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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

RBL, History, Historical Criticism, Postmodernism, and Why We All Agree on Certain Things: A Special Heartwarming Big Blog for the Season of Good Will

I’m going try and enter this ongoing debate over ‘postmodernism’ versus ‘historical criticism’ by way of first defending myself (it’s not the only reason I blog but...) and then moving on to points involving various misunderstandings by suggesting there is, underneath the rhetoric, little difference in a certain kind of method involving history...if we worked assuming some points from the first half.

Leif Vaage recently made some comments on the book I did with Mike Bird, particularly about issues of history and how – hell fire! –the opponents in the book might actually, more or less, agree with one another, despite the rhetoric. I am not going to defend the book as such but instead I am going to critique Leif’s criticisms on history because I think almost everyone in the discipline, and arguably the humanities, is very similar in assessing historical (and perhaps most other) claims even if they think otherwise and so, as we will see, I think Leif’s comments need much more substance (and indeed clarification) to be useful.

Leif suggested that ‘it seemed to me that both Bird and Crossley equally are true believers when it comes to history as the arbiter of what is really real or truly true’. This seems to me to be a subtle rhetorical move (intentional or not). The book we wrote was assessing certain claims about the history of Christian origins. Leif has shifted this much more generally to ‘history as the arbiter of what is really real or truly true’. I don’t think that is fair, at least on the basis of what was written in the book. Speaking for myself, and I hope this doesn’t sound too obvious or stupid, but history was and is the arbiter of, well, history (you know what I mean). Let me spell this out a little more clearly (though still an obvious point). If we make arguments about the past (or present) we do so with reference to whatever supportive evidence we can amass or assume, or at least in theory. We will all go and disagree on many things but this is the principle. It applies to an introductory book such as the one under review, it applies to those using gender analysis, postcolonial critique, literary criticism, cultural studies, ideological analysis of scholarship or whatever. Using history is what people do when assessing claims that presidents, prime ministers and media tell us that our governments do not support ‘rogue states’ etc. We can go and check to see which illustrious figure supported which notorious dictator and when. More on this soon...

This approach to history, evidence, or whatever also applies Leif. In addition to applying to his published work, Leif recently gave a defence of the possibility of the Cynic-like Jesus thesis at a small and very interesting Oslo seminar where we were both present and he did so with reference to the possibility of cultural interactions in the Decapolis. He tried to persuade the audience with historical reconstruction and data. In other words, the same sort of thing I attempted and Mike attempted. Leif spoke about ‘this eminently modern form of knowledge’ but it is one most of us actually share in practice.

But it was Leif’s comment that the ‘arbiter of what is really real or truly true’ which really confused me, not least because the book was on the history of Christian origins not something more general (and vague?) and not on (say) the ethical teaching of the NT (actually the editor removed some such stuff because it was not deemed relevant). Is Leif suggesting something beyond history? Is it faith? Is he suggesting allegory? Is it mysticism or some equivalent? The poetic or aesthetics? If it is something like this, then I have some vague views on such things and wouldn’t particularly want to deprive people of their views of the world etc (as I said in the book and as I argued with reference to the resurrection) but that’s a different issue.

Leif concluded: ‘What would happen to their conversation, I finally wondered, if it were to include a more unbelieving practitioner of this eminently modern form of knowledge?’ Well, who might this be? Someone like Hayden White? Well, ok, but that would be a different book with different goals (a bit like many of those debates played out in history journals of the 80s and 90s). But even Hayden White had to assume the ‘eminently modern form of knowledge’: White was clear enough on this when it came to the Holocaust but also how else did White (successfully in many ways) document patterns in historical writing...? That seems a historical move to me (and that’s not a criticism). If it were a Keith Jenkins type Leif was alluding to then his would be too general to be focused on Christian origins as it would be at the heart of philosophy of history.

Ultimately, I have to say that I get a little suspicious when people critique others and give only the vaguest of reasons. It may or may not be modern and obvious to say this, but absence of a clear counter argument cannot really function as a useful counter or qualification. For reasons which might become clear below, I wonder if we are dealing with an ideological move in such labelling (a kind of rhetorical distancing without substance), the same way we find paralleled, as we will see, in the debates over ‘historical criticism’ and ‘postmodernism’, a suspicion heightened, it has to be said, by the lack of clarification of an alternative.

