Saturday, September 15, 2007

Inhuman history and POV

In Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World, Martin J. S. Rudwick traces how Victorian illustrations of the prehuman world (especially those crammed with strange life forms like dinosaurs) were deeply influenced by depictions of biblical history, and especially by scenes of the seven days of creation. Rudwick writes:
It is easy to take these scenes from ‘deep time’ for granted. But they invoke a conceptual and material construction of a very peculiar kind. Their realistic style invites us to imagine that we are seeing the deep past with our own eyes, unproblematically, as if from a time machine. Yet we also know that in fact they are based on extremely fragmentary evidence, fleshed out with a complex network of theoretical inferences. Furthermore, a moment’s reflection shows that they are very far from any simple realism, not least because they crowd into one scene a variety of organisms that would unlikely to pose together so obligingly in real life

Rudwick is as interested in point of view as mis en scene: these snapshots of prehistory are always organized as if an invisible human being were the observer. The vanished but assumed human knower is omnipresent, even in dinosaur illustrations to this day, leaving invisible what is in fact a problem:
Scenes from deep time … had not been and could not be witnessed by any human beings at all. By definition they claimed to represent a human viewpoint in a world that was totally nonhuman because it was prehuman. Here, significantly, the only precedent that might have been helpful was one with which many ‘men of science’ were reluctant to be associated. Traditional biblical illustrations had always included scenes from the very beginning of time, before any human beings were present to record events depicted … However, that pre-Adamic human viewpoint was not a divine viewpoint, unless it was that of the anthropomorphic Yahweh ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day,’ or, proleptically, that of the logos that ‘was made flesh and dwelt among us.'

The organizing principle of the picture, that which gives it meaning and coherence, saturates the visual field with human meaning. Inhuman history is made knowable by making it anthropocentric -- even in the supposed absence of the human.

I was thinking about Rudwick's book this morning while reading a review in the Washington Post of the new Ansel Adams exhibit at the Corcoran. Blake Gopnik writes about the POV in Adams' iconic nature photography and what vanishes from them. Gopnik is specifically interested in the various cars Adams used to transport himself to vistas that seem to lack human content:

Of course, none of those cars are visible in Adams's photos. (Or not in most of them, at any rate. More on that below.) But they are a hidden presence that helps give his photos force and builds their meaning. Adams and his images are a product of the glory days of Machine Age America, and they speak about it.

Adams's photos aren't just about landscape. They're about the particular confrontation between technology and landscape that made those photos possible. The images of the Sierra Nevada are as much about getting easy access to those mountains -- even with dozens of pounds of large-format camera equipment -- as about the mountains themselves. America's love affair with its landscape has never been only about the natural wonders it contains. It's been about pride in America's ownership of those wonders and the ability to go out from settled centers to take them in. Technology made it ever easier to make the trek; photographic technology made it possible to seize the instant of encounter and commemorate that ownership.

Gopnik even provides a commercial photograph that Adams created and which was discovered in a drawer at the Post:
Just by chance, The Washington Post also owns a bunch of Adams advertising shots, discovered in a drawer more than 10 years ago. There's not much of a clue to where they came from, but they feature trademark Adams subjects: the giant trees of northern California, the cliffs and peaks of Yosemite. Yet, in each shot, cars and roads bring people into the scene, so they can have fun and look sexy and, generally speaking, sell the tourist landscape all around them. One of them is a classically Adamsian shot of a famously huge tree -- with a shiny eight-door custom Cadillac parked at its base, disgorging happy city folk. In his commercial work, Adams depicted America's mechanized reality. His art displays its alter ego.

Though the website doesn't offer this image, it is quite intriguing: an absolutely immense Redwood with an absolutely immense Cadillac, Ansel Adams with the human that has always been his frame made suddenly and stunningly visible.


Unknown said...

Regarding the first half the post. I remember teaching a course on biblical literature at a relatively conservative college. I asked what the historical context of the creation story was. There was an interesting disconnect that happened in the room as literal acceptance of the Bible collided with the perceived need for some level of historical criticism in biblical hermeneutics.
There are of course several great responses to such a question but the idea that we simply received that "snapshot" (from God's great photo album in the sky) remains a significant commentary on our understanding of human engagement with past and present.

Karl Steel said...

I'm teaching a Bible as Literature course this semester. So, I'm curious (and sorry, JJC, if this is Off Topic): what do you, Indiefaith, think the historical context of the creation story was? I'd answer that question, first, by observing that there are multiple contexts of the creation story: its various points of origin, up until its being written down, and its multiple contexts since then (where Philo's interpretation is one version, Peter Comestor another, and so forth, up until the various modern-day literalists). And then I ask: what about the (at least) three creation stories? There's the P version (Gen 1-2:3), the J version (Eden, human created first, the Fall, the expulsion: note that for P there's no Fall or Expulsion), and then Psalm 74:12-17, which is a creation story more in line with other Mesopotamian creation stories (begins in conflict with giant sea creature). I'm wondering how your students responded to this material, if you ran through it with them.

