Ehud Ben Zvi has been at the forefront of exploring how the study of social memory contributes to our understanding of the intellectual worldof the literati of the early Second Temple period and their textual repertoire. Many of his studies on the matter and several new relevant works are here collected together providing a very useful resource for furthering research and teaching in this area.The essays included here address, inter alia, prophets as sites of memory, kings as sites memory, Jerusalem as a site of memory, a mnemonic system shaped by two interacting ‘national’ histories, matters of identity and othering as framed and explored via memories, mnemonic metanarratives making sense of the past and serving various didactic purposes and their problems, memories of past and futures events shared by the literati, issues of gender constructions and memory, memories understood by the group as ‘counterfactual’ and their importance, and, in multiple ways, how and why shared memories served as a (safe) playground for exploring multiple, central ideological issues within the group and of generative grammars governing systemic preferences and dis-preferences for particular memories.
A review copy arrived some time back. I’ve worked through its contents and wish to make the following observations on the book. But before I do, please note the Table of Contents (the contents tab on the left of the page).
There are 31 essays in this volume and all but six of them have appeared previously. There is a fairly wide range of texts examined and most of the essays are interesting. But three of them are VERY interesting:
- Reading Chronicles and Reshaping the Memory of Manasseh
- When Yhwh Tests People: General Considerations and Particular Observations Regarding the Books of Chronicles and Job
- Social Sciences Models and Mnemonic/ Imagined Worlds: Exploring Their Interrelations in Ancient Israel
The work in hand extends to over 700 pages and every page has one central point: memory. Or to be more precise, ‘Site of Memory’. And what is that exactly?
‘Site of Memory’ is used here to refer to any socially constructed space, place, event, figure, text or the like- whether it is manifested ‘materially’ or only in the mind of members of a social group- whose presence in the relevant cultural milieu evokes or was meant to evoke core images or aspects of images of the past held by the particular social group who lives in that cultural milieu.
If that seems an ambitious project, it’s because it is. How, after all, are we supposed to glean what memories various texts provoke in modern readers, much less those who lived thousands of years ago?
To state the problem another way, how are we supposed to know what the person on the other end of a phone call is saying when we only hear what the person near us is saying? How are we to know what ancient readers hear when ancient texts speak when all we have is the text doing the speaking and not the ancient doing the hearing?
There is no doubt that we are well equipped to infer certain facts when we hear just half of a ‘call’:
‘No, I can’t make it to dinner tomorrow, how about we make it Saturday?’
‘Ok then, Saturday works. See you at 7.’
It’s fair to infer that the person on the other end of the line has declined dinner on some day of the week and that he or she has agreed to both a time and a day. But that’s all we know. We don’t know the details of the restaurant or anything about the other person at all.
And that, it seems to me, is the problem with memory studies on the whole. Texts surely do intend to provoke something in the readers. Jeremiah’s ‘remember Shiloh’ certainly is a very fine example of that provocation to remembrance of a particular textual event. The problem we run into though is that we may well understand Jeremiah’s meaning but we are lost in terms of his audience’s understanding of that sermon.
Ben Zvi realizes all of that, I think, which is why he writes
Of course, written texts or collections of texts are not themselves memories. They may, inter alia, encode, communicate, shape, reshape, recall memories, but they are not memories. Only people can have memories.
Indeed! And we are at a loss precisely because we have no people to question concerning how texts provoked or affected memories in their minds or in the minds of anyone else.
In short, then, the entire ‘memory’ project is a pipe dream. It bears the resemblance of scientific enquiry because it uses social-scientific terminology and is very popular in various corners of biblical studies. There are memory sessions and sections at academic conferences. All of which serves to legitimize what is, as far as I can objectively tell, a pursuing of imaginary readings.
That doesn’t mean that there are interesting things to be found in the present volume or in the whole ‘social memory’ quest. There certainly are. But what are we to do with the delights we pluck off the tree of social memory studies once we have them in hand? If we bite into them with any force at all they evaporate into the ether because they are ephemeral and imaginary.
There is plenty of ‘fruit’ to be plucked from the social memory tree here planted and tended by Ben Zvi. Unfortunately, there’s nothing nutritious in that fruit because it consists of air. It is wispy and attractive and tempting like cotton candy. But like cotton candy there’s nothing to it except a bit of a sugar high headache and sticky fingers that have to be washed off before you can get back in the car of scholarship to make your way back home to the study of substantial matters.
It is impossible to ‘get inside’ someone’s head and the simple truth of the matter is, we have no idea how memories arise or affect individuals or societies. Not in any meaningful, practical way.
I wish things were otherwise. I wish the hopeful and helpful promises made by the memory theorists actually delivered what they hoped they would deliver. But they don’t.
The tool doesn’t work.