In case anyone doesn’t like the approach of ‘historicism’ which underlies what I do (and I do not have anyone particularly in mind now) I will give the following aside. During the massive anti-Iraq war protest in London, I remember being almightily pissed off when Jesse Jackson got up and gave a sort of epic prayer type thing and banged on (and on and on) about John Lennon and giving peace a chance or something which was as spectacularly high on rhetoric as it was low on useful detail to counter the pro-war arguments. I wanted the speakers to highlight continually things like Blair supporting the Saddam-like Islam Karimov, that he had never cared less about Iraqis until he was told to, the previous support for Saddam by US and UK govts etc. This was a change to get such views on TV and the media, especially important as this sort of stuff was not being thrown at Blair enough or even in seriously discussed in the media (at least not in any significant way) in the build up to the war. And as this was happening, Blair talked about morality etc and various ‘liberal-left’ journalists (notably in the Observer) supplied the propaganda to back Blair up. History (or: ‘historicism’) has shown, and did show, Blair to be a thoroughly deceitful man by measuring his arguments with what detail we know. Meanwhile, as Naomi Klein pointed out at the time, Levi’s Europe started cashing in by selling teddy bears with a peace symbol.

It is for reasons such as these that I (militantly) prefer ‘historicism’ to over reliance on rhetoric. It is reasons such as these that telling the truth about the past and establishing historical data are so important, to me at least. I do not think going down the Paul de Man route is very helpful. The combination of continually establishing and verifying ‘facts’ and data, and placing them in a broader economic and cultural context is one of the key reasons I like the approach of Noam Chomsky who is, rightly, relentless when it comes to such things and happily a child of (more enlightened side of) the Enlightenment.

Anyway, let’s get back on track. Leif adds, ‘I found them strikingly alike in their historicism and for this reason most of the time not that far apart or all that different from one another in their practice of interpretation.’ I’m again not entirely sure what Leif means here but if we are as similar as he thinks then it can only be in the sense described above. Actually, there is one major difference of interpretation between Mike and myself (supernatural aside). Now this point is important: *Mike tends to focus on ideas whereas socio-historical change guides my interpretative interest.* There are other approaches from social history I use, implicitly or explicitly. Issues concerning socio-economic change underpinned what I did and do. This is a significant difference and I keep pointing out how socio-economic causal issues and historical change are repeatedly ignored in NT studies and it might be that we have yet another example of such an approach being ignored...unless, of course, Leif means similarities in the sense I described above (I was explicit in my emphasis on socio-economic change and I think it would have been difficult to miss so we should probably assume Leif means similarities lie elsewhere).

If similarities lie elsewhere, such as in the kinds of ways described above (*and this issue is going to guide the rest of this blog entry*), I think Leif’s point is too banal to be useful in this context because it applies, perhaps, to most of us. And here I would include literary critics with no interest in ‘history’ and no interest in author because they are still trying to make a case based on evidence to show the plausibility of a given reading and even in some cases implicitly showing a text in history. Same difference, is it not? All a part of the same tapestry, is it not? So, again, are we seeing an ideological move in shunting us both together...? The two authors are both similar and different but where we are similar, it is in line with most others I imagine.

And this brings me on to the entertaining debate over postmodernism and historical criticism sparked off by George Aichele, Peter Miscall, and Richard Walsh’s JBL article (as someone pointed out, it may be a significant moment that this was published in JBL). Actually, I‘m not going to comment on that debate directly, interesting though it clearly is, but rather develop the above in light of some blogger comments. The reason I make the connection with the present debate is because I think the dichotomy, at least as presented in some of the discussion following the JBL article, is both right and wrong. Let’s start with wrong. My colleague Hugh Pyper wrote in the latest SBL Forum on the NASCAR Bible, not the stuff of traditional historical critics. Hugh is a big Derrida fan and would be most at home, I suppose, in the world of which might be labelled, and I mean this very generally, ‘deconstructionist’, ‘poststructuralist’ or whatever. Yet while he emphasises things differently to historical critics, I still think this isn’t dramatically different from the ways in which historical critics might try to support a case, look for evidence, see things embedded in history, look for broader cultural themes and so on. Besides, Hugh has also worked on areas which might be deemed more traditional historical criticism and he would never be contradictory, would he...?

