– Michel Foucault (1971: 76)
If I am right… it will be necessary to not only rethink the fundamental bases of ‘Western Civilisation’ but also to recognize the penetration of racism and ‘continental chauvinism’ into all our historiography, or philosophy of writing history.
– Martin Bernal (1987: 2).
Such a one as thou must be cursed by the gods, to find no resting place on sea nor on land.
– A.R. Hope Moncrieff (1994: 137).
Popular discourses of the postmodern typically construct the enterprise of ‘getting at the facts’ as intrinsically flawed. In this context, Herodotus as ‘the Father of History’ may very well live up to his other, ironically pre-postmodern, epithet as ‘the Father of Lies.’ While a caricature of a sophisticated body of theory, this rendering of the postmodern speaks to its central tenet of a crisis in contemporary intellectual life: the problem of getting at the truth in a world comprised of – and arguably by – shifting, discontinuous discourses, conflicting interpretative positions, and seemingly irresolvable epistemological differences. It is precisely this postmodern milieu that has given expression to a wide range of interpretative battles or ‘culture wars’ throughout the 1980s and 1990s: from the necessary revisionist ‘black armband’ histories of white Australia, to the controversial emergence of ‘cultural studies’ as a legitimate field of academic endeavour, to the media frenzy in the United States against the arguments of the exponents of Afrocentrism. All of these manifestations of culture wars problematise truth, and are symptomatic of a postmodern age in which truth is at stake, and in which the ideologies of particular historical discourses begin to emerge.
These culture wars also emerge at a time that has seen the rise of post-structuralist discourses, critical modalities that strategically emphasise the textuality of any given ‘truth.’ These include a number of seemingly counter-intuitive (see Nussbaum 1992: 469) yet persuasive and impressive studies that account for the genesis of particular identities with their discursive invention. Thus we have studies that uncover the invention of homosexuality (Halperin 1990), African identity (Mudimbe 1994) as well as the continents identified in European traditions of cartography (Lewis & Wigen 1997). These interpretative battles, all of which emphasise the political nature of identity and its framing epistemologies, are symptomatic of an age in which the inter-relationship between claims to truth and the mechanisms that reproduce social hegemonies are under profound destabilisation and political contestation. However, what role does the classics, seemingly the most demure of the disciplines that comprise the humanities, have in modern culture wars? This paper offers a reading of the classical myth of Scylla that begins to politicise the ways in which the popular and scholarly imagination (re)constructs classical antiquity. It offers an exegesis of some ways in which the competing receptions of the Scylla myth dovetail into certain ostensible ‘postmodern’ culture wars that contest conventional definitions of the classical world.
The Myth of Scylla and the Myths of Location
It was in learning about particular southern Italian traditions of what we call ‘classical mythology’ that this paper received its impetus. My colleague at Deakin University, Francesca Primerano, constructed a website for her doctoral thesis on how to maximise the usability of websites in a multicultural society. The website, called ‘The Women of Scylla,’ demonstrated a useful way in which to present information for a particular, multilingual and multicultural demographic (Primerano 2003). As someone interested in the cultural history of the classics, I found the content of the website particularly interesting. It consisted of ethnographic material of the cultural traditions of southern Italy, in particular Calabrian narratives that celebrate the Scylla myth and that attribute the location of this famous episode of Homer’s Odyssey to the Strait of Messina and to Scilla, a town on the coast of Calabria.
