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The Graven Image

The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria

Zainab Bahrani
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Graven Image
    Book Description:

    Mesopotamia, the world's earliest literate culture, developed a rich philosophical conception of representation in which the world was saturated with signs. Instead of imitating the natural world, representation-both in writing and in visual images-was thought to participate in the world and to have an effect upon it in natural, magical, and supernatural ways. The Graven Image is the first book to explore this tradition, which developed prior to, and apart from, the Greek understanding of representation. The classical Greek system, based on the notion of mimesis, or copy, is the one with which we are most familiar today. The Assyro-Babylonian ontology presented here by Zainab Bahrani opens up fresh avenues for thinking about the concept of representation in general, and her reading of the ancient Mesopotamian textual and visual record in its own ontological context develops an entirely new approach to understanding Babylonian and Assyrian arts in particular. The Graven Image describes, for the first time, rituals and wars involving images; the relationship of divination, the organic body, and representation; and the use of images as a substitute for the human form, integrating this ancient material into contemporary debates in critical theory. Bahrani challenges current methodologies in the study of Near Eastern archaeology and art history, introducing a new way to appreciate the unique contributions of Assyrian and Babylonian culture and their complex relationships to the past and present.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0677-7
    Subjects: Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    The Graven Image is an inquiry into the concept of representation in the ancient Near East. The book is concerned specifically with the Assyro-Babylonian practice of combining writing and visual representation for the production of images as a form of essential presence or for what might be described as conjuring presence in an image. An essential presence in an image means that the image takes the place of the real or that what is conceived of as a real essence is present in and through the image. Yet this presence is not a matter of a simple substitution. This practice...

  5. 1 The Aesthetic and the Epistemic: Race, Culture, and Antiquity
    (pp. 13-49)

    In 1992 W. J. T. Mitchell wrote an article titled “Postcolonial Culture, Postimperial Criticism.” In this essay he points to how the traditional cultural exports of Western empires—literature, history, philosophy, and the fine arts—tended to move in one direction only, from colonizer to colonized, and how these cultural exports supported the authority of the imperial center. Culture was transported to the colonized “natives” in order to “civilize” them and to serve “as a continual reminder of where civilization was really located—in the imperial center.” In describing postmodern criticism, Mitchell continues to explain that today the most important...

  6. 2 The Extraterrestrial Orient: Despotic Time and the Time of the Despots
    (pp. 50-72)

    By 1909 the importance of the production of knowledge for the British colonial enterprise in the East is neither implicit in political rhetoric nor subtly expressed. The necessity for the development of the discipline of Oriental studies was not thought of as that of an esoteric scholarly endeavor. In Lord Curzon’s words it was “an imperial obligation … part of the necessary furniture of Empire” (quoted in Said 1978:214) The need for this knowledge was stressed as an integral part of the process of colonization and one that would facilitate the continuation of European authority over the East. The development...

  7. 3 Ethnography and Mimesis: Representing Aesthetic Culture
    (pp. 73-95)

    Anthropological studies tell us that for societies in which high art does not exist, art arises in two specific domains: the first is in the realm of rituals, especially political rituals where power is legitimized by association with supernatural forces in representations, and the second is in the area of commercial exchange, where artifacts may be technically sophisticated, but such sophistication consists of the technological transformation of materials for commerce (Gell 1992; Coote and Shelton 1992). In art historical terms, as defined by Ernst Gombrich (1960), both of these domains require processes of “making” as opposed to “matching.” They create...

  8. 4 Being in the Word: Of Grammatology and Mantic
    (pp. 96-120)

    These quotations are from the exergue of the first chapter of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1974:3). They were chosen because the author wants to show that writing is always ethnocentric, that it is not separable from culturally specific concepts of reason or science. Mesopotamian writing, being considered the earliest by the majority of historians of language and philologists, makes the inclusion of an Assyrian prayer an appropriate choice for juxtaposition with post-Enlightenment conceptions of writing.¹ By beginning with these quotes, Derrida wants to say that there are many ways of viewing the sign in history but that they are all...

  9. 5 Ṣalmu: Representation in the Real
    (pp. 121-148)

    In Of Grammatology, Derrida equated the separation between soul and body in Western thought to the separation of physis/tekhne, real/mimetologic. The conception of the individual person as bipartite is explained thus as part of the larger ontological binary system of Western metaphysics that distinguishes between a signifier and a stable signified: “It is not a simple analogy: writing, the letter, the sensible inscription, has always been considered by Western tradition as the body and matter external to the spirit, to breath, to speech, and to the logos. And the problem of soul and body is no doubt derived from the...

  10. 6 Decoys and Lures: Substitution and the Uncanny Double of the King
    (pp. 149-184)

    In his study of colonialist novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Abdul Rahman JanMohamed has shown how it is a genre that does not so much depict a world at the outer limits of civilization as codify and preserve the structures of its own mentality: “Such literature is essentially specular: instead of seeing the native—it uses him as a mirror that reflects the colonialist self image” (JanMohamed 1985:59.) On the surface, this literature is seemingly a description of particular places and peoples, but it also contains an integral subtext that is the valorization of Europe. Through the...

  11. 7 Presence and Repetition: The Altar of Tukulti-Ninurta
    (pp. 185-201)

    In the Assyro-Babylonian tradition, visual representation was considered to be part of an entire semantic constellation. Like the ideogram in the script, the visual sign had the potential of referring to a chain of referents, linked to it and to one another by a logic that may escape the contemporary viewer but that could be deciphered in antiquity through hermeneutic readings. Such readings were obviously not accessible to a general public, most of whom were most likely nonliterate; however, the potential of signs referring to other signs in a continuous chain of meanings was a knowledge not limited to the...

  12. 8 Conclusion: Image, Text, and Différance, or from Difference to Différance
    (pp. 202-210)

    In the Platonic Western tradition, reality and representation have been seen as two logically and ontologically disparate things. One belongs in the realm of the essential real; the other is simply an imitation or an illusion and is thus secondary to the real. The first enjoys an originary superior identity—it is a real essence—while the second depends on resemblance to the first. In sum, the thing being represented must fall ontologically outside of the representation itself. Another important Platonic distinction lies in the types of representation: between the categories of images that are copies and classified as having...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 211-218)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 219-236)
  15. Index
    (pp. 237-240)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 241-245)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 246-246)