Lisa Bitel

title.none: Biddick, The Typological Imaginary (Lisa Bitel)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.042 05.01.42

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lisa Bitel, University of Southern California,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Biddick, Kathleen. The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Pp. ix, 148. $35.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-8122-3740-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.42

Biddick, Kathleen. The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Pp. ix, 148. $35.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-8122-3740-4.

Reviewed by:

Lisa Bitel
University of Southern California

I admit that I have not fully understood anything that Kathleen Biddick has written since her 1989 book on English pastoral husbandry. Nonetheless, I was eager to review this book for the same reason that I practice my Latin grammar or take daily exercise: because it is good for me. Biddick's abstruse analyses of medieval history and historiography are always difficult but rewarding. This short collection of related essays tackles what Biddick serenely labels "an unsettling historiographical problem" but what, to her readers, is nothing less than a synthesis of the history of Christian-Jewish relations, Christian historical identities, teleology and the construction of history, and our collective understanding of our job as historians.

Biddick is in the vanguard of a medievalist assault upon historical teleologies. Scholars from all over the medieval map have recently produced conference panels and volumes challenging historical periodization and its inherent narrative. Biddick urges us to abandon such a supersessionary approach to the movement of history, which lingers in modern Christian-Jewish relations, Foucauldian theory, and pretty much all academic approaches to temporality. Rather than a then/now binary, she suggests, let us imagine the past through "passages, thresholds, gaps, intervals, inbetweenness." Then we can--indeed, we must--proceed to reinvent intercultural, interreligious relations. In other words, can we imagine an approach to history unburdened by our own relations to the past and all that occurred in historical scholarship between then and now? If that last sentence is any clue--with its dichotomous then and now--it seems unlikely. This could only happen in a world in where past events were never causative, emblematic, or prophetic.

Biddick shows us how the Christian typological imaginary began and why it still haunts our thinking. In a particular series of moments during the long fifteenth century, writers, printers, inquisitors, and mapmakers first replaced and eventually erased Jews from history, textually, methodologically, and visually. New technologies of book design, scientific inquiry, judicial decision making, and architectural drawing allowed Christians to relegate Jews irrevocably to a biblical past rather than a living present, and then to erase them entirely from historical thinking. Jews were shoved to the margins of histories and maps where they babbled in kabbalistic alphabets rather than helping with the scientific project of modernity. Anti-Jewish polemics about circumcision and baptism, resurfacing repeatedly since late antiquity, reemerged visually in public inscriptions and architectural images during the early modern period, at the precise moment when print culture could send them all over the continent. Authentic Jews--the People of the Book--thus became entombed in a lost history kept in Christian books, while "talmudic" Jews living in European cities were subjected to new "cuttings" (destructions, inquisitions, diasporas) at the hands of Christian intellectuals, jurists, and mobs. What is more, such categorizing and inscribing of Jews in new print technologies did not merely reflect but actually produced Christian-Jewish relations.

The last two chapters of the book plot the continuing effects of such traumatic repetition, with a cast of familiar theoretical suspects who, alas, have practiced their own supersessionary thinking. Foucault (simply relocated the dividing point of then and now), Lacan (transferred the binary to a psychological context), Freud (almost got it right with his Moses and Monotheism by using circumcision for his notion of the uncanny, and thus opening a space between circumcision and castration where better theorists and historians might go to think--but then goofed with his understanding of fetishism) all say the wrong things in this book. Less well known, but still eminent, ethnologists and historians, such as Salo Baron, David Nirenberg, Moses Mendelssohn, and Amitav Ghosh, fare only slightly better. These scholars have all practiced some sort of binary "cutting" upon history--severing past from present, as in med-ieval--and also failed to police their own practices of history for such dichotomizing. They just don't get it, in Biddick's estimation. These scholars practice the "fetishes of periodization," as Biddick names them, and succumb to the rueful mantra of "I know it but even so."

Biddick never explains how to avoid the middle of Middle Ages. How can "unhistorical histories" help us to historicize "the fetishized corporeal organizations of archivist, fieldworker, historian, analyst in a supposed post-supersessionary world?" she asks. This book, which lacks a proper conclusion, ends with Biddick's remark that she has found the work of Teresa de Lauretis useful. Some of us have had less luck with de Lauretis, though. Biddick's own method is taxing enough in her own expert hands but would be disastrous employed by an amateur. She ranges across concepts, media, and genres, accumulating associations as she goes. One linkage leads to another in an Escher-like bind: new type fonts remind her of the historical reduction of Jews to their own Talmud, which reminds her of the hegemonic effects of graphic design in mechanical bookmaking. The inscription depicted in an engraving of the Regensburg synagogue is a "montage" of the judicial ordeal, ritual circumcision, and public writing. In this conspiratorial world, the slightest Eco-esque echo of a word reverberates across the European continent and several centuries of writing, art, and architecture to produce meaningful history. As critics of Biddick's earlier works have noted, facts and microhistories are superfluous to the ideological figments of this book.

But we don't read Biddick for facts. Nor do we pick up her works for easy browsing, since not only is the argument tangled but the language is often impossible. (This could be a great game, choosing the most convoluted sentence in a single Biddick book.) No, we read for inspirations. In this latest collection, Biddick makes a brave and moving plea that we all work harder to find the traumatic, repetitive effects of supersessionary thinking in our work. The same binary that drove Christians from Jews continues to plague our thought and our scholarship. By thinking through theoreticians and histories, and through the historical collisions and elisions of medieval images and words, we might at least begin to glimpse the wrong ways, if not find the right way to reimagine the past. "In such belatedness historians can construct a much-needed ethical relation to the political project of rethinking supersession," Biddick writes. The moral, personal, and political is the historical, for Biddick. The trick is not to assume anything that we assume, and to do it ethically.