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.


John Hobbins said...

That would be Robin Shoaps,

"2009 Ritual and (Im)moral Voices: Locating the Testament of Judas in Sakapultek Communicative Ecology. American Ethnologist. 36(3): 459-477

Which I can't get to from home. Sure sounds interesting, though.

As for Carol Newsom's book, it is excellent but, as you suggest, a largely unfulfilled promise. Her book, and that of Hughes, got me going on 1QH again. I posted something on it once, w/o bibliography:

What fun it would be to think of that text in interanimate and "sectually explicit" terms.

Seth L. Sanders said...

Happily, my fellow student of early Jewish ritual Angela Harkins has been working on this lately; look for her study of how Hodayot in 1QHa XI and XVII interanimate Enochic myth in a forthcoming Henoch; her published work is here: