The Etic, Emic, and Everything In-Between: Some Reflections on Adele Reinhartz’s Response to Daniel Boyarin

Recently, Daniel Boyarin published a book titled Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion. The goal of the book is to explore the history and usage of the term “Judaism”. Though I have admittedly not read the volume, Adele Reinhartz provides a helpful depiction of the Boyarin’s conclusions: “we “should not ascribe to a culture a category or abstraction for which that culture does not have a term.” To do so is anachronistic and therefore bad methodology. The implications for our scholarly practice is self-evident: we should not use the term Judaism when discussing premodern Jews” (Reinhartz 2019). As she notes later in her article, Boyarin’s conclusion is akin to his and Carlin Barton’s conclusion in Imagine No Religion (Fordham University Press, 2016), wherein Barton and Boyarin attempt to describe religion in antiquity without invoking modern the modern category “religion.”

Speaking of “Judaism” as a generic category, Reinhartz comments: “But does not the use of later generalizing terms give free rein to the dreaded sin of anachronism? Why, yes, of course it does. I would argue, however, that some degree of anachronism is inherent to the study of the past” (Reinhartz 2019). I am inclined to agree with Reinhartz. Various authors express similar sentiments about the category of “magic” in the recent volume titled Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic (Leiden: Brill, 2019). For example, Yuval Harari, known for his work on magic in ancient Israel and early Judaism, suggests “that an absolute split between the emic and the etic is impossible, and all attempts to trace the course of an emic approach are based on some presumption about the domain whose emic features we seek” (Harari 2019, 141).

My point in drawing attention to this is simple: many words in our vocabulary are, to echo J.Z. Smith’s perspective of religion, secondary categories [1]. Such categories don’t have a single definition; rather, they have 50 different definitions. The definitions depend on the particular contexts.

As Reinhartz and various authors in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic point out, the modern categories which we impose on texts are exactly that. They are modern. As such, it is always a challenge to objectively describe a culture or text purely based on its internal qualities.

That is to say, it is particularly difficult to strongly distinguish between emic and etic descriptions. Difficulties distinguishing between these two anthropological approaches lead me to a comment and question worth exploring. While texts/cultures can be described with etic or emic terms, such descriptions are, in reality, too optimistic and unrealistic, as these categories are not precise. As such, how can scholars more systematically and critically map out the space between etic and emic analysis?

Admittedly, I am not incredibly conversant with anthropology. If such studies are available within anthropology, I would love to read them. On the other hand, if such studies are not available, it may be a route worth exploring. Exploring it will enable scholars to better engage with texts and cultures by more precisely defining where they stand between etic and emic [2].

[1] By contrast, though, David Frankfurter, “Ancient Magic in a New Key,” in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 20, comments on “magic” as a second-order category: “While helpful initially to highlight aspects of phenomena, the term “magic” remains too vague to rely on as a genuine second-order category of description – for magic as described here essentially permeates human language, material lives, and social interactions.” That is to say, based on his definition and approach to “magic,” it is always present in societies through time and space.

[2] Though it not available to me at the moment, The Early Mediterranean World, 1200 – 600 BC (Leiden: Brill, 2018) includes helpful discussions about methodology. There may be some fruitful routes presented within the volume.

Philosophical Friday: Longinus and Sublimity

Longinus was a Hellenistic Jew, or at least an author familiar with Jewish culture, from the 1st century CE. He is most well known for his work On Sublimity. In this work, he argues that the best literature is sublime. Though difficult to identify in literature, he identifies five sources of sublimity: great thoughts, strong and inspired emotion, certain kinds of figures, noble diction, and dignified and elevated word-arrangement. Each of these points, he suggests, is a place where the audience of literature can come into contact with the sublime.

What, though, is the sublime? He comments: “When a man of a sense and literary experience hears something many times over, and it fails to dispose his mind to greatness or to leave him with more to reflect upon than was contained in the mere words, but comes instead to seem valueless on repeated inspection, this is not true sublimity; it endures only for the moment of hearing. Real sublimity contains much food for reflection, is difficult or rather impossible to resist, and makes a strong and ineffaceable impression on the memory” [1]. As Jacqueline Vayntrub carefully describes in her volume Beyond Orality, this very notion of literature and poetry becomes a keys in describing and organizing biblical poetry during the modern period.

It is worth noting the underlying philosophical and theoretical principles which inform, support, and frame Longinus’ understanding of the sublime. His notion of the sublime is based on a broad generalization about humans, namely that humans have “in our minds from the start an irresistible desire for anything which is great and, in relation to ourselves, supernatural” [2].  He proceeds by describing how people admire the large rivers, not the little streams. Likewise, people feel awe before volcanoes, not candles.

In pointing to this, I wish to make one observation: the way we describe the quality of literature and engage with it is often informed by the way we describe the quality of nature and engage with it. This is certainly the case with Longinus. Underlying his notion of sublimity is an assumption about how humans relate to nature.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 148.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 161.

Benjamin Harshav and Literature

Benjamin Harshav is a splendid theorist for considering literary texts, especially as it relates to reading Biblical texts. In what follows, I will briefly note and discuss a few of his ideas which stood out to me.

First, in his essay “The Structure of Non-Narrative Fiction,” he distinguishes between two levels of textual organization: the Text Continuum and the Reconstructed Level. The former describes the organization of the object as a linear text, one which unfolds as the audience reads the text. It is only in the Text Continuum that one can see a high degree of organization through the structure of the text. By contrast, the Reconstructed Level describes things like the characters, plots, ideas, etc. Instead of being a continual, linear unfolding, the Reconstructed Level is “built by the reader from discontinuous elements in the text and are reorganized according to their inherent principles”, such as how “time elements are reorganized in their chronological order” (179). With this distinction, Harshav comments that “in many theories and interpretations it is not always clear whether the scholar discusses something given in the text or something constructed or understood by himself as a reader” (179).

This comment is apt for Biblical Studies because it is true: scholars tend to not be explicit about whether their discussion addresses how a text unfolds or how they can reconstruct a certain aspects about the text based on the linking of certain discontinuous elements. As such, Harshav’s comment is a welcome methodological guide for approaching literary texts.

Second, in his article “”Literariness” Revisted,” Harshav outlines a few key aspects which qualify a text as literature (as distinguished from other types of texts. Listed briefly are a few key aspects for literature: a chain of speakers and positions within the text, complex meanings and references, a text formation (i.e. framing, segmentation, meter, etc.), an Internal Field of References connected to an External Field of Reference, a fixed and isolated textual object which is transferable to new reading contexts, use of various norms, conventions, and devices that are specific to a particular culture and time period, and concreteness in the sense of anchoring abstract ideas, and individuation. Though I won’t go into detail for each of these, suffice it to say that Biblical texts qualify as literature. As such, though I know I am beating a dead horse, scholars should be careful to distinguish when they are reading a Biblical text as literature as opposed to a historical text. That is to say, one may be able to derive historical things out of something like Kings; however, it should first be approached as a literary text.

Of course, this is not necessarily how an ancient reader approached Kings. Rather, an ancient reader more likely approach Kings as simultaneously a historical text and literature, not distinguishing between the two. In light of literary criticism and developments in historiography, though, we must distinguish between literature and historical texts in our analysis if we wish to makes helpful observations about the object/text in either respect.

Third, overall I greatly appreciate Harshav’s description of literary texts. Undoubtedly, his framework for approaching texts will serve as a guide for my reading and description of texts in the future.

“Fictionality and Fields of Reference: A Theoretical Framework” by Benjamin Harshav

In Chapter 1 of Explorations in Poetics, Benjamin Harshav lays out his basic theoretical framework for literature. This frame is, I think, a particularly good starting point for modelling literary texts and mapping out their systems.

