Classically Inclined

September 6, 2013

Between Words and Walls: Material and Textual Approaches to Housing in the Graeco-Roman World

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:38 pm
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Last week was very much a week where all sorts of things seemed like very good ideas on their own, but in aggregate started to look just the tiniest bit over-optimistic. One of those things was attending the conference Between Words and Walls, organised by April Pudsey and Jen Baird of Birkbeck. I don’t think I have ever been to a conference before where I have had to explain why I’m there quite so often – and, let’s be honest, perhaps it’s not immediately obvious why I was there. The conference wanted to examine the study of ancient housing, how to combine the archaeological sources with the literary sources without privileging either, and consider new methodologies for studying the ancient house. It is an entirely fair question to ask how all that links in with what I do.

However, there is actually a very nice link between my stuff and ancient housing. A lot of the study of ancient housing has started looking at what, for want of a better term, you might call the sociology of living – that is, how the shape and layout of houses reflects the hierarchies of the families living in them, and what we might extrapolate about kinship relationships based on the space that families inhabit. This is where the link with my research comes in – although my work on Seneca’s concept of the family is currently based on his representation of the idealised philosophical family, I can’t discuss that without a good grounding in the social history of the Roman family, of which the study of housing forms a part. I told you it made perfect sense.

From mthat perspective, there were a couple of very interesting papers. Jen’s paper on houses at Dura-Europos included as a case study the records of a house which was given to four brothers as an inheritance, and the process of splitting one oikos into four oikoi - but within the same building. This is kind of mind-exploding from an ancient housing point of view, because when we think about houses, there’s a tendency to assume that one family unit inhabited one building, and that each building was a single oikos. If you have the sense of multiple households living in a single structure, that changes a lot of our assumptions about life in the ancient world – population density, the hierarchy of shared spaces within the shared structure, the practicalities of living in such small quarters, not to mention the difference between what the legal document says and what may have actually happened. The paper given by Heather Baker offered a brilliant counterpoint with evidence from Hellenistic Uruk, with tablet documentation of parts of houses being sold off to family members, or records of habitation that suggest multiple households in a single building again. Heather also bought out the evidence this gives us for female economic activity in this period, which for various reasons is not as well documented in other spheres of life.

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May 3, 2013

Freud, the uncanny and monsters

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:34 am
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I have finally got around to reading Freud’s essay on the uncanny [link to PDF]. I first decided I wanted to read it when I was thinking about monsters for the Harryhausen paper. My thought process then was concerned with trying to work out what anxieties the Clash of the Titans monsters were expressing, particularly those from the 1981 film which seemed to miss the usual flashpoints of the Cold War or Nuclear Winter. I’ve been dwelling on this, because there’s another way of reading monsters, which is as a way of symbolising psychological fears. For instance, every alien film can be seen as expressing fear of the unknown, either in terms of what might come at us from it or what happens if we start exploring it and venturing beyond our natural limits. Slasher films and horror films in general also work well with this sort of model, particularly those which have monstrous female protagonists like Carrie, The Exorcist or The Hunger.

My observations about reading monsters psychologically were formed mainly by Barbara Creed’s excellent book The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, which identifies seven archetypes of the monstrous feminine found in film: archaic mother, monstrous womb, vampire, witch, possessed body, monstrous mother and castrator. These ideas primarily focus on horror films and their kin, so despite a reference to Medusa symbolising the vagina dentata, there wasn’t much to play with on the Harryhausen front. (I also found the analysis of the films lacked any consideration of the effect of these monsters on the female spectator, but that’s a bugbear I have about a lot of film studies literature.) Creed relies heavily on Kristeva’s idea of the abject, the sense of repressing the horrific and writing out the rejected and abject from our semantic system, but Kristeva built her ideas on Freud’s essay on the uncanny. So I thought I would go back to source and see whether those ideas have anything to offer in terms of explaining classical monsters.

