Burning Classics Down

Maximus Planudes
8 min readJan 24, 2021

Barn Burning is classic Murakami (Andrea Lee reads it here): a mysterious woman, an unusual obsession, unfulfilled longing, aging. The story gets its title from the mysterious woman’s boyfriend, who secretly burns down barns every few months without hurting people or animals and without letting the fire spread. Just removes expendable property, he tells the writer. When the woman disappears, there seems to be a symbolic or real (often indistinguishable in Murakami) relationship to the barn burning. Faulkner also wrote a short story about barn burning, although the dynamics are quite different. Faulkner’s barn burnings occur within themes of deep class divisions and racial resentments, institutional structures and family dynamics. I thought of these stories when I stumbled across a tweet about burning down the field of Classics. The metaphor, shifted from barns to fields, raised some questions for me: What does it mean to burn down an academic field?

Oh, Twitter!

I limit myself to fifteen minutes of social media a day (doctor’s orders). I say this to make clear that I did not follow the discussion, which (I was told) became heated, following this tweet:

There are topics here that I’ve weighed in on before. My most recent piece on White Supremacy & Classics makes some similar points, but with a different metaphor. The “burn Classics down” metaphor, however, is not new. People seem to understand it differently, and it definitely elicits strong reactions. Let me explain how I understand it. Mark Fisher wrote a book about a decade ago called Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative in which he showed how Capitalism has become a framework so ubiquitous that another structure is essentially unimaginable. There is an analogous sort of Classics Realism, which makes it hard to imagine something radically different. The metaphor of burning was designed (so I guess) to force classicists to imagine Classics beyond Classics Realism, to question the marginal changes, and to think destructively. It should, I assume, be taken very seriously.

My preliminary thoughts are here and not on Twitter for a variety of reasons. It is difficult to make any sort of critical exploration on Twitter without appearing to “pile on.” I have great respect for Dr. Bond and am deeply sympathetic to the cause of fighting White Supremacy. I also suck at Twitter, lacking the mental clarity for the medium, which really thrives on short, declarative statements (“hot takes,” as the kids call it). Not only that, but I’m ill-suited to the debating, defending, and attacking that a Twitter conversation can entail. The blog format allows me to be more expansive, tentative, and exploratory. I want to explore what it means to talk metaphorically about burning a field down and how our professional status affects our thinking.

What constitutes an academic field?

We are probably not talking about the study of the ancient world outside its professional and institutional confines. Let’s call this “amateur” Classics for convenience and without adding normative weight to the term. Optimistic Maximus feels confident this study will continue; pessimistic Maximus remains skeptical of professional classicists’ power to control and direct it. The field marked out for burning is, thus, the professional one. Even “professional” Classics can be usefully divided into two parts for analysis.

  1. The Idea of Classics: professional Classics constitutes an imagined space, a field, that is continuously redefined and refined. What are the boundaries that define the professional classicists’ intellectual area? What sort of work is inside, what outside these boundaries? Like everyone and their mother, I have a take on this hoary topic (What is Classics?). The book Postclassicisms is another place to explore the field’s intellectual structure (with Johanna Hanink’s review in the TLS). As I pointed out in my post on this book, there is another aspect of professional Classics that is less often discussed.
  2. The Classics in Institutional form: Classics is more than an idea. It is also a set of practices embedded in institutions, particularly universities. We can talk more easily about the ideas of Classics, but often struggle to talk about the practices and their institutional forms of Classics. Not only do practices and institutions differ internationally and intra-nationally, many institutional practices and forms are not unique to Classics, making them seem like part of a different topic. But the difficulty should not blind us to the fact that institutional forms and practices (e.g., job interviews, tenure-lines, graduate admissions, journal editorships, letters of recommendation, the structure of majors/programs, exams, grades) ARE integral parts of the field of professional Classics.

One reason to consider both ideas and institutional structures is that lack of clarity may confuse people and cause them to talk past each other. A second reason is it helps focus attention on what is at stake.

The Burning Stakes

Taking seriously the metaphor of burning Classics down means that we imagine what the professional study of the ancient world would look like if its current institutional position was removed: Classics departments abolished, current faculty reassigned or fired, graduate students and new faculty no longer employable as classicists. Classics Realism surprisingly coexists and is reinforced by an existential crisis felt by many professional classicists. Even as we struggle to imagine any other institutional structure of Classics, we face the obvious fact that many (if not most) institutions would be happy to see Classics go (University of Vermont’s actions are recent enough). Many certainly feel betrayed by the idea of burning down the thing that they are fighting desperately to preserve. A few very moderate responses to the initial tweet illustrate this dynamic.

