water through cupped hands

h č-b — “beyond influence”

Octavia E. Butler (1993) Parable of the Sower, p3:
“All that you touch | You Change. All that you Change | Changes you.”

Sara Ahmed (2017) Living a Feminist Life, p17:
“Each of us had different copies, some of them tattered and well read, worn, and, as it were, lived in. You can, I think, live in books: some feminists might even begin their feminist lives living in books. Participating in the group with books made me aware of how feminist community is shaped by passing books around; the sociality of their lives is part of the sociality of ours. There are so many ways that feminist books change hands; in passing between us, they change each of us.”

María Puig de la Bellacasa (2017) Matters of Care, p20:
“In this direction, touch expresses a sense of material-embodied relationality that seemingly eschews abstractions and detachments that have been associated with dominant epistemologies of knowledge-as-vision. Touch becomes a metaphor of transformative knowledge at the same time as it intensifies awareness of the imports of speculative thinking. In other words, the haptic disrupts the prominence of vision as a metaphor for distant knowing as well as the distance of critique, but it also calls for ethical questioning. What is caring touch in this context? Here, somehow paradoxically, thinking touch with care troubles the desires for immanent proximities as susceptible to reproducing the negation of mediations and the nonevidence of ethical reciprocity. The terrain around which I articulate these arguments is the revaluation of the sense of touch, from cultural theory to expanding markets of haptic technologies. Instances of haptic fascination expose not only the potential of thinking with literal and figural meanings of touch but also the temptations of idealizing materiality. Yet engaging speculatively with experience, knowledge, and technology as touch allows us to explore a possible transformation of ethos that could be brought by more careful touching visions and the forms of ethical obligation they entail. In particular, touch’s unique quality of reversibility, that is, the fact of being touched by what we touch, puts the question of reciprocity at the heart of thinking and living with care.”

When we think about how knowledge is made (and “transmitted”), the model we first reach for is “influence.” Maybe we use a symbol: think of knowledge as a river (influence flows, after all). That same river is imagined to have an “origin.” And there we imagine, and delineate, the holy site of originary inspiration. The wellspring.

It’s an epistemological model that is very influential – one that has blossomed, Bloomed. But it has limits, or at least seeds complications. The river itself is not isolated or discrete. The water that forms its body is connected to all water, everywhere; there is only one water on planet earth. But perceptual divisibility has got us into trouble. (In M Archive, Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes: “this is what it takes. the strength of no separation. the bravery of flow. the audacity of never saying this is me, this is not you. this is mine this is not yours. this is now, this was not ever before.”) And then there’s Heraclitus, of course, and his river fragments. “Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not.”

Three passages quoted above complicate the inevitability of flow; flow which is so slippery that it transforms into inheritance (property), ancestry (blood). María Puig de la Bellacasa emphasizes the reversibility/reciprocity of touch: when we touch, we are touched. This challenges the structure of agency supposed by the activeness of the active voice, the passiveness of the passive. Something moves in both (several/many) directions. Reciprocity might take place in a circle of exchange: books pass between readers, emphasizing the circular shapes of circulation (Ahmed). Beyond that: there are consequences to all exchanges/circulations: all that you touch, you change; all that you change, changes you (Butler).

Forms of focus; tempora cum causis (17)

In The Content of the Form (1987), Hayden White discusses the Annals of Saint Gall’s chronicle of events from the 7th-10th centuries CE. White focuses upon entries for the 8th century CE (pp-6-7):


This year-by-year list of events is interestingly selective. Many years have no entries despite the fact that, presumably, things did happen during that time. But not ones considered necessary to include. The criterion for inclusion also embraces different kinds of event, particularly moments of destruction: bad crops (but also…”great crops”), flood, death of elites, battles. In 732 CE, there was a battle “on Saturday” but no other information is given — not date, not month. The significance of these events is indeed emphasized by such selectivity — the act of omission puts these particular moments in sharper focus. But it’s hard to look at this and not see anything other than a partial record.

In Allusion and Intertext (1998), Stephen Hinds described how focusing upon an aspect of a whole has a “fragmentizing” effect (p103):

“A reading of Virgil which ‘fragments’ the Homeric model into discrete events ‘alluded to’ may reflect nothing more (and nothing less) than a basic interpretative imperative felt by the Virgilian reader to ‘freeze‘ Homer, to hold him still for a moment so that he can be contemplated from a Virgilian point of view.”