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September 7, 2012

Bread and circuses: some thoughts about the Olympics, Paralympics and theory

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:52 am
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We’ve completed the Olympics and are now working our way through the Paralympics, and I’m lucky enough to have attended both. I saw some of the men’s volleyball and the Graeco-Roman wrestling for the Olympics, and I spent Tuesday at the athletics finals of the Paralympics. I will own up that the only reason we ended up at the Graeco-Roman wrestling was because I suggested I’d be a bad classicist if I didn’t nominate them as one of the events we tried for… it ended up being our only Olympic medal ceremory, so there we are. Clearly I wasn’t the only person who used this logic in making their applications, as the photo illustrating this post attests. Being inside the stadium proper was also amazing – not just for the architecture, or indeed the absolutely gripping blind long jump competition, but for the sense of being one small part of a cheerfully enthusiastic crowd cheering on all comers.

Celebrating in togas; photo courtesy of Bill Gloyn.

Being the academic type that I am, I have been trying to find various theoretical models for thinking about the Games. The obvious one, as a classicist, is the ‘bread and circuses’ model, exploring the use of lavish spectacles to please the masses and keep them on the side of the people paying for the games. Magistrates often paid for the games in Rome and the cities of the empire in order to curry favour with the people; some of the guests at Trimalchio’s dinner party in the Satyricon criticise their local officials for not putting on a good enough show. The most famous example occured during the Byzantine empire, when the rivalry between the Blue and Green chariot racing teams grew so fierce and their supporters so powerful that they nearly unseated the emperor Justinian. That’s obviously an extreme case, but public entertainment and sporting competition served as a locus of political power, whether to demonstrate it or to sieze it. I have to admit that I feel a bit of a resonance here with Boris Johnson, who used the immediate aftermath of the Olympics both to put the boot into the Coalition government’s handling of the economic situation and to fuel speculation about his intentions after he finishes his current term as mayor. (He is probably the only person able to take advantage of the political capital offered by the Games, given that Jeremy Hunt is well beyond redemption by now despite his reshuffling.)

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December 22, 2011

Book review: The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller – Carlo Ginzburg

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:39 am
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You may be thinking, “worms? Cheese? Sixteenth-century millers? Isn’t this a bit outside of her normal sphere of inquiry?” In which questions you would be quite correct – I have little to no interest, professionally or personally speaking, in the theological and socio-economic landscape of the Friuli region of Italy in the 1500s. However, this book is One Of Those Books that gets mentioned a lot when you start hanging around with historians and thinking about the historical method and various methodological approaches, which I did rather a lot of at Rutgers. As a result of spending time with bad influences, one of my ongoing personal development projects is reading around theoretical texts and books that exemplify approaches towards historical and literary evidence, and getting a sense of whether the conceptual framework that other people use might be helpful for me and my work. This particular book has become emblematic of what’s called micro-history – that is, taking a very small, seemingly insignificant piece of evidence, and story telling history around it, to link it into wider narratives of historical development for the period and putting it into its proper context.

So Ginzburg has taken the transcripts of the Inquisition’s dealings with a miller, one Menocchio, who was examined twice for heresy and eventually put  to death. Ginsburg shows from the transcripts where Menocchio fits into intellectual thought and political environment of the period, using the microscopic evidence to lead the reader into the wider political and theological debates of the period. There’s quite a lot of due caution used, particularly when speculating what texts Menocchio may or may not have read, but there is also a willingness to take a speculation far enough to plug into wider social narratives if the jump seems justified. I can imagine specialists in the period disagreeing with me on this one, but overall it felt like a well-balanced mix of relying on the trial transcripts and justified speculation. I particularly liked Ginzburg’s analysis of Menocchio’s approach to reading and to the texts we know that he definitely read, what that tells us about small rural villages as communities of readers, and what we can then discover about Menocchio’s strategies of interpreting what he had read.

In terms of microhistory as a methodological technique, I don’t know quite where it would fit into the sort of work that I do, but that’s because of the contextual differences of the evidence that survives for the period versus the ancient world, and the sort of stuff I work on. I’d say that I would see this kind of approach working with the papyri from Egypt, for instance, or perhaps graffiti or other ‘casual’ writing, as opposed to the deliberately literary writing that I’m working with at the moment. But it’s good to have another conceptual approach in the toolbox should I wander in that direction in the future.