Within a text, he distinguishes between the Speakers, Internal Field of Reference (IFR), External Field of Reference (ExFR), referent (r; plural rs), and frame of reference (fr; plural frs). Overall, the IFR in the constructed fictional world within any text. Within the IFR exists both rs and frs. rs is anything which can be spoken of, real or non-existent, idea or event. frs are “any semantic continuum of two or more referents that we may speak about.”[1] A fr has various kinds: unique description in time (“they used to eat”; “during the exciting birthday party last year) or general (“autumn”); real or non-existent. Moreover, frs within texts are sometimes indeterminate because they are not known or understood by the reader. At last, frs are what a text is about: as a network of references integrated into the broader IFR, they describe “what the text is about.”[2] Meaning is also related to the EFR, though, namely “any FRs outside of a given text,” such as history or a philosophy.[3] For example, when an authors claims that “on the 14th of August, PN1 spoke aggressively to PN2 in the streets of New York”, the text evokes the EFR, namely New York, and incorporates it into the IFR.

Concerning the relationship between IFR and EFR, Harshav comments on Tolstoy’s War and Peace: “to what extent Napoleon, as presented in the IFR, should be taken within the presented limits and to what extent the reader may, or should, draw on the Field of outside knowledge cannot be decided in advance, but has to be negotiated in an interpretation.”[4] That is to say although Harshav distinguishes between EFR and IFR, the r or frs that are evoked by the IFR as originating from the EFR are subject to interpretation, in terms of how much of the r’s or fr’s world and characteristics should be drawn into the IFR from the EFR, even if absent in the IFR.

Undoubtedly, the ideas here are somewhat complex, simplified within this blog posts. What I want to point to is a few benefits of using Harshav’s theoretical framework. First, his framework is helpful for thinking about the relationship between a text’s fictional world (IFR) and the real world from which it draws material (EFR). As illuminated through his comment on War and Peace, though, the relationship between the EFR and IFR are subject to interpretation. Nonetheless, his framework at least provides clear domains which enables scholars to identify the fr in the EFR and IFR so that they can subsequently analyze the degree to which aspects of the fr in the EFR are evoked in the IFR. For Biblical Studies, this is related to the issue of historical context. That is, what sort of referents function as frames of reference within the fictional world of the literary text and to what degree does a literary text, such as Genesis 1, evoke and incorporate those frames of references and associated characterization from the EFR?

Second, Harshav’s model is helpful for identify the location wherein readers must place their own imagination into the texts. This occurs as a result of multiple frs being brought into tension with each other. Chapter Two, wherein Harshav discusses metaphors, is more clear on this point: readers must gap-fill when a frame of reference is mentioned. Naturally, this can vary in terms of what is evoked. For example, if a text says, “In the month of March,” the text may evoke distinct things for readers. For an individual in Washington, it may evoke weather which is rainy and around 50 degrees. For people living in other regions, though, the fr “March” may evoke other sorts of weather. At base, then, what is helpful is that Harshav’s theory and modelling of texts enables critics to more precisely identify where readers diverge on things evoked texts.

Finally, I have not yet finished Explorations in Poetics. I have no doubts, though, that Harshav’s other discussions will provide helpful theoretical foundations for analyzing biblical texts.

[1] Harshav (2008), 5.

[2] Harshav (2008), 39.

[3] Harshav (2008), 23.

[4] Harshav (2008), 27.

Reflections on Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel”

Admittedly, I am not particularly familiar with the novels by Milan Kundera. Nonetheless, I read through a significant portion of Milan Kundera’s book The Art of the Novel because it was mentioned in footnote from a professor whose work I follow. In my reading, there are a few points which stood out to me. As such, I want to briefly present and discuss them in this blog post.

First, Part Four: Dialogue on the Art of Composition, includes some helpful terms and methods for describing novels and other literature. Kundera deems one category of description “lighting of the characters.” This is the mathematical structure of how the speech is divided throughout the novel. For example, Kundera describes his novel The Joke, for which he describes the lighting of the characters: “Ludvik’s monologue takes up 2/3 of the book; the monologues of the other three together take up 1/3 (Jarslav 1/6, Kostka 1/9, Helena 1/18)” (86). Such an approach to any literary text can be productive, inasmuch as describing the lighting of characters throughout a biblical text can help in precisely describing the text. After all, “Each character is lighted at a different intensity and in a different way” (86). By systematically and numerically tracking the lighting of characters, the data can help in comparing distinct biblical texts and their thematic thrusts. More generally, by noting possible similarities in terms of the lighting of characters, we can get a better sense of how scribes employ particular linguistic conventions by forming texts in certain ways.

