Ancient book history

What the Digital Dark Age Can Teach Us About Ancient Technologies of Writing

Editors’ Note: due to the disruption of academic networks and institutions caused by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, JHIBlog will shift to once-a-week publication for the time being, supplemented by a selection of older posts from our archives. We are grateful for our readers’ understanding, and hope to resume normal scheduling as soon as possible.

By guest contributors Sara Mohr and Edward C. Williams

In contemporary science fiction it is hard to avoid the trope of an archaeologist or explorer unearthing a piece of ancient advanced technology and finding that it still functions. This theme may have its roots in the way we often encounter artifacts from the ancient world—decayed but functional or legible, as material culture and/or as carriers of written language. However, the prototypical “ancient technology” in fiction often resembles the electronic information technology of our modern age. Keeping our modern technology active and functional requires orders of magnitude more energy than the neglect implied by ancient ruins—delivery of spare parts fueled by cheap energy, complex schematics and repair manuals, and even remote connections to far-off servers. The idea that our technology would work hundreds of years in our future without significant intervention is unbelievable. In a certain sense, a Mesopotamian clay tablet is far more similar to the ancient advanced technology found in media—if it’s in good enough condition, you can pick it up and use it thousands of years later.

Will the archaeologists of the future see the information storage of the digital age not as sources of knowledge about our time, but undecipherable black boxes?  The general problem of data preservation is twofold: the first is preservation itself and the second is the comprehensibility of the data. The BBC Domesday Project recorded a survey of British life in the 20th century on adapted LaserDiscs—a format that, ironically, requires considerable emulation (the process of enabling a computer to use material intended for another kind of computer) efforts to reproduce on a modern machine only 35 years later. This kind of information loss is often referred to as the coming of the Digital Dark Age (Bollacker, “Avoiding a Digital Dark Age”). Faced with the imposing pressure of a potential Digital Dark Age and the problematic history of modern data storage technology, perhaps it is time to rethink our understanding of ancient technology and the cultures of the past who were able to make their data last long into the future.

Scholars of the Ancient Near East are intimately familiar with the loss and recovery of written information. Our sources, written in the wedge-shaped script called cuneiform, are numerous and frequently legible despite being thousands of years old. Once the scribal practice that transmitted the script was interrupted, considerable scholarly work was required to reconstruct it, but the fundamental media of data storage—the clay tablets—were robust. Even then, many valuable tablets have been lost due to mishandling or improper storage. Despite the durability of the medium, once the system of replicating, handling, understanding, and deliberately preserving these tablets were lost much information was lost as well.

But cuneiform writing is more than just the act of impressing words onto clay with a reed stylus; it is deeply rooted in the actions and culture of specific groups of people. This notion is certainly true of technology as a whole. An interrelationship exists between all elements of a society, and each constituent element cannot be considered or evaluated without the context of the whole (Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, 4). Rather than focus on the clay and the reeds, it is necessary to take into account the entire “socio-technical system” that governs the interaction of people and technology (Schäfer, Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production, 18). Comparative studies of cuneiform writing and digital technology as socio-technical systems can inspire further insight into understanding ancient technology and illuminating why it is that humble cuneiform writing on clay tablets was such a successful method of projecting information into the future, as well as informing us about the possible future of our contemporary data storage.

Only recently have those who work regularly with cuneiform tablets studied the technology of cuneiform.  Cuneiform styli could be made of various materials: reed, bone, bronze, or even precious metals (Cammarosano, “The Cuneiform Stylus,” 62). Reed styli were the most common for their advantageous glossy, waterproof outer skin that prevented them from absorbing humidity and sticking to the clay. Another key part of scribal training was learning the art of forming tablets by levigating and kneading raw clay (Taylor and Cartwright, “The Making and Re-Making of Clay Tablets,” 298), then joining lumps of clay together in a grid pattern or by wrapping an outer sheet of clay around a core of a thin piece of folded clay (Taylor, “Tablets as Artefacts, Scribes as Artisans,” 11).

But cuneiform technology goes beyond the stylus and tablet and must include the transmission of cuneiform literacy itself. Hundreds of thousands of legible cuneiform tablets have been found and documented to date, with many more in the processes of being excavated. With such perishable materials as clay tablets and organic styli, how is it possible that these texts have survived for thousands of years? Surprisingly, the answer may lie in how we think about modern technology, data preservation, and our fears of losing records to the Digital Dark Age.

The problem is growing worse, with more recent media demonstrating shorter lifespans compared to older media. We see a variety of different projects that look back to older forms of information storage as a stop-gap between now and the possibility of a Digital Dark Age. For example, The Rosetta Project, from the Long Now Foundation, has been collecting examples of various languages to store on a 3-inch diameter nickel disc through microscopic etching. With minimal care (and the survival of microscopy), it could last and be legible for thousands of years.

We tend to think that a return to older forms of information storage will solve the problem of the Digital Dark Age—after all, the ancient technology of stylus + clay preserved Mesopotamian data neatly into the modern era. However, such thinking results from an incomplete understanding of the function of technology as it applies to the past. Technology is more than just machinery; it is a human activity involving technological aspects as well as cultural aspects interwoven and shaping one another (Stahl, “Venerating the Black Box: Magic in Media Discourse on Technology,” 236). Regardless of the medium or time period, the data life cycle largely stays the same. First, people generate data, which is then collected and processed. Following processing comes storage and possibly analysis.

But in the end, we always have humans (Wing, “The Data Life Cycle”).

Humans are the key to why information written in cuneiform on clay survived as long as it did.  In ancient Mesopotamia, scribal culture meant copying the contents of clay tablets repeatedly for both practice and preservation. There are texts we know from only one copy, yet in order for that copy to survive several other copies had to have existed. The clay and the stylus did not ensure the preservation of cuneiform information—it was the people and their scribal practice.

It is somewhat surprising that the discussion of ancient technology has not yet embraced the social aspect that accompanies the machinery, especially when we so readily acknowledge its impact on modern technology. To avoid losing electronic data, users are exhorted to intercede and make regular backup copies. We also find that the history of obsolete technology is based in innovative technology that died as a result of socioeconomic pressures (Parikka, “Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology,” 227). The technology was perfectly sound, but it was never a good match to the social and economic times of its release.

