Friday, September 17, 2010

2010.09.29

Version at BMCR home site
Page duBois, Out of Athens. The New Ancient Greeks. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. 236. ISBN 9780674035584. $29.95.
Reviewed by J. Miller, State University of New York at New Paltz

As a discipline, classical studies has long been relatively insular and comparatively resistant to new trends in literary, historical or philosophical studies. Part of this is doubtlessly due to the intensely rigorous language training necessary to master ancient languages and texts, which leaves little time for graduate students to read much outside of the accepted canon, and habits developed in graduate school often continue on into one's professional career. But one is also tempted to suspect that in at least some cases the resistance comes from an outdated notion of the singular and autonomous role that Ancient Greece and Rome played in shaping the western tradition.

Against this idea of a discipline shut off from the rest of the academy and too sure of its own importance, duBois offers nine short essays on the often unexpected connections and comparisons between classical texts and non-western traditions as well as meditations on the way classical texts and figures are used by both contemporary theorists and thinkers. "I am no longer willing," she writes in the Prologue, "to argue or to teach students that the West is best, that the perceived ideals of Western civilization should trump all else; this is ultimately a deeply conservative argument" (17).

DuBois covers a lot of ground in this book. Subjects range from the manner in which the name and concept of the Thracian slave-turned-general Spartacus were used after his defeat in both ancient and modern times to an attempt at highlighting quite recent theoretical uses of classical figures in the work of Judith Butler, Jacques Rancière, Alan Badiou, and Giorgio Agamben, among others.

The overarching theme linking these very different essays is the idea that classical studies needs to engage with the wider world of literary, historical and philosophical studies because insights from these fields enrich our understanding of Greece and Rome, as well as "bring classics more fully into engagement with the concerns of the present" (8). Given more than a half century of decline in interest in classics, and a parallel decline in the number of classics professors and departments, duBois' concerns are well justified, and linking classics with other disciplines seems like a very good idea.

Some of the connections duBois makes in this attempt are quite interesting, such as her discussion of the connections between Jesus, Dionysus and Socrates, which highlight what a comparative perspective can bring classical studies. At other times, though, the essays can seem a bit disjointed and scattered, and the evidence presented thin. Her chapter on Sappho, "Sappho between Africa and Asia," for example, moves from a brief reading of Fragment 58, which laments the onset of age, compares it with a similar lament in Archilochus Fragment 188, and then focuses on the story of Tithonus and Eos as told in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. DuBois then makes a connection between Eos and Indo-European traditions of a goddess of the dawn before noting that in later versions of the Eos-Tithonus myth Tithonus—now greatly aged and reduced to a mere voice—metamorphosed into the cicada, and turns to a passage from Plato's Phaedrus. The idea of a cicada-like voice without a body she notes is "a compelling figure for the survival of [lyric classical] poetry." (53) This all in the space of five pages.

The problem here is not so much that the linkages and connections made are not interesting as that they often feel just sketched in, and tenuous. To be fair, duBois seems to be aware of this effect. She notes in the Prologue that her writing "may seem like free association to some readers, less governed by a rigid logic of explication and more attentive to drifts and flows" (24). To the extent that she offers a critique here of traditional academic writing styles, dominated by new historicism and obsessive footnoting, duBois will find many admirers. But it seems to this reviewer that stylistically different approaches still need to offer the reader some clear benefit, and too often here it's not clear exactly what duBois has demonstrated at the end of an essay.

While duBois indicates that she wants to loosen the strictures of classical studies methodologically as well as in terms of subject matter, the figures from whom she explicitly seeks to distance herself largely date from the early to middle part of the last century: Moses Finley, Bruno Snell, Erich Auerbach and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (incorrectly given the name "Ugo" on p. 20). These are indeed important figures in the history of classical studies, but certainly more recent examples of scholarship would have been helpful.

In fact, when discussing more recent approaches to classical texts, duBois finds much of interest, even when considering texts which classical scholars might find highly problematic. In her final chapter, "Twenty-First-Century High Theory and the Classics," duBois begins by saying that she wants to engage scholars like Judith Butler not to "locate inadequacies" or "listinconsistencies or contradictions" or "offer critiques of misreadings of the ancient world" (174), but rather to alert classical scholars to the fact that contemporary theorists like Butler and Giorgio Agamben engage "with the same shifting elements of an ancient world that classicists themselves find endlessly compelling, and to argue for their inclusion in a broader definition of classical studies" (174).

This seems like a hard sell. As duBois points out, Butler appropriates the figure of Antigone for the specific purpose of "undermining the feminist resort to the state as the source of reforms" (178). This means, of course, that the sorts of things that concern classical scholars (linguistic analysis, historical context, etc.), tend to be low on the list of concerns for a scholar like Butler. These concerns are, however, precisely the sorts of things that classical scholars find themselves qualified to address and evaluate. Apart from a separate concern for radical feminism or gender theory, it's unclear why classical scholars would have an interest in Butler.

Of course, appropriating and repurposing a classical text is as old as the tradition itself, as duBois is aware and describes nicely in the case of Spartacus. And there is a newer theoretical justification for the practice at least as old as Nietzsche's essay "Use and Abuse of History for Life." But this newer theoretical justification involves a shift away from the more traditional scholarly goal of producing a definitive edition of a text or definitive interpretation and toward the specific political or theoretical concerns of the theorist.

DuBois' own analysis of Butler underlines this dilemma. In discussing Butler'sAntigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death, Dubois provides only a quick summary of the argument, a briefer description of her own very different reading of Sophocles' Antigone, and a short discussion of the context and tradition within which Butler is writing. This abbreviated contextualization of Butler's work—in the context of recent theory and more traditional classical views of Antigone—may be one point of access to scholars like Butler for classical studies, but it appears less as an engagement than a traditional description, a way of understanding but not responding to or building upon Butler's argument.

None of this is to say that duBois' project here is without merit. Rather, it points out the difficulties facing anyone who would like to move classical studies back into a position of importance in the modern academy. At their best, duBois' essays in this volume call attention to the large set of resources and possibilities available to the classical scholar from other disciplines. And the richness of associations duBois brings out points in the direction of several potentially fruitful areas of future research.

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