Tom Habinek on “generativity” (SCS 2020)

On 5th January 2020 I took part in a commemoration of Tom Habinek at the SCS organized by James Ker, Andrew Feldherr, and Enrica Sciarrino; with Basil Dufallo, Zsuzsanna Várhelyi, Scott Lepisto, and Enrica Sciarrino, and myself as panelists. With the generosity of Hector Reyes, we were able to read Tom’s (incomplete) book manuscript on the topic of personhood and authorship. Here’s the text of my contribution to the workshop, in case of interest. Enormous thanks to everyone involved and everyone who came to the panel.


It is my task today to speak on the concept of generativity as discussed in Tom’s manuscript. When I think of Tom’s work and the influence he had on students like me, it is, indeed, particularly his theorization of generativity which I feel to have been the most impactful. In earlier works, Tom’s interest in generativity manifested in his study of social generation via cultural production and reproduction, with a focus on how ritual acts instantiated Roman community. In a key passage of The World of Roman Song (2005, p129), Tom cited the work of the anthropologist, Paul Connerton, who, in How Societies Remember (1989, p62) discussed Thomas Mann’s understanding of the Freudian ego: 

“We are to envisage the ego, less sharply defined and less exclusive than we commonly conceive of it, as being so to speak ‘open behind’: open to the resources of myth which are to be understood as existing for the individual not just as a grid of categories, but as a set of possibilities which can become subjective, which can be lived consciously. In this archaising attitude the life of the individual is consciously lived as a ‘sacred repetition’, as the explicit reanimation of prototypes.”

The “explicit reanimation of prototypes” is how Tom understood Roman self-construction: the invocation of ancient exemplars; the continuous citation and reinscription of Roman ancestral memory; rituals which resubstantiated the dead in the bodies of the living. Roman literary and political history demonstrates clearly that the Romans were interested in how their culture generated and regenerated itself; how the present day related to the past and preserved a tensile balance between new iterations of Roman youth, and their ancestral blueprints. All we need think of is the late Republican Brutus contemplating his ancestor, the expeller of kings; or perhaps Cicero in the Pro Caelio raising the ancient, blind Appius Claudius from the dead to speak with Cicero’s own lips and chastize Cicero’s own enemies.

In his latest work Tom approached the question of Roman generativity from some new perspectives. In his search for an understanding of Roman personhood, he figured the Roman persona as an active process, not a passive state; I think that for Tom persona was not a noun, but a verb. “Personifying” is a practice — it is an action, it is alive. Starting from this position, Tom was able to see different kinds of ancient evidence not as discrete, disconnected elements of Roman intellectual systems, but rather mutually supportive organs of an organic, synthetic whole. Tom’s work instantiates a theorization of human culture which does not merely render literature, or law, or art objects into cynical, insensate records of elites and auteurs. His organic approach reveals that the ancient artefact is an expression and mirror of biological as well as cultural forms. To put it another way, without really knowing that they are doing so, humans make things which reflect their insides. Tom’s work makes you realize that when you read a Latin text, that text is actively trying to constitute you into a Roman reader — like a 3D printer with instructions to produce a piece of plastic in a specific way, the scientific, ethical, political scripts of the Roman text tries to make us.

With this, or something like this, in his mind, Tom in this latest work proceeded to examine generativity in a number of different types of ancient evidence, ranging from the practices of Roman bride dowries to the emergence of birthday celebration as a theme in Latin love elegy. Underneath each artefact, Tom found a consistent preoccupation in the Roman attitude to cultural and biological reproduction which expressed a profound anxiety, one which can be conveyed in the form of a simple question. Will we continue to survive?

Romans expressing this anxiety in different ways figured reproduction, with its insistence upon a continuity of resources, as relating to survival in the long term. The fact that Roman bride dowries are reabsorbed into the natal family to allow women to marry again and to have children is, Tom suggests, an intentional defense mechanism against the failure to reproduce. As a result, generativity in Roman thought relates not only to explicit, biological reproduction (i.e. producing children), but making provision for a self-sustaining reabsorption of assets as part of a framework which allows such reproduction to take place. At its core, this legal provision expresses a care to conserve not just culture or biology but energy; like keeping a little something left in the storeroom in case of an unexpected hunger. Cast in this light, Roman conservatism, which is so frustratingly obvious and, frankly, obtuse sometimes (just think of Cato the Elder) seems to be not simply fanatical traditionalism, but indeed a form of conservationism.