Here we have the idea that discussing, or in any way narrativizing, a point of reference is to freeze and hold that referent from a particular point of view, but also to break it off from its original context. An equivalent might be: pressing pause on a video shot from one person’s perspective. So despite the fact that we might be longing for wholeness — indeed, might even be subjected to a kind of wholeness on a daily basis — our perceptive and intellectual faculties create a kind of fragmentation even when we simply try to engage with the reality which surrounds us.

This week, I read (or rather, inhaled) Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020), which has just come out. (A few weeks ago I read about it in the New York Times review by Parul Sehgal.) This novel captures the dread of living in the present moment as an individual facing a future fragmented by climate change. The book itself proceeds in fragmented form, each entry a small paragraph:

These paragraphs might remind you of a number of things. Diary entries. Tweets. Words scribbled on the back on an envelope, or into the notes app. Offill’s novel, proceeding fragmentarily, argues like Hayden White: there is reality, it is happening, but our telling of it is distinct from that reality, and can only ever capture something partial. All narratives, White would argue, have to reckon with this. But Offill’s novel dramatizes this narrative problem, using it as a tool to bring to the foreground the movements of a internal human psychology as it responds to a variety of threats, from the banal of the everyday to the threat of climate destruction.

In my ancient women class this week, we were discussing the fragments of Sappho. Sappho (7th c. BCE) is an interesting figure, of course, because she has loomed so large and for so long in the imaginations of so many, despite the fact that, historically, her readers have only been able to access her work in partial forms. On twitter, there is a bot (@sapphobot) which periodically sends out verses of Sappho as translated by Anne Carson; these tweets are fragments in a number of senses — fragmented by textual transmission (via quotation or shattered papyri), by translation from Greek to English, by twitter’s character limit. In class, the students argued that fragments are more alluring than surviving wholes, and they are right. One student noted that people like “bite-sized” things now, miniatures of culture which can be easily consumed, and easily shared. The combination of ephemerality and immortality is potent. A fragment of Sappho can contain an expression of desire so profoundly human (it can also be a banal list of things). A tweet, an instagram story, captures something real (or something insignificant), and then it’s gone. Text and technology reflect the inherent process of fragmentation via focalization.


A newly made piece of papyrus in the foreground; fragmentary papyrus from the 2nd c. CE (P. Oxy. 2288) containing Sappho poem 1.

Nausicaa pyxis; climate change and fragments; N. K. Jemisin; tempora cum causis (15)

Ancient. In the Boston MFA, there is a late 5th c. BCE pyxis which depicts the scene from Odyssey Book 6 where a naked Odysseus encounters Nausicaa. Given that the pyxis was an object used by women (as a make up or jewelry box), it is really interesting to see what kind of scenes are depicted on them; i.e. what kind of media did the Greeks of this period think was fitting for women? I look at this object and imagine a young (affluent) woman holding it in her hands, seeing reflections of her own life in the life of Nausicaa in Phaeacia (as well as the “calculated flirtation”, as Emily Wilson calls it, between herself and Odysseus). Note the care given by the painter to distinguish each of the figures on the vase according to their narrative role, and class: Odysseus, as in Homer’s depiction, is embarrassed by his nakedness; Athena is present as his guide; the women in Nausicaa’s attendance run wildly away when Odysseus appears (as in Homer), except for the one still engaged in the washing; Nausicaa stands tall, and is elaborately dressed. This graphic representation is remarkably faithful to the verses of the Odyssey. Compare the 20th century version by American painter, William McGregor Paxton, in which everyone is naked, not just Odysseus.

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Here is Emily Wilson’s translation of the scene (Odyssey 6.119-146):

“What is this country I have come to now?
Are all the people wild and violent,
or good, hospitable, and god-fearing?
I heard the sound of female voices. Is it
nymphs, who frequent the craggy mountaintops,
and river streams and meadows lush with grass?
Or could this noise I hear be human voices?
I have to try to find out who they are.”

Odysseus jumped up from our the bushes.
Grasping a leafy branch he broke it off
to cover up his manly private parts.
Just as a mountain lion trusts its strength,
and beaten by the rain and wind, its eyes
burn bright as it attacks the cows or sheep,
or wild deer, and hunger drives it on
to try the sturdy pens of sheep — so need
impelled Odysseus to come upon
the girls with pretty hair, though he was naked.
All caked with salt, he looked a dreadful sight.
They ran along the shore quite terrified,
some here, some there. But Nausicaa stayed still.
Athena made her legs stop trembling
and gave her courage in her heart. She stood there.
He wondered, should he touch her knees, or keep
some distance and use charming words, to beg
the pretty girl to show him to the town,
and give him clothes. At last he thought it best
to keep some distance and use words to beg her.

