BMCR 1994.01.15

Feminist Theory and the Classics

, , Feminist Theory and the Classics. Thinking gender. London: Routledge, 1993. x, 314 pages. ISBN 9780415906456.

This is not easy. But why should it be?

When the aims of a volume deserve and need the strongest possible support, and when the aims are so variably fulfilled it is always hard to negotiate a satisfactory critical stance. When the issues are as politically, emotionally—personally—charged as in this book, such positioning is doubly difficult.

A dialogue—and dialogue is constantly valued in this volume—took place a few weeks ago after the Cambridge seminar between a senior academic and her junior colleague. Amid a multi-sided, multi-gendered, multi-vinous debate, the junior convinced her that it was more important to welcome the arrival of a book of feminist essays, especially on Roman topics, than to challenge its arguments on specific issues (especially from the perspective of trendy security in the second largest classics community in the world). Particularly for graduates and others making their way in this our profession, the benefit of a public display of commitment to a range of questions outweighed the critical impulse to debate the answers to the questions. Enable and empower before making criticism. Keep the detailed disagreements for later. This is a debate that any self-aware and committed critic goes through in some form. It is to engage in such a debate that I am reviewing this collection now. The issues that are raised by the book, and, indeed, by writing about it, go to the heart of the institution of classics: engagement with the individual contributions and with the impact of the collective presentation is both important and urgent.

Two general methodological themes link the different approaches and subjects of the eleven chapters of this volume. The first is the belief that classics is mined by its repeated refusal to consider the male bias of its sources on the one hand and of its academies on the other. ‘The Greeks’ has all too often meant a small selection of enfranchised males, and the ‘History’ of ‘The Greeks’, a carefully edited account of male, public, spheres of action. ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, the divide that founds Classics, has all too often turned out to be an alliance between male elites. The institutional bias of the academy is even more evident in England than in America. The two largest departments of Classics in the world are Oxford and Cambridge (Cambridge, the smaller, has 30 fulltime tenured University faculty, excluding temporary and permanent college appointments, theologians and late Latinists, to teach 250 undergraduate specialists, and around 85 graduates). Yet Oxford has not tenured a woman since M. E. Hubbard (so writes D. P. Fowler in the most recent Greece and Rome). Cambridge appointed two women last year, including Professor P. E. Easterling to the Regius Chair of Greek, the most distinguished position we have—the first woman to hold the post. Yet it still only has three tenured women, the same number as in the 1920s! What’s more, women who have taught at Cambridge and left for other jobs in the last few years would make a full and distinguished faculty. Although the number of distinguished men who have also passed through indicates that the paucity and timing of tenured jobs is a major cause of such mobility, it is also nothing less than shameful that Cambridge, like most institutes of higher education in England, has failed to realise an adequate policy or practice to reverse this gender imbalance in the last twenty years (although it has repeatedly begun to try …). That the discipline of classics repeats the ancient bias towards the male in both its institutional and intellectual formation is clear and needs exploration, enquiry, and realignment.

That this book encourages such a project is thoroughly to be welcomed. There simply aren’t enough books which declare and show that feminist theory may be a route to opening the discipline of classics to self-reflection and change. The second major link between the chapters of the volume is the belief that who you are affects the sort of classics you do, and the sort of classics you do affects the sort of person you are. Particularly as a teacher, I (we should use that word) find the paraded myth of objective scholarship, informed by political innocence and disinterested learning, to be a major block to the development of classics as a contemporary subject and discipline (much as the values of such an image of classical learning were fundamental to the establishment of the privileged place of Altertumswissenschaft through the 18th and 19th centuries). Who has not felt the force of what Teresa Brennan has learnt (in Cambridge) wittily and angrily to call ‘the sado-dispassionate’ of academic discourse—self-aggrandisment and aggression masked as objectivity? Considering ‘from where’ writing comes is a fundamental lesson of the last twenty years of feminist and feminist influenced criticism, and it is a lesson that Classics has been particularly slow to recognize.

