Classical Association conference 2015: theorizing reception
Thanks to Carol Atack for this informative update
Classical reception was a significant theme of the 2015 Classical Association conference, not surprisingly as the host department at Bristol has such strength in this area. Political thought and critical theories took their place alongside literature and popular culture, a parallel strand on the sensory turn, and a series of panels and workshops on Classics education and outreach.
The intersection between politics and the reception of the classical tradition was the focus of the Theorizing Reception panel, in which the LGPT was represented by John Bloxham (Nottingham/OU) and Carol Atack (Oxford). Janina Vesztergom (ELTE Budapest) and Rogier van der Wal (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), presenting together in dialogue form, completed the line-up, with ‘Translation as Reception that Makes Sense: Caesar through Hungarian eyes’. The political range and intellectual diversity of 20th-century responses to the ancient world was illustrated by the three papers; from the conservatism of US cultural critics such as William Bennett and Allan Bloom, to the radical anti-Platonism of French philosopher Jacques Rancière, to the historical fiction of Hungarian writer Sandor Márai, ancient concepts and thinkers provided ways to grapple with contemporary problems.
John Bloxham opened the session, with ‘The Classicizing of the American Mind: Plato versus Theory in the Culture Wars’, a dissection of appeals to ancient texts in the US ‘Culture Wars’ of the 1980s, and resistance to attempts to broaden the undergraduate curriculum beyond the established canon of ‘Great Books’. William Bennett, in his 1984 report on the state of humanities education, and Allan Bloom in his 1987 best-seller The Closing of the American Mind both saw the reading of Plato as a means of accessing universal and timeless truths, against the perceived threat of relativism arising from educational reforms and the introduction of contemporary texts. Bennett’s proposals glide seamlessly from ancient world to modern America, conflating the two, and one might worry that hurrying through the books themselves would result in superficial readings. But Bloom’s more sophisticated Plato attempts to offer something with which to oppose the nihilism and decadence of modern philosophy – even if he has to be read ironically to generate the required arguments.
Discussion of the paper further teased out nuances in Bloom’s thought and his position relative to others in the Straussian tradition (and session chair Ellen O’Gorman should be thanked for weaving together the papers and discussion as skilfully as if she were a Platonic statesman). The differing contexts of thinkers within this tradition should be considered – as Bloxham showed with Bloom, his experiences of student unrest at Cornell inspired his thought on education.
The second paper was Carol Atack’s ‘Rancière’s Lessons from Plato: reception as methodology in the history of political thought’. The abiding interest of French radical political theorists in Plato generated equally impassioned but quite different political arguments from those of the American conservatives. Atack used Jacques Rancière’s reading of Plato to explore the methodologies that might help in interpreting and understanding the complex thought of theorists whose use of ancient thinkers simultaneously embraces and opposes their thought and the authority of the classical tradition. The conflict between historicist and textual approaches features in the methodologies of both the study of political thought and of classical reception.
Jacques Rancière’s combative anti-philosophical engagement with Plato provides a counter-example to the American conservatives, and shows that the appeal of invoking ancient writers is not limited to conservative perspectives. For Rancière the canon of political theory (that Bloom sought to preserve) continues to repeat the same story of the exclusion of workers from political debate: it is difficult to disentangle Rancière’s direct engagement with Plato’s arguments and the context and motivation he provides for his work. By placing himself on the shores of Plato’s corrupting sea, Rancière evokes not just ancient psychogeography but also contemporary ideas of liminality.
Vesztergom and van der Wal used Sandor Márai’s historical novel, Something Happened in Rome, which tells the story of an unidentified tyrant from the perspective of the people, to explore the importance of translation and retelling in reception. Again, historical context was key to interpreting a writer and his work, as well as its complex reception history from original publication in Hungarian to rediscover and republication in Dutch translation. Márai’s context as a political activist and then exile from Hungary illuminates his choice of themes. The role of historical fiction in classical reception highlighted by the paper sparked a lively debate – does retelling a story from the ancient world generate a more powerful connection for the modern reader than a translation of an ancient text? Why is historical fiction valued more highly as a genre and a vehicle for political reflection and argument in some literary traditions than others?
Beyond this panel, the conference themes of reception and the sensory turn generated interesting interactions between ancient and modern. The plenary papers explored modern engagements with concepts from the ancient world. Miriam Leonard opened the conference with an exploration of the use of tragedy, and particularly the figure of Oedipus, by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Lacan. Could the Greek distinction between man, beast and god, as elaborated by Sophocles in the Oedipus at Colonus, contribute to contemporary debates on what it means to be post-human? In using ancient texts to explore new problems and answer new questions, both Miriam Leonard and fellow plenary presenter, Shane Butler with his concept of ‘deep Classics’, showed that classical reception offers a potent way to explore contemporary cultural and philosophical issues.
Carol Atack, St Hugh’s College, Oxford