Friday, July 29, 2011

(Post-)Modernist Hermeneutics as a Petihta? Or Sort of...

A Petihta is a particular form of an ancient Jewish homily. It consists of a launching verse, usually from the Prophets or Writings, and a target verse from the Torah. According to many commentators, the more distinct and apparently unrelated the two verses are the better. Already knowing the end of the homily (the target verse), the pleasure for the audience/reader is to see how the interpreter, through exegetical virtuosity, will get from one to the other--the more disparate the verses then demonstrates a much higher level of interpretive ability and may make a further point: all scripture contains an underlying unity. Consider then this description of modern practices of interpretation:

What are commonly seen as "schools" of literary criticism or theoretical "approaches" to literature are, from the point of view of hermeneutics, dispositions to give particular kinds of answers to the question of what a work is ultimately "about": "the class struggle" (Marxism), "the possibility of unifying experience" (New Criticism), "Oedipal conflict" (psychoanalysis), "the containments of subversive energies" (new historicism), "the asymmetry of gender relations" (feminism), "the deconstructive nature of the text" (deconstruction), "the occlusion of imperialism" (post-colonial theory), "the heterosexual matrix" (gay and lesbian studies).

The theoretical discourses named in parentheses are not primarily modes of interpretation: they are accounts of what they take to be particularly important to culture and society. Many of these theories include accounts of the functioning of literature or discourse more generally, and so partake of the project of poetics; but as versions of hermeneutics they give rise to particular types of interpretation in which texts are mapped into a target language. What is important in the game of interpretation is not the answer you come up with--as my parodies show, some versions of the answer become, by definition, predictable. What's important is how you get there, what you do with the details of the text in relating them to your answer. (Culler, Literary Theory, 88-89)

Just exchange text/literature for launching verse and exchange "target language"/theoretical discourse for target verse; in both it is how you get there, but the end is known or "predictable." Even for those who do not ascribe to a particular theoretical discourse, if you read some of their work their conclusions become similarly predictable.

True Simplicities

A friend of mine from Columbia University, James Hare, has started a new blog, "True Simplicities." He is a specialist in South Asian religions, but this blog seeks a wider audience, as he writes in his inaugural post:

Welcome to True Simplicities. I intend this site to be a space in which to explore the relationship between religious traditions and voluntary simplicity. I'll say more in upcoming posts about what I mean by religion and by voluntary simplicity since both these terms are difficult to define, but I am not especially concerned with definitions. I intend to be inclusive. I am open to discussing anyone who has made a deliberate effort to live their life more simply, from early Christian monastics to today's "technomads," and I plan to consider how a wide range of religious--and not-so-religious--traditions have encouraged or discouraged the simple life.

"Cultural Studies" as the Reinforcer of the Traditional Canon

I have been perusing Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory, and he makes an observation that I have also suspected for a while:

...theory has reinvigorated the traditional literary canon, opening the door to more ways of reading the "great works" of English and American literature. Never has so much been written about Shakespeare; he is studied from every angle conceivable, interpreted in feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, historicist, and deconstructive vocabularies. Wordsworth has been transformed by literary theory from a poet of nature to a key figure of modernity. What have suffered neglect are "minor" works that were regularly studied when literary study was organized to "cover" historical periods and genres. Shakespeare is more widely read and vigorously interpreted than ever, but Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, Dekker, Heywood, and Ben Jonson--Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists who used to surround him--are little read today. (p. 64; emphasis original)

While on the one hand, "cultural studies" and newer forms of literary theory set texts next to other cultural objects--films, architecture, other art forms, etc.--it often re-privileges the canon even as it "deconstructs" it. Perhaps an exception to some of this is the work of M. M. Bakhtin, who is claimed by people of multiple theoretical bents and is one of my favorite literary critics (or cultural critics if you prefer, or even linguist since his work is in direct opposition to Saussure), who often worked through his theory in reference to more obscure works as well as better known ones, especially for his longer essays.

I often find that biblical and Shakespearean scholarship has a lot of overlaps, not least of which is the intensive attention both receive. Would you agree that this also is occurring in biblical studies, where cultural studies and the blanket-term "theory" have reinforced the canon it deconstructs?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Network Criticism

I have signed onto join April DeConick's "network criticism" project. It sounds like an interesting methodological study. You can read about it here. It slightly reminds me of Mark Taylor's concept of "emergent complex systems" that he articulates in his book After God. I think I was attracted to the project because I am fascinated by the physical contacts that pass along and transform thoughts, stories, etc.--that's why I am reading a book on ancient trade routes at the moment, for example.

I have thought of a few uses for her concept, but will be presenting and writing an essay, "Reproducing the Deformed Former: The Mythic and Medical Networks of the Birth of the Demiurge," for it and see how this will all work out in practice and in dialogue with other methodological and theoretical frameworks with which I am more familiar.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Ehrman and Plese: Apocryphal Gospels

I just received a copy of Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Plese's collection of apocryphal gospels that you can purchase here. I am looking forward to flipping through the book. April DeConick has written a short review here.

Cake Update: Chez Buttercream

Earlier, I had directed people to Stacy's website, Savories and Sweets. Considering that she basically does sweets, she has changed her website to Chez Buttercream to reflect more precisely what she is doing. Check out her awesome cakes!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Goliath's Table: Archaeology of Gath

AP reports about archaeological finds at Gath, Goliath's hometown:
In a square hole, several Philistine jugs nearly 3,000 years old were emerging from the soil. One painted shard just unearthed had a rust-red frame and a black spiral: a decoration common in ancient Greek art and a hint to the Philistines' origins in the Aegean.
The Philistines arrived by sea from the area of modern-day Greece around 1200 B.C. They went on to rule major ports at Ashkelon and Ashdod, now cities in Israel, and at Gaza, now part of the Palestinian territory known as the Gaza Strip.
At Gath, they settled on a site that had been inhabited since prehistoric times. Digs like this one have shown that though they adopted aspects of local culture, they did not forget their roots. Even five centuries after their arrival, for example, they were still worshipping gods with Greek names.
Archaeologists have found that the Philistine diet leaned heavily on grass pea lentils, an Aegean staple. Ancient bones discarded at the site show that they also ate pigs and dogs, unlike the neighboring Israelites, who deemed those animals unclean — restrictions that still exist in Jewish dietary law.
One intriguing find at Gath is the remains of a large structure, possibly a temple, with two pillars. Maeir has suggested that this might have been a known design element in Philistine temple architecture when it was written into the Samson story.
Diggers at Gath have also found shards preserving names similar to Goliath — an Indo-European name, not a Semitic one of the kind that would have been used by the local Canaanites or Israelites. These finds show the Philistines indeed used such names and suggest that this detail, too, might be drawn from an accurate picture of their society.
The findings at the site support the idea that the Goliath story faithfully reflects something of the geopolitical reality of the period, Maeir said — the often violent interaction of the powerful Philistines of Gath with the kings of Jerusalem in the frontier zone between them.


One thing omitted in the article is that Goliath of Gath in biblical narrative was not just killed by David (1 Samuel 17), but also in 2 Samuel 21:19, where Goliath is slain by the much lesser known Elhanan.

For the rest of the article, see here.

For a critique of this and other articles concerning this recent archaeological expedition, see here.