Grapic by Michelle Jia; photo by Stefan

Book Chapter

Questioning the Democratic, and Democratic Questioning

by Katherine Harloe

 A 'democratic turn' in classical reception studies would then mean a whole-hearted commitment to cultivating and participating in such spaces.

In 2008, in the introduction to a collection aimed at 'suggesting ways in which work in the field might develop in future', Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray identified 'the scope of the so-called "democratic turn" in classical reception analysis' as 'an embryonic debate that seems likely to gather momentum' (2008: 3). They provided a broad and suggestive list of 'historical' topics that might fall under this theme: debates over the senses of priority associated with ancient and modern art and literature, the extension of educational opportunity to previously excluded groups, the study of classical receptions among broad publics and in 'popular culture', and the exploration of the relation of ancient texts and performances to ancient and/or modern democratic political contexts.

The contributions to this volume bear out Hardwick and Stray's prediction, while extending the range of topics even further. Yet a leitmotif at all stages of the collaborative research that underlies it, including the e-seminar debates which preceded the main conference, was a set of concerns about how far it is appropriate for classical reception researchers to adopt the term 'democratic' as a term of self-description, the difficulties of elucidating its meaning, and the dangers of 'alluring but false' associations.[1] These seem apposite for several reasons, the first of which is pithily conveyed by the characteristically acerbic opening of John Dunn's Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future:

We are all democrats today. Mr Major and Deng Hsiao-Ping, Mr Gorbachev and President Yeltsin, Mr Mandela and even President de Klerk.  (1993a: 1)

The proper names serve to date Dunn's 'today' rather precisely to the early 1990s. But these sentences come from the second edition. The original opening read as follows:

We are all democrats today. Mr Callaghan and Madam Mao, Mr Brezhnev and President Amin, Mr Trudeau and even Mr Vorster. (1979: 1)

Dunn required only minimal changes to update his statements to the post-Cold War era. And this underlines one of his main points: that over the past two centuries, against all historical expectation, the word 'democracy' has become an extremely widespread—indeed, almost universal—term of approbation, which has been adopted by a wide variety of actors to claim legitimacy for different political projects. For Dunn, this means not only that whatever specific meaning the term 'democracy' carried in its original Greek context has changed significantly. It also suggests that no determinate meaning may now attach to the word:

At this level democracy is a highly desirable label for which the exceedingly heterogeneous class of modern states show a strong predilection when they come to describe themselves in public. It would be naive to think of it as giving a very helpful descriptive resume of any particular factual situation...Democracy, then, may once have been the name of a particular form of regime, a very particular form indeed. But now it is the name for the good intentions of states or perhaps for the good intentions which their rulers would like us to believe that they possess.
(Dunn 1993a: 12-13)

Broadly similar considerations apply to liberalism, that other near-ubiquitous term within modern Western political cultures.[2] The political theorist Jeremy Waldron has called liberalism:

a remarkably successful political ideology, inasmuch as its leading principles—freedom, toleration and equality before the law—have been accepted as part of the self-image or public relations of the world's most powerful and prosperous societies. Its proponents are uneasy, however, with the common inference that the social, economic and political reality of these societies is what liberal principles amount to in practice (just as Marxists were uneasy about the presentation of the Soviet Union and its satellites as 'actually existing socialism'). They insist, quite properly, that liberalism is a set of critical principles, not an ideology or rationalization. (1998)

A self-professed liberal, Waldron is committed to the possibility of the outlining of a set of distinctively 'liberal' values and beliefs; he nevertheless concedes (p. 5) that any attempt to survey the positions termed 'liberal' by historical actors would generate a series of Wittgensteinian family resemblances, 'a complicated network of similarities...overlapping and criss-crossing', rather than 'any single cluster of theoretical or practical propositions that might be regarded as the core or the essence of the ideology in question' (1987: 127, quoting Wittgenstein 1968: 32e). If some would characterize Waldron's 'liberal' principles—freedom, toleration, equality before the law—as 'democratic', this only indicates how thoroughly two originally separate and sometimes opposing political ideas have become combined (some might say, confused) in mainstream political discourse.[3]

In the light of these issues it seems prudent for students of classical receptions to regard the term 'democratic' with caution. At first consideration, its broad reference may make it attractive as a term to characterize the diversity of interesting research presently carried on in the field. From another perspective, though, this is why reception researchers should be wary of the term. Is it a fitting label to denote a plurality of related foci in contemporary reception studies? Or would using it simply replicate the situation identified by Dunn, where a diversity of agents, engaged in a heterogeneous set of projects, find it desirable to lay claim to the label 'democratic' even though they mean very different things by it and may be unable to articulate precisely what they do mean?

