Saturday, 4 May 2019

End of an Era? On researching Working-Class Classics 1981-2019

With Henry and the Red Gnome who has helped our work
This week, with steadfast and eloquent co-author Henry Stead, I finished a 200,000-word book that I think alters our understanding of the history of Classics irrevocably. I’ve been gathering materials since 1981, when I was struggling to make sense of the chasm between the way I was being trained to study Classics at Oxford and my socialist views and self-education. The miners’ strike of 1984-5 and my contact with strikers from Maerdy Colliery (while I was writing a doctorate on Greek Tragedy!) made the (eventual) appearance of the book inevitable. For I discovered the extraordinary tradition of Miners’ Libraries in South Wales.
Economy Edition of Putarch

But there have been obstacles. Getting the research funded (despite it being inexpensive, entailing only Travelodges in provincial conurbations near workers’ archives) proved difficult. I suspect my interest in Labour History got me excluded from a couple of shortlists and powerful committees. But producing what as proud mother I believe is a staggeringly beautiful intellectual baby after a 38-year gestation is far more satisfying than any career advancement could possibly be.

A  People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain will be available completely free of charge on the Routledge Taylor Francis Open Access platform, as is only appropriate for a book about responses to educational exclusion, as well as in hardback with the banner of the Lanchester miners in Co. Durham proudly hosted on its cover. The Lanchester Review, edited by the resourceful David Lindsay, yesterday posted this longer blog where I summarise the research.

The discipline did function historically as the curriculum of the British elite. This problem is still with us, and I am campaigning for a solution with a related project co-led by Arlene Holmes-Henderson.  But the book reveals evidence for the diverse working-class experience of the classical world between the Bill of Rights 1689 and the outbreak of WWII: autobiographies, poetry, fiction, visual and material culture in museums, galleries and the civic environment, theatrical ephemera, records of Trade Union activities, self-education publications, mass-market inexpensive ‘classic’ series, archives relating to Poor, Free, Workers’, Adult and Dissenting educational establishments, and to political parties which supported the working class.

John Thelwall lecturing on Roman History to 1790s Democrats
The classical world aided some workers’ careers, expanded their horizons, improved their rhetoric, informed their politics, alleviated their boredom, inspired them to read, write, paint, draw, sculpt, act, perform, teach, publish, organize Trade Unions, join debating societies, read the Gospels in the original or question the existence of God altogether. They used Classics to prove their intellectual calibre, to analyse their plight and signal their consciousness of the class system; they also used it to subvert and undermine the authority of the classes that ruled them and to entertain themselves during leisure hours.

Ann Yearsley, the Milkmaid-Radical Poet of Bristol
They deserve honoured places in the gallery of People’s Classics simply because they struggled so hard to get access to the ancient world. But they also offer us a new ancestral backstory for a discipline sorely in need of a democratic makeover.

Monday, 15 April 2019

The Rouman Lecture: Classics, Race & Class

Last week I gave the Rouman lecture at the University of New Hampshire on the theme of Race and Class in the Classics Academy. I was honoured to speak alongside Professors Sarah Derbew, Emily Greenwood and Patrice Rankine. I took my cue from a young academic named Kelly Dugan at the University of Athens, Georgia, one initiator of the Multiculturalism, Race and Ethnicity Classics Consortium (MRECC), who who has recently tweeted that as a white woman she identifies her work as ‘solidarity pedagogy’. 

Rankine, Greenwood, Derbew, Hall

I’ve adopted the term ‘solidarity research’ to describe my forthcoming work with Dr Henry Stead on Classics and the British class system. Groups who have historically been excluded from the Classics Academy, whether by race or class, and scholars sensitive to such exclusion, will better recreate our subject so that it is half-way fit for the 21st century if we mutually support one another. 