This need for protection from loss largely comes from the idea that “electronic writing does not have the permanence of a clay tablet” (Gnanadesikan, The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet, 268). However, those of us who work with clay tablets are more than aware of the frightening impermanence of the medium. We are well acquainted with the experience of opening a box meant to contain a cuneiform object only to find that it has been reduced to a bag of dust. It has been said that more redundancy usually means less efficiency, but that does not hold for all circumstances. Mesopotamian scholars generated redundancy through productive training, and we now look to redundancy to save our digital future. However, redundancy was not a part of the physical technology, but rather the surrounding cultures that used it.

At its core, writing is an information technology. It is a system of communication developed for use by particular groups of people. In the case of cuneiform, the scribe who wrote the latest known datable cuneiform tablet composed an astronomical text in 75 AD (Geller, “The Last Wedge,” 45). Despite being able to date its final use, the last wedge, we are still able to read and understand Akkadian cuneiform today. However, it was not the process of incising the wedge itself that made this continuity possible. Rather, it was the scribal culture of ancient Mesopotamia that committed to copying and re-copying over the course of millennia.

The possibility of a Digital Dark Age has the world thinking of ways in which we can adjust our cultural practice around technology. Examples from Mesopotamia highlight the importance of the connection between human activity and machinery in technology. We would do well as historians to take notice of this trend and use it as an inspiration for expanding how we study ancient technology like cuneiform writing to incorporate more on human attitudes alongside the clay and the reeds.

Sara Mohr is a PhD student in Assyriology at Brown University. Her research spans from digital methods of studying the ancient world to the social function of secrecy and hidden writing. 

Edward Williams (Brown ‘17.5) is a software engineer at Qulab, Inc, working on machine learning and computational chemistry software for drug discovery. He acts as a technical consultant for the DeepScribe project at the OI, developing machine learning pipelines for automated cuneiform transcription.

arabic book history Intellectual history Literature philology religious history

The Problem of Authorship and Pseudepigraphy in Islamic Intellectual History

By W. Sasson Chahanovich

Why should we care about the author? The answer to this question is not self-evident. While Roland Barthes may have declared the “death of the author” over half a century ago, the author as existential personhood, as cultural celebrity, and as value marker still lives on in both critical theory and in historical research (Barthes, “La mort de l’auteur”). This is what Michel Foucault identified as “author function,” by which he means that the author as ‘name-on-work’ can have more relevance beyond identifying an historical individual or limiting the parameters of what we today call intellectual property (Foucault, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, 205–222). While the problem of the author has made much methodological headway in fields like the Classics, Jewish and early Christian studies, and literary theory, Islamic intellectual history still lacks a systematic assessment of the concept of the author (e.g. kātib, mu’allif). Moreover, no research exists on the topic of ‘forgery,’ i.e. pseudepigraphy, which is the much-maligned twin of the canonical notion of the trustworthy author.

Specifically, Classicists still remind us that Homer qua actual historical ‘author’ may be fiction. Yet so they also problematize the issue of authorship by simultaneously noting that, while an unknown composer ‘penned’ the textual artifacts known as The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer’s name still has value; it limits the meaning of the text. Likewise, historians of Christianity point out time and again the many forgeries (10 to 13) present in the New Testament. They are also quick to point out that this evidently has had little effect on the faith communities who accept them as inspired works. As Karen King notes, “while they, too, were not indifferent about false attribution and forgery, their concerns pertained to authority, prestige, and character rather than to modern economic and legal considerations…”(King, “‘What Is an Author?’,” 17).

In contrast, only a handful of Islamic historians have touched on pseudepigraphy or ‘forgery,’ a normative epithet that should be applied cautiously. This is remarkable given the spans of the textual archive of Islamic intellectual history. After all, three of its major written languages – Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish – functioned as the authorial/scribal language from the Atlantic to Central Asia. Even in the earliest days of Orientalistik, philologically minded German scholars largely ignored the question of authorship. Not even Ignaz Goldziher or Theodor Nöldeke, two of the leading names in the early days of Islamwissenschaft,debated the value of falsified texts. Only the canonical literature counted.

Only more recently have some scholars taken up this neglected field, especially concerning pseudepigraphy. For example, Roberto Tottoli has discussed the eschatological corpora commonly mislabeled as the Conditions of Resurrection (Aḥwāl al-qiyāmah) (Tottoli, “Muslim Eschatological Literature,” 452-477). Michael Pregill has analyzed the early, biblically infused Islamic legend-cum-homiletic material known as the isrā’iliyyāt. In particular, Pregill revisits the “function” of the names of several early, well-attested transmitters and their biographies as Jewish converts to Islam (Pregill, “Isrā’īlliyāt, Myth, and Pseudepigraphy,” 220). In a confessional context, the authorial identity of these names weighs heavy on the concept of religious truth. Gabriel Said Reynolds has addressed the Islamic polemic of Jewish and Christian “distortion” (taḥrīf) of their own holy scriptures. Thus, Muḥammad and the compilers of the Qurʾān-qua-codex implicitly move onto the historical stage as the most trustworthy authors and editors. Historians of Islam stand to enrich our understanding of scientific and cultural output if they were to investigate the modes of authorship and its mutations across genre, linguistic idiom, and cultural context.

The archive of Islamic intellectual history has much more to offer us that remains entirely untouched. Pseudepigraphic material and even outright forgeries are abundant, especially in the early modern period. For example, in the Süleymaniye Archival Library in Istanbul, two copies (Mss. Ayasofya 2246 and 2247) exist of an anti-trinitarian polemic titled the Kind Response (al-Radd al-ğamīl), which is attributed to Abū Ḥāmid al-Ġazālī (d. 1111). This is none other than the clerical curmudgeon and author of the Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-falāsifah), who is popularly held to have killed Islamic philosophy. Even august Islamic scholars like Louis Massignon and A.J. Arberry took the attribution at face value and promoted the text as a bona fide part of al-Ġazālī’s oeuvre (Massignon, “Le Christ dans les evangiles selon al-Ghazālı̄,” 523-536; Arberry, Aspects of Islamic Civilization, 300-307). Yet an examination of the manuscript quickly throws the certainty of its authorship into question. If we cannot definitively ascertain the authorship, what resonance did al-Ġazālī’s name have for the readers of this text? For now, it is safe to assume that the great theologian’s name exhibited an appeal, much like that of a Paul of Tarsus, that enhanced the theological importance and historical weight of the text.

