Tom Habinek, realism vs. the ‘glob’, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; tempora cum causis (11)

Ancient. Last weekend was the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies. Since I was still back in the UK with my family over the New Year, I missed most of it, but I was there for the last day to take part in the panel commemorating Prof. Tom Habinek, who sadly died last year. Tom was my PhD advisor, and a major influence in the field of Roman Studies. The event was very poignant, but fitting. On Sunday evening I posted my part of the panel, which you can read here: “Tom Habinek on ‘generativity’.” 

Modern. In an essay originally published in 1971, “The Culture of Criticism”, Hayden White describes the frustrations of Ernst Gombrich, Erich Auerbach, and Karl Popper (respectively: art historian, philologist and literary critic, philosopher of science) with the avant-gardists as typified by, for example, the abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock. Each of these scholars held an attachment to realism; in some cases considering realism, in historiography and art alike, to be a means of resisting authoritarianism, with its power to overwrite the experience of reality by means of ideology. White (2010*: 105) writes that for these critics, historical, literary, or artistic realism, i.e. an attempt to represent reality as it actually is or was “results from the controlled interplay of human consciousness with a shifting social and natural milieu.” In the face of the fact that realism is supposed to reflect the human perception of reality, the avant-garde is taken by these critics to be a frustration of perception rather than a refinement of it. More than this, this break with tradition is a challenge to perception. White writes (2010: 107): 

“The surfaces of the external world, so laboriously charted over the last three thousand years, suddenly explode; perception loses its power as a restraint on imagination; the fictive sense dissolves — and modern man teeters on the verge of the abyss of subjective longing, which, Auerbach implies, must lead him finally to an enslavement once more by myth.”

(The fear of “myth” — figured as an antitype to so-called “rationality” in tandem with “realism” — has probably produced a number of negative results itself.) By the end of this essay, White (2010: 108-110) points to one of the real comforts of realism, one which lies in its hierarchical nature. Realistic art or narrative reflects a grammatically syntactical worldview, i.e. a mode of composition which privileges certain ideas over others, and arranges information around that privilege; whereas artefacts of the avant-garde might be interpreted as paratactical — presenting discrete elements “side-by side” (= παρά) in a “democracy of lateral coexistence” (2010: 109).

In Washington DC last weekend, I found myself face-to-face with Hans Hofmann’s Oceanic (1958) in the Hirshhorn Museum. I was really struck by the large heaps of paint in certain parts of the work, which I have now affectionately come to call “globs.” It feels appropriate!

Inspired by that visit, when I returned to Boston I wanted to go and look closely at more oil paintings in the MFA. Last night we got up close with some more excellent globs from Lee Krasner (Sunspots, 1963) and Joan Mitchell (Chamonix, c. 1962):

Digitization is vital, and I depend on it for my teaching and my scholarship, and I would never want digital resources to be taken away from me. But there is pretty much nothing like looking a glob straight in the eye, if you get the chance to. You can get a general sense of texture from a photograph. But the glob is just so noticeable IRL. Krasner applied oils straight from the tube onto the canvas for Sunspots, and you can tell. Looking at that painting tells the story of its making. As for Mitchell’s Chamonix, you can see the movement of her body in its wide, energetic strokes. Each is a record of embodiment, one which figurative, narrative, and supposedly veristic accounts tend to leave invisible. Back to Hayden White (2010: 110) one last time:

“The avant-garde insists on a transformation of social and cultural practice that will not end in the substitution of a new elite for an old one, a new protocol of domination for the earlier ones, nor the institution of new privileged positions for old ones — whether of privileged positions in space (as in the old perspectival painting and sculpture), of privileged moments in time (as one finds in the older narrative art of fiction and conventional historiography), of privileged places in society, in privileged areas in the consciousness (as in the conservative, that is to say, orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic theory), of privileged parts of the body (as the genitally organized sexual lore insists is ‘natural’), or of privileged positions in culture (on the basis of presumed superior ‘taste’) or in politics (on the basis of a presumed superior ‘wisdom’).”

* “The Culture of Criticism” (1971) is reprinted in The Fiction of NarrativeEssays on History, Literature, and Theory (2010), edited by Robert Doran.

Internet.

Excerpt. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 1987: 44: “I thought about myself and art: that I could catch the likeness of anything I could see — with patience and the best instruments and materials. I had, after all, been an able apprentice under the most meticulous illustrator of this century, Dan Gregory. But cameras could do what he had done and what I could do. And I knew that it was this same thought which had sent Impressionists and Cubists and the Dadaists and the Surrealists and so on in their quite successful efforts to make good pictures which cameras and people like Dan Gregory could not duplicate.” 

Daily Life. We spent New Year’s Eve walking along the shore at Troon. 