In addition to their candidate list of historical topics related to the 'democratic turn', Hardwick and Stray also identified a 'philosophical' issue: how any such turn might relate to the fundamental turn to reader or audience propounded in the reception aesthetics of Jauss and Iser and emphasized in Martindale's (1993, 2006) influential recasting of their theories for classics. Do reception theory's 'democratic' credentials consist in its granting the reader a fundamental (some might say, sovereign) role in determining the meaning of a classical text? Yet:

if readers and audiences do indeed have a role in the 'construction of meaning at the point of reception' there are further questions to be asked about the relative importance of immediate response based on experience as against deferred and reflective response. It is also necessary to consider the relative status of the multiple meanings represented by the responses of unconnected individuals and the more consensual judgements arrived at among groups of different kinds (including the classically educated or 'reception-orientated' students or (p.6) general readers or spectators; a 'reception-friendly' doctrine of the expert may yet see a revival). (Hardwick and Stray 2008: 3-4)

The role of 'expert' judgement within a democratized notion of classics is a question reception studies has yet to debate fully, and is to my mind more pressing than concerns about the dangers of 'trivializing' if 'popular classics' courts the 'banal or the quotidian' (Martindale 2006: ll).[4] But my main concern about whether 'democratic' is a helpful label for reception research stems from the thought that, like 'liberalism', 'democracy' belongs to that most treacherous class of political concepts: those that slide effortlessly between designating a political ideal or aspiration and describing existent institutions. Dunn's roll-call of leaders who have sought to classify their rule as 'democratic' reminds us that purportedly descriptive uses of the term may carry an implicit, yet powerful, legitimizing force. In reception studies as in politics, we should be wary of using such ideologically freighted terms as if they describe the reality of our practices.

1. Democracy between Ideology and Aspiration

There is of course a sense in which it is unobjectionable to use 'democracy' and its cognates to describe existing states of affairs. It is clearly correct, in some sense, to characterize fifth-century Athens as democratic despite its exclusion, in norm as well as in fact, of most of its population from a share in political power. There is likewise a sense in which it is right to call twenty-first century Britain a democracy despite its surveillance culture, disrespect for the human rights of certain minorities, and (in the eyes of some of its citizens) wildly unrepresentative political system.[5] This disenchanted use of the term 'democratic' is a far cry from the strongly positive connotations that can surround the term when used by politicians. Then it seems to connote the claim that a particular set of political arrangements embodies some ideal state of affairs, or at least comes sufficiently close to embodying it, that those arrangements count as legitimate.

Pride comes before a fall, and when such audacious claims run headlong into historical realities they may trigger a salutary disorientation. A good (p.7) example was the United Kingdom 2010 general election result, when the failure of any single party to secure an overall majority resulted in the formation of a two-party coalition government bound by an agreement that differed markedly from the platform set out in either party's manifesto. Was this a 'democratic' outcome? It happened in accordance with a set of electoral procedures that were subsequently endorsed by a clear majority of those citizens who bothered to vote in a referendum on the issue.[6] Perhaps all this means is that democracy in practice isn't as brilliant and clear, doesn't have quite the diamond-standard degree of 'cosmopolitan charm' (Dunn 1993a: 2) many voters had assumed.

The key point, however, is that the bivalent (so to speak) character of the word 'democracy' may also have the opposite effect. Because of its legitimizing force, using it may direct our attention away from those features of existing arrangements that fall short of these ideals. The short answer to why using the term 'democratic' to describe present practices is problematic is that it may encourage an unreflective and myopic form of self-congratulation.[7] 'We are all democrats today', understood as expressing a state of affairs, may simply encourage complacency.