In a similar vein, there existed a whole cottage industry of pseudepigraphic authors and misattributions surrounding the name of Islam’s most famous Sufi master, Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240). One of the most widely circulated and commented works by these anonymous authors was The Tree of Nuʿmān (al-Šağarah al-nuʿmāniyyah, see Fig. 1). This eschatological and esoteric work not only prophesies the End of the World, but it also identifies the Ottoman sultans as the gatekeepers of the Resurrection. Whoever the real author was, the authorial motivation was in part practical. The prophecy received a wider readership and greater credibility with the name of Ibn al-ʿArabī backing it up. Thus, one may speak, as Laura Nasrallah has done, of both al-Ġazālī and Ibn al-ʿArabī as having lived “authorial afterlives”; the specter of their names lingers down the halls of reader reception (Nasrallah, “‘Out of Love for Paul’,” 93).

Another instance of authorial afterlife and mistaken attribution surrounds the apocalyptic work variably titled the Comprehensive Prognosticon (al-Ğafr al-ğāmiʿ), the Key to the Comprehensive Prognosticon (Miftāḥ al-ğafr al-ğāmiʿ), or the Orderly Pearl (al-Durr al-munaẓẓam) (for example, see Kâtip Çelebi, Kašf al-ẓunūn, 605). As much as the title is unstable, so too is its authorship a moving target. Toufic Fahd attempted to stabilize the situation by attributing the Comprehensive Prognosticon to Ibn Ṭalḥah (d. 1254), a little known esoteric Sufi practitioner, and the Key or the Orderly Pearl as interchangeable titles of a commentary on the former composed by the greater known esoteric Sufi ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmı̄ (d. 1454) (Fahd, La divination arabe, 228-229). This simple distinction does not pan out in the archive, however. Titles are more the product of later scribal hands and therefore subject to variation. One such Prognosticon (Süleymaniye Ms. Bağdatlı Vehbi 915) is even attributed to ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib, the Prophet Muḥammad’s cousin, son-in-law, and fourth Caliph (see Fig. 2). Second, the oldest known copy of the Key (Süleymaniye Ms. Hafid Efendi 204, dated 899 AH/1493 CE) evinces no awareness of Bisṭāmı̄ as copyist or commentator. More recently, perhaps due to the popularity of Bisṭāmı̄, Ibn Ṭalḥah has been excised from the genealogy of this esoteric corpus. How, in this case, does one author-commentator become preferred over the primary source composer?

A final example of authorial function is the instance of works that never were. Much like in Judaism or Christianity, fabricated texts – real or imagined, canonical or extra-canonical – gained an aura of greater legitimacy when attributed to some ancient and revered figure. Thus, the Book of Daniel is attributed to the legendary hero Daniel, and the apocalypse of Enoch to the antediluvian patriarch Enoch. In Islam, there is an entire esoteric tradition built up around ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib. As they developed the Islamic esoteric tradition, Sunnī and Shīʿı̄ Muslims alike imagined a corpus of non-existent books such as the Small Book of Ǧafr (Kitāb al-ğafr al-ṣaġīr) and the Book of ʿAlı̄ (Kitāb ʿAlī) and assigned them to ʿAlī, the last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. An author’s name thus created meaning both in texts and around the ideas themselves, abstract or imagined though they may be.

The problem of authorship is therefore a promising field of inquiry for scholars of Islamic intellectual history. Perhaps more interesting than the well-established textual tradition, anonymous authors and creative scribes in the archive present us with an opportunity to rethink our approach to title pages. Our blithe certainty about the lives of writers, their texts, and their circulation sets us up for missing the big picture. The forgery needn’t always be bad news.


Fig. 1: Süleymaniye Ms. Beyazıd 4609, fol. 4a. Here, Ps. Ibn al-ʿArabī refers to his own grave in the third person. He also uses the epithet “Reviver of Religion” (muḥyī al-dı̄n), highlighted here in red. This is a superlative used more commonly in the Ottoman empire to refer to their patron saint. Otherwise, in autograph works the great mystic only referred to himself as Abū ʿAbd Allāh.

Fig. 2: Süleymaniye Ms. Hafid Efendi 204, fol. 5a. The title given in red identifies the work as The Big Prognosticon and attributes the text to ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib. Yet in the first line, highlighted here in red, we are presented with the title Comprehensive Prognosticon more commonly associated with Ibn Ṭalḥah. This manuscript does not match the standard opening of Ibn Ṭalḥah’s work but does contain overlaping sections and diagrams.

W. Sasson Chahanovich is a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic Intellectual History at Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, where he is writing his thesis on Ottoman eschatological enthusiasm. Sasson is also currently developing a project that reconsiders the connections between Islamic, Jewish, and Christian apocalypticism in the early modern period.

Asian History book history Conferences East and West German history Global History

The Mahabharata in Modern Intellectual History: Perspectives from South Asia, Europe, and East Asia

By Contributing Writer Michael Kinadeter

The conference “The Mahabharata in Modern Intellectual History: Perspectives from South Asia, Europe, and East Asia” organized by Milinda Banerjee at LudwigMaximilians-Universität Munich on 24 November 2018, addressed the dearth of academic engagement with the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the perspective of modern global intellectual history. The edited volume Political Thought in Action (S. Kapila, F. Devji: 2013) constitutes a rare exception in this regard, given that the bulk of scholarship on the Mahabharata (subsequently Mbh) tends to concentrate on premodern Indian history. Academic research on the Mbh in its many written, oral, and performed versions not only has historical value, but contemporary relevance, given that the Mbh has profoundly influenced modern politics in South Asia; in fact, it still significantly shapes public discourses in the subcontinent and intellectual-cultural debates globally. To analyze the manifold reception histories of the epic, scholars need to weave together approaches from multiple disciplines, including global intellectual history, Indology, philosophy, literary studies, and political theory.

