Monday, April 15, 2013

Is Assman's Mnemohistory Anti-Semitic?

A recent article in the Chronicle (via Anthony LeDonne) has raised this question and answered very strongly in the affirmative.  It is one thing to say a method or approach is ineffective or not useful, and quite another to say that it is actually dangerous.

I remember hearing Jan Assman speak at Union Theological Seminary when I was a graduate student at Columbia.  I honestly don't remember a word he said, but just remember him speaking in stereotypical professorial tweed.

The article is quite long, but the beginning does point out some of the important breakthroughs of Mnemohistory developed by Aleida and Jan Assman in the past few decades.  Such as...

In his recent volume, Cultural Memory and Early CivilizationWriting, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Assmann recapitulates a number of his most important findings. Building on the work of previous theorists of cultural memory as an approach to historical understanding (such as the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs), Assmann's notion of mnemohistory suggests that, from a cultural point of view, the way history is remembered is more important than—to quote the German historian Leopold von Ranke—"the way it really was."
This insight is particularly valid in the case of ancient history. Here, whereas reliable archaeological or textual evidence is often sketchy, imaginative commentaries abound, in many cases composed several centuries after the fact. It is generally accepted that, after a period of 40 years, generational memory begins to fade. At this point, "collective memory" cedes to "cultural memory" as a type of imaginative reinvention of tradition.
As Assmann explains his methodology in Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: "Even if sometimes the debate over history, memory, and mnemotechnics may appear abstract and academic, it seems to me to nevertheless lie at the very heart of current discourse. Everything points to the fact that the concept of memory constitutes the basis for a new paradigm of cultural studies that will shed light on all the interconnected fields of art and literature, politics and sociology, religion and law."
The point is that ancient peoples (and even modern peoples) don't remember things as they happened.  Therefore, things-as-remembered can be a real social force in people's motivations and actions and how they make meaning in the world even more so than things-as-they-were.  This is an important insight and definitely will continue paving the way for future studies in ancient cultures.

When turning to the Hebrew Bible, Assman argues that there was a development of monotheism from Egypt (following Freud here) that ironically turned Egypt into the enemy and this monotheism led to not only religious but politico-religious "exclusivity."  That exclusivity of monotheism, in turn, not only led to intolerance of other religious orientations but also to outright violence.  This "Mosaic Distinction" persists, by the way, in Christianity (so this is not just anti-Jewish, but anti-Christian insofar as Christians pick up on exclusivity and intolerance).  And, therefore, the remedy--the way into proper tolerance in modern society--is to throw off the Mosaic Distinction.  Of course, he has been stringently critiqued.

Assmann has ... been accused of providing an overly sanguine and harmonious portrait of interstate relations among the proponents of ancient polytheism—Babylon, Assyria, and so forth. However, in the ancient world, the Israelites were not the only group who, in times of warfare, invoked the dreaded herem, or ban on conquered peoples. Since the discovery almost 150 years ago of the Moabite stone, dating from the eighth century BC, we know that other nations in the ancient Middle East engaged in similar practices—as the Moabites apparently did against Israel. Another discomfiting aspect of Assmann's veneration of ancient paganism is that, since the 1980s, a similar orientation has predominated among the advocates of the European New Right, whose hate-filled texts have often provided the script for and fed the intolerance of the Europe's far-right political parties. (For a good example, see Alain de Benoist's On Being a Pagan.)
A major failing of Assmann's approach is that it systematically neglects ancient Judaism's robust moral inclinations toward tolerance and neighborly love. Numerous prescriptions in the Old Testament, known as the Noachide Laws, stress the importance of providing hospitality and succor to strangers. As we read in Leviticus (19:33-34): "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as your self, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." Thus, contra Assmann, lurid tales of plunder, bloodlust, and divine retribution fail to tell the whole story.
That is, other ancient societies were no better, no less violent--and they were polytheistic!  In its violence, the ancient Israelites were not distinctive in the ancient Near East, and there were positive aspects in the Bible as well.  I don't think it was such as a huge "evolutionary breakthrough" in ethics as the article suggests--that monotheism and, with it, "transcendence" ushers into being a universal brotherhood.  Many of the nicer statements of ethics in the Bible also have ancient Near Eastern and eastern Mediterranean parallels in polytheistic societies:  think, for example, of "Zeus, Friend of Strangers."

I might argue that the major problem with Assman's "Mosaic Distinction" is that so much of Biblical scholarship has discovered in the past hundred years or so that the ancient Israelites were in fact not so distinctive.  Their stories, legends, laws, and ethics fit in their ancient Near Eastern context:  it is not the elements themselves that are distinctive (since each one can be found in other societies), therefore, but the particular combination of elements that made the ancient Israelites (or any other ancient society) distinctive.  But, we must remember that it is not what happened that matters so much as how people remember what happened.  And the ancient Israelites "remembered" being specially chosen, to be distinctive.  But then again, so did the Romans.

I should note, that exclusive monotheism does not necessarily lead to intolerance.  See, for example, the more philosophically-oriented, and more nuanced, discussion by my colleague Robert Erlewine in his book, Monotheism and Tolerance.

No comments: