We’re now 25% of the way through Bristol’s Deep Classics conference (which I’m also erratically live-tweeting), and some key over-arching themes and questions are already becoming clear. One is of course focused on the cultural connotations and possible subliminal messages of the name itself: is this intentionally or unintentionally referencing Deep History, or the Watergate mole, or a 1970s porn film, or the Bee Gees? Another focuses on the nature of the project and its possible hidden agenda: is Deep Classics effectively Queer Classics, as Sebastian Matzner seemed to suggest in his paper this morning? Or is it Anti-Classics, as implied by Helen Morales in her passing discussion of the conference in a review in the TLS earlier this year? Anti-Historicism, Post-Historicism or the New New Historicism?
A third theme, inevitably suggested by Deep Classics’ emphasis on the fragmentary nature of our knowledge of the classical past and “the very pose by which the human present turns its attention to the distant human past” (Shane Butler’s now much-quoted phrase), is that of its relation to Reception Studies – is this an alternative, or a development, or even a repudiation? Over the last twenty or so years, the study of classical reception has moved decisively into the mainstream of classical scholarship: embedded in undergraduate and postgraduate curricula, with an ever-growing bibliography of scholarship and innumerable conferences. Depending on one’s preferences and ideological agenda, this might be figured as triumph (small group of intellectual rebels seize control of the profession and establish their theoretical agenda at its heart) or tragedy (as with most revolutions, the ideas have been watered down for mainstream acceptability and the leading figures have mostly been bought off with conventional academic rewards and co-opted into the System).
Of course, one could argue that both are true. I was reminded, as so often, of Marx’s 18th Brumaire, and there are (arguably) some structural symmetries. As the French revolutionaries made use of the “time-honoured clothing” of the battle-cries and images of classical antiquity, especially the Roman Republic, so the pioneers of classical reception studies looked to other areas of literary theory; this borrowed language enabled them to embark on genuinely revolutionary actions – not least by disguising from them the real ends of the revolution, in this case not the rise of the unheroic bourgeoisie but the propping up of a moribund, elitist discipline by allowing itself to (partially) reinvent and re-present itself as relevant, open to the world and democratic. Reception has provided classicists – even those who regard it with suspicion – with an alibi, a means of arguing that the discredited elements of its history are now firmly in the past. Meanwhile, most of the radical theoretical agenda that first inspired the movement has been quietly abandoned; reception is largely defined by its choice of subject matter and by a ‘show and tell’ methodology – “look, there’s something classical in the present! we’re still relevant!” – without repudiating the aura of (very faint) danger inherited from its origins. What we now have, as Marx observed of 1848, is only the ghost of the old revolution, still wandering about – distracting us from the task of doing something genuinely new and appropriate to our times.
The intellectual revolution of the twenty-first century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition about the past (including its own past). We must let the dead bury their dead. Or, as Nietzsche put it, we must not allow the past (including reception, but certainly the tradition of classical studies) to become the grave-digger of the present. Classical knowledge matters insofar, and only insofar, as it is untimely: working on our time for the benefit of a time to come. I am reasonably confident that Nietzsche is going to feature heavily at some point in the conference, if only because one paper title explicitly references his line about the superficiality of the Greeks; if Deep Classics manages nothing else, it must at least try to be as radical and unsettling as Nietzsche’s ‘Philology of the Future’…