Modern. Earlier this week I was texting with a friend when they mentioned that coffee production may be at risk by the year 2050. The dread of climate change is something that is always with me (I stopped eating meat a few years ago for this reason), but I find myself always pushing it to the back of my mind. The coffee thing brought it forward in an instant. I found myself googling flood projections for Boston, where I live now, as well as my childhood home, Glasgow. I thought about the fear of things to come which washed over me when I saw the flood sequence in Parasite. I asked my husband whether, in light of all of this, we were really doing enough. I asked myself why, given our knowledge of the climate emergency, I don’t give up everything and try to grow vegetables and live off the grid in some sustainable way. Then the next day, I got up and continued to write and worry about my book about Latin fragments.

Last week Parul Sehgal’s review of Jenny Offill’s novel, Weather (2020) appeared in the The New York Times: “How to Write Fiction When the Planet is Falling Apart.” (Thanks, Christian and Michele! Who individually sent me this because they knew I would like it.) Sehgal writes:

‘In her new novel, “Weather,” Offill applies her instruments — the fragment, the odd fact, her deep banks of knowledge on mysticism and natural history — to a broader canvas. The stakes are the survival not of a marriage but of the planet itself. “The question I was thinking about in this book,” she told me, “was, Can you still just tend your own garden once you know about the fire outside its walls?”’

And, further in:

‘These might be familiar stories of family life, but now imagine them told in shards, the plot edging forward in jokes, quotes, Zen koans. The fragment is an old form, perhaps even our native form — don’t we speak to ourselves in curt directives, experience memory as clusters of language? In Offill’s hands, however, the form becomes something new, not a way of communicating estrangement or the scroll of a social media feed but a method of distilling experience into its brightest, most blazing forms — atoms of intense feeling. I read somewhere that clouds could be called floating lakes. That is what these fragments feel like: teeming worlds suspended in white space, entire novels condensed into paragraphs… The domestic and intellectual meet on the same plain in her work; the swirl of hair on the back of a baby’s head is as worthy a subject of contemplation as one of Wittgenstein’s aphorisms.’

The fragment has an essential duality. Whatever it is, it exists in its original context, connected to its surroundings (a baby’s hair swirl to the baby; Wittgenstein’s aphorism to the rest of his work); but it also exists on its own, as an image in a frame. It is both broken off (fragment is from frangere, Latin “to break” — it means “broken thing”) yet simultaneously resistant to breakage. Hence Sehgal’s invocation of the atom, which is, ostensibly, the thing which cannot be broken down any further (atom is from ἄτομος, Greek for “a thing that cannot be cut”). The atom as an idea (leaving aside the physical phenomenon which has been given this name) is a hard core, resistant to the processes of damage and loss which eat away at all the things which once surrounded it.

Sehgal’s analysis of Offill’s work highlights how dread in the face of climate change works upon a human observer of reality. Dread eats away perceptive connectivities, and leaves behind the most intense fragments of experience. Fragmentation plays a role in the micro but also the macro. Contemplation of its process brings up the inevitable question: what will survive? Scholars of antiquity look at this process of fragmentation after it has already occurred: shards of Sappho papyri, torturous manuscript traditions, small parts of once colossal statues. And while destruction (accidental or deliberate) has a role to play and how things do or don’t survive from antiquity, the kind of destruction we observe does not compare to what climate change can do to the face of the earth in the near future.

In the urgency of the present moment the question shifts from what will survive, to who will survive. The idea that coffee, such a mundane but profound part of my life now, may disappear in thirty years jolts me. But there is so much more at stake than this comfort, this little fragment of my life. The richest countries are the most responsible for climate change, but it is the poorest who will be most affected. How we treat each other is reflected in how we treat the earth. A renewed focus on what is lost, what we’re in the process of losing, and what we stand to lose soon is frightening, but it is what we need. In context of all of this, the fragment gains a new significance as a symbol both of our perception of reality, but also our capacity for action. Reconnecting what is fragmented, contextualizing the atomized, reframes the discrete, isolated parts of our lives as part of an urgent, global narrative.

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Excerpt. N. K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, p150): “A break in the pattern. A snarl in the weft. There are things you should be noticing, here. Things that are missing, and conspicuous by their absence.”

Daily life. We’ve been seeing a lot of films at Coolidge Corner, and it has been wonderful.