Second, Kundera describes some types of narrative, not simply suggesting that narrative is a singular thing. Here are few examples of types of narratives presented by Kundera: continuous narrative which shows a causal connection between chapters; oneiric narrative; discontinuous narrative which does not show causal connection between chapters; and polyphonic narrative (87). Though somebody may have already done it, it would be interesting to consider how these types of narratives, or narrative modes, may be re-deployed for describing biblical texts. Alternatively, different narrative modes should be sought after by describing narrative in the biblical texts themselves.

Third, Kundera has some helpful comments on tempo: “Because tempo is further determined by something else: the relation between the length of a part and the “real” time of the event it describes” (88). Of course, some scholars have already begun to explore the issue of tempo and time in biblical texts. In particular, I think to Liane M. Felman’s recent dissertation on the priestly source, wherein she explores the tempo of the Priestly Source: “In a composition notable for its brevity, the sheer verbosity of this single eight-day episode raises many questions. Why does the pace of the storytelling grind to such a halt at Sinai? What is the function of the extended divine speeches containing ritual instructions? How do these instructions relate to the rest of the story, if at all?” (“Story and Sacrifice” by Liane Feldman). In other words, one of her main concerns is the purpose for the tempo change in the Priestly Source. This, I think, is a productive way to think about any literary text.

Fourth, and finally, is the interaction between the text of a novel and the reader: “the reader’s imagination automatically completes the writer’s” (34). That is to say, though the novel presents a story, aspects of the story are filled in by the imagination of the reader. This is akin to Barbara Smith’s discussion about literature and linguistics, wherein she suggests that the power of poetry, or perhaps more broadly the power of literature, is the fact that the reader must fill in aspects of it with imagination. Without the imagination, the poetry, or literature, becomes meaningless. Though I can appreciate this description of the relationship between text and reader, I do struggle with the implications of it: when a critical scholar describes the ways that a text works, namely the way it is structured and employs distinct linguistic conventions, what should our orientation be? Is our goal to find the base meaning of the text by interrogating the “true” meaning? Or is our goal to open up texts in new ways so that reader’s can re-imagine them with new understandings about the text’s history and composition? I have no answer. Though, I want to think through these things as I move forward.

Marvel, Religion, and Cloak & Dagger

One of the problems in Religious Studies is thinking about what constitutes religion.

For this reason, I was particularly impressed by the critical acumen of the script writers for the Marvel TV show Cloak and Dagger. In one scene, one character leads a tour through a church in New Orleans. Click here to watch the video clip on YouTube.

What stood out to me was the following line: “But you see Voodoo isn’t always its own religion; that’s a misconception. Voodoo is, at its core, a diverse collection of religious and cultural traditions that can either stand alone or be added to your faith.”

This description of the relationship between Voodoo and religion is, I think, helpful. Essentially, the character, and therefore the scripter writer(s), accurately captures the liminal nature of Voodoo. That is, it isn’t exactly religion. Why, though, is this so?

A brief look at the US Department of State’s coverage on Haiti can help to explain this. Describing the role of Voodoo in Haiti, the US Department of State reports: “While society generally is tolerant of the variety of religious practices that flourish in the country, Christian attitudes toward voodoo vary. Many Christians accept voodoo as part of the country’s cultural patrimony, but others regard it as incompatible with Christianity, and this has led to isolated instances of conflict in the recent past” (Haiti). In other words, a conflict exists between Voodoo and Christianity, some viewing it as legitimate, some regarding it as not legitimate. Unfortunately, with the rising predominance of Christianity in Haiti, Voodoo has become categorized as a sort of religion. What is the significance of being considered a religion?