Knowing of my interest in modern representations of Mediterranean antiquity, Primerano asked me if I knew of the association between Calabria and the myth of Scylla. I had to answer in the negative. While I had vague recollections of Circe’s association with Sicily in certain marginal narrative traditions – recollections at odds with the dominant understandings of the Homeric text – my readings of antiquity were, and are, circumscribed in particular ways that are not always obvious. This was, in part, due to the inevitable confusion of visualising the ancient Mediterranean world in the guise of modern European nation states: Italy is a different country from Greece. The Odyssey is an ancient Greek narrative, ostensibly set in the central and eastern Mediterranean basin, so why would a section of it include an Italian narrative? When she told me about the idea of Magna Graecia, the idea of ancient ‘Greece’ not only extending beyond the borders of what is conventionally understood as ‘ancient Greece,’ but of southern Italy being a ‘greater’ part of Greece, I recalled some important but significantly understated points in my reading of the history of ancient Mediterranean cultures. That is, what is popularly known as ‘ancient Greece’ actually comprised of a diverse range of city-states spread across the Mediterranean. These city-states were unified inasmuch as they seemed to have shared a language and certain cultural traditions. However, in the modern scholarship on antiquity, it is Athens that is particularly noteworthy – and arguably valorised – for what is constructed as its ‘cultural achievements,’ particularly in what is termed ‘the classical’ era (the two centuries to 323 bc). Further, like the Phoenicians, the Greeks are believed to have had contact with, and to have colonised, parts of Southern Italy from the eighth century bc onwards. Despite this history of pre-classical civilisation, scholarly representations of the ancient Mediterranean appear to marginalise the significance of southern Italy, a point, as I will show, demonstrated by certain commentaries of the Odyssey and the Scylla myth. Scholarship’s marginalisation of southern Italy, in turn, draws attention to the definitions and uses of the notion of ‘classical antiquity’ in a way that speaks to a number of voices of dissent regarding the conventional Ur narrative of the Western tradition.
In Book Twelve of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus encounters the monster Scylla after escaping from the Cyclopes and disbanding his ship to make his way home to Ithaca. Homer’s epic poem describes Scylla as a grisly and writhing voracious maritime creature with twelve feet, six heads on six long necks, and three sets of sharp teeth (see Fagles 1996: 273-275; Lattimore 1991: 62-153). A number of subsequent literary and artistic traditions reworked the Scylla myth, notably the Hellenic retelling of the Argonautica by Apollonios Rhodios (see Green 1997: 172-3; Reid 1993) and the Roman, dissident anti-civilisation version of the same story by Valerius Flaccus (Boyle & Sullivan 1991: 271). Structurally, Scylla is one of several feminine monsters in the Odyssey: her maritime counterpart Charybdis, a personification of a dangerous whirlpool; the flying harpies that threaten to sing sailors to death; and the fatally seductive Circe. In turn, these Homeric representations of feminine evil are continuous with other ‘monsters’ in classical myth: Medusa, the lion-goat-dragon Chimera destroyed by the hero Bellerophon; the husband murderer Clytemnestra, and the child killer Medea, whom Euripides explicitly compares to Scylla (Blondell 1999: 213). Scylla’s myth is thus, in feminist terms, an example of a narrative of the monstrous-feminine and, as such, arguably services and narrativises a specifically masculine subjectivity. However, the Scylla myth is not necessarily limited to this role. The narrative also has a place within certain identity narratives and cultural trajectories, from the local histories of southern Italy to the meta-narrative of ‘the West’s’ ancient history.
According to post-Homeric Greek and Roman writers such as Pelorus, Pausanius and Seneca, the geographical and historical site of Homer’s famous episode of Odysseus’ negotiation with the sea-monsters Scylla and Charybdis was in the Strait of Messina, off the coast of the ancient Italian region of Bruttium, modern Calabria (Powell 1995: 527, Ahl & Roisman 1996: 112; Cook 1974: 397). In modernity, several historical and circumstantial factors continue this association between the Scylla myth and the location of southern Italy. The name of the coastal town ‘Scilla,’ is phonetically and semantically equivalent to the name of the mythological figure ‘Scylla.’ Folk narratives of the area also suggest a connection with the Homeric narrative. At the geographical location of Scilla there is a mound with caverns that recall the Homeric description of Scylla as a monster living in a cavern of a cliff; folk narratives from the area suggest that Scylla lives in this mound. Another myth of location suggests that Scylla has a home in a castle on the coast of Scilla, a narrative that recalls the myths of Scylla’s previous life as a princess before she metamorphosed into a dangerous maritime monster.
