Monday, April 05, 2010

historical and/or mnemonic trajectories

Okay. The fourth chapter ("Memory and Typology") of Anthony Le Donne's The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009) presents the heart of Le Donne's argument regarding trajectories (and the utility thereof) for historical Jesus research (see the section, "Mnemonic Continuity and Trajectory" [70–77]). This, as I've said elsewhere, is so far the heart of my disagreement with Le Donne's historiographical program, including his appropriation of social memory theory. On the one hand, this is a significant disagreement, since without the argument for trajectories Le Donne's book loses a lot of its substance. On the other hand, the amount of theoretical and methodological material in the book with which I agree probably surpasses 90%, and so I'm prone to minimize the significance of this disagreement. Either way, let's make sure I understand the argument rightly.

First, Le Donne is not suggesting that mnemonic trajectories enable us to move behind the extant historical data to the historical realia that generated our data. As he has argued throughout the previous two chapters, there simply is no uninterpreted historical reality behind the data, no "real Jesus" for us to get to apart from the "Jesus Remembered" (note the intentional echo of James Dunn). Le Donne isn't suggesting that there wasn't an actual historical (= real) Jesus that the early Christians remembered in their accounts of his life and teachings. But he does insist that we cannot get behind our historical data to reconstruct the real person of whom the gospels are (or claim to be) traces.
What the postmodern mind has taught us is that we must always qualify what we mean by "real." What is real is that which has been perceived and interpreted and thus refracted. But once qualified it is no longer helpful to draw a distinction between the real Jesus and the remembered Jesus. For those disciples of the first generation, the real Jesus was the Jesus of their memory. (76)

I have to admit that I agree here. We can know the Jesus whom the early Christians remembered. Inasmuch as Paul's letters, the gospels, and other early Christian texts "get Jesus wrong," we cannot know the "real" Jesus who walked and talked throughout Galilee. Inasmuch as they "get Jesus right," we can. But in both cases, we are constrained by (n.b. not "restricted to") the evidence we have, all of which has already been "refracted."

Second, Le Donne builds his case for mnemonic trajectories on the strength of his argument for memory's continuity through time. Let me say, I agree completely with his case that memories are causally related to previous perceptions and conceptions of the past (= continuity), even if each generation has to expend its own energy to come to terms with the past it inherits from its forebears. "What is vital to this model is the concept of mnemonic continuity. . . . Once a perception has been localized within a particular mnemonic category, the refractions thereafter will constitute only incremental modifications to that category" (72; my emphasis). Le Donne's point isn't necessarily that dramatic changes in conceptions of the past don't happen, but only that they happen in relation to the conceptions of the past that were received as traditional. As an example (my own, not Le Donne's), if someone were to offer the (radically revisionist) view of Jimmy Carter's presidency as "successful," they would have to do so in direct conversation with thirty-years' of conceptions of Carter's administration as inept. Such an argument couldn't simply ignore received appraisals of the late-1970s American political milieu; it would have to tackle them head-on if it hoped to find any widespread reception. Again, "Our memories demand a high degree of continuity in order to tie all of our shifting frames of meaning together. The integrity of this chain determines its reliability. I can account for where and who I am now (and why) by analyzing the continuity of this chain" (73). This is exactly right.

Third, Le Donne moves directly from memory as continuous to memory as chartable: "Memory is in a constant process of refraction. Most of the time, this refracting process remains reliably stable and therefore historically chartable. . . . Because memory refraction is constant, it is chartable and therefore historically measurable" (75, 77). Perhaps. For those moments (or instances) of refraction for which we have data available for analysis, I think Le Donne's right. We can trace the diachronic development and movement of memory—how conceptions of the past morph and mutate and migrate across time. But if I've understood Le Donne's purposes rightly, his point is that we can extrapolate beyond our data (or more accurately, before our data) and posit originating (or simply earlier) memories that explain the instances of memory we have. For example,
In order adequately to account for the origin of a mnemonic trajectory, the historian must compare and contrast interpretive spheres (i.e., mnemonic cycles) that seem to be distorting a memory in opposite directions. Once these spheres are compared and contrasted, it is then necessary to postulate how these divergent traditions relate to one another. . . . it is now appropriate to speak in terms of memory trajectories that might be triangulated to postulate a common origin. (74)

In other words (again, if I understand rightly), given . . . D E F, we can postulate A B C. The problem, I think, is that Le Donne assumes not simply continuity between memories but also predictability. And as far as I can tell, there simply isn't any predictability between our gospels, even if we accept one of the traditionally accepted models of interdependence between them (e.g., the Two-Source Hypothesis, or the Farrer Theory).

Another problem, though perhaps not as significant as the leap Le Donne makes from continuity to predictability, concerns how to identify "interpretive spheres that seem to be distorting a memory in opposite directions" (74). Here the problems are legion. Is John the Baptist's question at Matt 11.3 pulling against his deferential response to Jesus at Matt 3.13–15? If so/not, what about the parallel in Luke 7.19–20, which doesn't pull against a previously narrated Johannine confession (unless you include John's pre-natal jubilation at Luke 1.41!)? Is Jesus' question about the messiah as Son of David in Mark 12.35–37 (parr.) in tension with the Davidic overtones of Mark's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11.9–10)? Is Mark a proponent of one of these christological perspectives over the other? Was Jesus? Do the gospel's portrayal of Jesus in Elijah-like terms stand in tension with the casting of John in Elijah's light? Or should we synthesize these portrayals instead?

The problem here is rooted in the relative paucity of our data; others have pursued the kind of analysis for more thoroughly documented figures (e.g., Abraham Lincoln; see Schwartz 2000; 2008) that Le Donne proposes for Jesus. It has proven an intractable problem to identify with any level of precision how various units of the Jesus tradition relate to one another, especially those traditions that may be "distorting a memory in opposite directions." It seems to me that our reconstructed trajectories will fail us anytime the early Christians' memories of Jesus behaved in ways we might not have expected. That's not to say their unexpected memorial practices weren't continuous with practices attested elsewhere. Le Donne's case for memory's continuity (which does not equal veracity, necessarily) is well made; I have my doubts, however, about its predictability.

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