I suppose to connect this to JJC's post I can say this: of the (at least) three creation stories in the Tanakh, only one (the J version) is anthropocentric. Neither the P version nor version of Psalms 74 even suggest a human viewer.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

IndieFaith: There seems to be eternal war between those who see in the bible a snapshot from god and those who would invoke context, human hands, multiple meanings, figurative modes etc. to make of it something more complicated than a record of fact. I have a friend in religious studies who argues that fundamentalist/wholly literal readings are among the most recent types, but I don't know enough about interpretation history to say.

Karl, thanks for your comment as well. I wonder about those multiple voices/multiple creation stories you point out (and that are again a recent way of reading the bible ... aren't they?) Though I was dealing with the history of pictures, the bigger question is one better addressed to texts: could it happen in the middle ages that a knowledge of the bible's "particles of alterity" (I don't know a better way of phrasing it -- I mean, things like creation via sea monster, or nonanthropocentric creation more generally, or an intimation that there are multiple ways and incompatible ways of narrating prehistory) -- is there a way that these challenges to a monolithic and unperturbed reading of the deep past can surface and be known, or are they destined to be folded back into the dominating story?

That's very badly worded!

Karl Steel said...

and that are again a recent way of reading the bible ... aren't they?

Not recent so far as deep time goes; but I had thought the documentary hypothesis developed in the 19th century. Depending on how one looks at it, I was off by a couple hundred years.

Funny that I didn't read the Wikipedia article before teaching the class. I feel a bit betrayed by the books I read and have been reading, since none of them let me know that the DH consensus collapsed in the late 60s. Of course no one's gone back to the single author theory, but still.

BTW, so far as I know, one of the first written expressions of suspicion about Moses being the author of the Torah was by Ibn Ezra.

is there a way that these challenges to a monolithic and unperturbed reading of the deep past can surface and be known, or are they destined to be folded back into the dominating story?

I'm having trouble formulating an answer to this question, in part, I think, because it's hard to figure out where you're placing the agency. Who's doing or not doing the folding?

Unknown said...

Most scholars still assume basic aspects JEDP (it really depends who edited that wiki) though it can no longer be applied as strictly as it used to. Source theories for the Pentateuch and the Bible as whole got a little out of hand with authors being found ad naseum. There was no agreed criteria by which to judge some of the distinctions made in more nuanced readings of the text.
When I introduced the creation story I did bring in the parallels from the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish and talked about the function of such narratives. After that I did what I think is the best (as in the safest way of avoiding scholarly trends that will or have been debunked) and least offensive approach which is to allow the text itself to unfold.
I drew attention not only the multiple creation stories in Gen 1-2 but then also in the Flood story (chaotic waters parted, wind blew, dry land emerge [incidentally ‘dry land’ is a relatively rare Hebrew word], garden planted) and the Exodus account (creation of a people with same water/chaos, wind/spirit, land/order movement). The creation theme of course surfaces throughout the Bible (especially Proverbs, Isaiah and Psalms; in these cases the sea monsters were often foreign nations or still primal chaos). What is interesting for the discussion here is that “creation” is never imported as a still frame rather as an engaged reality.
It is also helpful to note that the Garden of Eden is not a static historical reality but is actually on top of the mountain of God (even in the creation account all rivers flow out as though from a mountain top Gen 2:10; then see also the imagery in Ezk 28:13-14) and figures most prominently in the imagery of the Tabernacle which was a micro-cosmos of God’s created order (i.e. the Garden).
As to authorship I look to passages in the text itself that open up the communal tradition of canonization or at least textual formation (see Gen 32:32; Deut 33:4; Lev 26:46; etc.). It becomes even more fun when you have some familiarity with the differences in theological and social agendas between the Greek and Hebrew texts. But I could go on and on.
The snapshot approach to history is certainly not an ancient one. People had no problem ascribing the book of Psalms to David or Proverbs to Solomon while textually there were explicit references to other authors. In biblical studies they are trying to create a version of the Bible that is more accurate or "pure" than it ever was in history, which is pretty ironic and I think speaks directly to the original issue in this post.

Karl Steel said...

IF: thanks very much for the detailed comment. Frankly, teaching this class has been more than a bit like the dream of finding oneself on stage to give a lecture, totally unprepared, totally naked.

Unknown said...

By the way James Sanders is a prominent figure in exploring the communal formation of the biblical text. Karl, if you are interested I can dig up a bunch of stuff on this issue if you have some specifics you are looking at.

I tend to be much more interested in the literary and inter-textual reading of the Bible (though there is certainly a historical dimension that must be considered).

Nicola Masciandaro said...

The organizing principle of the picture, that which gives it meaning and coherence, saturates the visual field with human meaning. Inhuman history is made knowable by making it anthropocentric -- even in the supposed absence of the human.

