Reactionary Ideas, Anti-blackness, & Historismus in the FAZ Op-Ed

This post explores a few features of the contemporary discussion about classics by analyzing Jonas Grethlein (JG)’s opinion piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Let me make a few disclaimers before I start. (1) I am approaching the essay as symptomatic of common intellectual features. I am neither interested nor know what is in the author’s heart. It should be obvious that a short, public essay hardly provides sufficient material for such deductions, and I know so little about JG that it would be absurd to judge the man in this way. Unfortunately, JG did not grant Dan-el Padilla Peralta the same courtesy, a fact I will explore. (2) This post represents a personal reaction, given my subjective position and knowledge, to my reading. I cannot claim that my reading of the essay is neutral and objective. The reason for this caveat will, hopefully, become clear by the end. (3) I do not plan to document every misrepresentation in the essay, a tedious procedure when most intelligent readers with some knowledge of the situation will see them immediately. Instead, I propose to do a philological close reading of the essay in three parts: the reactionary mindset, anti-blackness, and historicism.

As an aside, I think it would improve the public discourse if the op-ed writers stopped trading in vague generalities and analyzed a specific text now and again. In other words, apply our scholarly training, if you will, to the contemporary issues we seek to understand. Or not, and continue simply to rely on the academic title in the by-line as justification for expertise.

Reactionary ideas

JG’s essay begins by painting a picture of an academic world made topsy-turvy by anti-racism. Even the famous University of Cambridge has compelled its elite faculty to undergo training in equality and diversity, to leave their position of authority () in order to sit in the debased seats of students (). It gets worse, as traditional distinctions get broken down when students and alumni write open letters requiring the recognition of entanglements with racism and colonialism. It is an image of carnivalesque chaos wrought on traditional authority: Professors should speak and students should dutifully listen. But in the Oxbridge world, students speak on moral issues, and professors sit in the seats of students to learn. Madness!

The author does not explicitly criticize the situation in Oxbridge. Instead, he points to how German scholars look at diversity training with a mocking schadenfreude (). It is clear to me, however, that the audience is supposed to react similarly. This opening image and several other statements make sense when analyzed through what Albert Hirschman has described in (1991), a text I have referred to on more than one occasion. Hirschman picks out three fundamental axioms that underpin reactionary thinking: The Perversity Thesis, which states that proposed changes will in fact make the situation worse; the Futility Thesis, which states that attempts to change will simply not help; and the Jeopardy Thesis, which states that changes will undermine previous accomplishments.

JG invokes the futility thesis when summarizing the Oxford letter: “comprehensive measures must be taken, including regular training for teachers in order to end () the still existing discrimination of black people.” Despite the use of the subjunctive, implying that the content represents the Oxford letter writers' opinions, it is obvious that they did not claim that all their proposed measures would “end racism.” The misrepresentation occurs to invoke the Futility thesis, hinting that the measures will fail to make a dent in the problem it supposedly seeks to address. I must admit I sometimes take a cynical view of diversity training, a view that itself invokes both the futility and perversity thesis. I do not think it helps those scholars who most need it and will perversely make them more resistant to diversity issues. But if we shift perspective from its aims to its message, it can be seen as the institution signaling the importance of diversity and inclusion and taking the views of students, staff, and faculty seriously.

The perversity thesis helps understand another strange phrase: “One cannot pit the questions of race and class against each other, but here as in other discussions, identity politics pushes the questions about social justice () into the background.” Leaving aside that the essay has just suggested that debates about race may be distracting from the more pressing concerns about class (i.e., pitting class against race), it is not immediately apparent how identity politics undermines social justice, nor does the author explain. Yet, the claim makes sense as invoking the perversity thesis, since whatever exactly identity politics means for the author (it is not 100% clear), its goal is making the world more just. But, this essay suggests, it will have (in some unexplained way) the opposite effect!

Anti-blackness

Despite lacking a precise definition of identity politics, identity constitutes a central problem in the essay. After describing the topsy-turvy world of Oxbridge, the author turns to the United States where [please read in a sarcastic voice] black classicists must receive preferential treatment and be given space to publish based on their skin color. He calls this “positive affirmative action” and claims it leads to a new conception of scholarship. “Scholarship appears to be less the production of scholarly discoveries than the expression of identities through which oppressed minorities can be emancipated.” [end sarcastic voice] This bizarre summary of the situation invokes the Jeopardy Thesis since the new (and completely imaginary) proposal for scholarship endangers traditional scholarly norms and practices. But the worst is yet to come because it is in the context of black scholars supposedly being favored solely for the skin color than JG invokes Dan-el, implying that he fits into this imaginary affirmative action dynamic.

I’ve become increasingly dumbfounded at how a single black intellectual has managed to instill so much terror in scholars and pundits throughout the United States, the UK, and Europe that they feel repeatedly compelled to attack a cartoon image of him in press. Why, precisely, should this be the case? In antisemitic discourse, Jews often appear as simultaneously contemptible sub-human creatures and the powerful masters of humanity, too weak to count and too terrifyingly destructive to ignore. Is there some comparable anti-black ideology behind the op-ed phenomenon? I recently read a few helpful passages in Cheyette’s essay, Frantz Fanon and Jean‐Paul Sartre: Blacks and Jews.