For such an attitude to develop within reception studies would be less poisonous than a similar vice among our politicians. It is nevertheless worth being on our guard. This worry lies behind my doubts about using the term 'democratic' to describe the comparative or historical studies of ancient and modern democracies or engagements with the classics among non-elite audiences that have characterized some really good recent work in the field. Are such extensions of classicists' traditional areas of concern enough to constitute a 'democratic turn' within the discipline? This does not seem right: such projects may be motivated by democratic concerns, they may even have democratic consequences; but whether any particular research topic turns out to be 'democratic' ought to depend upon how it is carried out, the purposes towards which it is directed, and its dissemination, not simply on its subject matter.

2.    Aspects of Democracy: Aorist or Imperfect?

Additional problems arise when the word 'turn' is combined with 'democratic' in this context. For its precedents—such as the 'linguistic turn' in twentieth-century philosophy or the 'cultural turn' in the human sciences—implied a transfer of focus: a turning away from prior questions and procedures as well (p.8) as a concentration on something else.[8] Yet the label 'democratic', already potentially troublesome when applied to existing practices, becomes even more so when, having been claimed in this manner, it is then used as a term of contrast with other agents or groups.

Again, this would not matter so much were it not for the pervasive legitimizing force the term carries in the modern context. Not even Pericles had the gall to present democracy as the only legitimate form of government, even if he did claim that Athens provided an education to all Hellas. But in a world where democracy (hazily defined) is presented as the sole basis of secular political legitimacy, and where it is often assumed to be synonymous with other, highly valued political principles such as inclusivity and equality, it is all too easy to cast those who have not 'got with the programme' as not only undemocratic, but also anti-democratic or otherwise indecent. Despite its universalizing rhetoric, this use of the term 'democratic' is at bottom excluding: it serves to pick out and valorize one group by comparison with another.[9]

Such strategic and ideological uses of language are understandable among agents who are struggling for recognition within authoritarian orders. Recent history has made their attraction for those who have assumed the duty to 'democratize' others plain to see. What concerns me most about the transfer of this use from politics to reception studies is that it may lead us to caricature both the classical past and alternative ways of studying it. It is all too easy to fall into radical-sounding platitudes about the essentially elitist (or Western, or Eurocentric) qualities of traditional classics, and to cast reception studies as a critical hero detoxifying the tradition and righting past wrongs.[10]

This is not to say that no correcting perspectives are needed to the multifarious elitist, Eurocentric, imperialist, and racist uses that have been made of the classics. But there are a number of problems here. First, if we really believed that engagement with a classical text was an essentially elitist or Eurocentric gesture, the most obvious solution would be to let the classical moulder on the shelf and direct our attention towards other literatures and cultures. Second, it is unjust to the ancient material: I challenge anyone to convince me that there is something essentially Eurocentric, White, or Western about the poetry of Homer, the culture of Hellenistic Alexandria, or the writings of Lucian. Such understandings result from the blinkers we and our predecessors have worn as we constructed our traditions; they are not 'antiquity in-itself'. Finally, as Kate Nichols (2009) has commented, 'classics have long been used by non-elite [one might add non-White, non-Christian, (p.9) non-European] groups'. La Vopa (1998) has argued that the Latin School in eighteenth-century Germany provided an important conduit of social mobility for young men from poor and uneducated backgrounds; beyond this, Latin as a non-vernacular language was in some ways a leveller of privilege, effacing social distinctions that superior command of polite idiom in German revealed. In Ireland during the same period, the association of Latin with Catholicism combined with other cultural and economic changes to place classical texts on the curricula of non-elite schools, making them available for anti-establishment and 'revolutionary' appropriations (McElduff 2006). To mention these examples is to register my unease that to lay claim to the label 'democratic' to characterize relatively recent developments in reception studies may be to overlook the more nuanced and pluralistic picture that a less polemicizing consideration of the history of our discipline may bring. We should also remember that although it has now 'gone global', 'democracy' considered historically and in the longue durée is at least as good a candidate for an essentially Western construction as 'classics'.[11]

