[Authorial note: I edited this post on 15 October 2021 to remove some discussions that were misleading or uncollegial; they were not critical to the argument.]
I’ve been thinking about ways to structure a paper that I’m giving in May 2022, and one thing that keeps swirling around my head is the “double tap” rule from the movie Zombieland. Basically, the rule is to make sure that the zombie is really truly dead by following the first strike with a second, preferably at point blank range.
The idea of the double tap is interesting to me because of the way that a lot of academic discourse works: categories are constructed and periodizations are built in an early period of scholarly work. These classificatory systems may be built on a foundation of scientific racism. Later work rejects the explicit racism, but retains the classifications, which allow new racisms to thrive. That’s why we need an academic double tap.
The best example of this in archaeology has to do with the culture concept, the idea that an archaeological culture was “a bounded, homogeneous entity which ‘more or less’ corresponded with a comparable social unit – a people, an ethnic group and, in some cases, a race” (so Gavin Lucas in his 2001 book Critical Approaches to Fieldwork, p. 121). This notion of culture, common before the 1960s, was subjected to the withering critiques of the New Archaeology in the 1960s. But, because such ‘cultures’ remained in common use as ways to organize archaeological work, the concepts survived. As Lucas (123) puts it, “in many ways the use of culture classifications… continued – and continues in practice with little thought for what this might mean.” The casual and uncritical use of such culture concepts has allowed for new kinds of racisms. I imagine that my paper in May will make some such argument.
This train of thought was brought to my attention while I was reading an article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly entitled “The Color of Classics,” specifically this passage:
To some, these changes [to Classics scholarship since the 1970s] suggest that the current critique is overblown, a response to contemporary racial concerns rather than to anything happening now in the discipline itself. Although much criticism of the field’s history is valid, “they’re points that have been made for decades, and, for the most part, dealt with for decades,” says a U.K.-based scholar who requested anonymity to avoid online vitriol. “No serious classicist thinks that you should draw a line around the Greeks and Romans.”
No serious classicist thinks that you should draw a line around the Greeks and Romans. I mean, sure, I guess. If you went around asking Classicists (the serious ones only of course) “Should we draw a line around the Greeks and the Romans?” then most would presumably say “No.” But that doesn’t change the fact that a huge proportion of our scholarly tools, our institutional structures, what we read, what we cite, do draw a line around the Greeks and Romans. We have departments of Classics and Greek & Latin. Our reading lists for graduate students are composed of texts written in Greek and Latin. Most Classics departments don’t go beyond the Greeks and the Romans in any meaningful way; hiring practices remain focused on hiring faculty who work on the ancient world and Greeks and/or Romans.
One could argue that although we don’t want to draw lines, we do need to have professional competencies. In Classics those generally take the form of a mastery over a canon of ancient texts, which students are meant to have read in the original languages (hence the reading lists), and a general understanding of the historical development of the literary cultures that produced the canon. This is why even prehistoric archaeologists are routinely required to achieve mastery over both Greek and Latin; to be a Classicist is to know the canon. The reason for this is primarily teaching: to get hired in a Classics department, one needs to be able to teach the languages and literatures. But why should that be true? Could it be because we’ve drawn a line around the Greeks and the Romans, and put a literary canon at the center of that enterprise?
I once commented to my brother, a linguistic anthropologist, that it was strange that Classics wasn’t more interested in literary theory. After all, I reasoned, if you’re working on the same text as hundreds of others of scholars over centuries, you might want to find new questions to differentiate yourself from everyone else. He replied that the focus on theory in anthropology had to do with what anthropologists have in common; if he gives a talk about Tamil cinema and youth culture, he can probably assume that very few people in the room have been to Tamil Nadu or seen a Tamil film, but most everyone in the room will have read Michael Silverstein’s stuff. In Classics, what we have in common is that we’ve all (supposed to have) read the canon in the original ancient languages, so we end up talking about those texts ad infinitum. The Classics joke that there’s nothing new under the sun because any argument has probably already been made in a 19th century German dissertation… there’s a reason that it’s a joke in Classics and in no other discipline.
My point is simply that the anonymous UK-based scholar who said that “No serious classicist thinks that you should draw a line around the Greeks and Romans” is missing the point. We have already drawn lines around the Greeks and the Romans. The evidence is everywhere, from the way that the ancient Mediterranean world is defined (Greco-Roman) to the types of training we require of our students. We can try to incorporate other approaches, to look to non-Greek and non-Roman communities to study, but so long as the structures remain the same, our gains will be at best marginal, for a whole host of reasons. In fact, I’d argue that our problems run even deeper. Consider how many American archaeologists work in Greece compared to other modern nations that have Greek stuff, how often work in Turkey or Cyprus is considered marginal to the project of Greek archaeology. We can’t even study the Greco-Roman world in a normal way, so great is the lure of Athens and Rome, of the Greek and Italian peninsulas, of the desire to connect stuff to canonical texts.
This is all to say that I think that Dan-el Padilla Peralta is right to want to “explode the canon.” As long as we draw lines around the Greeks and Romans in the ways that we have, our attempts to escape from our own self-made prison will ultimately be failures. I don’t think that it necessarily follows, however, that Classics is a doomed enterprise and that our departments should be eliminated and their faculties redistributed, as Scheidel has suggested. It does follow that we need to find a different way to define what we do, and that’s going to be hard work, because Classics (or whatever we call it) at its best isn’t all about the ancient world (reception!), or the Greco-Roman world (Persia!), or the Mediterranean world (Britain!). These labels are insufficient to contain the discipline. I suspect that we need more presentism to escape from our prison, but that’s another argument altogether.