The question of race in the discipline has exploded since the annual meeting of the American Society for Classical Studies at the San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina between January 3rd and 6th, 2019. I was not there but have studied different responses to what happened. Two young people there to receive an award for their work on the SPORTULA, an initiative raising money to give study grants to what they call ‘working-class and historically looted communities’, Djesika Bel Watson and Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, were racially profiled by hotel security. An independent scholar named Mary Frances Williams said publicly that fellow panellist Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta got his job at Princeton because he was black. 

Padilla Peralta subsequently published an eloquent online essay expressing sadness that ‘no one in that room or in the conference corridors afterwards rallied to the defense of blackness as a cornerstone of my merit’. The paragraph that marks a truly historic turning-point in our subject is this:

 … my black being-in-the-world makes it possible for me to ask new and different questions within the field, to inhabit new and different approaches to answering them, and to forge alliances with other scholars past and present whose black being-in-the-world has cleared the way for my leap into the breach.. all our intellects take shape and evolve within national and global force-fields of race and racecraft. 

I take his insistence that people should be hired because they are not white as the most important public statement in Classics for decades. I have believed in this principle since undergraduate days, but have hesitated to make the case outside in-camera appointment committees because I am a white middle-class woman and have not thought it was my place. Now that Pedilla Peralta has gone first, I will be doing so. 

Most HE institutions and classical subject associations internationally fail to support ethnic minorities in career progression. I have witnessed several UK appointments where a brilliant person of colour, despite possessing the qualifications to make the shortlist, has not been offered the job. Wholly spurious grounds expressed in the language of alleged positions in intellectual hierarchies have been adduced. The result is a relentlessly white UK Classics academy in the UK; the few exceptions struggled to get where they are, and most have not been promoted as high as they deserve. 

There is also a continuing failure to acknowledge the historical role of the discipline as the curriculum of the white ruling classes of Europe and their global empires.  I have been refused funding for conferences and research projects only for those addressing colonialism, race, gender and class. 

Professor Mary Beard’s plenary lecture at the Society of Classical Studies was taken to task by Padilla Peralta for occluding Classics’ role as the curriculum of empire. She stressed that people studying classics at Cambridge in the late 19th century often became benign schoolteachers at home in Britain rather than colonial administrators in Africa, India, the Caribbean or any of the dozens of other territories in their empire. 

There are two problems here. The first is the implication that teachers play no role in reproducing oppressive views in their charges. The second is that evidence beyond late Victorian Cambridge undermines her inference. Of the sixty-one boys born in 1798-9 who studied Greek and Latin at Aberdeen Grammar School, more than two-thirds worked and/or settled abroad, in places including China, India, the West Indies, Australia, Canada, Java, and Sierra Leone.
My lecture argued that the transatlantic history of Classics includes many examples of solidarity research and pedagogy to inspire us today. The white Greek scholar Julian Hibbert funded the legal defence of the mixed-race Jamaican radical Robert Wedderburn on trial for blasphemy after Peterloo, and provided arguments from Plutarch’s On Superstition for the defence speech. Sarah Parker Remond (pictured above in the conference ad), from Massachusetts, was supported in the early 1860s by British classicists including the socialist Professor Edward Spencer Beesley, when she was campaigning against slavery in Britain and studying Latin at Bedford College.
There is good news today, as well. Groups are emerging to create a Classics fit for purpose. Besides MRECC, Professor Sasha-Mae Eccleston (Brown), with Padilla Peralta, and others including my KCL colleague Dr Rosa Andujar, who is Dominican like Padilla Peralta, are organising transatlantic workshops under the title ‘Racing the Classics’. We all need to listen hard, sustain international networks of solidarity, and get these ideas out beyond Higher Education. By ‘we’ I mean all those who want to see Classics in the vanguard of the modern academy rather than an embarrassment to it.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Psychoanalysts' Antigone Complex: A 3-Minute Guide

Hegel, not looking amused

A diversion this winter has been gigs with London Uni psychoanalysts. On Saturday I had to explain Sophocles’ Antigone’s relationship to psychoanalysis, which has roots back in Hegel’s Phenomenonology of Spirit, in 35 minutes flat. 

