What Future, Classics?

This weekend's events at the 2019 AIS/SCS annual meeting in San Diego will go down as some of the most important in our field's history, I think. In part because so much of it has been captured on video and on Twitter. But also because it forced to the surface what has been percolating below the surface forever--the field of classics has now and has always had a racism problem. It isn't just the use of classics by overt white nationalist and white supremacist groups. It isn't something locked in the past like the use of the Apollo Belvedere and Myron's Discobolus as examples of perfected white bodies.

Laurence Fishburne as Prof. Maurice Phipps Higher Learning
It's the assumptions, in fact, that scholars of color in our field only have places because they are not white, as if only white people are capable of truly understanding the classics, while black people are incapable. This is a very old and toxic lie, but one that continues to haunt our field. As I said in a Facebook comment to a friend: "This whole desire to abstract both ourselves and our work from who we are is a way to ensure that there is an invisible norm against which anyone else can be measured. You can't say who the norm is, though, because then it reveals all the -isms it is laden with." It's the only that is the problem. Because sometimes, as stated so eloquently by Dan-el Pedilla Peralta, ones blackness should be the reason they are hired:
 I should have been hired because I was black: because my Afro-Latinity is the rock-solid foundation upon which the edifice of what I have accomplished and everything I hope to accomplish rests; because my black body’s vulnerability challenges and chastizes the universalizing pretensions of color-blind classics; because 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.
Yes, please. Let's all say this together: they should have been hired because they are black.


A few years ago, I was the chair of my university's personnel committee. We had spent a couple of years trying to remove exclusionary language from our job ads and ranking criteria--for example, when you say "small liberal arts experience preferred" you ensure that your applicant pool will likely be about 85-90% white, and that any candidate who applies who did not attend or previously work at a small liberal arts college will start at a deficit in the rankings and thus not rise to the top of the pool, regardless of other qualifications. Such criteria also ensures a level of group-think or sameness in educational philosophy among the candidate pool. This isn't a good thing, if you want a vibrant and dynamic faculty and one that will better match the growing diversity of the student populations on campus.

There were other measures as well to increase the number of applicants and ensure fairer treatment for non-white middle/upper class candidates, too, like an improved diversity statement, implicit bias training, etc. Whether it has worked or not is an issue for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it made some faculty uncomfortable.

One faculty member whose department was conducting a search sent me an email and wanted to ask some questions about the diversity statement and other measures the university was taking around hiring. He wanted to propose a hypothetical situation and see what I would say. The hypothetical was the following: say their department was hiring someone in perception psychology and they had two candidates who were in all ways equal except for one way--one of the candidates was blind. He wanted to know if, according to our 'new' hiring policies, would they be required to hire the blind candidate. In other words, would he have to hire someone only because they were blind.

The problem with this hypothetical is the only.

The reason for hiring the blind candidate is not only because they are blind, but because they are blind. Being blind means that the individual has experienced the world differently to other members of the department. It means that the way they perceive and receive and comprehend the world has to happen differently. This difference means that they will bring something to the program, to the classroom, to faculty meetings, to their scholarly inquiries that are unlike what others who have not experienced the world in the same way. In other words, they bring something dynamic and vibrant and meaningful that didn't exist there before.

The other thing they do, of course, is to provide an opportunity to students who may have thought that being in front of a classroom and being a scholar was not for them to learn that it is for them. This value cannot be underestimated. Those experiences are embodied in the person standing before them, in the voice of the scholar, in the ideas and the questions and the answers, in the assignments they craft, the syllabi they decide upon. If you continue to hire similar people, then what happens in the classroom and in the scholarship and in the leadership and contributions to the college are the same.

I explained this to my colleague, who seemed unconvinced at the time that there was no such thing as only when it came to hiring someone who had experienced and navigated the world differently.  Some people, after all, like sameness. They don't want surprise. Difference makes them uncomfortable. And they are willing to hire someone only because they are like them because it means they can avoid that discomfort.


Although my colleague used the issue of sightedness to ask his question, race is often the real question on people's minds. And when someone says to them that they should hire a person because  they are not white, because that brings something to the program that another white colleague can't, this means that there must be some reason, some prejudice, that converts that because to an only, that seeks to negate the value of that different experience and perspective. And that means, as @rogueclassicist remarked on Twitter the other day, that a whole lot of white people will need to start wondering whether they only got hired because they are white.



The Annual Wrap: A Year of Living Publicly

It's that time of year again when all the blogs and podcasts post lists of their top posts for the year. 2018 has been a hell of a year for many people--and I mean hell as in a Sisyphean nightmare type of hellscape, not "that's one hell of a year!" raucous fun type of hell. It seems frequently that we are falling further into the public enjoyment of cruelty than in any other time in the recent past. Whether it is our president tweeting away any responsibility his policies have for the deaths of children in government custody, Rep. Peter King saying "well, it was only two children!", the Office of Personnel Management suggesting furloughed federal employees barter services and play handyman for their landlords while the president postures for his Fox TV friends over a wall that we don't need and won't do anything anyway. And, while #metoo may have gotten renewed attention this year and more women are speaking out and being listened too, white feminism continues to rear its head in obvious and painful ways.

With a year like this, it's been hard to have much positive to say on the blog. I've been mostly pondering the continuing ways the classics is being used to promote white supremacism, but also reflecting on the ways my research and what is happening in our world today intersect and collide. Some things that got started but never finished? A summation of my tweeted-reading of Chapoutot's Greeks, Romans, and Germans, for example. Or the reflection on teaching a course on classics in fascist and white supremacist regimes (I will get this one done before classes resume in the spring).

Anyway, here is hoping next year brings us all some much needed relief from pushing the same rocks up hills over and over again AND here is a look back at my 10 most read posts from 2018.



10: The Rewards Outweigh the Risks— Advocating for Public Scholarship in an Era of White Supremacy

This is the text of the talk I gave at the 2018 Classical Association of Canada Annual Meeting on why we should do public facing scholarship, how to support it, and what some of the risks may be. 

