Classics and Theory: A Monday Rant

This is a slightly adapted and expanded edition of my #classicsandtheoryrant from twitter

One of the things I love about social media is that it has allowed me to connect with people who love the Classics and know a lot about it all over the world. Some of these people have ‘credentials’ and experiences similar to mine, but many do not. Across the board, I try to ignore these conventional markers of intellectual authority on twitter etc. and just listen to what people say. And, really, I have learned a lot.

But one thing that has been increasingly frustrating  over the past year is a small but insistent chorus of voices who insist that Classics is being ruined by “post-modern theory”. Generally, these voices come from outside the traditional academy or from more conventional corners within them. But most often they represent ‘threatened constituents’ of the modern world–by which I mean people who also object to ‘diversity’, ‘political correctness’ and a whole bunch of buzzwords and phrases that are popular media shorthand for a world that is not dominated by traditional, male, Eurocentric perspectives. (And, you know, white supremacists. This does not mean that all anti-theory people are white supremacists, so, dude, chill.)

This is in part frustrating because I thought we were past this. I know this is naïve and I know that Classics is way behind other disciplines in the aggregate when it comes to using critical theory, but we have long had a small and influential group of people pushing our field to respond to the modern world and engage with new ideas.

But it is also infuriating because it attests to an essential fragility (also, read this if the term is upsetting). Is our confidence in the way we have received the past so shaky that it can brook no challenge? Often, the knee-jerk or even committed aversion to theory is really a desire to exclude others. I almost respect those supremacists more because they at least admit it. (But let me be clear, I really, really don’t like ethnonationalists and white supremacists.)

Engagement with theory is critical because it acknowledges that as interpreters we are subjects who are shaped by our experiences and the narratives and discourse through which culture shapes us based on our gender, sexual identity, race, (dis)abilities, age, etc. Our bodies are not instruments we drive through the world, they are part of us and mediate our experience of everything. The world treats us differently based on the bodies we inhabit. These two facts shape the way we respond to everything.

Acknowledging the primacy of subjectivity is only one part of modern theory which is dismissed. I won’t even bother listing all of the theoretical approaches that have helped us understand the ancient world better. It is a type of retrograde derangement not to use new tools to look at old things. Imagine if people were railing against the use of spectral imaging in archaeology or the application of new chemical testing or any one of a range of technologies that have developed over the past generation. We would all be incredulous.

Many of the same people, however, who champion what aDNA testing might tell us about ancient peoples, also deny the validity of applying new tests to ancient literature and culture which have been developed in respectable fields like anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, English, sociology, and others. The reason for this is clear: the process tells different stories about the past than many of us were raised with. This is uncomfortable.

If art does not make us uncomfortable or question the past at all, then it is merely entertainment. Scholarship that merely repeats or reinforces what we already know is essentially masturbatory.

The argument over who gets to interpret the past and how is political. “Post-modern” is a catch-all phrase for many different approaches which are dismissed by conservative traditionalists. This argument raged through the field in the 1980s as Eric Adler documents well.  There was another major flare up with the Who Killed Homer? nonsense. I think we might have missed a renewal of these complaints in the late 2000s because of the severe economic downturn.

But this debate is all about power: The power to interpret and possess meaning; The power to have meaning in the world; The power to be a full and equal subject in a flawed society. Such striving has been going on since some literary theorists had the gall to imagine that texts were more than pristine aesthetic objects with timeless secrets for the properly initiated to unlock.

I have a few simple points to make in closing. The first is that scholarship is not a zero-sum game. Applying new theoretical frames does not wipe out the old ones or render them useless. If we apply the analogy of biodiversity to ideas, then the more voices and ideas we can explore within a productive system, the more variety and understanding we can get out of it. This is destined to be chaotic and painful, but it is creative and exciting.

New ideas build upon older ones. Some gain purchase for more than a few years become part of the tradition. Some ideas are as Glaukos says like leaves on the tree which grow for a brief time and then wither and die. Others somehow become evergreen, in the moment we cannot know. We can argue for what we believe and push back against other ideas—but we need to acknowledge that sometimes our need to push back against other ideas is driven by a desire to exclude people not the ideas.

A second point which is by no means original is that you can love something and see that it might be bad for something or need to change. E.g. chocolate cake is delicious, but it can kill you. Cigarettes are delightful, but they will give you cancer. Anything made by humans is imperfect because we are not perfect. Saying the Homeric epics are misogynistic or using Marxist theory to show how they (re-)produce structural oppression does not erase their beauty or their impact. Instead, it shows that their beauty may also have a harmful impact. It helps us understand how they work and how we work as human communities.

And if you cannot love something flawed, you simply cannot love. Let go of the Platonic nonsense of perfection in the mind of a distant god. Real, human love embraces the ways in which we are flawed and celebrates that despite the horror, baseness, and temporariness which is our inheritance, we are still capable of beauty.

A third point is also not original: all methods of interpretation are ideological and have a theory. If the theory is not explicit, that does not mean it is not there. It means it is naïve and unquestioned. Philology is a means not an end. We classicists are trained in philology so we don’t make basic mistakes and we can distinguish good arguments from bad ones. But we are at a point in the production of knowledge that no one can learn everything which is required to understand the ancient world. We need to work together. We need polymathy and polyphony.

