Tuesday, July 15, 2008

boundary making

I'm currently working through my notes from Daniel Boyarin's Border Lines, which is in my view one of the most important texts in the last ten years among "parting of the ways" scholarship (and which largely subverts that scholarship) and has important implications for contemporary historiographical praxis. Here, however, I'd like to try to conceptualize a problem (a feeling, really) I've had whenever I read constructionist texts like Boyarin's.

First, a quote:
Ania Loomba’s statement of the current theoretical position that “no human utterance could be seen as innocent,” that, indeed, “any set of words could be analyzed to reveal not just an individual but a historical consciousness at work,” is crucial for me, for it is this postulate that enables my work as historian. This set of notions, to which I can more or less only allude in this context, does not quite dissolve completely (as sometimes charged) but surely renders much more permeable any boundary between linguistic (or textual) practice and “the real conditions” of life within a given historical moment and society. (2004:27)

Here I find articulated what both excites me and gives me pause about Border Lines (and cf. also Boyarin's earlier work, Dying for God). Boyarin develops and advances a genuinely sophisticated program of textual analysis that illumines not just the intention of the text but also its consequences. For example, applying Boyarin's program to, say, Matthew's gospel would reveal less about Jesus and more about the effects of Matthew's writing (better: performing) his account of Jesus' life. This surely isn't new; what is exciting is the significant advance on the now-traditional redaction-critical approaches to these types of questions. (For more detail you'll just have to read Boyarin's books.)

But there is a significant blind spot in Boyarin's work that has to be challenged. Border Lines blurs the clean and clear lines that ancient orthodox Christians and rabbinic Jews were drawing between "Judaism" and "Christianity." This blurring is ostensibly motivated by Boyarin's sympathy for "the folks . . . who dwelt in the interstices of the texts and objected to or simply ignored the work of the religious customs officers" (2004:7). As the first quote provided above makes clear, this does not result in the deconstruction of any and every distinction between "Jews" and "Christians," but it does highlight problematic aspects of that distinction.

But in blurring the lines so powerfully, Boyarin (inadvertently?) emphasizes another boundary that, I suggest, wasn't as clean and clear as contemporary theorists and historians like to imagine. The distinction, separation, and opposition between "lay folk," "the majority," "the oi polloi" (if I may be redundant), on the one hand, and "authority," "elites," "center[s] of power," on the other, is ubiquitous in contemporary analysis, especially political analysis, of historical and religious texts. And in many ways these two categories have contributed much to that analysis. But rarely do critics turn their category-blurring gazes upon this very powerful boundary that they themselves (we ourselves?) have in large part constructed. Like Boyarin, I'm not suggesting that distinctions between centers of cultural currency and the margins aren't real, but rather that they're not as impermeable as we like to think. This is not simply a point about social mobility, either; even in societies where upward social mobility was largely, if not totally, denied, the construction of the categories the elite and the masses was discursive and contested.

I admire and would like to advance Boyarin's deconstruction of the distinction between Christianity and Judaism, especially in the first 150 years C.E. I think our reification of this border has inflicted serious violence (ideological as well as actual) on our interpretations and appropriations of the NT texts throughout the last two millennia and not least in the last 100 years. But to accomplish that deconstruction at the expense of reifying another opposition — between the people and the elites, the Little and the Great Traditions, the Hidden and the Public Transcripts, and so on — is too high a price. Rather, the real historical (and, I think, theological!) promise lies in our ability to examine and appropriate the interaction and contestation precisely between our categories!

[For another instance of this problem and a significantly more advanced response to it than I have provided here, see John Bodnar's Remaking America (1992) and the extensive critique found in Barry Schwartz's Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (2000).]

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