Book Chapter

Hyperinclusivity, Hypercanonicity, and the Future of the Field

by Constanze Güthenke, Brooke Holmes

What we offer here is a still preliminary and provisional sketch of some ways of conceptualizing the field beyond the parameters of hyperinclusivity and hypercanonicity.

In The Phenomenology of Spirit (published in 1807), Hegel declared the Antigone to be ‘among the fine creations of the ancient and modern world ... the most excellent and satisfying work of art’. Hegel’s judgement of Sophocles’ play is well known. Less familiar is the self-positioning that enabled him to pronounce judgement: ‘and I am acquainted with nearly everything in such a class, and one ought to know it and it is quite possible’.[1] Hegel is here sweepingly confident about his acquaintance with the class of ‘fine creations’ from both the ancient and the modern world. His confidence lies in canonicity, the canon indicating not only what is agreed upon in terms of quality but also what is containable in terms of quantity. Here, in short, the canon has, as its opposite, not marginality but overabundance. Hidden in Hegel’s own margins lurks an anxiety about the expectation of knowing more than can be achieved, of having to master an immense and growing range of materials, texts, and artefacts from which the ‘fine’ is to be distilled. The suppression of that anxiety enables the critic’s assessment.

The tension between expansion and limitation—and the anxiety it produces— were, and still are, constitutive of classics as a modern discipline, by which we mean an increasingly institutionalized and professionalized set of practices and forms of tacit knowledge that has been taking shape since the late eighteenth century. In this chapter we offer a critical examination of the discipline’s long-standing investments in inclusiveness and strategies of delimitation, as they have shaped and continue to shape the formation and self-understanding of its practitioners. These investments have come under increasing strain with the ongoing broadening of the field. The rise of reception studies, the welcome broadening of the geographical scope of the ancient Greco- Roman world, and the interest in authors, works, genres, and areas of knowledge that fall outside the traditional parameters of the canon all contribute to a situation where the prospect of ‘full coverage’ of classical antiquity and its afterlife is more remote than ever. The time-honoured strategy of navigating such a mass of material, at least within classical philology, has been the canon. The recent pressures on the canon from the margins, whereby formerly excluded material finds its way inside, have, however, exposed some of the limitations of such a strategy.

Our aim here is therefore to suggest another model of imagining the work of the individual classicist, as well as the common ground of the community of classicists. In challenging the commitment to mastering a single, predetermined body of material that tacitly functions as a metonym for the whole of antiquity or as the distillation of its essence, we are not rejecting the value of expertise and its claims on those practising both within and between disciplines. We are arguing instead for forms of expertise that are at once local and translocal and, thus, place individual scholars at nodal points within a vast and open field, a field whose boundaries can never be set in advance.[2] In short, we are advocating for a rethinking of the very idea of the ’field’ of classical scholarship and of the self-understanding of those who move within it.

We begin with a few more thoughts on the canon-versus-margins model. We then turn to consider (a) the historical roots of the concern with mastering antiquity and (b) the spectrum of such concern between the poles of hyperinclusivity and hypercanonicity, drawing analogies with current debates over the category of ‘world literature’.[3] In the last section we sketch out the alternative model of a ‘nodal’ classics.

The terms of this volume set the canon in opposition to the margin (albeit complicating the opposition with the wild card ‘passion’). The opposition casts the canon in the familiar language of exclusivity and quality. The canon is the main body of text, the text that occupies the centre of the page, turning all else into marginalia, supplementary and subordinate parts. By valorizing the margins, we can upend this familiar hierarchy. One strategy here is to disturb the walls of the canon, allowing once excluded texts to enter the hallowed ground of canonicity. A more radical route undercuts the argument from quality altogether, setting in play a drama of challenge and displacement: the margins rise up and overwhelm the urtext so as to instill a new regime of value or judgement.

