Thursday, May 07, 2009

Carter and "the presence of the past" in Ephesus

Warren Carter, in his attempts to put John's gospel in its proper context, analyzes what he calls "a turn to the past" (see chapter 3). He rightfully refers to social memory research, though at this point his engagement with social memory theory has been rather superficial. I'm only a couple pages into this chapter, so (again) my comments are more motivated by rather than directed toward Carter's argument.

Carter begins by illustrating a "turn to the past" in Ephesian social memory: a benefaction given to the city by a Roman, C. Vibius Salutaris, in 103–104 CE (see Carter 2008: 94–97). As part of his benefaction, which was commemorated in a 568–line long inscription at the city's theater, Salutaris funded a procession through the city every two weeks that began and ended at the temple of Artemis and passed by various monumental features of the city that evoked first its Roman, then Hellenistic, and ultimately its Ionian history. In other words,
The procession route recalled the city's foundation legends in reverse historical order: Rome, Lysimachos, Androklos, and Artemis. Rome's recent building activity and Lysimachos's Hellenistic refounding were confirmed and integrated into the city's history and identity. The heart of it, though, centered on Androklos and finally on Artemis, who provided the ultimate civic identity of Ephesus as a sacred community. (96; my emphasis)

As we might expect even from the title of his book (John and Empire), Carter focuses on the political dimensions of memory ("a turn to the past") as the procession from and to Artemis's temple commemorated the city's history. And inasmuch as remembering the past is as intrinsically political act Carter's analysis provides some important insights. But social memory theorists—especially Barry Schwartz, Michael Schudson, Gary Alan Fine, among others—have protested that the political dimensions of memory do not exhaust memory's (and commemoration's) significance in social context. Schwartz especially, in his book Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (University of Chicago Press, 2000; see now also his Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era; 2008), argued eloquently that memory also has, simultaneously, a semiotic function that makes sense of the present before it attempts to persuade certain behaviors in response to the present.

With respect to Carter's discussion, then, the implications of memory's cultural (= semiotic) functions have immediate impact. Carter writes, "The city, like the procession, began and ended in the past with Artemis. Roman presence was not denied or invalidated, but it was shown not to be ultimate" (96–97). Perhaps. But I think a rather different interpretation arises from the procession's itinerary. Rome may have been reduced to simply one of the commemorative fields through which the procession marched (even, arguably, the most ostentatious of those fields), with the [native] temple of Artemis framing the entire event by way of its function as both starting and finishing line. But this commemorative march through the city's history doesn't "de-imperialize" the Asian capital so much as it explains Ephesus' imperial situation in terms of the city's pre-Roman narrative. That is, by virtue of fitting Rome into this memorial parade, Salutaris's benefaction normalized Roman power and, rather than minimalizing it in relation to Ephesus' more ancient history, legitimated that power as one more chapter of the city's continuous history from Artemis to Trajan.

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