Classically Inclined

October 20, 2016

The Cambridge Greek Play 2016

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 5:16 pm
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It’s been that time of year again – when hoards of classicists descend upon the Cambridge Arts Theatre to see whatever is being presented as the triennial offering of the Greek Play. Since I wrote about the 2013 playthe Greek Play website has been given a revamp to include a lot of material from the Greek Play archives, all the way back to the performance of the Ajax in 1882. I should also note that the first production to include more than one woman seems to have been the 1950 Oedipus at Colonus, which is really quite late if you think about it, particularly since Bedford College had been putting an all-female Greek play (starting with Iphigenia in Tauris) since 1887. The single outlier was Janet Case, who played Athena in the 1885 Eumenides, but no other women appeared on stage until the 1950 production. But I digress.

This year’s offering followed the format of the 2013 production by bookending a tragedy and a comedy; my thoughts on gender come a little from the choice to stage Antigone and Lysistrata, plays which both revolve around female protagonists. The pairing of tragedy-comedy is meant to try and capture something of the spirit of the Great Dionysia, where the audience would be given the blessed relief of a satyr play after a thematically linked sequence of three tragedies. I have to say that there is something to this, the idea that after being plunged into gloom, the responsible dramatist pushes down hard on the other side of the seesaw. There’s also something very rich in the demands made of actors shifting between modes so quickly, and it allows the comedy to make jokes using the audience’s knowledge of what happened in the tragedy. Helen Eastman, the director of the Greek Play since 2010, has spoken about the improv/workshop approach she takes in the seven weeks before the performances, which allows the plays to develop organically and in dialogue with each other. This relatively short window is particularly important for the comedy, which needs to keep pace with current events; I think the team deserve a small round of applause for managing to keep on top of political developments over those seven weeks without completely loosing the will to live at the number of rewrites they must have needed.


October 12, 2016

On classical monsters, theoretical frameworks and the limits of psychoanalysis

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:59 pm
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This post follows on from my previous thoughts on whether you can have a monster outside a horror movie, and takes a step back from the assumption that ‘monster theory’ automatically works for classical monsters in the modern world. In my earlier post, I mentioned Asa Mittman’s statement that you know a monster not through how it is categorised, but through its effect. There may be some unifying characteristics – monstrous size, deformity, malevolence – but none of those is in and of itself sufficient for the monster to be monstrous.

Mittman’s position draws heavily on ideas of the monstrous created by psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic approaches to culture, as does Jeffrey Cohen in his highly influential seven theses of monster culture. I’ve just skimmed over the monster theses again; while I spot more references in the body of the text to Foucault than Freud, the language of the psychoanalytic is woven through the argument. Certainly, later writers on monster theory engage with this theoretical angle with gusto, quoting Freud and Kristeva and working the notions of the uncanny and the abject into their approach.


September 24, 2016

To Cyclops or not to Cyclops?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:15 pm
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When I first came up with the Monster Book proposal, I decided I wanted to have the first half of the book think about some of the big issues around monsters and dedicate the second half to chapters focusing on individual case studies – the plan is for those to look at Medusa, the Minotaur, centaurs and sirens. As I’ve been starting to get to grips with the project, I’ve had to think about what I want to do about Polyphemus, the Cyclops who first turns up in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s funny, because when I initially thought about classical monsters, Polyphemus simply didn’t come into my mind.

If you read the original text, for me it’s a story not about what makes a monster, but how to be human. Polyphemus is one of a tribe of Cyclopes rather than a one-off beast. Yes, he eats some of Odysseus’ men and has every intention of eating all of them, but he only does so after discovering the company in his cave, rifling through it and breaking all the laws of guest-hospitality that should govern the first encounter between civilised peoples. Odysseus’ decision to rifle through Polyphemus’ possessions, essentially pillaging them, makes it clear he doesn’t think that Polyphemus is worth treating like an equal – so Polyphemus returns the contempt. So there’s appalling interpersonal relationships, but no worse than many of the humans that Odysseus meets on the rest of his travels.

However, although Polyphemus is an exaggerated human rather than a monster for Homer, in his later incarnations the trappings of civilization that surround him get stripped away. Eleanor OKell has written about this in the context of the cyclops created by Ray Harryhausen for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, if you fancy reading more about this (the link goes to a PDF), but the general gist is that the social complexity of Polyphemus’ life, his co-existence with other Cyclopes, his command of language and his obvious competence in the complicated art of shepherding and cheese-making get overwhelmed by the man-eating and the single eye. In the process of transmission, he gets flattened out into a beast.