If the language of revolution comes easily to mind in this context, it is in part because the canon has long been seen as an instrument of conservative politics, worldly and academic alike. The canon’s traditional affiliations have turned the erstwhile margins into staging grounds for projects self-consciously fashioned as progressive or subversive. One can point to Page duBois’ recent call, in Out of Athens, for classics to embrace ‘a politics of globalization’ as exemplary in its pairing of ’a resistance to conventional or hegemonic ideas’ with the embrace of a ‘global’ Mediterranean—messy, diasporic, multiethnic—and with a correspondingly heterogeneous body of texts and artefacts.[4] One could point, too, to the relatively recent revalorization of postclassical engagements with texts and authors already taken to be canonical in antiquity. The trend is seen especially clearly in the investment of scholarly attention in the Second Sophistic, where marginality can be construed both as a parasitic relationship with ‘classic’ and classical texts and as the secondary status of a belated tradition. Here the line between critique of the canon and confirmation of its power shows itself to be especially fine. Tim Whitmarsh has offered a powerful critique of the ways in which representations of the Second Sophistic perpetuate nineteenth-century attachments to a romanticized Hellenocentrism and to anachronistic nationalisms; he argues instead for an approach to Greek literature, especially later Greek literature, as a ‘plural cultural system’.[5] Whitmarsh is in effect recuperating the margins of the once marginal Second Sophistic—what gets left out in narratives about the continuities of Hellenism and elite literary production—in the service of unseating the tyranny that the canon, with its attendant notions of value and ‘the classical’, has exercised over the heroic rescue of postclassical Greek literature from the confines of the margins.[6]

The recent conflation of the canon with a conservative, backward-looking agenda has not gone uncontested. The rise of reception studies has put front and centre the question of why some works from antiquity namely those that later generations saw fit to copy and recopy have the power to transcend the immediate historical circumstances of their production—in other words, the question of transhistorical value. Charles Martindale, reviewing duBois’ book, vigorously disputes, with an eye to Milton’s ‘revolutionary art’, that a traditional classics is ‘inherently conservative’;[7] the canon, similarly, need not be read as ‘undeniably coercive’ (here Martindale points to the persistent allure of a handful of texts for postmodern theory).[8] In rejecting the globalized vision of Out of Athens, Martindale sees the canon as sustaining a conversation across centuries. While such a vision of the canon has been voiced by others,[9] he goes further, by locating its power to sustain conversation in the transhistorical value it represents and by predicating the future survival of classics as a field on the commitment of its practitioners to the ‘special value of their objects of study’.[10] The call for classicists to be (re)enchanted by the canon has been sounded elsewhere as well. Christopher Wood, speaking as an art historian and comparatist from outside the disciplinary parameters of classics, rejects the dilution of literariness within the unbounded textuality of cultural studies. But Wood also rejects Martindale’s appeal to timeless value as the appropriate protective armour of the classical canon, in order to advocate instead a revalorization of classical authors on the grounds of their proximity to the gods, their compelling uncertainty about the fictionality of their referents, the ultimate purity of their poetry.[11] Not aesthetic value, but something like magical power becomes the hallmark of the classical. Yet, despite Wood’s self-conscious distance from Martindale, their visions of the field’s future hold much in common.

These defences of the canon can easily, and probably unintentionally, run the risk of looking conservative and reactionary, motivated by anxieties about the field’s precipitous loss of prestige and by a palpable impatience with historicizing and politicizing critiques of the canon and its exclusions. Despite the appeals of beauty and mystification, such defences are nevertheless limited by the old boundaries they shore up (the ‘greats’ versus the epigones, the literary versus the paraliterary and the nonliterary, poetry versus prose, centre versus margins). But the very idea of limits brings us back to the problem with which we began: the spectre of an unbounded, unruly expanse in the absence of constraints on what counts as worthy of the classicist’s attention, and hence on what is constitutive of her claim to expertise. At stake here are concerns about competence and rigour. The notion of the canon as the ground of a transhistorical conversation suggests further worries that, in its absence, we lose contact with the past. No doubt there is a fear, too, that, set adrift, we will lose contact with one another.