Billions of earnest words have been published on the topic. I was so proud of my precis-ing skills, since Hegelians and psychoanalytical theorists waffle, that here's a 3-minute version.

In 1959 Jacques Lacan’s L'éthique de la psychanalyse took Hegel’s boring old-fashioned politics and ethics out of the play and celebrated the ‘unbearable splendour’ of Antigone’s uncompromising devotion to the law of her own ‘pure desire’. Its object is her dead, irreplaceable brother. In prioritising the male sibling she re-enacts the incestuous desire of her mother’s desire for her son Oedipus.

In 1974 Lacan’s student Luce Irigaray rebelled. her Speculum of the Other Woman put the ethics and politics back into Antigone by proposing that the entire method and model of Freudian psychoanalysis was repressively phallocentric. Antigone’s claim that her brother cannot be replaced undermines the theory that all relationships with the opposite sex are substitutions for the attachment to the opposite-sex parent. Irigaray’s Antigone makes a profound feminist challenge to the psychoanalytical establishment.  Lacan did not wall Irigaray into a cave but he did expel her from his École freudienne.

But the text that has made Antigone a cultic figure on campuses was Antigone’s Claim (2000) by Judith Butler, an academic rock star.  She says that if psychoanalysis had been founded on Antigone’s experience rather than her dad Oedipus’s, we would have had a properly politicised psychosexual subject all along. Patriarchy would have been at the centre of psychoanalysts’ radars. Antigone’s own muddled genealogy challenges patrilineal thinking, and, by assuming ‘male’ behaviours, she subverts heteronormative values. She is the ideal hero for genderbending and feminist millennials.*

"I am 16, going on 17"
Irigaray and Butler perhaps illuminate why Sigmund Freud didn’t write much about  Antigone. But he did give the nickname to his dutiful daughter Anna, claimed she had no sex drive, and encouraged her to follow him in the profession, avoid marriage, and stay in the paternal home.  I hope it wasn’t him who asked her to wear a costume from The Sound of Music. If my therapist had dressed like that, I’d never have got interested in psychoanalysis in the first place.

*Personally I've always found Ismene, who wants to find a solution and loves her sister unconditionally, rather more interesting, and recommend Nat Haynes' lovely novel, Jocasta's Children, for a persuasive exploration of the real Oedipal family dynamics.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Would Aristotle's make an Impact as Public Intellectual?

One reason I wrote Aristotle’s Way is that Aristotle’s wonderfully sensible advice on happiness has not been publicised sufficiently beyond academia. This would have horrified him. He was the first philosopher we know of to circulate his ideas in accessible and inexpensive form in order to reach a general public as well as his official students at the courts of kings or the Athenian Lyceum.

He called these his ‘exoteric’ works. This means ‘outward-facing’, the opposite of ‘esoteric’ or ‘inward-facing’ (which so happens to be an anagram of COTERIES). They are the ancient equivalent of blogposts or articles on free online magazines. We have titles and a few fragments, although reconstruction is in my view sadly less possible than some scholars would like.

The ancient discussions of the exoteric works show that they were short, elegantly written, in dialogue form, used vivid imagery, and were lighter on dense passages of reasoning than the scholarly treatises which have survived. They featured fun things like philosophical satyrs and references to the myths of the Argonauts.

They were studied by shoemakers, travelling businessmen and peasant farmers. The papyrus rolls in which they were inscribed were portable and could be read while you waited for your sandals to be mended. They featured even shorter summaries on their cover so that anyone could get a quick digest of Aristotle’s views on Plato’s theory of forms (he was not a fan), on the importance of private partnerships to the community, or on the differences between humans and other animals.

Since I have this week published a 3,000-word exoteric essay on what we know about Aristotle’s works for the public, this blog is the equivalent of that summary on the outside of an exoteric papyrus. You can read it on the Aeon website if you are interested, thanks to its Philosophy editor Nigel Warburton.