Not dissimilarly, Deane Galbraith wrote on ‘Cyborg, Hauntology, Spectrality and the Bible’ where he looked at cultural issues involving things from NASA naming the first chimp sent into space to the film Chimps in Space, with issues biblical reference and ideology thrown in. Again, not the sort of thing found among traditional historical critics yet...I don’t know if Deane agrees or not, but I don’t see any significant difference from the kind of standard enough approach in the sense that the argument was bolstered by historical and ‘textual’ evidence, along with cultural traits and allusions, albeit with a creative slant (an interesting parallel might be made with some trends in the study of the OT in the NT). And let’s not forget that Deane has been one of the defenders (with qualification) of historical criticism and has blogged on more traditional historical critical issues (e.g. date of the Pentateuch).

And where would we fit a Marxist like Badiou into all this (or plenty of other Marxists)? Badiou is most associated with those interested in theory but as people point out, he is very much another child of the Enlightenment. Or Eagleton? He’s obviously interested in ‘theory’ but used some classic historical criticism in his intro to Jesus (actually a very NT Wrightian approach to Jesus in certain instances). Someone somewhere (this was a massive blog debate, so forgive me) also mentioned (fairly, I think) that Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality (or was it punishment? Nevermind, the point stands) was effectively ‘historicist’ (or something like that).

This blending of approaches should suggest, at the very least, that the seemingly radically different approaches are not necessarily so radically different after all. Other examples could be given. John Barclay, who has worked with traditional readings of texts, has also worked with postcolonial theory and Badiou’s ideas, and presumably he sees no contradiction in what he is doing. I personally see no problem using whatever I think works and if this means using something like postcolonial criticism and more traditional historical criticism, with x, y or z thrown in, then so be it. What’s the problem? Or have I missed the point? Aren’t, obviously, all the humanities trying to provide some insight into human beings and society...?

Roland Boer cites a dispute between certain people we call ‘minimalists’ and ‘maximalists’ (I really can’t be bothered checking the precise links and details, ok?) and each side throwing the label ‘postmodernist’ at one another. I don’t know anything about that particular dispute but I have read similar polemic levelled at the ‘minimalists’. Again, in addition to Roland’s points, I’d refer to my above points in the sense that both sides are actually very similar. So, both sides would use archaeology, biblical texts and so on but the major difference is that they interpret the evidence and issues, such as those concerning ‘state’ and dating, differently. The weird thing about this debate is that effectively if someone dates a text one scholar doesn’t like or interprets it differently then they are ‘postmodernists’. This sort of reasoning would, erm, make some famous nineteenth century scholarship ‘postmodernist’!

Another aside, this time on the terms being used... For ‘historical criticism’, simply read traditional critical approaches to the text etc. We all know what we mean, even if we don’t like the term, ok? For postmodernism, I am with Roland in following Jameson on the cultural logic of late capitalism. As it happens, I came across one strange use of ‘postmodern’ in a musical review of the year by a journalist I actually like but who claimed certain pop songs of the past decade were ‘postmodern’. I *think* I know what he meant, even if the word isn’t all that helpful, and even in the different world of musical culture (and isn’t the whole pop music phenomenon an excellent example of one manifestation of the cultural logic of late capitalism?). Anyway, my point...the labelling comes across as quite misplaced and so does not this specific placement of the label, rather than accepting the blanket idea of cultural logic, suggest some ideological move? In biblical studies (and the humanities) there is, after all, a lot of polemic on both ‘sides’...

And of course the issue of ‘objectivity’ has been running throughout the whole debate. My guess (as Deane Galbraith suggests via Barr) is that if most biblical scholars were asked about objectivity they would admit they were not claiming to be objective in the sense that they have no presuppositions (I prefer the objectivity debates to be framed in terms of neutrality and limited objectivity but that’s for another day). Indeed, plenty of those who might identify as historical critics just can’t wait to tell us that no one can do exegesis without presupposition, as if this is something new. That said, I wonder if the rhetoric might imply otherwise. The classic ‘review of scholarship’ sections of books can often, rightly or wrongly, and certainly if people aren’t careful, come across as the past was pretty wrong but, heroically, here’s what really happened... Indeed, from conferences etc and some of the scholarly rhetoric about ‘postmodernism’, it is clear that there is the perception that ‘postmodernist’ approaches are believed to be way too subjective and effectively involve making things up. But this must therefore imply something about the interpreter, must it not...? See also some of the discussion on Roland’s blog and the Dunedin School blog for claims made by scholars concerning ‘objectivity’.