Paulus Kaufmann (University of Zurich) and Philipp Sperner (Munich University) examined the transnational significance of the Mbh as evident from its reception in German philosophy. Kaufmann noted the tendency to neglect non-Western philosophers in German histories of philosophy, with the ambivalent reception of the Mbh providing a paradigmatic exemplar. Kaufmann chose Hegel as an example of a critical, yet informed, philosopher interested in Indian thought. Hegel’s main critiques of the Mbh, which Kaufmann identified as the “argument from lack of freedom and the argument from lack of systematicity,” led to vivid discussions during the workshop regarding the distinction of philosophy from other areas of intellectual creativity.[Unbekannt1]  Kaufmann argued that discussions on systematicity and traditions of dialectical reasoning can offer insight into how a philosophical corpus can be distinguished within the vast amount of (Indian) literature; in the process, misperceptions about Indian philosophy in Hegelian and European thought can also be more comprehensively addressed.

Sperner chose a deliberately achronological approach to point out not only the possible influences from India on German Romanticism and vice versa, but also how the Mbh was “considered as a quintessential example of a national epic, even before most other European nations discovered their national epics in the course of the 19th century.” He focused on the understanding of the Mbh as a national epic and the subsequent political implications. His comparison was based on Friedrich Schlegel’s On the language and wisdom of the Indians (1808) and Maithilisharan Gupt’s Bharat Bharati (1912). Schlegel not only significantly shaped debates about cultural nationalism in Europe and the role that German romanticism and folk literature played in its formation – which, according to Sperner, prefigured the emergence of similar ideas later in Indian nationalism –, but was himself foundationally inspired by his engagement with Indian history and textual culture. Similarly, Gupt, the first Hindi poet to be called rashtra kavi (national poet), put major emphasis on anti-colonial themes of Indian identity and national unity. He deployed ‘historical’ examples from the Mbh to place the concept of the epic at the center of Indian nationalism in Hindi-language discourses.

Meanwhile Egas Moniz-Bandeira (Autonomous University of Madrid) and Melanie J. Müller (Munich University) dealt with the uses and representations of the epic since the turn of the 20th century. Moniz-Bandeira traced its philosophical impact among intellectuals in China and Japan, where Okakura Kakuzō, Liu Shipei, and others examined the historical relationship between India and East Asia. Interest about India was fostered by several factors such as its colonial status, seen as a warning to East Asians, and the wish to find common traditions in the face of European imperialism. Several intellectuals maintained private exchanges with Indians, in which they discussed politics. International connections like these led to publications in Tokyo, where Indian and Chinese students gathered and authors such as Su Manshu and Liu Shipei wrote about Indian classics, while revolutionary authors among them emphasized India as the origin of cultural goods and philosophy.

Müller examined the “production of the ideal woman” through the Mbh. She alluded to Gandhi’s movement, which included women in the non-violent struggle for independence, although Gandhi dismissed the importance of education for women and failed to adequately consider their economic situation and their position within the family and in broader society. Gandhi emphasized the supposed ability of women to suffer silently, their non-violence as well as their alleged moral superiority over men. In contrast, the entrance of women into the public sphere required stronger prototypes to inspire, shape, and revise the ideas of gender roles. Here, the figure of Draupadi from the Mbh offered a powerful exemplar for women seeking a more active role in society and politics. Müller emphasized how Draupadi and other female characters from the Mbh motivated the fashioning of women’s voices and feminist literature in India. Such characters inspired women with values such as an activist sense of justice and self-determination. A typical example of a feminist retelling of the Mbh, as Müller pointed out, can be found in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions (2009).

Milinda Banerjee (Munich University) traced the role of the Mbh in the emergence of sovereignty in modern Bengal from the late 19th century. After the Imperial Assemblage in 1877 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s assumption of the title of Empress of India, British and pro-colonial Indian writers often legitimized the British colonial state as the restoration of the kingdom of Yudhishthira, described in the Mbh. In response, anti-colonial writers started their dialectical engagement, unwilling to submit to the unrighteous and exploitative British rule. This struggle gave rise to modern Bengali ideas of national sovereignty, partly based on the Mbh: a law-based national state, where law represented the codified will of God. Many Bengali intellectuals imagined the Indian nation on the basis of dharmarajya, the ideal ancient kingly state, unified by one king, one God and one law. From the 1910s, the Mbh became a source for political theories of social contract, as Indian thinkers demanded democratic rights on the basis of (supposedly ancient) constitutionalist ideas. Simultaneously, the epic inspired peasants and anti-colonial revolutionaries in their class-fight and struggle for political freedom. Bengali feminist writers and dramatists also re-interpreted the Mbh from the 1970s onwards, to seek women’s autonomy. Banerjee argued that the political interpretations of the Mbh opened up a gap between sovereignty and justice in their very attempt to locate what was right and just; it was through this epistemic opening that new notions of autonomy and demands for social progress could arise. Banerjee rounded up the discussion by noting how Bengali thinkers associated with the Subaltern Studies and postcolonial thought – especially Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – have brought the MBh into conversation with Hegel in recent decades, to produce new horizons of critical political and social theory.

In his presentation, Simon Cubelic (Heidelberg University) described the “political idiom in Nepal’s time of crisis” during the first half of the 19th century, a period often wrongly portrayed as “prepolitical”. Considering the struggles in Nepal due to unstable politics, infant monarchs, territorial expansion, and British colonial politics, Cubelic examined how Nepalese intellectuals responded to the crisis through the lens of the Mbh. The royal preceptor and later prime minister Ranga Nath Poudyal alluded to the Sanskritic state theory of the saptangas, describing the ideal qualities of the king and his ministers, to justify the restoration of the righteous monarch. He propagated his ideas of kingship based on descriptions from the Mbh; later the same text was used to determine the relationship between Brahmins and the king, and to reject polemics against Brahmins and to provide justification for their status, in a political situation when land-giving to Brahmins was problematized. Both presentations, by Banerjee and by Cubelic, described how the ancient classic was used on purpose to justify and re-define political concepts and relationships in modern South Asia.