9. White Supremacy and Classics Scholarship on Race and Ethnicity

Text of the talk I gave at CAMWS 2018. I examined why classicists avoid using 'race' or reject that race existed in antiquity and why this position has led those outside academia to reject scholarship on ethnicity in antiquity as ideologically driven, emboldening white supremacists and, ceding the debates on race and genetics to those who believe race is a biological fact instead of a social, political, and economic fact. Some discussion of the UNESCO statements on race included.

8. The Historically Contingent 'Race' Problem

On the problems about talking about 'race' with reference to antiquity, how this can lead to people talking past each other, and scholarly 'detachment' as an obstacle to engaging the present while reflecting on the past. 

7. On Nationalisms, Classical Antiquity, and Our Inhumanity

Every once in awhile, I get emails about my blog. Usually, it's haters. Sometimes, it's people who agree with me but for all the wrong reasons. As I discuss here, replacing one nationalistic argument for another doesn't fix the problem of modern nationalist claims on the classical. 

6.  When is an "Appropriation" Appropriation?

In classics, we deal with multiple levels of appropriation: of the classical past by modern groups, of Greece by Rome, of Egypt by Greece, an onward. But the language of appropriation today carries with it meanings that sometimes lead to confusion about what it and isn't 'appropriation' versus cultural melding or borrowing or resistance. I try here to engage that confusion with a little help from Craig Jenkins and Frank Guan.

5. Using Freedpersons as an Argument for an Inclusive Rome?

This one came to me compliments of my students wondering if Rome's freedperson system meant they were 'inclusive' and meant that slavery in antiquity was somehow 'better' than modern forms. I have a really hard time thinking that slavery in any form is somehow 'better'. 

4. The Ancient Frat Bro and a History of Legal Disregard of Women

The Kavanaugh hearings got me all kinds of upset--it's one of those moments when my research and real life come too close for comfort, when thousands of years of legal violence against women gets played out on an international stage in a very public forum and all we can do is watch knowing that crying over one's love of beer by a former Yale frat bro will gather more sympathy than testifying to attempted rape by same beer lover. This one (and an accompanying tweet) got me written up in a sad excuse for a hit piece in the College Fix and got me some awesome fascist mailings that I'm saving for posterity. But I would not unwrite it. 

3. On Being a [Foreign] Woman in Classical Athens

Another one that comes right from my research which I wrote it on International Women's Day as a counter to all the posts about famous women in history. Sometimes, we need to remember the not-famous women who lived precarious lives and didn't manage to 'overcome their difficulties.'  Life doesn't work that way and neither should history writing.

2. The Dorian Invasion and 'White' Ownership of Classical Greece?

Here I explain the long debunked but still ridiculously popular Dorian Invasion myth and how it influenced the discussions (and white supremacist backlash) against the casting of a Nigerian actor as Achilles in the BBC's Troy: Fall of a City. This one is getting folded into an article for a new volume on the show, so look for more on this in the future.


AND THE #1 POST OF 2018 IS...

1. Problematic Scholar, Problematic Scholarship?

This one is actually the #2 read post of all time on my blog, which is odd given that it is a bit of inside baseball--i.e. it is really something to do with the field of classics specifically and academia. I wrote it after receiving more than a dozen emails or comments from colleagues and students about both the talks and the class. It's more information sharing than anything and can let people make their own decisions. But we always struggle with the problems of how to treat the scholarship of problematic scholars, whether it is Avital Ronell or Holt Parker or others. How to deal with it needs to be made by each one of us everytime we create a syllabus or write a related article or book. The fact that this one continues to be read every week by more people than other posts suggests I'm not the only one who struggles with the issue.


HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Two posts I also want to mention that were ones I loved, but didn't make the top 10:

Museums as "Trojan Horses": on my work as a museum director and how we can and should use our exhibitions to tell the bigger story and not just those of the elite, white, men who have been at the heart of museums' development since their inception. 

Wine and Milk: Drinking Cultures as Acts of Exclusion (by Dr. Kate Topper): MY FIRST EVER GUEST BLOG! And it was awesome. If you want to know what milk chugging by white supremacist groups has to do with the ancient symposium, check out what Kate has to say!






So, there you have it. The blog's year end round up. Next year, I will be posting up lots of things as I am working on lots of projects that need finishing and writing on the blog helps me think. So, look for more posts on race and ethnicity in antiquity, immigrant women in Athens, and the way antiquity continues to be engaged in the modern world.
  

Identity Politics and Classics: The Universal vs. the Particular

Stupendous colleague, Dr. Amy Pistone, recently tweeted some responses to my last blog post on the Claiming the Classical workshop that I think are really astute and worth engaging. Her response got me to think a bit more about one of the comments I made that she had thoughts on.



To my idea of universalism and imperial conditioning, Amy added the idea of hybridity:


Colonial contexts are complicated and have a complicated relationship to classics because of the history of classics as a tool for empire and exclusion. This means that there is no single reason or single way for those so excluded to engage with classics. Hybridity offers of good way to think about some of these engagements.



Hybridity as a concept does have its limitations, however, as Rosa Andujar discussed in her discussion of Luis Alfaro's Mojada (Medea) at the Racing the Classics conference. sometimes decolonial receptions fail to interrogate their own racist foundations, particular in Latin America, where indigenous peoples are often inserted as pre-Columbian fantasies, frozen in time. Or, as Armando Garcia discussed at the same conference concerning Rodolfo Usigli, the elevation of the pre-colonial past still finds itself framed through European/Classical frames, while the indigenous falls prey to tragic tropes. 

The question of the positioning of classics as universal is not simple nor separate from the issue of resistance. It is, in fact, intimately connected and shapes that resistance in so far as the resistance is typically positioned by the resisted as 'particular' or as a self defeating and needless 'identity politics' vs that hegemonic, universal, and necessary 'classical.' This is because of this problem of classics as universal and its linked to European whiteness and maleness as 'norm' and the positioning of 'identity politics' as deviation from the supposedly universal norms of classical, European male whiteness and the social, political, and economic institutions that support it. This what I am pondering this morning. I know I'm not the first person to ponder this problem called 'identity politics' nor will my conclusions here be unique. Importantly for me, though, is the fallacy that the ancient world was without identity politics and any discussion of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or class in classics is an imposition of post-modern, cultural marxist anachronism. This is patently false.


