Why are classical reception studies dominated by classicists? And is this a problem?
To contextualise those questions: I came across a call for papers for a conference on Framing Classical Reception Studies in Nijmegen in early June (posted by the indefatigable Constantina Katsari, who, unlike the conference webpage, actually gives the dates); an interesting set of questions and debating points, so I spent an hour or so this morning thinking through ideas in order to write a paper proposal – before realising that the dates clash with external examiner duties, and so there’s no point. However, since at least some of the ideas seemed worth thinking about, I’m posting them here – in a very rough and provisional form, I must stress – partly as a helpful reminder in case I return to the issues at some point, and partly to see what sort of response they might get from others.
I haven’t carried out any sort of organised survey of the matter, but my hunch is that the majority of publications in ‘classical reception studies’ over the last decade or so have been by classicists. Of course I know that there’s lots of work done by non-classicists on similar topics, from literary studies to the history of ideas to art history, but my feeling is that much of this is presented by its authors as contributions not to ‘classical reception studies’ but to ‘eighteenth-century literary studies’, ‘intellectual history’ and the like – or it appears in conferences and collections orchestrated by classicists, bringing specialists from other disciplines into dialogue with classicists. Those specialists may not have any problem with that, but I’d still suspect that they carry on thinking of themselves as scholars of English literature, history of art etc. rather than as clasical reception people. It’s the classicists who want not only to carve out a distinct space within their own discipline, but to co-opt others into it.
Why do classicists do classical reception? I’m sure that each of us has personal, individual reasons for having developed such interests, but I want to focus on this as a sociological phenomenon: why have classical reception studies burgeoned among classicists over the last decade and a half? The opening paragraph of the Nijmegen CFP offers some indications: classical reception studies “provide an excellent way for classicists to make themselves more visible, not only to other disciplines within the humanities, but also to a larger audience, through seeking to explain the role that classical civilisations have played in many cultures and cultural discourses, also beyond the Western world.” So, we get to insist on our continuing relevance and importance, and to try to advertise this as widely as possible by finding classical traces in more or less everything, and noisily highlighting the faintest reference to the classical in the contemporary media. Is it possible that these traces are significant only to people who are already convinced of the importance of the classical? Perhaps, but that doesn’t really trouble us very much or very often.
A scholar of eighteenth-century thought is interested in classical influences on, say, Rousseau because, and insofar as, they help our understanding of Rousseau and his thought world. A classicist is interested in classical influences on Rousseau because this demonstrates the continuing importance of the classical (influence on important thinker) and identifies another community (Rousseau scholars) who might be persuaded of the continuing relevance of classicists. Of course we also claim that a reading of Rousseau that ignores his classical influences will inevitably be partial and impoverished – but how often are we actually in a position to make such a claim with any conviction in a way that would actually persuade a Rousseau scholar? Indeed, how often is our research targeted at these specialists, rather than at our fellow classicists? At best we begin by identifying classical remnants, and then set about identifying ways in which they can be seen as important, seeking to engage the specialists in dialogue; at worst, we simply identify classical remnants and describe them to an audience of classicists as an end in itself.
The strongest claim to attention that a classical reception specialist can make is that s/he has the broad and detailed knowledge of antiquity and its literature that is essential to identify and interpret ancient references and allusions. There’s some truth in that, though I do find myself wondering whether it would be easier (or at any rate more economical) for a Rousseau specialist to identify that Rousseau is making an allusion, track it down through a book of quotations or a Google search, put it in the context of the eighteenth century and interpret its significance, than for a classicist to read through Rousseau, instantly identify specific allusions and then acquire the broad knowledge of Rousseau and C18 thought in order to interpret its significance. What the classicist brings above all to the study of such texts is the conviction that classical references must be significant and important, which at least occasionally must lead to the identification of things that specialists may have overlooked, but at least as often must lead to the over-estimation of the significance of the classical and/or to the blind alley of debates about whether Rousseau’s reading of a classical text is true to the spirit of the original, or whether this matters – questions that are vitally important to a certain kind of classicist, but almost entirely irrelevant to specialists in the later period.
