I came across the 1971 debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky on human nature a couple of days ago; I last viewed it quite some years ago but found myself still fascinated enough to listen to it carefully through to the end once more. (There’s also a transcript online, I afterwards discovered.) And what memories — all that student long-hair!
What surprised me was that Foucault had lost none of his ability to leave me in some dismay with his insistence that a concept like justice is a social construct and instrument of class oppression.
I’ve been trying to get some little idea into the nature and origins of human ethics from the perspective of evolution and have come to see what we call ethical systems as phenomena found also in other social animals. No doubt Foucault would have said that what we observe in the animal kingdom generally is nothing more than displays of power struggles.
My own limited reading has suggested to me that a fundamental factor underlying ethical systems is the biological principle of reciprocity. Some readers no doubt have read more and can enlighten me further. Is not all ethics fundamentally about the well-being of living organisms so they can survive, flourish and reproduce? I will live at peace with you and not infringe upon your space as long as you respect my piece of territory that I need for my survival. From there we move to those experiments showing us monkeys throwing tantrums if they are not given the same rewards as their peers without any apparent justification for the inequity. Monkeys don’t talk about fairness or justice but they seem instinctively to understand the “fact” of what we describe with those labels.
Instruments of power? No and Yes
That led me to view other criticisms of postmodernism by Chomsky and his views matched similar criticisms I have been reading in discussions of historical methods.
And then there is the seemingly ever-exceptional case of biblical studies. A new book has come out, History, Politics and the Bible from the Iron Age to the Media Age, edited by James Crossley and Jim West. There are some very worthwhile chapters in it, but also some odd ones. One of the latter is looking at any reference or allusion to the Bible in political discourse among British prime ministers and seems to confuse the rhetorical rationalising of an argument for a political policy or legislation by a biblical reference with reliance upon the Bible as the ultimate authority for the political policy or legislation.
[T]he implicit authority for such simplifications, and ultimately for carrying out violence, is grounded in, and justified by, a given politician’s construction of, and assumptions about, the Bible, religion, and Christianity…” (Crossley, J.G. “God and the State: The Bible and David Cameron’s Authority” in History, Politics and the Bible from the Iron Age to the Media Age, Kindle ed. Loc ca 3880-90)
Despite every appearance to the contrary are we still really living in the age of Cromwell. Discourse really does contain allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible as rationalisations and appeals to various sentiments in audiences, but that hardly means Shakespeare and the Bible are indeed the authorities for political oppression and violence.
One does want to ask if such interpretations rather attempt to inflate the importance of one’s chosen profession. They come across to me as over-reaching in efforts to plead some relevance for the field of biblical studies as a serious academic discipline.
One does indeed see a “discourse of power” in action by postmodernist Chris Keith in another work, Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels (2011). In the introduction Chris Keith opens with an oddly defensive paragraph declaring a political justification for believing the historicity of Jesus and the foundation of historical Jesus studies within the academic guild of biblical scholarship:
all serious scholars, regardless of religious persuasion, acknowledge that Jesus lived and taught in Judea in the first century CE, and furthermore that he died on a Roman cross in Jerusalem at the order of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. In fat, as one scholars says, Jesus’s crucifixion by Pilate “is one of the surest facts of Christian history.”
And that’s the end of the matter. Had our author attempted to refer to any specific evidence or argument to justify his claim he might have known he would have undermined his very point because there is no evidence that is beyond dispute or that relies upon circularity or unfounded assumption. So the author provides no scholarly justification at all. Merely the justification of political power (“all serious scholars acknowledge”) that could be taken as an extract from the Apostle’s Creed:
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who . . .
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
I actually don’t know of any “serious scholar” who argues that Jesus “lived … in Judea” and such careless phrasing (all say he lived in Galilee as far as I am aware) is one indication of the emotive impulse behind the political justification and absence of scholarly scruples. There are in fact many such careless errors of fact and groundless assumptions in the remainder of the introduction (I’ll discuss some of them in a future post) but they all serve the same function: they all serve to reinforce the correct belief systems of “all serious scholars”. Notice, too, how important it is for the body of these “serious scholars” to include persons of “all religious persuasions”. That rider is an absolute essential to emphasize in a field that everyone knows is dominated by the religious faithful. “Look, we have our token black, or our token woman, who repeat the same mantras as the rest of us and conform to our mindsets, so no-one can accuse us of racism or sexism.”
I said Chris Keith is a postmodernist, and it may be no coincidence that he is a leading exponent of “alternative ways of knowing” about “the historical Jesus”, in particular via supposedly new concepts of “memory theory”. Everything I have read by Keith and others about what is advanced as a new theory of memory in relation to historical records is nothing new at all and strikes me as a lot of complex phraseology for what have long been held as simple truisms among historians for several generations now.
Historians didn’t have to be told by postmodernists that historical evidence is inevitably subject to different interpretations and perceptions by different historians and that the very creation of our evidence in the first place was the product of particular points of view and biases of its creators. Memories have long been known to be fallible and to indicate the present needs of the one who remembers.
I am reminded of Chomsky’s point about the general state of French intellectuals: they like to be the first in everything, and if they can’t say anything sensible that is new, they say something incoherent that can take the lead. The incoherence adds to the mystique — all very important for justifying their position of power. Or where it is not incoherent it is a lot of big words and convoluted phrases that hide what are in fact simple truisms. (That trick has been around long before postmodernism, as shown in Andreski’s Social Sciences as Sorcery.) It is as if some individuals within the field of historical Jesus studies have followed suit.
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