Review of J.L. Berquist and C.V. Camp, Constuctions of Space II

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Jon L. Berquist and Claudia V. Camp (eds.), Constructions of Space II: The Biblical City and Other Imagined Spaces (LHBOTS 490; New York, London: T&T Clark, 2008). Pp. ix+197, Hardcover, £55, ISBN 978 0 567 02708 5.

We live in space. We mark our existence in and upon it. We interrupt it as though it were, to borrow somewhat abstractly from G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, a body without organs. Traces of human of existence, readable through archaeology, art history, historical studies, social-scientific studies, religious studies, political sciences and so forth are those constructed objects reflecting human engagement and interruption of space. Space must be interrupted to be recognizable. It is with this awareness that the volume Constructions of Space II wrestles. As the second to a first summarizing the work of the joint AAR-SBL Constructions of Ancient Space Seminar (2000-2005), this volume promises, among other things, to engage the concept of the biblical city (as urban construct and as metaphor). A fundamental premise, this concept is knowable by acts of division and exclusion, or interruptions in space, so much a part of what may be termed an “urban-rural dichotomy.” And by offering up the phrase “biblical city” it promises not only to engage the production and distribution of urban systems but also religion's role in these flows and their interruptions.

With informed intention the volume begins (a la M. P. O'Connor, J. L. Berquist, S. L. Graham) with the occupation of and the writing upon geographic space. Each of the first contributions take as a given the biblical texts as cultural productions, thus reflections of human material and ideological interactions with and within space. O'Connor wrestles with two primary nuances of “city,” the literary-theological (defined by cultural and religious meaning) and the archaeological (defined by the remains of walls, buildings, etc.), focusing on both the production (and definition) of the concept not only in real space (as D. Summers terms it) but in the sometimes misaligned imaginary (and thus interpretive) spaces shared by authors and readers. He reminds his readers that ancient cities served different functions (bureaucratic, industrial, ceremonial, see pp. 33-34), a material reality, I would argue, that sometimes gets lost in analyses of Judah's urban landscape. Berquist's contribution narrows in on the function of Jerusalem, how city and space created not only an urban population center but also a site of pilgrimage, especially “in the midst of empire” (p. 41). His “play” on the use of Jerusalem as occupied space rightly and astutely emphasizes the deliberate, interpretive focus of Israelite and Judean authors (and sometimes modern scholars!) on space as sacred. Such a focus, as he argues, easily lends itself to theologies (such as “Zion theology”) that rewrite the distribution of the other(s), pushing this other(s) outside the ideological space of the city. Graham applies Lefebvre-Soja's spatial theory to decipher the rationale behind the brief period of importance of Emperor Justinian's “Nea Ekklesia.” To occupy space is one thing, she concludes, but occupation is neither static nor permanent. Those things that occupy space must be “made alive” through active collective memory to enjoy sustainability. Objects produced in space cannot retain their meaning if individuals and cultures do not continually mark their existence upon them.

From an initial focus on geography and architecture, the next two contributors (R. Boer, C. M. Maier) begin with the ideological and textual production of perceived space. Boer's contribution pits Lefebvre and Marx in dialectical contest to show the production of space requires both center and periphery, dominant (in terms of class) and subdominant. There is, as he notes, “play and flow” between urban and rural landscapes that produce frameworks, material and ideological, of interaction within space. Moreover, the “space” of history cannot be neatly periodized (contra Marx) nor is it always neatly “produced.” It cannot account for longer historical and material patterns, especially in modes of production, that may be continued from one period to the next. Maier's two contributions bring feminist theory into conversation with spatiality; a conversation that often seemed to be marked by resistance between theoretical methods. The use of feminine metaphors, she argues, reveals ideological constructions to overcome a loss of space, marginalization or (perceived) oppression. Of her two contributions, that focusing on Lamentations (“Body Space as Public Space,” pp. 119-38) seemed the weaker argument. Feminine metaphors notwithstanding, her thesis that spatial theory demonstrates Lamentations 1 and 3 are communal expressions aiding a collective in coping with loss and destruction offers nothing beyond what is generally accepted in literary studies of Lamentations as part of a lament genre.

K. M. Lopez and T. Pippin take the remaining focus of the volume to alternative realities by blending apocalyptic analyses with spatial theory. It is unfortunate that at many points the “fit” did not seem to be there as the application of spatial theory failed to reveal anything beyond generic social-scientific observation. While I think there is potential here and while I think both contributors have the potential of revealing something methodologically innovative, the “space” of apocalyptic must be shown to be more than a container for ideological justification or “construction” of utopia. To reveal apocalyptic as a productive force one must clearly find in apocalypticism the roles of producer and product, whether from the center or the periphery, showing this distributed relationship to be an ideological force behind the production of material reality.

Stepping outside an ancient Near Eastern framework and into an East Asian one, William E. Deal offers a “reverse engineering” of Soja's tripartite theory by analyzing the Buddhist concept of “Pure Land,” which has no physical model or origin. His contribution, which works with an absent “Firstspace,” shows that while spatial theory can be used in analyses of religion, investigators cannot expect theoretical methods (such as that from Soja) to work cleanly without “tweaking.” Theories produced primarily from the discipline of geography, he concludes, do not adequately and without emendation account for the varieties and complexities of religious data.

Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja were kings for the project, and perhaps not unrightfully so. A number of the contributors, as Claudia Camp makes mention (pp. 2-4), worked under the tutelage of Jim Flanagan, whose own work had been influenced by both theorists. Still, as I read I found myself wondering, where was the contribution that would push previously conceived spatial theory beyond itself to produce something entirely new? Deal's contribution moves in that direction but ultimately he still finds himself restricted to Soja's vocabulary and paradigm. Yet to be fair, perhaps this very question was written into the spaces behind the text by the editors and contributors. After all, the seminar was the beginning of something, a new way of looking at demarcated realities of biblical world and text. And if so, then this volume can be said to have consciously and unconsciously demonstrated limitations to Lefebvre's and Soja's theories and left its readers with a challenge: tell us what you see.

One thing remains to be said. This volume undeniably exhibits positive advances in bringing spatiality into conversation with biblical studies (and studies of other religious fields). Each contributor expresses, though to varying degrees, an awareness that space is socially produced and is productive, restrictive, and expressive of social interaction. Understanding this aspect of space is important, the volume reminds us, for those who seek a better understanding not only of ancient societies but also of religion and how it functions within society and even how it rejects society. With specific reference to ancient Israel and Judah, and I say this with much tenderness, this volume resists the passivity of occupying space. It reminds its readers that an understanding of society accessed through biblical texts alone is incomplete. It requires an active and engaging intellectual understanding of complex social, ideological and material relations that demarcate and restrict space and interaction with and within it.

Jeremiah Cataldo, Grand Valley State University