It is an impulse to conserve that Tom saw in the Roman discourse around luxuria. The chastizing of luxuria is not simply, Tom suggests, a knee-jerk political reaction against perceived excesses and hedonism, but rather a criticism of “pointless growth” — i.e. the expenditure of energy which will not return, will not be reabsorbed and thereby conserved for future use. Tom notes that criticism of luxuria in Roman texts so often employ agricultural and botanical metaphors because luxuria was an metaphysical outgrowth which defied the boundaries of the carefully proportioned Catonian fields, designed and tended to produce year after year. Incidentally, Tom made a point to note that luxuriant excess — a squandering of resources, the refusal to regenerate, to conserve, to recycle — expressed itself in many different ways: the fact that furniture, fine art, construction, urban development, and non-reproductive sex were each as bad as each other speaks to the intersection of conservatism with conservationism in the Roman attitude; i.e. having fancy pedestal tables and sideboards (Livy 39.6) is just as bad as fucking your boyfriend because you should, good Roman, be conserving your attention and energies for generative activities. Here, Tom seems to have revealed a kind of biological essentialism in Roman thought which is not usually, I think, made explicit. Tom notes that while the elegists and other figures from the Roman counter-culture were “ambivalent” about such a formulation of luxuria, they nonetheless accepted its definition; that is, while they did not play by these rules, they accepted that these indeed were the rules. Even if you are walking away from Rome rather than towards it, you are still on the road to Rome.*

Tom translates the Latin luxuria as “pointless growth”, “withering growth”, “wild growth.” An agricultural, biological symptom of “bad” growth is itself a helpful tool to reveal the nature of “good” growth, and Tom realized that, in Roman thought, “good” growth often related to an inseparable dualism: life and death. An insistence that growth (that is “good” growth, not luxuria) is actually related to death appears, Tom says, in the Pro Marcello (23): Cicero’s exhortation of Caesar to propagate new growth includes the impossible wish that Caesar could bring the dead back to life, if only that were possible. Indeed, the relationship between the living and the dead at Rome was one of Tom’s deepest preoccupations; in the book proposal for the project, Tom had focused in on a passage from Rudolph Sohm which I believe was, for him, programmatic: “the heir is treated as though he were deceased…the deceased continues to live in the person of the heir” (1907, p504). Indeed, the idea that the dead live in the face, the name, and the actions of the living is one of the vital aspects of Roman generation, regeneration, generativity. Tom’s discussion of generativity in this manuscript reveals a living organism, a beating heart underneath the details of textuality. According to his understanding, the Romans formulated their generative function as a life pulse which conserved itself, returned to itself, and, being limited, precious, did not waste itself.

*Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969/1999, p151): “To oppose something is to maintain it. They say here ‘all roads lead to Mishnory.’ To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road.'”

Consciousness Raising: SCS Toronto 2017

The 2017 meeting of the Society for Classical Studies that took place from Jan. 5th-8th in Toronto had a common thread running through it: a growing interest among classicists to engage wider audiences through outreach, digital technologies, and social projects. But this desire to move beyond the traditional limits of classical research and pedagogy was also marked by internal anxieties regarding the field’s future, and what kind of role classicists should have in the current political climate. 


At “The Impact of Immigration on Classical Studies in North America”, the first speaker was supposed to be Dan-el Padilla Peralta (Princeton), whose 2015 autobiography – Undocumented – describes his experiences as a Dominican living in the US without legal documentation who worked his way to a Classics degree from Princeton, and the subsequent life of a scholar. Ironically, Peralta wasn’t able to be in Toronto to give his paper — for immigration reasons. James Uden (Boston University), one of the panel’s organizers, stepped in to read out Peralta’s paper, noting that even under normal circumstances, reading someone else’s paper is a strange thing, but that this case felt stranger, given the intimate nature of its content.