But I said ‘right and wrong’ somewhere way, way above...From the Dunedin School, Deane combines the ideas of construction and fantastical othering and he is, I think, right to do so. If it is right that there is a lot in common across different approaches when do we get to the point where the difference is simply content and theme or that someone is more convinced by one method over another? Well maybe we are already there. I mean, not everyone is into trying to get behind the text to find out the life and teaching of Jesus, not everyone is interested in the ways gender is constructed in the NT, not everyone wants to analyse literary techniques without reference to historical events and overt historical influence, not everyone is into social history, and not everyone is interested in uncovering ideology and power, and so people may see themselves as doing very different things. Ok, fair enough. But how do people try to persuade their audience...? Is it really dramatically different in the ways in which many people believe...? Perhaps this partly a debate about *taste*...? And so this is where the debate sparked off by George Aichele, Peter Miscall, and Richard Walsh could be very useful: what are the ideological issues and moves in constructing a position (or, perhaps better, someone else’s position) as ‘historical critic’ or ‘postmodernist’? These issues, for me anyway, are what are at the heart of this debate.

In all the debates over ‘postmodernism’ etc it is still clear that certain people do have entrenched positions and construct the Other as something they are not (there may be seeds of this in Leif’s critique). Deane points to the hostile use of historical criticism in certain academic discourses. We can of course reverse this and we all know it isn’t too difficult to find examples where ‘postmodernist’ (or the like) is equated with anti-history or pure subjectivity and so on. I am still yet to be convinced that there are substantial differences in approaching history and texts in terms of providing evidence for an argument and historical reconstruction. All I can see is different scholarly emphases on what is *worthy* of reconstruction.

A final aside...Chris Weimer’s strong criticism that some or much scholarship labelled by some (or perhaps many) as postmodernist, poststructuralist or ‘(critical) theory’ is pure nonsense (such scholarship, not Chris) is something with which I have some sympathy. The world of ‘theory’ (or something like – again I think we all roughly know what is meant) can include incomprehensible or nonsensical ideas and Chris is dead right to point to Sokal. As is now well known, Sokal deliberately invented things in a hoax article and, amazingly, the article got published. That alone says something. Chomsky said he knew Lacan and said Lacan told him that we would invent nonsensical ideas just to see if Parisian intellectuals would believe them. Is it being too harsh to suggest that both cases imply that some people think some profound truth beyond most and is available to the critically trained few. I do not believe that certain people in the humanities have reached a more profound level of truth many of us are not clever enough to understand. Like too much academic language, I strongly suspect that we have a classic case of academic power play, a vanguard of the elect academics who are privileged enough to *know*... That too is for another time but I would just add that exotic use of language is also used outside the world of what some might call ‘theory’ (or whatever we want to call it) and can be found in works of a more historical critical bent... Now, I don’t know how wide ranging some of the incomprehensible language or absurd statements cited by Sokal, Chomsky and others is but it is obviously present in the intellectual world, and in the work of some high profile academics, and so it will be interesting to see what Chris uncovers (it seems he intends to write more on this).


Blogger steph said...

oh yes absolutely completely and utterly, couldn't agree more ... except you took a long time to say it! ;-)

lalala lacks clarity and needs to be more concise :-) but no, it's pretty clear about Lief, just long winded ... but then it's hard not to be with Lief ... and postmodernism, well, what ja know.

December 30, 2009

Blogger mhelfield said...

Hi James,

As usual, you are clear, eloquent, and well spoken. It was a real pleasure to read this post.



December 30, 2009

Blogger steph said...


I love to take the piss. Some might say you wuz 'muddled and all over the place'. But I'd give them a bollocking for that...

December 30, 2009

Blogger steph said...


nice reply from Deane.

December 30, 2009

Anonymous James said...

Thanks Michael, very nice of ya!

December 31, 2009

Blogger steph said...

well someone had to be nice to you when they thought I was being horrid.

December 31, 2009

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

"Issues concerning socio-economic change underpinned what I did and do. This is a significant difference and I keep pointing out how socio-economic causal issues and historical change are repeatedly ignored in NT studies and it might be that we have yet another example of such an approach being ignored..."

I agree. But the socio-economic issues are a part of the history. If you get them wrong, so will you be wrong with the rest.

January 03, 2010


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