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Wrestling with Archons
Gnosticism as a Critical Theory of Culture

A New Perspective on an Ancient Phenomenon

The objective of this research is to inquire how and to what ends one can profitably read Gnosticism, a “heretical” Christianity that flourished in the first centuries of the Greco-Roman world, as a critical theory of culture transcribed in a religious alphabet. This ancient critical theory, much like many of its modern counterparts, subjected the most cherished cultural premises of its times to a deconstructing review. In contrast to most modern theorists, however, gnostics expressed themselves mainly (but not exclusively) through the vehicle of myth. The main aims of this study is to salvage the category of Gnosticism from its present scholarly disavowal, if only because Gnosticism, when read as a cultural, and not only a religious phenomenon, presents us an ancient form of culture criticism which would be hard to parallel until the 20th century. Therefore this research is meant not only to reinvigorate the study of Gnosticism by suggesting new ways to read these challenging texts in their own context, but would also bear important implications for the understanding of our own culture. If modern critical theories of culture can be used successfully in order to understand ancient Gnosticism, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that ancient Gnosticism can help us to gather a new perspective on modern theories of culture and on the pressing questions with which they are entangled.

 

The Gnostics as Cultural Critics

My research addresses Gnosticism as an ancient variant of culture criticism expressed in mythological means. If Stuart Hall, one of the founding fathers of cultural studies, could refer to this theoretical practice as “wrestling with the angels,” stress that this is a “metaphor you can take as literally as you like,” and underscore that “[M]etaphors are serious things. They affect one’s practice”, indeed it seems as if the ancient gnostics took a similar metaphor – only exchanging angels for archons – very literally and seriously, even too literally and seriously for the taste of many moderns.

A (modern) critical theory of culture attempts a questioning the unquestionable and deconstructing the “givens” of a respective culture, instead of arguing on their basis. Examples include the works and methods of Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, as well as of the radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Monique Wittig. In each case, the similarities (and differences) between contemporary culture criticism and ancient gnostic mythologizing will be investigated thoroughly. This should provide the necessary methodological basis for approaching Gnosticism as an (ancient) critical theory of culture. It should be stressed already at this stage, however, that in drawing such analogies, nothing is implied regarding the truthfulness or the relative value of either modern cultural criticism or ancient Gnosticism, nor is any attempt made to prove any of them wrong (as if that was possible). The purpose is to understand both better.

 

Many Aspects of Gnosticism

The main part of this research will address the gnostic views regarding language and speech, traditionalism and belief in progress, and gender and sex, respectively. The discussion on language and speech will engage the ways that the gnostics understood the origin and purpose of language vis à vis the real: Does language construct reality or vice versa? In discussing traditionalism, I will inquire into the gnostic understanding of traditional authority versus innovation. Addressing gender and sex, I will investigate the gnostic stance on the origin and construction of both as an overarching evil subjecting device; this will also include an excursus inquiring what exactly did the gnostics understand by the terms “nature” and “natural.”

By locating these gnostic stances over against the predominant Greco-Roman culture of the beginning of our era, I will try to evaluate how, in each case, the gnostic myth attempts a dismantling (and, in a sense, also a seemingly paradoxical mythological demystifying) of those very cultural premises on which ancient discourse was based, whether they concerned language, tradition or gender. It may also be shown that proto-orthodox Christianity usually tackled the same problems, reached the same cultural limits or boundaries, but employed a complex system of checks and balances in order to stay within, if often at the borders of, the Greco-Roman cultural discourse, and that this stance may had much to do with its eventual success. The possible historical implications of this will be studied in detail, as well as its possible interconnectedness to different discourses of alterity in antiquity.

 

From Ancient Gnosticism to (post)modernity

Interspersed among these will be a number of comparative excurses: taking my cue from Jonas’s famous comparison between Gnosticism and Existentialism, I intend to conduct comparisons between several aspects of Gnosticism and modern critical cultural theories as far as both challenge and attempt a dismantling of cherished premises in their respective cultural climates. The explicit intention is that such a comparison would help to shed more light on both phenomena, the modern as well as the ancient, in much the same way that Jonas was able to provide an existential reading of Gnosticism, but also, no less importantly, a gnostic reading of Existentialism. While Jonas has remarked many years ago that “[S]omething in Gnosticism knocks at the door of our Being and of our twentieth-century Being in particular” by the time of the 21st century postmodern global world, this something already entered and lives with us. I believe we can still benefit much from another perspective, even if it comes from people who lived almost 2,000 years ago.     

 

Research Outline

Introduction

A. Gnosticism, Gnostics and their Discontents                   

B. The Present State of Research: Typological and Political Challenges                  

Methodology

A. The Definition and Nature of the Corpus: Are there any primary sources for Gnosticism?

B. A Cultural Approach to the Study of Gnosticism         

Gnosticism as Ancient Cultural Criticism: A Historical Approach

A. Tradition, Traditionalism, and the New

B. The Origin and Function of Sex and Gender

C. The Desert of the Real: Language, The Material World, and Bodies that Matter

Gnosticism and Modern Culture Criticism: A Comparative Approach

A. What does Frankfurt have to do with Alexandria? Adorno’s Culture Industry and the Conspiracy of the Archons in Gnosticism

B. Unnatural Theology: Gnosticism, Radical Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Frankfurt School.

C. Between Stuart Hall’s Angels and the Gnostic Archons: Wrestling with the Self-Evident

The Origin of Christianity and the Identity of Gnosticism

A. The Traditional Approach and Walter Bauer’s Hypothesis

B. Orthodoxy and Heresy, Rhetoric and History

C. An Attempt of Paradigm Inversion: Proto-Orthodox Christianity as an Adaptive Reform of Gnosticism.     

Conclusions