As academic specialties go, “classical reception,” or the ways in which people have “received”—enjoyed, used, learned from—the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, seems harmless enough, and even respectable. It is, after all, the umbrella under which Classicizing Philadelphia, the project that launched this blog, shelters. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering how classical reception relates to another phenomenon that doesn’t have a good reputation at all: cultural appropriation. “Cultural appropriation” happens when someone—usually someone perceived as in some way privileged or elite—enjoys, uses, or exploits something characteristic of another culture. The term seems to have originated with academic sociologists and been weaponized by indigenous peoples with histories of colonization. Lately it’s been applied to practices as diverse as yoga, wearing sombreros, and a poem written in Black English by a white poet.

From one point of view, classical reception and cultural appropriation look a lot alike: one culture takes over something from another one and uses it.  So what’s the difference, and why isn’t classical reception a bad thing?  One difference is obvious: cultural appropriation is thoughtless. It doesn’t give any consideration to what the appropriated object or practice means or does in the culture from which it has been appropriated, and it does not try to give the object new meaning within the appropriating culture.  The classic example is acquisition of Native American artifacts and skeletal remains by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century museums.  In a museum case or on a warehouse shelf these objects become, as the title of a recent book has it, plundered skulls and stolen spirits.  (By this standard, Anders Carson-Wee’s thoughtful poem in The Nation doesn’t qualify as cultural appropriation, while thinking it’s funny to wear a sombrero at your fraternity’s Halloween party does.)  The best-known examples of classical reception, on the other hand, depend on thinking about the matter being received and either trying to recover its meaning or giving it a new one.  Marsilio Ficino and his friends in fifteenth-century Florence thought deeply about Plato’s Academy before they imagined that they were re-creating it, and a century earlier Dante made Vergil mean something new.

But the distinction between thoughtful reception and thoughtless appropriation will take us only so far; for one thing, some examples of classical reception are pretty lacking in thought, like this lipstick ad from the bizarre uses of antiquity in advertising that Edith Hall has been collecting in her Twitter feed lately.

Maybe this ad is thoughtless enough to qualify as cultural appropriation, or maybe the distinction between thoughtless appropriation and thoughtful reception doesn’t take us far enough. I want to suggest that another factor is in play when we draw a line between appropriation and reception: the presence or absence of a perceived cultural hierarchy.

Cultural appropriation depends on a perceived inequality. The culture doing the receiving is not only clueless about the cultural significance of the received material but also in a position to be clueless—the position of acknowledged cultural or political or social superiority.  The culture whose products are being appropriated, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the unequal status of the two cultures.  Only people who are aware of their lower position in a hierarchy of cultural status can complain of cultural appropriation or feel the pain it causes.  Having the Elgin Marbles in London does no harm to ancient Greece, but the modern Greeks can feel aggrieved because they believe that bullying Britain took their treasures when they were weak and oppressed by the Ottoman Empire. They are caught in a trap: every complaint about cultural appropriation affirms and reinforces their perception of inferior status. (Arguments about whether what Elgin did was lawful or not are another matter.)

Reception, in contrast, depends on an understanding that the culture being received will not be diminished or harmed by the other culture’s use of it.  And implicit in that understanding is an assumption, which doesn’t have to be explicit or even conscious, that the culture being received is in some way equal, or even superior, to the one doing the receiving.  It’s like potlatch, or Homeric gift-giving: giving only augments the prestige of the giver, and receiving a gift acknowledges the giver’s status. No one has yet (to my knowledge) accused Julia Child of cultural appropriation, first because cooking French recipes does no harm to the glories of la cuisine française, and second because no Frenchman believes that French culture is inferior to or of lesser status than American culture. It may be otherwise with burritos or collard greens.  Ancient Greece and Rome can be objects of reception not only because they are safely in the past and can’t object, but because of the perception that their material, literary, and political cultures are worth receiving and beyond harm. Every act of reception, even a lipstick ad, confirms their status.

–Lee T. Pearcy

9/2/2018:  And now Kwame Anthony Appiah has said it better, as usual, in this WSJ piece.

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As promised in my last post, here is the first of a few comments and reactions to my summer reading. The first book off the stack was A Time to Stir, Paul Cronin’s edited volume of essays on the student revolt or riot or disturbance at Columbia in April, 1968, when students occupied half-a-dozen university buildings for a week. They—we—were protesting the Vietnam War and racism, the one manifested by the university’s involvement with research funded by the Defense Department and the other by its proposal to build a gym in Morningside Park at the edge of Harlem.