Finally, Shuvatri Dasgupta (University of Cambridge) chose to combine the overlapping angles of literary studies, ethics, anthropology and history. She used the Mbh to raise the question of how the representation, translation, the selective reproduction, and adoption of a text like the Mbh shapes the reception, understanding, and function of the text. The Mbh exists in manifold versions, from being a popular love-story for a broad audience to a modern, educational version as “Gita for Girls”, or “Mahabharata for Boys” in the 20th century. Drawing specific attention to the obliteration of Draupadi’s menstrual politics in these retellings of the Mbh, Dasgupta indicated ways to rethink the concepts of the ‘political’ in the Mbh. Through constant and ever-changing re-creation, Dasgupta argued, a text leaves its past behind in the process of constant re-invention and re-interpretation. This ultimately dissolves the binary between the reader and the author within the larger discursive space.

The idea of taking into account different aspects and new angles on the Mahabharata was constantly present throughout the workshop. Its significance was discussed in terms of political, literary, and gender- or class-based terms, even though only a fractional amount of its extensive modern representations and reception could be covered. However, the task at hand was primarily to highlight the benefits of studying the Mbh in the broader context of Global Intellectual History, rather than providing sufficient answers. To invite the academic audience to join in and further develop this research on the Mahabharata, a publication is currently being planned.

Michael Kinadeter is a PhD student in Japanese studies and Buddhist
studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. His research interests are Japanese history and East-Asian religions (Shinto, Buddhism). His current dissertation project is a comparative study of Buddhist commentaries and their reception, based on Medieval manuscripts of the Buddhist Sanron school in Japan. You can reach him via email to

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Summer Reading Recommendations, Part II

Here is the second installment of our reading recommendations to kick start your summer


A few scattershot things I’ve read, am reading, or plan to read this month:

  • Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten: Welcome to the Benjamenta Institute, a school for servants whose pedagogy consists entirely of the textbook What is the Purpose of the Benjamenta Instituteand the ubiquitous Rules of the same. A lyrical little dream-monologue of a book by an unjustly obscure Swiss author from whom Franz Kafka learned many of his tricks.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister: Speaking of Kafka forces me to mention this dive into the Nabokovian back-catalogue, as the protagonist possesses a beetle-shaped shoehorn named Gregor. I shall also quote Nabokov’s prefatory warning about a sudden break in the narration toward the end of the novel, sure to delight those, like me, allergic to psychoanalysis: “The intruder is not the Viennese Quack (all my books should be stamped Freudians, Keep Out), but an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me.” 
  • Brian Evenson, A Collapse of Horses: An early number of the horror comic The Haunt of Fearincludes “A Strange Undertaking…” in which the cemetery caretaker Ezra Deepley exacts revenge upon the bodies of the doctor, dentist, banker, and politician he feels ruined his life, symbolically mutilating their corpses (for example, inserting pennies where the banker’s brain and heart had been). When Deepley himself dies, the cadavers rise from their graves to get their own back. The result is never shown or described, only the horror and disgust of the townspeople. The narrator explains, “Want to know what they did to Ezra? What’s the most horrible thing you can think of? Hee, hee! That’s it!” What the authors of The Haunt of Fearknew, or at least intuited, was that the most intricately described horror pales in comparison to what a reader’s imagination will concoct when given free rein. Think of A Collapse of Horsesas an extended meditation on this insight: more a series of finely drawn sketches than short stories, disturbing evocations of horrors only hinted at and all the more disturbing for it. The first tale in the collection, “Black Bark,” is a masterpiece of unspoken menace.
  • Albert Woodfox, Solitary: Unbroken by four decades of solitary confinement. My story of transformation and hope: Albert Woodfox endured thirty-six years in solitary confinement, one of the Angola Three whose decades of isolation on trumped-up murder charges attracted international attention. Woodfox, a living testament to the power of the human spirit, speaks with an unyielding determination and a radical commitment to justice that can only ever partially express the unfathomable ordeal he and his comrades Herman Wallace and Robert Hilary King endured. Other worthwhile attempts to reckon with the unspeakable include Rachel Aviv’s profileof Woodfox in The New Yorkerand Herman’s House, a documentary about The House That Herman Built,a collaborative project between Wallace and artist Jackie Sumell, after the latter asked “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over thirty years dream of?” and then resolved to realize Wallace’s dream.
  • Last but never least, audiophiles really ought to invest in James Earl Jones readingthe King James Version of the New Testament. The Voice of God indeed.


“The Birth, Death, and Rebirth of Postmodernism,” forum in The Chronicle Review including short essays by Mark Greif, Ethan Kleinberg, Marjorie Perloff, Moira Weigel, and others.

Much has been said about the surprising resurgence of the term “socialism” in American political discourse in recent years. Judging by the strong pejorative connotations it still holds in many spheres, it has been said that the Cold War ended well after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So-called “epistemological McCarthyism” kept a wide range of economic questions off the American political agenda until recent years. Quinn Slobodian’s 2018 Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism argues that this was no accident: Neoliberalism can be succinctly conceived as the protection of market economics from the demands of politics, often drawing upon state power as “market police” against social needs and democratic demands that might challenge the primacy of markets. The result is what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”: the charge that any alternative to free market capitalism is unrealistic or utopian. As Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “there is no alternative.”

