Historical Ownership and Identity of Cultures, People, and Tradition

I have been thinking lately about the ongoing political debate between Israel and Palestine over the Dead Sea Scrolls; part of this debate has been around longer, and of course has focused on the very state of Israel itself (i.e., whose Israel is it?).  But the debate over cultural identity and what belongs to which modern state, as anachronistic as it is, happens all over.  Even calling Jerusalem “the City of David” displaces the actual history of the city and incidentally replaces the real past–whichever that might be–with one full of nuance and context which otherwise never existed to begin with.  We, as people, are prone to commit this sort of folly, unfortunately.

Consider the incident a few years ago concerning the Elgin Marbles.  There is a claim that they were “stolen” (to borrow a word with way too many contextual nuances) from Athens by archaeologists and noble officials and brought to the British Museum.  They were quite nearly destroyed by museum staff when they attempted to restore them sometime during the mid-19th century (as if chiseling them off the Parthenon wasn’t damage enough).   Recently (within the last few years since its completion, especially) authorities at the new Acropolis Museum demanded the marbles be returned.  So the question follows: to which society, which culture, do these antiquities belong?  Modern day Athens is a far cry from the late 18th, early 19th  century Athens–it is certainly no where near the Classical city which built the Parthenon.  At the same time, the arguments for keeping the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum seem just as vaporous.   But maybe that is because questions about ownership and as a consequence, identity, are just no longer relevant.

What does that mean exactly?  First, and to be blunt about it, ownership and identity seem to be an attempt by modern archaeological corporations to “commodify” (to be Tel Quel-ian about it) history.  When Israel makes claims about its cultural past in a way which excludes the real, vast cultural heritage of the community which preceded the State’s existence–by arguing that, for example, “the Jews were there first,” it does so anachronistically, not archaeologically, but with the end result of having a high rate of tourism and promoting this philosophy with every sign that says “ancient Israel” when it really means “Biblical Israel”. (And the debate still rages on; see the articles here, here, here, and here)

But other examples are also obvious; the ancient dig site commonly associated with Troy (in fact there are many “Troys” out there) and the association with Homer’s poetic (not to be confused with historiographic) epics.  Indeed, the problem of identity and cultural ownership goes back to antiquity.  The Romans were pretty convinced of their Trojan ancestry and some Jews were convinced of their Greek (re: Spartan) heritage, to the point where both Romans and Jews claimed cultural progenies to these past civilizations.  Emulating the past through ownership of identity is, it would seem, a human pastime that is hard to ignore.  But it is one that should be recognized; one that should be tempered.   But as we do this with cultures, can it be said we do this also with traditions, with individuals from the past?

I think so.  Look how hurriedly certain individuals rush to locate the historical David to claim him for Israel, or claim the historical Jesus for certain sects of Christianity, or Hector for Troy.  Indeed, the whole first quest for the historical Jesus was built upon a framework of “finding” Jesus with the intent to modernize him and bring him into line; to claim ownership of him for modern Christianity which, as was well known even then, was no longer akin to the Christianity of antiquity.  The dated Jesus Christ of the Catholic Church required a modern academic makeover, so scholars anachronistically searched for him, using a mirror rather than a flashlight or a chisel or a shovel.  But would finding David really be a victory for the modern state of Israel?  Would it even be a victory for Judaism?  After all, even if David had existed historically, even if the figure he is portrayed as existed precisely as we find in the Bible (which, of course, would not be possible–the question becomes “Which Davidic character do we possess/Which combination?”), the modern religious forms of Judaism cannot possibly be those of antiquity and certainly we do not possess enough socio-cultural similarities with that era to claim that the Judaisms of the past–nor even the environment by which those Judaisms thrived–are similar to (or, rather, the same as) our own.

In other words, is it possible to identify with anything from the past in a manner where we are not looking down the well and seeing our own reflections staring us back?  Is it possible, in a literary-critical manner, to remove the synchronic present from the diachronic flow, in order to locate the sychronic past?  Roland Barthes raised this issue, along with Julia Kristeva, when they discussed the value of ‘voice’ in a text.  As an example, when the reader visits Paul’s statement, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4) the question the author of Luke poses in Luke 10:26 comes to mind: “What is written in the law?  How are you reading?”  This rhetorical question does not represent the historical, vocalized concerns of a Jewish peasant in Palestine in the first century; this question, like the one the author of Luke again posits in Acts 8, “Do you understand what you are reading?”, represents for the reader the value of the dialogic nature between the author (in this case Paul) and the reader, both in antiquity in his synchronic point in time as well as in our contemporary world and beyond in this diachronic pattern.  In other words, it expresses for us the texts intertextuality: what Paul, as the author, has written, the words’ transitive values, and the readers’ interpretations of those words.  In a Barthes-ish fashion, the reader must interpret the value of this utterance from Paul.  To whom, here, is Paul speaking?  Is he speaking to his mature, the esoteric, or to the outsiders, the exoteric?  Who is speaking and with which voice (or is it double-voiced)?  Is it Paul the ascended?  Paul the former Pharisee?  Paul the Greco-Judaic philosopher? Paul the Platonist?   What is the significance of Paul’s discussion of death?  Is this death literal? Metaphorical?  Literarily emulative?