From this perspective, the process by which claims from the margins have eroded the canon’s parameters, however welcome, is troubling to the extent that it undermines the canon’s limiting function. The strain on that function is less evident in cases where the aim is to move marginal texts and authors into the canon (e.g. (neglected) text x was important in antiquity, or text y counters the elite male perspective, therefore we should make x and y a priority). The process feels especially manageable when it works on a principle of substitution (take text x off the reading list and replace it with text y). The strategy of proposing new canons (e.g. in reception studies) also downplays the fundamental expansion of the field of competence at work. But when the call is to trade canons of value for the whole of the ancient literary production—or, more dangerously, for the extant remains of all antiquity—the ground suddenly begins to feel most unstable. The boundaries seem to disappear altogether and the rubric of canons versus margins loses its force. What happens to competence and community within such an open field? In order to pursue the more radical implications of calls to open ourselves up to a more heterogeneous, pluralistic, unfamiliar, and perhaps unexpectedly generative ancient world, we need to think more about the implications of removing the canon as the limit for our understanding of what it means to work as a classicist.

It is important to stress here that the question on the table is not simply about the expansion of classics as a field. The push towards interdisciplinarity has renewed enthusiasm for an expansive ‘ancient studies’ model at the level of institutions (departments, programmes, societies). That is to say, ‘interdisciplinarity’ has gained currency as a property of communities. But there is no immediately obvious corresponding model for the individual. In current discussions of the future of the field, collaboration, sometimes with explicit references to the sciences, is often put forward as a strategy for combating our ever more limited grasp on what is deemed important to know. The collaborative project has indeed played a significant role in the synthesis of knowledge about the ancient world. It holds a venerable place in the history of the discipline’s nineteenth-century professionalization, though usually with a view to exhaustiveness and the accumulation of labour (we might think of the encyclopaedic ‘corpora’ projects of the nineteenth century, or of the arrival of grand-scale archaeological excavation). But its potential at the more local level of interpretation remains largely unexplored. This more local collaboration holds much promise. Nevertheless, collaboration alone is a limited model for imagining a truly open field, insofar as it can be understood simply as the conjoining of two specializations. What would it mean to imagine each of the partners as an interpretive community unto herself, at once multiple and engaged in forms of synthesis that are contingent, nimble, and creative? It is only by rethinking the very idea of the individual scholar, we want to argue, that we can unleash the full potential of larger interpretive communities.

Here the language of canonicity slides into the language of disciplinarity— unsurprisingly if we think that what disciplines do is, essentially, draw boundaries and create meaning through delimitation. Such meaning is generated not only by the subject matter itself, but also by those who constitute the discipline, by the scholarly community. In James Redfield’s words, apropos of his reflections on the differences and similarities between classicists and anthropologists, ‘[a] discipline may therefore be defined as a group of people who sustain one another by certifying each other’s work as competent and important... A discipline, then, is not defined by its subject matter ... but by the characteristic interests of its practitioners.’[12] If canonicity and disciplinarity stand in a relationship of analogy, small wonder that there is such tight correspondence between the literary canon and the scholarly canon, the value of scholarship being measured by its relation to the centrality of texts and the recognition of each other’s work and the validation of expertise relying in turn on those canons (as was brought up for consideration in the introduction to this volume).

Does this in turn, then, make discipline itself a byword for rigidity? For an exclusivity that at best enables communication and the collective sharpening of techniques to engage our ancient sources more critically and more productively? There may be better ways—especially for classicists, given the mutually reinforcing power of the canon and ‘the classical’—of thinking about disciplines that uncouple them from canons of texts without necessarily dispensing with the idea of canons altogether. David Wellbery has argued that disciplines, while they get punched about and need to adapt, usually retain shape, more so than we fear and for better and less threatening reasons than we might want to give them credit for.[13] Wellbery approaches the shape-shifting and continuing presence of disciplines with the help of systems theory (as it had been applied to science and institutionalized knowledge by the theoretical sociologist Niklas Luhmann), which itself emphasizes communication as the basic parameter that necessitates and enables disciplinarity. To maintain communication, disciplines are equally obliged to evolve by necessity, to absorb changes, and to reduce complexity while avoiding banality. In other words, disciplines are balancing acts, animated by a dynamic that moves between tradition and contingency. By going along this route, Wellbery manages to establish a counterpoint to a Foucauldian evocation of discipline as malevolent order and the corollary of romanticizing the transgressive and the marginal. On his analysis, disciplinarity becomes one way of maintaining functioning lines of communication in a world where, as we face a proliferation of what there is to know, we also face choices, both individual and collective, about what should be known. We inevitably make choices about what we don’t need to know and what we need not to know, in Jose Medina’s incisive formulation of epistemic injustice.[14]