Southern Italian narratives of Charybdis further construct a connection between the Homeric narrative and the Strait of Messina. In the Odyssey, the monster Charybdis in her incarnation as a powerful whirlpool at sea, ate sailors. There have been, apparently, several plans to build a bridge from Scilla to Sicily, across the area of the strait of Messina called Cariddi, but this has proved problematic owing to powerful swirls in the water. The natural phenomenon of strong ocean currents is given an expression through recourse to Homeric myths of perilous maritime encounters. Cariddi is the name that locals give to the swells, a name that refers to the Homeric monster known in English as ‘Charybdis.’ Despite this problem, the most recent proposal for a bridge, reputedly the longest suspension bridge in the world, was given the go-ahead in 2002 and is presently under construction (see Jones 2002).
As well as celebrating the Homeric myth of Scylla, certain people of modern day Calabria and Sicily simultaneously identify themselves as Italian yet recognise a strong ancient Greek heritage (see Primerano 2003). This can be historicised through the strong Greek influence on the area in antiquity. Calabria, like other parts of southern Italy, was apparently the location of a peaceful Greek colonisation during, and before, the Classical period of Athens. That parts of Calabria and Sicily belonged to Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, is a point recognised in antiquity and reiterated in certain texts on ancient intercultural contact (Cerchiai et al 2004; Bennet & Paul 2002; Sjöqvist 1973), if only at times in passing (Boardman 1999: 165). Archaeological findings and sites in Agrigento, Locri, Pestaum and Taormina further attest to the fact of Greek colonisation, the most famous examples being the spectacular bronze statues discovered off the coast of Riace, Calabria, in the 1970s and dated around 450 bc (Moreno 1998; Boardman et al 1995: 246f). However, the controversy regarding whether the bronzi ‘belong’ to the colonies in Italy or to the Greek mainland, speaks to the problems and politics of defining and demarcating ‘the classical world.’ Finally, in certain isolated pockets of Calabria, particularly on the coastline facing the Ionian Sea, it is believed that there were towns that spoke versions of ancient Greek up until the 1950s, a point explored by German scholars during the German occupation of Calabria in World War Two. Most famously, Gerard Rohlfs suggested that the language in these isolated pockets stem from ancient Magna Graecia and date from 600 bc onwards (Rohlfs 1980). In fact, in contemporary times, there has been a revival of this ancient Greek language in towns such a Bova Marina, where the street signs are written in both Italian and Greek; Bova Marina also has a strong cultural exchange program with Athens.
Now I do not wish to enact an interpretative closure of the myth here, as either belonging to southern Italy or to ‘mainland’ Greece. Nor do I wish to claim that southern Italy should be ‘acknowledged’ because it is somehow also ancient Greek, as if this association makes it of intrinsic value or of interest to the modern western world. Instead, I want to highlight that the scholarly representation of Calabria in relation to ancient Greece is open to questioning regarding the nature and the timing of cultural contact and, in turn, the possibilities of what ideologies the conventional scholarly discourses might serve. At the risk of overstating a case, just as classical scholarship valorises Athens over other city-states (McManus 1997: 8; Rabinowitz 1993: 10), so, too, does it significantly marginalise the role of southern Italy in its construction of classical antiquity. Indeed, it has been noted that the scholarly commentaries that represent contact between Greece and Italy have been informed by cultural biases, where ‘Greeks’ are seen as a superior people who impose themselves on an inferior and unformed indigenous Italian people (Freeman 1999: 86-8).
This paradigm, which privileges the ancient Greeks over the ancient Italians, is arguably reiterated in the most popular representations of the Scylla myth. The standard and most popular English translations of the Odyssey, for example, are ambivalent about situating southern Italy as a part of the Homeric and ‘classical’ world, probably because this notion problematises and disrupts the dominant representations of ‘classical antiquity’ as specifically Greek. It is as if classical antiquity can and should be visualised along the lines that demarcate the borders of the modern nation-state of Greece, even though we know that there are impressive archaeological sites in the cities of southern Italy. For example, even though Bernard Knox in his introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey vaguely mentions that Messina may be a possible source for the Homeric episode of Scylla (Fagles 1996: 27), Knox does not spell out the implications of the possibility that this episode of the Odyssey is set in the Strait of Messina. Thus, while he concedes that the strait of Messina as the location of the Scylla myth is more plausible than the idea that the Circe legend stems from ancient Greek encounters with Iceland (1996: 25), it is, for Knox, still not plausible enough to initiate or raise questions about the discourses that define the dominant representation of classical antiquity. Indeed, Knox’s comparison of a Homeric Italian connection to a Homeric Icelandic connection in effect trivialises the notion that the Homeric narrative may somehow be connected to southern Italy. This is a point that becomes further highlighted by southern Italy’s conspicuous absence in the text’s cartographic representations of ‘Homeric Geography’ (1996: 68-73).