So, my question is 'is there such a thing as identity politics in classical antiquity?' Let's start with what identity politics means. If one does a search on Google for 'what is identity politics?' you end up with lots of articles that tell us all about how dangerous and destructive identity politics are, how antithetical they are to the 'real world' (tm) and how they should disappear (though there are some good discussions on it as well, like the one from Philoso?hy Talk). Identity politics are also predominantly in popular discourse associated with 'leftist' politics, as if conservative 'right' and centrist politics is completely uninterested in identity. For example...

The Urban Dictionary's current 'top definition' of Identity Politics is representative of the sort of bias and intentional misinformation presented about identity:


But, there are many who recognize that Identity Politics is not what burgerva thinks it is. For example, another top definition from UD:


These may be reflective of what the average person thinks when they hear 'identity politics'. We can't say 'non-academics', of course, because there are ample academics who want to get rid of what they refer to as 'identity studies' or 'grievance studies' or, really, anything that isn't a traditional department, but instead is a 'studies' program and these are linked to identity politics. If this is one's attitude towards issues of identity in the contemporary world, it goes without saying that the same individuals will reject the study of identity in the ancient world. Or, will reject studies of identity in the ancient world that don't align with what they think of as universal types of identity vs. particulars.

We see this especially with the issue of race and ethnicity. We've had about 30-40 years now of ethnicity studies in the ancient Mediterranean, but race is still nascent. Part of the issue is because racist approaches before 1950 to study antiquity used the language of race to mean explicitly a biological difference between groups of humans that impact their physical appearance and character and that physical appearance determines character, intelligence, etc. To counter this, the language of race was dropped and ethnicity (a 20th century coinage) was picked up and pretended frequently to be about culture, while often still essentializing that culture into geographic, national, heritable character and physical attributes.

We also have the problem in the US that 'race' has been reduced far too often to a problem of whiteness and blackness. These are particular manifestations of race, not the sum total. But, when one says they are exploring 'race' in antiquity, there is an assumption that this means exploring blackness (as if blackness is itself inflexible and unchanging a concept). And, because of the way Classics and the classical world have been assimilated to whiteness in our contemporary world (I've written about this before), those who oppose the study of race in antiquity will point to the whiteness of Greece and Rome and the essentialist view that black = sub-saharan African and conclude that you are forcing modern identity politics onto the classical past. Again, it is an issue of the universal and the particular, but of a different kind.

Of course, this may seem odd of me to say. I am suggesting here that he ancient world had identity politics that can be understood as aspects of race. The ancient Greek and Roman ways of understanding identity aren't universal and should not be assumed to be universal, but they do have particular ways of thinking that can help us understand that there is a somewhat universal aspect to the struggle over identity and one of its manifestations as 'race.' Meaning, we should not take the Athenians as a model for all that is 'civilized' and adhere to their anti-immigrant laws because they represent a universal norm that modern societies are deviating from. Rather, we should understand their anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner rhetoric and laws as particular manifestations of a more universal habit towards organizing humans that we call 'race'. This organizing habit called 'race' often manifests as a dominant group being set as the universal norm and any challenges by those the dominant group excludes are considered deviations and called 'identity politics'.

How can I say this is a universal habit? Well, I can't say its universal. I can say, however, that it is transcultural and transhistorical. It appears in lots of different geographic spaces in lots of different time periods. My evidence for this is..well...there is a lot of evidence for it. But when I think of ancient Greece in particular, one of the easiest ways to see that identity politics existed and that it functioned in part in a way we might see as coinciding with the organizational principles of race and ethnicity is on tombstones.

Tomb of Melitta. Athens. IG II2 7873/SEG 30.235.
Tombstones from all over the ancient Greek world tell us the stories of the lives of everyday people--what jobs they did, whom they married, who their parents or children were, what they valued, how they were valued by others. These are all identities, or aspects of the identity of that person. We know that there are a politics to this based on who gets what sorts of images, what is said about them and how the tombs locate those people vis a vis the place of their burial. I'll demonstrate with an example.

Here is the text of the tomb for a woman named Melitta.

"[[Melitta]] daughter of the isotelês Apollodoros, Melitta the nurse. In this place the earth covers over the deserving nurse of Hippostratê, and even now she misses you. I held you dear while you lived, nurse, and still now honor you although you are beneath the earth, and will honor you as long as I live. I know that even in Hades, if there is any reward for the deserving, the foremost honors rest with you, nurse, in the house of Persephone and Pluto."

Melitta's tomb was found in Athens and dates from the 4th century BCE. Her tomb tells us that she is the daughter of someone named Apollodoros, who was an isoteles. This means that she is the daughter of an Athenian resident foreigner (metic) who has been given a special status--he is exempted from paying the taxes normally only assigned to resident foreigners living in the city. This means that he must have done some sort of service to the state in order to be granted special privileges. She worked as a nurse. The image on the tomb pictures her with a child, who may have represented Hippostrate, whose family likely is responsible for setting up the tombstone.

There is a lot going on here that tells us about the politics of identity in Athens. First is that the tax status of Melitta's father was so important to her identity that it IS her identifying characteristic on the tomb. It tells us where she ranks in the social and political hierarchy of classical Athens. She is the child of a privileged metic--her father wasn't a citizen, but he had managed to move himself up to one of the tax equality with citizens. Also important, however, is her job as a nurse. Not only does it sit right next to her identification as a privileged metic, but it is figured in the image and is the central identity highlighted in the tombs epigram. It is her relationship to the citizen family who likely funded the tombstone.

