The principle of normative inversion

by Frances Kafka

I’ve been dipping of late into the book Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism by the Egyptologist Jan Assmann. It’s a work of cultural memory”, how Moses and ancient Egypt have been remembered up til the present day. Something that he brings up is the notion of normative inversion,” which he finds in the Egyptian historian Manetho, and I think can be found outside the scope of religion and the ancient world.

In Manetho’s account, King Amenophis wanted to see the gods. The sage Amenophis, son of Hapu, tells him that he may see the gods if he cleanses the land of lepers. The king sends all lepers with priests among them into the quarries in the eastern desert. Amenophis the sage predicts divine punishment for this inhuman treatment of the sick: they will receive help from outside, conquer Egypt, and reign for thirteen years. Not daring to tell the king this in person, he writes everything down and commits suicide. The lepers are allowed to settle in Avaris, the ancient capital of the Hyksos. They choose Osarsiph, a Heliopolitan priest, as their leader. He makes laws for them on the principle of normative inversion, prescribing all that is forbidden in Egypt and forbidding all that is prescribed there. The first and foremost commandment is not to worship the gods, not to spare any of their sacred animals, not to abstain from other forbidden food. The principle of normative inversion consists in inverting the abominations of the other culture into obligations and vice versa. When this principle is applied on the alimentary level, the eating of pork, for example, would be commanded, not because it is cheap or tasty or nutritious, but only because it visibly demonstrates the fact that one does not belong to a community that abominates this food. Inversely, the consumption of meat together with dairy products would be prohibited, not because the combination of meat and milk is unbecoming or unsavory, but because keeping them apart demonstrates separation from a society where consuming this combination is customary, perhaps even obligatory.

Something I would like to point that most cases of normative inversion are imagined. While perhaps it is quite possible that groups sometimes flip values of other cultures that they’re separating from, most commonly, people assume that those in other groups hold on to the exact reverse of their values. Manetho for one cannot be taken as an entirely objective historian here, and we will see how this move is commonly used by polemicists.

With typical conciseness, Tacitus defines the basic principle of this new religion as what might be termed normative inversion”: the Jews consider everything that we keep sacred as profane and permit everything that for us is taboo (profana illic omnia quae apud nos sacra, rursum concessa apud illos quae nobis incesta). In their temples they consecrate a statue of a donkey and sacrifice a ram in order to ridicule the god Amun” (in contumeliam Ammonis). For the same reason, they sacrifice a bull because the Egyptians worship Apis. In Tacitus, the characterization of Jewish monotheism as a counter-religion which is the inversion of Egyptian tradition and therefore totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt reaches its climax.

At the next stage, groups often come up with imagined normative inversions so as to oppose themselves to these hypothetical threats, as inversions of inversions. (Often this is a response to other groups accusing you of being a normative inversion of them - you can just make up a group consisting of the worst caricatures of them!) Assmann’s example is the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who comes up with an imagined community called the Sabians.

Maimonides’ Sabians are an imagined community which he created by applying Manetho’s principle of normative inversion in the opposite direction. Manetho was familiar with Egyptian tradition and imagined a counter-community based upon the inverted mirror image of Egyptian mores. Maimonides was familiar with normative Judaism and imagined a pagan counter-community-the ummat Ṣa’aba - as the counter-image of Jewish law. If the Law prohibits an activity x there must have existed an idolatrous community practicing x. The truth of both counter-constructions lies in the negative potential and antagonistic force of revelation or counter-religion.

Assmann makes this move to be an attempt at a strategic forgetting in collective memory, among groups. To displace one memory, impose a counter-memory. To displace the memory of paganism, come up with the Sabians to push them out of collective consciousness.

The last stage then, seems to be the point when you (and your community) fully avows that you are the normative inversion of your enemy; what is good for him is bad for you, and what is bad for him is good for you. Whether this is merely” rhetorical or a justification or a real grounding principle is never quite clear, as it oscillates between these poles.

It is interesting to see the same principle of normative inversion applied by writers such as Maimonides and Spencer, who use, it not polemically from without but approvingly from within. God was right in giving the Jews a law that was simply the Egyptian custom turned upside down, because the Jews had to be de-Egyptianized.

Interestingly, Frederick Douglass gives a similar argument in his autobiography, on what spurred him to learn to read when he was enslaved.

The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

It is easy to form our own mirror images of the past, the present, and the future, the various groups one doesn’t like, which we end up putting our energies into opposing. Assmann:

The principle of normative inversion or the construction of cultural otherness is obviously working retroactively too. Starting from a given order, it imagines a culture based upon the inverted mirror image of that order and, by this very procedure of retrospective inversion, turns the past into a foreign country.”

We see this quite often manifesting with outgroup homogeneity bias; we assume that outgroups generally are the exact inverses of us, and that they think in the same terms that we do, and any information we have about them is twisted and contorted into shape. And quite often we take the next step of identifying as the exact reverse of this reverie.