Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2020.02.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2020.02.29

Emanuela Bianchi, Sara Brill, Brooke Holmes (ed.), Antiquities Beyond Humanism. Classics in Theory.   Oxford, New York:  Oxford University Press, 2019.  Pp. viii, 310.  ISBN 9780198805670.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by Colin C. Smith, University of Colorado—Boulder (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

According to the traditional narrative, humanism begins in the Renaissance as a return to the distinctly Greco-Roman conception of the primacy of the human subject. While this view is not entirely misguided, an overcommitment to it entails the danger of missing the senses in which the human subject for the ancients is not primary, but instead is positioned within a broader continuum that also includes inorganic matter, nonhuman animals, and the gods. Thus conceived, humans are but one among the beings and forces within the agential cosmos, which is itself possessed of the same nous that characterizes the human.

In Antiquities Beyond Humanism, scholars working in and among philosophy, classics, political theory, and comparative literature explore a series of topics regarding the interactions between ancient thought and the turn enacted through contemporary posthumanism and new materialism to consider this neglected aspect of ancient thinking. To be sure, the book is of significant interest to those who study subjects in continental philosophy like psychoanalysis, feminist theory, queer theory, and object-oriented ontology. But this excellent volume also should be read by those with broader interest in antiquity, as it demonstrates ways in which the ancient texts continue to be of the greatest value to promising new movements in contemporary thinking.

The book is an installment in Oxford University Press’s Classics in Theory series, in which critical theory is brought to bear on classical studies. Having begun as the conference “Posthuman Antiquities” at New York University in November 2014, the volume includes an introduction, and thirteen further chapters divided between three sections. The authors touch on subjects taken from throughout Greco-Roman antiquity, including Homer, the Presocratics, Attic tragedy, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Hellenistic poetry, and Ovid. Indeed, the scope of ancient subjects covered is among the book’s many virtues.

In the Introduction, the editors begin by reviewing the putative influence of antiquity on Renaissance humanism, before turning to consider the historical interpretations undergirding the recent posthumanistic reception of antiquity, including the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German neo-humanists, E. R. Dodd’s The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) and its reception among the postwar French classicists influenced by structuralism, the feminist turn among classicists in the 1970s and 1980s, the critical theories of Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari, and the complicated role of the ancients in recent critical feminist thinking represented by figures like Elizabeth Grosz, Judith Butler, and Luce Irigaray.

Part 1 is titled ‘Posthuman Antiquities?’ and includes four chapters through which this very possibility is interrogated. It begins with Adriana Cavarero’s “The Human Reconceived: Back to Socrates with Arendt.” Cavarero takes up a very different conception of posthumanism than that which will follow in later papers, by focusing on the totalitarian eradication of human subjectivity represented by Nazi posthumanism. She addresses Hannah Arendt’s view that so-called ‘Platonic metaphysics’ inaugurates the “abstract ontology” that “prevents the metaphysical tradition from thinking a ‘pure’ concept of politics” and thereby finds its conclusion in the radical evil of Nazi posthumanism (34-5). She distinguishes this from Arendt’s conception of Socrates and his imperative to ‘know thyself’ as it offers a critical response to the social conditions that allow for banal evil represented by Eichmann, by indicating the wonder (to thaumazein) of human plurality. Ramona Naddaff continues the discussion of Socrates with “Hearing Voices: The Sounds in Socrates’ Head.” Naddaff is interested in Socrates’ daimonic voice, particularly with regard to the way it connects Socrates with the more-than-human realm of the divine. Socrates contains both himself and an ‘other,’ understood as a divine moral legislator beyond merely human rationality, and thus Naddaff situates the philosopher as the paradigmatic posthuman. Next, Michael Naas writes in “Song and Dance Man: Plato and the Limits of the Human” on the Athenian Stranger’s odd separation in the Laws of the human from the nonhuman through the notions of singing and dancing. Naas argues that the human conceived as a zōion echon mousikēn kai choreian implies the distinctly human share of the greater cosmic order represented by music and dance, with music and dance acting as the kinds of measurement through which humans respond to the structure of nature. In “Tragedy and the Posthuman,” Miriam Leonard considers Greek conceptions of the human and the monstrous through Attic tragedy, and especially its depiction of Oedipus. Leonard uses the psychoanalytic theory of Freud and Lacan, along with some Nietzschean concepts, to conclude that Oedipus is “both a pharmakos — a sacrificial animal — and a tyrannos — a divine king” (92). Oedipus thus is more and less than human, capturing the sense in which Greek tragedy indicates the larger spectrum of possibility in which the human is positioned.

Part 2 includes four chapters dealing with ‘Alternate Zoologies,’ or the fluidity among categories of living beings and natural forces. The first is Sara Brill’s “Aristotle’s Meta-Zoology: Shared Life and Human Animality in the Politics”, which considers Aristotle’s political and biological thought. Brill concludes that the human condition entails a radical intensification of non-human animal sociality, leading to an account of the political as the place (topos) in which the ‘living-together’ (syzēn) of human life (bios) unfolds. Kristin Sampson argues in “Sounds of Subjectivity or Resonances of Something Other” that the meaning of ‘voice’ (phōnē) is broadly conceived as a natural force in Homer before later becoming tied to the human individual in thinkers like Plato. Sampson bases this thesis on the notion of ‘corporeality without body,’ or the view (influenced by Bruno Snell and Hermann Fränkel) that the Homeric subject “has” neither body nor soul but instead is a kind of corporeality that lacks an underlying entity or substance. Sampson unpacks this compelling account through a consideration of voice broadly, a thorough review of its appearances in the Homeric texts, and a subsequent comparative discussion of the role of voice in Plato’s Protagoras. In “Shared Life as Chorality in Schiller, Hölderlin, and Hellenistic Poetry,” Mark Payne addresses a kind of poetic mediation between the human and non-human realm that he calls ‘chorality’ by considering some works of Schiller, Wordsworth, and Hölderlin alongside the Hymns of Callimachus and the Homeric “Hymn to Delian Apollo.” Payne argues that chorality represents a kind of self-recognition through participation in a chorus, made possible through intersubjectivity and expanded sociality (141). Concluding the section, Giulia Sissa offers in “Apples and Poplars, Nuts and Bulls: The Poetic Biosphere of Ovid’s Metamorphoses” a discussion of the principles of change, flux, and stability at play in the speech of the character Pythagoras of Samos. From this, Sissa develops an account of the cosmos as the space in which that which is present remains despite losing its identity, or what she calls a posthuman kind of becoming. Sissa unpacks this with close reference to the notion of food and the kind of anthropocentric vegetarianism for which the Pythagoras character advocates.

