I’ve had a project for a while to educate myself more thoroughly in reception theory and methodology, rather than just doing articles on individual instances of reception. I’m always aware (not least because it comes up a lot in readers’ comments on papers I submit) that I am a bit on the theory-light side, and I would like to correct that. Recently, a number of circumstances combined to actually get me started on some of the reading. So, over the past couple of months I have read or reread Lorna Hardwick’s two books Reception Studies (you’ll have to scroll down, I’m afraid, but if you’re going to get a copy I’d rather you got one directly from the Classical Association) and Translating Worlds, Translating Cultures, the collection Classics and the Uses of Reception, edited by Charles Martindale and Richard Thomas, and Martindale’s seminal Redeeming the Text, which set the terms for the debate on reception theory back in 1993, as well as large chunks of the Blackwell Companion to Classical Receptions, edited by Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray. I’ve also read a number of related articles, such as Martindale’s entry on ‘reception’ in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the BMCR reviews of the Martindale/Thomas and Hardwick/Stray volumes (the latter, by John Henderson, is in his usual idiosyncratic style), and one work, Mary Beard and John Henderson’s Very Short Introduction to Classics, that doesn’t mention reception once, but is widely (and rightly) recognized to be a key text on the subject. If I was pointing someone to a quick introduction to the subject, I would recommend Reception Studies, followed by cherry-picking the Blackwell Companion, which includes, among other delights, an excellent article on film by Joanna Paul.
As a result of this reading (and with a memory of other texts I have looked at in the past, such as Goldhill’s Love, Sex & Tragedy), I feel able to present the following, which is a preliminary statement of my response to the theoretical approaches. It is likely to be modified as the project proceeds.
An attitude to theory
I’m a lot less suspicious of theoretical approaches than I used to be. There was a time when I shared what remains outside academic circles (and quite often inside) a common suspicion of theory, ready to write it off as pretentious rubbish. I now recognize that theory can be a useful tool. It doesn’t necessarily lead me to say things that I otherwise wouldn’t say, but it does help me to say them more effectively.
Similarly, I am no longer afraid of jargon. I recognize that technical language can be useful. In this I differ from some Classicists, who can be resistant to the appropriation of terminology from literary theory. There was a debate about this in the pages of CA News back in 2005/2006, including an article by Gideon Nisbet, and a set of letters in the following issue. The letter-writers objected strenuously to Nisbet’s suggestion that classicists should be more open to jargon, but what I feel they were really objecting to was bad use of jargon, when it is used to obfuscate rather than clarify, or when a term like ‘hermeneutics’ is used by people who don’t really know what it means (I’m not too sure myself, which is why I rarely employ it). I’m against that as well.
So, I wish to be theory-aware in my work. But I don’t want to be theory-heavy or dogmatic. Models must fit the evidence – evidence must not be bent to fit models. My original training as a historian makes me primarily an empiricist, and I remain an evidence-led scholar. And theory must not be allowed to get in the way of having something interesting to say.
Reception theory in Classics and elsewhere
Nick Lowe has on a number of recent occasions (most notably at a one-day seminar on Teaching Reception Studies in the Institute for Classical Studies in November 2007) said that Classicists don’t use ‘reception’ in the same way as other academic fields. I felt I ought to check this out, and I did, focussing on film studies, solely because, since I am about embark on a film history course, I have quite a few theoretical works lying about (I consulted in particular Maltby, pp.549-53, and King). I did also look up ‘reception theory’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, pp.282-3.
And Lowe is right. In most fields, reception theory is about reader-responses, and concerns itself with how a particular text (using ‘texts’ in the broad manner employed by Roland Barthes, to mean not just written accounts, but any item to be studied) has been received. Classical receptions almost always focus upon a receiving text, and how that has received an originary text. To a degree, it is true, as has been pointed out to me, that this is a natural product of the field. Classicists cannot produce a meaningful study of the original audience of the Aeneid, and so we are forced to looking at other forms of response. Nevertheless, it does mean that Classical reception studies operate differently to other forms.
It’s also probably the case that many early examples of Classical reception studies thought little about theoretical approaches. This has clearly changed, as those working on reception studies have felt the need to be more rigorous and self-critical in their approaches (an observation made by Joanna Paul in the abstract for a paper delivered in 2007).
