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Essays, History, Pedagogy, Sacred Texts

How to Read Ancient Texts

I would like to make a modest proposal for reading ancient texts like the Bible. Of course, I am by no means the first or last to make such a suggestion. But my interest is quiet specific: how might texts are read in relation to socio-economic life? As with many scholars, I take the position that the texts are as vital as the variegated archaeological data, indeed that the texts themselves may be seen as “archaeological,” although more in a Foucauldian sense.

I would like to make a modest proposal for reading ancient texts like the Bible. Of course, I am by no means the first or last to make such a suggestion. But my interest is quiet specific: how might texts be read in relation to socio-economic life? As with many scholars, I take the position that the texts are as vital as the variegated archaeological data, indeed that the texts themselves may be seen as “archaeological,” although more in a Foucauldian sense. But how are the texts relevant? Within biblical criticism, two insufficient positions contest the field: texts reflect their context in a relatively unproblematic fashion, or they express the political and religious agenda of their unknown authors. As for the first approach in its fetching naiveté, little has changed for over a century: since biblical texts reflect their contexts, they provide more or less reliable evidence of that context so that one may read evidence directly from them.[1] The second, increasingly common, approach argues that biblical texts are politico-religious tracts produced to assert different political positions – in short, pious propaganda. Produced much later than the events they purport to describe, the texts tend to be historically unreliable since they are primarily ideological, although they may give indirect insights into the later contexts in which they were written.

By contrast, my approach is to draw upon a wealth of literary criticism and read texts as complex, contradictory, and unexpected responses to their contexts. This approach relies on the Marxist notion of the “relatively autonomous” character of the cultural-ideological instance with respect to the economic.[2] As Althusser famously put it in his discussion of overdetermination, the economy may be the determinant of all others, as some elements of Marxism would have it, but only in the “in the last instance.” That is, the various domains of life – means of production, relations of production, culture, ideology, religion, and so on – are sufficiently autonomous so that they are not dependent upon the economic in every instance, that they are not pre-determined by the economic. One should not rush in too quickly with an economic explanation. But then Althusser goes on:

In History, these instances, the superstructures, etc. – are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the “last instance” never comes.[3]

This text has generated almost endless debate, but the point Althusser is making here is not that the various domains are eternally autonomous, indeed that one may offer a pure causal economic analysis of any item. Instead, the “lonely hour” never comes. That is, one can never completely separate all of the complex elements of a mode of production from one another. They may be autonomous to some extent, but never entirely autonomous, for they are part of a much larger whole – hence semi-autonomous.

In order to lay out what this means for literary interpretation, let me move through another crucial element – metaphorization. By this I mean the production of metaphorical relations – often contradictory – to the social and economic situation in which texts are produced. The basis of metaphorization is straightforward: speaking, thinking and writing are saturated by metaphors of the dominant socio-economic systems. Indeed, metaphorization is a crucial signal of such dominance. For example, under capitalism human relations are often cast in terms of economic relations and the market – competition, survival of the fittest, individual entrepreneurship, in short, a metaphorization of the market. In the sacred economy of the Bible, by contrast, we find a different set of metaphors. The images of ideal gardens, fertility, merchant kings, bands of a patron’s thugs, Sabbaths, and kinship function as complex metaphors of the sacred economy.

How is this different from texts “reflecting” their contexts, albeit with a little more sophistication? It seems like perfect common sense. The possible range of our imagination is limited by the socio-economic context in which we live, along with the inherited metaphors that have found their place in this new context. Here another dimension of my approach comes into play, for one always operates with a healthy dose of ideological suspicion (deployed with devastating brilliance by the Frankfurt School).[4] That suspicion leads one to suspect that this process of metaphorization is never direct, so that it becomes difficult indeed to read directly from texts images of the socio-economic situation. And it ensures that one is always suspicious of arguments that texts express the conscious politico-religious agenda of their authors. Here subconscious and unnoticed features play a far larger role, as do structural and linguistic elements in the very way written language is constructed. That is, most of the time they know not what they do.

