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  • "But They Do Exist":Human Presence in Ancient Studies
  • Eva Mroczek
Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity. By Karen B. Stern. Pp. xxi + 291 Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. Cloth, $35.00.

In Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, D. F. McKenzie, one of the key figures in the field of book history, wrote that bibliography—the study of the book as a material form and cultural object—can "show the human presence in any recorded text."1 McKenzie's vision for a "sociology of texts" includes close study of their neglected and ostensibly irrelevant features: book bindings, readers' annotations, slight differences in printed editions and catalog entries, and other data that seems marginal (and sometimes literally is). For McKenzie, attention to such detail is not merely pedantic bean-counting but potentially revealing data for how real human beings have created, modified, and received texts over time. It is this vision that he sets against two dominant currents in his time: "analytical bibliography," which catalogs books and editions while aggressively bracketing their social meanings; and New Criticism, which severs literary meaning from context and intention. Citing Tzvetan Todorov's comment that "the dominant tendency of American criticism is anti-humanism," McKenzie argues that bibliography as a "sociology of texts" has "a massive authority with which to correct" anti-humanistic tendencies—exactly by this potential to reveal "human presence" in textual remains.2

Karen B. Stern's Writing On the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity is a book about this kind of human presence. It is also a deeply humanistic book, in ways that transcend Stern's own more modest claims for her work. It is a book about presence in two ways: the very fact of the graffiti's presence, and the human presence to which it attests; and it is a [End Page 455] humanistic book in three ways: methodologically, affectively, and ethically. All are closely intertwined.

I will explain the ideas of presence and the humanism in her work below, while trying to understand why Stern's own claims are indeed so modest, even minimal—and what this says about the limitations of our field. Work like Stern's models for us how to escape from some of these more depressing limitations, including an anti-humanism that sometimes lurks in the field, through an approach where technical rigor meets imaginative encounters with the ancient past. This is not the ancient past of profound ideas, political turning points, and revelatory vision. Rather, it is the past of ordinary human beings, with their haphazard decisions, the messes they left, and their awkward, touching efforts to be seen.

1. Scope and Arguments

The premise of the book is straightforward. Writing on the Wall presents and analyzes ancient graffiti associated with Jews from three kinds of contexts: devotional, mortuary, and civic. Graffiti is understood broadly, as "markings (whether words, images, or both) applied in an 'unofficial' capacity and in social and dialogical ways, regardless of whether their applications were anticipated, lauded, or denigrated by their audiences" (p. 20). With this definition and the accompanying analysis of the concept, Stern emphasizes that the defining features of "graffiti" are neither that it is transgressive—since many of her ancient examples of "informal" writing or drawing seemed appropriate and even expected in their contexts—nor that it is aesthetically inferior—as we can see in contemporary examples of graffiti created with care and artistic skill. Instead, it is a context of creation outside the formal, official, or monumental production of inscriptions and images that classifies something as graffiti, however different the motivations of their creators may have been. Stern takes care to acknowledge this is an anachronistic category, not an emic one, and that the creators of the markings she collects under the umbrella of "graffiti" would not necessarily have thought of themselves as performing the same kind of activities. Stern spends several careful pages defining her terms. She devotes even more space to justifying the very study of informal ancient markings etched and drawn on synagogue door jambs, burial caves, and theaters as a legitimate and potentially fruitful scholarly enterprise in the study of...


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