In another widely available English translation of The Odyssey, Richmond Lattimore mentions the association between Scylla to Messina, only to make the point that this has been subject to many objections, a point that mirrors the ambivalence with which the scholarship treats the idea of the myths of Polyphemus and Cyclopes as Sicilian narratives (Lattimore 1991: 13). Lattimore also makes the point that Greek settlement in Sicily and southern Italy took place from the eighth century onwards and that these were ‘colonies almost or quite as Hellenic as their mother cities in old Greece’ and that they may even date to Mycenaean times (1991: 13). The implications of this idea, however, are tantalisingly underplayed: does this not affect the ways in which the scholarship imagines, defines and represents ‘ancient Greece’ or the world of the Odyssey or the complexity of that narrative’s reception? Similarly, in The Cambridge Companion to Homer, Joseph Farrell’s essay ‘Roman Homer’ acknowledges that ‘Italy’ was mythologised in pre-classical Mediterranean antiquity, notably by Hesiod’s Theogony (Farrell 2001: 255). Hesiod’s text dates more or less to the same time as Homer and is almost as canonical. Despite Farrell’s admission regarding the significance of Italy to the Homeric narrative, Italy remains conspicuously absent from The Cambridge Companion’s cartographic representation of Homeric geography in Robert Fowler’s introductory essay to the collection (Fowler 2001: xviii-xx). Again, there are questions here regarding what discourses motivate such an omission.
While modern Italian oral traditions further or extend the Homeric connection made in antiquity – and thus continue the Hellenic connection advocated by Pelorus and others – modern classics’ scholarship acknowledges these references in antiquity only to heavily qualify them, as if with the phrase ‘only later’ (Ahl & Roisman 1996: 112). In effect, they privilege the Homeric text in a way that may seem commonsensical or natural or as something that somehow goes without saying. The question is, to what extent is the deferral of the southern Italian connection commonsensical, or something that goes without saying? And to what extent is the deferral based on problematic assumptions? Most commentaries on the Scylla myth emphasise that the association between the myth and the Strait of Messina is post-Homeric, thus implying that the Homeric myth was only subsequently projected onto the landscape. This would appear to be consistent with the logistics of Odysseus’ journey, which is usually visualised as occurring across the central and eastern Mediterranean basin; he is travelling to Ithaca, thus it is not to be expected that he would be on the west coast of Italy. However, this disavowal of the southern Italian connection is arguably also informed by a series of problematic and unspoken assumptions about the definitions of the ‘classical world’ and ‘Homeric geography,’ as well as the text’s supposed correspondence with a realistic geography. The disavowal of the southern Italian connection is also at risk of buying into the naïve idea that the Homeric text refers to unified mythical narrative traditions, as well as subscribing to a problematic claim regarding the implicit and central value of the Homeric text over its competing counterparts that also represent the narrative of Scylla. All of these unspoken assumptions raise questions that problematise the conventional interpretation of the Scylla myth as somehow belonging or referring to mainland ancient Greece and that, indeed, contest the canonical notion and definition of ‘ancient Greece’ and classical antiquity.
