Apart from my thrills at the book display theme park, I did actually attend some paper sessions, presenting at a few, listening at others. And a conference – even with 10,500 people – is never worth it until you encounter a really abysmal presentation and find one really good idea.
The worst: curiously, it was on a panel called ‘Race Matters in Political Theology’. And the moment was what may be called ‘Imperialising Theory-Speak’.
To begin with, I thoroughly enjoyed what Kowk Pui Lan and Eleazer Fernandez had to say, urging other US-based scholars not to become wrapped up in their own parochial concerns and ignoring the rest of the world. And the effort by some of the others present to defend Judith Butler, after I had dumped on her liberal and hypocritical ethics, left me somewhat bemused.
But the self-styled radical, Andrea Smith (who has written her own Wikipedia page), provided two moments of stunning imperialism. The first was to cut off a question regarding class, especially the complex interweaving of race and class in the USA.
She replied: ‘Seeing race as a superstructural dimension of class was demolished ages ago …’
‘That’s not what I said …’ interjected the questioner.
‘Let me finish my sentence’, she cut in. The sentence lasted another ten minutes.
The second moment was in response to my point – following on from Kwok Pui Lan – about the implicit imperialising of debates in the USA, especially the way specific issues with their own particular histories are assumed to be everyone’s issues. Again, in a stunning example of precisely that process, Andrea Smith asserted through a torrent of theory-speak that her position is indeed universal. Given that she also dominated question time and made sure she had the last word, I gained the distinct impression of being hectored into submission – the effect was much like being bombarded by a theoretical aircraft carrier.
The best: Christine Mitchell’s paper on the myth of the benevolent Persians. It was a timely reminder not to be seduced by the propaganda found in inscriptions from the halls of power. Christine focused on the Persian self-representation as benevolent imperialists, only to rip it apart. They simply refined the brutality of the Assyrians – much like the democrat version of imperialism in the USA, I guess. But it reinforced my growing awareness of the way so many scholars who deal with politics and economics in the ANE take at face value the self-assertions of ultimate and far-reaching power, let alone their paternal loving-kindness. The land is the mine, claim the rulers, and every one is my vassal, to whom I extend mercy. The reality was quite different.
Actually, there was one further moment, more a trigger for thinking about an unresolved question. It emerged from the murky depths of my mind during a session on domestic space in the ancient world. Amidst much discussion of ‘house sizes’ and so on, I recalled the curious practice in Mesopotamia with the transfer of domestic space. To begin with, measurements are always given for the internal space, inside the walls. One does not measure by means of the outside walls (to maximise the profit from the sale). And there is no document or contract that cites the acquisition of a whole dwelling. Instead, we find a room, or more commonly part of a room. The space was measured by spreading emmer wheat over the floor and then the space was transferred. But what does that mean concerning the sense of space, of lived space? How can you live in one third of a room, while your neighbours live in the other two-thirds? Did they have completely different notions of the demarcation of space, or perhaps the lack of such demarcation? How did they imagine, think and live space? No one on the panel knew the answer and no one who has written on this has one either. I spent much of my time on the way back to Berlin pondering this conundrum as part of the Sacred Economy project, wondering whether this act of experiential imagination is beyond us.