Visit to Bates; digital humanities and the human body; Elizabeth Marlowe; tempora cum causis (14)

Ancient. This week I was up in Maine visiting the Classical and Medieval Studies department at Bates College. On Thursday (30th Jan. 2020), I talked about my primary research interest right now, Cicero and the Latin poets (I’m finishing up a book on this); on Friday (31st Jan. 2021), I talked about digital approaches to teaching. Handouts below: 

Modern. I can understand why “the digital” as category sometimes seems so distinct from the world of humanism or humanistic inquiry. But investigating the digital within the framework of the extensibility of human embodiment immediately complicates this view. Digital humanists (this term, to some, is tautological; to others, self-negating) often emphasize the essential continuity between established forms of intellectual work and the capacities of contemporary digital techniques; as Eileen Gardiner and Ronald Musto (The Digital Humanities; 2015: 2) write:

…everything from the scholar’s desk and shelves, study, studio, rehearsal and performance space, lecture halls, campuses, research institutes and convention halls can also legitimately be considered environments. Yet in many ways these new digital tools carry on, in analogous ways, the same functions of traditional humanities. Is the very computer upon which humanists rely so heavily still a tool, something akin to their medieval writing tablets?

Digital techniques build upon traditional humanistic practices but also develop them; Sarah E. Bond, Hoyt Long, Ted Underwood (“‘Digital’ Is Not the Opposite of ‘Humanities‘”; 2017):

Much of what is now happening under the aegis of digital humanities continues and expands those projects. Scholars are still grappling with familiar human questions; it is just that technology helps them address the questions more effectively and often on a larger scale.

“Digital humanists”, who spend so much time theorizing their own relationship to classical traditions and contemporary technology, are often met with knee-jerk reactions by those who have not taken the time to situate their own intellectual complaint. It all brings to mind Ursula K. Le Guin (I keep coming back to her), who regularly drew attention to the fact that her critics could not get past the genre of her writing to grasp the meaning of its content. At face value digital projects can have an alienating effect on traditional sensibilities, but when we dig deeper we quickly see that the intellectual processes required for such work are just as complex and interesting as the standard products of scholarship. I have written elsewhere about how teaching with digital techniques encourages students to sharpen analytic skills and deepen their intellectual commitment to research.

Anyway, returning to the embodiment part in all this. Technology is absolutely bound to the human body; formed for human use, imagined as an extension of human manipulation (in a literal sense of manus, i.e. ‘hand’) of reality. While contemporary technology sometimes feels so seamless as to be invisible to our own theorization, looking at older artefacts in digital history makes this incredibly clear. Take, e.g., the Philippe Henri’s (1984) “Cadavres Exquis / Exquisite Corpses.” This is a program for a computer generated poem: i.e. Henri wrote the code, but the actual poem was “written” when the program was run on a computer; and indeed rewritten anew each time the program was run. The code was circulated on paper (see the slide below: from Nick Montfort’s [@nickmofo] lecture at BU last year, “Translating Computational Poetry” — watch a video recording of the lecture here); and in order to run the program, a human being had to type it by hand into a specific computer, the TRS 80.

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“Cadavres Exquis”, which is only one e.g. of a whole genre of computational poetry, very clearly demonstrates the entanglement of technology with the essences of humanity, not just the body, but indeed the “soul” (if such a dichotomy is even truly real). The human spark which invents the poetry; the human body which materializes it; the technological body (i.e. the computer) which extends that invention and materialization.

When I found out about this example of entangled text and technology from Nick Manafort’s talk at BU, it immediately made me think of the contemporary emulators used to play old video games on modern computers; i.e. programs which simulate the hardware of the N64 so that you can play Ocarina of Time without having to use the physical tools required in 1998. Such digital reconstructions (if that’s even the right word) have a preservative effect, but they also make me think about the relationship between my own body and the console at the time when the game was originally released. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the attic, holding a controller (that was physically attached to the console – lol!), blowing the dust out of a Goldeneye cartridge. There are so many structural similarities between our relationship with these modern artefacts, and the historical processes which we study; the reception and reconstruction of ideas from antiquity to modernity. The relationship between text and context. The social and embodied nature of textual production.


Excerpt. Elizabeth Marlowe (@ElizMarlowe) Shaky Ground (2013: 9): “Many archaeologists follow the thinking of Paul Kristeller, who suggested that ‘art’ as we know it wasn’t invented until the eighteenth century. According to this view, notions of pure, historically transcendent form slide perilously close to deeply suspect ones of ahistorical universal beauty. Ancient objects should instead be understood as manifestations of ‘visual culture’ or ‘material culture’ — the understanding of which depends heavily on context. In this and in much of the recent literature, the binaries are conspicuous: archaeology vs. art history, academia vs. museums, context vs. form, artifact vs. art, history vs. beauty, resonance vs. wonder.” 

