Postclassicisms: anatomy of a melancholy classics
Postclassicisms (Chicago 2019) is a theoretical book in at least two senses. First, the content of the book concentrates on (what I learned in the 90s to call capital T) “Theory.” Second, the book is primarily concerned with abstract reflection. Despite its admission that action is necessary (“we are also acutely aware that such work [intellectual critique of the discipline] must go hand in hand with action.” p.xiii), the book rarely requires its audience to change behavior. Instead, a post-classicist should simply think differently. This perspective finds expression in this quotation from the chapter on Responsibility.
”Responsibility,” for the postclassicist, is to declare and to theorize one’s own intellectual and moral intervention in the world.” (p.38)
This quotation reveals the general tenor and aim of the book — this is a philosophical and theoretical intervention, what the authors call a “disciplinary audit,” or more accurately, a “conceptual anatomy.” One might imagine a much different audit of the discipline, one that interrogates the behaviors and actions taken by classicists in their professional lives, how they recreate authority, and (ab)use the institutional structures that maintain prestige. The postclassical collective does not ask questions about behavior. What are the little tools of knowledge that inform a post-classicist’s practice? Should a post-classicist write letters of recommendation? If so, what should they look like? How should a post-classicist handle graduate admissions? How should a post-classicist create a major in post-classics? What does a post-classicist book review editor do? There are, in fact, a lot of bureaucratic activities that are central to the way power, prestige, and authority function in the field and the world. The post-classicist will, so far as I can tell, go about his or her daily business in the same way as now.
That said, I do not want to give the impression of criticizing the authors for not writing a different book. I enjoyed and valued the lofty theoretical discussions (except when I could not understand them; looking at you, “Materiality.”). Instead, I’m pointing to what the book is not to be clear about its fundamental interest in the intellectual formation of classics and its intellectual role today. As far as the discipline is concerned, however, the post-classicist to me looks a lot like, well, a classicist. And it is not necessarily wrong to be a classicist. I like the study of the ancient Mediterranean world. I even enjoy the company of a handful of people who study that world. But readers who want a more radical critique of classics, who want to see the field structured in a radically different way than it currently is, may be disappointed with this book.
The prefix “post” frequently occurs in the book. The authors themselves describe what they mean thus:
With the prefix “post,” we mark a double relationship to classicisms that is at once temporal (we stand, all of us, in a position of posterity to earlier forms of classicism) and figural (we aim to reflect critically on a multiform intellectual and axiological tradition to which we are still joined). These sibling aspects, in their dynamic relationship to one another, also constitute and reflect classicism’s multiple modes of engagement with its object, as both ideal and genealogical. (p.7)
The prose can, at times, be such a chore to read. Although much of the book is written in this awkward way, there are some lovely phrases scattered throughout. The prose is not, in fact, the work of one person, but the collective work of the co-authors, listed on p.xiii: Alastair Blanshard, Simon Goldhill, Constanze Güthenke, Brooke Holmes, Miriam Leonard, Glen Most, James Porter, Phiroze Vasunia, Tim Whitmarsh. Most classicists will know many, if not all, of these names. Since one concept of the book is Situatedness (p. 144ff, and yes, that is the chapter title), it is worthwhile exploring how they situate themselves (p.x). First, they focus on their intellectual allegiances:
despite a range of national backgrounds, all of us are deeply, if not exclusively, aligned, through our training and our professional practice, with the disciplinary formation of “classics” within the Anglophone world. The majority of us focus primarily on texts, with somewhat less systematic recourse to visual and material culture. Between us, we cover almost all genres of ancient writing; many of us are also deeply engaged with reception studies, different forms of theory, and comparative work. We are, broadly speaking, Hellenists.
They define themselves thus to emphasize that they do not want to claim universality. At the same time, the authors are unhappy with these labels, preferring to see themselves as “intellectual nomads” with “hybridized professional identities.” Here again, the focus is on the idea rather than on the practical way these identities are formalized within the university and departmental bureaucracies, for example, as joint-appointments or teaching obligations or tenure committees. The authors continue to situate themselves professionally, thus:
we would be disingenuous if we claimed to be marginal outsiders, permanently circling the edges of our field. All of us are in the privileged position of having job security in an increasingly precarious profession.
Tenure is essential, without a doubt. But tenure at Princeton, Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, and Berkeley holds somewhat different privileges in relation to the field of classics than basic job security. Again, I should be clear about my point here. I’m not blaming them for working at those schools — in fact, I’d work there too if I could! But postclassicism seems uninterested in discussing the hierarchies of prestige that so distinguishes contemporary higher education, with its exclusivity (private department parties with hired maenads being only a more obvious example) and opportunities. Instead, the focus stops at the very disciplinary categories they challenge. Yes, their perspectives would be different if they were “Latinists, Archeologists, or Art Historians.” But this admission seems both obvious and disappointingly weak. The post-classicisms collective does not mention that its perspectives might be different if it included, tenured or not, community college teachers, professors at small, liberal arts schools, the editors of Eidolon, secondary teachers, contingent faculty, etc.
