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Classics, Postcritique

How the field should go forward

<h5>Stained glass windows in East Pyne Hall, home of the Classics department.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Stained glass windows in East Pyne Hall, home of the Classics department.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

The Department of Classics has been much in the news lately – and, just to be blunt about it, the content has been critical. Some articles focus on individual members of our department; others criticize classics as a field. It is not my intention here to rehearse all the arguments and discussions that have raged in the media over the past few months, except to say that they have, by and large, been backward-looking in orientation, whether in criticizing the behavior of individual classicists or the shortcomings of the field at large.


My concern here is the future of the discipline – and not just in Princeton, obviously, even if in this piece I focus mainly on local examples. Let me start, then, with the broader criticisms directed at the field: as our own colleague Dan-el Padilla Peralta points out in The New York Times Magazine, there are many ways in which classics has been used, over the centuries, in the service of white supremacy and other forms of oppression and exclusion. What I would like to ask is what follows from this reckoning – in other words, what happens to classics, postcritique.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

It might make sense to start by taking a panoramic view of the field, also in relation to other subjects. Johanna Hanink attempts to do just that in the “Chronicle,” even if she ends up focusing on past problems and current divisions. As for new developments, she hints that they might be happening elsewhere: China is forging new relationships in Europe based ‘at least rhetorically, on the idea that nations with ancient pedigrees understand each other’. The rise of ‘archaeodiplomacy’, as Hanink calls it, challenges the United States, given its ‘new world’ legacies of slavery and other forms of violent deracination.

In China, meanwhile, the study of ancient poetry is hampered by nativist discourse, as Martin Kern, in our East Asian Department, points out. Xu Yuanchong offers this thought in his introduction to the “Shijing,” or “Classic of Poetry” (Beijing 1996: 33): ‘China has been standing among the great powers for thousands of years, outshining Egypt and India, Greece and Rome which have only a glorious past, and America and England, France, Germany and Russia which have only a glorious present.’ His assumption is that the traffic between antiquity and modernity gains power by remaining in the same place. The Greco-Roman tradition, as its name implies, suggests a different model – one of transfer and relocation.

The idea of a succession of empires and attendant translation of cultures from Greece to Rome and beyond has been influential in the United States, where it helps to define ‘the West’ and, with it, our own ‘Western Humanities Sequence’ in Princeton. It may be worth noting, though, that the idea of a succession of empires is not Greco-Roman in origin: its roots are in the ancient Near East. This fact alone should be an invitation to us classicists to work closely with colleagues specializing in other ancient civilizations – and perhaps also to rethink our various ancient ‘Sequences’ (i.e. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture I, Near Eastern Humanities I: from Antiquity to Islam, and East Asian Humanites I: The Classical Foundations) in ways that do not posit sharp divisions between them, recognize the relevance of the term ‘classical’ to many different civilizations, and show that the world was quite as broad and diverse in antiquity as it is today.

As well as linking up with colleagues working across the whole range of ancient civilizations, we classicists could collaborate, even more closely than we currently do, with specialists in the many later cultures shaped by Greco-Roman legacies across the globe. It would be a travesty if the study of classical reception were cast as a subfield of classics, rather than something much larger. It would also be reductive if classics were approached exclusively from a north American perspective: the field belongs to many different cultures. Voicing these aspirations for expansive, interdisciplinary collaboration may sound incongruous, given current realities: at present, we classicists barely get on with each other.


Collaboration within Classics

It seems necessary, in the circumstances, to pay some attention to what is happening within the field. The image of Plato’s head roasting on a spit, which accompanies Hanink’s article, makes me wonder what classics would taste like, should we indulge in our ‘autophagous’ tendencies all the way. I borrow the word from Edith Hall, who points out that current attacks on classics are spearheaded by tenured classics professors at elite institutions. In her “Edithorial,” she asks how ‘such autophagous attacks from inside the field feel to those in less well-fed positions’; how, for example, they affect classics teachers in underfunded schools, temporary lecturers, graduate students, adjunct professors, and other members of the ever-expanding classics Precariat. As recipient of a Leadership Fellowship granted by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK, 2017–19) and founder of ACE (Advocating a Classics Education for all), Hall speaks on the basis of a public mandate. Still, her point is one we classicists could all be making, tenured or not: mutual support on the basis of what we value, study, and teach.

It might help to spell out what a collective approach to our field might entail, given that classics has sometimes been used as a platform for outsized egos. The study of antiquity (any antiquity: Olmec, Roman, Chinese, Greek, Mesopotamian) is conservative in orientation – in the sense that conservation is one of its aims. Engaging with current approaches to environmental conservation and climate change may, in fact, prove instructive for classicists. Bruno Latour points out that critique has been co-opted by climate-change deniers and other right-wing interests; more generally, he makes the case that critique or, to cite Paul Ricoeur, a “hermeneutics of suspicion” proves inadequate as a tool for dismantling pernicious power structures. He recommends, instead, a collective investment in ‘matters of concern’.