Daily Life. Morning light in Maine. 


Plato, the shadow book, Samantha Irby; tempora cum causis (7)

Ancient. I wouldn’t say that I am the biggest Plato* fan in the world, but there is one passage of the Protagoras that I do actually find myself coming back to often. Here comes the Loeb of Protagoras 314a–314b:

καὶ γὰρ δὴ καὶ πολὺ μείζων κίνδυνος ἐν τῇ τῶν μαθημάτων ὠνῇ ἢ ἐν τῇ τῶν σιτίων. σιτία μὲν γὰρ καὶ ποτὰ πριάμενον παρὰ τοῦ καπήλου καὶ ἐμπόρου ἔξεστιν ἐν ἄλλοις ἀγγείοις ἀποφέρειν, καὶ πρὶν δέξασθαι αὐτὰ εἰς τὸ σῶμα πιόντα ἢ φαγόντα, καταθέμενον οἴκαδε ἔξεστι συμβουλεύσασθαι, παρακαλέσαντα τὸν ἐπαΐοντα, ὅ τι τε ἐδεστέον ἢ ποτέον καὶ ὅ τι μή, καὶ ὁπόσον καὶ ὁπότε· ὥστε ἐν τῇ ὠνῇ οὐ μέγας ὁ κίνδυνος. μαθήματα δὲ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν ἄλλῳ ἀγγείῳ ἀπενεγκεῖν, ἀλλ᾿ ἀνάγκη, καταθέντα τὴν τιμήν, τὸ μάθημα ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ψυχῇ λαβόντα καὶ μαθόντα ἀπιέναι ἢ βεβλαμμένον ἢ ὠφελημένον. 

“For I tell you there is far more serious risk in the purchase of doctrines than in that of eatables. When you buy victuals and liquors you can carry them off from the dealer or merchant in separate vessels, and before you take them into your body by drinking or eating you can lay them by in your house and take the advice of an expert whom you can call in, as to what is fit to eat or drink and what is not, and how much you should take and when; so that in this purchase the risk is not serious. But you cannot carry away doctrines in a separate vessel: you are compelled, when you have handed over the price, to take the doctrine in your very soul by learning it, and so to depart either an injured or a benefited man.”

Food and drink, the things we consume, can be good or bad for us. But we’re not immediately exposed to this benefit or harm. We have a chance to consider whether or not to ingest them. We can consult someone whose opinion is worth knowing. Ideas are different, according to Socrates. Once you hear something, you can’t unhear it. There is no mechanism to mediate ideas – we become infected, by good things and bad alike, via an organic movement of thought which no vessel can contain. Contagion of this kind is discussed in the Protagoras as part of a warning against accepting the teachings of the sophists – individuals who, from Plato’s perspective, can teach you intellectual parlour tricks, but not true wisdom. As James Collins (2015: 158) writes, “In this scenario, there is no gap between things taught and things learned; both are μαθήματα and instantly transmitted…To hear is to learn. Exposure means ingestion.”

As Collins notes, it’s surprisingly to hear Socrates speak this way. The absorption of ideas is figured as instantaneous – stripped of the possibility of a failure, or rejection, of understanding (ib.): “Following his metaphor of ingestion (δέξασθαι αὐτὰ εἰς τὸ σῶμα) to the end, also missing are the vital processes of chewing, swallowing, and digestion, not to mention the possibilities of indigestion and regurgitation.” Yet everyone who has tried to learn something knows that it’s not always easy to internalize new ideas. At the same time, the kind of unwitting contagion which this passage describes is a real phenomenon. In 1994, Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues, John Cacioppo and Richard Rapson, produced a text entitled Emotional Contagion, outlining the impact of one individual’s emotions over another’s. In the introduction to the book, Hatfield describes a scenario in which she and Rapson, working together as therapists, left a session in a state of high-wired anxiety. After some reflection they understood that they were both feeling the emotions of their patient, even though they did not realize this was the case, and indeed, had initially missed the signs of her deliberately cloaked distress.