What does this mean for classics? Perhaps most importantly the ways in which the canon has helped to shape the parameters of the discipline, at least within classical philology in the Anglo-American world, have limited the field’s adaptability in responding to knowledge proliferation. Part of the issue here arguably has to do with deeply entrenched concerns about competence. It is true that, for any discipline, finding the right balance between common knowledge and specialization raises problems about how to define expertise (and the corresponding problem of how to train students). All the disciplines, too, have to deal with the challenge of ‘information overload’, which, as Ann Blair has shown, has been a familiar problem for scholars since at least the early modern period, awash in a new flood of printed books.[15] But perhaps the history of modern classics, more than of any other discipline, is a history of anxiety over competence. Friedrich August Wolf, in his otherwise confident ‘Darstellung der Alterthums-Wissenschaft’ (Wolf 1869), points out that, quite aside from the potentially wide, though ancillary, knowledge of other ancient and modern languages, even the proper territory of Altertumswissenschaft ‘has already become impossible to traverse in every direction even for the most diligent and optimistic’.[16] The philological scholar, he concedes, will have to negotiate constantly between ‘drawing modest boundaries’ and being able to engage extraneous materials fully when they present themselves, even if he has reduced the scope considerably.[17] Anthony Grafton has commented on the changeable balance between the antiquarian, compendious polyhistor of the early modern period, and the philologus of the shrinking world of professionalizing scholarship as in fact two ends of a spectrum.[18] Wolf, likewise, seems to suggest that the task of the modem scholar is to be the philologist who knows enough about polyhistory to control it with his new found skills, when needed.

In the ‘Darstellung’, Wolf introduces a whole range of strategies for coping with the vast expanses of Altertumswissenschaft. Although Wolf exudes a confidence not that dissimilar from Hegel’s, he at the same time also shows how much work has to be expended on shoring up the boundaries of disciplined knowledge. He estimates, for example, the current number of available and known classical texts in the range of 1,600 texts, adding in a footnote that he has deliberately excluded all Christian postclassical writing and conceding that the number is bound to increase.[19] He acknowledges that the ancient world reaches well beyond Greece and Rome. But by introducing a distinction between Zivilisation and Geisteskultur, he pre-empts the question of how broadly to conceive of antiquity by claiming that, while oriental civilizations may have existed earlier, true ‘spiritual culture’ only began with the Greeks.[20] More practically, he builds his case on the fact that we have simply more and better sources for the classical world, in number and in their ability to trace the rise and fall of such complete intellectual cultures.

Wolf was and is not alone in his quandary. Sheldon Pollock has described the constitutive paradox of philology, or the ‘discipline of making sense of texts’, as the tension between the poles of hyperinclusiveness and hypercanonicity, of maximal extension and maximal specialization.[21] In the case of classics, this is the opposition between a tendency to open up towards all of the ancient world, with widely conceived temporal and spatial boundaries, and a tendency to focus on the ‘classical’ and canonical. Wolf himself is already concerned about a form of overspecialization within classical scholarship that loses sight of the larger picture. By suggesting his notion of Altertumswissenchaft as a comprehensive science that treats Greek and Roman antiquity as a whole, as a totality whose development and character can be studied on the basis of textual (and, to an extent, non-textual) sources, he raises Greco-Roman antiquity to canonical status, ostensibly creating a middle ground where maximal specialization and maximal inclusiveness are meant to coexist in the same exclusive field. However, once the object of a science of antiquity is imagined as a totality, an organic whole the unity of which is itself the outcome of applying scholarly method, the pronounced anxiety over competence, and the identity or conflation of canon and method, may not be so surprising.

