The Death of a Discipline

by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Prepared for delivery 6 January 2018, Rhetoric: Then and Now Panel (AIA-SCS Annual Meeting, Boston)

This past semester, I taught a graduate seminar on ancient slavery at Princeton that took its name and much of its ambition from Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: our objective was to unravel some of the knotty entanglements of subjugation and subjectivity in the history of Greek and Roman slaving by developing a compassionate historiography that attended to the system’s emotional and psychological contours. Over the course of the semester, student presentations kept bringing me back to recurring methodological concerns: how to devise modes of disciplinarity and discursivity that do not intentionally or unwittingly reinscribe domination; and how to arrive at the space where we can finally leave behind—to quote Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Touching Feeling—“the rather fixated question Is a particular piece of knowledge true, and how can we know? [for] the further questions: What does knowledge do—the pursuit of it, the having and exposing of it, the receiving again of knowledge of what one already knows?”[1]

To make clear just what I mean, and to set up my intervention for today’s discussion, let me begin with one ancient text that generates a social script for subjugation. The text is Seneca the Elder’s Controversiae. The specific stretch of that text of interest to me is the sixth prompt in book 7, where we are treated to the sight of a Roman elite ceaselessly drilling itself in the arts of domination.

Tyrannus permisit servis dominis interemptis dominas suas rapere. Profugerunt principes civitatis; inter eos qui filium et filiam habebat profectus est peregre. Cum omnes servi dominas suas vitiassent, servos eius virginem servavit. Occiso tyranno reversi sunt principes; in crucem servos sustulerunt; ille manu misit et filiam conlocavit. Accusatur a filio dementiae.

A tyrant gave permission to slaves to kill their masters and rape their mistresses. The chief men of the state fled; among them one who had a son and a daughter set off abroad. Though all the other slaves raped their mistresses, this man’s slave kept the girl inviolate. When the tyrant had been killed, the chief men returned, and crucified their slaves. But this man manumitted his slave and gave him his daughter in marriage. His son accuses him of insanity. [Sen. Contr. 7.6, tr. Winterbottom]

The orator Fulvius Sparsus declaimed in response to this prompt that the slave had been wronged by not being permitted to keep the virginity of his mistress intact (gravissima ipsi quoque servo facta est iniuria: dominam suam illi non licuit servare virginem, 7.6.3), while Cornelius Hispanus adopted the ironizing line that in this scenario the women who had been raped were better off than the ones who had remained virginal, since all the former had to do was to slough off their partners (7.6.5). With this and so many other controversiae, Seneca the Elder did not simply gift a compendium of greatest declamatory hits to his sons Novatus, Mela, and Seneca the Younger. Through the ventriloquy of perspectives deemed appropriate to the aggrieved son, the defensive father, the virginal daughter, and the good slave, he presented his sons a master class in epistemic violence. The emotional and cognitive worlds of daughter and slave matter only insofar as they cast a favorable or unfavorable light on free son and free father. Not one person among the declaimers projects a robust knowledge of the abjection experienced by daughter or slave. Ultimately, the varieties and inflections of argument all circle back to the subject position of the masterly Roman male: his education is an education in regulated domination. While tyranny is bad because it is excessive domination, keeping the slave and daughter in subjection is more than fine—it is necessary; all that remains to be debated is which rhetorical artifice for propping up this structure has the most ingenuity.   

We could arrive at much the same conclusions about any number of Greek or Roman rhetorical texts, though these days I gravitate towards the Controversiae as exceptionally good to think with because they force me to consider whether what I am doing in the Princeton classroom is nothing more than carrying out drills in the epistemic and rhetorical habits of the dominant class. Yes, I am decently sure that my classrooms are not the mirror image of those ancient colloquia (studied so painstakingly by Eleanor Dickey) in which the children of the elite received bilingual instruction in how to boss around their slaves. But a year into an American presidency that greenlights white supremacy and pairs it with some of the most defiantly regressive forms of rent extraction imaginable, it seems to me irresponsible not to consider how even with the very best intentions our work as teacher-scholars might end up authorizing and buttressing exploitation, by furnishing our students and colleagues with a language and worldview that effaces or occludes certain forms of human suffering. In illustration of this point I want to say a few words about the rhetoric of terminal crisis endemic among classicists.