Cheyette also points out that Fanon’s oppositional logic reduced “anti-Jewish and anti-black racism to the following formula: “the Negro symbolizes the biological danger; the Jew, the intellectual.” Taking these ideas, we can hypothesize that the figure of the black intellectual raises such deep anxiety precisely because he or she does not fit into the racist paradigm where whiteness is linked to the intellect and blackness to the body.

This hypothesis explains the obsessive need to present a caricatured version of Dan-el and his thought. It also explains the remarkable lack of curiosity to discover what his views actually are or in reading his scholarship. JG, in fact, says we have to wait for books and articles to judge Dan-el’s insights. We don’t. A scholar of JG’s caliber, who presumably has internet access, could easily find a large amount of material — published books, articles, essays, and talks — that Dan-el has produced. The cartoonish image, the willful ignorance, and lack of curiosity all reveal an ideology of anti-blackness at work. Those who present Dan-el this way reveal, in fact, that they cannot imagine a world in which Dan-el is their equal or superior. The ignorance, which is published publicly (!), seems less simple carelessness than a deliberate strategy to avoid facing the object of fear, the black intellectual.

I’ve read several of Dan-el’s essays and watched a few of his lectures; thus, I know him as a man of formidable intellect and sharp insight. I was also lucky enough to have dinner with him before a talk once, and so know him also as a friendly and interesting man, whom I enjoyed talking to. This personal experience allows me to state, definitively, that Dan-el is a real-life human person. I am worried this fact is being lost because his individuality is invisible for so many, subsumed within the anti-black world view as the black intellectual, an object of fear, of anxiety, a terrifying monster that must be vanquished in the press. After all, the categories created by whiteness cannot imagine intellect and a black body to coexist.

Historismus

Much of JG’s piece assumes that a scholar and teacher’s identity is fundamentally unimportant for scholarship, and those who act as if subjectivity has relevance are undermining scholarship. The last part of the essay seeks to give a philosophical basis for that position. JG insists those who derive their values from the past and those who want to purify it match modern values (who are these people?!?!) are missing the basic insight of Rankean historicism: every epoch has its own unique measure of value and is, to speak with Ranke, immediate to God (). I’m convinced that classical scholars have not given up historical contextualization as an important principle so much as taken the insights of Nietzsche, Gadamer, and others that consider the interpreter's situation as important as well.

MC Hammer: You bore us tweet. When you measure include the measurer.
MC Hammer: You bore us tweet. When you measure include the measurer.

I detected a reference to Gadamer, I think, in JG’s recognition of the role played by the “horizon of their own time” (). In this allusion, I recognized another common element: typically, somewhere one finds a suppressed hint that despite presenting the situation as a Manichean binary, it is, in reality, a question of emphasis. In this case, what is the appropriate amount of emphasis to put on what Sheldon Pollock refers to as the third axis of philology, the philologist’s own subjectivity ( 2014)?

Of course, this moderate position is suppressed in the piece, which probably explains why the book Postclassicism is so aggressively dismissed as insufficiently historicist, why the learned authors are accused of being ignorant of Droysen, Dilthey, and Max Weber (highly unlikely). This dismissal struck me as all the more bizarre because the only work positively cited and respectfully treated is Butterfield’s opinion piece in the Australian Spectator. This piece is mentioned more than once, and even though JG disagrees with some of it, he treats it as a serious contribution. I read Butterfield’s piece and found it so unserious I parodied it. What sort of scholarly world is it where the most positively cited contemporary piece is a short screed in the Spectator?! While I have my disagreements and disappointments with Postclassicism, it is a work of scholarship with a level of seriousness unimaginably beyond Butterfield’s essay.

The core of the problem with Anglo-American classics, then, as analyzed here, is the importance given to the subjective experience of the scholar, who presumably should eliminate his or her individuality, his or her blackness, for example, to focus on representing the past I think we are here dealing with the Jeopardy Thesis: the contemporary Anglo-American philological and historical approach, in putting too much stress on the interpreter's subjectivity, risks losing sight of the scholarly progress made by the German school of historicism. Simultaneously, the appeal to a narrow 19C historicism appears strikingly odd and hopelessly nostalgic in a 21C classicist. But more importantly, it also seeks to license the reactionary approach to calls for change and to an ideology that can countenance anti-blackness.

Conclusion

In the end, the historicism of the essay is not particularly nuanced. It appears simply to be an attempt to give philosophical heft to what is essentially a reactionary essay made in fear of social changes that seem to threaten traditional professorial authority and the scholar’s position of a disinterested interpreter. This world view informs many of the responses, which if less intellectually astute than this one (or at least less likely to name drop Max Weber), still seem to express a longing for a world in which the white scholar, secure, objective, and olympian, need never have any of his essential categories challenged.

The ideas I’ve expressed here present the lines of thoughts that occurred to me while reading. They are, as I’ve said, subjective and personal. They are also provisional (as the typos show). I do not intend them as criticism that reveals anything about the author, but only as revealing patterns of rhetoric and ideas that characterize the discourse around the study of Ancient Greece and Rome.

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