Book Chat: Naomi Janowitz - Acts of Interpretation (2022)


Event Date

I-House - 10 College Park Drive, Davis CA 95616

Ancient philosophers used their ideas about language and how words function to investigate truth and to create effective religious rituals. Some ancient authors thought that the names of the gods were the best representation of divinity and infused rituals with divine power. This study outlines examples of these ancient ideologies and the long shadow these ideas cast on modern discussions of ritual and religion. The study begins with a critique of the still-popular idea that two “fashions of speaking” about divine truth coexist: first, that names describe divinity; and second, that names fail to completely describe divinity, which is in some sense “ineffable.” Equally limiting are ancient polemics about idolatry that are repeated by scholars of religion who elevate context-specific arguments about proper/improper images to the level of abstract theory. So too, many modern scholars recycle the spirit/letter linguistic model found in the New Testament as an explanatory theory for moral development. The study ends with the example of Burning Man where rituals center on signs that gain meaning only through interpretation, reflecting modern theories of art (and sign) interpretation. In all of these cases by building on the work of Charles Peirce and Michael Silverstein, it it possible to analyze the contextual implications of signs in a more robust manner than the wildly-popular but vague term “performative.”

Naomi Janowitz is the author of numerous articles on Judaism, Christianity, and Graeco-Roman religions in late antiquity and on psychoanalysis. Her books include The Poetics of Ascent: Rabbinic Theories of Language in a Late Antique Ascent Text (SUNY Press), Magic in the Roman World: Pagans Jews and Christians (Routledge), Icons of Power: Rituals Strategies in Late Antiquity (Penn State Press) which was chosen as a Choice Journal Outstanding Academic book for 2003, and The Family Romance of Maccabean Martyrdom (London: Routledge Press, 2017). She has also published on semiotics in Signs in Society and on psychoanalytic semiotics in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis. She is a graduate of the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute.

Find more on Naomi Janowitz's work here.

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