It makes sense that the family she worked for would  emphasize that she was a beloved caretaker in their family (probably long term). But why emphasize her political status within the city as part of the tomb? Because that identity mattered not only to Melitta, but it probably also mattered to the citizen family she worked for. They didn't have a slave nurse, they had a free(born) nurse. It elevated the status of the citizen family she worked for within the class dynamics of Athens. This is an instance of identity politics--the nurse Melitta is part of the politically excluded classes of Athens as both a foreigner and a woman. She is also 'working class'. But, she had access to some level of privilege in that her father had been given special status within that excluded class and she must have considered this an important aspect of her identity while alive. Her citizen employers thought it important enough to put it on her tomb.

We might consider whether the use of the isoteles on the tomb to mark her privileged status among the foreign immigrants of Athens was an act of resistance to her subordinate, excluded status (as both a woman and a non-citizen). But, of course, she could only offer that resistance to being subordinated within the framework of her exclusion--isoteles marked her as both a child of privilege among foreigners in the city and as a member of a politically impotent class. Her work as a nurse underscored her inability to access the social status of elite citizen women who would never have worked as nurses, but only hired them.

The hybridity might come from the fact that Melitta was likely also Greek and the iconography of the tomb and the use of the Greek language are shared by the community of Greeks to which the Athenians belonged in the broader Mediterranean. But her political status as isoteles only had meaning within the context of her subordination, her need to work as a mark of her exclusion from the norms of the citizen woman. Melitta's family, like many Greeks in antiquity, probably went to Athens for the financial opportunities offered by an imperial city and trade center. They may have gone there under the pressures of the wars between Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Persia, ad others for dominance in the Aegean in the 5th and 4th centuries. Migrating to Athens may have brought them some financial stability, but they were continually marked out for who they were not by laws and norms of representation. Another instance of a universal vs. a particular and of the potential shortcomings of hybridity as a theory for overcoming the discourse of empire.


I am not sure if this post went where I had planned it to go when I started. Probably not. But that's ok. Because issues of identity are complicated. Identity politics--that thing that we supposedly should get rid of because it is destroying our society and has no place in the study of the ancient world--is a challenge to engage. But it is ingrained in the histories of the world and we do ourselves and future generations a disservice by pretending its some contemporary trend of leftist academics designed to undermine our social and political systems. Unless, of course, by undermine we mean 'point out the shortcomings and show how those systems punish and oppress members of non-dominant groups so we can make them less oppressive.' Because that is, in fact, the point. But, of course, those who want to exclude identity politics are likely those who already know how the system works and simply want to keep it that way.

Claiming 'The Classical:' A Reflection

Neville Morley speaks on the EU and the classical.

Last week, I participated in a workshop in London at the Institute for Classical Studies in London called 'Claiming the Classical' with a wonderful and impressive group of students and scholars working to understand how the idea of the 'classical' manifests in 21st century politics. The organizers were Naoise Mac Sweeney and Helen Roche. The idea behind the workshop was a first step in creating a 'international network of academics, researchers and other interested parties. Together, we work to examine the use of classical antiquity in twenty-first century politics." This first of hopefully many meetings and discussions tried to map many of these 21st century political uses. This blog is a reflection on what I took away from it.



So, what is 'the classical' and how do people claim it? 

Put 'the classical' into google and the top choice for completion is 'the classical world.' Typically the 'classical' encompasses the literature, arts, and history of ancient Greece and Rome, but limited to the years between 8th c BCE and the 4th century CE. Give or take a century or two or four on one end or the other. We identify 'the classical' with specific styles of art and architecture, literary forms, genres, with references to specific authors., with specific clothing and weaponry--things that look like a stereotypical "Greek" or 'Roman" thing, like the columns shown above, or togas, or a pegasus. or the sculpture casts shown here in a photo from the Beijing airport shared by Dr. Michael Scott (University of Warwick) at the 'Claiming the Classical' workshop.



Elif Koparal (Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University) on
the classical in Turkey.
'The classical' typically excludes the 'eastern' Asian and North African neighbors of Greece and Italy--its one of the things that makes the China example above so intriguing: who is the intended audience for this image? Why show Chinese art students copying the classical casts? Should we see these artists surpassing or assimilating 'the classical' through their own engagement? It's hard to say. In Turkey, a land with far more direct claims to the classical than the United States or northern Europeans, we saw the classical being claimed only as a commodity--the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine pasts of Anatolia marketed to 'westerners' who seem to think Turkey's rich archaeological sites are of value.

'The classical' also typically excludes the northern European neighbors of ancient Greece and Rome, except when they wrote in Greek or Latin, or, more importantly for this post, when those northern Europeans were 18th-21st century British, German, or French scholars, artists, and governments, whose claims to be the inheritors of 'the classical' formed part of their national identities at one time or another in their history. These claims by the British and the Germans especially have embedded the classical into the psyches of the nation so that the Parthenon marbles are thought by some to belong more to the British people than modern Greeks.

Anne-Sophie Noel (École Normale Supérieure de Lyon) discusses French President Emmanuel Macron's relationship to the classical. 
 Interestingly, claims upon the classical seem to coincide with the rise of the nation state in Europe, functioning as a heritage for may different groups of Europeans--not only Greeks and Italians. Somehow, peoples whom Herodotus and Eratosthenes placed at the far edges of the world, whom they hardly knew anything about, decided that they were the true inheritors of this classical Greek past. More so than their contemporary Greeks, whom they considered unworthy of their own past. Something still active and part of the reason, something Konstantinos Poulis (ThePressProject) discussed at the workshop in connection with the debt crisis and the rise of Golden Dawn.

Damjan Krsmanovic (University of Leicester) discusses Brexit through the lens of Boris Johnson, known for his claiming of the classical.
The use of phrases like 'Mare Nostrum' and 'Mos Maiorum' to name policies towards refugees also has a history of imperialist claims to not only the space of the Mediterranean, but the past and future of it as well, as Sam Agbamu discussed. I also recommend this post by Ida Danewid "White Innocence in the Black Mediterranean" at The Disorder of Things blog (I plan on getting her article on the topic when I'm back in the office with access).