Part 3, ‘Anthro-Excentric,’ comprises five papers on non-human forces and their emergent and interactive senses. In “Hyperobjects, OOO, and the Eruptive Classics—Field Notes of an Accidental Tourist,” James I. Porter considers the relationship between the contemporary movements like OOO (object-oriented ontology) and speculative realism, and ancient thinking as represented by Heraclitus, Empedocles, Seneca, and Lucretius. After offering a crisp and helpful review of the contemporary theory, Porter turns to the ancient texts to argue that “ancient selves are ongoing emergencies, ongoing experiments in living on the edge and in extremis, the aim of which is to find an ethical relationship not in the first instance to one’s self, but rather to the blank contingency and indifference of the world in all its absolute and irrevocable necessity” (203). Also dealing with emergence, Emanuela Bianchi argues in “Nature Trouble: Ancient physis and Queer Performativity” for a conception of nature (physis) in ancient thinking as an emergent performativity on the model of Butler’s thinking, albeit not framed with reference to the human as in Butler. Bianchi argues instead that nature on this model is a performative field of coming to be and passing away, and is furthermore queer insofar as the non-human entities composing nature “continually play hide and seek, withdraw and manifest, to and with one another, and to and with us” (229). Bianchi draws on a wide range of theorists including Butler, Irigaray, John Sallis, and, more critically, Grosz and Karen Barad, to develop her account.

In “On Stoic Sympathy: Cosmobiology and the Life of Nature,” Brooke Holmes offers a rich and thorough discussion of the role of sympathy in Stoic metaphysics. She describes sympathy for the Stoics as a kind of “film of becoming” that makes possible and organizes the web of causes binding together the whole of Nature (240). Holmes draws on modern thinkers like Deleuze and Grosz while also working closely with the ancient texts to develop her view of Stoic sympathy as speaking to the double perspective of living beings insofar as they are open to external change from without and yet possessed of internal nature and mindfulness. Holmes’ argument for sympathy as a superordinate cosmic principle will certainly be of much interest to anyone working on the Stoics. In “Immanent Mmateral: Figures of Time in Aristotle, Bergson, and Irigaray,” Rebecca Hill offers a new account of the notion of time in Aristotle as constituted in a meaningful way by difference, which both chronos and kinēsis necessarily entail, and with close reference to gender. Hill conceives of this not as a challenge to the traditional view of the connection between time and motion in Aristotle’s thinking, but instead as an account of a more primordial understanding on which it depends and that has meaningful similarities to the understandings of time found in Bergson and Irigaray. Claudia Baracchi’s chapter “In Light of eros” concludes the section and the volume. Here Baracchi considers eros as a cosmic principle that undergirds and precedes scientific knowledge (epistēmē) and discourse (logos). With reference to key passages in Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Plato’s Symposium, Baracchi interprets eros as a principle of creation and destruction that indicates a kind of androgyny capable of jointly sustaining creation and destruction.

Among the volume’s many virtues, I am struck in particular by the boldness among all authors in staking out interpretively ambitious stances that offer great potential reward. At times I found myself wanting some authors to go into more depth with some of the ancient texts they cite to show exactly how they take a given point to be at play therein. Ultimately, the book offers occasion to rethink human positioning in light of the horrific errors regarding self-conception in our own time by returning to the ancient view of the interconnected cosmos in which the human is merely a part, and one materially dependent on the whole.

Authors and titles

1. Introduction / Emanuela Bianchi, Sara Brill, and Brooke Holmes

Part 1: Posthuman Antiquities?
2. The human reconceived: back to Socrates with Arendt / Adriana Cavarero
3. Hearing voices: the sounds in Socrates’ head / Ramona Naddaff
4. Song and dance man: Plato and the limits of the human / Michael Naas
5. Precarious life: tragedy and the posthuman / Miriam Leonard

Part 2: Alternative Zoologies
6. Aristotle’s meta-zoology: shared life and human animality in the Politics / Sara Brill
7. Sounds of subjectivity or resonances of something other / Kristin Sampson
8. Shared life as chorality in Schiller, Hölderlin, and Hellenistic poetry / Mark Payne
9. Apples and poplars, nuts and bulls: the poetic biosphere of Ovid’s Metamorphoses / Giulia Sissa

Part 3: Anthro-Excentric
10. Hyperobjects, OOO, and the eruptive classics – field notes of an accidental tourist / James I. Porter
11. Nature trouble: ancient physis and queer performativity / Emanuela Bianchi
12. On Stoic sympathy: cosmobiology and the life of nature / Brooke Holmes
13. Immanent maternal: figures of time in Aristotle, Bergson, and Irigaray / Rebecca Hill
14. In light of eros / Claudia Baracchi
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