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What it’s like to live tweet the SCS (San Francisco 2016)

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At the 2016 meeting of the Society for Classical Studies that took place from Jan. 6th-9th in San Francisco, CA, I live tweeted the panels which I observed. You can see the “storified” versions of these tweets here. For those of you who are unfamiliar with storify, it is a means of isolating and reordering specific tweets in order to see their cohesiveness and meaningful narrative. Read on for my thoughts on the experience of live tweeting the SCS.

Brooke Holmes, one of the scholars involved in the Postclassicisms project centred around Princeton, speaking in the SCS panel “Response and Responsibility”, said something along the following lines:

I tweeted this in a paraphrase that was intended to be representative, timely. And this itself is appropriate given that part of the purpose of “Postclassicisms” is to meditate about time, timeliness, response, and reception. What is at stake in the point represented by this tweet is, I think, the question of how to view our own involvement in the material which we study. In the face of objectivity and subjectivity – what role does our rejection or embrace of our own identities have to play in our jobs as scholars? How does our observation and critical response to the past shape our knowledge of it?

In the first Fragments session (affectionately named #fragfest by the panel’s moderator, Ayelet Lushkov, @Dr_AHL), Catherine Steel remarked on this very issue in the ancient world: when it comes to the extant snippets of Roman Republican orators, our sources seem not to be quoting from the text of the orations but from intermediaries; what at first glance seems to be a representation of a speech by a Roman orator turns out to be (or likely be) an excerpt from a historiographical text which dramatized the speech act.

One of the things which became clear to me early on is that my tweets were motivated by a desire to document, record what was happening. By doing this I implicated myself in the project of the SCS. Part of my desire to document was encouraged by the fact that my tweets were read by those who were not at the meeting, and who were very glad to have a window into its proceedings. At the Presidential Panel on Thursday night (“The Spring from the Year”: Contingent Faculty and the Future of Classics), several of the speakers mentioned the fact that contingent personnel often can’t afford to come to the annual meeting, which is actually one of the both ironies and strengths of speaking on the topic in front of an audience of tenured faculty. To these we can add the scholars living and working all around the world, who have an interest and stake in the classical community, but who don’t have a compelling reason to spend time and money on international travel. At any rate, I received an incredibly positive response on twitter from the absent participants, especially from the UK. In the “Cicero across Genres” panel, Francesco Ginelli discussed Cicero’s application of rhetorical theory as epistolary theory, citing Fam. 2.4: the purpose of a letter is to update someone who is spatially or chronologically distant – someone you haven’t seen or heard from for a long time and/or someone far away. In fact this passage returns to one of the issues at stake in the “Postclassicisms” panel – the idea that antiquity is a guest among us (Phiroze Vasunia), that we are in a dialogic relationship with our material.

Users of twitter engaged with me as well as each other over the content I was representing. This is exactly the power of twitter when it is used well – it is a real time, invisible annotation; a meta-armature which exists all around the physicality of the meeting, but one that is widely accessible. The annotating and enriching function of twitter becomes clear in the following cases: while Brooke Holmes was speaking, she invoked and meditated upon Donna Haraway‘s 1988 article, Situated Knowledge: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective – while I was tweeting her talk, I also found and tweeted a link to the article. In the panel on Herculaneum, Richard Janko, speaking ex tempore during the question and answer session following his (excellent, truly) talk on his methods of papyrological editing, referred to the story of Verginius Rufus, who fell and broke his hip when he dropped a papyrus book roll and it began to unravel on the ground (and as we heard in that talk, extant papyrus rolls are long – 15m, 23m, 28m). I quickly found that the source for this anecdote is Pliny (Ep. 2.1.5), and tweeted it. When my colleague, Tom Sapsford, gave his paper on cinaedi at the Roman dance panel, demonstrating that cinaedi aren’t just bogey men but represent a real professional category, I tweeted the link to his 2015 Eugesta article on the topic, which is accessible to everyone. And one of my followers let me know that they were reading the article as I was live tweeting Tom’s talk.

In many ways the problem of twitter reflects the themes of fragments and genre treated in certain panels at this year’s SCS. Prof. Sander Goldberg during #fragfest discussed the issue of fragment contextualization. (This is of great importance to me in my work on Cicero’s quotations of Latin verse.) Consider the following “fragment” from Ennius’ Annales (Skutsch 154-155):

Septingenti sunt, paulo plus aut minus, anni
Augusto augurio postquam incluta condita Roma est

Some scholars, Goldberg said, refer to the speaker of these lines as Camillus, connecting the verses to Camillus’ famous speech in Livy 5.51-4. But, Goldberg says, the attribution of these lines to Camillus was conjecturally made by Skutsch (1985:314), and if we’re really honest with ourselves we have to say that the speaker of the lines is Varro, since it is Varro alone – as the cover text – who quotes the lines (RR 3.1.2f.). I could add to this that Varro describes the verses as having been written by Ennius (Ennius docet scribens) – he’s not at that moment imagining Ennius’ words to reflect a historico-fictive speech act by a legendary Roman. In the ancient world we find that writers are not always interested in referring to their source clearly – quite often this seems to come from the fact that they are more interested in the gnomic, universal quality of the statement, rather than engaging in what we might call “responsible” citational practices. Casual (i.e. non-scholarly) users of twitter very often tweet gnomic maxims or “pretty pictures” without giving attributions for (and perhaps knowing) their origin; they are interested in an interesting snippet, and in passing it along. A scholarly user of twitter really ought to be held to a higher standard.

