BMCR 2022.02.40

Global classics

, Global classics. Routledge focus on classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. 132. ISBN 9780367549268 $59.95.

Preview

The field of Classics is experiencing a reckoning: the façade of “Western Civilization” has crumbled to reveal its white supremist frame and the imperial foundation upon which it was built.[1] That the discipline has been profoundly entangled with oppressive societal structures is clearly evident, reflected both in its intellectual history and in the lived experiences of BIPOC scholars in (and out of) the field. Given this fraught history, how should the field of Classics evolve to become more inclusive, both in terms of scope and scholars? Jacques A. Bromberg’s Global Classics provides a timely and thoughtful intervention at a critical moment in the field’s history. In this concise book, Bromberg synthesizes the global turn in Classics that has been underway and highlights exciting new ways for the field to continue to grow for the better.

The book explores the nexus of Classics and Global Studies, demonstrating the strengths as well as the limits of both fields in order to configure a new subfield called Critical Global Classics. Classics and Global Studies are uniquely positioned to be in dialogue with each other. Both are inherently interdisciplinary fields that draw on a variety of materials, methods, and theories; and both have also revolved around the teleological narrative of the West, with classical antiquity framed as not only the foundation of “Western Civilization,” but also the vehicle to spread “Western” values, while globalization is seen as the process of spreading those values to the rest of the world. Bromberg thus rightly points out that both fields have much to gain from a self-reflexive investigation that deconstructs this occidentalist stance. To do so, Bromberg puts these two disciplines in conversation with each other in terms of three key themes—transborder, transhistorical and transdisciplinary—which also make up the three main chapters of his book.

In chapter 1, “Transborder,” Bromberg examines the relationship between the concepts of “global” and “local” and the dynamics at play within them. After providing a useful overview of the development of globalization theories and their impact on classical studies, Bromberg provides two case studies, one literary and the other archaeological, that embody “shared social consciousness” on global, local, as well as “glocal” levels. For the first case study, Bromberg considers excerpts from Polybius’ Histories and deconstructs their teleological and globalizing narrative (i.e. the project of the Roman Empire). While Polybius’ work has been considered as one of the earliest examinations of globalizing forces, Bromberg points out that it uncritically illustrates globalization as a homogenous, top-down, and large-scale process. To provide a counterexample, Bromberg presents the site of Ai Khanoum as the second case study. Bromberg looks at the evidence for local expressions of identity, which mix Panhellenic and Indo-Bactrian cultural elements in a glocalizing way—that is, in a way that does not pit the local and the global against each other, but rather renders them mutually constitutive. Globalization thus emerges as a process that is multi-scalar and multi-directional, and the myth that globalization necessarily results in cultural homogeneity falls apart.

Chapter 2, “Transhistorical,” moves from spatial boundaries to temporal ones. Bromberg argues that traditional frameworks of periodization have resulted not only in the division between privileged regions and time periods within antiquity, but also a division between antiquity and modernity. Nevertheless, he acknowledges the practicality and utility of these established paradigms and does not suggest that they be eradicated, but rather that they be supplemented with alternative temporalities that enable connections beyond linear, historical timelines. Like his argument for a transborder approach that considers multiple levels and directions, Bromberg argues for a more dynamic understanding of temporality that includes various timescales and considers both continuity and rupture. Such an inclusive understanding of historical time, both real and imagined, would allow local microhistories and global macro-histories to complement each other.

To demonstrate these different timescales at work, Bromberg provides a stimulating discussion of two related subfields, classical tradition and classical reception studies. While the study of the classical tradition (in large part due to how entrenched it was, and arguably still is, in cultural imperialism and colonialism) is concerned with tracing linear, diachronic histories of classical learning, classical reception (which emerged from theories of reader response) explores the diverse ways in which classical texts and materials have been interpreted and appropriated.  While I agree that contrasting methodologies are necessary to examine global issues, I was left wondering if the study of the classical tradition should continue to be seen as a separate subdiscipline. How do we engage in studying the “classical tradition” without reifying 20th century colonial ideologies? Should we not study it critically under the aegis of classical reception so that we can not only deconstruct its culturally imperializing macro-narrative, but also reconfigure it by tempering it with the plurality of local micronarratives, especially from marginalized and non-elite communities? Can a macro-narrative not be crafted from fragmented histories and perspectives? I would argue that it can – for instance, we need only turn to diaspora studies to see such examples.[2]

In Chapter 3, “Transdisciplinary,” Bromberg reorients the field towards an ethical methodology that engages with real-world issues. He makes the case for trans- rather than interdisciplinarity, contending that interdisciplinarity is too limiting since it is a sharing of knowledge between disciplines, a process that often upholds and reproduces asymmetrical power dynamics between different fields. Transdisciplinarity, on the other hand, is a sharing of knowledge beyond disciplines, shifting the focus from the fields themselves to the research questions and the different approaches that can be applied to explore those questions. Bromberg identifies Classics as a transdisciplinary field that is ideally positioned to contribute to studying global issues in and since antiquity. However, he fairly points out that the field of Classics has not fully realized its transdisciplinary potential since there is limited dialogue between its various subdisciplines (e.g. archaeology, ancient history, literature, reception, among others). I would add that these subdisciplines operate not only in silos, but also in a sort of hierarchy that further exacerbates their division. Bromberg’s Critical Global Classics could prove to be one effective way to not just transcend, but [to] also deconstruct those silos and hierarchies. As Bromberg passionately argues, the subfield of Critical Global Classics would challenge existing structures and practices that have made Classics so exclusionary for far too long, while also embracing diverse perspectives that decenter the West and the elites.

Overall, Global Classics is a compelling call to action for the field of Classics. Practicing what he preaches, Bromberg uses a wide range of evidence, methodologies and theories to model a new direction for the field that engages global issues across time, space and discipline. I only wish Bromberg had the space to provide us with more case studies and original analysis. But this small, yet stirring book will surely inspire further work that disrupts traditional frameworks and paradigms to elucidate exciting new insights in and beyond classical antiquity. The usefulness of Global Classics lies in its blend of syntheses of intellectual developments at the intersection of Classics and Global Studies, critical analyses of materials from both fields, and encouraging suggestions on ways to merge the two fields in an issue-based approach. Global Classics is thus valuable for scholars at all levels and I would especially recommend teaching it in upper level undergraduate and graduate courses. Bromberg’s book has amplified the call to globalize classics and all generations should indeed join in answering it.

Notes

[1] For works on the connection between classics and imperialism, see John Levi Barnard, Empire of Ruin: Black Classicism and American Imperial Culture, Oxford 2017; Mark Bradley (ed), Classics and Imperialism in the British Empire, Oxford 2010; Barbara E. Goff, ‘Your Secret Language’: Classics in the British Colonies of West Africa, London 2013; Barbara E. Goff (ed), Classics and Colonialism, London, 2005; Emily Greenwood, Afro-Greeks: Dialogues between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century, Oxford 2010; Su Fang Ng, Alexander the Great from Britain to Southeast Asia: Peripheral Empires in the Global Renaissance, Oxford 2019; Phiroze Vasunia, The Classics and Colonial India, Oxford 2013.

[2] Classical reception by the African diaspora, for example, is part of a long, rich intellectual history and has contributed to larger counternarratives against white supremacy. See, for example, Barbara Goff and Michael Simpson (eds), Crossroads in the Black Aegean: Oedipus, Antigone and Dramas of the African Diaspora, Oxford 2007; Patrice D. Rankine, Ulysses in Black: Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature, Madison 2006; Michele V. Ronnick, The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship, Detroit 2005; Tracey L. Walters, African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison, New York 2015.