Martindale’s theory of reception
As I said earlier, Charles Martindale set the terms for reception theory about a decade before reception became all the rage in Classical Studies. And though most people don’t do reception in the way Martindale recommends, there isn’t really a counter-theory other there (I’m channelling Nick Lowe again here). I therefore need to engage with Martindale’s works. This is not easy. I have read most of the Martindale pieces listed in ‘Works cited’ below (with the exception of the Arion article); a number of them I have read repeatedly. And I’m still not sure if I understand the argument fully.
The problem is that Martindale, unlike many Classicists (and certainly unlike the majority of Classicists when he began publishing this material in the early 1990s) is well-read in literary theory. His take on reception, laid out in the various pieces listed, draws heavily on Hans Robert Jauss, and through him on Hans-Georg Gadamer, and on Wolfgang Iser. I have read almost none of these writers (just one article by Jauss). As a result, I don’t find it easy to follow Martindale’s argument. I suspect this is shared by many in Classics, which as a field has always been reluctant to embrace theoretical approaches – indeed, anecdotal evidence would suggest that some (unfairly, I think) reject what Martindale has to say because of what is perceived as an excessive amount of literary theory contained in what he said. I witnessed the debate at the Classical Association Conference in Reading in 2005 between Martindale and Christopher Rowe, recorded in the two pieces from the CUCD Bulletin listed in ‘Works Cited’; there seemed something of a perception that Rowe had won, and I would say that was partly because Martindale seemed to be putting forward a post-modernist argument about which many in the audience were highly suspicious. (On paper, it seems more balanced – in particular I think Rowe goes too far in asserting that he has uncovered the correct reading of Plato’s Lysis, as opposed to a reading.)
Martindale’s argument is most fully expressed in Redeeming the Text, especially Chapter 1, and the introduction to Classics and the Uses of Reception (an abridged version of which is here). My reading of it is as follows (and I suspect Martindale himself would argue that, even if my reading differs from his, that doesn’t make my reading invalid):
The traditional approach to study of Classical texts aims to approach the text in its original context, and establish its meaning. This cannot be done. It is impossible to read any ancient text devoid of the cultural associations built up around it since it was created, no matter how hard we try. The traditional approach is excessively positivist. We should reject this, and instead of ignoring later receptions of the texts in which we are interested, use them to formulate new approaches to the texts.
There’s quite a lot in what Martindale says with which I agree. I share his distaste for the overly positivist approach. Positivism in its purest form rests on assumptions about the unproblematic ‘knowability’ of ‘objective’ ‘facts’. There are no absolutely knowable facts. The post-modernists are right that everything we know is only partially known, and influenced by the means in which we receive the information, and the people generating that information. No witness is wholly unbiased. This doesn’t mean that we can believe what we like, and that all views are equally valid. That’s a misuse of the post-modernist view. What post-modernism is saying (in my understanding) is that we should think about how we know what we think we know.
However, once we have done that, I don’t see why we can’t carry on as literary critics or historians, doing much the same thing as have done before, but with a full cognisance of our limitations. We know that we can never establish fully what happened in the past, or what an author intended in their work – but we do know that events happened in the past, and that authors had intentions when writing. Even though we cannot ever fully achieve our objective, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make the attempt. When talking about establishing the text of an ancient author, Beard and Henderson write (p.57; p.61 of the repaginated 2000 printing): ‘there is no alternative to taking the risk and trying, at least, to reach as accurate a view as possible of what ancient authors wrote’ (their italics). I think that applies across the board in study, to historical events and authorial intent. I don’t buy the ‘death of the author’ concept or the intentional fallacy, at least not as fully expressed – every text that we study was created by a human being, and that human being had an object in mind when they wrote. Moreover, the context in which a work is produced is a factor that shapes it, for all that the New Criticism attempts to reject such an approach. Properly qualified, I think that this is a valid way to tackle antiquity.
Moreover, rejecting this strikes me as an unwarranted limit on human imagination. To say that a critic cannot try to imagine their way into the mindset of someone in first century ce Rome is like suggesting that an author of fiction cannot write a black person if they are white, or a woman if they are a man. One can never fully get inside the head even of the person one knows best in the world besides oneself. But we can still try. And as long as the nature of this imaginative exercise is made explicit, I think the exercise can be performed.
I don’t think Martindale would agree, and would probably view my approach as still positivistic, for all my attempts to dress it with some sops to a more post-modern approach. But I’m not sure what he offers in its place. Taken to its logical extent, the reception process as described by Martindale becomes potentially excessively solipsistic, and it would become hard to say anything meaningful about any text whatsoever. I should add that Martindale himself doesn’t take it to that extreme.