What's the alternative? Drawings of the Umwelt of a pterodactyl? Is a disembodied POV any less anthropocentric, embodied than an embodied one? Or more so? Obviously there are more and less responsible anthropocentrisms, but I am having trouble seeing any distance, space, distinction between the human and the frame. Every picture, every bracketing off of reality and folding it back into reality, i.e. every image) is human, not necessarily in an absolutist sense, but in the sense of presuming, being unintelligible without, something like full self-consciousness or the cogito. Right? I think of Levinas: "Signification, the intelligible, is being showing itself in its nonhistorical simplicity, its absolutely irreducible unqualifiable nakedness, existing 'before' history and 'before' culture" (Humanism of the Other, trans. Poller, 38). Which I would want to play out in the language of "In the beginning," (en arche, bereshiyt) where the text can only come *out* of the beginning, speak it, by being outside of it and placing itself *in* it, from an unspeakable, impossible distance. Levinas's signification is something like the infinity of preposition and the absolute disjunction of the frame.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

On strict fundamentalism as a relatively recent strategy for reading the bible: This is from David Plotz's review of James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible:A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now:

One purpose of “How to Read the Bible” is to recapture the Bible from literalists, and Kugel certainly succeeds. His tour through the scholarship demonstrates why it makes no sense to believe that every word of the Bible is true history. Piling on, he also contends that modern Bible literalism, that brand of six-day-creationism favored by fundamentalists, is wildly out of step with traditional Christian interpretation. Such monomaniacal focus on the Bible’s literal truth is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s not so much that readers of yore didn’t believe the Bible’s truth; they just didn’t waste a lot of time trying to prove impossible events like the Flood.

Kugel's resolutely interdisciplinary work has always appealed to me. He's an orthodox Jew who doesn't mind admitting that much of what has been taken to be biblical history is in fact biblical myth. He can write God may be "two different deities fused into one: El may have been a god in the Canaanite pantheon, while YHWH may have been a Midianite god imported, via nomads, to the early Israelites, who made him their only god" -- but this kind of observation is part of his serious engagement with the bible and its history, rather than some flippant, Dawkins-like debunking.

I hope to have more to say on the topics these comments raise later in the morning.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS There were two DC events the Cohen clan ended up at on Sunday: a certain march against a certain war, and the Anselm Adams exhibit at the Corcoran. Both were quite an interactive spectacle.

Karl Steel said...

Piling on, he also contends that modern Bible literalism, that brand of six-day-creationism favored by fundamentalists, is wildly out of step with traditional Christian interpretation.

I'm glad that the reviewer included the word "modern" there (although "recent" would probably be a better adjective), as reading for the literal sense was quite a different animal for Xian exegetes in, say, 12th-century Paris, where we see (and here I'm not only grossly simplifying but also likely getting things wrong) arguments about just what constitutes the literal sense, and thus arguments about where to place the division between literal paraphrase and explanation (for example, of difficult grammar) and interpretation proper. Thus we have--and here I just checked my Beryl Smalley Study of the Bible--arguments about whether not metaphor (e.g., any one of the Psalms) counted as part of the literal meaning. It's fascinating stuff.

What's also fascinating to me on this point is Patience,* and its incredulity at the whale. I don't know if it gets this from Jerome or someplace else (quick check of Historia Scholastica gets me nothing on Jonah's whale), but we see an emphasis on the miraculous in this episode, in other words, an incredulity at the "literal sense" (whatever that is), that's utterly lacking in the Vulgate. Compare:

Jonah 2:1, "Now the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonas: and Jonas was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights"

Patience 259-60
What lede moght lyve, bi lawe of any kynde
That any lyf myght be lent so longe hym withinne?

And the only way he survives, against natural law, is God's intervention. In other words, there's doubt even then (but even to say "even then" sounds teleological).

* OT, but does anyone know off hand if there are disagreements over whether to call this poet the Pearl-Poet or the Gawain-Poet? The first alliterates, but it also shapes interpretation: is the predominate focus on the poem sacred or (if it's the Gawain Poet) profane?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Good stuff, Karl. I'm wondering about the management of doubt as well. The juxtaposition of surviving within the whale and naming the poet who wrote Patience and SGGK is a good one, because similar issues are at stake. Lisa Spangenberg had a post about fairies as other that touched upon Bertilak:

Fairies are capricious, unknowable, and, given the threats made to Heurodis, and the Green Knight's ability to suffer decapitation in good cheer, quite possibly malicious in intent. Certainly they are "other," with all its connotations of dangerous, incomprehensible, and alien.

I wonder if calling the poet the "Pearl Poet" isn't a way of deflecting attention away from that alterity and towards something that is more easily accommodated into an orthodox Middle Ages.

Karl Steel said...

Will say more about fairies and suchlike things tomorrow perhaps, but I want to jot down something that just came to me:

the hexaemeral commentaries might be a place to look for an ananthropocentric description of things: after all, in the P account, people don't appear into we're well into things.