How might it be different? Well, the authors have little to say about open-access publishing, for example, or publishing at all. Does the post-classicist worry about the prestige of a press, does a post-classicist try to deny tenure if a book is published on John Hopkins rather than Cambridge University Press? The authors’ position as important members of elite institutions undoubtedly means that they have insights into the way disciplinary ‘situatedness’ affects many aspects of a classicist’s opportunities and obligations, yet when the post-classicist appears in this book, he or she is frequently un-situated in the field and the world. Another way of putting it might be that this book is fundamentally a safe book that does not challenge the structure of the field. This fact makes it a good book for graduate students in a classics pro-seminar, the most natural audience for it. But again, this approach might frustrate those who are unsatisfied with the status quo and looking for a radical critique.
In the Postscript and Acknowledgements (p.201–6), the authors make clear the complexity of the project and their working conditions.* Circling the edges of the field myself, I was unaware of the many meetings and conferences surrounding the activities of the collective. This project is deeply collaborative, and the effort to create a single book from so many people is impressive, including focused writing retreats at the CHS at Nafplio and the Scuola Normale in 2015 and 2016. The concentration of effort and knowledge has produced a dense and rewarding intellectual exercise. The post-script also provides a clear and straightforward explanation of the problem that guides the project. The field known as classics has long been based on two assumptions: the objects of study hold intrinsic value, and the field forms the foundation of Western culture. If it is true that these assumptions are not sustainable (as I myself believe), how do classicists move forward? In other words, what is a post-classicist, and how do we become one?
The book is divided into two parts. The first part, titled Introduction, contains the Introduction to the Introduction (yes, that’s the title) and three concepts: Value, Time, and Responsibility. The second half, Concepts, has nine themes: Agency, Discipline, God, Human, Knowing, Materiality, Situatedness, Untimeliness, World. The chapters are generally independent, including frequent cross-references to other sections. They all explore some aspect of the intellectual formation of the contemporary discipline or a contemporary issue in Theory. It is common for the collective to lay out a problem in contemporary Theory only to claim that ancient texts, rightly understood, help us understand that problem. For example, the chapter on Agency begins by gesturing at (rather than explaining) Kant and the “postmodern critique of the sovereign human subject.” We are then taken to the problem created by the “power dynamics between present-day interpreters and ancient artifacts” (p.49) and informed how ancient texts help understand these issues.
The chapter God can illustrate the other primary structure: disciplinary history. God outlines the history of the relationship between contemporary classics and theology. Earlier, the relationship was very close (think of Casaubon), but it has now been generally severed. “Classics” covers the “secular/pagan” past, and “religion” tackles the Jewish/Christian past. It can thus happen that universities have faculty in religion and in classics who study the same period and place and often with texts in the same language but have been trained in completely different departments and who never interact with each other. There is undoubtedly something odd about this situation. Disciplinary history is perhaps a niche topic, but the collective is, in my view, right to stress the importance for “professional” members of the field to have a sense of the historical contingency the underpins the way we work and understand our place.
As I was drafting out this post, I saw that David Konstan had published a review in The Classical Review CLASSICSIM IN THE POST-AGE**, which includes a short explanation of each section (go there for more summary). Konstan also noted the “clunky” style and sometimes “hectoring” tone. He points out that the work does not try to “persuade the uncommitted but to provide conceptual tools to help loosen the mind-forged manacles sanctioned by Classics as a discipline.” This evaluation seems fair, as it highlights how this book concentrates on Theory rather than practice, on ideas rather than action. I suspect, however, that scholars like Konstan are not the natural audience for this book. I suspect that this book will be read mostly by graduate students as part of a pro-seminar required reading list. I would be quite interested to know what students just beginning to be disciplined into a field would make of this manifesto. Would they want to be post-classicists?
*In 2020 Emily Callaci published a short piece in the American History Review on Acknowledgements. Here is a quotation: “At their best, acknowledgments dismantle the myth of the lone, self-contained genius-at-work, and instead expose the messy interplay of institutional support, finances, intellectual genealogies, and interpersonal chaos that shape how an idea is brought into the world. In aggregate, they offer a glimpse into the political economy of academic life, revealing truths that we intend to share, as well as many that we do not.”
**Hopefully, the typo in the title will be fixed before the review appears in print. Maybe it’s a pun I don’t understand!