Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.02.06
Zainab Bahrani, The Graven Image; Representation in Babylonia and Assyria. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Pp. 242. ISBN 0-8122-3648-3. $49.95.
Reviewed by Brigitte Groneberg, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
Word count: 1391 words
This book consists of a series of essays, all dealing in one way or another with the interpretation of texts and visual representation. In most of these essays Bahrani is primarily inspired by material taken from the Ancient Near East, a world far removed from the present in time, but as she consistently argues, also removed in a general cultural sense from the traditions that developed in European thought. She is of the opinion that Western scholarship has (often unwittingly) distorted the meaning of products of Mesopotamian culture that have survived to this day. This distortion lies in the analytic reductionist essentializing metaphors and long-established preconceptions about the Orient.
In her third essay Bahrani critically examines the way art is perceived in Western culture. The development of mimetic representation has traditionally been seen as a superior, mature stage of a universal development. "Primitive" cultures on the other hand have often been relegated to the cradle of mankind. Many modern studies argue for multicultural approaches; diversity is accepted; recourse is taken to cultural context; the aim is now the study of indigenous ideas of aesthetics. In line with poststructural thinking, Bahrani warns that even determining the social context of an alien culture is a construction: it rests on interpretations that also need to be critically studied. Postmodern anthropology recognizes that the ethnographer is part of the process of writing ethnography. Non-Western cultures when described with Eurocentric methods are in a sense violated. Bahrani develops this further, drawing attention to the idea that the opposition of word and image itself is not a universal but deeply rooted in Western thought, as is the idea that mimesis is superior to other forms of representation.
In the fourth essay, Bahrani introduces the Ancient Near East. She proposed that in Assyro-Babylonian culture readable texts and the visual representation are similar, beyond or separate from the apparent linguistic structure of the text, and secondly that an assumed interaction between visual image and text is part of representation itself. In other words, image and language are entwined in a manner determined by tenets she recognizes in the Assyro-Babylonian way of thinking, or to use her own words: "the structure of the word-image dialectic ... forms the basis for Assyro-Babylonian ideas of representation" (p. 99). These theorems determine much of the argument in the remainder of the book. She first applies her ideas to the representation of the cuneiform script. Having pointed out that in its earliest stages cuneiform writing was originally based on pictographs, she asserts that in the later developments of this script, when a complex system of logograms and syllabic signs had arisen, the pictographic origins were somehow retained within its logic as a system (p. 106). Not all Assyrologists would agree with the important, fundamental and lasting role Bahrani gives to the pictographic origins of this script. Between the earliest pictographic writing of the Uruk Period and cuneiform texts of the first millennium there lies a vast temporal and ideological gap. In the fully-developed form of cuneiform writing, logograms were used as a kind of shorthand, an economical form of writing, and the complementary signs must be understood as aids to proper reading and pronunciation. In addition, some scholars may not agree with Derrida in his evaluation of our Western alphabetical script, having the characteristics of "accuracy" and "being phonetic", therefore being better able to express an objective truth ("through phonetization the signifier having become an external conventionally attributed means of denoting the signified" p. 111). Where does this leave scripts such as cuneiform (or for that matter Chinese)? According to Bahrani, in Mesopotamian thought the relationship between signified and signifier was not unidirectional but, in a metaphorical sense, circular, or perhaps better a chain of signification. Bahrani is here inspired by Bottéro's study Symptomes, signes, écritures (1974), which posed the idea that the names of things did control those things. Thus homophony and similarity of signs are assumed to be part of the Mesopotamian logic and destiny of the signified (p. 111). Bahrani rephrases this in poststructuralist terms: Mesopotamian divination may be conceived of as a type of metaphysics, whereby material things are inseparable from signification. In Assyro-Babylonian thought, Bahrani maintains, words do not simply directly refer to things: at the same time they conceal through metaphor, metonymy or homophony. Revelation and hidden meaning are two sides of Mesopotamian thought.
In the fifth essay Bahrani tackles the question of visual representation, focussing upon what is real and what illusion by studying the Akkadian concept of salmu, a term translated as "statue". Bahrani warns us that salmu may not be taken to be a simple copy or an image of someone, let alone an attempt at mimesis. Instead, salmu was perceived of in the Mesopotamian way of thinking as being part of a metasemiotic relatity (p. 127). Salmu is a form of image circulating within the real -- a pluridimensional chain of possible appearances (p. 128). Here Bahrani draws upon what she perceives to be the magical thought world of the Mesopotamians. She refers to the custom of warding off danger from the king by creating a substitute. This process consisted of a deliberate ritual whereby the substitute was created. A person was dressed in royal garb, the proper formula was uttered and the right answer given, words that were incised and then sewn in the hem of his clothing. A salmu is thus by no means a statue; it might better be taken as "visual image" (p. 135), a doubling (but not a mimetic resemblance). Having thus entered Assyro-Babylonian thought, Bahrani describes kingship itself immersed in the idea of divination: the king's body itself is a "text of divine destiny" (p. 142).
The sixth essay deals with the willful mutilation of reliefs. Bahrani argues convincingly that such acts of partial annihilation were deliberate magical acts of destroying an enemy. In line with her earlier argument, she draws attention to the close association of text and representation. She strongly argues against Prudence Harper's assumption that the mutilations may have been done by Ashurbanipal's troops. In Bahrani's opinion such acts cannot have been performed by people who shared Assyro-Babylonian culture. She is convinced that the stupendous acts of desecration must have been done by the Elamites (p. 165). Part of this essay is devoted to the rituals of "mouth-opening," and the textual segments in which a curse is pronounced on those who deface statues are re-evaluated as being much more than standard formulae. Both these elements fit in very well with Bahrani's argument.
In the seventh part the famous carved alabaster "Altar" of Tukulti-Nimurta is re-examined. Bahrani prefers to call it a pedestal, on which a representation of a deity could be placed. On the cult-platform Tukulti-Ninurta is depicted in two separate attitudes, one approaching and then kneeling in front of a relief of the outline of a smaller pedestal, this time provided with a large object that has been variously interpreted. Bahrani chooses to see the object as a large tablet and a stylus. A cuneiform text reveals that the platform is dedicated to the god Nusku, the messenger-god. Following a rather complex chain of argumentation Bahrani assumes that the god Nusku is here not seen as the god of light, but only in his aspect as dream god, hence the empty tablet, now interpreted as the surface on which Nusku writes Tukulti-Nimurta's dreams. She assumes that the perceived distance between (what is left of the) cuneiform text and representation contains clues to better understand the "altar". In the text she notes the use of the verb s + anu D, which may here mean "to narrate", "to tell again". This Bahrani sees confirmed in the repetitive representations on the pedestal. Not everyone will be convinced of the validity of these arguments.
Even if some of the arguments of The Graven Image may be contested, this book is a welcome addition to the study of the Ancient Near East. It breaks away from Eurocentric approaches and tries to do justice to Mesopotamian thought, thus shedding new light on the relationship between text and representation. Through this book archaeologists and philologists may be provoked to admit that there is a world beyond the disciplines of collecting, recording, editing and translating. It is to be hoped that Bahrani's book will become the center of a lively debate.