As we have suggested, this oscillation between the poles of a centrifugal hyperinclusiveness and a centripetal hypercanonicity is not exclusive to classics, though the projection of a Greco-Roman unity, reinforced through reference to the quantity and quality of its material sources, has done a particularly efficient job at keeping that balance stable for the most part. In other words, a certain exceptionalist attitude towards the ancient Greek and Roman world and its paradigmatic status has helped greatly to make that oscillation manageable. Perhaps contributing further to the persistence of these ideals is the longstanding force exercised by the fragment or the ruin on the imagination of classical scholars. The acute awareness of how much of classical antiquity has been lost to us conditions an understanding of one’s own work as the labour of mending the whole, restoring the original, filling the lacunae, and so on. It is as if the individual scholar is not simply re-creating the integrity of the whole, but instantiating that whole through the thoroughness of her training and the resulting compass of her expertise. The scholar not only guards the tradition but embodies its cohesion.

Before addressing the tension between limitations and openness in the work of the classicist head on, it is worth taking a brief sideways look at the current discussion over the status and the potential of world literature.[22] World literature, of course, is an ambiguous term. Does it denote an unmanageably large field of inquiry or a canon of works singled out for their value, excellence, or paradigmatic status? Like comparative literature, the discipline in which the notion of world literature is and has been most vigorously discussed, we are back with the polarity between hyperinclusivity and hypercanonicity. In a subtle piece on the origins sought by contemporary inquiries into world literature in J. W. Goethe’s references to ‘world literature’, Stefan Hoesel-Uhlig has carefully examined Goethe’s phrasings and their context and argues that, for Goethe, world literature is not about the range of actual works that one can read, but rather about a new cognitive stance in response to change: in Goethe’s case, the upheavals of revolutions and wars across Europe, as well as the personal experience of having his work read and reviewed across national boundaries. World literature is thus, Hoesel-Uhlig argues, about ‘envisioning transnational circuits of intellectual advance’, a new way of being conscious of knowledge passing across borders and cultures rather than an object-directed account of a new field.[23] What would this mean for classics? What would it mean to ‘include the philologist’s own meaning as an object of philology’?[24]

Lest this project sound impossibly daunting or hopeless, let us consider more bluntly the alternatives. The first is to cast the figure of the classicist as the one who knows all there is to know about classical antiquity and its later reception. If hyperinclusivity still exercises a hold on classics, it is in part because the very designation of antiquity as classical assumes that the wheat has already been separated from the chaff, leaving the two great civilizations of Greece and Rome to be comprehended in their integrity. There is, too, the fact that, against the vastness of modern archives, the material remains from antiquity look deceptively manageable. Nevertheless, comprehensive expertise is clearly impossible. The idea that the individual scholar could gain mastery over the whole of antiquity was, as we have seen, already a fiction at the dawn of Altertumswissenschaft. After centuries of professional specialization and the energetic proliferation of knowledge about the ancient world, the gap between fiction and reality has only grown. The bid for hyperinclusivity simply is not a viable model. If it appears to be viable, it is only because of a tacit edit performed in advance by the logic of ‘the classical’—a kind of stealth canonicity.

The second strategy which we have already seen, uses the canon to delimit what one is ‘supposed to know’. The canon’s instrumental value for this end is especially evident in the United States in graduate reading lists and surveys, which set out, at least within individual universities, a body of texts to be mastered as a condition of the advanced degree (at least where the degree is usually focused on philology or on languages and literatures). The tight relationship between the canon and the ‘school text’ persists here through a model of hypercanonicity. The canon has its benefits, and it undoubtedly continues a tradition of delimitation and value judgement that dates from at least the fifth century BC.[25] But recent critiques of the canon have also shown its serious costs: it excludes too much; it produces idealized and sometimes distorting pictures of classical antiquity. The canon undeniably enables conversations. It has done so among elite and learned communities for centuries; it continues to do so, albeit within an ever-shrinking population of elites that nevertheless shows tentative signs of increasing diversity; and it facilitates transhistorical communities, as we saw above. But the canon also constrains conversations. This is particularly true within literary classics, where the canon’s very promise of shared expertise creates anxieties about engaging with work outside the common zone of competence. Finally, a strong attachment to the canon always risks mistaking the content of what must be known for an end in itself. It can keep us from seeing the ways in which knowing is always active and creative. For we are always, to a critical extent, constructing what is known rather than simply plugging gaps or moving across a terrain whose limits are known in advance.

