much to do with what is new about the text: both newspaper reports and academic statements dated it to the tenth century B.C.E. and portrayed it as the earliest Hebrew inscription. They suggested it proved that David or Solomon's kingdom existed, the historicity of both having been hotly--and polemically--debated in recent decades.

But as the text's publishers, Misgav, Garfinkel and Ganor carefully and clearly point out, the text's script is strikingly remote from that of every known Hebrew inscription. What I do not understand is why they don't point out that each decipherable word, as well as the one discernible syntactic unit, could as well be Aramaic. The issue with the script is clear. All legible letters fit well with excavated examples of the Proto-Canaanite script from the 13th-11th centuries such as the Izbet Sartah ostracon, the Qubur-el-Walaida handle, and the Zarephath and Beth-Shemesh ostraca, and shows a glaring contrast with the new Phoenician-style script of the 10th century.

As was immediately pointed out by the most experienced scholars of Proto-Canaanite: Aaron Demsky (in the Hebrew publication of the text), Allan Millard (personal communication), and Kyle McCarter (ditto), the one thing we know about its direction is that it was not written right-to-left, the direction of every known ancient Hebrew inscription from the earliest at Kuntillet 'Ajrud to the later Qumran texts. Weirdly, and intriguingly, nobody can say with complete confidence in which direction the text *was* written, since most characters assume a left-to-right stance but a few important ones suggest the text was written top-down. While the strongest indicators--the waw of lines 1 and 2 and the kaf of line 4--point to a left-to-right orientation, like Ugaritic, much Proto-Canaanite, or modern English, the alef and bet make little sense with a left-to-right orientation, and can only be easily read if the inscription was written top-to-bottom, like other Proto-Canaanite inscriptions or many of their Egyptian prototypes. The novelty of this is that it strongly suggests that the text's writer was 1) exposed to writing with both directions and 2) had no conception of a *standard*, an idea that there was a single correct way to write. Instead, he seems to have written the earliest letters of the alphabet according to one technique, and some of the others according to a second. This suggests that the writer's learning was gathered eclectically and his training casual.

But the language of the text as so far deciphered is dialectally ambiguous--a fact that you won't necessarily get if you read the reports, since they sometimes hinge on a word that might not be there. The inscription could as easily represent 1) the earliest example of Aramaic--of the portions of the text that are agreed on by each of the experienced epigraphers who have treated it (Misgav, Yardeni, Demsky, and Ahituv) all the complete identified roots עבד, מלכ, שפט, אל are found in both ancient Aramaic and Hebrew; syntactically the verbs עבד and שפט are well in place in Aramaic. Crucially, the phrase x אלתעש ends in a smudged character that could be qof, resh or less plausibly tav, each of which results in a root present in both Aramaic and Hebrew. Given the presence of this abraded but highly probable character it is unsafe to read the distinctive Southern Levantine עשי root, attested only in Hebrew and Moabite of this period. The syntax of 'al + prefix form is the standard Northwest Semitic prohibitive in this period, equally at home in Phoenician, Aramaic and Hebrew. 2) The text could be the earliest close ancestor of the dialect which would later be labeled Judean by biblical writers, and Hebrew in the postbiblical period (each label having ideological dimensions of its own). As we'll see, its appearance in this form may be equally unsettling to our assumptions about what ancient Israelites should or should not be doing with language. 3) The text could represent a previously unattested Northwest Semitic variety, like the language of the Deir Alla inscription, the main features of which preserve a stage before the split between Aramaic and Canaanite.

That is precisely why we should be excited about the aspects of this artifact that violate our presuppositions about early Iron Age language and culture: they tell us something genuinely new, and help free us from the anachronisms with which our interpretation of both the biblical text and Levantine history are encrusted. In the next installment: why the publishers' proposal to date this text to the 10th century is more subversive of a literate United Monarchy than the 12th-11th century range that epigraphy suggests. Then: crucial readings from Yardeni, Ahituv, Demsky, methodological points from Rollston, and insights from John Hobbins, Ed Cook and Doug Mangrum