Book: Buddhist Violence and Religious Authority
Chapter: 14. Affect in the Archives: Violence and Authority in Late Ancient Apocalyptic Texts
Affect theory is often defined as the study of the non-linguistic elements of human experience. What, if any, aspects of our subjectivity are not related to language, and how do we study them? While studies on affect theory have taken a wide range of approaches that stretch across the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences, most have been concerned with contemporary events, communities, and rhetoric. What has been missing in studies on affect theory is how affect relates to texts—that is, how do texts convey affect, and how do readers respond to textual affects? While affect theory promises to explore what lies outside of language, texts are inevitably bound to the written word. Texts from premodern societies present even more challenges, as they come from the distant past and often little is known about their origins or authors.
This essay will explore how scholars could approach the affective dimensions of premodern texts. In particular, I will analyze two late ancient apocalypses, the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the Book of Main Points. Both were composed in Syriac during the seventh century by anonymous Christian authors living in the aftermath of the Islamic conquests. Both texts are also famous for their terrifying and violent imagery of the end of the world. Drawing upon insights from the field of religion and violence (particularly Michael Jerryson’s process of authorization), I will suggest a mode of reading these texts that accounts for their representations of intense violence. Ultimately, rather than presenting consistent narratives, both texts show how violence produces diffuse, paradoxical, and inconsistent affects, particularly in the absence of a stabilizing, “authorizing” voice.