Here’s one story. Much like its peer humanistic disciplines, Classics is being led meekly to the sacrificial altar, fated to expiate with its death one of those core paradoxes of knowledge production that attracted Dipesh Chakrabarty’s attention in Provincializing Europe. In its current incarnation as a capitalist institution par excellence, the university regulates and calibrates human work, in the form of those parcelled chunks of abstracted labor known to you under the label of “full-time employment.” To maximize profit, the university works to secure the most bang for its buck, which in the scheme of capital necessarily entails the objectification and automation of human labor to the maximum extent possible. (The development and implementation of distance-learning technologies are one of many means to this end.) And so we are marched, ruthlessly and ineluctably, to the chasm separating the humanities as a site for the cultivation of the human from the humanities as merely another mechanism for extracting surplus value. The chasm will be bridged by greater recourse to adjunct and contingent labor, the erosion of tenure protections, the imposition of course enrollment minima, the shuttering of programs and departments and the reallocation of their faculty to other units, and so on.

This is one story of crisis. There are others we might choose to tell. Arguably the most self-reflexive would start from the well-worn but still acutely relevant observation that in Classics, as in other branches of the humanities, the rhetoric of existential threat and crisis performs its own kind of work. Under the sign of crisis, we are called to man the barricades and batten down the hatches. We are called to defend, with the understanding that what we are called to defend deserves to be defended; injected right into our veins is that species of insecurity about our present that Jacques Rancière evocatively termed “a mode of management of collective life”.[2] (Dissensus). Why should we be so sure that our discipline in its current form deserves that sort of protection? Why should we cast ourselves in the mold of Ajax, planting ourselves as the last line of defense against the onslaught? Augustus was right to rub his Ajax out (Suet. Aug. 85). Perhaps we should do the same.

The clarion clangs for a posture of non-defensiveness are reverberating in my mind thanks to two recently published provocations. Our fellow classicist Hunter R. Rawlings III sounded the summons in his December essay for the Chronicle, “Stop defending the liberal arts,” in which he encourages us to let others (which others?) do the defending for us.[3] But I found myself parting ways with Professor Rawlings not long after the jump, since this otherwise searching essay could not overcome a certain myopia when it came to the subject of safe spaces and trigger warnings. “Getting an education,” Professor Rawlings contends, “is not supposed to be a comfortable process”—but if it’s supposed to be a humanizing process, trumpeting an unassailable right to provoke over and above the many small and not-so-small techniques of denigration and put-down that are wielded against members of our communities seems like a misguided exercise. What most exasperates me about the special pleading for humanistic education’s right to cause discomfort is that it manifestly privileges the desire to continue uninterrupted in one’s pedagogical and scholarly routines over and above the potential and real traumas of students and colleagues.

From the other side of the Atlantic, Edinburgh’s Justin Stover has weighed in with the suggestively entitled and electrifyingly argued “There is no the case for the humanities.”[4] One could stake a great deal on his essay’s argument that the university in general and the humanities in particular have endured and will likely endure, well beyond the vicissitudes of contemporary political and social crisis; and that, if the humanities should fall victim to the sacrificial axe, the university as an institution will cease to exist. On this reading (or hope)—which seems to me to be supercharged with a T.S. Eliot-style detachment from the imperatives of the human present—these vicissitudes are but foam on the Braudelian sea of what matters most: reading and writing as ultimate expressions of human value. But I recoil at the idealization of knowledge transmission, and its sundering from socially defined human beings whose contingent vulnerability to forms of violence restrict them from full participation in the generation of knowledge (or worse, exclude their forms of embodied knowledge as not worthy of disciplinary recognition); so I can’t say I find much purchase in this model either.