I argue there that learning about Aristotle’s exoterica is not just an interesting exercise: it gives us a dazzling example of how academics can circulate their ideas in an accessible way. This will also help diminish the prejudice against specialist scholarship that the anti-intellectuals of our day (who are themselves professional obscurantists) like to whip up. It sets an example not just to philosophers, but scholars in any discipline whatsoever.

If his Lyceum was submitted to the UK's Research Excellence Framework 2021, Aristotle would surely get Full Marks for his Impact Case Study (I am wrestling with writing one for my Advocacy of Classical Subjects in State Schools). I do hope he would also get the top mark (four star) for being ‘world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour’ for Research Outputs such as Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.  But you never know. Even Peer Review can be fallible!

Monday, 11 February 2019

Three Wonderful Women of Canada

The Homer of Montreal
Three inspirational women of Canada lit up my week. A longstanding friend, Prof. Lynn Kozak, was not actually born there, but has  made Classics Kool in Montreal. Last year she performed, as Happy Hour Homerscenes covering the entire Iliad in the Bar des Pins at 1800 every Monday. It took from January to August, while she got more and more visibly pregnant. You can see her extraordinary performances on Youtube: my favourite is the uncomfortable feast in sulky Achilles’ tent in book IX.

Satyr stranded on Sicily
Lynn invited me to lecture in connection with her McGill students’ annual classics play, an initiative she founded ten years ago. Performed in translation in public theatres, these plays reach a wide non-academic public. This year they did the only surviving Greek satyr play, Euripides’ Cyclops, which was side-splittingly funny. The highlight was the priapic chorus’s dance with stuffed sheep, although the sub-chorus of militaristic Ithacans gave them a run for their money, and the Cyclops’ unrequited passion for Chief Satyr Silenus was unexpectedly poignant.

Friend since 1984
Then a Toronto reunion with my graduate-school housemate Prof. Dawn Bazely, an Anglo-Indian-Canadian with whom in the 1980s I shared three years of stiff gins and a few interesting dinners with my then soon-to-be-ex husband (never marry a Kantian) as well as her then supervisors including Richard Dawkins. Dawn is a force of nature, a celebrated York Uni Biologist and a leader in initiatives to bring science—especially ecological issues—to the public. She also dyed her hair in Rainbow colours to support LGBTQ rights when she picked up her Distinguished Professor Award.

Kate was an exceptional athlete
And I also heard that the posthumous book by the late, great Canadian Professor Kate Bosher, which I’ve co-edited, is finally nearing publication with CUP. It will change our understanding of the literature and culture of the Greeks in south Italy and Sicily and I can hardly bear that she will never see it herself. More on this soon.

Wit and Competence
Between Lynn, Dawn and Kate, I can’t help but be reminded of the beautiful two sentences uttered by Charlotte Whitton, elected first female mayor of Ottawa in 1951: ‘Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult’.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Mid-Western Adventures with Aristotle and Diego Rivera

In Great Company with Beard & Miller
An extreme week. On the downside, I got sick courtesy of United Airlines’ so-called air filters. The disgusting virus forced me to cancel a visit to lecture on ancient comedy at the Athenian Academy.  I hope they forgive me and invite me back soon.

On the upside, the launch of Aristotle’s Way in USA was a round of pleasant encounters, in which I felt acute Imposter Syndrome while visiting bookstores in Chicago and Detroit and the scholars of Northwestern, especially the great Richard Kraut, whose study of Aristotle’s Politics I last year named one of my five ‘best books’ on the philosopher.
Janet W. & Alyson Jones of Detroit's SOURCE Booksellers

Icing on the cake was a poisitive review in the New York Times, by Professor John J. Kaag of the University of Massachusetts. He had read every word and intuitively understood what I was trying to do. I’m even prouder now to have been named alongside him as authors of two of Nigel Warburton’s best philosophy books of 2018.