Rather than plumbing the depths of suspicion towards each other and our field, we could, as classicists, contribute to environmental thought and practices ourselves. In ‘Living Naturally’, one of our most popular courses this semester, Brooke Holmes uses Greco-Roman sources to explore our changing relationship to nature: the reason she can do this at all is that those sources have been carefully preserved, edited, and placed into her hands, ready for her to use. Our work builds on earlier efforts of conservation – but it also, and fundamentally, involves selection and interpretation, as Shadi Bartsch argues in The Washington Post.

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The very name ‘classics’, linked as it is to the idea of selecting what is considered of the highest ‘class’, never allows us to forget that we rank and prioritize, when we go hunting in the archives of antiquity, and that we therefore need to ask on what grounds we prioritize and, crucially, to what ends. Important Mesopotamian texts, it may be worth noting, still lack critical editions and commentaries, when Greek and Roman texts are sometimes (in my view) served by too many. Postcritique does not mean no critique. It means, rather, a harnessing of available resources for the common good. The methods of classical scholarship can help with the editing and interpretation of Mesopotamian texts, for example.

As for the Greco-Roman tradition, we should remember that it is itself criminally incomplete – but also that it is contingent on our own choices now, going forward. Emily Greenwood makes a powerful case for using the terms ‘classical’ and ‘classics’, confident in the untapped potential of a radical Black philology to inscribe the misremembered in an expansive classical tradition.

Canonical texts like Homer can themselves be seen as feats of transhistorical collaboration, involving marginal as well as central interventions. A multiethnic and multigenerational collective of graduate students and professors here in Princeton has just had an article accepted in the flagship classics journal TAPA: the editor, Andromache Karanika, sees it as a new form of collaborative publishing, remarking in an email to the authors that the topic itself (anonymous marginalia in Homeric manuscripts, known as scholia) ‘is collective and evokes temporal multiplicity’.

The work involved in making sense of the scholia can be slow and unglamorous: it demands technical expertise which, just like Rome, is not built in a day. There is reason to be grateful for the institutional support needed to build such competence. In fact, we can look forward to even more support in future: the new project Manuscript, Rare Book and Archive Studies (MARBAS) has just received generous funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, thanks to the efforts of Marina Rustow, in Near Eastern Studies, and a committed team of colleagues, students, and administrators in Princeton and elsewhere.

Looking Forward

In return for all this private and public investment in the archives of the past, we should be able to show how ancient texts can help with current problems and future possibilities. Melissa Lane, in our University Center for Human Values, patiently interrogates Plato’s language of office holding in order to articulate the difference between democracy and anarchy. How her work relates to what happened in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, is something she outlines in “The New Statesman.” How it may relate to recent calls to ‘tear down’, ‘burn’, and ‘kill’ classics (all words that have been used by colleagues in classics to describe what should happen to our field) is something that could do with some attention. How, moreover, it may help with our more local problems, here in Princeton, is also worth considering: it may be, for example, that we need to commit to the fact of our institutional processes, even when we do not like the results they yield in specific instances. Simultaneously, though, we should commit to reviewing those processes against the record of past decisions and priorities – and reform them so that they may better serve the common good in future. Spoken like a classicist, I do realize.

I also realize that my own work in classics has little to do with a wish to tear down the discipline or a desire to reproduce it in future. Rather than demolition work, or nostalgic homecoming, I sometimes think of classics as a form of homemaking which, as any feminist knows, entails homework. I see it as a matter of care, of rooting ourselves in the archives of the past as a precondition for strong and generous growth. Homes can be multiple, entangled, extended. They often involve blood relations, but there are also ‘borrowed ancestors’, to quote Derek Walcott; there are adoptive parents who offer loving, reparative forms of homemaking; and there are family friends so close they get called tíos.

And then, homes are not our only edifices. As we grow, we go to school, where we should find opportunities to extend our sense of roots and belonging – and radically so. Jhumpa Lahiri mentions to me in conversation (and also writes in her memoir, “In Other Words”, transl. Ann Goldstein, 2016) that learning a language roots you in a culture, offers you a home, and can make you feel like a child again – vulnerable and excited. Anyone who now lives in a democracy, or who would like to live in one, belongs to a tradition of theory, practice, and future aspiration that has its roots in ancient Greece. To be sure, those are not our only roots. Depending on what we need, we can reach for this old uncle or that great-aunt. Now, for example, as I remind myself to keep ploughing my field, despite it all, I trust in the collective promises of the “Shijing,” ‘in thousands they plough … deep the food-baskets that are brought’, and simultaneously remember Homer: ‘sit at this table: I call you my brother, although you come from afar’.

Barbara Graziosi is Professor of Classics at Princeton University. She is currently working on a book entitled “Classics, Love, Revolution: the Legacies of Luigi Settembrini.” Her next project, also under contract with Oxford University Press, is “Sappho: A Very Short Introduction.”