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Taking Leave of Antiquity?

We are much more Greeks than we care to admit.

I say this in full knowledge that current academic fashion tends to ignore, debunk, or otherwise dismiss classical Athens. Social scientists reject the idea(l) of Athenian democracy as more fantasy than fact, while deeming the moral claims made by Plato and Aristotle on behalf of the polis and its politics radically incommensurable with the realities of the large, structurally differentiated, functionally interdependent, modern nation-state. Social historians carefully reconstruct the practices of everyday life in order to debunk the “glory that was Greece” by reminding us, rightly of the cruel and objectionable practices and institutions upon which the ancient ideal of civic freedom rested: slavery, the subjugation of women, and acute xenophobia. Feminist critics reveal the deep structures of Greek literature and philosophy as irredeemably misogynist, while one recent investigation of classical Athens has endeavored to unmask the popular view of the Greeks as a construction of nineteenth-century racist historiography.[1]

But fashion changes. While Nietzsche’s observation that the value of classical studies lies in their untimeliness remains as appropriate as ever, recent developments make possible a new appropriation of the literary and philosophical works of classical Athens. A sea change similar to the one that recently reconfigured the global political map has begun to transform the study of classical Greece. While a conventional division of labor still holds sway at the core of the field, some rebellious scholars have breached disciplinary walls. In an intellectual disturbance remarkable for its innovation and daring, classicists have increasingly come to adopt historical, philosophical, and poststructuralist literary methods in their analyses of ancient texts. Conversely, scholars from such diverse fields as philosophy, comparative literature, historical sociology, and political science now move on terrain that was once the exclusive property of classical philologists.[2] These deliberate trespasses against the conventions of scholarly rectitude yield surprising results: epic and tragic poetry suddenly contribute to our understanding of concepts such as agency, responsibility, autonomy, and freedom, which are usually associated with the philosophical tradition; instead of being consigned to the “primitive” stage of archaic thought, Greek tragedy is now recognized as playing a constitutive role in the emergence of classical political theory and as informing the “tradition” of Western political thought. Meanwhile, the central moral and ethical claims of classical philosophy have been cast in a new light, and are now being studied with reference to Greek literature’s preoccupation with moral deliberation and choice.[3]

As traditional academic disciplines continue to redraw their boundaries, Greek poetry and philosophy find themselves at the center of some of the most important philosophical, political, and ethical debates of the present day (consider, for instance, the controversy over a multicultural curriculum and the relevance of “canonical” texts to education). This newfound immediacy requires as a condition for successful interpretation that scholars bring the past close enough to make the Greeks intelligible and yet keep them sufficiently distant to preserve their otherness. As a result, the barriers between the ancient and modern world have become more permeable, the archaic past has become a more frequent interlocutor of the modern (or postmodern) present, and the present less sure about “progress” and its own position of moral, political, and cultural hegemony over the past. Given such historical and cultural decentering, “later” no longer inevitably means better. These deliberate trangressions of both culturally and temporally constituted boundaries facilitate an appropriation of the classical past in ways that require it to speak to the most pressing problems of the present moment and avoid nostalgia for a world that perhaps never was. Such are the tasks of historical and cultural translation that take us from the modern (or postmodern) to the ancient world and back again. And although this labor is both difficult and necessarily always incomplete, it tells us that, by better understanding the Greeks, we can perhaps begin better to understand ourselves. I intend this book as a modest contribution to the search for political and theoretical self-understanding that motivates this most recent “classical turn.”

In the absence of a more finely detailed and richly textured survey of a rapidly changing field, my account of the recent (anti)disciplinary disturbances in classical scholarship necessarily remains incomplete. Yet the transformations sketched briefly here undoubtedly suggest alternative paths to the past: the drawing of fresh maps proclaims old territory now open for renewed exploration. These disturbances thus make possible an imaginative and critical reappropriation of ancient Athenian thought. A growing number of contemporary social and literary theorists, none of whom harbor sympathetic attitudes toward the classical past, have in fact already begun this work. Thoroughly modern (or postmodern) in their concerns and methods, these theorists nonetheless remain engaged, in some way or on some level, with the Greeks: Michel Foucault with the Sophists, Jacques Derrida with Plato’s Phaedrus, Jean-François Lyotard with Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and Jürgen Habermas with the classical conceptions of dialogue and deliberation.[4] Moreover, contemporary democratic theorists, interested in what they variously call the “public sphere,” the “public realm,” or simply the “political,” find themselves turning more and more to the central categories of Athenian political thought. Although the most current disputes over the constitution of political space, the public sphere, and the politics of identity and difference have been inspired by Habermas and Foucault, these discussions inevitably return (via Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt) to the deliberative and performative aspects of classical Greek politics. Feminists, who once excoriated those unredeemed (and presumably unredeemable) heroic aspects of the masculine polis, have now begun to theorize an “agonistic feminism.” Postmoderns still committed to democratic institutions and practices—yet who otherwise suspect as bad nostalgia a politics of place monumentalized in the memory of the “democratic” Greek polis—are tentatively formulating a concept of “agonistic democracy.” Even those moderns who defend rational discursive content against performative practice acknowledge the force and appeal of Athenian-inspired virtuosity and theatricality in politics.[5] Whether we want to fashion a postmodern agonistic subjectivity that disrupts the regulative ideal of rational consensus or to redeem the enlightenment promise of a society comprised of deliberating citizens, ancient Athens has ironically become a site of contest for thinking about the most current problems in theory and politics, especially for those most likely to resist its claims and reject its authority.

These struggles—fought on and over the theoretical and political topography of the ancient city-state—represent neither a petty war over academic turf of dubious value nor merely a passing fancy for things antique. They indicate, rather, the continued presence of a deep and abiding conflict. The present dispute over who shall control the meaning of the classical polis provokes some of the most important issues challenging us today. For encoded in the contest over how that past is to be interpreted, represented, and subsequently appropriated—as stable origin for a culturally hegemonic reason or as shifting site for a disturbing sophistic (ant)agonism—is a struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment, and so over the very character and identity of modernity. Obviously, these disputes over the classical polis are as much, if not more, about who we are now, how we ought to live, and what forms our intellectual, social, and political institutions shall take as they are about the Greeks. Not so obvious is how these disputes are to be settled when the once seemingly immobile and solid soil of modernity has revealed its rifts, instabilities, and fissures—when that ground begins to shift under our feet. It is to this shifting terrain that contemporary theory responds, for what ultimately provokes this ironic turn to Athens—as paradigmatic precursor of rational deliberation or as instructive exemplar in agonistic virtuosity—are the profound social and political transformations wrought by modernity.


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