Yet much as ‘feminist theory’ is a collective plural of positions competing and collaborating, flourishing and being trampled (‘on the mean streets’ and ‘in the academy’, as Jack Winkler puts it), so the turn to the personal as practised in this collection is very differently instantiated from piece to piece, and in a way which invites dialogue and critical discussion. I accept the invitation, which I see as one of the most pressing and complex of contemporary debates. The turn to the personal is necessary but how should it be articulated? Is the personal the same as the private? Are all personal stories equally validating’? What are the dangers of such self-authorization? These are just the first questions of many in such a debate. What kind of approach does this collection suggest and promote? Nancy Rabinowitz, one of the co-editors, worries in the introduction: ‘If 1 decide to “speak for myself” which of my many voices would I adopt? I come up against the multiplicity of my subject positions: I am a white, bourgeois Jewish woman, who is “married with children”, as well as a Hellenist, a member of a comparative literature department teaching feminist literary theory, and an active feminist’. Of course, introductions are made with brief gestures, but I am troubled by the facile quota of stereotypes at work in a ‘self positioning’ in such terms. To speak the self we need more than labels. When, for example, Rabinowitz writes ‘Jewish’, how self evident, how nuanced a marker is that’? (‘Am I that name?’, as Denise Riley [or Shakespeare] would put it.) Questions of race, religion, degree of religious observance, the relation of feminism to religious belief, the relation of religious affiliations to scholarship or to career—all are unexplored in the blank epithet. The narrative of self is in danger of resembling the party-game of ‘list five adjectives that best describe you’. What indeed would it mean for Rabinowitz to talk ‘as a Jewish woman’ here? And should we suggest that such a voice could just be ‘adopted’—ad lib., like a pose? As an opening statement of how a subject position may be negotiated, Rabinowitz’s remarks are strikingly in contrast with famous works of feminist writing such as Hélène Cixous’Vive l’Orange, with its expression of her Jewish intellectual subject position, or Jane Gallop’s work The Daughter’s Seduction or Thinking Through the Body with her witty, self-deprecating and ironic versions of personal narrative. This commitment to what will be seen as an oversimplified view of what an individual and her story are, is an unnecessary weakness of the project.

Shelley Haley contributes an interesting essay which discusses the importance of the image of Cleopatra in terms of attitudes to race, and she interweaves her personal story of discovery with the academic account of the gap in Cleopatra’s lineage—an unknown grandmother—which may support the claim that the Egyptian Queen is to be heralded as a ‘woman of color’. Haley skilfully deploys the narrative of a young woman entering an alien but desired culture, and discovering the truth of her own grandmother’s wise words almost too late (but in best Hollywood mode, not too late). The turn to the personal here provides a longer, more complex story: but what is also imperative is to address the force of the topoi of the personal narrative—the way in which the narrative itself is telling. For what sense of the (political, intellectual, social) self, what sense of the politics of enlightenment, what sense of the relation between writing/reading and experience is being mobilized and promoted here? This is where it may be useful to turn towards the (post)Lacanian tradition of French feminists such as Cixous and Kristeva, who are given short shrift in this volume for a variety of reasons. But one of the most important contributions from those thinkers is an awareness of the complicit relations between culturally endorsed narratives and the ideological values of culture—and what that might mean for writing. ‘Reader, I married him’ isn’t just the end of a novel… The strategies of authorization in the turn to the personal need very careful negotiation if the politics of the personal are to be developed critically.

Both the stereotyping of Rabinowitz and the elegant narrative of Haley involve implication in cultural strategies of authorization—an uncontested commitment to one very circumscribed and, I think, politically loaded view of the individual in society and in language. I share Amy Richlin’s worry in the final chapter that ‘very difficult language’ can be a bar to ‘revolution’: so too can an oversimplified conceptualization of the problems and solutions of praxis.

Amy Richlin, the other editor, best shows how the aims of the volume can be fulfilled. She contributes the last, suitably general, piece (‘The ethnographer’s dilemma’) on the possibilities for a fruitful engagement between feminist theory and Roman culture. Starting from the question ‘Why study the past?’, she contrasts optimistic and pessimistic positions towards the interaction of scholarship, the past, and social change. She points out, too, that such an opposition cannot be more than a heuristic device that distorts as well as it is illuminating. She also weaves together personal voice with an informed overview of certain of the discipline’s (de)formations that raises a set of excellent and pointed questions about the how and why of ‘committed’ scholarship. Any overview is intrinsically partial, but this piece should stimulate and advance serious discussion—and promote the call for self-awareness.

