‘Applied Classics’ done well involves exploration, not reductionism

Monday 3 October 2022

This semester, I have gained a clearer understanding of the power and reach of Classics in the modern world; but I have also learnt about the social and ethical responsibilities that come with being a ‘citizen scholar’, and how important it is to be attuned to and wary of abuses of the discipline.  From examining how Classical content is used and abused in our modern day, I have come to see ‘Classical applications’ as broadly falling in to one of two categories; exploratory, or reductive. Reading ancient content against our real time experiences in an exploratory way can be emotionally cathartic, leading to relief and connection with timeless aspects of the human experience, as Stephanie McCarter relates in her article exploring the tumultuous war-faring journey of Aeneas besides that of her grandfather. However, more reductive applications of Classical content to modern issues can, as I have discovered, be incredibly dangerous. Using the same example of Virgil’s Aeneid, Reddit-style blogging platforms – where content such as this article circle freely – can provide a space for disillusioned ‘Red Pill Men’ and others to use superficial narratives about Classics to bolster their delusions that misogyny, racism, and xenophobia are both the foundations and future of a ‘golden society’.

Classical receptions are by nature not apolitical, which raises a question about whether or not the Classical receptionist has a moral imperative towards activism – and where that imperative can take us. Pharos and Eidolon are two blogging platforms that publish articles about Classics in the modern age and pursue similar activist agenda. As Eidolon’s founder, Donna Zuckerberg, explains in a 2020 article, she was not always confident in branding her journal as leftist-feminist, partly for fear of alienating potential readers who were not aligned with or even resistant to these politics. The articles published on Eidolon have not found universal favour, but they do enjoy a broad readership and support within communities which already share leftist-feminist politics, and they have also shaken up approaches to the discipline well beyond that. I find Pharos’ comparatively more transparent and straightforward politics refreshing and affirming, although of course this approach is also not free from limitations. Their aim is direct and specific: “Pharos is a platform where classical scholars, and the public more broadly, can learn about and respond to appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity by hate groups online.” Debunking Classical misappropriations feels like a very helpful goal for educating non-radicalised readers, a portion of whom may be susceptible to the Alt-Right Pipeline. However, as Donna Zuckerberg points out in her book Not All Dead White Men, intellectualising misappropriations to explain them back to the Red Pill community is unlikely to be useful in prompting them to dismantle their own perspectives. These Alt-Right communities are not studying Classics, they are simply drawing on it; and their abuse of Classical material reveals a dangerous pitfall in Classical applications which do not properly engage with source material: ‘while most Red Pill references to the Classics are often inaccurate, confounding, or lacking in nuance, they can still be dangerous nevertheless’  (Zuckerberg, 2018, p. 9) .

Clearly, attaching oneself to an image of Classics as the cradle of Western culture in order to justify problematic agendas invites mismatched parallels and false equivalencies. The uncomfortable baggage surrounding Classics today can be examined in light of Dan-El Padilla’s controversial debate with Mary Frances Williams, as reported in the New York Times Magazine. Arguably, the reporting in this article straddled a fine line between lazy and harmful: the tagline ‘He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?’ was clearly intended to provoke an emotional rather than intellectual response in a reader inclined towards upholding and defending the ‘honour’ or ‘tradition’ of Classics. The wider debate, however, has highlighted Classics’ complex relationship with racism, colonialism and other forms of oppression or exclusion. Combatting extreme views which people try to ‘justify’ through co-opting the cultural capital of Classical content is incredibly difficult because, to quote Zuckerberg again, ‘they have turned the ancient world into a meme’ (Zuckerberg, 2018, p. 3). While it is true that our corpus of Classical sources does contain evidence of misogyny and xenophobia, as modern Classicists and citizen scholars we must handle this material appropriately and sensitively, especially when we encounter misappropriated content which invites informed intervention. Problems arise when people conflate these sources not only with the entire discipline of Classics, but with the idea that this is how a flourishing society should operate. It would appear that the revival of nuance should be the first imperative of a helpful, constructive, and exploratory Classical reception.

Returning to my opening points, exploratory approaches to ‘Applied Classics’ can be much more productive than reductive ones, and successful exploration invites much more creative methodologies. One challenge for any ‘Applied Classics’ project is to get it to speak to its target audience in accessible and productive ways. NMT Automatics is a theatre company that specialises in staging ancient myths for modern audiences. The tagline for their production of Pandora’s Box on their website is: ‘An eerie forest, an abandoned palace and a mystery woman who holds the keys to the universe; if you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…’. The infusion of modern nursery rhyme into the ancient myth anticipates a performance more concerned with the timelessness and transferability of the story than complete linguistic and stylistic faith to the classical original, and indeed their script diverges from translating Hesiod’s account and instead uses more contemporary language. NMT Automatics faced some backlash from some audience members who were familiar with the original text and dismayed at the production’s departure from it, while other audience members were able to appreciate the performance for its accessibility and creativity. This was striking, since this idea that Classics should be kept ‘pure’ or ‘original’ resonates with how the Alt-Right weaponised ‘their version’ of Classics at the Capitol riots this January by branding anti-democratic insurrection with symbols of Spartan warriors and Roman Imperialism. As one of our guest lecturers (Prof. Neville Morley) pointed out, people are mostly like to engage with ‘Applied Classics’ projects when you ‘give them what they want’ – that is, when you offer them something they are already interested in or can relate to. It is important to remember, however, that this need not involve confirming what they already think about the ancient world; it can be creative, experimental and thought-provoking. A Classical application, in my view, is particularly useful when it finds a way to avoid preaching to the converted, and only helpful when it avoids co-option of ancient materials for destructive goals. And as I suggested at the start, ‘Applied Classics’ done well involves exploration, not reductionism.

(Originally published on the School of Classics blog, 22 March 2021)

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