3.    Democracy as (self-)critique: Edward Said's humanism

I have rejected notions of a 'democratic turn' which content themselves with extending the subject matter of classics to new areas, or which operate with a strong and potentially self-congratulatory contrast between 'our' procedures and those of past interpreters. These criticisms stem not from weary cynicism about democracy's hollow rhetoric but rather from the sense that democracy is, as Waldron says of liberalism, a 'set of critical principles, rather than an ideology or rationalization'. To emphasize this is to turn to the other pole of democracy's meaning in the modern world: as a critical vision. This is, in Dunn's words, the ideal of a society in which 'in the end it must be the people that decides what is to be done' (Dunn 2005: 135). Dunn suggests that this ambitious project can never be realized in actuality, certainly not in the context of the highly unequal socio-economic world order that exists today. Democracy's value lies in its status as 'a permanent reminder of the terms in which governmental decisions must be vindicated, and the breadth of the audience that is entitled to assess whether or not they have been vindicated':

Until democracy's triumph, the rightful scale of that audience was always seen as pretty narrow. It was defined by a layering of exclusions: those without the standing, those without the knowledge or ability, those without a stake in the (p.10) country, the dependent, foreigners, the unfree or even enslaved, the blatantly untrustworthy or menacing, the criminal, the insane, women, children. Democracy's triumph has been the collapse of one exclusion after another, in ever-greater indignity. (2005: 135-6)

This is an open-ended process, and democracy continues to play a crucial role in countering the continual tendency of the modern socio-economic order to reproduce hierarchies:

The role of democracy as a political to probe constantly the tolerable limits of injustice, a permanent and sometimes very intense blend of cultural enquiry with social and political struggle. The key to the form of life as a whole is thus an endless tug of war between two instructive but very different senses of democracy. In that struggle, the second sense, democracy as a political value, constantly subverts the legitimacy of democracy as an already existing form of government. But the first, too, almost as constantly on its own behalf, explores, but then insists on and in the end imposes, its own priority over the second. (2005: 171)

What role might classical reception studies play in this eminently political process? One (contestable) answer is suggested by the lectures on 'Humanism and Knowledge' Edward Said gave towards the end of his life, which were published posthumously as Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004). In these. Said offered a retrospective upon his four decades of work as a scholar and teacher of 'Western humanities' at Columbia University—or, as he was happy to call himself, a humanist. 'Humanism' is not a popular term of self-identification in the modern academy, and questions have been raised about the ideological exclusions inherent even in attempts to recuperate a 'critical' humanism in opposition to earlier, more elitist traditions.[12] Said was adamant that exclusivity constitutes an abuse of humanism rather than its essence, and sketched a positive conception of humanism as a fundamentally 'democratic' practice, where 'democratic' means both 'open to all classes and backgrounds' and part of 'a process of unending disclosure, self-criticism, and liberation' (2004: 22).

Said presents democratic humanism as a model of reading involving two 'very crucial moments', which he terms, interestingly enough, 'reception' and 'resistance' (2004: 62-76). 'Reception' is the moment of interpretation, the effort on the part of the scholar, writer, or artist to comprehend an alien utterance, text, or cultural form. Said's hermeneutic of reception is intentionalist: a position many classical reception researchers would seek to modify. Most would, however, agree with him that the work of interpretation requires various conditions: think-space, time, and certain kinds of discipline (be these of knowledge, practice, or mental capacities such as concentration).

Said's moment of 'reception' is common to all kinds of intellectual endeavour. It is, however, insufficient to render humanism democratic: for this, the second moment is necessary. Said introduces 'resistance' in a manner connected to his first-order political stance:

For if, as I believe, there is now taking place in our society an assault on thought itself, to say nothing of democracy, equality, and the environment, by the dehumanizing forces of globalization, neoliberal values, economic well as imperialist ambition, the humanist must offer alternatives now silenced or unavailable through the channels of communication controlled by a tiny number of news organizations. (2004:71)

Said's political diagnosis certainly renders his view of humanism's task more urgent, but his notion of 'resistance' is independent of this. At its centre lies the humanist's commitment to formulating and remaining open to alternative perspectives:

There is no doubt...that whatever reading one does is situated in a particular time and place, just as the writing one encounters in the course of humanistic study is located in a series of frameworks derived from tradition, the transmission and variation of texts, and accumulated readings and interpretations. And just as important are the social contests that, generally, I shall describe as those between the aesthetic and historical domains.[13] At the risk of simplifying, it can be said that two situations are in play: that of the humanistic reader in the present and that of the text in its framework. Each requires careful analysis, each inhabits both a local and a wider historical framework, and each must solicit relentless questioning by the humanist. (2004: 74)