Are classical reception studies a discipline, in any meaningful sense? The Nijmegen CFP raises the issue, but quite reasonably puts the term in scare quotes. If it is a discipline, it’s a rather odd one: defined solely in terms of an obsession with a particular kind of subject matter (fragments embedded in or pervading other things – texts, works of art – that are of interest only insofar as they incorporate such fragments), lacking any sort of common methodology or theoretical tradition (the moment we start thinking about theories and methods, most of the more sophisticated reception work dissolves into other disciplines – most obviously literary studies – and loses any sort of distinctiveness beyond its chosen subject matter, leaving behind a rump of ‘show’n'tell’ reception). Institutionally, the strongest claim we can make is that classical reception studies as a discipline are constituted not by formal departments or undergraduate degree programmes but by conferences, networks and research institutes (and even the latter don’t usually have reception as their sole focus): informal, shifting, ill-defined and temporary alliances, held together largely through the efforts and self-interest of the classicists.
But this may be a lot better than nothing: the alternative, if classical reception studies are not any kind of discipline (even if only a ramshackle one in need of a thorough kicking into shape) is that they look ever more like just a branch of classical studies, apparently more outward-looking and flexible but subject to the same pressures and problems. I’m not sure how far this is a matter of personal identity and identification; the work we do is shaped by our sense of what kinds of scholars we are or want to be, and what audience(s) we’re writing for, rather than the subject matter or methods of our work defining us. My standard line is that I’m a historian who happens to focus on ancient stuff, rather than an ancient historian let alone a classicist, and have been roundly ticked off for this in the past by a leading classical scholar – quite rightly, in their terms, because such a self-identification is precisely an attempt at distancing myself from the discipline that has actually given me a job for nearly twenty years (the fact that I also have problems with aspects of what ‘history’ stands for as a discipline can be left for another time). This sense of myself (which could also be seen as a claim or aspiration to a particular identity and status) then shapes the sorts of questions I ask and the ways in which I try to address them (while conversely a preference for some sorts of questions and issues over others has influenced my choice of identity), and is one reason why I get somewhat cross about reception work that simply identifies and describes examples of the classical in the modern world as if that’s all that matters – SO WHAT? ? Someone else might similarly identify themselves as a literary scholar who just happens to focus on ancient stuff and its reception; again, that’s going to influence their choice of material, questions, methods etc., as well as their sense of audience – they are equally unlikely to be content with identifying classical references as an end in itself.
In these terms, then, classical reception studies might become a flag of convenience, an explicitly interdisciplinary space rather than a sub-field of classical studies. I’m still not sure if that’s going to work, however, because it’s still the case that the only thing defining such a space is a conviction of the importance of the classical, and that feels too nebulous. At a smaller scale, there’s no problem: networks bringing together people interested in the history and reception of classical political thought, conferences focusing on modernity and ancient sculpture. I do wonder how far there is any basis for productive dialogue between those two themes, however, other than the fact that there will be some individuals interested in both. Twenty years ago, pretty well all classicists with any interest in reception tended to band together for company and mutual defence in the face of a generally hostile profession; now that the margin has become the centre, and classical reception studies are pretty well ubiquitous, is there anything that actually unites us – beyond mutual defence in the face of a world that’s generally indifferent, if not actively hostile, to classical studies?
In the abortive paper, I was planning to talk about the particular problems that arise with even a genuine attempt at interdisciplinarity, engaging with other disciplines rather than simply pulling on their sleeves to try to get them to take the classical seriously, with special reference to my adventures in political theory through the Thucydides project. Short version: they don’t necessarily think about these things in the same way as we do, or ask the same kinds of questions, which explains why they don’t necessarily take any notice of us but creates a dilemma if we do genuinely want to engage in dialogue. But I have other things to do, and this can wait for another day.