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Posts Tagged ‘reception’

I confess: I am @CAConf2015. And yes, I’m afraid I am already married.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, I’ve spent the last few days at the UK Classical Association conference, which we were hosting in Bristol; not just introducing speakers and chairing a few sessions, but also running the official conference Twitter feed. This has been a rather strange experience (though not completely new, as I did something similar for the Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition last year for the Blackwell-Bristol lectures, and will probably be doing it again at the end of this month). The thinking is presumably that I know the system and style and so can be left to get on with it, but actually I wonder if giving the job to someone new to the whole thing might not be better – it doesn’t need or want someone with experience and confidence, and someone new to the whole thing and hence nervously feeling their way might find it easier to hit the right note, rather than someone like me having to un-learn some habits. Yes, I use Twitter in a relatively formal, work-related capacity, and so what I say there is pretty edited and filtered compared with many, but compared with what’s expected of the official voice of an institution or event, it feels like Hunter S. Thompson-esque stream of consciousness. (more…)

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Plutarch wrote a work On the Malignity of Herodotus, explaining all the ways in which Herodotus did down the noble Greeks and was unacceptably positive about barbarians. To judge from a fascinating seminar paper in Bristol yesterday, Liz Irwin of Columbia University is planning to write On the Malignity of Thucydides, explaining all the ways in which this brilliantly manipulative writer persuades us to accept dubious ideas, not least the idea of his own absolute trustworthiness. She began with Thucydides’ emphasis on the hard work involved in gaining a true knowledge of the past, which most people don’t bother with; this also applies to Thucydides’ own work, which most people take largely at face value as he’s done all the hard work, whereas in fact we need to work incredibly hard to see the reality that lies behind his misleading presentation – otherwise we’re just like hoi polloi (and perhaps specifically hoi polloi of Athens) who’ll accept any old story, now including Thucydides’. She went on to develop a reading of the first two books or so of the work, showing the gaps between Thucydides’ presentation of events and the reality of what really happened – or at least the alternative interpretations that we can derive from other sources or from what seem to be significant absences or tendential claims in Thucydides. (more…)

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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? (more…)

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There was a surprising amount of laughter at an otherwise fascinating conference at Leeds this week on Classics and Classicists in WWI. Nervousness at the subject matter, perhaps, or at the idea that we’ve decided to make sense of the appalling slaughter by spotting classical allusions in modernist poetry? Or just historical distance, as the events are far enough in the past that we don’t feel we have to empathise with these people or understand their intellectual positions properly but can observe their (by our standards) naivety and idealism with scholarly detachment? Gauging the quality and intent of laughter is of course a wholly subjective matter; it’s probably just my own prejudices that led me to hear the response to Rupert Brooke’s description, say, of travelling to the eastern Mediterranean on a troop ship as an all-expenses-paid cruise to view classical sites, as indulgent and nostalgic laughter, ‘oh those silly but heroic doomed youths’, while the claims of German classicists in 1914 that they were fighting to defend the heritage of Hellenic civilisation were laughed at scornfully. (more…)

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bertie and the bookIt has been suggested that I might have made more of the publication of my new book on Thucydides’ reception in modern historiography (available from I.B. Tauris) than bury it in a post on other things. So, here is a picture of the book, alongside a cute cat, on the principle that this might just turn viral. But probably not; Bertie looks suitably affronted that he isn’t mentioned in the acknowledgements, but it’s nothing compared with this portrait of magnificent indifference to academic achievement from one of the cats of my colleague Chris Brooke…

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It wasn’t entirely a joke. No, I don’t actually think that most people who cite Thucydides are zombies (though the mindlessness of some of these references, by no means only from the much-maligned Neorealists, does continue to demand explanation). However, the idea that we might think about the process whereby classical texts and ideas are rediscovered and reinterpreted in other contexts in terms of contagion – a viral theory of the classical tradition, if you will – does seem to me to have considerable merit. It’s a variant of an idea I floated in my article on the practice of quoting and misquoting Thucydides (and attributing quotes to him that were actually taken from other people), the notion of an ‘aphoristic ecosystem’ in which concepts and soundbites struggle to survive and reproduce in people’s minds (and I was interested to hear last week that Liz Sawyer at Oxford has been thinking along similar lines in her study of twentieth-century readings of Thucydides). Here, however, it’s the idea of Thucydides himself (and I don’t see why this can’t be extended to other classical authors) as virus: a virus that can mutate but which retains a core identity (compare and contrast ‘Thucydides as historian’ and ‘Thucydides as political theorist’, both offspring of the ‘Thucydides as most politic historiographer’ form to be found in Hobbes); a virus that finds some environments more hospitable (C19 German historiography, late C20 US International Relations theory), others less so (much of antiquity, C15-16 Europe, contemporary Europe) and has as yet scarcely penetrated further regions (Africa, Asia); a virus which affects people to different degrees, and can produce different symptoms, depending on the host’s susceptibility, their general state of health, and the extent of contact with the pathogen.

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[Note: the following report was recovered from the hard drive of a computer found in a burnt-out office in the Arts Faculty of the University of Bristol. Earlier, clearly incomplete versions were found on the university’s servers, but this dates from a fortnight later and includes substantial material not found elsewhere. There are some significant gaps in the text, and the data files it refers to are substantially corrupted; whether the report was completed but some passages have been lost, or whether it was still a work in progress, is unclear. The lack of entries on the author’s blog from mid-November suggest an approximate terminus post quem for the completion of this draft. Efforts to contact the main author and other individuals mentioned in the text or associated with the project have so far proved unsuccessful.]

Introduction

Over the last 25 years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of references to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides in numerous different contexts and media; above all in discussions of global politics (focusing, successively, on the expansion of US power, the invasion of Iraq, relations with Iran and the rise of China), and war, including commemoration of the war dead and celebrations of the service of veterans. This echoes earlier periods of Thukydidismus, including his dominance in nineteenth-century debates about the nature of modern historiography, his presence in both British and German propaganda in World War I, and the widespread citation of his ideas on bipolar systems and deterrence in the Cold War era. However, there is evidence that the present phenomenon is more widespread, both in terms of the number of different fields in which Thucydides may now appear (not only international relations and military education but school literature classes and computer games) and in the sheer weight of reference, undoubtedly aided by the development of the internet and other technologies of mass communication.

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