Humanism's commitment to questioning given frameworks means it is always open to extension in its fields of concern. The canon is open-ended: the number and kinds of works deemed worthy of interpretation cannot be limited, even in principle (Said 2004: 22-8). But Saidian 'resistance' also involves a crucial element of self-criticism: the willingness to revise one's own perspectives and to move beyond them if they are revealed to be limited and exclusive. What distinguishes this from the kinds of reflexive criticism more familiar to scholarly labour is the arena in which they occur. Rather than locating the reflective moment in the humanist's study, or in conversations within fairly limited circles. Said places it within the open-ended space of contested values, priorities, and arguments that constitutes the contemporary political and social world:

Education involves widening circles of awareness, each of which is distinct analytically while being connected to the others by virtue of worldly reality. A reader is in a place, in a school or university, in a work place, or in a specific country at a particular time, situation, and so forth. But these are not passive (p.12) frameworks. In the process of widening the humanistic horizon, its achievements of insight and understanding, the framework must be actively understood, constructed, and interpreted. And this is what resistance is: the ability to differentiate between what is directly given and what may be withheld, whether because one's own circumstances as a humanistic specialist may confine one to a limited space beyond which one can't venture or because one is indoctrinated to recognize only what one has been educated to see or because only policy experts are presumed to be entitled to speak about the economy, health services, or foreign and military policies, issues of urgent concern to the humanist as citizen. Does one accept the prevailing horizons and confinements, or does one try as a humanist to challenge them? (2004: 75-6)

This comment expresses the direct connection Said saw between his duties as a humanist and as a national and global citizen. It explains why he characterized 'humanism as a useable praxis for intellectuals and academics who want to know what they are doing, what they are committed to as scholars, and who want also to connect these principles to the world in which they live as citizens' (2004: 6). For the humanistic commitment to criticism of given frameworks cannot exclude criticism of the social and political order one inhabits, its (and hence, in some sense, one's own) limitations and exclusions. Democratic and critical humanism is thus continuous with democratic and critical citizenship.

What might it mean to cast classical reception studies as a form of democratic and critical humanism in the manner Said recommends? I believe, first of all, that it implies a certain view about the significance of academic specialism(s). Specialisms are part of what equips researchers (whether in the humanities, social, or natural sciences) to offer distinctive perspectives; like all forms of expertise, they bring with them a kind of authority. What unites researchers in the multidisciplinary field of classical reception studies is not a common stock of specialist knowledge and training, but a common commitment to the critical study of the spectrum of interpretations of classical material that connects the modern and ancient worlds. Stories about the classical past continue to shape contemporary cultural, political, and social ideas and practices; consequently, there is a role for critical questioning of those stories. Reception studies can help meet this need, but a 'democratic' reception researcher ought to be committed to using his or her authority to complicate those stories, widen their cast of characters, and open up debates over their meaning, rather than to close them down.[14]

A second task for a democratic classical reception study follows on from the first: to give more effort to identifying the limitations and exclusions involved in our own positions. Reception theory has always acknowledged that 'the mediated, situated, contingent...character of readings...includes our own readings quite as much as those of past centuries' (Martindale 2006: 3, 5; see also Humphreys 2010: 201). Yet this recognition has remained largely at the level of programmatic proclamation, compared with the zeal researchers have sometimes shown in criticizing the exclusions of other (historical) receivers. A more thoroughly self-critical reception studies would pay greater attention to the politics of our own interpretations, make more effort to articulate them and hold them up for inspection.

Finally, 'democratic' classical reception studies on the Saidian model have something to say about the forms of 'inspection' to which we must open up our work. For another aspect of the reception researcher's activity would be a commitment to formulating, defending, and revising the perspectives won in our studies in public spaces: not only disseminating them to other scholars and students but allowing them to inform and be informed by perspectives that arise in communication with others inside and outside the academy. For one of the most enduring conceptions of what 'democracy' involves is a space and a set of procedures that enable the views of different agents to be expressed, debated, and to play a role in forming the conditions of communal life. A 'democratic turn' in classical reception studies would then mean a whole-hearted commitment on the part of reception researchers to cultivating and participating in such spaces.[15]


[1] See in particular the first round of e-seminar discussions on 'the debate and its terms', archived at ( e_archive/2009/Intro.htm) (accessed 9 December 2011). The phrase 'alluring yet false' comes from Hardwick's first contribution.

