Saturday, March 05, 2016

Review of Dolgopolski, The Open Past

MARGINALIA REVIEW OF BOOKS: Out of This World: Virtual Reality and Philosophical Talmud – By Zachary Braiterman. Zachary Braiterman on Sergey Dolgopolski’s The Open Past
The argument is, in fact, simpler than the technical jargon that will surely discomfit many of Dolgopolski’s readers. To conceive Talmud as virtual, the first step would be to note that there is no subject ready at hand to identify. What justifies calling Talmud virtual has largely to do with the significant inconvenience that, despite the best scholarly efforts, there is practically no firm purview onto the historical Sassanian contexts in the third through seventh centuries with which to make sense of the Talmud as a discrete textual production or its “authorship.” Even those scholars most invested in the study of the Bavli in its Iranian contexts can only work by of inference from Zoroastrian texts condensed some four to five hundred years after the redaction of the Talmud. Can Talmud then serve as a source of historical information about Sasanian Persia? Is there even enough information about Sasanian Persia to shed light on the Talmud? In both cases, not really. In part, to call Talmud “virtual” is only to indicate that we can only imagine the historical reality of the Babylonian rabbis based on fragments that do not piece together.

As given or available to us, the actuality of the Talmud is largely imaginary. The rabbis appear more like ciphers, while their nameless editors stand out as disembodied and invisible actors external to the main action they create inside the text. A spectral form of presence, there is no firm reality available beyond the virtual layers of the text, and the opportunity to participate in a form of thinking peculiar to them. No one actually owns Talmud in the absence of a historical subject conceived along the lines of a romantic or modern author who could be said to control the meaning of its literary production (58).

What happens when we bracket out the subject modelled on a modern or single controlling Cartesian subject in full control of his rational faculties, the subject who, after a rigorous performance of methodological doubting, can at least be confident that “I think, therefore I am”? What remains after the Cartesian subject is the pure act of thinking itself, as disconnected and distinct from real subjects as from real objects given to hand. The virtual author of Talmud claims no thought as his own. He can barely be said even to exist.
To be honest, the reviewer lost me when he brought in "being" and Heidegger, but maybe that's just me.