As a practice (not necessarily a religion), Voodoo functioned historically within Haiti as a means to “contain and control a potential parallel political power in Haiti”, a political power which stood in distinction to Euro-American political power (Religion and Revolution in Haiti). As Voodoo has come to be categorized as religion, though, this function of Voodoo is problematized. As a religion, it is simply became “a mark of alterity (for Euro-Americans)”. When not categorized as a religion, though, it served as “the threat of rural, popular political power (for Haitian political elite).”

Returning to Cloak and Dagger, the previously discussed material is precisely why I appreciate the show’s description of Voodoo in relation to religion and culture. It recognizes that Voodoo cannot simply be categorized as religion. In doing so, Voodoo is deprived of its social and historical value and contexts. Instead, the script writers were careful to describe Voodoo as something not equivalent to religion, being a form of social protest derived from Brazilian and African traditions and giving practitioners a place in society that is not framed solely by Western notions of belief and religion.

Reflections on Barbara Smith’s Approach to Literature

In a previous post, I provided a summary and reflections on Chapter One of Barbara Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse: The Relation of Literature to Language (1978). Rather than summarizing the entire book here, I want to summarize two points which stood out to me.

First, one of the major concerns in Biblical Studies is thinking about how texts relate to history. Smith, in my opinion, offers a helpful perspective on this idea. In her view, a text’s composition, namely the time when it was actually written down, is a historically determinate event (34). Put another way, since the composition of a fictive utterance is a historical act, some of the meaning is absolutely historically determinate (138-139). A fictive utterance may be defined in contrast to a natural utterance: where a fictive utterance is usually present in imaginative works of literature like poems, tales, and drama (20), a natural utterance is a historical event, occupying a specific point in time and space (15) [1].

Elements which are historically determinate, of course, may be argued. For example, when reading Ps 29, the scribe’s poem was informed by a unique cultural library of linguistic conventions. Unfortunately, such conventions are not always evident to modern readers. As such, scholar must explore the historically determinate aspects and meanings of a Psalms by looking at other ancient Near Eastern literature in order to identify linguistic conventions and patterns. In doing so, scholars can better understand the historically determinate meaning of Ps 29, as well as other texts. Without identifying the linguistic conventions, there are errors of identification: “Errors of identification produce erroneous assumptions and bring into play inappropriate conventions. Conventions are conventions, however, and they may change over time and, under varying conditions, be alters” (141). Put another way, if we don’t understand the linguistic conventions of biblical poetry, we can’t understand the meaning of the poem that is historically determinate.

Simultaneously, though, scholars should be careful not to restrict the historically indeterminate meaning, namely the aspect of meaning which depends on the reader to bring to it life experiences and assumptions which results in the poem being “interesting” (154). This tension between historically indeterminate meaning and historically determinate mean is shown by Smith to be a spectrum. Adopting this perspective for biblical texts would be, I think, productive. Through clearly distinguishing between the types of meaning, scholars may engage with the text at two levels: the historically determinate level which informs intellectual and social knowledge and the historically indeterminate level wherein the human spirit exists and thrives.

Additionally, Smith’s “discourse” is informative regarding biblical genres on two fronts: didactic and proverbial. First, she defines proverbs as “sayings” which seem to have no known original speaker. As such, “it appears uncontaminated by ordinary human error or bias, and thus oracular” (72). Her comments indicate that proverbial sayings are unique on account of their seemingly non-human origins. Though I won’t divulge into discussion of how this perspective may impact biblical interpretation, suffice it to say that it has potential to do so.