In any case, there is, for me, value in Martindale’s approach, even for more traditional textual commentary. Yes, one can never strip away entirely the expectations arising out of subsequent receptions. But if one were to identify the effect of those receptions, as best as one can, then it is possible to get someway towards how that text might seem without the influence of the later receptions. Of course, what one is left with would be one’s personal response to a text, which might, or might not be the response the author intended to create. Looked at in this way, it seems potentially a rather spurious way of approaching the text. But I’m not sure what else one can do.
This does all mean that the study of a text’s reception is crucial to understanding a text, so Martindale’s theoretical approaches are important. But one cannot only study Virgil through Dante, or Ovid through Titian. A complete view of a work’s reception must include how the work was received by its very first readers, which brings us back (though perhaps by a different route) to the sort of looking at the text in its original context that Martindale seems to disapprove of.
And, as I said, most people working in reception don’t go as far as Martindale. He criticizes a lot of reception studies as positivistic. Here again I think he has a point. There are certainly cases where people seem too eager to find Classical receptions where they perhaps don’t exist – I would cite attempts to interpret 2001: A Space Odyssey as a full-blown reworking of Homer, rather than something which occasionally alludes to ancient epic.
Introspection in reception
One thing I have noticed of late is a tendency for reception studies to get quite reflexive. Lorna Hardwick rightly identifies redirecting our attention back on the original source as a key element of reception studies (Reception Studies, p.4). I agree that a reading of a receiving text can certainly bring new insights to the originary text, though one must be careful not to give way to anachronism. When one says, e.g., that T.S. Eliot reconfigures Virgil, one must be clear what that means. We must always remember that, whilst Eliot read Virgil, Virgil never read Eliot.
But I have seen Hardwick’s comment reformulated as ‘the key element’, and that to me is wrong. Yet often the first question that gets asked in theoretical studies is ‘what does the reception tell us about the original text?’ That is implicit in the title of the Martindale/Thomas volume. Martindale makes a valid criticism (in the Blackwell Companion to the Classical Tradition, p.303): ‘The assumption is that such receptions tell us only about the receiving culture, little or nothing about the work received.’ It is certainly incorrect to assume that this would be the only way of doing reception. It would be equally incorrect to assert that the only way of doing reception studies is to treat the receiving object as a mere adjunct to the received text.
I can see various reasons why this might appeal. For a start, most research proposals have to get past a committee of Classicists, so emphasizing the originary texts is natural. Also, some reception theory has been developed in the context of staging of Greek and Roman drama, where the original text and what the staging reveals about it is an important issue.
In an ideal world, of course, every reception study would do both, and have something interesting to say about both receiving and originary text. But that’s not always going to be the case. An examination of the brilliant way in which O Brother Where Art Thou? reconfigures the visit to the Underworld into its cinema scene tells you an awful lot about the Coen Brothers, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you that much about the Odyssey. But that doesn’t make it an invalid approach. To act as if it does works against truly cross-disciplinary studies, and in the end will alienate those to whom the originary texts are important in their own right. (Martindale is on the money here: ‘research on, say, the Victorians must be credible to Victorianists as well as classicists’, Classics and the Uses of Reception, p.9.)
I should say that a great many instances of reception actually in practice do say interesting things about the receiving text. Such instances can be found throughout the Blackwell Companion, and even in the Martindale/Thomas volume.
An élitist approach?
Another problem, particularly with the sort of reception I do, is that it can fall foul of an élitist agenda. It’s very easy to dismiss study of popular culture as not really being serious scholarship, and from there it’s a short step to tarring all or reception studies with the same brush. One reaction to this is to concentrate upon ‘high culture’ receptions. In the introduction to Classics and the Uses of Reception (p.11), Martindale writes:
if we abandon a serious commitment to the value of the texts we choose for our attention and those of our students, we may end by trivialising reception within the discipline; already a classics student is far more likely to spend time analysing Gladiator than the Commedia of Dante. I find that worrying. This is not to decry the study of a wide range of cultural artefacts (there are many more good things in the world than the canon knows), and certainly not to criticize the study of film or of popular culture; it is simply to say that we form ourselves by the company that we keep, and that in general material of high quality is better company for our intellects and hearts than the banal or the quotidian (often we use the latter, archly and somewhat cheaply, merely to celebrate our own cultural superiority).