The problem with models of hyperinclusivity and hypercanonicity is not just that they aren’t viable (in the case of hyperinclusivity) or that they come at high cost (in the case of hypercanonicity). The problem is that they do not reflect how classics is in many quarters being practised in response to, among other things, ongoing interdisciplinary trends in the humanities, crossover with the social sciences, a growing zone of contact between the humanities and the sciences, or the perennial search for fresh topics. The model of an interdisciplinary ‘ancient studies’ is, in part, a product of these trends. But these scholarly orientations and practices have not been translated into a discussion about what we are doing, individually, qua classicists. In trying to understand our own claims to expertise and to reproduce them in new generations of students, we still rely heavily, whether implicitly or explicitly, on the poles of hyperinclusivity and hypercanonicity, which have, after all, deep historical roots in the discipline’s formation. What is needed, rather, is a more self-conscious attempt to conceptualize the practice of our discipline other than as an aspiration to master an imagined whole or unity. We need to disentangle the cherished ideal of rigour from an investment in totalizing forms of mastery. Disaggregation is possible, and contingency and change need not compromise the possibility of meaning, either at the level of the field or at that of the individual scholar.

A first step here is to rethink the collective commitment to a delimited body of texts or artefacts seen as classical or canonical as the proper ground of the field of classics; which is another way of saying that we need to confront our fears about the loss of disciplinary unity (and the violence that this loss may be imagined to do to the integrity of antiquity). In its place, we can imagine the very idea of a field differently, as an open plane lacking in clear boundaries. The canon in its ideal state is like the well-constructed plot in Aristotle’s Poetics, which, like a living organism, is not only ordered properly but also of such a magnitude that it can be compassed by a single field of vision and thereby appreciated in its unity (the repudiated alternative is the animal a thousand miles long).[26] By contrast, the open field looks more like how the Romantic philosopher-poet-philologist Friedrich Schlegel imagined Homeric epic, one of the most canonical and debated elements of classical knowledge in his time (or now, for that matter). The epic poem, for Schlegel, is

a growth like a poetic polyp, where every limb, whether large or small (which can be separated from the grown whole without maiming and without dissolution into simple and no longer poetic or epic parts), has its own life and just as much harmony as the whole.[27]

Not the appropriately proportioned animal of Aristotle’s Poetics, then, but the coral reef (incidentally, an organism that, in its own right, can suffer aggregate damage, too).

Such a vision of disaggregation also implies that rigour does not need to depend on exhaustiveness and that the standards of our scholarship need not be conflated with the status of the works and materials we study as canonical. As Schlegel’s fascination with the creaturely world of the shape-shifting and shape- dividing polyps shows, wholeness and openness can be imagined together and in different ways. The relationship of parts and wholes and parts as wholes, too, is changeable and situational. Likewise, responsible and lively scholarly communities should not have to equate their own cohesion with that of the materials they study.

Of course, even in Schlegel’s polyp-like epic, the idea persists of an innate harmony in the object, to be recognized and appreciated by the viewer. But shifting to an idea of the open field requires the further step of foregoing the bird’s eye perspective entirely. We might imagine instead the idea of a field within which individuals—but also collaborators and groups—stand as nodes, connecting up texts, genres, artefacts, authors, cultural milieux, intellectual traditions, historical periods, and so on. That is, rather than imagine the individual as encompassing a body of material, either within a field of vision or by means of her own self as the frame by which the fragments are restored to wholeness, we could imagine her as situated within a potential web of connections.[28] The creative work of scholarship here lies in bringing different points within the web into productive contact. The model of a nodal classics embraces the idea of scholarly knowledge as tactical, contingent, and fluid at any given point in time or place. It sees scholars as actively constituting objects of study rather than finding them within a well-ordered system of self-constituting wholes.