Judith Hallet writes in similarly general vein and, starting from a colleague’s hostility to the word ‘classic(al)’ itself—’the “c” word’—argues for an increased sense of the politics of periodization in historical accounts of the ancient world. She questions the boundaries and privileging of, say, the ‘fifth-century classical period’ and promotes an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural pursuit of ‘recovering women’s lived reality and even women’s cultural image in Greece and Rome’. Hallett too raises instructive queries about how women’s history may not coincide with the inherited Grand Narrative of ‘Greek History’. Much of Hallett’s argument progresses by noting the excellent work of female scholars on the females of the past, and by calling for future ‘colonization’: ‘might we also perhaps “re-canonize” a portion of Plutarch?’, she asks. This might suggest that only those portions of a text or corpus which seem convenient or agreeable should be “re-canonized”—in the way that some seventies feminists quoted Medea’s first speech from Euripides’Medea without looking at the whole narrative and its political and social context; but this is far from the inevitable. In the light of this strategy of review and recanonization, two strategic omissions seemed surprising to me: first, there is no reference in her extensive and careful bibliographical survey to significant feminist theorizations of history and historiography (Joan Scott, Donna Harraway, Drucilla Cornell): this would help in outlining the most promising lines of future research as a project shared between ancient and modern history. Second, to talk of periodization as a problem without recognizing its central position in the response of many historians (from Braudel to Foucault) to the Hegelian master narrative is to allow the desire for ‘re-canonization’ to distort the engagement of feminist theory with intellectual history and the academy.

Barbara Gold and Marilyn Skinner, although they appear in different sections of the collection (‘Male Writing Female’, and ‘Gynocentrics’) make an interesting juxtaposition. Gold aims to articulate the representation of the female in Roman poetry, while Skinner aims to trace a tradition of female poetic utterance, a female voice, whose fountainhead is Sappho. Gold traces how men write ‘woman’ and what that might mean for Roman ideas of gender and for modern notions of the historicity of gender: Propertius, she contends in an argument reminiscent of Maria Wyke’s fine studies of Propertius, has a ‘consistent identity’ that he explores through the different and shifting representations of Cynthia. It is fascinating to consider how her work would respond to the recent book length study of erotic elegy by Duncan Kennedy ( The Arts of Love [Cambridge, 1993]), which takes a sympathetic critique of Wyke as its starting point. Skinner attempts to find a tradition of female voicing from archaic through to Hellenistic poetry—and how men read a female articulation of desire. Both essays thus raise central questions for literature and feminist theory. It is in these two articles too that the most extensive engagement with so-called ‘French Theory’ takes place. Both offer brief accounts—largely depreciative—and although both follow up central issues of voice and representation within patriarchy, neither utilizes such theory to any great advantage. Indeed, the readings that instantiate the theory seem less than adequately developed. Skinner, to take a not atypical example, writes of Sappho: ‘fr. 16 confirms the speaker’s superior insight into what is “the most beautiful” ( to kalliston) by opposing her comprehensive and relativistic definition of beauty to a series of overtly male, and patently limited, foils.’ Sappho, like many male poets, contrasts the spheres of desire and war in the opening of this fragment—although the translation of to kalliston by ‘the most beautiful’ distorts the shiftiness of criteria here, where the evaluation is certainly more than physical. The ‘superior insight’, however, in the very next stanza is first boldly declared to be easily demonstrable, and second made problematic by the exemplum of Helen of Troy, whose kallos caused the mobilization of ‘an army of horsemen. and army of foot, an army of ships… ‘, and whose adultery immediately underlines the moral dubiousness and duplicity so often present in Greek notions of desire. Skinner’s account of the lines as a ‘comprehensive and relativistic definition of beauty‘ does not key into such considerations. Yet with Helen not only do the spheres of desire and war become inextricably linked (and not merely contrasted) but also the way in which the poem is about what is kalon and how desire might relate to to kalliston becomes a very complex nexus of thought indeed. My point is not about a minor point of translation—the sort of criticism that I know is often used to trivialize the main issue of feminist writing—but rather that the account offered by Skinner unnecessarily oversimplifies Sappho’s narrative, lyric voice. Reading/writing the personal in Sappho requires all the care and nuance we can muster.

