BMCR 2023.05.28

The politics of form in Greek literature

, The politics of form in Greek literature. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2022. Pp. 312. ISBN 9781350162631


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


This volume, edited by Phiroze Vasunia, addresses a topic of the greatest interest inside and outside classical studies. In the last few decades, particularly in the North-American context, political and intellectual movements have been calling into question the legitimacy itself of classical studies, which are more and more often associated with conservative or even reactionary, racist, and imperialist positions.[1] In the European academic environment the considerable reduction of research funding alongside the social and economic crisis are also stimulating reflections about the role of the humanities in the academy and their survival in the social network. The problem is keenly perceived by new generations of scholars who experience precarious work and life conditions and do not always have access to publishing and international visibility.[2] Thus, there is space for an open debate about the new aims and the social positioning of classical studies, since new methodologies have also been developed in order to explore fruitful intersections between literature and the social, cultural, and natural environments (e.g. the gender and queer studies, postcolonial studies, new materialism, spatial studies, or actor-network theory). This debate, which still requires creative and non-dogmatic efforts, forms the implicit background of the present volume.[3]

The volume is firmly anchored in the academic debate with regard to the relationship between “form” on the one hand, and “politics” on the other, in Greek literature – a research field in which the adoption of new methodologies has met significant (though not always explicit) resistance. Thus, the first aim of the collected essays is to provide the reader with a reconsideration of the political potential involved in the development of literary forms. An important theme in the conception of the volume is the deconstruction of the depoliticising tendencies present both in new historicism and in new criticism. The methods currently applied in scholarship have never been neutral, but correspond to ideological standpoints. Even worse if they, as in the case of neo-positivism or the notorious logic of publish or perish, have become systemic – this is what Antonio Gramsci called “ideology”: everything that surrounds us and shapes our way of thinking without our even noticing it. Only Edith Hall’s insightful essay explicitly engages with the contemporary structures of the production of knowledge: Hall points out how influential the choice of a certain form of academic writing can prove to be in conditioning the activity of scholars – not only in classical studies, but in every research field. This does not mean that the other contributions do not also provide stimuli for contemporary debate, but the book misses the opportunity to delineate a broader horizon where new academic and intellectual practices can be envisaged.

In what follows, I will consider firstly the form, and secondly the politics the book deals with. The choice of the semantic area suggested by “form”, as opposed to more specific terminology like for instance “literary genre”, corresponds both to a theoretical and political standpoint. Indeed, Vasunia’s introduction clearly refers at the very beginning to György Lukács (Die Theorie des Romans, 1920; Die Seele und die Formen, 1911 is not mentioned) and Frederic Jameson (Marxism and Form, 1971). According to Jameson’s perspective, “form is even more political than content” (p. 1), since it reflects not only the authors’ aesthetic experience, but also the historical contexts in which texts were produced. The volume takes into account a variegated range of political negotiations of literary texts – but also of ancient figurative art, in the case of Orrells’ contribution – thanks to the “elasticity” of the critical category of form, which is never reducible only to its political implications (p. 3). This notion opens new ways of perceiving antiquity and its role in contemporary education: unlike the category of “literary genre”, it emancipates the texts from (canonising) expectations about the purity, perfection, and centrality of the subject. At the same time, the volume does not reject the aesthetic dimension altogether. Other forms of aesthetic appreciation based on the theorists of the Frankfurter Schule and on material, social, and political studies can be explored and developed – hopefully without replacing one canon with another.

Unlike the notion of form, the conceptualisation of the second complementary term, politics, suffers from a certain vagueness, which is expressed in the frequent resort to inverted commas to mark the word in different contexts. The absence of a clear definition of politics is particularly frustrating for the reader, since it is not always clear what politics we are talking about—ancient or contemporary, or both. One cannot address the interaction between antiquity and the contemporary world without distinguishing between the peculiar (and multifaceted) social conditions which shape ancient literary practice and modern conception of political engagement, alongside the ideological reception of antiquity.[4] Is the second chapter of Auerbach’s Mimesis still useful to this purpose or is it time to move forward? One could state that the notion of politics adopted in the book is also flexible: this becomes clear by analysing the focus chosen by the individual contributions. Some deal with the politics of the ancient world (Kahane, Wohl, Stephens, Harman), others deconstruct ideological issues in the modern and contemporary reception of antiquity (Goldhill, Orrells, Webb), others again directly engage with the present and offer a critical reading of ancient texts in connection with contemporary theories (Benjamin, Miller, Worman) or alternative political and intellectual practices (Hall). However, this variety of focus is not clearly mirrored either in the introduction or in the organisation of the contents, which partially overshadows the coherence of the book – and also weakens its impact.