While we’ve historically been discouraged from thinking so, we learn with our emotions. Plato’s suggestion that we “catch” ideas reflects the mechanism of emotional contagion, which in turn suggests that knowledge is generated and conveyed relationally, socially. Despite the fact that we (academics especially) flagillate and exert ourselves into knowing more, there is something to be said for the fact that a student (and, in my case, a professor, i.e. the eternal student) learns passively from their environment and from their social surroundings. The internet’s role in this epistemology of contagion is an interesting one. On the one hand, the exposure to so much social information means that we are exposed (and ingest) ideas at a higher rate than ever before. This does have benefits. The confessional nature of social media has given me a chance to see into the lives of those who have different experiences from me. Getting to know the voices of the marginalized prepares me better to advocate them for them in my own positions of power (such as they are). On the other hand, the difficulty of resisting this absorption means that malicious ideas are also spread quickly. Ultimately, it is of interest to that, as original as I may think I am, some of my ideas are not coming directly from my interal processes but are developing passively from my interactions with others.

*My problem is not really with Plato, but with the reception of Plato. It bothers me that Plato is so often invoked without placing his ideas in their cultural and intellectual context.

Modern. After hearing Sarah Derbew discuss Kevin Young’s The Grey Album (2012) during her talk at BU last week, I wanted to read it too. The first chapter of this work, “The Shadow Book”,  presents a taxonomy of books which fail to be written. Given the fact that what we research and write about must be reflective of our identities, I’m not exactly sure why I am so interested in fragmentation and lack. At a certain point I moved away from the fullness (some might say over-fullness) of Cicero towards the other voices which his works contain – or at least echo – and from that point on I became attracted to the world of the fragmented, forgotten, or lost. Young’s work confirms something which can be readily felt: no writing contains everything that the writer might wish to say, and all writing reveals a negative imprint of the world which shaped it. There is no fullness. In the case of black culture, fullness is negated not just by the natural negation of existence, but by a deep and long history of violence – slavery, social death, and the social inheritance of their effects. Books, if they are written in the first place, are left unfinished, lost, burned. In the context of violence, black authors speak in code; their words say one thing, but there is also another meaning, a shadow. Donna Zuckerberg used the image of the shadow library to describe how harassment in the academy has made us lose brilliant scholarship that was never produced. Young’s writing invites a reflection on what we really think text can do — certainly, literature and writing gives an index of reality, but it isn’t the totality of what is real. I keep find myself saying to our students, “The ancient sources don’t want to tell you what you want to know.” There is an inherent conservatism to most ancient writing – they are not like William Carlos Williams, whose poetry attempts to include, as Young (2012: 16) writes, “not everything but anything.” Cicero, whose letters often seem so confessional, wasn’t making a documentary for us. He took things for granted in his writing (as we all do); aspects of his life which were so familiar to him that he didn’t write about them are the kind of things which we could now never prove existed.


Excerpt. Samantha Irby 2017: 218: “People are boring and terrible. I am boring and terrible. My funny runs out, my cute runs out, my smart sometimes hiccups,* my sexy wakes up with uncontrollable diarrhea. I have an attitude. And a sharp edge! I’m impatient. I like the whole bed.”

*I don’t usually include an editorial note on these excerpts (I like them to speak for themselves), but “my smart sometimes hiccups” is my new mantra.

Daily Life. Last week, thanks to Rhiannon Knol, I got to get up close and personal with some early printed classical texts at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. 

Martha Graham, essays on the internet, Sara Ahmed; tempora cum causis (3)

Ancient. This week at BU we had an incredible visit from the Martha Graham Dance company. Artistic director, Janet Eilber, lectured on Martha Graham‘s innovations in dance, showing clips of past productions, as well as bringing on stage two dancers, Charlotte Landreau and Lloyd Mayor, who performed parts of works by Graham which draw from Greek mythology, Night Journey and Errand Into the MazeNight Journey dramatizes Jocasta in the moment of devastating self-knowledge, Errand Into the Maze has Ariadne encounter the Minotaur. Eilber vividly described the Graham dance technique as one focused on the effortful physicality of contraction and release, coiling; how the body behaves when it experiences intense pleasure or pain. This effortful physicality was brought before our eyes by the dancers themselves in their demonstration. It was an incredible thing to witness. Up close, in an intimate environment. 

This week I also took a trip to the University of Toronto Mississauga to speak in the UTM-JHI annual seminar series, this year on Fragments. I spoke about the fragments of Latin verse in the Ciceronian corpus (the topic of my book), as well as on the theory of the “fragment” more abstractly; here’s the handout and the slides.