All of that brings me to the final aspect of this approach to texts. Textual responses to their contexts are often unexpected, precisely because they are semi-autonomous. They may metaphorize their context, but they do so in unanticipated and indirect ways. For instance, a story of kinship or tribal conflict does not necessarily mean a text comes from a tribal situation. The text’s tribal world may be an imaginary creation in a different context, perhaps to provide an alternate model of human relations or distribution of resources. Similarly, the detailed images of idyllic gardens, from Genesis to the Song of Songs, may seem to provide an alternative picture from life as it might be, a world in which exploitation, debt, and violence are absent. But they may express the idealized image of palatine estates, in which food is apparently produced without labor, thereby effacing the actual role of labor in those estates. More significantly, contradictions embodied in narratives of disobedience and rebellion, or in structural breaks as in the story of Cain and Abel, may give voice not so much to arguments over different social formations as to impossible contradictions at a socio-economic level. This is particularly the case with myth and folktale, as Ernst Bloch shows so well.[5] Here, the reactionary narratives of disobedience and “sin” actually preserve the possibilities of popular rebellion.

That last point is a central feature of my proposal, which may be described as an imaginary resolution of a real contradiction. The idea derives from Lévi-Strauss, although he formulated it through the inspiration of Marx.[6] It was subsequently framed in Althusserian language and mediated by Fredric Jameson.[7] Alongside Marx, this mode of textual interpretation draws upon the psychoanalytic insight that subconscious dimensions of human existence are far more powerful than the conscious, dimensions that are as much if not more political and economic than restricted to the individual psyche. The key to the theory is that problematic and irresolvable socio-economic tensions show up in the cultural products of a society, whether art, literature, festivals, and, in our day, film, television, internet, and so on. These cultural products set out to resolve the tensions in many possible fashions. Some may offer an alternative reality (as we find in utopian works, or indeed in any artistic creation that presents such a world); others may present a story that violently breaks through the tensions (as in many works that solve the story’s problems through a violent conflagration at the end); others may do through the production of myth, where the tensions and conflicts may be aired and a resolution sought (myths characteristically tell stories of rebellion and its overcoming); and others may do so through formal innovation (new genres in the mixture of old ones, new styles of painting, and so on).

The famous example of such a process comes from Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, where he offers an innovative reading of facial art by some indigenous tribes in South America. In particular, he was intrigued by the facial decorations of the Caduveo tribe. Inexplicably these decorations were determined by an axis at an oblique angle to the face. Rather than use the natural lines of nose, mouth and eyes, as so many of the tribes did, the Caduveo patterns followed another axis at an angle to these natural lines. The result was a design that seemed skewed, for the two axes competed with one another. The reason: Lévi-Strauss suggested that unlike the neighboring Guana and Bororo, who have the social checks and balances of moieties to mitigate their caste system, the Caduveo have no such social solution. In this fraught social situation, where a social contradiction remained in delicate tension, the Caduveo unwittingly used their facial decorations in an effort to ameliorate and repress the social tensions between social groups within the tribe. In other words, their art was an effort at resolving these tensions at the level of culture, through the imaginary work of art. The problem is that in the very effort to deal with such a tension, the art shows up the tension at a formal level. That is, the attempted resolution at an ideological and cultural level ultimately does not work, for what it does formally is reproduce those contradictions.

This example is by now a common one, but it may give the false impression that a singular socio-economic tension draws a singular imaginary response. Obviously such tensions are multiple, generating complex and overlapping solutions. Another example shows how multifarious and unexpected such solutions may be. It comes from the Tiv people in Africa, during the profound transitions of the last couple of centuries.[8] The Tiv were a deeply egalitarian society; or at least they were highly suspicious of and had various mechanisms designed to keep any one from becoming too powerful. Patriarchs may lord it over a large compound, with its cattle, wives, sons and daughters, dependents and sundry hangers-on, but this was restricted to their own compound. No one was to extend that power, to become a chieftain and thereby destroy the pattern of households across the landscape, beyond which was no formal political organization. How exactly did they control such tendencies? Anyone who became a patriarch, with cattle, wives, masculine prestige goods, and children, was already suspected of having a “strong heart,” the charisma and enterprise that could “turn chickens into cows.” But a strong heart was also produced by a physical substance known as tsav and the only way to acquire that substance was to eat human flesh. It was no so much that people did eat each other (it disgusted them), but that the suspicion was rife. A prominent man had probably eaten someone, grown tsav, and thereby gained extraordinary powers – flying, impervious to weapons, able to send out their souls at night in order to kill further victims. It was more than likely that they had been introduced to human flesh by a society of witches, mbatsav, which was always seeking to trick new members into joining the society by slipping some human flesh into everyday food (a bowl of stew, for instance).

