BMCR 2020.06.28

Marginality, canonicity, passion

Marco Formisano, Christina Shuttleworth Kraus, Marginality, canonicity, passion. Classical presences . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xviii, 364 p.. ISBN 9780198818489 $125.00.

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

This volume tackles the key issue of marginality and canonicity in classical studies from a refreshing and methodologically highly attuned perspective. The aim of the book is not to analyse the conditions under which a text becomes marginal or canonical; instead, it seeks to explore how the tension between the poles of marginality and canonicity inform both the disciplinary discourse of classical philology and the daily hermeneutical habits of its practitioners (p.4). From this perspective, this volume represents invaluable training in critical self-awareness: classical scholars are pushed to problematize for themselves the limits, implicit biases, and invisible factors that affect their own interest in analysing classical texts and their working habits. In this frame, marginality and canonicity appear as interrelated to passion, since they inevitably participate in defining the experience of individual critical voices.

Marco Formisano’s introductory chapter announces the purpose of the book, which seeks not to dismantle canonicity and marginality, but rather to understand their functioning “within the practice of the discipline” (p. 4). This chapter defies the common idea of academic introduction and contains a very enjoyable biographical excursus. Formisano recalls his experience in the US as a scholar of marginal texts of a marginal period, in having studied the technical treatises of late antiquity. Within this context of double marginalisation, he argues that these so-called “minor texts” have the right to be read as what they are, simply texts, and not exclusively as sources through which to reconstruct a chosen context. In his discussion Formisano also considers the side-effects of several theoretical approaches (such as reception, postcolonial and feminist studies, and the world literature turn) which, while undeniably opening up the field of classics, have a consistent tendency to concentrate only on the most canonical texts. A little later, Formisano convincingly argues that classical scholarship itself ought to be considered as part of reception and that classical scholars consequently need to acknowledge their implicit role as co-guardians of the canon. To defy the canon Formisano makes an interesting proposal, namely to valorise the “exemplary extraneousness” of classical texts: these texts are “deterritorialized” insofar as they are written in Latin and ancient Greek, languages which are not linked to a national context and which therefore contain within themselves a certain potential formiscomprehension and estrangement. This feeling of extraneousness is further enhanced by the mode of close reading, which is so characteristic of the discipline. In this context Formisano proposes to valorise rather than normalize this textual extraneousness. From this perspective, the business of reading and interpreting a text, whether classified as canonical or marginal, means to explore its uniqueness, or to follow Formisano’s terminology, its surprise factor.[1]

Christina Shuttleworth Kraus closes the introduction by presenting an overview of the volume, stating clearly that single contributions present a multiform landscape and that they in no way represent different steps in the development of a single argument. This is presumably the reason why the individual contributions are not formally regrouped in subsections but are only described as ‘moving from explicit theory to explicit practice’ (p. 29). As a reader I have appreciated this choice, insofar as it acknowledges the complexity of thinking without creating the illusion of an artificial continuity.

Due to the impossibility of discussing in detail each chapter within this review, I decided to focus on those contributions which especially explore the future development of classical philology. Hamilton’s contribution recalls, by mobilizing Hamacher and de Man, the erotic power of philology. This is the dimension which – if I might add – is in danger of being forgotten in the global competition for funding, in which philology is represented as a science directly connected to measurable deliverables. Through his case-study on temporalities in Quignard’s Sur le Jadis, he elegantly illustrates the subversive power of philology, which can be conceived as rather a preliminary mode of thinking which “encompasses a kernel of non-knowledge that inflames desire and motivates persistent inquiry” (p. 38), and which constitutes “the non-disciplinary ground for every discipline” (p.40).

In their co-authored chapter, Güthenke and Holmes ask themselves how classical scholars may reinvent their competence and the identity of their community, in response to the constant expansion of the field, due to multiple factors, such as the rise of reception studies, the geographic broadening of the Greco-Roman world, and the progressive revaluation of non-canonical genres. They see the philological discipline as articulated around two poles in tension, namely a centrifugal hyperinclusiveness (i. e. the proliferation of what there is to know) and a centripetal hypercanonicity (i.e. the delimitation of what should be known). These forces are connected respectively with two risks, the unmanageability of a hyperinclusive field and the distortions resulting from a hypercanonized system. As an alternative, they sketch a model of nodal classics (p. 70). In this framework researchers themselves act as nodes, insofar as they hold the responsibility of shaping the discipline by deliberate choice of their materials and methodologies.