This started to change after the financial crisis of 2007–2008. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 began to transform the Amerrican political Zeitgeist. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders adopted the label “socialism” as a solution to the apparently widespread sense that “the system is rigged.” 2018 candidates for local, state, and national offices such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez associated with the Democratic Socialists of America have effectively mobilized new constituents under this banner. Yet aside from a few minimal social-democratic policies such as Medicare for all and vague egalitarian and redistributive gestures, the political future this term points toward remains hazy. “Socialism” now seems to function less as a unified program containing positive elements of social welfare provision, planning, or market regulation, and more as a signpost of the demand to move beyond “neoliberalism” (another contested term pointedly debated last year in Dissent). In many cases, “socialism” seems to function mostly negatively, as a counter-concept to the status quo.

This association of socialism with a post-capitalist future is politically plausible in America because socialism has never been a hegemonic political movement there. By contrast, in Europe and Latin America, where socialist parties have been in power in recent decades, the term has been sullied by historical failures ranging from military dictatorship to selling out to neoliberal forces. In many such places, socialist parties have come to be widely perceived as retrograde and have suffered tremendous losses in recent years. The case of France is illustrative. Édouard Louis’s incisive and moving recent polemic “Who Killed My Father” (an extract of which is published in The New York Review of Books) calls out j’accuse! at all of France’s political elites of recent decades, conservative and liberal, but also socialists such as François Mitterrand, for eviscerating the social welfare state on which his working-class and chronically impoverished father depended.

The Point magazine’s latest issue, “Socialism in Our Time,” features a wide-ranging essay by John Michael Colón called “The Dictatorship of the Present”  that explorers the new lives of “socialism,” what the DSA wants, and how new movements have learned from past socialist failures. He writes, “Only a socialism that internalizes the lessons of the twentieth century and puts pluralism front and center can win. We want a socialism where democracy permeates every aspect of our lives.”

Alongside the reemergence of the category of “socialism” is the counter-category of “capitalism,” a Marxian term that also disappeared from popular discourse for decades. Today one encounters the term in the political rhetoric of such figures as Elizabeth Warren. “History of capitalism” is a rising new subfield in history departments and “capitalism studies” programs have emerged at several American universities. This turn has also injected new life into contemporary critical theory.

The recent work of the American socialist-feminist critical theorist Nancy Fraser offers a conceptually powerful map of our present conjuncture. Fraser argues that we find ourselves in a global “crisis of hegemony” in which neoliberalism has lost its ideological appeal, opening the floodgates to reactionary neo-fascisms (see Enzo Traverso’s recent The New Faces of Fascism) but also emancipatory socialist or post-capitalist alternatives. As Fraser cites Antonio Gramsci, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” 

Last year she published an illuminating analysis of this present conjuncture with the German critical theorist Rahel Jaeggi as Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory. The work is structured as a Socratic dialogue in which Fraser usually plays the part of the master, outlining her broad synthetic conception of capitalism, deftly steered by Jaeggi’s pointed objections and provocations. The theorists’ wide-ranging discussion centers on expanding the narrow understanding of capitalism as an economic system into a broader theory of “capitalist society” as “an institutionalized social order.” Fraser synthesizes a vast literature from philosophers alongside historians and sociologists to describe three “hidden abodes” that constitute the background conditions of capitalism beyond the famous one Marx identified: surplus value extracted from workers in the sphere of production. Namely, social reproduction (the unwaged labor that sustains life and historically has often been carried out by women), ecology (natural resources that are extracted and depleted), and politics (the conditions that enable the functioning and regulation of economic activity). In illuminating these three background spheres, whose division she draws from Karl Polanyi, Fraser synthesizes advances made in recent decades by feminist, decolonial, ecological, and democratic theory into an expansive social theory that helps explains the complex crisis nexus today. In our era of impending ecological catastrophe, a crisis of care, and rising populism, she argues, the challenges we face are not simply intra-realm—narrowly political or economic crises—but increasingly inter-realm. Financialization and deregulation in the economic sphere have led to increasingly acute crises in the other spheres, adding up, she argues, to a general crisis. Fraser and Jaeggi’s critical theory rises to the challenge of explaining in lucid terms this increasingly complex social nexus and the historical transformations that brought us here. One step beyond critique, Fraser has also recently offered a minimal vision of what a socialism for the twenty-first century might look like.

(This week’s featured image is a close up from Jan Van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele)

book history Early modern Europe French history Museums philosophy

Montaigne’s Bones

By guest contributor Max Norman

On November 16th, Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, made an important announcement: the bones of Michel de Montaigne have been discovered.

Or, at least, the bones might have been discovered. “Let’s keep our cool,” said Juppé at a press conference that morning. “We haven’t yet found Montaigne. But if it were the case,” he continued, “it would be a great moment for Bordeaux.”

Montaigne, two-time mayor of Bordeaux, minor aristocrat, and inventor of the essay form, died in his tower in 1592, cause of death unknown. The next year the essayist was interred in a chapel on the west bank of the Garonne, the current site of the Musée d’Aquitaine. Montaigne’s cenotaph—a gaudy white marble affair—has been on more or less continuous display since it was carved in 1593. But his physical remains were lost in one of their 19thcentury translations to and from the nearby Chartreuse cemetery, for safekeeping when a fire devastated the chapel. No one seems to have looked for them until last year, when a curator at the Musée, Laurent Védrine, decided to investigate a mysterious crypt in the museum’s basement, sealed since 1886. Miniature cameras returned grainy images of a dusty wooden box, with the big black letters “MONTAIGNE” clearly visible beneath some chunks of fallen plaster. Researchers announced their intention to inventory the contents and to track down a descendant for DNA confirmation, but we’re still waiting for the results.


After the announcement, Juppé sounded a philosophical note in a mid-morning tweet: “In a world in which we speak of anger, and where we confront violence, we must return to our heritage and to the values that are dear to me [sic]. #tolerance #balance #Bordeaux.” Juppé of course knew that the Gilets jauneswould march for the first time the next day, flooding the streets of cities across the country in protest against the economic policies of Emmanuel Macron.