Second, Smith discusses “didactic” in terms of poetry: “we may not say only that the line between didactic poetry and pure poetry is hazy, but that all poetry is didactic. We usually refer to a work as “didactic” when such propositions are explicitly formulated within them. But all works of literature may be seen to imply propositions, most of them not stated explicitly and many of them unstable – unspeakable – in terms of the formulated wisdom of the culture” (142). In short, poetry is all didactic. This make me think of the problematic characterization of Ps 78 and Ps 49. Both Psalms begin with remarkably similar language and style; however, they differ in terms of content. Ps 49 does what Smith comments on what is typically called “didactic” poetry: it is explicit concerning wisdom. By contrast, the content of Ps 78 takes a narrative form, the propositions not stated explicitly. On account of the distinction between the content of Ps 78 and Ps 49, there is not much consensus concerning the relationship between the texts. By employing Smith’s approach to didactic poems, though, it may provide a more productive way of thinking about their relationship. Moreover, it may provide a more productive way of thinking about biblical poetry generally.

[1] It is important to note that a natural utterance may also be written, namely an inscription. In an inscription, a natural utterance is performed upon reading it because the inscription, like a personal letter, is a historically unique verbal event, analogous to a speaker in discourse (20).

“Literature As Performance, Fiction, and Art” by Barbara Smith

Chapter One of Barbara Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse: The Relation of Literature to Language (1978) is titled “Literature As Performance, Fiction, and Art.” In what follows, I will provide a brief summary of this chapter, along with some of my own thoughts.

As the title suggests, Smith suggests three elements are present in literature: performance, fiction, and art. First, performance is present inasmuch as something must serve as the instrument of performance in order “to translate the inscription of that lyric into an instance of work” (6). So, in she sees two theoretically distinct activities, namely the performer and the audience, which can occur separately or together. A good example is silent reading: when one reads silently, the individual both performs the text through interpretation and reading and also acts as the audience to the performance. For this reason, literature is a performance, a simulation of natural discourse.

Second, literature is art because “literary artworks may be conceived as depiction of representations, rather than instances, of natural discourse” (8). That is, the artwork is constructed in such a way that simulates natural discourse, a fictive construction, albeit one attempting to represent nature and natural discourse. Art is not actually natural discourse, that is discourse which occurs in a particular time and space as an event in history. As such, she sees a distinction between nature and art because  nature wasn’t designed to engage us as an audience, whereas art is. This point, though, is interesting in terms of philosophy and theology. Undoubtedly, many theologians would push against this claim, suggesting that God’s creating the universe (whatever that means) was actually a work of art. Therefore, nature is art and we should not distinguish between nature and art.

At base, her fundamental claim is that “the speech of men in history and nature is distinct from the language of art” (13). That is, whereas the speech of men in history and nature is historically determinate and considered natural discourse, the language of art is constructed as a representation of the natural discourse. It is not, though, natural discourse in and of itself.

The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship by Bakhtin and Medvedev

The following is a short summary of the book The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics by M. M. Bakhtin and P. N. Medvedev. It is primarily for my own records.

The primary aim of Bakhtin is to describe and critique Russian formalism from a Marxist perspective. Though addressing many aspects of Russian formalism and being generous in his description of it, his is especially attentive to sociological poetics. That is, Bakhtin is concerned with the relation between life and literature. Literature holds refractions of mediated life, reality “reflected through the prism of the ideological environment” (17). As such, literature reflects it ideological horizon. The Marxist, sociological approach of Bakhtin points to several problematic aspects of Russian formalism in this regard. These include, though are not limited to, Russian formalism’s use of subjective psychology, ignorance for the role of materials as ideological, and suppression of meaning.

Instead, Bakhtin positively criticizes Russian formalism. The main thrust of his argument is that every artistic construction is connected to a broader ideological horizon and is in an act of social intercourse when read: “To understand an utterance means to understand it in its contemporary context and our own, if they do not coincide” (121-122). Though not the focus, Bakhtin’s approach is essentially one of dialogism: “Definite forms of social intercourse are constituent to the meaning of the works of art themselves” (11), namely between the art and the ideological horizon. Between these poles, within an ongoing dialect, readers find meaning.

Though I won’t quote specifics, he has a few comment on topics relevant to my own work. He talks about the issue of genre as being clarified through awareness of who the imagined or perceived audience is (13). He also addresses issues relevant to intertextuality, namely his discussion of transposition (22) and the boundaries of text groups (77). Finally, he has a relatively lengthy discussion about genre (129-141.