The issue is that the things which I tweeted during the SCS aren’t my work or intellectual property, but my investment in the questions at stake means that between the point where I hear the arguments made and the point where I relay them to the internet, there has been some kind of intervention on my part. Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond), who has crowdsourced and made available a wonderful set of guidelines for tweeting scholarly conferences, notes that a tweeter has to be willing to remove or delete content if the original author is uncomfortable.

The good news here is that I am a scholar and I know my responsibilities when it comes to proper citation. And yet I don’t, and can’t, tweet everything that I hear, and I also don’t care equally about all arguments or even talks, so certain things won’t be passed on by me. This is where the tweeter exerts control – we hear the whole (although we may not always understand the whole), but we tweet only snippets. We have a certain power of censorship, in the sense which we read in Gumbrecht’s the Powers of Philology (2003:14):

…we presuppose, for any fragment deserving of this name, a violent intervention that has caused the difference between the text (or more generally, the form) intended by the author and the text that has come down to us. Such violence may come from an intention that conflicts with the author’s intention and has at its disposal, in addition, superior power to impose itself. It is obvious that this second case of fragmentation includes and illustrates what we call “censorship.” We take fragmentation through censorship to imply, first, that the censor is clearly aware of what he wants to eliminate and, second, that he usually wants the censored text not to appear fragmented. This means that it may turn out to be particularly difficult to identify such a text as a fragment, but also that, once the censor and his intentions are identified, we have a particularly rich orientation for our task of imagining the complete text.

(By the way, this Gumbrecht citation comes from me, not from any talk I heard at the SCS.) There’s also a question of expertise – I feel pretty comfortable with Cicero and with fragments, but when I was at the Herculaneum panel, I found that Virginia Campbell (@campbell798), who took over the twitter feed for the Herculaneum Graffiti Project (@HercGraffProj), did a far better job than me, precisely because of her expertise. Incidentally – the Ancient Graffiti Project is incredible: they have created a topographical search engine, where you can search for graffiti from Herculaneum and Pompeii by specific location:

Although twitter has potential for widening the audience of academic work, there is still something kind of insular about its use at the SCS. The hashtag #aiascs is probably inscrutable to the majority of the twitterverse, and of course as academics generally and classicists particularly we have our own language in which we talk about our ideas, which is a fellowship of knowledge for us, but can be particularly frustrating to a broader audience. As I was checking in with the other panels on the #aiascs hashtag whose topics are not as well known to me personally, I felt myself alienated sometimes – cf. this impressive slide regarding sieges in Thucydides via Hamish Cameron (@peregrinekiwi):

I’m sure I also did my fair share of alienating. Many noted that Cicero was well represented at this year’s meeting – one might even say, overrepresented. You might find this a shock coming from me, a Ciceronian, but although I enjoyed most of the Cicero papers I heard – and was particularly happy at the “Cicero across Genres panel” (organized by Isabel Köster, @iota_subscript, and Caroline Bishop), I can sympathize with this reaction. When Cicero dominated the #aiascs hashtag, there was some annoyance at this (although I think this is founded in the current fashion of Cicero-bashing which I don’t endorse):

It is satisfying to be in a room where you are not the only one tweeting – there’s a sense of camaraderie to it, and also a sense of curiosity as you try to figure out who the other tweeter is, e.g. when Vanessa Rose Phin (@wordfey) and I both wrongly thought that the other was a person sitting between us who was looking down into her lap a lot. This level of participation is one that helps cut across the isolation that can be felt at the SCS. The well known twitter powerhouse, Patrick Burns (@diyclassics), spotted me at the WCC/LCC opening night party and introduced himself, and our paths continued to cross throughout the meeting. A colleague who observed Patrick and me sitting next to each other, each furiously live tweeting the presidential panel, remarked that it was like being in the journalist room at the White House. I found myself being able to talk to a wider range of people because of this digital engagement, including Joseph Howley (@hashtagoras), another twitter powerhouse, and Virginia Campbell (@campbell798) at the end of the Herculaneum panel.

Essentially, I found live tweeting the SCS satisfying. I myself was engaged with the content on a level that I hadn’t experienced at the meeting in previous years, and my social interactions were greatly enriched in a number of ways. My way in to live tweeting was actually eased by the increased interest which the august society itself has in the use of social media – a stance evinced by the fact that the hashtag #aiascs was on our name tags. The final aspect to this which I’ll remark upon is the usefulness of twitter in letting the presenting participants of the SCS know that their effort is appreciated: voices from twitter expressing interest in the topic at hand means that there is an audience out there, an audience that is willing to listen, to appreciate, and to speak back.