Is it possible to locate the historical Paul?  To claim his meaning from this selection of text?  This line of questioning–which should always be considered, even when it comes to archaeology (could an artifact be “double-voiced?”  Could it be read “wrong,” where we read it through an anachronistic lens?  Most certainly), leads us directly to the underlying reality: While it is perfectly acceptable to attempt to identify with our past, it is impossible to claim ownership of “it.”  The reason, quite plainly, is that “it” can never be the “it” that today “is.”  When attempting to claim ownership of David for the modern state of Israel or claiming one of the many figures of Jesus for any modern sect of Christianity (whether he’s made out of chocolate or not), one will always, at that point, be identifying with a modern construct rather than a historical identity.

When one makes a claim, they are essentially saying “they ( s/he) are (is) equatable to me (or some variant of ego).”   This realization raises another nuance of identity and ownership:  One inevitably updates the milieux.   Just like translating a language (like Greek into English), some context will be lost and also some falsely applied–this happens as a result of transference (whether by moving the context from one culture to another or one era to another).   This is the trouble with claiming ownership of identity.   It is impossible to stop this from happening; when one takes the context of a passage or an inscription or a location or a figure of a person they like over other variations and attempt to claim ownership of them/it, that subject is immediately imbued with all sorts of substance which either never existed before or might have existed before but in another form.

So how can this trap be avoided?  Is it even possible?  And who owns the past?  The best means to stave off the total annihilation of the past through this transference of nuance is for scholarship to avoid attempts to modernize, to claim ownership of the past, or to bring into line the identity of subjects with their own egos.  The fear here is that I don’t have the faintest idea whether it is achievable.   However what is known is that no one can own the past, nor claim authority of it.  Historians should be guardians of the past, its keepers, and nothing more.  We need not pick it up, carry it around, display it as a commodity–what must be done is preserve it, for the sake of posterity, because human history is not relegated to one race, one religion, one culture.  Human history is the history of all humanity and must be owned by all, which means it must be owned by none.

12 Responses

  1. I agree with most of you have said here. However, I disagree somewhat with issues relating to ownership of archaeological finds. Modern Athens, thus modern Greeks, are the inheritors of their past. Many modern Athenians may or may not be descended from Classical Athens but that isn’t the point. It is part of their city’s history. This is part of their cultural identity and national identity and I think that should be considered when thinking about these things. The Marbles don’t belong to Britain because they have no part in British history or British cultural identity.

    Many finds in Egypt have long been removed from the country for hundreds, or thousands, of years now. That doesn’t make them less Egyptian; those items still remain part of Egyptian cultural identity even if modern Egypt is nothing like ancient Egypt. King Tut’s remains for example, should always remain property of the people of Egypt as it is their cultural inheritance

  2. I find that sociologists have the same problem. It is hard work to divorce yourself and your presuppositions from the work you’re studying. It’s hard not to see a sister culture as it stands by itself without tainting the view with your own culture.

    Unfortunately, cultures from the past do not have the same defenses that modern cultures have. A modern culture can correct possibly incorrect views we have about them. When it comes to history, we only eat what they’ve left for us. We can’t share the table with them.

  3. I don’t agree that Greeks today are inheritors of the past alone. Their location on the land where the artifacts were discovered does not give them any more right to the past than those who curate the artifacts at the British Museum. People come and go; just as the current state of Israel has no right to claim ownership of the past cultural heritage of Jerusalem (no one does) neither do the modern Athenians. That issue aside, I do believe they should be returned to Athens–not because I feel they have a “right” to them above all others, but because it is where they were before they were forcibly removed and commidified.

  4. J. Quinton; thanks for the note. I think you’re right when it comes to a lot of cases.

  5. Good article. Hitchens argues similarily in his work short book on the topic.

  6. Thanks Tim; I have not read Hitchens’ article.

  7. I wonder whether the question of ownership and heritage is a little bit of a red herring, diverting our gaze from other struggles over contemporary influence and power. Or rather, the artefacts of the past become key sites for such struggles today.

  8. On that, I believe you have something Roland. It does seem as though the artifacts have become the vessels by which communities wage their diversity wars.

  9. […] brings up an interesting case-in-point for an blog article I wrote a few weeks back on historical ownership and cultural identity.  In a way, this subject is very relevant to that article.  Isn’t this “war” […]

  10. […] Tom also writes that about history and identity, that “Human history is the history of all humanity and must be owned by all, which means it must be owned …“ […]

  11. […] Historical Ownership and Identity of Cultures, People, and Tradition (Important Read!) […]

  12. […] government funding for a dig or to sell non-credible books or to attract tourists.  Or it is some political or national move to claim ‘ownership’ of the past.  It is not, however, solid methodology or respectable […]

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