Wednesday, September 2, 2009

From Spatial to Spatiotemporal Poetics: A Review of Mark George's "Israel's Tabernacle as Social Space"

Scholars of the ancient Israelite sanctuaries often discussion the construction, plan, and symbolism of those spaces, yet one of the more interesting recent readings of a sanctuary is Mark K. George’s Israel’s Tabernacle as Social Space, in which he develops a “spatial poetics” to discuss the social dynamics of the tabernacle in terms of “spatial practice,” “conceptual space,” and “symbolic space.” He models his categories off of the French Marxist spatial theorist, Henri Lefebvre’s La production de l’espace [The Production of Space], who spoke of spatial practice, representations of space, and spaces of representation with the heaviest emphasis on the last category, which Lefebvre saw as having the greatest revolutionary potential against capitalism. Spatial practice refers most directly to the physicality and materiality of space—how humans shape spaces (such as buildings, parks, and roadway systems) and how those buildings in turn shape human behavior, or, for our purposes, the very materials of the tabernacle, its placement in the camp, and how the ordered space of the tabernacle grants or denies access through its curtains and the veil. Conceptual space or representations of space refers to space in thought and is more abstract. The most obvious example would be a map, but also directions would fall under this category, such as instructions for building the tabernacle and the conceptual framework that undergirds its spatial configuration. Spaces of representation or symbolic space refers to the meaning and significance people imbue spaces with. While a house is made of particular materials and the placement of walls and doors directs human behavior in how they move through the building (spatial practice), and the house has a conceptual design (the blueprints), it has added meaning and significance as a home, a place where specific acts of heightened meaning and poignancy—George highly emphasizes the emotional involvement in symbolism—occur, such as Christmas in the living room. In the Tabernacle, the symbolism is perhaps the most studied and best understood aspect—it contains, for example, extensive symbolism of creation, and, in fact, can be considered the final act, the sealing, of God’s creation.

George embroiders this spatial poetics with the approach of New Historicism, represented here by Harvard Shakespearean scholar, Stephen Greenblatt. New Historicism is more of an approach than a particular theory or method of study, something I think to its credit; it is a general movement that, while sometimes bewildering in its variety, has a few broad characteristics: it considers literature as part of a cultural and social matrix of exchange of material culture and ideas and an expression of that matrix (it is more than a single person’s creative genius); it is an approach that considers its own position as a cultural production that participates in a particular type of exchange (such as late twentieth-century, early twenty-first-century research); and it tries to uncover the conflicted, tensed, and competing ways in which cultural expressions—literature, art, etc.—emerge from and feedback into this matrix of material practices in which it participates. Something George does not particularly mention, but is also relevant, is that New Historicists tend to combine insights made in anthropology and literature. Greenblatt, for example, appears to be a combination of Auerbach and Geertz. As such, George will tend to embroider his discussion of the Tabernacle with comparative spatial discussions of other texts from the ancient near east for each section—although necessarily without the richness found in Greenblatt’s work, for example.

For spatial practices, George focuses on the inventories of the tabernacle (28:4; 31:7-11; 39:33-41). These lists give physicality to the tabernacle, a material verisimilitude. One interesting aspect of this in the Priestly narrative is that the people voluntarily contribute the entirety of the materials for the tabernacle and their labor, creating a social situation unique in ancient near eastern building practice (where the king provided materials; and the people involuntary labor). Additionally, the lengthy descriptions of the tabernacle give material verisimilitude. In this respect, George notes that the building is from the perspective of an observer, but not the builder or planner—someone who can experience tabernacle space while walking through it, but does not know what is not observable (e.g., does the kapporet have a lip inside of it to keep it in place on the ark of the testimony?). The configuration of this space also has social implications—who can go where and when—for example all the priests are permitted to enter the holy place, but not the holy of holies, which is even blocked from view by the veil. An important aspect of the configuration of the sacred enclosure is that it is portable, and, likewise, all of its sacred objects are built for portability. It moves--and therefore the deity moves--wherever the people move. It is not grounded to any particular place (a poignant point if this account was written in exile).