If the association between the Homeric narrative and Scilla remains ambivalent in academic scholarship, the southern Italian association between Scilla-the-place and the Homeric episode of Scylla and Charybdis remains firmly entrenched in the cultural life of Calabria, where it is a generally accepted belief that Scilla is the location of the Homeric episode. As a direction for politicising the discrepancy between these two receptions of the Scylla myth, the folk narratives of southern Italy can be read as an example of Michel Foucault’s subjugated knowledges. That is, the folk narratives form a history that has a particular, structural relationship to the discourses of official history, which systematically disqualifies them (Foucault 1980: 82). Positioned in this light, the folk narratives raise broader questions regarding why, exactly, the officiating discourses disqualify the Italian narratives. Thus, the difference between officiating academic discourses and local folk beliefs of a Homeric connection point toward epistemological issues and the politicising questions raised by postmodern historiography. Needing recognition in the particular receptions of the Scylla myth, then, are the implicit ways in which they construct a covert meaning through the particularities of their framing of the myth. The difference between both modern and ancient southern Italian local histories and the officiating discourse of classical scholarship may be, and usually is, readable in non-political terms, that is, as simply competing narratives representations, where one is arguably more authentic or otherwise more informed or more credible than the other. However, it is also possible to question or read the apparent marginalisation of both the ancient and modern southern Italian narratives in political terms, and in ways that begin, self-consciously, to account for why certain narratives become privileged over others.
Implicit within the Italian Scylla’s scholarly reception is a marginalisation of southern Italy that does not appear to be reflexive upon the systematic, natural privileging of the Homeric myth or of ‘the classical’ period or of the idea that centralises ‘Greece’ itself. This raises a number of questions about the partiality of the scholarship. More specifically, there are questions surrounding the dominance of northwestern European scholarship over the discourses of ‘the classics’ (Morris, 2000: 50), just as there are questions about the historic marginalisation of northern Italy over the south (Primerano 2003). What do these framing and informing contexts have to bear on the study, recovery and representation of Italy’s antiquity? To what extent do they impinge, compromise, or add nuance to the professedly objective discourses of the scholarship? These are questions that I, as a literary critic trained in English and Cultural Studies rather than in Classics, can perhaps raise better than I can answer. However, I read it as significant that these questions – which are both epistemological and political – do not appear to have a presence in the dominant scholarly treatments of either the myth or the canonical textbooks in the field. These questions are, for example, conspicuously absent in The Oxford History of the Classical World (Boardman et al 1995). Indeed, these are questions that are not usually part of the classical discourses of ancient history; they are, after all, questions that problematise and politicise ‘knowledge’ in a discipline that ostensibly prides itself as being objective, value free, and beyond partisan politics. This absence, this seeming resistance to epistemological reflexivity, as will be seen, is for the most part due to the conventions with which the classics as a discipline tends to operate and the dominance of its empiricist or otherwise positivist methodologies in reconstructing antiquity. However, other perspectives, both within and outside the classics, problematise the political neutrality of this type of classics’ scholarship, and thus begin to account for the contrary receptions of the Scylla myth.
The Culture War over the ‘Classical’ Tradition’
The controls embedded in the dominant epistemologies of the disciplines that study and construct antiquity seem to be as powerful as they are conservative. As Philip Kohl and Clare Fawcett point out in their introduction to Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology, the fact that it is considered ‘radical’ to propose that contemporary identities might have an investment in constructions of ancient history demonstrates the political and philosophical conservatism of the classics and the fields of ancient history studies. Thus, the relationship between archaeology and nationalism is an under-conceptualised, ‘if not prohibited,’ topic in North American and European archaeological traditions (Kohl & Fawcett 1995: 9). This under-conceptualisation of the complicity between identity and history, politics and antiquity, is in part due to the dominant methodologies in the classics. As noted by the feminist classicist Barbara McManus, despite its heavy emphasis on empiricism and positivism, the classics consistently tends to refuse to theorise its own practice and all explicit forms of theory, stubbornly constructing itself as ‘the most objective and scientific of all the humanities’ (1997: 3).