Edmunds discusses minor Roman poetry by looking at two complementary universes, the discipline of classical philology and the profession of the classical philologist. Despite including some definitions which strike me as somewhat anachronistic for contemporary philology (e.g. when discussing the supposed ‘primacy’ of text-editions and commentaries over other forms of scholarship (p. 294); the need to maintain the field as ‘fixed and stable’, and the importance of canonicity and chronology as a ‘primary means of self-identification’ (p. 301)), E. makes an interesting aspect of the discipline of Classics visible. He discusses the dichotomies between the discipline, which maintains the canon, and the profession, which insists contrariwise on the primacy of the method. In this context, editions and commentaries on minor authors may be granted honour, insofar as they enact one of the most validating kinds of applying the philological method, while the authors with which they deal will continue to be considered marginal. He then underlines how classics has ‘come under the pressure to justify itself as a non-elitist and politically sensitive discipline’ (p.308). In this context he recognizes that the model ‘philology + x’, where ‘x’ is reception, is particularly appropriate to respond to these needs and to extend the field (p. 308-11).

In my view, one of the most fascinating chapters is the epilogue written by Joy Connolly. Building on Hannah Arendt’s thoughts and on the exposition ‘This Progress’ by Tino Sehgal, she encourages the reader to look at Latin and Greek literature as tools to enrich self-reflection on the world we live in (p. 317). In order to do so, she suggests, we need a) to replace at the core of the subject issues of intellectual history and political thought (p. 318), b) to accept that we can productively read ancient texts in relation to our own world, while taking consciously into account the resulting anachronisms (p. 319-20), and c) to consider that a text represents not only a theme to think about but also a tool to think with, which is capable of promoting individual and collective imagination (p. 320-1).

Aside from the contributions that I have explicitly discussed, the book offers valid and well-constructed case-studies on the reception of Vitruvius (Oksanish), the editions of Liber Pontificalis by Mommsen and Duchesne (Franklin), Athenian democracy as grounded not only on the essential need of men but also on a programmatic lack of women (Sissa), the authenticity and the critical history of Rhesus (Fantuzzi), the constitution of Greek canon through the analysis of Egyptian literary papyri (Netz), paraliterary subversions of Homer as  a means to indirectly reinforce his canonicity (Porter) and the verse summaries of Virgil’s Aeneid contained in the Anthologia Latina and their simultaneous dependence on and independence from the Virgilian epos (McGill). On a formal level, the book as a whole is well produced, while typing errors are few and mirror the good standard set by the series Classical Presences. In conclusion, this book represents, for established philologists, and for philologists-to-be as well, the invaluable opportunity to turn their critical eyes to their own habits. By doing so, the book helps the classical philological community to imagine its own future at the intersection between theoretical reflection and hermeneutical practice.

Authors and titles

1: Introduction
I. Marginality and the Classics: Exemplary Extraneousness, Marco Formisano
II. Overview of this Volume, Christina Shuttleworth Kraus
2: Before Discipline: Philology and the Horizon of Sense in Quignard’s Sur le jadis, John T. Hamilton
3: Hyper-Inclusivity, Hyper-Canonicity, and the Future of the Field, Constanze Güthenke and Brooke Holmes
4: The Elusive Middle: Vitruvius’ Mediocracy of Virtue, John Oksanish
5: Theodore Mommsen, Louis Duchesne, and the Liber pontificalis: Classical Philology and Medieval Latin Texts, Carmela Vircillo Franklin
6: Bulls and Deer, Women and Warriors: Aristotle’s Physics of Morals, Giulia Sissa
7: On the Alleged Bastardy of Rhesus: Errant Orphan of Unknown Paternity or Child of Many Genres?, Marco Fantuzzi
8: The Greek Canon: A Few Data, Observations, Limits, Reviel Netz
9: Homer in the Gutter: From Samuel Butler to the Second Sophistic and Back Again, James I. Porter
10: Minus opus moveo: Verse Summaries of Virgil in the Anthologia Latina, Scott McGill
11: Minor Roman Poetry in the Discipline and in the Profession of Classics, Lowell Edmunds
12: The Space between Subjects, Joy Connolly


[1] This approach has significative common points with the Radical Philology promoted by Prof. Jürgen Paul Schwindt in Heidelberg.