None of this is to say we should abandon the idea of competence altogether, be it with regard to a range of texts, histories, artefacts, or methods. Rather, we need to re-examine what we mean by competence or rigour. Instead of imagining forms of mastery we might instead think of practices (e.g. philological, epigraphic, philosophical) that we hone mindfully with the aim of appreciating distant texts or foreign concepts in their dense specificity. Such knowing goes hand in hand with reflecting critically on our self-knowledge as scholars, exercising a kind of negative capability, an ability to sustain uncertainty. This involves an ability to know and to accommodate, even appreciate canons (plural) in their functionality, yet to be sensitive to their evolutions, to their provisional and relative character. By exercising our awareness of the contingencies and tactical changes of both a canon and our own situation as points within a dynamic web of relationships, might we not  be able to steer a course between the vilification of the canon and its potential remystification, in our own practice and in our learning?

Here we could imagine the classicist simply as one who is trained to make sense of certain kinds of evidence available from the ancient Mediterranean (where both ‘ancient’ and ‘Mediterranean’ are terms open to negotiation), and evidence about the ancient Mediterranean with the recognition that there are no absolute boundaries, only lines that we draw on the basis of what we hope are persuasive arguments about the nature of the stories we are telling about the past. The idea of training here does not prescribe in advance the nature of that training but emphasizes instead the acquisition of skills that enable the classicist to step outside the assumptions, categories, and beliefs of her own culture and upbringing in order to become receptive to the otherness of the ancient world, as well as to view critically the routes by which ancient texts, artefacts, and ideas have come to shape how later readers, viewers, and thinkers thought of themselves and of the worlds around them—and indeed how we imagine ourselves and our worlds.[29] These skills include traditional skills, such as language training (not only in Greek and Latin or the modern European languages but also in Arabic or Hebrew or Classical Chinese or Syriac), stylistic analysis, epigraphy, and palaeography; but they also include methods of interpretation (literary, philosophical, historiographical, and so on). Rather than see these skills strictly as instrumental goods, tools that help us to access truths about the past, we can see them instead as forms of constraint that enrich our engagement with the ancient material by decentring us in relation to our familiar, habitual selves. Disciplinarity and creativity are not in opposition here, but work together.

But just as important as skill acquisition is a greater self-consciousness about the histories of these methods, a sense of where our disciplinary categories come from, the major debates that have prescribed familiar paths, the abiding visions of classical antiquity that have informed its study over the centuries. The point here is not to paralyse ourselves as interpreters by historicizing every practice of interpretation in such a way that it comes to have meaning only in relation to its context, and not in dynamic engagement with the object of interpretation. It is rather to be self-conscious about what it means and has meant to seek to know an antiquity defined as classical, the ways in which that search has been caught up in the values of the cultures within which it flourished and in the values at stake in its perpetuation today, in cultures that are less certain of the allegedly intrinsic value of classical antiquity.[30] After all, the myth of the intrinsic value of antiquity flourishes only in the absence of an examination—and indeed ownership—of our own investments in the past.

Just as important as the idea of training is the designation of the ancient Mediterranean as a significant part of the open field. What this does not require is a perfect alignment of the parameters of the field of classics with the parameters of the ancient Mediterranean. The point of an open field is precisely that the classicist may function as a connector between an ancient text—say, a Sophoclean tragedy—and a point far removed in space and time—say South Africa under Apartheid; or, say between the Hippocratic medical writers and premodern medical texts from ancient China or India. These kinds of projects will require different forms of training from ones that traverse more limited historical periods or geographical spaces or generic traditions, and they open onto different kinds of scholarly communities from those constituted by traditional disciplines. Yet, even for projects located within apparently narrower confines, the researcher continues to function as a node, making decisions about what kinds of methodological sources to bring to bear on ancient material, and thus what kinds of comparanda are relevant (for someone working, say, on Lucretius, do you read the fragments of Empedocles or Virgil or Epicurus or Henri Bergson or Richard Dawkins? Even if you read all of them, they will not all matter to the story you tell in the same way). The only common denominator here is a practice of specialization in some area(s) of the ancient Mediterranean.