However, it is precisely the classics’ methodological predilections that are the indicators of its historical formation and complicity with hegemonic politics, and what Nancy Rabinowitz describes as the right-wing devotion to antiquity (1993: 12). Indeed, as noted by Ian Morris, the institutionalisation of the study of ancient history was complicit with the age of empire, and a moment in which northwestern European academic imperialism over Greece promoted the ideology of Europe’s symbolic domination (2000: 50). Further, northwestern Europeans constructed an intellectual monopoly on the heritage of ancient Greece from the late eighteenth century onwards so that the notion of classical Greek origins became integral to the definition of ‘European-ness’ and a foundation myth of Western supremacy (Morris 2000: 37-38). Morris also points out that, in the context of the English-speaking world, although Greece was set up to represent an allegedly universal human experience, that experience was informed by the moral, social and political values of genteel upper-class English society.
Indeed, the classics have a particular and privileged symbolic position in the western imagination. By definition, the notion of ‘the classical’ enacts a conservative politics because it defines what is supposed to be intrinsically valuable (McManus 1997: 1; Rabinowitz 1993: 3). In addition, the fact that there are ‘classical’ periods in different cultures would appear to suggest that the term ‘the classics’ takes on a monolithic, universalising significance for the West. It is as if the discourses of the classics might be relevant to everyone and as if any given text of ‘the classics’ has the status of being a classic, a mainstay, a canon.
The history of the classics further suggests that it is not simply a genteel academic pursuit. On the contrary, the scholarship of the classics has been integral to the appropriation and material plundering of ancient artefacts. The high-profile ‘Culture War’ surrounding what is called ‘The Elgin Marbles,’ for example, demonstrates this complicity between academic studies and imperialism. Linked to what David Lowenthal describes as the ‘cult of heritage’ (1998: 1), the title of ‘The Elgin Marbles’ itself is testimony to the discursive machinery of British cultural imperialism. Indeed, right-wing nationalistic interests often mobilise archaeology to bolster the construction of royal ancestries or particular ethnic groups or families; they do this in ways that are suggestive of archaeology’s complicity with what Bruce Trigger describes as its ‘interested’ and ideological agenda (1995: 266). Other dissident voices within the classics, especially those mobilising the discourses of feminism, also note the complicity between the classics and constructions of masculine subjectivity; landmark texts include those of Zeitlin (1985), Rabinowitz (1993), and McManus (1997).
It is, however, the grand narrative of ‘western subjectivity’ that is the most powerful discursive vehicle that foregrounds the complicity between ‘the classics’ and the ideologies embedded within the construction of ‘the West.’ The grand narrative of the West having cultural origins in ancient Greece highlights the implicit identity politics of the classics. While the meta-narrative of the western subject may be vague, it is also omnipresent in popular culture and as influential as it is problematic (see Federici 1995). Popular texts written by academics on the ancient world typically perpetuate this meta-narrative in terms of a valorisation of Classical Greece as a key institution of the West, usually unquestioningly and uncritically. Charles Freeman’s text The Greek Achievement: Tthe Foundation of the Western World, for example, may be taken as representative of the dominant imaginings of the relevance of ancient Greece to the contemporary western world. The text’s subtitle, ‘the foundation of the western world,’ clearly reinforces the conventional Ur narrative of the West. The publisher’s blurb on the cover of at least one edition goes one step further, constructing ancient Greece as ‘the foundation of the Western world for a new millennium.’ ‘Ancient Greece’ here becomes the foundation of Western Civilisation, entrenched for the foreseeable future, the ‘new millennium,’ and immovable in importance to ‘the West’ and to societies who claim to be modern liberal democracies with this ancient ‘western’ heritage. Thus, it is not only truth and history that are the trophies of an objective western academia, the ‘true history’ of Ur Greece also becomes the possession of ‘the West’ and an extension of its contemporary, corporate identity. Missing in the discussion, however, is how Greece came to be the ‘birthplace’ of western civilisation in the first instance, and the identity of who exactly possesses this history of the West.