Sam Agbamu (King's College London) on 'Mare Nostrum' and 'Mos Maiorum' as refugee policies.

The German claims have led to such excesses as the perpetuation of the myth of an Aryan/German invasion and to the Nazi ideal in the ancient Greek sculptural body. The claims of the British rested both on the traces of Roman Britain in their own land and on the British Empire's right of conquest; they viewed themselves as the true intellectual heirs of Plato and Cicero and their power in the world reflected this. The Nazis simply recreated the ancient past to make themselves the genetic descendants of the ancient Greeks.

Julia Müller (Technische Universität Dresden) discussing identitarian movements in Germany. Their online shop is particularly interesting and features t-shirts invoking Thermopylae.

Americans of European descent also have at times over the last few centuries laid claim to the classical as well based on their connections to those Europeans who also claimed the classical. The Founding Fathers looked to classical models to help create our Constitution and to justify our most loathsome institution -- slavery. Consistently since the founding of our country, the classical has been claimed in defence of the continued perpetuation of racial hate and institutionalized racism, of white supremacy and white nationalism, of colonialism and imperialism-- whether it is architecture and art, 'blood and soil' heritage, or some sense of a 'western destiny'. Even those who disavow racism often hold up the decidedly racist and misogynist Athenian democracy, idealized as some sort of golden age, ignoring its exclusions and foundation on slavery (discussed by myself, Denise McCoskey, Curtis Dozier, Liz Sawyer, and Chiara Bonacchi).

These aren't the only peoples or groups that lay claim to 'the classical'. We find 'the classical' in Latin America, Africa, other parts of Asia, like India. Those claims on the classical are often yoked also to a colonized, imperialist (recent) past--the rejection of the classical becomes the rejection of something viewed as inherently European, foreign, oppressive. Juliana Bastos discussed the rejection of the classical in Brazil

Grant Parker (Stanford University) discussed performance artist Sethembile Msezane's anti-classical 'Zimbabwe Bird' during the Rhodes Must Fall protests in South Africa in 2015.

Nandipha Mntambo's 'Europa', also from Grant Parker's discussion.
But claims on it can also be seen as respurposing or appropriating the classical despite the colonizer, or, perhaps, to reclaim a part of the classical from the colonizer. The legacy of classics as a tool for empire is continually being debated, hidden, ignored, studied, and praised--depending on whom you discuss it with. And the question of why anyone wants to claim the classical is bound up to that history.

The history of the classical in the modern world is a history of a field created as a tool of racism, of empire, of classism, of misogyny. And yet, we see broad claims made upon the classical that reject, or at least, refuse these connections. From China to South Africa to Ghana and Brazil, the workshop highlighted not only the far right 'appropriations' that seems to have awakened classicists to our perils, but also artistic and literary uses of the classical that offer new ways to think about what the classical is and can be. Because of its history, however, any claims upon the classical will almost always be political--even when they aren't.



One question that kept returning at the workshop that we never had a good answer for was why peoples and groups claim the classical. Some suggested it was prestige--that classics has been granted historically a place of privilege in many places and so an appeal to the classical is one that seeks to participate in that prestige. I wonder, however, if it isn't the problem of universalism--for centuries European powers have sought to center the classical as a universal value. Why read tragedy? Because it reflects universal emotions. Why read Thucydides? Because he gave us a vision of a shining city on a hill that had a democracy and democracy is, of course, the telos of all political systems, right? I think it's something else--because empire conditioned the world to believe that the classical was the only truly universal culture and so everyone should want to claim it.

The study of classics isn't restricted anymore in theory to only the elite of northern Europe and the US. Women and people of color are no longer [explicitly] rejected from its ranks as incapable of learning Greek or understanding Cicero and Vergil, but this isn't necessarily the reality of classics as a field. The classical has a place in public discourses throughout the world--sometimes because of colonialism, sometimes despite it. And yet, I left the workshop thinking about the Classics for All ideas, our [feeble] attempts to make a more inclusive classics--attempts that refuse to make space for the varieties of classics that exist both in the academy and without. We are still a restrictive field that relies on knowledge of two languages--Ancient Greek and Latin--to act as gatekeeper to legitimacy as an arbiter of the classical.

There are many ways to claim the classical. For too long, we academic classicists have kept ourselves away from the public discourse and, too often, assumed that any classical receptions, references, or claims by national governments, political and social institutions, or movements was a clear good, or at least harmless, so long as it meant that the classical still had a place in our public discourse and we could use it to demonstrate the relevance of our field--as when today (Sat Nov 17) the SCS social media accounts shared an op-ed by Bret Stephens seemingly simply because it contained the word "Plato" in its title. He's not viewed as a friend, ally, or even neutral party by many PoC and women. And even when one's Twitter page says "retweet =/= endorsement", when that retweeter is one's professional organization, it sure can feel like an endorsement.

Not all claims are equal and many a political claims to the classical is done in the name of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and a myriad of other types of prejudices. When we share those receptions, those 'fun' or 'insightful' articles that seem innocent enough, but are written by those who peddle in discrimination and prejudice, we link ourselves with their politics whether we mean to our not. By doing so, we send a message about who is and isn't welcome. We limit the scope of who we think can and should lay claim to the classical. Afraid to alienate our traditional base of conservative 'white' men, we continue to alienate most everyone else even as we position ourselves as fighters against white supremacist claims to the classical.

We as professional classicists are (maybe too late) taking up the task of engaging these more nefarious claims on the classical. But this isn't the only reflection we need to do. We must also look at how we have failed in the past to be self-critical in our own claims and practices around the classical. As Denise McCoskey has recently written (and which has been on the minds of many of us who became classicists in the shadow of Black Athena) classics as a field is paying in the 21st century for our failures to come to terms with the origins of the field and its continuing problematics in the 20th century.

We can't only look to the far right, to the fascist and white nationalist claims and try to 'reclaim' those 'appropriations'. We also need to do some soul searching about how we keep our field tied to those structures of racism, classism, and misogyny that were its roots by binding ourselves to notions like 'western civilization' and whiteness and exclusivity. Studying classics shouldn't be about joining an elite club, and yet that is often how we sell it, how we view it, and how we seem to want to keep it--even despite ourselves.

