Friday, October 29, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 8: Whose history?

The seminar examined New Historicism for the past two weeks. Contrary to its title, New Historicism is not a method created by historians writing histories. It emerged from literary criticism among professors of Renaissance literature who were trying to illuminate literature with reference to historical sources and intertextuality investigating what Greenblatt (the originator of the approach and pictured here) calls Cultural Poetics. This approach developed in critic of New Criticism, not old-school German Historicism and Positivism. New Criticism is the common approach to literature with reads it ahistorically, focusing on single texts as enclosed units of narrative and imagery.

New Historicism or Cultural Poetics tries to examine the text in its context, while also asking how the text enforces the cultural practices that it depends on for its own production and dissemination. In this way, these critics draw attention to the processes being employed by contemporary power structures, like the chuch, state, and academy, to disseminate knowledge. They explore a text's historical context and its political implications, and then through a close textual analysis they note the dominant hegemonic position. New Historicism or Cultural Poetics is a politicized form of literary criticism with an eye toward historical contextuality. It is grounded in the critical theory of Foucault, the work of the Cultural Materialists, and anthropology of the variety espoused by Clifford Geertz who advocated writing "thick descriptions" of culture that explains human behavior within particular contexts rather than merely as part of symbolic systems.

After reading deeply into this scholarship, I really feel that New Historicism has a political mission. These critics are all about critiquing capitalism and market relations, and in my mind, retrofitting that critique back onto historical sources. So what they write often appears anachronistic, that is, bringing our contemporary values to play in the past. To their credit, they are aware of this, and so are willing to admit it in their analyses.

To do this, they read all literature and artifacts side-by-side with no distinction, mining what they call the cracks, slippages, fault lines and absences in the traditional historical narratives. While their willingness to eliminate canonical boundaries is to be applauded, I am less thrilled that they do not generally evaluate the differences in the media they examine. Various forms of materials were created with difference purposes and different intent, and what any of it can tell us about anything must be weighed carefully. A letter fragment and a gospel, for instance, are not the same thing. A masterpiece painting and a magical drawing in a recipe book are interesting, but they are not giving us similar information. What either might tell us needs discussion.

While I found much of their work stimulating, I was left a bit puzzled. How "new" is any of this? Historians have been dealing with cultural context, artifacts, and multiple texts for, well, forever. In religious studies, we have been dealing with breaking down canonical boundaries for over fifty years, and we have been discussing power relations and political agendas for at least as long. The differences are that historians are interested in getting at the meanings of the literature they are examining, and we want to investigate the politics of the time of the texts. New Historians are interested in exploring the various discourses that inform the literature they read, and are more motivated by contemporary politics which they think is somehow reflected in these discourses (in ways similar to the ideas of queer theorists or feminist theologians).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gospel of Judas Update: Published news about the OHIO fragments

I just received offprints of an article published in the first volume of Mohr Siebeck's new journal Early Christianity (link HERE). The article is a preliminary report written by Herbert Krosney, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst about the status of the OHIO fragments of the Gospel of Judas. In the first part of the article, Krosney explains the court battle over the OHIO fragments and their photographs which were analyzed by Gregor Wurst who recognized that they contained the balance of the Gospel of Judas, allowing us to read 90-95% of it.

According to Krosney's account, the fragments have made their way to Egypt in April 2010 and are under the care of Dr. Zahi Hawass who did not want the fragments to go to Switzerland for conservation first. The rest of the Tchacos Codex remains in Switzerland in the hands of the Maecenas Foundation who is now in a financial battle with Mrs. Frieda Nussberger.

The rest of the article is a sketch of the contents of the fragments and a preliminary transcription and translation based on photographs of the fragments possessed by Nussberger. There has been no distribution of the photographs to scholars other than Meyer and Wurst as far as I know. There is mention that Wurst and Meyer are consulting with the administration in Egypt in order to discover how to proceed in the critical publication of the fragments.

Monday, October 25, 2010

British Museum Exhibition on Book of the Dead

A rare treat. The British Museum is putting on an exhibition of the Book of the Dead. I want to go! How perfect does this exhibit coincide with my Mellon Seminar: Mapping Death?!

