Powers of Horror: Jewish Law and the Epistle of Barnabas


  • Patrick West


The things I will be saying about the Jewish Law in the following paper are motivated by my interest in the question of history. I want to deal with history at the abstract level of its rules of operation, and not with regard to its empirical effects. I am therefore not interested in historicism, because I am not concerned to 'relativize' or 'contextualize' a specific historical event; rather, I want to explore what one particular event or text - namely the Jewish Law - has to say about the processes and structures by which history itself is organized. This is a crucial distinction: it is based on the difference between a study that 'assumes' history and goes on to explore one or another of its discrete moments or trends, and a study (like this one) that takes history as its object in what must be in the first instance a radically ahistorical gesture. My strategy in this paper will be to interrogate Julia Kristeva's interpretation of the primarily dietary edicts of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy with my own reading of the apocryphal Epistle of Bamabas. My basic project is an attempt to resuscitate a theory of 'historicity' in the field of a theoretical paradigm - 'structuralism' - precisely considered to be antithetical to any sustained engagement with historical thinking. More specifically, the structuralist project excludes history from its considerations to the extent that it operates on the basis of a scientific model (the linguistic sign) that has no room for the historical interruptions and potentialities that characterize those rare discourses (for instance, certain forms of marxism) that fracture the established power structures of society. Unthinkingly, structuralism holds to an implicit model of history that is powerful in its force to prevent the irruption of a genuinely liberating or revolutionary mode of history. Structuralism therefore operates in a sort of 'endless present' and can seemingly make no comment on the concept of history itself. This is the situation I intend to redress here. I want to question the more usual imputation that structuralism and, by 1994 CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS 449 extension, most brands of psychoanalysis, can say nothing of value about history. With this in mind, I want to begin with the interpretation of the Jewish Law put forward in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection by the french psychoanalyst, semiotician and literary critic Julia Kristeva.