Similar difficulties of scope and precision are seen in Diana Robin’s proposal for the use of film theory in reading Seneca. This essay is simply too brief on Seneca in particular if it is to stand as more than a prolegomenon—or plea to read more film theory. This is also the case with Bella Zweig’s comparative study of Native American and ancient Greek cultures. I found this work’s theoretical underpinnings disturbingly reminiscent of Tylor and Morgan. It was alarming to learn that a seven and a half page survey was to serve as a ‘comprehensive overview of women in Native American societies’. The problem becomes clearest to a classicist when, for example, Zweig in a single paragraph tries to valorize the Neo-Pythagorean texts passed down to us under the names of female authors as a counter tradition to the male philosophical tradition led by Plato and Aristotle. Zweig does not even acknowledge any doubt about the date and the uncertain gender of these authors. Their names are usually the names of famous women of the past—Plato’s mother, for example; and, whether the texts are late, and even male, forgeries is a major critical discussion. The account she offers of the philosophy contained in these texts, its social message, its potential for reuse, is inevitably distorted beyond an acceptable level in a single, barely annotated paragraph.

Shelby Brown and Peter Rose offer similarly brief but more stimulating and suggestive articles on material culture. Brown in a brief overview of the field tries to articulate the need for and limitations of a ‘feminist archaeology’. Rose, in a way that stands interestingly against some arguments for the personal as political, recalls Marxist views of social change, and draws attention to a set of ideas with which there is little engagement elsewhere in this collection. The editors have clearly tried to include a wide choice of potential theoretical positions, which is creditable, but more space and detailed argumentation from fewer perspectives might have been more successful in protecting the value of the volume from easy criticisms, from which no-one can benefit.

The editors, however, may have miscalculated badly by including Tina Passman’s, ‘Out of the closet and into the field: matriculture, the Lesbian perspective, and feminist classics’. It would be damaging indeed if this chapter were turned by hostile or unsympathetic critics into a piece that spoke for the volume as a whole, or for feminist theory as a project. Passman argues that the reason people have difficulties with Jane Harrison’s work is that she ‘wrote like a dyke and lived like a dyke, as any Lesbian could see’. It might be possible to take that grotesque oversimplification of Harrison’s complex sexuality as a fun piece of political sloganizing, did the article not proceed to offer not merely whole-hearted and ill-informed defence of Harrison (as if sexual prejudice were the only reason for criticisms of Harrison’s work) but also a bizarre attempt to write a myth of a pre-patriarchal matriarchy (appealing not merely to Harrison but also to Bachofen and Morgan). Passman’s matriarchy is ‘characterized by peace, balance, and harmony. Women in this culture are wise and all-knowing; they regulate themselves and the world of nature, which is a mirror of themselves, and they are further mirrors of the symbol of this power, the Goddess’. I have read and thought over this section of the paper several times. I can find no rhetorical distance from such bizarre and uncritical idealism. This fantasy is, I am afraid, what is on offer—and, regrettably, proclaimed as ‘the Lesbian perspective’. The author calls it a myth, for sure, but also adds that ‘feminist classics can be most helpful to the women’s movement’ by using ‘specialized knowledge and research tools’ to ‘propel this project further’. I understand that a challenge to patriarchal norms can take different forms—and the many leaps in her argument certainly do not follow recognisable patterns of male Western logic (and since the author invites us to consider the meaning of her change of name, I assume that ‘Pass/Man’ is significant)—but in the context of the extensive contemporary discussions about matriarchy and methodology it is a pity that such a poor version of what is an uncritical position should have been the contribution to this volume.

I have hesitated several times over whether to include the last paragraph in my review. Passman herself speaks of the dangers of ‘horizontal hostility’. By this she means criticism between women: she writes of how ‘a radical feminist’ once criticized her from a theoretical position, and declares: ‘my self-esteem was diminished, my self-confidence and feeling of participation as a feminist classicist destroyed’. For a woman to criticize a woman—especially from a theoretical position, or from a position of authority—is, she claims, ‘to do the work of patriarchy’. This seems to me to be a particularly trivialized and self-serving version of the problem with which I begun this review: feminist theory remains committed to theory and there is no theory without contest, disagreement, redefinition, and debate. The celebration of the potential of feminist theory becomes a very unsatisfactory gesture if it means a blanket support for anything said by a self-proclaimed feminist.

This volume will provoke discussion. it will help many people who are starting out to see new routes and make many others more reflective through debate. It will annoy others, and some parts of the scholarly apparatus will be picked apart—both out of sympathy and with hostility; some arguments and positions will win little credit. A volume of essays on such a subject is always likely to provoke such a mixed response. But there is little doubt in my mind that the engagement and self-reflection that the volume enjoins is necessary life-blood for classics. It might not be easy. (But why should it be, for any of us?)