Michel de Montaigne

“C’est moy que je peins,” Montaigne writes in his opening preface “To the reader.” “It’s me that I paint.” The Essays are an intellectual portrait of one of history’s great minds, whose gentle humaneness and grinning wit are as familiar as the high forehead, ruffled collar, and thin moustache with which he is depicted in paintings and on frontispieces. But the book is also the portrait of one of history’s most average bodies, a very particular specimen that readers get to know with the intimacy of a doctor or a lover. We learn, among other things, that Montaigne didn’t like salad but was fond of melon, that he liked to ride on horseback, preferred to make love lying down, not standing up, and walked with a firm gait. This is a book, after all,  “consubstantial with its author” (Villey-Saulnier edition, 665C). Finding bones, then, is almost as good as finding a manuscript.

Montaigne’s idiosyncrasies give the Essays much of their charm. They’re also one important source of what might be called Montaigne’s philosophy—a philosophy, or at least an ethics, that is rather accurately summarized by Juppé’s hashtags. “There is no quality so universal in our image of things than diversity and variety,” he writes in “On Experience,” his final essay (1065B). Human beings are simply too complicated to be theorized: “I study myself more than any other subject. It’s my metaphysics; it’s my physics” (1072B). Metaphysics and physics collapse when “every example limps”—every case is peculiar, every example is imperfect—and therefore every inference and every assumption is a kind of violence (1070C).

Even literary interpretation is risky, particularly when books are, like Montaigne’s, “members” of a life, and memorials to it. Montaigne learned this the hard way from the fate of Etienne de la Boétie, the friend of the famous essay “On friendship.” de la Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Slavery praised republican Venice and critiqued monarchy, arguing that, since people willingly grant a tyrant power, people can willingly take it away. The treatise was naturally appropriated by anti-monarchists in the Wars of Religion. But this was a misreading, Montaigne claims: if you knew de la Boétie like he did, you’d see that there was never a better subject, “nor a greater opponent of the disturbances and innovations of his time” (194A). If de la Boétie had written his own Essays, you would never have so misunderstood him. It’s possible, of course, that Montaigne himself was the one willfully misreading de la Boétie. Either way, his polemical interpretation reminds us that we should never entirely trust the fiction of artlessness that the essayist so often affects.

As he got older, Montaigne seemed to realize that his skepticism was, like de la Boétie’s Discourse,  potentially dangerous, so in the Essays “I leave nothing to be desired or guessed about me” (“On Vanity,” 983B). Exhaustive self-description is not only a means to self-knowledge or literary immortality. It’s also an insurance policy: The flood of Montaigne’s words will overwhelm reductive misreadings with their sheer copiousness, as indeed the sheer size and labyrinthine complexity of the Essayshave defied all critical attempts at a unified interpretation. Eschewing systematic argument or organization, Montaigne prevents us from using his book, though we may profit from it. Just as we will never know if Montaigne’s representation of de la Boétie—grounded, he tells us, on intimate knowledge that is inaccessible to readers—was accurate, so we will never know for certain just what the Essays are supposed to mean, just what Montaigne is about. And that’s the point: the Essays, like the person who wrote them, ultimately prove to be something of a black box. “What I can’t represent, I point to with my finger,” he writes (983B). In the end, the Essays do no more and no less than point to their author, that infinitely peculiar human being, who, even with all the ink the world, could never be fully incorporated into his book.


Readers tend to remember Montaigne as individualist,as pioneer of a certain kind of Renaissance egoism. But in the final sighs of the Essays, Montaigne concludes that “the most beautiful lives to my mind are those which hew to the common human pattern, orderly, but without miracles or eccentricity” (1116B/C). When things are this complicated, the best policy is to mind your own business. Don’t assume you know better than anyone else (a lesson for Macron, who has publicly proclaimed that the French people never meant to kill their king)—and (for the Gilets jaunes) don’t try to rock the boat. Think of politics in human terms. Read your opponents charitably. Most of all, don’t be cruel.

The newly discovered box, like the cenotaph, may be empty. Part of me hopes that it is, and that readers have to keep searching for Montaigne’s bones in the Essays, reading them quite literally as a portrait, a vivid depiction of a “you” en chair et en os, in flesh and bone. This fleshly Montaigne has all too often been replaced in memory and imagination by a Montaigne made only of words. But you can’t separate the body from the book.

Max Norman studies literature at the University of Oxford.

Ancient book history history of science

MUL.APIN and the Mesopotamian Canon

By Contributing Writer E.L. Meszaros

The concept of “canon” is mired in controversy. Should a canon be defined by the divine author of the component texts, by its continued use as a set of objects of study, or as a prescriptive ruleset? Defining a canon can be problematic, and the results often prove troublesome as well, often perpetuating ideas of white male importance (Black, Reconstructing the Canon).

“Canon” is no less controversial when applied to Mesopotamia, beyond the standard ideas of a biblical or “Western” canon. Scholars debate not only whether this term, which is borrowed from other fields, is applicable to the ancient near east but also its exact definition in this context. Is the Mesopotamian canon defined by the authority of the text, with a divine or legendary author like that required by the biblical canon? Standardization may also play a role in identifying canonical titles, with texts that are widely copied with little variation indicating a general cultural importance.

By looking at these characteristics of a canon in the context of one Mesopotamian text, we can see if there’s any value in borrowing this debated idea within Assyriology. Examining the validity of the concept of a canon within the Mesopotamian world by looking at its application to the exemplar text MUL.APIN allows us to evaluate the future — and necessity — of this concept.

MUL.APIN is a Babylonian astronomical treatise dated to the early 7th century B.C.E. at the latest, though possibly earlier (Watson and Horowitz, Writing Science Before the Greeks, 1). The name comes from the first line of the text, a common practice for Mesopotamian literature, and translates to the name of the constellation “The Plough.” MUL.APIN is customarily presented in all caps separated by a period, as is standard for transliterations of Sumerian logograms. It compiles astronomical information like star lists and astral phenomena of planets, stars, the sun, and the moon, as well as more mundane information on weather patterns and shadow measurements (Steele, Watson and Horowitz, Writing Science Before the Greeks). More than sixty copies of this text have been found as partially preserved tablets from a range of geographical locations (in Babylonia and Assyria as well as into Anatolia) and from different historical periods (from Neo-Assyrian to Seleucid), suggesting its wide use (Steele, “The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy” 4).