In 1968 I was a junior at Columbia College, the men’s undergraduate division of the university. My memory doesn’t seem to be as good, or as detailed, as that of my classmates who contributed to Paul’s volume. I remember being at some demonstrations, spending a little time in Fayerweather Hall (which, as the book reminded me, was occupied by a loose coalition of hippies and graduate students–pretty much the kind of people that I hung around with anyway), and carrying a stretcher on the second night that police came onto campus. I think the stretcher parties were organized by the university chaplain’s office. That was almost the only time that I didn’t carry a camera, but a NY Post photographer caught me; I’m the one in glasses in the right-hand picture from the front page of May 22, 1968.

Then as now, I was a centrist in my politics, fond of sense and skeptical of passion. I found SDS tiresome and authoritarian (and Paul’s book did nothing to change that impression) and the so-called Majority Coalition sweaty and simplistic, even though I knew and liked people in both groups. If there were two sides to any question, I was apt to see all three of them, and not at all good at making up my mind about which one I agreed with. That may explain my lack of detailed memory—because I perceived the events as confused and inchoate, that’s how I remember them fifty years later.

A Time to Stir taught me a lot about events that I experienced. Perhaps the most important thing that I learned was how important the Black students in the Society of Afro-American Students were to the shape of events. I didn’t pay much attention to their occupation of Hamilton Hall, since the SDS occupation of the university’s main administration offices in Low Library sucked up most of the attention of people both inside and outside the university.  But the SAS emerges from A Time to Stir as the most serious, disciplined, and politically savvy of the occupiers, astutely exploiting white anxiety over race—Martin Luther King, Jr., remember, had been assassinated only weeks before the Columbia disturbances—and leveraging their links with the national civil rights movement and the people of Harlem.

Against the background of our current political dysfunction, A Time to Stir suggests roads not taken and potentialities not realized, both national and personal. Still, one wonders what, finally, we accomplished. The Viet Nam War did end, and Columbia abandoned its plans to build a gym in Harlem, cut ties with the Institute for Defense Analysis, and gave up its Navy ROTC program. NROTC returned to Columbia in 2013, and the university’s new Manhattanville campus has expanded into West Harlem. We’re friends with the Communist government of Viet Nam. Robert Southey’s “The Battle of Blenheim” comes to mind:

“But what good came of it at last?”
    Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
    “But ’twas a famous victory.”

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About a year ago I published a list of books that I’d laid aside for reading in the summer of 2017. This summer I’m not likely to have much time to read anything not immediately relevant to my two big projects–a book on the Aeneid and preparing for a graduate seminar on the Hippocratic Corpus that I may be teaching next spring–but here’s what I have stacked up for my down time.

(It’s worth asking, parenthetically, why a retired teacher has “summer reading,” or indeed summers at all.  Surely, like the Dowager Countess of Grantham asking “What is a week end?” I should be able to live without any notion of an annual academic hiatus.  I can only suggest that 42 years of teaching, not to mention 18 years as a student, leaves one with a indelibly impressed sense of academic time.  And as the above paragraph suggests, I’m not entirely finished with academic work.)

  • Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent.  Colm Toíbín’s New York Review of Books piece on Conrad made me regret that Conrad was on the long list of major English novelists that I haven’t read, or read much.
  • Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life.
  • Armand Marie Leroi, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science–possibly relevant to the Hippocratic seminar, but not enough to count as professional reading.
  • Paul Cronin, ed. A Time to Stir: Columbia ’68.  It’s been 50 years, and I was there.
  • The Odyssey, tr. Emily Wilson.  I think it’s on every classicist’s list this year.  I’m less impressed by the fact that Wilson is the first woman to translate the Odyssey than by the bits I’ve read in reviews of the translation itself.
  • Bernard Chaet, The Art of Drawing.  I picked this one up from the used book shelf in the library at PAFA and read through it.  It’s the best book about drawing that I’ve ever come across, and this summer I’m going to try to work through it.

If you’re wondering about the order of the list, it’s in reverse order of stacking: duodecimo Conrad to quarto Art of Drawing.  I’ll try to update this post with reactions as I move through the stack, and I’ll welcome comment from those who have, or have had, the same books on their lists.

It seems that some—just how many isn’t certain—of the Britons who voted to leave the European Union now regret their decision. I can sympathize with them. In June 2013 the American Philological Association, of which I’d been a member since 1969, voted to change its name to the Society for Classical Studies. I voted for the change, but five years on, I’m beginning to wonder if I’d make the same choice today.