The ostensibly radical idea that the notion of ‘classical antiquity’ may be a modern construction informs Martin Bernal’s brilliant but notorious Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation. The text is iconoclastic, and the debates surrounding it make it the most controversial and problematic culture war with which the classics have grappled in recent years. Black Athena offers a reading of the classics as a discourse informed by the ideologies of imperialism and racism, thus contextualising the classics’ emergence as an academic discipline during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The basic thesis is that the cultures of Egypt and the Phoenicians in particular massively influenced the formation of classical Greek culture, an influence that the dominant discourses of the classics systematically marginalise or otherwise deny (Bernal 1987: 5). To many non-experts in classical culture and ancient history studies, it makes a cogent case regarding the influence of the ancient cultures of Phoenicia and Egypt upon its neighbour, Greece. Some experts in the field, however, tend to be more ambivalent or hostile to its arguments, often for reasons that are either highly specialised and technical or otherwise not particularly obvious (see Berlinerblau 1999; Lefkowitz & Rogers 1996).
I will not go into the intricacies of the rather complex debate here, but I mention the culture war of Black Athena to highlight that the representation of classical antiquity, insofar as it is pivotal to the Ur narrative of the western identity, is also politically loaded. It is unsurprising and predictable, then, that vehement contestation takes place when this dominant paradigm of western subjectivity is under threat. The reason why antiquity can be, and is, a site of such highly charged contestation is because it is a discursive space that enjoys a privileged position in the western scholarly and popular imagination and because there is much at stake in its representation. This is a point that the debates against both Black Athena and Afrocentrism are testimony to, and a point which they conveniently marginalise by their appeals for greater ‘objectivity’ in mapping and (re)producing ancient history – appeals that fail to consider the problematics of such an appeal in the first instance.
As well as implicitly promoting a unifying concept that occludes difference (‘Western civilisation’), the classics, like other scholarly disciplines, is readable in Marxist terms: as a part of the discursive mechanisms of social and ideological reproduction. As noted by Gayatri Spivak, academics are not so much disseminators of ‘education’ as much as vehicles for the narrative and ideological purposes of the State. Thus, the idea that the individual scholar is a subject in control of his or her material is to a significant extent a misnomer: the ‘sovereign subject’ of the scholar is never in complete control of his or her text (Spivak 1988: 108). While Spivak overstates a case here, the contention that scholars are controlled by the meta-narratives that inform their discipline is an important epistemological consideration in the representation, production and theorisation of ancient history. In the context of the classics and what might be called its ‘culture wars,’ the idea of the sovereignty of the disciplinary discourse over the scholar is a particularly useful one. It begins to account for the different narratives traditions and receptions of, for example, the Scylla myth. It also enables a politicisation of that which has feigned innocence and neutrality for so long, an innocence that, in the case of the classics, seems compromised by this discipline’s particular and historic complicity with western imperialism, and shifting hegemonies of gender, class and race, as well as right-wing politics. While, as a scholarly discourse, the classics is not unique in having this complicity with social hegemonies, it should be acknowledged that the classics have a privileged, pivotal and symbolic role to the formative narratives that define the west, the western subject and western civilisation. However, while the discourses of the classics underpin these powerful and definitive grand narratives of ‘the West,’ the postmodern world and its attendant culture wars commence the project of its ostensible deconstruction, partial dismantlement and potential reconstruction. Only history will tell if the dissident discourses of the culture wars will leave their mark on the classics as a discipline, and whether the classics will escape the postmodern milieu relatively unscathed, with grand narratives intact.
Conclusion: the Cultural Capital of the Classics
The politics of the discourses that construct classical antiquity, and the ways in which its mythology and its history have been used if not ‘possessed’ by the West since the Renaissance, is both fascinating and complex. In this regard, two of the characteristic questions of postmodern criticism position the relevance of ancient history studies into high relief. Firstly, there are the questions regarding the political orientation of the epistemologies of the academic fields operating under the umbrella of ancient history – histories that also have a demonstrable complicity with various, shifting forms of modern identity. In the context of this paper, the classics’ predilection for positivist methodologies could usefully be placed in dialogue with the critiques that denaturalise the universalising traditions of this type of scholarship, traditions that are not only complicit with the Enlightenment but also, by extension, with European imperialism. Secondly, there are broad, epistemological questions of textuality, representation, and access to truth or the ‘transcendental signifier’ in the context of ancient history narratives. These questions of textuality, while they may be properly under the jurisdiction of post-structuralism, are continuous with postmodernism’s emphases on the unavailability of reality, the bombardment of information in a globalised world, and what Jean-Francois Lyotard famously refers to as postmodernism’s incredulity and scepticism towards grand narratives (Lyotard 1984: 37). After all, what is the Ur narrative of the origins of Western civilisation in Classical Greece, if not one of the ‘grand narratives’ to which Lyotard refers?