So here is an initial contradiction: the egalitarian drive (at least among men) fosters constant suspicion of those who become powerful, imagining a secret society that makes them so. The contradiction in this elaborate suspicion is that the very structure of the imagined world creates the danger that it seeks to ameliorate. But now the situation gains another level of contradiction, for the Tiv also defended themselves fiercely against the slave traders,[9] who operated according to the elaborate societies imagined among the Tiv for their strong men. Made up of merchants, the secret societies – such as the Aro Confederacy (calling themselves “Children of God”) and the Ekpe – brought both a brutal regime of “order” to a disrupted world and yet they were simultaneously prime mechanisms for the slave trade. Operating with multiple levels of initiation, elaborate ceremonies, and ever higher costs, they easily created tribal bankruptcies, which would result in whole clans being shipped off to slavery as a result. Yet, the only way to become influential, to gain prestige among one’s peers, was to join such a society. At an economic level, the contradiction is that the very mechanism of slavery within this part of Africa relied upon the notion of honor and distinction that membership of such a society brought. That is, one could only become a big man through an organization that ripped up the fabric of social and economic life. As for the Tiv, we can see that the imagined world of witches and flesh-eating patriarchs was not only a mechanism for keeping a lid on the ambitions of the powerful, but also an imaginary resolution of the very real contradictions of the slave trade in African societies. The contradictions within that imagined world – which creates the very thing it attempts to block – are formal manifestations of the real social and economic contradictions of slavery – the system of honor that was actually destroying African society.

I hope these examples have shown to some extent the delicate and unexpected nature of what I call responsive metaphorization, and thereby of the mechanisms of the imaginary resolution of real contradictions. It would, of course, be appropriate at this point to give a biblical example, such as David the patron, the palatine estate of Genesis 1-3, the desire to overcome marginality in the books of Samuel and Kings, or the bestiality laws as indicators of the extent of the clan. But those are tasks for another time.

[1] This curse is particularly prevalent among archaeologists, of whom only a sample can be given. William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel  (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001); John Day, ed. In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel (London: T. & T. Clark, 2004); Susan Ackerman, “Household Religion, Family Religion, and Women’s Religion in Ancient Israel,” in Household and Family Religion in Antiquity: Contextual and Comparative Perspectives, ed. John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan, 127-58 (Malden: Blackwell, 2008); Lawrence E. Stager, “The Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel,” BASOR 260(1985): 1-35.

[2] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act  (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 260-78; Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism  (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991); Roland Boer, Jameson and Jeroboam  (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1996).

[3] Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: NLB, 1977), 113.

[4] See also Douglas A. Knight, Law, Power, and Justice in Ancient Israel, Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 2.

[5] Ernst Bloch, Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995); Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom, trans. J. T. Swann (London: Verso, 2009).

[6] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (London: Pan, 1989), 229-56.

[7] Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 127-86; Althusser, Sur la Reproduction (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995), 269-314; Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981) 77-80; Roland Boer, Jameson and Jeroboam (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press).

[8] Paul Bohannan, “Some Principles of Exchange and Investment Among the Tiv,” American Anthropologist 57, no. 60-7 (1955); Paul Bohannan, “The Impact of Money on an African Subsistence Economy,” Journal of Economic History 19, no. 491-503 (1959); Paul Bohannan, Justice and Judgement Among the Tiv  (London: Oxford University Press, 1957); Paul Bohannan and Laura Bohannan, Tiv Economy  (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968); David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011), 146-55.

[9] The Tiv had migrated into an extraordinarily inaccessible piece of country in the Benue river valley in 1750, just as Nigeria was being destroyed by the rampant slave trade. The Tiv ferociously defended themselves against the neighboring peoples, but above all against the slave traders.

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