I was persuaded by the arguments that the APA’s president at the time, Denis Feeney, made in a letter to members: “philology” doesn’t convey much to anyone outside the small world of college and university teachers of Greek and Latin, while “classics” and “classical” are more generally understood to have something to do with the Greeks and Romans; if the American Philological Association was to appeal to a broader constituency, it needed a name that people outside our profession understood; and the APA itself was evolving from a learned society to a professional association with a public mission. (Professor Feeney didn’t mention another reason: to avoid confusion with the American Psychological, Philosophical, Planning, Payroll, and Plywood Associations–not to mention the African Paddling Association, Alaska Power Administration, and Administrative Procedure Act.)

All true, but there’s still that nagging regret, much of which, I suspect, is entirely personal. I’ve always wondered what to call myself. Am I a teacher? A writer? A classical scholar? Even, nowadays, an editor? When I look in the mirror, or at the books on my desk, or think back on my formal education, I find that “classical philologist” fits the case as well as anything. And when I scan the program of the SCS annual meeting nowadays, I see much that doesn’t speak to any of my possible professional identities (along with, I hasten to add, a great deal that does).

There are, also, some signs that philology is enjoying a comeback of sorts. Just a year after the APA changed its name, James Turner’s award-winning book, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton 2014), brought philology back into current debate, and the comparative literature people annointed philology as an “idea of the decade“. We classicists, or classical philologists, or whoever we are, have a way of jumping on a train just as it’s coming into the station, or off it just as it’s leaving–we embraced structuralism just as the anthropologists were abandoning it, and postmodern theory just about the time that it was beginning to wear out its welcome in English and comparative literature.

Still, “Society for Classical Studies” seems to be working as a name, and there is no truth to the rumor that when someone accidentally says “APA” instead of “SCS,” all the philologists in the room chant “drink drink drink” until the hapless person downs another one. I’m glad to be a member of the SCS, and my voter’s remorse is just a passing breath of nostalgia, worth a blog post but no more.

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Being a classicist has left me with two not always useful habits of mind: to measure new things against old texts, and to think about current events as part of what the French call the longue durée.  This means that I’m always asking whether what looks like a crisis of the moment isn’t in fact a symptom of a much larger, slower change–the headache in the body politic that turns out to be not just a hangover, but a brain tumor. So in the wake of Michael Wolff’s new bestseller I’ve been wondering about our peculiar President of the moment.  Is Donald Trump just a headache that will go away at the next election, or is he a symptom of something slower growing and more serious? I think he is, and that the diagnosis might be found in Aristotle.

In the Politics (book 3, chapter 7 = 1279a) Aristotle sets out to consider “how many forms of government there are, and what they are.” He goes on to speculate about the correct or characteristic shape of each, and then about their “perversions” (παρεκβάσεις).    This gives the following scheme:

Correct Form Perversion
Rule by One Kingship Tyranny
Rule by a Few Aristocracy Oligarchy
Rule by Many “Polity” (what we might call “democracy”) Democracy (really ochlocracy)

 

In the correct forms, whoever governs, whether one or few or many, governs in the common interest, “but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, of of the few, or of the many, are perversions.”  What Aristotle calls “polity,” πολιτεία—literally just “(form of) government”—happens “when the citizens at large administer the state for the common interest.”

The people who wrote our Constitution looked at Aristotle, filtered him through Polybius’ account of the government of the Roman Republic, and set up a “mixed constitution” with elements of all three forms: a monarchical President, an aristocratic Senate, and a House of Representatives answerable every two years to the people at large. In theory, these should check and balance one another and prevent perversions.  If a president threatens to become a tyrant, the aristocrats in the Senate can check him; if the Senate becomes merely a rich man’s club, the House can refuse to fund their follies; if the House seems to be letting mass sentiment override prudence and the common good, a wise President will refuse to allow their bills to become law, and so on.  Behind it all lie the sovereign People, who have their say at every election.

But could the Founders have foreseen that all three elements of the mixed constitution would become perverted at the same time? That a toxic brew of populism, income inequality, and a Tweet-mad president would push the common good off the agenda of government?  And that the sovereign people would have devolved into a mix of identities and tribes that make finding and agreeing on the common interest nearly impossible?  I don’t like Aristotle’s diagnosis, but it seems to fit the symptoms.

–Lee T. Pearcy

Addendum 1/7/18: Shortly after writing about Aristotle and the common interest, I came across this post from one of my favorite old-retired-academic-guy bloggers (who turns out to be also a transplanted Arkansawyer), John V. Fleming, on the tax bill:

In my opinion, a genuinely humble one, a large part of our dilemma is a failure to recognize a truth that Theodore Roosevelt stated as “the fact that in addition to, not as a substitute for, individual responsibility there is a collective responsibility.” How can it be that the greatest democracy the world has yet known—a nursery and proving ground of seemingly infinite industrial, intellectual, and artistic invention and innovation–has a legislature that simply doesn’t work?

What he said (in my also humble opinion).

LTP

 

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