The emphasis on choice brings us to the last part of the definition offered here: the classicist is tasked with making sense of evidence from the ancient Mediterranean. We want to emphasize the active nature of this work. The aim is not so much to reconstitute, reconstruct, or resurrect the past from ruins and fragments—all practices that presuppose a whole to be restored—but rather to create through strategies of drawing connections. The classicist here is the necessary node without which meaning does not exist: the classicist, as it were, completes the circuit. The completed circuit creates a meaning that is proper both to the individual and to the field.

What we are suggesting, in short, is the need to develop new ways of imagining the work of the discipline, ways that channel and celebrate its increasingly centrifugal tendencies, rather than continuing to use models of the field that can only figure these tendencies as threats to containment and so seek either to recuperate them into a canon or to marginalize them. Even those of us who have advocated a retreat from the canon more generally need to recognize that the wild proliferation of knowledge that has a reasonable claim to being considered the province of classicists (e.g. through reception studies, or through the rise of comparative antiquities) requires new ways of thinking about our practices, new strategies of self-definition, and new approaches to scholarly formation and training. What we offer here is a still preliminary and provisional sketch of some ways of conceptualizing the field beyond the parameters of hyperinclusivity and hypercanonicity.


[1] As quoted and translated in Leonard 2012: 95.

[2] In this movement between the local and the translocal, Emily Greenwood’s (2016) concept of the ‘omni-local’ (43–4) is particularly relevant.

[3] We adopt the two terms ‘hypercanonicity’ and ‘hyperinclusivity’ from Pollock, Elman, and Chang 2015.

[4] DuBois 2010: 5, 3.

[5] Whitmarsh 2013: 2.

[6] Ibid., 3–4 Alexander Romance

[7] Martindale 2010: 139.

[8] Ibid. 141.

[9] See e.g. Berman 2001: 327: ‘canonicity maintains, cultivates, and develops community over time and across generations’.

[10] Martindale 2010: 139.

[11] Wood 2012: 169–70.

[12] Redfield 1991: 8–9.

[13] Wellbery 2009.

[14] Medina 2013, cited in Rizvi 2015: 158.

[15] Blair 2010.

[16] Wolf 1869: 835. For a more complete historical treatment of those constitutive tensions within classical philology, see Güthenke 2015b.

[17] Wolf 1869: 835–6.

[18] Grafton 1983.

[19] Wolf 1869: 823–4.

[20] On the narrowing down and the exclusion of oriental (and Jewish) cultures, see Grafton 1999. Harloe 2013: 197-8 suggests that this limitation was not introduced in 1807 but was already visible in earlier comments.

[21] Pollock 2009: 934; Pollock, Elman, and Chang 2015.

[22] E.g. Damrosch 2003; Apter 2013; Dimock 2006; Prendergast 2004.

[23] Hoesel-Uhlig 2004: 39.

[24] Pollock 2009: 956.

[25] See Netz in this volume.

[26] Aristotle, Poetics 7, 1450b34–6 (see also 23, 1459a17–21).

[27] From his early essay ‘On Homeric Poetry, with Reference to Wolf’s Studies’ (published in 1796), as quoted and translated in Güthenke 2015a: 313.

[28] Donna Haraway’s work on ‘situated knowledges’ and the allure of the ‘god trick’ remains useful in this context. Haraway argues, in short, that there is no ‘view from nowhere’: a history of science needs to take seriously the idea that the practice of knowing, from epistemology to authorization to methodology, is informed by the embodied, politically located, and perspectival nature of the producers and regulators of knowledge. See Haraway 1988.

[29] These two points of focus—otherness and continuity—are often set in opposition to each other: see esp. Holmes 2012: 104–10, on debates within the history of sexuality and on the risks of polarizing these two modes of analysis.

[30] For a recent exploration of such forms of engagement across the longue duree of classical engagement, see the programmatic introduction and the contributions in Butler 2016.


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The Classics Which Is (Not) Ours

Emily Greenwood, Boris Shoshitaishvili
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