Here is the LINK to the exhibition page which I found via Deirdre Good's blog. The minute video is a teaser. But no REAL information posted. I wonder if their will be a book? I hope so.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

In Memory of John Kevin Coyle

From: Professor Pierluigi Piovanelli
Date: Ottawa, October 22, 2010

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

I am extremely saddened to announce that Professor John Kevin Coyle, of St. Paul University, has suddenly passed away in the night of Wednesday, October 20.

Those who have known Kevin will remember him not only as a great scholar – he had just published in 2009 the volume Manichaeism and Its Legacy, a collection of his articles on Manichaeism in Brill’s prestigious series Nag Hammadi and Manichean Studies – but also and especially as a warm and generous person, a true gentleman. This is a terrible loss for all of us.

I am sure that his soul is presently climbing the column of glory and is not too far from her final destination in the paradise of light, where she will enjoy the company of Augustine and Mani.

May peace be upon him!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 7: Is knowledge a commodity?

Post-modernism and Post-colonialism were the subjects of the theory discussion this week. We characterized Post-modernism as "the collapse of the Grand Narrative" and Post-colonialism as "the writing of the 'Other'". One book that we reviewed was Lyotard (pictured), The Post-Modern Condition (1979) where the term was coined, 'post-modernism', to refer to the incredulity of the meta-narratives constructed by societies (how we can know everything through science; that we make progress in history; that there is absolute freedom; etc.). He points out how inadequate our big stories are, because they do not encompass us all. He is particularly critical of our commonly held narrative that knowledge must be efficient in order to be valuable. Thus if we can't prove that a certain type of knowledge is efficient or useful, it is pushed aside and we feel terror.

We highlighted the discourse of the Humanities in this light. The Humanities, because it does not offer efficient or useful knowledge, has lost its voice in the discourse of knowledge that pervades our society, particularly the scientific discourse. The discourse of knowledge that we are familiar with today is no longer a discussion of "is it true?" but "is it useful?" and "is it saleable?" Knowledge has become a commodity.

I keep thinking about our public education system and how much this discourse of knowledge has negatively impacted it. We now want teachers to give knowledge to the students like it is a commodity or good that can be exchanged, and make the student learn it. We judge whether or not this exchange has occurred by testing students and then tying teachers' jobs and salaries to their students' academic performance. The problem is that all knowledge is not a commodity, nor is all knowledge useable. And learning is not a contractual business exchange. While teachers have a responsibility to teach well, students and families have the responsibility to commit to learning even non-usable or non-applicable knowledge. Students' are responsible actors too. They are participants of power in their education.

Lyotard and other philosophers highlight two main discourses of knowledge: 1. the scientific discourse (efficient knowledge); 2. Narrative (non-efficient) knowledge. Lyotard also acknowledges the "sublime" which is knowledge at the edges of conceptualization, that can not be formulated via faith, imagination, or reason.

The post-modernists suggest that we set aside the metanarratives and focus on the fragmented stories or micro-narratives; that we live with a series of mini-narratives that are contemporary and relative. While truth doesn't disappear, it must be recognized as fragmentary. They call this fragmented truth "difference" so that knowledge becomes "difference". They do not want to understand difference as negative, as in "what it is not" (a cat is a cat because it is not a dog). What they want to say is that we are the ones who assign similitude to things; in reality there are just differences (a cat is a cat and a dog is a dog and they are different).

All of this raises a series of questions for me. While I am delighted to work on fragmented stories of the past, as a historian of 'heretics', I also must construct and operate from a larger narrative that makes sense of that past. I do not see unity as the enemy, nor do I see difference as the saint. We as human creatures are wired for narrative. Our brains work in such a way that we constantly construct unity from our own life's fragments, as we also construct differences. I would characterize humans as "comparativists" who understand unity and difference in relationship to each other. Narratives are necessary, even Grand ones, or life would be chaos for us all. So while the different must be embraced by the historian (and not judged negatively), the discussion of unity is still necessary. Any unity that is constructed must be reasonable and fair, one that accounts for the micro-narratives while also accounting for the practical course of history and the relationships between people and groups.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New blog look

Hope you like it!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Gnostic 3 now available

Just an alert that the new journal The Gnostic is available in its third volume, which features Jung and The Red Book (see my recent Mellon Seminar blog post on Jung). Support this fledgling journal if you can. It's easy to buy on Amazon HERE and only cost $13.50 which is what, two or three coffees at Starbucks?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 6: Does memory make history unrecoverable?