Sara Entrhalled by Rivera's Frescoes 
Aristotle thought long and hard about  art and why it needed an honoured place in public culture. I thought about his insight, in the Poetics, that great art allows us to learn, but with pleasure, during the week's highlight, which even head pains could not wreck. With my friend Professor Sara Monoson, I finally saw the Mexican Marxist Diego Rivera’s astonishing murals in the Detroit Institute of Art. Twenty-seven panels depict scenes inspired by Motown’s industries, especially the Ford Motor Company, at that time (1933) suffering from industrial unrest leading to violence and several deaths. 

The depiction of humans and machines, informed in part by classical relief sculptures such as the Parthenon frieze, is witty, beautiful and conveys Rivera’s wonder at the technology and productive forces of the factories. But it also questions the uses to which these could be put—poisonous weapons as well as medicine, war as well as civilisation-building, the oppression of blue-collar workers as well as the fruits of progress in which they could—up to a point—share.

Proud to Stand by Rivera's Self-Portrait as Worke
Controversy raged. Churchmen declared the Aztec goddesses and uses of biblical themes blasphemous. Industrialists disliked the unflattering depiction of bosses and middle-class onlookers. Henry Ford, portrayed on the west wall, seems not have noticed that he was associated with a Giant Ear, policing his workers incessantly, nor that Rivera’s own self-portrait, complete with star badges, a hammer and sickle-like curves, had turned the murals into a shrine to communism.

My favourite panel portrays the unborn child, in a fetal position, nested in the roots of a plant amid several geological strata. It is in the position the viewer sees first on entering the great mural room, high on the east wall, where the image of God is traditionally placed in the apse of a Church. Nature, labour, local history, art and the humanist expression of a hope for a better human future come together in a great Gesamtkunstwerk of heart-stopping intricacy and vitality.  It was worth the virus. I learned with pleasure. It will stay with me forever.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Orpheus & the Tragedy of Male Distrust of Women

Men Not Trusting Women has been the theme of my week.  I received unpleasant (male) tweets questioning my professional competence.  I heard an acquaintance’s account of escaping a husband who battered her because he didn’t trust her not to sleep with other men. I finished a lecture on the insidious message of the Phaedra myth, which provides evidence every time it is retold that women can’t be trusted when they say they’ve been raped. I believe that philosopher Miranda Fricker would see it as a founding myth of Epistemic Injustice against women. 

Hades, Persephone, Eurydice & Orpheus in Hadestown
The Tragedy of Male Distrust of Women, which has driven wedges between these two sexes since time immemorial, reached its emotional climax for me via the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Hadestown at the National Theatre. All Orpheus had to do was trust Eurydice to be a competent enough hominid to walk to the exit of the Underworld on her own, without male steerage. He wrecked everything because he just had to check up on her. 

Why can't she walk with her arms free?
As I lapped up Anaïs Mitchell’s glorious musical, I saw clearly what this myth has always said to me in a semi-conscious way, especially since in Virgil’s poignant version (Georgics 4.487) it is Proserpina, not Pluto, who says Orpheus must not look back. She is obviously testing whether he can trust Eurydice sufficiently to make a good husband.  But Orpheus is unable to believe in the complete adult competence of Eurydice to say and do what is required to guarantee their happiness together. This surely symbolises the aboriginal flaw in male-female relationships much better than the stories of Eve or Pandora. 

Men’s failure to trust female custodianship of knowledge, or sexual self-control, or even ability to stick to a joint resolution and hold their own on an identical task but unseen, has made life tricky for women. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t even worse for men. I can’t imagine collaborating on anything with a person I believed was morally wobbly, epistemologically unreliable, and not one hundred per cent trustworthy. It must be lonely and miserable.