What I took away from this workshop was that we have a lot of work to do.

Wine and Milk: Drinking Cultures as Acts of Exclusion

The Milk Booth at the State 4 H Fair at Charleston, W. Va. Location: Charleston, West Virginia, 1921. Photo by Lewis Hine.  National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-nclc-04435.
This is the first (and hopefully not the last) special guest post to the blog. Here, classicist and art historian Dr. Kate Topper explores the way drinking cultures can act as forms of identity politics in both antiquity and now. These cultures normally act to create an 'in' group -- a norm-- against which others are defined and excluded. Here she compares recent 'milk chugging' parties by some white supremacist groups to the ancient symposium. 

For additional readings on the history of the American eugenics movement and how milk fits into it, I recommend Volume 29 of the Public Historian, particularly the article on the Fitter Families programs at local, state, and national fairs.



By Dr. Kate Topper

As readers of this blog know, white supremacist groups are in the news with alarming regularity these days, and earlier this month they made headlines for a reason that – to judge from my social media feeds – struck a lot of people as really strange. Relying on a widely held but not quite accurate belief that only white Europeans are genetically capable of digesting lactose as adults, some of the more exhibitionist members of American white supremacist groups have taken to chugging milk as a way of demonstrating the “purity” of their European descent.

Following moral disgust and nausea, the most common reaction I’ve seen to this stunt is bafflement, both at its logic and at the fact that it would even occur to someone to chug milk to prove their racial superiority. Yet for someone who studies the history of a different type of drinking – ancient Greek wine-drinking, in my case – it feels depressingly familiar, and I believe that looking at white supremacist milk-drinking in light of one of its historical precedents can help to expose the emptiness of its claims in a way that scientific debunking alone can’t.

Symposium scene. Athenian red-figure cup by
Douris, ca. 480 BCE.
London, British Museum 1843,1103.15.
The focus of my research (and much of my teaching) is the symposium, a nocturnal wine-drinking party for ancient Greek men. One point I take pains to emphasize when I introduce the symposium to students is that the ability to drink wine “correctly” was considered a proxy for the ability to participate responsibly in civic life. The symposium was all about defining community – determining who got to be part of it, and who had to remain on the margins – and the people who were excluded from the rights and protections of citizenship (such as women and foreigners) were, not accidentally, the same ones who were most commonly lampooned as incompetent drinkers of wine.

Competent sympotic drinking meant drinking your wine communally and at the same pace as your companions. An early fifth-century cup shows a group of men arranged comfortably around the room, each supplied with a large cup. The wine should also be mixed with water; there was a special bowl for this purpose, called a krater, and as early as the eighth century BCE, we find oversized kraters used as grave markers. Funerary kraters sent a clear message about the deceased’s social identity – he drank his wine communally and mixed with water, so he was a civilized Greek man.
Woman drinking wine from storeroom.
Athenian red-figure cup, ca. 460-450 BCE.
Malibu, The J. Paul Getty Museum 86.AE.265. Side a.

Woman drinking wine from storeroom.
Athenian red-figure cup, ca. 460-450 BCE. 
Malibu, The J. Paul Getty Museum 86.AE.265. Side b.
Women and foreigners, by contrast, were both seen and represented as incompetent drinkers. On a cup from mid fifth century Athens, a woman gulps her wine down alone, having pilfered it from the storeroom depicted on the other side of the cup. Her body language suggests that she’s trying to drink it hastily and furtively, and the wineskin carried by her small attendant suggests that she hasn’t bothered to mix it with water. We’re probably meant to laugh at the woman’s excesses – not to mention her dubious housekeeping abilities – but the scene also contains a serious warning about women's unsuitedness for serious responsibility.

Sleeping symposiast in Asian dress.
Athenian red-figure cup by the Chaire Painter, 5th c. BCE.
Basel, Antikenmuseum und Sammlung Ludwig BS 1423.


The story was much the same for non-Greek people – who, according to a common stereotype, drank their wine unmixed. On the interior of another cup, we find a sleeping symposiast whose clothing identifies him as being from western or central Eurasia. His sympotic behavior is a collection of stereotypes about foreigners – he has passed out drunk after imbibing from the drinking horn that rests below his couch. The horn was a shape the Greeks associated with foreigners and primitives and with the drinking of unmixed wine, and it was also one that couldn't easily be put down and that thus encouraged fast, intemperate drinking. This man would be an embarrassment at the symposium – but what else, it is implied, could an Athenian expect from a barbarian, who was not culturally or physically suited to drink wine properly? Like the woman on the Getty cup, this guy was not the type to be trusted with serious matters of governance.

To come back to the white supremacist milk-chugging stunt: I’ve spent enough time looking at pictures like the ones described above not to be shocked or even surprised by this twenty-first century trend, even if I’m physically and morally disgusted by it. One thing you quickly learn when you study the history of food and drink is that eating and drinking are intimately tied to the performance of identity. For a Greek man, socially competent wine-drinking was a way to perform a specific gendered and cultural identity – if he didn’t know to mix his wine with water, or if he insisted on filling up on wine while the rest of the group drank slowly, his companions would have some questions. For a segment of American white supremacists, identity performance takes the form of milk-chugging.

And it’s very clearly a performance: in the video shared by the New York Times, a group of bare-chested men stands together, exaggeratedly flexing their muscles before attempting to pound down a half gallon of milk. Others (both men and women) take the “challenge” at home and post the video evidence to YouTube or Twitter for their followers to watch. It’s important to them that people watch, just as it was important for a Greek symposiast to be observed by his companions, because these rituals are ultimately about establishing or maintaining membership in a group to which not everyone is allowed to belong.