Our theoretical topic this week has been Social Memory Theory, which developed out of the 1925 work of Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory. Halbwachs was not interested in social memory (the memory shared by a group or society) but rather was arguing that the individual's memory was shaped by society, and he wanted to know how. Decades later, in the 1970s, his idea that memory and society are bound up was applied substantially to historiography and the study of modern social memory began to flourish in intellectual circles.

The foundational premises of social memory theory are:
1. Memories are products of the present and not the preservation of the past.
2. Memories are ignited and limited by social frameworks.
3. Memory distortion is the difference between the memory of the past and the past actuality.
4. All memory is distorted or refracted.

This knowledge makes the work of the historian interesting. There are a range of opinions among social memory theorists regarding whether or not it is possible to recover the past actuality from memories, and if so, how much. My own work as a historian has been deeply affected by social memory theory which I openly embrace. It has shifted my self-understanding as a historian. I no longer worry about recovering the undistorted past because I am not convinced I can do this with the sources I have to work with. The questions I try to answer have dramatically shifted. What I want to know now is how and why particular groups remember their past in certain ways, and how and why counter-memories of the same event develop. I am particularly interested in what I call "iconic" or "memorial" representations of individual and events, as providing insights into the group's self-understanding. Studying these allows me to reconstruct the earliest memories of the individual or event, and come to some understanding of how and why groups developed in the directions they did.

This doesn't mean that the memories don't point back to some past actuality. It just means that recovering the past actuality is nigh impossible. What I am better at doing is recovering a scenario of historical plausibility based on the memory sets available for study. I am convinced from my work in memory and how groups handle their past, that historians are actually assisted in this task by three dynamics of memory:
1. Although invention or fabrication is possible (as in the case of new governments trying to legitimize themselves), social memory is largely a subconscious or unconscious operation. It functions by selecting something important from the environment and putting it within the mental frameworks that exist in our minds and then relocalizes them within our present experience. Schwartz has noted in his work on Lincoln again and again that many of our heroes today are selected to be heroes because there was something that they did that made us see them as heroic in the first place.

2. Memory (whether individual or social) is limited by society. What is remembered has to be plausible and make sense to the group and what it already knows about its past. In other words, it is conservative even by society's standards, and builds incrementally and with continuity between the past and the present.

3. What we can see in our sources are the effects of the what actually happened, so by studying the effects, it is possible to create scenarios of historical plausibility that would best explain them. Here I am convinced that counter-memories are very significant (thus my intense work on the marginalized or forbidden memories): both the counter-memories created within the group and among different groups. We can not just study the similarities. It is the differences that reveal the full story!
There are many great books on social memory application. If you are interested in how social memory theory might be applied to the quest for the historical Jesus, I recommend Anthony Le Donne's recent book, The Historiographical Jesus and now his trade book on the subject, The Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it? which will be released in January. Great reading!

Friday, October 1, 2010

A new Coptic grammar by Johanna Brankaer

I have been meaning to alert you to a new Coptic grammar that has just been published. It is written by Johanna Brankaer, Coptic: A Learning Grammar (Sahidic) (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz). The book is structured in five parts: the first three are concerned with learning Coptic grammar. Part four is exercises that apply what has been learned in the grammatical chapters. Part five includes a selection of texts to translate. A great feature is that the exercises and the texts have cross-references to the grammatical chapters.

Her organization and pedagogy is simple: Part 1 contains all the elements of Coptic language (pronouns; nouns; numerals; prepositions; adverbs; verbs); Part 2 addresses Coptic sentence structures (nominal articulation; nominal sentences; durative sentences; etc); Part 3 covers complex sentences (main clauses; subordinate clauses; relative clauses; cleft sentences). I really like the way the grammar is laid out like this because it shows you, even in the table of contents, what the language looks like as a system. So it approaches Coptic from a holistic perspective rather than presenting it as a series of disassociated grammar and syntax points. I think it might be possible to teach the basics of Coptic in one semester using this grammar.

Brankaer uses the terminology established by Bentley Layton in his Coptic Grammar, although she has a glossary where equivalent terms found in other grammars are explained.