[2] 'Liberal' perhaps commands less of a consensus than 'democratic'; it may be used in abuse as well as in approbation, and—even if we restrict our discussion to Anglophone contexts—carries different connotations on either side of the Atlantic. For some thoughts on the term's history, joined with a sceptical view of the coherence of contemporary liberal thought, see Geuss 2001.

[3] Liberal theory since Locke has been characterized by insistence upon the importance of individual rights, conceived of as protections of the individual against encroachments by the will of another. These may include protections against the will of a democratic majority or its representatives. The 2011 protests by Muslim women forbidden by French law from wearing the burkha in public and the 2008 Californian referendum, which overturned the decision of its Supreme Court to permit same-sex marriage, are recent examples of rights and democracy in opposition in modern Western political cultures.

[4] Both are connected to the question of the appropriate home for classical reception studies in the modern academy. Is reception best conceived of as a sub-field of classics, an interdisciplinary research area with connections to several disciplines, or something new and autonomous? Answers to this question have important implications for the training and careers of the next generation of researchers (see Porter 2008: 478-9). Some of the anxieties that commonly surround questions of disciplinary competence in reception studies may be helped by collaborative modes of work. It is unfortunate that prevalent professional structures in the humanities militate against collaboration.

[5] See, for example, Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group 2010.

[6] In a referendum held on 5 May 2011, 67.9 per cent of UK voters rejected a proposal to introduce electoral reform in the shape of the 'alternative vote' system.

[7] Alternatively, a weary cynicism.

[8] See Hardwick (Chapter 2) in this volume.

[9] There is a sharp historical irony here, as the word 'democratic' entered modern political discourse as a term of disapprobation applied to a particular political faction. See Dunn 2005: 57-61.

[10] For various perspectives on the issue see Hardwick (Chapter 2), Lianeri (Chapter 3), and Gamel (Chapter 14) in this volume.

[11] Dunn 2005.

[12] See recently Honig 2010.

[13] See Said 1993: xi-xii.

[14] A similar point has recently been made by Mary Beard, who (without using the term 'reception') calls for a shift towards an understanding of classics as 'a cultural language that we have learned to speak, in dialogue with the idea of antiquity'. Beard counsels that 'we [Classicists? Contemporary citizens?] should be much more alert than we often are about the claims we make about the classical world—or, at least, we should be more strategically aware of whose claims they are.' As an example she gives 'the common statement "The ancient Athenians invented democracy"', a claim which indicates a contemporary 'projected...desire for an origin' more than a historical fact (Beard 2012: 50-1, 54). Such myths play important roles in contemporary social, political, and cultural discourses; it is these that reception researchers' expertise can complicate and challenge.

[15] In an argument which my own resembles in several respects. Porter (2008: 479-81) has issued 'a plea on behalf of the need for a new kind of classicist-academic: the engaged public intellectual who can not only create new public audiences for the field and the academy at large, but who can also enter into debates within the larger public sphere and can contribute in ways that only a perspective on the very origins of western culture and political life can afford'. I agree with Porter's observations on the structural impediments to public or (as the title of another recent collection would have it) 'applied' classics, as well as his characterization of the history of classics as one of 'a publicly contested heritage': an identity which renders it—as Porter has argued elsewhere—as promising a site as any for the study of modernity's various self-understandings. Yet the casting of publics as 'audiences', or a conception of classics as something 'applied' in other areas stands in danger of glossing over the transformative aspects emphasized by both Said and (arguably) the longer history of articulations of classics' public value. Here it may be apposite to consider the more active and participative roles played by ancient democratic audiences (whether in the assembly or the theatre), in holding political actors to account. The advent of modern, representative democracies has tended to shift the focus from questions of participation and accountability to those of representation. What forms of public (as opposed to more narrowly political) accountability and participation might be appropriate to a democratic classics?



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The Classics Which Is (Not) Ours

Emily Greenwood, Boris Shoshitaishvili
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