For me, this juxtaposition of ancient sympotic drinking and modern milk-chugging is useful because it exposes the recent white supremacist trend as nothing more than a performance – the latest version of a trick human beings have long used to reinforce the legitimacy of the existing in-group and pretend that there’s an objective basis for excluding the out-group. The scientific gloss given to the milk-chugging challenge doesn’t make its claims uniquely valid or worthy of serious consideration, and not only because, as geneticists point out, those claims distort the science. Even without the white supremacists’ (erroneous) claims about genetics, milk comes with a lot of cultural and symbolic baggage that I have to think contributed to the choice to use it as the centerpiece of this racist performance. Like wine did for the Greeks, milk has long occupied a special status in discourses about who is and is not civilized (although whether it was a drink of civilized or uncivilized people has always depended on whom you asked). And in the United States it has been closely tied to ideals of purity since the middle of the twentieth century, even when those ideals are at odds with biological facts.

Milk, in other words, is no less culturally charged for twenty-first century Americans than wine was for the ancient Greeks. As much as the white supremacist milk-chuggers want us to think that their stunt is based in biological fact, it’s really all about cultural perception – to paraphrase the cliché, it’s old wine in a new bottle, only this time the wine is milk. White supremacist groups may have chosen a different beverage to make their point, but their logic is as faulty as that of the ancient Greek man who believed that his habit of drinking wine in the culturally prescribed way made him superior to women and foreigners. We should take their claims no more seriously than we now take the ancient Greek ones.

The Ancient Frat Bro and a History of Legal Disregard of Women


It is one of those times again where the real world and the world of my scholarship are in horrifying sync. This happens when one works on issues of race/ethnicity and gender. For the last year, it has been the horrors of the current administration's immigration policies and the overt racist white supremacy of our justice system. Now, as I put the finishing touches on an article on strategies used in ancient Athenian court cases to steal inheritances from women and children, I find the strategies and even the language of the cases mirrored in the current supreme court confirmation hearing process.

In the ancient court cases I am working with, women are being taken to court by distant relatives of their dead fathers, brothers, or husbands over inheritances. The distant relatives, wanting the estates for themselves, will say ANYTHING to get their way. The women being attacking through the courts are citizen women, usually widows or the only child of a citizen man. But citizenship for women in Classical Athens was not secure or robust. While there were processes for verifying the status of male citizens that could clearly establish their legal rights, there was no equivalent of a birth certificate for women. You had to provide witnesses in the courts to the fact of a woman's citizen status. And in extreme cases (like Demosthenes 43), you had to provide witnesses that a woman even existed!

Beyond having to verify one's existence, there are other standard strategies. Strategies that will seem really familiar to anyone with any experience of sexual assault cases. The most common strategies (found in the legal speeches of Demosthenes and Isaeus) are:
  • Impugning the trustworthiness of any potential witnesses to a woman's status
  • Suggesting they or an ancestor were foreign--Athenian identity was structured on a racist belief in the purity of the citizen body--foreign women were one of the most feared ways that purity could be corrupted. 
  • Suggesting they or their mothers were prostitutes or otherwise women of questionable repute and untrustworthy to know who the father of their children were. Slut shaming 101. 
All of these tactics appear in the Athenian courts. All of those tactics are on display every day in media reports about our judicial system, especially when it comes to trying to hold white men (especially powerful white men) accountable for their actions. All of them have been on display in the past and now in supreme court confirmation hearings. Anita Hill withstood it. Christine Blasey Ford is dealing with it now. 

The current nominee for the supreme court, Brett Kavanaugh, has been credibly accused of sexual assault. Yesterday, the accuser Christine Blasey Ford gave testimony at the hearings. Dr. Ford's story resonated with everything I remember from my own high school experiences in the late 1980s and early 1990s--I quit drinking my junior year in high school and had to stop attending all the parties because being fully aware of what was surrounding me made me disgusted. The atmosphere Dr. Ford described resonated with my high school reality--even at a large public high school. Rich kids are rich kids regardless of what school they attend and our school in San Diego had plenty of them. The calendar of young Kavanaugh also fits this world--July 1, 1982 is a day everyone should be looking into more.

It also resonated with everything I have learned of college frat parties and rape culture on college campuses. Kavanaugh's demeanor and testimony hit me hard as it brought back two very specific cases I've read. Almost anyone with experience with college sexual assault situations can tell you: He was lying (about the drinking, about what he can and can't remember). He was trying to bully his way to deniability. He probably also had a serious alcohol problem, but can't admit it (he actually cried while talking about how much he liked beer in high school).

That he became a lawyer should not surprise anyone since almost every case we see is that privileged white men who are part of this alcohol fueled sexual assault system (and it is a system) love to try to use legal language and lawyers to protect their privileges. They pretty much always sue and are at the heart of why women don't report on college campuses--they will use the law courts to out their accusers and traumatize and terrorize them as much as they can. There is a lawyer in the town I live in whose entire job seems to be to represent male students who have been expelled for sexual assault. His tactics are no different than we see in the ancient texts. And its goal is to silence women.

Watching the hearings yesterday reminded me that when a woman speaks, whether it is to report or recount the assault or as a questioner, or as an expert witness, or as  judge--the most common tactics are still those used in antiquity.

I am confident that Kavanaugh will get confirmed--that's how power works and there are still too many people who allow it to continue because they imagine they have some access to that power. Or because they may talk about justice, but there is no justice for the non-white, non-men in our world. The identity politics of being a man, being white, being rich, were all on display yesterday. The right to be angry, the right to cry about beer while saying they never blacked out while drunk ("just vomited and fell asleep"). The privilege of having one's "life destroyed" if they don't get to sit on the supreme court. A Marist poll out today shows that 54% of Republicans think Kavanaugh should be confirmed even if he did commit sexual assault. Women aren't fully human to them.* And we continue to let the law be used to ensure it.


*This is a short post and so I've left a lot out that could be added. The issue of race and the ways non-whites in this country are brutalized by the legal system needs to be kept to the front of our minds. Anita Hill's treatment was and is still discounted by white women because of anti-blackness. There is some really good writing being done on that already. I will link them up later. 