The hunt continues: to find a language and a rhetoric for propounding a vision of the discipline that does not beat the drum of crisis, that does not endorse provocation or “free speech” at the expenses of humaneness, and that resists prioritizing the acts of reading and writing over the lived realities of embodied subjects. As I continuously evaluate my own positioning in Classics as a first-generation immigrant and person of color, the conviction that the self I bring into teaching and research spaces cannot and should not be sealed off from the self forged in the crucible of structural and racialized oppression is not static: it compels me, in the first instance to work with colleagues on diversifying the profession. But what often worries me about the rhetoric of diversity here at SCS, at my home institution, and at other professional settings is the inadequacy of its reach, the meagerness of its ambitions. What exactly do we propose to do by expanding access? Are we simply in the business of bringing fresh blood to the ghosts? I am not posing these questions in the churlish manner of that recent poster on Famae Volent who seemed incapable of thinking beyond one-dimensional constructs of diversity. I am posing these questions partly out of impatience with the pace of efforts in our field and other fields, partly out of an escalating sense of frustration that the commitment to diversity is not embraced and zealously pursued as a comprehensively transformative act that entails a change in the language and rhetoric we use towards each other. Properly realized, the pursuit of diversity will not be about bringing new folks to old stuff; it will not be a Get Out-style device for the dying to secure their immortality on the bodies of the structurally and racially immiserated; it will not solely or primarily be about “looking for our definition in the eyes of the other,” to borrow even more from the Gayatri Spivak lectures whose title I purloined for today’s remarks. What it will be is a revolution in human value.  

In 1992, Glenn Most concluded a TAPA provocation entitled “Professionalizing politics, politicizing the profession” on the following note: “There is much that needs to be changed in the Classics profession; but there is more that needs to be changed in America. It would be a pity if concentrating too much upon the former distracted us from the latter. Perhaps it would be more sensible—more politically sensible—to get on with our scholarly work as best we can (including trying, while we do, to ensure that the conditions within the profession will enable others to work at their best capacity too, for then in all likelihood so too will we), to lead our lives as best we can (including trying, while we do, to ensure that the conditions within our society will enable others to live at their fullest capacity too, for then in all likelihood so too will we)—and to hope that this time of crisis will soon pass.”[5]

This is a noble sentiment, echoed more recently by others both within the profession and beyond it. I do not agree with it. The counsel of waiting out the storm strikes me as not only unethical but unimaginative. It presumes that the crisis will pass and the fever will break, without recognizing that for many communities the specter of crisis never lifts. If we persist in the proposition that the practice of Classics requires a choice between scholarship and the tempests of public discourse—if we remain content with being programmed into thinking that Classics can and should be hived off from the great big world of racialized and socioeconomic inequality, of systemic exploitation, of the creep of authoritarianism—then the discipline is for all intents and purposes dead.

There is no shortage of initiatives through which those of us interested in public-facing scholarship can undertake that work, and do it well. I am thinking of Donna Zuckerberg and the editorial team at Eidolon, the WCC, the Classics and Social Justice Group, the prolific and extraordinarily wide-ranging writing of Sarah Bond and Kristina Killgrove, the output of my colleagues on this panel. All of their work has now brought Classics to its testing ground. If humanistic disciplines and their interpreters are actually capable of accommodating a multitude of subject positions, the challenge of that capaciousness comes in the encounter with the social and political demands of the here and now. In the course of this encounter, we will need to face up to the possibility that Classics will fail the test. Surely—and here I parrot the centurion who quoted Vergil to chastize Nero—it’s not such a miserable thing to die (Aen. 12.646: usque adeone mori miserum est?). It is well past time for this contemporary configuration of Classics to die, so that it might be born into a new life.


[1] E. Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling (Raleigh [2003]), p. 124.

[2] Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and tr. S. Corcoran (London 2010), p. 108.



[5] TAPA 1992: 384.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta's picture
Associate Professor of Classics
My core research and teaching focus is the Roman Republic and early Empire. Blending social-scientific techniques with literary and material evidence, Divine Institutions (in progress; PUP) argues that temple construction and pilgrimage networks held the “imperial Republic” together as it expanded across Italy and the Mediterranean. In a happy case of superfetation, several shorter projects are gestating together with the book: articles on the religious world of Rome’s slaves, divination’s play with local ecologies, and families with quirky names are all in various stages of preparation. Two pieces on Varro—for whom I have a particular fondness—will see the light of publication soon; and a co-edited volume of essays on Roman appropriation (Empire of Plunder: CUP) is approaching the finish line. The common thread is an enduring concern with patterns of cultural and intellectual exchange; an interest in new approaches that can better illuminate those patterns; and an ecumenical attitude to the many different kinds of ancient evidence available to us.

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