June 10, 2011

Naked youths, Barthes and the semiotics of the classical

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:29 am
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Working on the article I sent off to my editors last week on queer theory and classical reception introduced me to a number of new and exciting people engaged in producing classical receptions, one of whom was Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden [NB - definitely not safe for work], who lived on the Greek island of Taormina at the turn of the twentieth century. During the day, he took photographs of local youths in various poses (and normally very few clothes), and in the evenings his house was the scene of riotous parties. Although I encountered the work of Von Gloeden and his fellow photographers in the context of a broad history of homoerotica, I was quite interested in the classical codes that they used to provide a setting for their work. So to learn a bit more, I’m following up with an article that was cited in a footnote, and lo and behold, an interesting paragraph leaps out at me:

Perhaps a more serious appraisal of von Gloeden’s work is that of Roland Barthes (1978), which nevertheless mixes real insight with hermeneutic subjectivity. Barthes accuses the baron of “overloading … the code of antiquity … and mixing up signs without thinking about it … It seems he takes without any irony the most worn-out legends for cash value. Il est surtout Kitsch.” All this seems to add up to what is in fact the general response to von Gloeden: he was a silly old man who took sentimental naughty pictures; an amateur explotative, voyeuristic pornographer whose work is “soft-core” and amusing if one has the right kind of humour. (B. Russell. 1983. “Russell Wilhelm von Pluschow and Wilhelm von Gloeden: Two Photo Essays.” Studies in Visual Communication 9.2: 60.)

Now, what’s really interesting for me here is the Barthes quote. “Overloading the code of antiquity” is precisely the sort of thing I’m thinking through in terms of queering reception, and indeed reception in pop culture in general. That there is a code is indisputable – that the code is being used by von Gloeden to mask what could otherwise arouse the ire of the censors with a veil of classical learning is also pretty clear. I also feel that Barthes is being slightly unfair with his comment about “cash value” – von Gloeden was selling his photographs in order to support himself and his step-sister following the political disgrace of his stepfather, and one would expect him to photograph things that would sell for that reason alone. (Apparently Barthes also objects to the models in the photographs having swollen foreskins as this does not live up to the model of the ideal alabaster ancient Greek youth, an objection which Russell swiftly demolishes as an expectation based on unhelpful preconceptions formed by art from the eighteenth century.)

Putting aside Barthes’ artistic prejudices, I want to concentrate on his suggestion that it is possible to create a semantic overload of classical signs. From my perspective, reception studies tends to think about what a reception does with its interpretation of the classical, and what that can tell us about both the reception and whatever is being received. But the question of whether it is possible to receive too much, too indiscriminately, as Barthes seems to be suggesting von Gloeden does, is not one I’ve seen articulated. This is probably because a lot of pop culture reception work is interested in fighting against an elitist idea of what counts as a ‘reception’ and thus deserves study, and Barthes’ argument looks suspiciously as if it belongs to the other camp. It may, however, be a useful idea for me in terms of thinking about what one might uncharitably call ‘unimaginative’ elements of classical reception. Of course, I’ll have to chase down the Barthes quote in context to see whether it is actually useful, but it strikes me that if he’s saying what I think he’s saying, then there’s a very interesting point here about how we might approach classical reception in pop culture (which von Gloeden was, in the 1900s) – it might help explain the broad brand of classical semiotics which relies on shallow codes and symbols to signal an ancient setting.

Sadly, Russell’s article doesn’t do the kind of classical reception work that Barthes’ dismissal seems to invite, although it is jolly good from an art history point of view. L’annee Philologique doesn’t appear to record anything on von Gloeden or his contemporary von Pluschow. There’s clearly an opportunity here for some aspiring young reception scholar. I have to admit that I’m not particularly interested in von Gloeden himself except as a data point, an interesting example and some context for the tradition of using classical motifs as a figleaf for male erotica. (If this is the sort of thing you are interested in, then do go and find Thomas Waugh’s Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall, which is where I first came across von Gloeden and his contemporaries. And if you can find a copy that hasn’t had a significant number of the illustrations removed, as the well-thumbed copy from Rutgers had, so much the better.) However, if ever a justification was needed for following up interesting references hidden in footnotes, this is it – if my hunch turns out to be right, Barthes might give me a very useful framework for tackling a certain kind of classical reception in Barbies. Stay tuned…

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