In terms of conceptual space, George turns to theories of taxonomic systems, particularly relying upon Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society, pointing out that all taxonomic systems, no matter how logical they appear, are not value neutral. The conceptual defining of space through classification exerts social power through that space. George, then, tries to consider what taxonomic system undergirds the tabernacle’s conceptual space. He considers the language of the account itself: holiness. The tabernacle, in fact, demonstrates a graded holiness from most holy inward to lesser and lesser holiness as one moves outward (and eastward). In the most holy places, gold is used, whereas, for example, bronze is used for the courtyard materials. He reviews scholarly positions on graded holiness particularly pointing to “divisions” and “separations”—holiness is made through successive separations. This also, by the way, applies to time and people (there is a graded holiness throughout the year that corresponds to the graded holiness of the sacred enclosure and mirrors the graded holiness of people). George, however, finds holiness difficult as a conceptual or analytic category because it is a “first-order” category. While some would see using a group’s own language to describe them its merit, George sees this as problematic. Instead, he seeks a conceptual taxonomy undergirding this space in terms of people—who has access and who does not to what and when. The broadest category is the congregation, with whom God made the covenant, then he turns to principles of descent (only Levites can handle the tabernacle materials and move in and out more freely) and finally hereditary succession within this descent from father to son starting with Aaron for the high priesthood. This is not “holiness” but it explains holiness, at least according to George. I would point out, however, that this still operates on the principle of separation—the congregation separated from all other peoples, the priests separated from the congregation, and the high priest separated from the priests, becoming more holy with each separation. I am more reluctant to claim that one system of separations (of people) generates the other (of space...and of time), but most likely that they are all co-dependent, mutually influencing one another. Is the high priest the most holy person because of his descent or because he is the one who enters the most holy place (the holy of holies) at the most holy time (Yom Kippur)? Is Yom Kippur the most holy time because that is when the most holy person enters the most holy space? Or is the holy of holies the most holy space because that is what is entered at the most holy time by the most holy person? There may be something "behind" holiness, but the expression of holiness in terms of time, space, and person is all interdependent. It is a bit difficult for me to conceive of only the separation of person as undergirding this entire expression.

George also comments on the horizontal perspective of the tabernacle—there are no steps—in contrast to the more vertical perspectives of separation in other spaces—Sinai, Ezekiel’s temple, etc.; in fact, while he rejects the statements by scholars that the tabernacle represents a mobile Sinai with similar graded holiness of three zones because one is vertical holiness and the other his horizontal, he still often refers to the tabernacle as the vertical holiness of Sinai laid on its side. He also discusses the fact that the material is organized from inside out, starting with the most holy space and moving outward, which, he claims, gives the perspective of God who would reside within the most holy place. The significance is that the entire pattern of instructions give the divine perspective and authority.

Finally, in terms of symbolic space, George relies heavily upon Stephen Greenblatt’s discussion of “circulation of social energy” from Shakespearean Negotations, basically how the tabernacle acquired and adapted particular symbols from Mesopotamia (particularly the Enuma Elish) combined with those from the J/E Epic, transforming both in the process, but leaving both recognizable. (I discuss this process in my dissertation in terms of Bakhtinian dialogism, but this lingo works too.) In this he speaks of how the tabernacle reflects the priestly creation account in various ways (which is perhaps one of the most well-trod areas of tabernacle scholarship), but perhaps his most interesting illustration has to do with the ark. He notes that the entire instructions follow the literary form of Mesopotamian royal building inscriptions, which, interestingly enough, were placed in a box or chest inside the building. While there is no king in the Priestly account, it seems YHWH takes the place of king, while the people take the place of the king in another respect by supplying the necessary materials—it removes kingship from the human sphere in one respect, but democratizes it in another. At the same time, many inscriptions were kept in ornate boxes in the ancient near east—the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, opens saying that the story was contained in an ornate chest—and George argues that the ark acts similarly, but, with an interesting twist: in the Priestly account, he argues, the ark contains the instructions for the building of the tabernacle (Exod. 38:21), just as found in the ancient near eastern counterparts, rather than the ten commandments, which is usually assumed at this point of the narrative, even though that occurs later in the non-priestly section. Thus the priestly instructions for building the tabernacle reflect the literary form and the broader practices of placement of building instructions in a chest contained in that building. I was surprised, however, that George did not link this up with the תבנית Moses saw on the mountain. Based on George’s discussion, would this make the earliest concept of the תבנית the tablets themselves? Finally, the tabernacle account makes the presence of the deity permanent in the midst of the people, reducing the distance between the people and their god. The tabernacle is not just a tent or a fixed temple that the God visits occasionally, but continually resides among the people.

This is, of course, a gross simplification of much of George’s sensitive readings of the materials and the wealth of ancient near eastern inscriptions and literary patterns he brings to bear on the evidence, and how these broader patterns were appropriated and transformed alongside previous Israelite traditions by the priestly authors. At the same time, my primary critique of George and, indeed, most spatial theorists is the subordination of time to space. While George does occasionally discuss temporal aspects of his spatial poetics (an example is the Gezer calendar as his comparison in terms of taxonomy to the tabernacle's conceptual space), it remains an auxiliary aspect of his analysis. Indeed, any spatial poetics implies a temporal poetics on every level—practical, conceptual, and symbolic; spatial and temporal poetics are mutually interdependent. Every approach and insight George makes with regard to the tabernacle could be applied to temporal appropriations, separations, "circulations" as well. They work in conjunction with one another and, in fact, this is especially clear in the priestly accounts in the Pentateuch. What is necessary, therefore, is a spatiotemporal poetics, something one can find throughout anthropological theory (particularly ritual studies) and literary criticism (particularly Bakhtin)--a New Historicist move in its own right.


John Hobbins said...

What an interesting book. For starters, I'm wondering about the idea that Ex 38:21 refers to building plans. In context, it refers to an inventory of materials. Is this a distinction without a difference?

Jared Calaway said...

This is an interesting question. The statement in 38:21 indicates more of inventories, but it is in the context of instructions or plans. The actual inventories are elsewhere. Inventories are part of the broader plans throughout, so I am not sure what the difference would be.