In fact, the book is divided into three main sections which do not enhance the relationship between form and politics, since they just describe (quite confusingly) the formal surface of the literary texts analysed, leaving aside the all-pervading but varied political implications. The first section is entitled Verse (and some Prose) and contains analysis of the political value of Homeric formular diction in the Iliad (Kahane), a discussion of Hegelian influence on the (mis)understanding of Sophocles’ Antigone in feminist and gender studies (Goldhill), the problem of individual and collective decision-making in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis (Wohl), and a critical discussion of the notion of literary genre in Hellenistic poetry (Stephens). The second section Prose (and Some Verse) takes into account the philosophical problem of form and moral judgment through the reflections of Plato and Walter Benjamin (Benjamin), the possibility of developing instances of political resistance against “pretensions to epistemic and political absolutism” (p. 133) starting from Plato’s Seventh letter (Miller), the negotiation of body politics in Aristotle (Worman), the possibilities of forms of erudite and academic writing different from the monological treatise in the light of Aristotle’s lost works (Hall), and the political implications of the dialogic form in Xenophon (Harman). The third part of the volume, Word and Image, addresses two very different topics, that is to say the visual ideological reading of classical antiquity in eighteenth-century Germany, France, and Great Britain (Orrells) and the deconstruction of Leo Spitzer’s conception of ekphrasis and his consequent ideological (purely aesthetic) reading of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urne (Webb).

The methodologies adopted are varied and appropriate to the specific argument of the individual contributions, even if their premises refer to a unitarian core of theorists, first of all Frederic Jameson, followed by other “classics” like Lukács, Adorno, Benjamin, Arendt and the thinkers of the French theory. Engagement with feminist and gender theories (including work by Irigaray, Butler, and Honig) and with material studies is also lively. Thus, one can appreciate the coherence of the ideological and methodological standpoint of the book, which aims at challenging earlier “depoliticising” readings of ancient Greek culture. Very often a specific polemical target gives impetus to an analysis: Millman Parry in Kahane’s reading of Homer, Hegel in Goldhill’s interpretation of Antigone, Spitzer in Webb’s political reconsideration of ekphrasis, and so on. On the one hand, this approach makes the reader aware of the historical dimension of scholarly prejudices which are still nowadays taken for granted and hardly undergo serious critical examination. On the other hand, with regard to other interesting contemporary political implications, the perspective adopted is very selective: only a little space is given to postcolonial and queer theories, and almost nothing is said about class differences and the concrete conditions of cultural production in the ancient world. This selective attitude is also reflected in the choice to select mainly authors and texts considered canonical (especially Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Callimachus, Theocritus). This makes sense insofar as a questioning of the canon is at stake, but nonetheless the notion of political form and the quest for alternative aesthetics could have found good materials in “the other side of the ancient world”, from the Early Imperial Age to Late Antiquity (which only two contributions, Hall and Webb, explicitly refer to).

To sum up, the volume represents an interesting experiment, which shows the limits and perspectives of a debate which is still open. The volume is presented according to the most rigorous academic parameters – the bibliography is accurate and up to date; the list of illustrations and the final index are complete and well-structured. But it also engages with issues outside the academy. There is a tension between its specialised scholarly reflection and efforts to imagine new political practices. Thus, the volume leaves the reader with contradictory feelings – which is quite an achievement for a collection of critical essays. On the divide between the swan song of militant academicism – suffering from the disappearance of the traditional social structures which allowed for direct political engagement – and the development of new forms of intellectual engagement, it opens the floor to further discussions (and practices), to be developed in the following years inside and outside academy.


Authors and Titles

Phiroze Vasunia, Introduction

  1. Ahuvia Kahane, Disagreement, Complexity and the Politics of Homer’s Verbal Form
  2. Simon Goldhill, Sophocles’ Antigone, Feminism’s Hegel and the Politics of Form
  3. Victoria Wohl, The Aporia of Action and the Agency of Form in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis
  4. Susan Stephens, Forms of Survival
  5. Andrew Benjamin, The Politics of Informed Form: Plato and Walter Benjamin
  6. Paul Allen Miller, Plato’s Seventh Letter or How to Fashion a Subject of Resistance
  7. Nancy Worman, Body Politics in Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric
  8. Edith Hall, Aristotle’s Lost Works for the Public and the Politics of Academic Form
  9. Rosie Harman, Politics and Form in Xenophon
  10. Daniel Orrells, The Politics of Form in Eighteenth-Century Visions of Ancient Greece
  11. Ruth Webb, Ekphrasis, Leo Spitzer and the Politics of Form



[1] An ideal starting point could be considered the Black Athena affair, which is also recalled in the book (pp. 233-234); several publications and reflections have recently addressed the topic inside and outside the academy, e.g. the academic contributions and public interventions on newspapers by Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Jonas Grethlein; Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men, HUP 2018, and Alice Borgna’s Tutte storie di maschi bianchi morti, Laterza 2022; the blog Everyday Orientalism; and about the tasks of the discipline, the volume Classics Scholars, between Theory and Practice, ed. by G. Pezzini, S. Rebeggiani, Fabrizio Serra Editore 2013. The list could be far longer.

[2] It is worth mentioning the most famous network in this field, Working Classicists, based in the UK.

[3] Since many of the contributors have also constantly participated (sometimes in collaboration with each other) in stimulating a reframing of the classical studies in the last decades (see lately Postclassicisms, by the Postclassicisms Collective, UCP 2020).

[4] See e.g. the incisive historical reconstruction in E. Hall and H. Stead, People‘s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939, Routledge 2020, which offers a non-conventional insight into forms of survival of ancient culture outside liberal education.