In 2015, Peralta published a two-part piece in Eidolon entitled “Barbarians Inside the Gate” (part I, II), which discussed the ancient parallels to – and influences upon – the modern problem of immigration in the US. One of the recent cooptations cited by Peralta is Ted Cruz’s assimilation of himself to Cicero with Obama as his Catiline in the context of then POTUS’ proposed immigration reform, an incident that I first saw written about by Jesse Weiner in the Atlantic in 2014 (“Ted Cruz: Confused about Cicero“). By casting himself as a modern day Cicero, Cruz had unwittingly (?) made a threat of violence against the “Catilinarian” President. Peralta went on to describe the privileged positions of scholars – traveling for research and conferences without having to consider any threat to their immigration status, or being turned away at the border (obviously given poignance by his own absence). Citing this passage from C. Rowan Beye’s contribution to Compromising Traditions (1997) —

— Peralta argued that a problematic and artificial distinction was being made between privilege of academics (prized for their foreignness – if it was the right kind) on the one hand, and undocumented workers on the other. Poised on the edge – now – of the political threat to the undocumented in the US, including our own students, this categorization of “good immigrant”/”bad immigrant” enforces value judgements upon human beings, impeding their mobility, settlement, and health – both mental and physical. The second speaker of this panel, Ralph Hexter (UC Davis), described the shape of immigration in California, the state with the highest number of immigrants: 10 million, of whom many are now citizens or residents, but 25% are undocumented. In California, undocumented students who have graduated from high school have access to higher education, but no access to federal loans. Through the DREAM act, undocumented students would be able to find federal work study or student loans, and individual states could decide to provide financial aid to such students. But, as Hexter pointed out, the incoming POTUS used the repeal of the DREAM act as one of his campaign slogans; and now undocumented students everywhere are fearful for their future. Hexter noted that for many students, the question of immigration will be an enormously personal issue. Hexter moved on to demonstrate how discussions of canonical classical texts could accommodate discussions of these issues. Classicists use texts capable of plurality of perspective – “immigrant, host national, universal order”:

Hexter suggested the Aeneid as a text with which to explore the problem of immigration: refugees leave a destroyed city (Troy); family, central to the problem of immigration, is central to the epic; Turnus’ hostility can be read as a hostility to new migrants. Hexter even cast Virgil’s Evander as Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, to Obama’s “well meaning but weak willed Latinus” – likening Dido to Angela Merkel, who left her border open to Syrian refugees. Hexter also invoked Luis Alfaro’s play – Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles – which combined the tragedy of the Ancient Greek Medea with the trauma of modern day Mexican immigration. The title “Mojada” is the Spanish slang equivalent to, and containing as much emotive force as, the English “wetback” – used to describe the undocumented who supposedly arrive in the US “wet” (mojado) because of crossing borders by water. During the Q&A section of Hexter’s talk, a member of the audience brought up Canadian playwright Olivier Kemeid’s L’Eneide, which explicitly brings out immigration as a central crisis of Aeneas’ tale.  

Looking to classical texts as a means to remediate modern social problems was a thread that connected the “Impact of Immigration” panel and the “New Outreach and Communications for Classics” panel. At the Outreach panel, Roberta Stewart (Dartmouth) spoke about her experiences talking through Homer with combat veterans in New Hampshire (which has an 8% vet population), a project funded with an NEH grant. “Talking through” is a better way to describe what she does than “teaching” – she stressed in her paper that the aim of the sessions was to facilitate discussion, rather than to use a hierarchical teaching model:

Outreach in this case, Stewart says, means giving texts an environment of relatability, where expertise is not required. In fact, when veterans use Homer to work through issues of war, homecoming, and trauma, it is they who are the experts. Stewart’s project makes veterans the authors and authorities in designing curriculum for veterans. It’s not exactly that “reaching out” in such a way removes the expertise of the classicist who is there to facilitate – what became clear over the arc of this SCS panel is that the public wants an “expert” to be in the room, to guide things, to lend some weight to proceedings. But working with a text in such a way allows the reader to find the meanings which are most resonant and – in this case – healing. In the current climate, changing what it means to be an “expert” is an important shift: expertise moves from the top-down to something more open.

Another strong point that came from this panel is the necessity for outreach to be pluralistic. There are a lot of different kinds of audiences to reach out to. The implication here is that the centre is the academy, which normally looks inward to itself and its own initiated members. From the Paideia Institute, we heard about several projects: Jason Pedicone presented on the Legion Project, which connects classicists working outside of academia – including tracking those who have PhDs in Classics but did not find scholarly positions; and Liz Butterworth on Aequora, teaching literacy to elementary and middle school students with Latin. Christopher Francese (@DCComm, Dickinson College) described a number of outreach projects he’s involved with: a Latin club for children from Kindergarten to Middle School; blogging; podcasting. Francese’s podcast is a series of 5-10 minute recordings on Latin metrics and poetic performativity.