I love this particular Atlas-themed suffrage poster so much (it hangs inside our front door) because it doesn’t show women asking for the vote as victims, but offering, as equally competent beings, to take half the burden of the world’s anxieties off men’s shoulders. And that is why I like this ancient wedding ring, which has two equally firm hands clasping and the inscription HOMONOIA, ‘having minds like one another’.

Carol Ann Duffy’s feminist retelling of Eurydice’s story in The World’s Wife implies that the problems between men and women are caused by male vanity. I disagree. It’s male distrust that’s always been the problem.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Professor Porson's Porcine Passions

For A People’s History of Classics I’ve been researching the best British Greek scholar of the 18th century because he was born into a working-class family of weavers. Henry Stead and I’ve known about him for some time; our wonderful colleague Josephine Balmer wrote a short piece and a poem about him for the Classics and Class website. What I hadn’t previously appreciated was that he was both a radical democrat and obsessed with pigs. Nor that I have rather more in common with him than I realised.

In the context of the 1790s, radicalism and pigs were inseparable because Edmund Burke wrote in his reactionary Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) that revolution leads to the common people getting educated, which leads to intellectual culture being debauched, ‘cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude’. 

Our Swinish Multitude copyright Richard Poynder 
British humour being what it is, every self-respecting radical immediately embraced pigdom. (My family has collected our very own Swinish Multitude who study Greek in our garden). Journals and pamphlets were published called Hog’s Wash, Politics for the People, or a Salmagundy for Swine, Penny's Worth of Pig's Meat, A Rod for the Burkites by One of the Swinish Multitude, Husks for the Swine, Dedicated to the Swine of England, the Rabble of Scotland, and the Wretches of Ireland by one of the Herd and The Grunter's Ode. Shelley later put a chorus of pigs in his version of Oedipus, Swellfoot the Tyrant.

Porson, who had arisen from the sties of Norfolk, wrote the brilliant A New Catechism for the Use of the Swinish Multitude, Necessary to be Had in all Sties. To the question whether the resolutions made by the ruling class hog-drivers can be read by the hogs, the answer is no, because scarcely one in twenty hogs can read. The questioner says, ‘They are written in Hog Latin, but that I took for granted you could understand’, to which the hogs retort ‘Shameful aspersion on the hogs! The most inarticulate grunting of our tribe is sense and harmony compared to such jargon.’   But all is not lost, because the questioner notices that the pig talks sense, and asks ‘whence had you your information?’ The answer is ‘From a learned pig’, of which there are ‘many; and the number daily increases.’  

But Porson had enjoyed learned pigs even before the French revolution. Prodigious animals who knew Greek and Latin were a favourite stunt of travelling Georgian showmen. A Sapient Porker called Toby published an autobiography in 1817, and is reading Plutarch in the frontispiece.  

Porson wrote a Greek epigram for one in 1785, appending a humorous short article about him. It opens by calling the pig a ‘gentleman’: since Gentleman Pig professes ‘himself to be extremely learned, [he] will have no objection to find his merits set forth in a Greek quotation’. Porson then supplies the Greek, and an English translation which he claims he has procured from the equally famous Chien Savant, because ‘it is possible that the pig’s Greek may want rubbing up, owing to his having kept so much company with ladies.’  

             "A gentle pig this same, a pig of parts,
              And learned as F.R.S. or graduate in arts;
              His ancestors, 'tis true, could only squeak,
              But this has been at school--and in a month will speak".

After 1790, Porson wrote several other seditious diatribes, which have been erased from his record by his high-minded biographers including the ultra-right Sir Denys Page. 

Porson died after a fall on the Strand when he was drunk, which is a lesson to all of us at King’s College London. I’m of course not mentioning the midsummer’s night a couple of years ago when this Professor of Greek cracked her scalp open on the Strand after treating all her PhDs and Postdocs to a vinous symposium on the banks of the Thames. I’m not proud of this lapse in Aristotelian moderation (although I am of my ceramic swine collection) and don’t want to be seen to have that much in common with the intriguing Jacobin Professor.