Wolf spells out more clearly what “nothing at all” means.

As does Dame Cameron.

All three correctly see that “burning it down” entails the destruction of Classics’ institutional position. And that change in institution position means loss of jobs now — and in the future. I suspect that all three, well-established scholars with significant institutional experience, know the dangers of the current institutional climate for professional Classics. The point seems equally valid for the US as for the UK.

There remains a lack of clarity (not among the big three cited just now), it sometimes seems to me, about what “thing” is being defended. It is not the study of the ancient world. It is a vice of professionals (me included) occasionally to mistake themselves for the subject. We forget that amateur Classics exists. Professional classicists are not defending the study of the ancient world. They are defending their institutional status, identity and jobs. I’m reminded of defenses of the humanities, which often do not face the fact that humanistic study does not require defending, the professional humanists and their position within educational institutions do.

Suggestions that Classics be burned down, then, unsurprisingly provoke defenses of classicists’ institutional position because they are indeed attacks on it. It is likewise no surprise that professional classicists support proposals that do not threaten their professional positions and identity. I may be more open to the “burn it down” metaphor because I’m a marginal member of professional Classics, nearing two decades as an adjunct. But I recognize that “burning Classics down” would render me unemployed. How could I be disinterested? Edward Said, in his Reith Lectures, says the following about intellectuals:

Always, however, the intellectual is beset and remorselessly challenged by the problem of loyalty.

We classicists are beset and challenged by loyalty to our professional tribe, our fellow workers (questionable), and our professional identity and status (certainly). Are we professional classicists ready to accept a proposal that would seriously undermine, if not destroy, our current professional identity and status? I cannot claim to be. I am afraid to lose my job, even if it is an adjunct position. I also worry about graduate students and new faculty, who have the most at stake in these questions because they are currently professionalizing or recently minted professionals. They would be most affected by radical changes. Those are the stakes.

The Burning Questions

The burning questions are many, but two immediately come to my mind. (1) What might a radical change actually look like? And (2) does the solution solve the problems posed the field’s relationship to White Supremacy, colonialism, etc.? People will obviously have different views of what burning it down might look like, depending on their analysis of the problem. Bond herself offers what I would call a utopian proposal.

Utopian is not a criticism but the necessary basis for evaluation. It seems to be quite impossible in practical terms for so many Classics departments worldwide to decide to scrape their existing institutional positions. It seems equally unlikely for many diverse existing fields (near eastern studies, religious studies, East Asian studies, etc) to change their disciplinary frameworks to reform as a single global antiquity field. It would take a level of unanimity unseen among scholars. This is not even to mention having the institutional power to bring it about. Similarly, this is a world where no one loses their job! It simply cannot be taken as a practical proposal. But as an idea for reimagining the field of Classics, both institutionally and conceptually, it has a lot to recommend it. My second question remains: would the radical proposal solve the field’s problems with White Supremacy or colonialism? Perhaps. I’m not sure.

I suspect that our current challenge (fighting the legacy and continued effects of colonialism and White Supremacy) will be met not by a top-down change, but by a concerted effort from “below,” over many, many years. To combat racism within professional Classics, professional classicists themselves have to work individually with their abilities, whatever power they have, and within the institutions that they can influence.

The Burning Metaphor

In my earlier post about Classics and White Supremacy, I offered a metaphor taken from Wilkerson’s Caste:

Our Classics house, with its bizarrely winding staircases and missing windows, is in places strikingly beautiful, in places rotten and run down. Those of us who have undertaken the job of caring for this house cannot afford to ignore the problems with our property. I do not mean that it must always be the focus, but it is a part of the house, arguably the part that requires the most care.

I have, of late, been more interested in metaphors of “care” and less in metaphors of “destruction.” And yet, the more violent and aggressive metaphor might be better in the end. For me, the burning metaphor entails the destruction of professional Classics and the removal of professional classicists from institutional positions. In other words, to think in the radical way that “burning” demands of us, we must face openly the loss of our positions and status. We cannot, like the privileged boyfriend in Murakami’s story, burn the expendable barns in a controlled way that causes no collateral damage. I do not believe those fires are quite so controlled as the boyfriend wants us to think, anyway. The burning field resembles the openly destructive barn burning of Faulkner’s story, with its class and racial resentments.

This blog post ended in a darker and more aporetic place than I had hoped. Perhaps someone will find something of interest in my exploration of the burning metaphor. It is also likely that someone will rightly point out that my exploration is precisely the kind of wishy-washy drivel expected from a professional worried about his job.



Maximus Planudes

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.