So I think my initial instinct on this is right, and I’m not going to spend too much of the book talking about Polyphemus or the Cyclops – he’s a special case, in that his monstrosity is imposed on him. It certainly wasn’t the only thing that the ancients associated with him – he fell in love with the sea nymph Galatea, who did not return his affections. Both Theocritus and Ovid wrote about Polyphemus’ unrequited love – not something you find when people are talking about the Chimera or the Minotaur. While it’s understandable that the Cyclops in contemporary popular culture has been trimmed down to a one-dimensional bogeyman, the price that’s paid is the humanity that Homer and other ancient poets saw in him.

September 13, 2016

Can you have a monster outside a horror movie?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:42 pm
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This is what I hope is going to be the first of a series of blog posts exploring some of the central issues that come up as I spend my sabbatical getting to grips with the Monster book. I am currently reading All The Theory – that is, trying to get my head around what it is that makes a monster monstrous, and how a monster manifests. On my reading list, inter alia, sit Kristeva’s Powers of Horror and Freud’s essay on the uncanny or unheimlich, along with a dose of Barthes and Benjamin. I am getting familiar with the stomping grounds of monster theory, delineated by Asa Mittman and Jeffrey Cohen, as well as looking at how various parts of cultural and media studies talk about this stuff. The logic here is that I’d like to draft out my initial two chapters, thinking through what a monster is and where monsters live, and then think about the third chapter, which looks at classical monsters in film (and which will build on the paper I gave at the Celtic Classics Conference this summer, “Release The Kraken? Ancient Monsters In Modern Epic”). So while the hope is that I’ll come up with a framework that’s broad enough to cover all the kinds of popular culture I want to talk about, in terms of examples I’m currently circling around film.

Which has led me to a problem of genre, which I ran up against when writing “Release the Kraken” but didn’t really explore there. Much of the writing about the monstrous, about what causes fear, assumes that for something to be truly monstrous, it has to generate a particular sort of response. That is, as viewers, we must fear it. What makes a monster a monster is terror, the emotion that it evokes in the viewer – the shudder of the horror film. Indeed, Asa Mittman argues that what makes a monster is its impact – by its effect shall ye know it. The cinematic monster, for instance, is often visually horrifying because it is covered in blood, pus, ooze – taking the form of a slimy mess of a blob that pulsates and repulses us. The connection between this and the psychoanalytic approach to horror, that we are terrified by the return of the repressed and the impure (to oversimplify), is clear – bodily fluids are taboo, we shudder and fear them.


September 8, 2016

Sabbatical planning 1 – Shut Up and @britishlibrary

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 9:18 pm
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I’ve been thinking about planning my sabbatical term, and have realised there is a big risk of not seeing a sufficiently high concentration of humans over the next few months, which I know is bad for me. (I suspect it will be even worse than it has been in the past given that a lot of the time when I do see humans, I’m seeing them in the capacity of infans’ mother rather than as an academic.) So I thought I’d see if anybody would be interested in a semi-regular meet-up at the British Library – a version of Shut Up And Write, but a bit more flexible.

It turns out that Clare Vernon is in the market for something like this, so we’re going to meet up on Wednesday 14th September for the first of these sessions. The plan is to meet at 9.30am for a pre-desk cup of tea in the downstairs café; meet up again for lunch; and then perhaps meet up for an afternoon tea and a debrief. We’ll also put dates into the diary for the rest of the term – I’m hoping we’ll go fortnightly, although prior commitments may mean we’re not always on a Wednesday and we might not always be fortnightly.

So if you’re on sabbatical or working on research solo and would like an informal way of keeping in touch with other humans, feel free to come along. One of the reasons for setting dates is so that people who can’t make every session can plan to come along for a day – and if you can just make it for a morning or an afternoon, then you’re welcome too. The point is to create a bit of structure for community and hopefully facilitate some research work – I suspect Clare and I will set it up to suit us, but if you can hack it to suit you, then that’s all to the good. If you’d like to know the dates we come up with, please get in touch and I’ll keep you updated.

August 24, 2016

What would Cato have made of the Great British Bake Off?

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 2:11 pm
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It’s a Wednesday towards the end of August, and that can only mean one thing – the British viewing public are gearing up for the return of the Great British Bake Off to their screens this evening. If you have missed this landmark in British cultural history, it is essentially a baking competition where twelve bakers compete in a marquee over who can bake the best version of whatever fiendish concoction Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have come up with to vex them, while Mel and Sue (now so well known they no longer require surnames) try to get as much smut into their commentary on proceedings as possible. One evening this week, after I reminded my husband that the annual baking fest was about to revisit our screens, he came up with a great test of true cultural value – what would Cato the Elder have made of it all?

