classical reception

You are currently browsing articles tagged classical reception.

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.

Tags: , , , , ,

Two articles in the on-line journal Eidolon this month take on the so-called “Alt-Right” and its misuse of Greco-Roman civilization to justify the doctrine of white supremacy. Both of them get an important point wrong.

In “We Condone It by Our Silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy argues that “As long as Classics justifies itself by claiming to be the foundation of Western Civilization, . . . it will continue to find itself uncomfortably at the contested center of the continuing culture wars.” She goes on to urge classicists—by which she seems to mean professors of classics—to abandon the “myth” of the “Greek Miracle,” the “supposedly unique flowering of arts, philosophy, and science between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE in Greece and western Anatolia.” She calls for increased critical engagement with the ugly realities of Greek civilization: slavery, misogyny, patriarchy, and exploitation.

Johanna Hanink, in her rather more interesting “It’s Time to Embrace Critical Classical Reception,” likewise takes classicists to task for desperately “insisting on the genius, exceptionalism, and ‘miracles’ of ancient Greece and Rome.” Her alternative is “critical classical reception,” founded on three pillars: an openly “activist” agenda, use of the “personal voice,” and acknowledging that “Greek and Roman antiquity have played a major role in constructing and authorizing racism, colonialism, nationalism, patriarchy, Western-centrism, body normativity, and other entrenched, violent societal structures.”

No one—or at least no one I know, or hope to know—will disagree with Kennedy and Hanink that some White supremacists and their politer enablers misunderstand the classical world. If David Duke, or for that matter either of the Steves, King or Bannon, could be transported back into fifth-century Athens or first-century Rome, they would find themselves in a world without much that they could recognize as white, European, or civilized. Western civilization—if it exists at all—is a problematic concept, and its relationship to Greece and Rome is not straightforward or a simple matter of foundation or creation.

On the other hand (and one of the things that we have learned from the Greeks called “Sophists” is that there is always another hand), Kennedy and Hanink underestimate the force of the classical world in the present. Greece is not important because of the origins of democracy or drama, or because of Pericles and the Parthenon, or even because it gave rise to all the -isms that some classicists love to hate. It is important because without what happened in Ionia during the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, and in Athens a bit later, we would not know how to think. Kennedy and Hanink would not know how to write the kind of essay that they have contributed to Eidolon.

This is a bold claim, and I don’t have space to defend it here. I’d like to suggest, though, two things: first, that intellectual and cultural developments in western Anatolia in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, and in Athens a bit later, marked the beginnings of what we now call science and philosophy; and second, that no miracle was involved.

When I look at the surviving fragments of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, all active in sixth-century Miletus, I see a new kind of explanation emerging. These early thinkers—it begs a question to call them either “philosophers” or “scientists”—offer explanations of physis, roughly “the way things grow,” and in so doing they create a new kind of thought. Their explanations build on one another, and together they create three assumptions:

  • Explanation of physis will depend on abstract qualities: for Thales, “the moist”; for Anaximander, “the limitless”; for Anaximenes, “air.”
  • Explanations of physis will be continuous; that is, whatever explains phenomena in the parts of the world that we experience will also explain phenomena inaccessible to our experience, like celestial bodies or events. There will be no need to appeal to supernatural forces or beings.
  • Explanations of physis will be progressive; that is, any explanation can be replaced by a better explanation—one that offers a more plausible or convincing account of phenomena. Persuasive argument and disagreement are essential to explanation.

There is no need to invoke miracles to explain this new way of thinking. It’s about what one would expect from a place and time with access to a radically new information technology—alphabetic literacy; with a new economic tool that encouraged abstraction of value from physical objects—coinage; with a need to think about how to create societies from scratch—colonization; and with easy access to older, richer cultures in Egypt and the Near East.

There is more to it, of course. All three Ionians depend on mythological frames of reference and draw on Near Eastern and Egyptian cosmology and astronomy. Other cultures, notably China, developed important ways of explaining how things are. But the Ionians’ abstract, continuous, progressive way of thinking opens the door that leads to modern science, to philosophy, to academic argument, and to Kennedy and Hanink’s articles. When Kennedy and Hanink assume, without needing to give it much thought, that they can state a position and give reasons for it, that someone may respond to it or disagree, and that the stated positions will be judged by the quality of the arguments on both sides, they are following the track first trod by Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. And by no one else.

–Lee T. Pearcy

Tags: , ,

With the 2013-2014 academic year, Classicizing Philadelphia begins an exciting new phase. A Presidential Initiative Grant from the Classical Association of the Atlantic States will allow us to develop systems for data management and use and post preliminary content. Classicizing Philadelphia welcomes Sara Sieteski as Project Associate for Design and Implementation. Sara is a Senior IT Specialist at the University of Pennsylvania and holds masters degrees in digital humanities from Penn and in Classics from Bryn Mawr and the University of Colorado.

This blog will continue to report on planning for Classicizing Philadelphia as we move toward our goals:

To be a focal point for research on classical receptions in Philadelphia
To be a gateway to documents of classical reception in Philadelphia collections
To inform the citizens of Philadelphia about and engage them in our city’s long conversation with Greece and Rome

Stay tuned!

Lee Pearcy
Project Director

Tags: , ,