Modern. I find myself with a large appetite for personal essays about the internet. A lot of them are ultimately negative. Famously, there’s Lindy West’s account of the troll who pretended to be her dead father to harass her online; also told in Shrill (2016) and on This American Life. West eventually quit twitter, though not because of that; plus, she has a happy life on instagram. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror (2019) starts with an essay — “The I in the Internet” — describing how the performative construction of the self is pushed to the limits when faced with an ever present, internalized, and usually hostile audience. Not to mention, as Tolentino notes, the fact that internet hostility is deliberately manufactured to make money; we seem not to be drawn so much “to the puddles and blossoms of other people’s curiosity and expertise” (pp4-5) but choose instead to engage in an economy designed to thrive on the heightened emotional state of its users.

Maeve Higgins is more optimistic. In the final essay — “The Golden Record” — of her most recent book, Maeve in America (2018), she describes the phonograph records carried by the Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977. These 12-inch gold-plated copper disks hold sights and sounds carefully chosen to represent life on earth at that moment by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. Voyager 1 and 2 have reached interstellar space; the images and sounds on the Golden Record can be played, as Sagan said, “only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space.” For Higgens, instagram stories, which show videos and images on a feed that disappears after 24h, have something in common with the golden record. Hope, for one thing. Hope that someone will encounter the message and understand it: the golden records are inscribed with instructions on how to play the media contained within. Higgens writes (p239): “Today, with these images I get to share with anyone who cares to look, I am asking the question: Do you understand me now? Here is what I’m trying to tell you.

An optimistic view of the internet is hard for many reasons. In classics, we have to reckon with the ways toxic online communities use ancient material for malicious ends, as Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (2018) so vividly describes. We also seem unable to escape the idea so often repeated that social media is inherently superficial, vain, vapid; and that it is these qualities in particular which harm us. The first episode of Broad City season 5 (“Stories”) presents itself as an instagram story, documenting a day in the life of Abbi and Ilana, coopting the forms of the medium to undercut and satirize it. In the last scene, Abbi says: “because we were filming it, it’s not even our ‘story’ anymore.” With these final words (of the premier of the final season), Abbi and Ilana ask their audience to contemplate how a comedy act between two friends, developed out of the sparkling chemistry of their private intimacy, has grown beyond itself into a stage play for a massive audience. Real life performativity is amplified when we make ourselves public: via “publication,” art no longer belongs just to you, and on the internet your image takes part in more than just your own selfhood. 


Excerpt. Sara Ahmed 2017: 15-16: “My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our [p16] way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow.”

Daily Life. In Toronto the autumn leaves were just nuts! 


Looking at Ciceronian papyri in the John Rylands

When most people think of Cicero, they picture him speaking – standing in the open air forum of Rome, or within the closed temple of a senate meeting. When I think of Cicero, I think of him in the library with his books – both reading and writing. In other areas of the humanities, you can read the very words which were written by a certain historical figure in his or her own hand. I recently noticed that my home institution, the University of Southern California, has digitized some of the correspondence of Voltaire, including letters to and from Frederick the Great, King of Prussia from 1740-1786. The Bodleian library has digitized Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein, written in her own hand with edits and revisions in notebooks from 1816.

Although we are lucky to have an incredibly large body of extant works for Cicero, our earliest texts come from manuscripts of a much later period, and we have no equivalent of – for example – the autograph letters of Voltaire. And so, unable to see our sources in their original materiality, for a long time Classicists have approached texts in a disembodied form. Recently there has been a real push towards considering ancient literature in the context of the cultures of book-making and reading, with the rise of papyrology as a discipline contributing substantially to this research.

One of the issues that we face when we want to look at manuscripts and papyri containing ancient texts is the fact that the originals are kept in all sorts of institutions all over the world, each with different policies concerning access and digitization. In order to even know where these things are takes a bit of effort, honestly. Papyrologists are usually excellent about cataloguing and sharing information, and have many online databases that help you find things. For literary papyri, you can use the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (although this also includes parchment) and Cedopal. There are Cicero papyri in at least Durham (North Carolina), Vienna, Florence, Cologne, London, Manchester, and Giessen. With such a state of affairs, digitization becomes increasingly important, although, as we shall shortly see, it comes with its own complications. Consulting a transcription of the papyrus without seeing an image is not really enough – this became clear to me when I looked at the marginalia of one of the Rylands papyri, which are hard to transcribe in a way which shows where exactly the text appears on the page. Looking at transcriptions, such as the following from Cavenaile’s Corpus Papyrorum Latinarum (CPL), gives you a very disembodied sense of what the papyri look like:

P Ryl 1.61 Cavenaile PRL p74
Transcription of Ciceronian papyrus P. Ryl. 1.61 in Cavenaile CPL p74. The full pdf of Cavenaile can be accessed online here.