The outreach panel, while describing ways to open up classics to wider audiences, also brought up some of its inherent tensions. As I was live tweeting Francese’s comments on podcasting, multiple podcasters on twitter spoke to me to say: We’re here, and we’re doing this work. In the days after the conference, I was discussing with these podcasters – Aven McMaster (@AvenSarah), Alison Innes (@InnesAlison), and Ryan Stitt (@greekhistorypod) – the issue of in-groups and out-groups. These podcasters know each other well, are well known by their own audiences, but not that well known by the “professional” arm of the discipline. During the outreach panel, one member of the audience – a high school Latin teacher – drew attention to the fact that there was a weak relationship between school teachers and classicists in universities. And, given the fact that declining enrollment in classics is a serious issue, the apparent lack of interest in the teachers – on the front lines of training future classicists – was part of this problem. After the conference it became clear to me that it wasn’t the case that classical resources weren’t available on the internet, but that lack of centrality meant that they were difficult to get to know about, unless you were already part of a certain group. An antidote to this problem will involve those who do have a wide audience, in real life and on the internet, engaging in some signal boosting – letting those within and outside of the academy know what kind of projects are out there. The SCS has started an effort to review digital projects; see, for example, their review of The Latin Library.

Digital classics was also well represented, thanks to the “Ancient MakerSpaces” workshop, run by Patrick Burns (@diyclassics, ISAW). This workshop attracted the majority of live tweeters (for obvious reasons), and so is well documented in the twitter record of 2017’s SCS. The success of this workshop came not only from the content of its presentations, but its format – which eschewed the traditional Q&A, opting instead for interactive demonstrations. The digital humanities presentations seemed to have a deep connection with pedagogy:

Thomas Beasley (Bucknell University), demonstrating the visualization of networks in the ancient mediterranean, noted that his tool could improve spatial literacy in undergraduates, who often find it difficult to come to terms with the geography of the mediterranean. In the outreach panel, Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond, University of Iowa) had talked about how maps are always useful in teaching contexts. Bond demonstrated that the spatial visualization had been a part of enhancing engagement since at least the 16th century, when Protestants used maps to illustrate the Bible, to great popularity. Digital tools also allow a larger degree of participation. Rodney Ast (University of Heidelberg) demonstrated how anyone could suggest editorial changes to papyri entries in the Digital Corpus of Literary Papyri – during the course of his presentation, he edited a database entry for a Ptolemaic ostrakon to include the fact that it contains a quotation from the Odyssey:

Questions of digitization and information technology were present in other areas of the conference as well. This year’s Presidential Panel – “Communicating Classical Scholarship” – included presentations from Sebastian Heath (@sebhth, NYU) on digital publishing through ISAW; Fiona MacIntosh (Oxford University) on the APGRD‘s (@APGRD) ebooks of the Medea and the Agamemnon, in which archival footage of performance reception are embedded in the books’ “pages”; and Erich Schmidt (University of California Press) on the future of scholarly publishing, including discussion of how expensive it is to print monographs. This panel betrayed some of the tension and anxiety felt by classicists regarding their digital futures, but also regarding their print past. When comments were made by panelists suggesting the general preference of scholars for print books, there were scatterings of applause from the audience. Essentially, we are not of one mind when it comes to digital humanities, or the future of how scholarship is disseminated – and that includes the role of social media. We’re not on the same page, either, on whether or not these new trends have value, or whether they can be counted among a scholar’s contributions to the field. This much is made clear by the fact that the SCS has a statement asking that classics departments take digital and technological projects into consideration when they consider a candidate’s value:

A final project to draw attention to is the new Classics and Social Justice group organized by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Amit Shilo (UC Santa Barbara), Roberta Stewart, and Nancy Rabinowitz. This group is bringing together scholars and teachers who want to use their classical expertise to help address current social problems: many of the attendees of the first meetings have already done work of this kind, whether has meant reading Homer with veterans, bringing classics into prisons, or addressing the issue of immigration. The evening meeting on Jan 7 was broadcast on Facebook live, and the resulting video can be watched here. The existence of this group demonstrates a growing trend among classicists to integrate the intellectual part of their lives with action and advocacy, and to bring their intellectual energies into spaces outside the limits of the traditional classroom. Among the aims of this new group is to draw attention to the fact that many scholars have already been doing this kind of work some time – invisibly – and to bring together those with similar ideas, to be a resource to one another and to others.