Why Do Classicists Write?

In about an hour I am going to deliver a brief presentation as part of our monthly Classics Faculty and Graduate Student Coffee Hour, here at Ohio State. Since I have this hour at my disposal, I thought it would make the most sense to spend it writing a Minus Plato post.

The topic for today is ‘The Publication Process’ and I have been invited, as Classics Faculty member, to discuss blogging and writing for a non-academic audience. Fair enough. Yet the timing of this presentation is such that I feel like I need to address more than these specific forms of writing as a Classicist and instead to address the basic question: Why Do Classicists Write?

The reason for this shift comes from the fact that last week I attended a talk delivered by the artist Roger White on the question: Why Do Artists Write? Roger, who is one of the founding editors of Paper Monument, which has just published an anthology of Artist Writings (Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000-2015, edited by Jennifer Liese), was speaking as part of a project I am involved with at OSU called Contemporary Art and Its Publics: Working Through Reproduction. This 2-year pilot project for the University’s Humanities and the Arts Discovery Theme (no, sadly it is not all about the dynamic between the Humanities and the Arts!) is organized by myself, Lisa Florman (History of Art), Krist Paulsen (History of Art) and George Rush (Art). It was George who invited Roger to visit, not only because of the intriguing role of representation and reproduction in his artist work, but also for his role in editing Paper Monument and as author of the book The Contemporaries.

Now, to cut a long story short, Roger discussed several ways to answer his question – why do artists write? – a few of which contained strong warnings with them as being not very good reasons (e.g. writing for money!!) and others which he seemed to distance himself from, specifically in terms of his own practice (e.g. writing as art). Yet two (related) reasons given by Roger seemed to me to be especially important: 1) writing to change or intervene in the field of reception for your own work and that of your contemporaries; 2) for love.

For us Classicists, we can agree with the artists that writing for money is not a good reason, while there are very few among us who could claim that we write about Sophocles so as to be transfigured into ‘a Classic’ on the same level as Sophoclean tragedy. (That said, we shouldn’t put it past some Classicists, as there are some impressive egos in our field!).

But what about writing to change or intervene in the field of reception for our own work and that of our contemporaries? For us Classicists, the first part of this first reason seems to be pretty pertinent for what we do as scholars (‘writing to change or intervene in the field’). We write monographs, articles, book chapters, papers etc to intervene in the discipline of Classics. Sure, we write about Sophocles for Sophocles. That is, to engage with his plays and to elucidate as-yet-unseen truths or readings or to create a more accurate historical and cultural context for their production and reception within antiquity. But at the same time, as our bibliographies and footnotes testify, we are writing for other Classicists, other scholars who have written about Sophocles before us and those who come after us and who will, hopefully, read our work. It is, however, the second part of this answer that it is harder for us to generally agree on. Surely we write to change or intervene in Classics as a field or discipline and not as a way of or as part of the reception of our discipline, let alone for our own work or our contemporaries. What would a monograph on Sophocles look like that instead of engaging with key works of scholarship focused on showing how any reading of the Ajax after 9/11 must not only address questions of terrorism and suicide bombing, but also, at the same time, be part of a general discussion of how Classical scholarship necessarily underwent some kind of shift at that time. ‘

This reason for a Classicist to write – to somehow negotiate the field of reception and explain a  contemporary mood or focus – would seem far too limited and provisional. (Not to mention the many flaws in my specific example). That said, if Roger White can accept that one reason for artists to write is to intervene in the field of reception, for both the artist and their contemporaries, can Classicists be so sure that we are not doing something similar? What makes the rationale for a Classicist to write about Sophocles so different from an artists writing about Marcel Duchamp? Not as an art historical exercise, but to lay the groundwork for a contemporary reception of their work (as Classicists!) and their (Classicist) contemporaries?

And what about love? Roger discussed love in terms of how artists write for or on behalf of fellow artists, as a process of exchange that generates a particular community. Sure, this writing can be less critical than reviews or forms of art historical writing, but it has the bonus of creating solidarity and coherence to specific clusters and movements within the otherwise pretty alienating working conditions of the contemporary art world.

What would ‘writing for love’ mean for Classicists? (I only have 5 minutes before my talk, so I’d better make this snappy). Of course, it can mean writing for the love of Sophocles, but that doesn’t generate a community or any kind of contemporary coherence. I guess what it could mean is that Classicists should write for the love of being contemporary Classicists. A shared commitment to how the investigation into the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean (and beyond) can offer a way of living that, while seemingly ‘irrelevant’ to others, is productive, enriching and enlightening to us. Whether we write monographs for OUP or articles for TAPA or a blog on ancient medicine, we need to be self-aware that we are engaging with antiquity from the perspective of the present, for other Classicists and on behalf of other Classicists. Not just for the ‘love of it’ (allowing for no money, no job prospects etc), but to communicate and activate what this ‘love’ means for us, here and now.

Right, I’d better go and talk to the talk. Until next time…

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