Thomas Crawford, PhD Candidate, Religion, Claremont Graduate University
"Representing Gnosticism: Egypt the Fortuitous Signifier"
On September 23, Thomas Crawford, doctoral candidate in Religion at the Claremont Graduate University, spoke on the topic “Re-Presenting Gnosticism: Egypt the Fortuitous Signifier.” Drawing on his dissertation project, which frames scholarship on the Gospel of Judas within larger critical templates and questions, he argued that the fascination with things Egyptian—books, artifacts, and exhibits—follows a discursive trajectory that renders Egypt as text and bearer for the selfsame representation of the West.
Tom began his presentation with the opening scenes from the National Geographic production, The Gospel of Judas, where western scholars dramatically intervene to assess, catalog, and preserve the Gospel manuscripts while moving furtively along a narrative that suggests the scandalous possibilities that their recent discovery poses. Without speaking much further about the content of the discovery itself, Tom focused on the idea of Egypt and the sense of mystery and wonder it lends to the recently discovered esoteric manuscripts. Critical orientations to the idea of Egypt owe much to the work of Edward Said, who theorized the alluring Orient as a chain of associated references and representations rather than a geo-spatial entity. The contact between the east and west engendered romanticized images, which, when located in the context of colonization, provide the modes and motivations for appropriation and domination. Where Said is silent on the “why” question regarding the west’s eastward gaze for expansion, besides the imbrications of power and knowledge, Tom draws on notion of the “aura” and its attendant representational processes. Restrictive boundaries (Walter Benjamin) and framing (Timothy Mitchell) render the object an auratic dimension of implicit temporal distance, and respectability. When recovered and archived, concrete artifacts sustain a sense of immediacy to their auratic dimension. As Lynn Meskell paraphrases this object-auratic relation: “[the] domestication of things Egyptian has not fundamentally diminished our fascination with cultural specifics; rather it has opened it has opened it up to new and more complex levels of desire….” (2004, 183)
Next, Tom examined nineteenth century European textual practices and their creation of a temporally distant Egypt, which is also static but valuable root of wisdom and bedrock for western society. For the western observer, Egypt was accessible only through western representational frames or by what one had seen before in the west. The resultant image of Egypt was that of a mediated visibility constructed by the sovereign western subject as voyeur and collector for his own entertainment and edification.
Egypt attracted much curiosity for its antiquity and signified temporal distance on which to articulate varied self definitions. In line with Herodotus and renaissance scholars before him, Napoleon and his expedition to Egypt (1798) marked the sustained western appropriation and representation of Egypt in the decades to follow. Egyptology with its coterie of experts, in the wake of the discovery and subsequent decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, reinforced the value of the study and preservation of Egypt and its material culture. The idealized representations of Egypt—savants as kings, priests searching for scientific truth, and so on—reinforced justifications for French endeavors in their post-revolution phase of social reconfiguration.
Gnosticism and the Gospel of Judas, despite their relative silence through most of the presentation, are brought into sharp relief by the themes related to their provenance. Politics and power differentials in the representational process undermine the stability of the past and our access to it, whether through text, artifact, or even a box of crumbling codices. In sum, it is not so much about the material archive of an exotic past but how that past is excavated and what it signifies for today.
For further discussion:
1. In the discussion of the appropriation and representation of Egypt (by Europeans, Muslims, Copts, Christians, and so on) which are varied and often in diametrical ways, would research on the Gospel of Judas register as yet another spin on that trajectory, and, if so, how?
2. The presentation noted J. Z. Smith’s observation, “Place attracts attention.” Are there representational parallels in the region around the northern African coast or is Egypt a peculiar case? How does the presence or lack of parallels etch out J. Z. Smith’s observation?
3. Could the range of material that archive an essentialized Egyptian past, and their modes of activation inform further conversation about scriptures?
Submitted by: Lalruatkima
The Institute for Signifying Scriptures