How should we think about intertextuality – the tendency for texts to echo/imitate/parody/rework/quote/vaguely remind one of/etc. other texts? In this week’s research seminar, Elena Lombardi from the Bristol Italian Department, as a prelude to her detailed discussion of how Dante, Ariosto and Tasso reworked episodes in Virgil and Lucan, suggested that we needed to think above all in terms of pleasure: the pleasure of the moment of recognition that something familiar has come back, just as children take endless delight in endless games of ‘now it’s here – now it’s gone’. The play between closeness and distance, possession and loss, the ever-ambivalent status of the mother, is reenacted in our experience of reading an author’s (pleasurable) revival of or reference to a text that might otherwise seem to be lost in the past.
Hmm. Well, as a jazz fan, with ears finely attuned to picking up that little allusion to Charlie Parker’s solo in the famously chaotic pre-breakdown recording of Lover Man, I can scarcely deny that this has to be part of the story. Is it the whole thing, though? I can’t help wondering whether it’s wholly accidental that a theory which establishes the pleasure of repetition as a basic human drive ingrained in childhood should be developed by a literary scholar who naturally takes pleasure in recognising textual allusions – it’s a little bit like, though much less dangerous, the way that the running-dogs of capitalist tend to claim self-interest as a basic human drive, purely by accident legitimising their own behaviour. There was talk in the seminar of other sorts of pleasure to be gained from intertextual repetitions – rather less talk of the pains and anxieties and sheer boredom that such repetition might arouse in a different reader. And isn’t this all a bit unilinear in temporal terms – the theory seems to assume that a significant part of the pleasure comes from the recovery of that which was thought lost (classical literature) through recognising it in a more recent artefact, but isn’t there also pleasure (as well as anxiety etc.) to be derived from recognising later ideas in a much earlier piece – finding Hobbes in Thucydides, for example? But perhaps my lack of appreciation for this simply comes down to a more troubled childhood…
Read Full Post »
Two interesting, if occasionally problematic, research seminars in the last fortnight. Most entertaining was the visit of Greg Woolf for a discussion of his newish book Tales of the Barbarians, based on his Bristol-Blackwell lectures back in 2009 – not least when he revealed that he’d been re-reading his notes from the discussions afterwards, to see who had asked what, with all of us pretty well conforming to type. It could have been even funnier if he’d waited until afterwards to reveal this, as I don’t imagine I was the only person there who was all set to raise points on exactly the same lines as on that occasion…
The most striking theme, for me, from the chapter we were considering was the lack of consistency in the theories that Roman ethnographic writers offered to account for differences between peoples – they might move from a genelogical explanation to a quick burst of climate determinism in the course of a single discussion – and, more important still, the fact that this appeared not to bother them in the slightest. Whereas in, say, ancient mathematics there was a clear drive to recognise and resolve inconsistencies between different explanations, and to discard some theories in favour of better ones, ancient ethnography showed no such inclination. It raises the question of which approach is more typical for classical antiquity – were ethnographers particularly laissez-faire compared with everyone else, or were mathematicians especially obsessive – and highlights the fact that it’s precisely our (modern? modern scientific?) concern with consistency of explanation that makes this bother us so much. A fortiori if there’s a degree of identification or fellow feeling with these ancient scholars; they’re engaged, more or less, in the same enterprise as we are, so why aren’t they more bothered about stuff that bothers us? A reasonably prominent theme in readings of Thucydides (though more often found in debates about why on earth he thought it was okay to make up the speeches) – there are times when it’s quite understandable that political theorists develop such selective readings on the basis of very few passages, precisely because they can then derive nice clear theories of human behaviour without having to worry about the fact that other parts of the narrative really don’f fit this neat model. Personally I’d read Thucydides as suggesting rather that humans are consistent in their inconsistency, or at any rate that human behaviour is always shaped by specific circumstances and the course of events as well as by consistent principles of action – but then I’m just a wishy-washy humanities type.
The week before, Richard Seaford had come to discuss the latest development of his studies of the impact of money on archaic Greek society, arguing that this not only brought about the birth of philosophy (notion that everything could be translated into a single universal substance, and vice versa) but also the genesis of the subject, as the breakdown of reciprocity under pressures of market economy produced the concept of the self-contained individual. Hmm. Difficult, in retrospect, not to think of this as an example of the excesses to which the modern drive for consistency can lead: the search for a single, all-embracing theory, in which one key factor brings about everything else in a straightforward linear process. The humanities part of me worries about excessive simplification and reductionism, the way in which every text is turned into an example of exactly the same thing and the process of historical change appears as unilinear, deterministic and implausibly straightforward; the social science part of me, meanwhile, is happy to entertain the occasional grand theory, but feels a bit concerned about the limited range of comparison: it may be true (if we don’t worry too much about precise definitions and their modern connotations for the moment) that in both India and Greece we find urbanisation, commercialisation and a belief in reincarnation in close proximity; it may be true that one of these three is determining the others in both cases; but can we really feel confident about this, let alone elevating it to a general historical principle, without considering possible examples of (a) societies with cities and trade but no reincarnation; (b) societies with no cities or trade but some form of belief in reincarnation; (c) societies with trade but not cities or cities but no markets… At times like this, the ancient anthropological approach suddenly seems more attractive; after all, what might we be losing in reducing the development of these two societies to a simple story about the impact of money, insisting that apparently similar developments must have a single consistent cause..?
Read Full Post »
Posted in Research Seminar on November 23, 2011 |
1 Comment »
Yesterday’s discussion in the research seminar of Anthony Grafton’s memoir of Arnaldo Momigliano raised a number of important issues that could loosely be put together under the heading of ‘classics and cosmopolitanism’. I was very struck – doubtless as a result of spending last week giving some lectures in a couple of German universities – by Grafton’s (polemical) contrast of a lost world of real cosmopolitanism back in Momigliano’s time and the international English-speaking world in which we now live. It may perhaps be true that more British classicists are more familiar with the research of foreign scholars than was previously the case, because more of it gets translated or is written in English in the first place – but it would be dangerous to assume that all important work will automatically be translated and so anything that hasn’t been translated can’t be very important. It was suggested in the discussion that perhaps national traditions of scholarship are no longer terribly important – that differences between approaches in different universities are much more significant – but I’m not certain; at any rate I ‘ve found that writing in German does sometimes entail different ways of thinking, and that different sorts of questions may be considered most important. That also raises the question of how one keeps up with work in another country; you may have a fair idea of what’s going on relevant to one’s own specialist field – but what if people are developing an entirely new approach? And that’s if you have the necessary grasp of the language in the first place…
That then leads into the questions raised in general discussion about what skills classicists and ancient historians require (do we still need French, German and Italian?) and what we might do to ensure that our subject doesn’t become entirely parochial and marginalised – which might imply that we need still more languages (Sanskrit, Mandarin..?). What will be the basis for our continuing claim for the relevance and usefulness of academic study of the ancient world: the historical accident that classical antiquity helped shape the modern world, the marketability of the skills that a classical education can offer, the intrinsic and universal quality of the texts and artefacts we study, or the possibility that we can generate knowledge and understanding that is genuinely significant beyond our own discipline? How far, as Duncan suggested, is the existence of the discipline of Classics contingent and potentially ephemeral? Is the best response to marginalisation to continue to insist on the significance of our work for the rest of the world, or to change our approach so that we engage properly with the rest of the world..?
Read Full Post »