For those unfamiliar with Cato the Elder, who lived during the middle of the Roman Republic, there were two things he was particularly famous for: his unabated hatred of Carthage and his commitment to traditional Roman virtues, exemplified by his personal behaviour and his actions when he held the office of censor. During this period, a pair of censors were appointed every five years to review the membership rolls of senators and knights, and remove those who were deemed unsuitable; the review of Cato and his co-censor Valerius Flaccus was particularly severe. One good source we have for Cato’s life is the Parallel Life that Plutarch wrote about him; while it was written many years after Cato’s death, and in all likelihood a lot of popular stories about Cato less than completely grounded in fact have found their way into the narrative, it’s a good way to think about how the Romans defined quintessentially Roman behaviour. Even though a lot of his behaviour seemed unpopular, taken together they created a figure who was respected for his “wise leadership, sober discipline and sound principles” (Life 19). So what would Cato have made of Bake Off?

Why are these people cooking? Our first instinct might be that he would disapprove of freeborn citizens baking at all – ancient Rome was, after all, a slave-owning culture, and surely that’s what slaves were for. Cato was, however, a bit different in that respect. Despite his own position of authority, he worked alongside the labourers at his farm (Life 3), and bought the fish and meat for his own dinner at the market (Life 4). So perhaps the idea of people wanting to demonstrate their grasp of skills his fellow Romans might have deemed below them would not have shocked Cato.

The ‘new men’: in an odd sort of way, Cato may have found himself having a love-hate relationship with the particular genre of reality television that Bake Off belongs to, where one wins based on actual hard-won talent and skill rather than popularity. As a new man, or novus homo, Cato himself had no prior familial advantage to give him a leg-up into public life, so he may have found the ability of someone to enter the public eye through demonstrating mastery of a particular skill (and so gain glory within the state) weirdly appealing. At the outside edge of possibility, I can almost imagine a scenario where he might argue that given the debased state of our political system, finding alternative ways to demonstrate one’s excellence was the only possible route for a sensible person to take, but I’ll admit that’s pushing it. (more…)

August 15, 2016

Classics and the #manel – some preliminary thoughts

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 4:00 pm
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I’ve been thinking about the manel lately, and talking to people on Twitter about it. If this term is new to you, it’s the phenomenon of the all-male panel at conferences, or indeed an all-male line-up at a smaller conference. For a flavour of what I mean, there’s a Tumblr dedicated to chronicling the all-male panel; there are also various pledges doing the rounds on the interweb for people – well, men – to promise they won’t appear on an all-male panel. The issue is pretty well aired on the fan convention circuit, and also in the STEM subjects and technology fields. It is less a thing in classics.

There are people in the field doing things about this. Sarah Bond, after attending this year’s meeting of the SCS-AIA, felt troubled by the presence of all-male panels on the program at the same time as she was being told that sexism wasn’t a thing in academia any more; her response was to put together a fantastic list of Women in Ancient History so that panel convenors could find a woman working on the relevant field and invite her to participate rather than throwing their hands in the air and saying there aren’t any women working on this topic (which is rarely if ever true). She’ll be talking more about this issue on a panel at this year’s CAAS meeting (link to .doc file). Melissa Terras recently tweeted about raising the issue of the manel at a digital humanities conference, and the kick-back she got on this. Her experience shows that it’s hard to do these things as an individual. You’re dealing with big organisations as well as individual researchers organising symposia; sometimes you need an institutional level policy, like the advice that the Society of Historians of the Early American Period is giving to panel proposers to display diversity in their speakers if they want their panels accepted. So, in an ideal world, what would the Women’s Classical Committee do about it? I should add that these are my musings about the shape that a campaigning organisation’s response might take and don’t in any way reflect WCC UK policy.


August 10, 2016

Changing times, changing working practices

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:12 pm
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Of all the possible blog posts I could write at the moment, I’m starting with the low-hanging fruit of some reflections on what I’ve learned over the past few months about the reality of being on sabbatical and being a parent. This is partly because Academic Twitter has been talking about working practices a bit more than usual, focusing around Raul Pacheco-Vega’s posts about low-hanging fruit and how to pick it, and another burst of interest in my post about academic otters. But as I mentioned in my last research-focused post, I am moving into a new book-sized project at the same time as having a sabbatical, and I need new strategies for how to organise my time and workflow now I’ve moved to an ideas-generating phase rather than a refining phase. (Jo Van Every has a post that articulates this better in thinking about summer writing plans in general.)

My initial plan was brilliant, simply brilliant, I tell you. I mapped out precisely which chapter and side project I was going to work on for every single week until the end of the calendar year, so that I’d have a full draft of the book by the end of my leave, and would have done All The Things. Marvellous.