The practice of classics as developed in Europe around the enlightenment is ideologically connected to a particular time, a set of bodies and languages, and a cultural apparatus distinct from ancient Greece and Rome. The ‘Classics’ created by the Renaissance and Enlightenment is not coterminous with the beliefs, practices, and texts of actual Greece and Rome. In a way, to emulate a 19th century German classicist in everything is little different from strapping on some leather armor and LARPing at a Renaissance Faire. Both are fun and can require a lot of expertise. But both are still play-acting.

It is not ‘authentic’ or ‘correct’ to treat ancient texts in this way any more or less than it was authentic and correct for Plotinus and Porphyry to say the Odyssey is an elaborate allegory for the mind.

All reading is reception. All interpretation is ideological. Being explicit about our ideological receptions helps us communicate better with each other and through the generations.

When we allow new perspectives and viewpoints, we enrich our reception of the past. Some of this enrichment might turn out be misleading or start out as bewildering; indeed, it might be only temporarily insightful. But striving to make new sense of the old, to try to surpass those who have already labored, is better than sucking on the marrow of corpses and wallowing in mute ash.

Миниатюры.: philologist

f. 305v. The Fouquet Missal. Bourges, c.1470-1475

Seneca Moral Epistle 108

But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

12 responses

  1. Smashing! I largely came to Oxford because it allowed me to play with theory and freed me from any (real? perceived?) obligation to be a 20th, if not 19th, century German classicist.
    One of the highlights of my Oxford career was giving a paper contributing to the debate at a conference about Alan Cameron’s reading of Callimachus’ hymns – a debate about divergent scholarly approaches to the Alexandrians and to theory in Classics. At least that’s what it was to me!

    • Glad you had that experience! One of the things that influenced my choice of NYU for grad school was a poetics and theory certificate I could take along with my PhD.

      But it takes so much to train a classicist to do it all! We get so brainwashed by our ‘rigorous training’ that we are sometimes rendered constitionally incapable of working other ways.

      And so little of the variety makes it to public discourse. As my career has gone on I have realized that we need to work harder and continually to reframe classics for a wider audience. Hence: social media…

  2. A great crystallization of thoughts I’ve vaguely had but not been able to fully articulate. Thank you. I went to a very ‘old-fashioned’ undergrad & grad program, and (for the most part) was taught by people who ignored or were hostile to what they considered ‘theory’. As a result I have always felt deeply under-prepared for careful and sustained theoretical work, but that’s *my* flaw, not a reason not to do it. And twitter and blogs have been invaluable in helping me slowly find my way into more aware and explicit theorizing of my work.

    • It is really hard as a classicist or any type of humanist to learn all the things we need to. Programs that pretend you can learn it all or should only learn a little bit don’t help the matter. But, you’re right, the greater access and connectivity now definitely helps us work through some of these challenges.

  3. Thank you – I found your comments very interesting and illuminating, and of course I agree with you entirely. I never trained in the Classics, although I very much wanted to, but trained in Medicine instead and only in my years of retirement have returned to my schoolboy Latin and Greek, largely alone, with the help of some summer schools. We would be in a sorry state if Medicine had ignored modern thought or refused to engage with new ideas – we would still be working under the spell of Galen and Hippocrates. And wonderful as the contributions of the doctors from the classical world were (and we still depend on Hippocrates very much for teaching the “art” of medicine) they didn’t do much for equipping us to dealing ischaemic heart disease, strokes, cancer etc! Thank you for Sententiaeantiquae and keep up your good work!

  4. I love classical history too, and am against over idealizing and spinning oversimplified narratives for our past rather than looking at it square in the face for what it is. however, I think there is a fine line between seeing history “warts and all”, the frank truth which I feel we ought to as scholars, and giving into value judgements and letting our own cultural matrix cloud our interpretation of the past. I still don’t understand why our current tensions, political, cultural, racial etc… have to be brought into play when studying ancient cultures millenniums removed from our own temporally and culturally.
    Yes, Ancient Greece and Rome had more “diversity” than white people from Europe and I don’t believe Europe has any claim to direct cultural ancestry from them either, but many of our current issues simply were not theirs, such as our modern racial categories for one thing. Also, since they have had a different culture, they had different values. What is racist, misogynist, or deviant to our sensibilities wasn’t to theirs in their own culture. Isn’t it just another form of cultural supremacy to feel entitled to make value judgements on ancient people by our modern standards? Who are we to claim the right to “moral supremacy” as I call it by asserting our way is the only “right” way and anyone who is different is “wrong”? Why bring our own cultural baggage into the mix and just study the Greeks and Romans for what they were not simply to point out their flaws? It’s no better than the colonialists of old who twisted the Classics to suit their imperialist and supremacist ends, if we try to force them into our own cultural mold in our own time period too!

  5. Pulchre, bene, recte!

    I was thinking about this last week, especially as it seems that the aversion to theory usually comes from people who confess outright that they have no understanding of it. One cannot reasonable argue with someone who claims that theory is useless because they don’t understand it, adding further that they don’t bother to understand it because they know that it is useless.

    It has become clear enough that off-hand dismissal of critical theories *in general* is predicated largely upon a reaction against their association with the political and cultural left. I doubt that many cultural conservatives can think of theory without thinking of students on the barricades in 1968 or some other scene similarly likely to give them nightmares.

  6. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  7. Pingback: The Difference of A Year: Some Links to Classicists Fighting the Good Fight Online « SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

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