My delineation of the uses of ancient history emphasises that constructions of the ancestry of the West are not neutral or self-evident, but complicit with particular ideologies, social hegemonies, identities, and in some cases, conflicts that might be termed ‘culture wars.’ More specifically, the historical discourses that frame the Scylla myth, like those that represent southern Italy, could usefully take into consideration the various competing ideologies that frame, problematise, and arguably construct it. That is, the scholarship could consider the ideologies that inform the dominant scholarly discourses of the classics as well as the ideologies that inform the power relations between northern and southern Italy. Both of these frameworks or receiving contexts raise questions that have a bearing on the representation of Mediterranean antiquity. In other words, when asked the question – for whom exactly is the connection between southern Italy to ancient Mediterranean culture of marginal significance – it would be irresponsible to not consider the cultural politics associated with the northern European scholarly monopoly and valorisation of what we now call and define as ‘the ancient Greek world,’ and especially Athens. Similarly, it would be irresponsible to marginalise the significance of the cultural politics associated with the ongoing cultural battle between northern and southern Italy, and comparable questions of hegemony that may have a bearing on the scholarly discourses of southern Italy’s antiquity.
To return to the theme of Herodotus as the ‘Father of Lies,’ histories ‘lie’ embedded in historians’ framing discourses, including their self-conscious and unconscious ideologies, a framework that necessarily compromises any immediate claim to truth. Herodotus here may serve as a prototypical example of not only the historian’s project, but of the intricacy of historiography: the perils of historical narrative becoming ‘myth’ – a foundational disciplinary anxiety – and the complex relationship that history necessarily has to myth, assuming of course that such a distinction can be upheld. A culture war that can attain dialogue with this postmodern paradigm enables the complexity and the politics of competing perspectives to be contextualised, displacing naïve acts of closure and finalisation and the idea of history as the unmediated transmission of facts. Dialogue is finally inevitable and fixed meanings can only become unfixed in the battle for interpretative hegemony. In this sense, interpretation itself always enacts a type of culture war by challenging and shifting previous interpretations of history.
Reading history, especially ancient history, politically and critically, and. in the context of the postmodern milieu, symbolically, positions the historian of antiquity between Scylla and the deep blue sea of Charybdis. It is a position with ‘no hope for rest’ as Moncrieff poetically affirms at the header to this essay. The myth of Scylla itself, then, as well as being a site of scholarly contestation regarding the definition of the classical world, is also an apt metaphor for the perilous task of re-presenting ancient history. Ancient history always constructs a double dialogue; in representing a past, it also necessarily represents, in one way or another, the present. And in doing so, it necessarily compromises any claim that it might make to a universal, stable or unmediated truth: in this respect, at least, the arguments of postmodern historians are persuasive. However, rather than this being a ‘negative’ position or a symbolic no-man’s land, the dialectical and reflexive position of the cultural historian of antiquity between Scylla and Charybdis, between a naïve claim to truth and an acknowledgement of history’s textuality, is a dynamic and useful one. This is not to deny outright the possibilities of access or to promote a glib relativism or lack of engagement with the ethics of historical discourse. But it is to express scepticism towards the uncritical, celebratory claiming of ancient history as the possession of ‘the West,’ as exemplified for example by certain popular texts of ancient and classical Greek history, when in fact there is a case to be made that the antique history of ‘the West’ belongs to some ‘westerners’ more than others. With postmodern reflexivity, truth is not a destination; rather it is the result of an ongoing and shifting process of a negotiation of ideas, and thus a veritable Scylla. Uncovering ancient history in a postmodern world is an odyssey requiring constant and ongoing negotiation, except there is no resting place, no Ithaca. The destination of the academic Odysseus is ever elusive.
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