MUL.APIN Clay Table, Public Domain

MUL.APIN is generally presented in two tablets of some 400 lines (Watson and Horowitz, Writing Science Before the Greeks 2). These tablets show a remarkable consistency across the known preserved copies, though some versions appear on one or three tablets and the tablet division is not fixed (Hunger and Steele, The Babylonian Astronomical Compendium MUL.APIN 1). MUL.APIN is a particularly interesting vehicle for examining ideas of canonicity in Mesopotamia given its relatively stable form and long history of continued use.

We can attempt to interpret the unique stability and longevity of MUL.APIN through the lens of the canon to understand whether this framework is useful in the context of Mesopotamian texts. One critical component of canonical works is the authority of the text. Often, authority of a text is based on the authority of its author; in the case of the canon, this is perhaps most frequently associated with divine authorship. When gods are attributed as the origin of a text, the text itself gains authority in turn. This divine origin hearkens back to early problematical definitions of a biblical canon, associating the concept of a canon with divine nature. Despite conflicting ideas for the role of authorship in conferring authority (and therefore canonicity), the application to MUL.APIN is relatively easy as this text has no known author. Regardless of whether divine or historic authors convey authority, MUL.APIN benefits in no way from this.

Authority can be granted to a text by more than just its author, however. Rochberg-Halton (“Canonicity in Cuneiform Texts” 136) explains how antiquity confers authority, claiming that a divine author is no different in ability to establish authority from a legendary or historic author. Divinity does not have to be the focus, then, but rather historicity. MUL.APIN, with its continued use through many periods of Mesopotamian history, seems to be able to lay claim to antiquity even if it has no named historic author. By virtue of continued use over millennia, MUL.APIN becomes a text with authority because of its historic nature and established use over a long period of time.

Authority, however, as established through divine or ancient authorship or by continued use over time, is a problematic way to establish canonicity. The lack of an author for MUL.APIN rules out many methods for establishing the authority of this text. Additionally, membership within the group of texts viewed as “canonical” by this criterion happens over time and not as a result of conscious decision making (Lambert, “Ancestors, Authors, and Canonicity” 9). Thus, the authority of the text is a back-formation and not necessarily descriptive of how a text was used. Moreover, no clear definition of authority seems applicable. A canon defined by authority of texts is therefore problematic, has little explanatory power, and what it can help define can already be taken care of through other means of examination.

One of the most commonly regarded methods of determining membership in the Mesopotamian canon is through the standardization of text. Veldhuis (“TIN.TIR= Babylon, the Question of Canonization and the Production of Meaning” 80) writes that “In Assyriological literature canonicity has almost exclusively been defined in text-critical terms, taking standardization as a near-synonym of canonization.” The more variation found within a text, the less it has gone through the process of canonization. But this definition has its own associated problems in that what it means to be “standardized” is still hard to define. Rochberg-Halton (“Canonicity in Cuneiform Texts” 128) claims that “Exact wording does not seem to have been an essential ingredient in textual transmission,” and that the content of a given text could remain flexible in exact wording or even order, resulting in what she describes as “only a relative stabilization.”

Palace of Nebuchadnezzar

Panorama view of the reconstructed Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar, 6th Century Babylon, Iraq

One of the unique characteristics of MUL.APIN is its unusual stability. Steele (“The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy” 2–3) writes that “The composition was remarkably stable with extremely few differences between the preserved copies.” Hobson (The Exact Transmission of Texts in The First Millennium BCE 153) claims that in all sources of MUL.APIN there are only around 200 orthographic variants, ranging from missing determinatives and logographic/syllabic spelling substitution (characteristics of the cuneiform writing system), the use of case endings, and changes in grammatical number (Hobson, The Exact Transmission of Texts in The First Millennium BCE 153–155). While many of these variations are particularly minor and agreement between individual tablets is fairly significant, Hobson (Hobson, The Exact Transmission of Texts in The First Millennium BCE 153) also notes that “the rule seems to be that where some sources agree in a particular aspect of their orthography they will disagree elsewhere.” These minimally diverse renderings suggest, not the lack of a definitive version, but rather equal employ of the differing variants. Despite the presence of variations, the number identified is limited and represents a highly standardized text within its cultural context.

Not only is MUL.APIN remarkably standardized, but standardization to this level is unusual in the astronomical texts (Steele, “The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy” 13–14). Such stability is not the result of few remaining copies of the text, either; more than sixty copies of MUL.APIN remain to us, fixing the stability of this text over a large number of documents. Our sources also come from wide geographical and temporal spreads, suggesting that the standardization of MUL.APIN survived movement and transplantation from city to city across time (Steele, “The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy”).

However, MUL.APIN is a much shorter text than others that have been assigned to the Mesopotamian canon, and often shorter texts display fewer variations. The reduced stability in these other, longer texts that are frequently assigned to the Mesopotamian canon suggests that stability is not a necessary attribute for canon membership. Attributing MUL.APIN’s substantial textual stability to a canon therefore does not explain why this text demonstrates unique standardization and is a trait that does not appear to define canonical texts.

Additionally, standardization can also be analyzed outside of the context of canonicity, as part of the Mesopotamian scribal school or even just in regular textual comparisons. All together, though examining standardization touches on interesting aspects of the MUL.APIN text, treating MUL.APIN as a canonical text in order to examine aspects of standardization is not necessary and does not provide new information.

For an idea that is already cumbersome, burdened by meaning and definitions from outside fields and disputed heavily within Assyriology, a canon provides little new information about MUL.APIN and no new tools for examination. Rather than continuing debate on how to define and delimit a Mesopotamian canon, it seems more productive to set the idea aside entirely and focus on individual components. An analysis of stability and authority outside of the context of a canon proves more useful to understanding MUL.APIN than any attempt to lump these characteristics under one overarching term. If the idea of a canon does not aid in understanding or interpreting, then it’s time to let go of this idea.

E.L. Meszaros is a PhD student in the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at Brown University. Her research focuses on the language used to talk about science, particularly as this language is transmitted between cultures and across time.