Almost all of the Ciceronian papyri come from significantly later than his own lifetime (106-43 BCE). We’re dealing with Ciceronian texts which were used in contexts and formats subsequent to late Republican usage. The majority come from the 4th and 5th c. CE, with one (in Giessen) coming from the 1st c. CE. The two papyri which I saw are dated to the 5th c. CE – P. Ryl. 1.61, a Latin to Greek vocabulary list which corresponds to In Catilinam 2.14-15, and P. Ryl. 3.477, containing Divinatio in Caecilium 34-37, 44-46 with both Greek and Latin marginal comments on the text. Both of these papyri came from Egypt, and both were codices rather than book rolls. All of the extant Cicero papyri are oratorical, with many containing the Catilinarians and the Verrines; all of the Ciceronian papyri contain works which are more fully represented in medieval manuscripts. P. Ryl. 1.61 was used by a Greek speaker who was learning Latin with Cicero’s Catilinarians; P. Ryl. 3.477 was used by someone interested in the legal issues underlying Cicero’s case against Verres. P. Ryl. 3.477 contains the longest extant marginal note on papyrus (McNamee). The Cicero papyri are also of interest to us since they demonstrate bilingualism by inhabitants of the Empire during Late Antiquity; we get the sense that even in 5th c. CE Egypt, there was something of value in Latin for non-Romans (Sánchez-Ostiz).


The John Rylands Library in Manchester contains a number of important ancient materials, including a Greek papyrus fragment from the Gospel of John (pictured above). The library was founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John Rylands. My guide at the library told me that on International Women’s Day, all of the male statues in the historic reading room (also pictured) were covered over with the statue of Enriqueta remaining visible in order to highlight her agency in creating an imposing intellectual space.


Greek papyrus 61 John Rylands Cicero In Catilinam vocab list papyrus codex verso
P. Ryl. 1.61 containing a Greek-Latin vocab list to Cicero’s Catilinarians, digitized by the John Rylands.

Greek papyrus 477 John Rylands Divinatio in Caecilium recto
P. Ryl. 3.477 containing Cicero’s Divination in Caecilium, digitized by the John Rylands.

It was raining heavily on the day in late June when I visited the John Rylands Library. Special Collections – a series of desks with book cradles and power outlets – was mostly empty, but there was a lively buzz of activity. Pairs of researchers and scholars spoke rapidly to their partners in low tones, and the staff whispered to one another. My inspection of materials was punctuated by a man behind me muttering “five pounds five shillings” – “June 22nd 1916” – “London”. I had to document myself – present a passport, proof of address – and then the papyri I had summoned were signed out to me. The John Rylands allows photography for personal use but forbids their promulgation. I took many personal photos, but the ones you see in this blog post are those which are officially released by the John Rylands. The two papyri which I looked at had already been digitized by the library, and can be accessed online for free. Most of the other patrons in the Special Collections were using materials which they could handle directly, but the Ciceronian papyri are mounted to glass. Each papyrus, encased in glass, is given to the reader on a foam tray, so that you can flip it and observe both sides.When the librarian handed me the first fragment, I asked about the conditions in which the glazed papyri were kept; one, the smaller of the two, was kept in a flight case (P. Ryl. 1.61); the other was kept in a paper box. Both were stored in a secure room which could have the oxygen removed from it in case of a fire. As I took close-up pictures of the different elements of the papyri, I appreciated one reason why the library would forbid private photographs to be disseminated – the surface of the glass means that details were obscured by the glare of the overhead lights, and by my reflection. As I looked at the papyri, I had the transcription from Cavenaile (CPL) open on my laptop so that I could orient myself in the text, and I also looked at the digitized images from the John Rylands website. Since the photo image of P. Ryl. 3.477, containing the Divinatio in Caecilium, was produced, the papyrus has been rearranged in its glass frame; and you can also see by comparing the original with its digital copy that parts of the papyrus which were once one piece have started to come apart. I noticed that the colour of the papyrus itself was darker in the photograph; as it turns out, the papyri at the Rylands have recently been through certain processes of conservation, which have left them a lighter colour. The papyrus itself, then, looks different from its image, and it is only this image that most people will ever be able to see. This is one of the interesting issues when dealing with ancient materials – they continue to have a life even after they have been made static by reproduction.

Further reading: “Cicero” in Texts and Transmission, ed. Reynolds (1983); McNamee, Annotations in Greek and Latin texts from Egypt (2007); Sánchez-Ostiz, Cicero Graecus: Notes on Ciceronian Papyri from Egypt, ZPE 187, 2013 pp144-153; many chapters of interest in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Bagnall (2009).