Except that by the end of the first fortnight of the new Grand Plan, it wasn’t marvellous at all and I was already very, very behind what I’d hoped to get done. There were a couple of reasons for this, the most obvious of which was that I had assumed I would be able to work on the Monster book and Mazes Intricate, a related but separate chapter manuscript, at the same time. The chapter is due in November, so squeaked priority – and while some of the reading I’d done for it also fed into my thinking about the Monster book, when I got into the writing I wanted to get Mazes Intricate finished rather than spinning off onto other things. So, big lesson one of Being A Researcher With A Small Child – don’t try and do multiple projects at once. Focus on finishing one thing at a time. This is very different to when I was doing my PhD, when I’d have (at least) one other article on the go alongside my current chapter, as something to go to as an intellectual break and refresher. Now my intellectual break is helping infans explore how pouring lentils from one container into another via the medium of a yoghurt pot works. Same intellectual function, different learning outcome, to repurpose some jargon.


June 24, 2016

On Pandora and the opening of Zeus’ gift

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 7:30 pm

But when he had finished the sheer, hopeless snare, the Father sent glorious Argus-Slayer, the swift messenger of the gods, to take it to Epimetheus as a gift. And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men. But he took the gift, and afterwards, when the evil thing was already his, he understood. For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly. But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. – Hesiod, Works and Days.

I’m writing this on my way back from a conference in Dublin, where I have found it very difficult to give a paper on classical monsters in Hollywood films since 2000, and equally difficult to concentrate on the panel I have been attending about the nature of the ancient epic in the modern world. British classicists have checked the BBC and social media obsessively, sworn a fair bit, looked at each other hopelessly. Our European and international colleagues have commiserated, hugged, looked at an equal loss. And those who are British but work in the EU, or are EU nationals who work in Britain, have been doing a bit of everything.

Pandora’s jar has been opened and we are seeing the evils come out into the world.

We have had the Prime Minister resign, key pledges from the Leave campaign dismissed as ‘mistakes’, the financial markets drop sharply and struggle to right themselves, people who voted Leave astonished and upset to discover their vote actually counted, Scotland and Ireland reconsidering their positions as part of the Union, the EU Commission trying to get this process over and done with as quickly as possible, and on, and on, and on.

I am worried for myself, for my son, for my little family that had just got a little bit of stability, for my wider family, for the higher education sector, for those who had so much to lose – although, if I’m honest, in a rather blank sort of way, because I suspect I’m still in shock.

And yet. And yet.

When Pandora had opened the jar, and all the evils had flown out and into the world, one last thing remained. Hope.

Hope in the majority of people under 49 who voted to Remain, and whose political day is coming. Hope in three months’ grace before a change of Prime Minister. Hope in the pause before Article 50 is invoked. Hope in the time it will take the dust to settle and to see what landscape actually remains. Hope in the potential this has to re-engage people who believed their votes didn’t matter. Hope in the unlikeliest of places, also in the jar. Whether or not it too was an evil remains to be seen.

Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds.

June 3, 2016

The Women’s Classical Committee UK

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 4:18 pm

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to make a proper blog post about the Women’s Classical Committee UK, but it has, and here it is.

Partially, the reason I haven’t posted anything is because when the WCC UK was getting off the ground, I was coming closer to the start of my maternity leave, and then (quite naturally) my focus was elsewhere. The impetus for the WCC UK came from the feminism and classics sandpit that I wrote about a while ago, where there seemed to be a lot of energy bouncing around for something like a UK-based equivalent of the Women’s Classical Caucus, and it seemed criminal not to capitalise on it. The organisation and set-up and prep have all been happening behind the scenes, but in April we held our launch event, and are now recruiting members. We are planning our AGM event for next year, as well as a pedagogy event for later this summer targeted at ECRs and graduate students, and we’re thinking about what else we could do based on the suggestions and ideas we had at the launch. I Storified the livetweeting of the launch, so if you missed it there’s plenty for you to catch up on.

The point of the WCC UK is to support women in classics in the UK, and to bring together people taking a feminist approach in their scholarship (there’s a fuller statement of aims here). I thought the UK needed something like this because of my very positive experience of the WCC US as a graduate student, and I felt the void when I returned to the UK. Obviously the organisation is still embryonic, but already I feel as if I’ve got to know some more women in the field and as if people are ready for an organisation doing this kind of work. I’m currently helping get the pedagogy event organised, but I’m very keen to start thinking about the research front and what needs to happen there in the next couple of weeks.

I get to think about these things because I am the Administrator of the Committee, which feels like an appropriate place to be given in a sense it’s my fault the thing exists. Quite what the Administrator does is still a work in progress (as one would expect), but I’m enjoying finding out as we go along! We’re also going to be running our first set of elections to the Steering Committee pretty soon, so do keep an eye out for that.

You can follow the WCC UK on Twitter and on Facebook, and we have a temporary blog where we’re posting news about events and other things of interest. The launch event was a very exciting place to start, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the journey goes now. Any suggestions or ideas that you have, please shout – the plan is to support the community, so we need to know what the community wants!

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