Museums as "Trojan Horses"

Today, Katherine Blouin posted an article on Twitter with a pull-quote that made me smile:

Today's blog is about how museums, particularly university museums, not only can be Trojan Horses, but why we should. And it shouldn't be simply part of an "Uncomfortable Art Tour" but baked into every exhibition and every display we have. Its based on my own experiences as a decision maker for a university museum whose primary function is teaching and learning.


I am a museum director as part of my job. I wasn't trained in Museum Studies or in an Art History dept. Before becoming the director of my university museum, I had never held another position in a museum, but only worked in them as a scholar and taken students to them as a professor. So, maybe because I am not beholden to anyone in the museum world for my position, or because I don't have the same training in curation, I come at exhibitions from the position of a professor wanting to help other faculty and students at the university understand the topic of the exhibition from many angles. It's a university museum, after all. Which may be why, two years into my tenure as director, I was in a meeting with administrators when someone commented that they were concerned that the Board of Trustees or general public or whoever may start viewing the museum as the "activist wing of the college."

It took me a minute to realize what I had just heard. And then I looked at the list of past exhibitions since I'd become director and saw what they meant: I'd started with an exhibition called "The Human Condition" inspired by Hannah Arendt and pulled works from the collection that focused on issues of power, emotions, life, death, belief, beauty, and technology. One of the students working with us on the exhibition asked if she could write about colonialism and imperialism in the display of an imperial Chinese robe and of 'Big Mac', our Guna (Kuna) representation of General MacArthur. I said, "absolutely". That's why we put them under the heading of "power". We also had exhibitions on the Underground Railroad, abortion (guest curated by Melissa Madera, creator of The Abortion Diary Podcast),  the Guerilla Girls, the Black Panthers,  etc. And upcoming were exhibitions by LGBT artists and Af-Am artists.

My response was, "Ok. I can see your point, but we create exhibits based on faculty requests and input and on course offerings." We tried to get some of the more conservative programs and faculty to come down one year by putting up the pre-1940s political cartoons and our World War I material, including drawings by graphic journalist Louis Forain. We even had a faculty member exhibit of his photography of local coal processing plants (and the plant workers came to the talk!). But, on the whole, those faculty who tend to work with objects and visual literacy in their teaching, tend to be more experimental with their pedagogy. And I say this with the knowledge that the biggest users for our museum are not Arts faculty, but anthropology/sociology, modern languages, history, and even our biology and geoscience faculty. So, its a wide range of departments (over 20 different ones) over 120+ courses with over 2000 students (on a staff of 2.5, with 8-10 students interns, mind you) because we put our exhibitions together with curricular needs in mind and work with faculty who want to work with us.

But, I took the statement seriously. I don't want protestors outside my building, I don't want donors to refuse to give to us or the college, and I don't want to make the college a target for right wing groups--though it would be a great irony to have "free speech" folks come after us for clear academic free speech. I said to the administrators, "Well, we have a lot of great late 19th, early 20th century drawings of children. We could have an exhibit on childhood in the US." They liked this idea. It seemed safe to them. Little did they understand, I think, that in order to make this exhibition one that would speak across the curriculum to students and faculty alike, idealized drawings from Winslow Homer and Maria Cassat would not be sufficient.

This fall's exhibition (opening next week) is the result of my attempts to not seem too "activisty", while also re-enforcing the principles that MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL SPACES and should not be seen as neutral spaces. They are spaces of conversation, of learning, of teaching, of exploration, and, yes, of conflict. To pretend otherwise is to misunderstand fundamentally the history of museums and history itself. It is, so to speak, a Trojan Horse, in that is hides the truth inside of it, a truth that can be dangerous.

The exhibition is called "Defining Childhood: Growing Up in the US (1860-1960)" and examines various realities and fantasies about "childhood" prior to the civil rights era. We use from our permanent collection the idealizing works that show children at play, out with their families in Boston Common or picking berries, and then juxtapose those with photography from the National Archives by:

Gordon Parks, the activist artist, writer, and director whose images focused on life in black neighborhoods in Chicago and New York changed our understanding of poverty.

Lewis Hine, whose photos of child labor helped to reshape labor laws in the US (which some now want to roll back):

Francis Benjamin Johnson; one of the earliest US women photographer who pushed documentary photography to be considered art photography and who extensively documented alternative schools for non-whites and the deaf and blind at the turn of the century:

The reality is that childhood did not and does not mean the same thing for all people in America. For some, childhood has always been about comfort and safety and innocence. For others, it has always had elements of fear and harshness and disease. Even in these conditions, however, we see hope and play and even joy. But to put up an exhibition on childhood that only provides the idealized vision of an elite artist would be to make the title mismatch the content, it would be to erase history, to erase the art that represents a part of the topic we don't want to see. If people are uncomfortable with what they see in a museum, it isn't because they are uncomfortable with some lie we are foisting on them for a political agenda, it is because they are uncomfortable with truths they may be unwilling to accept or didn't know about to begin with.

But that's what makes museums so important and what makes the way we curate exhibits and our permanent collections so important. Because by pretending that museums are neutral, that the objects in our collections don't have baggage and that museums themselves don't have histories of complicity in hiding atrocities or promoting elite Eurocentric white male narratives of the past and present, we contribute to the continuing oppressions and lies that support them. We shouldn't need an "alternative tour" to subvert the regular display or labels that only those self selecting folks who want that story will see. Our exhibition of objects should themselves always open up these conversations, should show the different sides of the narrative surrounding what they display and should be ready and willing to have that conversation with their donors, their boards, and, most importantly, their primary audiences. This new Guerilla Girls poster makes some suggestions on how to start (at least with #metoo--but it can extend to issues of race, class, disability, and sexuality as well):

Museums were developed to tell a single story of the triumph of Euro-American, male, elite superiority. But, if our goal really is educational, museums should be Trojan Horses sneaking into the gates of this narrative and dismantling it from the inside with every exhibit and every label we show. Because there is more danger in letting the fantasy of neutrality and white male elite supremacy to stand than of tearing it down and building something new.