In reading, he added a verbal aside that he didn’t think Gladiator was important. The problem is, this is judging the importance of Gladiator solely on its artistic merit. But Gladiator and films like it are important, because for a great many people, these films their only experience of Classical culture. By dismissing the film in this much criticized statement (by, e.g., Rowe, and Paul in her film article, pp.304-5), Martindale is saying that those people’s experiences of Classical culture don’t really count. Instead of demonstrating cultural superiority through mocking popular culture (granted, best avoided), Martindale attempts to demonstrate cultural superiority through ignoring popular culture. And indeed the volume goes on to largely eschew engaging with the media through which most people experience Graeco-Roman antiquity.
This won’t do. We need to understand everyone’s experiences, not just those of an élite. A theme that has just started to appear in recent work is that of the ‘democratic turn’ (see the introduction to the Blackwell Companion to Classical Receptions, pp.3-4). This identifies a movement that takes Classical culture away from the élites, and reconfigures is a vehicle for dissent. For myself, I wonder if the manifestation of the democratic turn is a product of the development, and increased visibility, of mass culture in the twentieth century, rather than any actual change in attitudes. Whilst élite culture certainly drew heavily upon the Classical past, did it ever have exclusive ownership of the Classical tradition? There is a case for saying that non-élite receptions of the Classics always took place, but were until recently largely invisible (or at least not examined); there are good articles on this by Siobhán McElduff and Edith Hall, and Hall at least plans more in this respect.
I’d like to cite here a recent example from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), the well-known scene where Brian (Graham Chapman) is painting on a wall ‘Romans go home’ in very poor Latin, and is put through his grammar paces by John Cleese’s centurion. This is a sketch written by people who went to posh schools where they were taught Latin, and had encountered teachers who took this sort of approach. I and my immediate companions were laughing our heads off when we first saw it because we were going to a posh school where we were taught Latin, and recognized our teachers in Cleese’s portrayal. But the rest of the cinema were also laughing their heads off, and I doubt they had all gone to posh schools where they were taught Latin. And the scene remains funny. What is it that allows most audiences to connect with that scene? This is something I don’t think has been fully investigated, and it ought to be.
My kind of reception
This is the point where I get solipsistic. But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the personal voice where appropriate. So, where do I see my own research fitting within this theoretical framework? I addressed this in a paper given at the Classical Association Conference in
there remains the question Paula posed – ‘so what?’ Can we as Classicists bring something new to the study of this material? I believe we can. I don’t just give papers at CA conferences or in university departments. I also give talks at sf and comics conventions. And the audiences there are fascinated. They want to hear the different perspective that we have to offer.
As for the other part of Paula’s question, how does study of this material enrich our own study of the original Classical culture, perhaps in this case, it doesn’t much. You’ve probably learnt far more about superhero comics than you have about the Roman god Mercury, and I’ve been speaking more about receptions of themes developed initially against a classical background and then moved into other contexts than I have been about direct classical receptions. But, so what? Lorna Hardwick rightly identifies redirecting our attention back on the original source as a key element of reception studies. But does that mean that every paper written about Classical receptions must fulfil that purpose, and if it does not, then that paper has failed? I don’t think so. I looked into the subject matter of this paper because I was interested in it. I wrote the paper because I hope that you might be interested as well, and I want to communicate what I’ve discovered to you. And, for all the concerns about Research Assessment Exercises, and postgraduates wanting to further their careers through presenting papers, ultimately, research is about finding out things because you’re interested, and telling other people because you think they’ll be interested too. For myself, that’s all the justification I need.
This remains my view. My approach is, I think, dictated by the sort of scholar that I am. I am not just a Classicist with an interest in reception studies, who happens to have picked science fiction as my area of interest. I am a Classicist with an interest in reception studies, but at the same time I am a critic of science fiction, and get published in the sf critical journals. Most of the time my work in each field overlaps (for reasons of time if for nothing else). So I am interested in both originary and receiving texts. This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with coming into a field of reception purely from a Classics background. But that’s not who I am, and who I am shapes how I want to do reception.
The sort of reception works I am interested in are those that are as useful for those concerned with the receiving text as with the received. I point to works like Maria Wyke’s Projecting the Past, or Gideon Nisbet’s Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (I focus on popular culture only because that’s what I know – similar pieces on opera, or painting, or whatever, can be found in the Blackwell Companion, or even in the Martindale/Thomas collection). Significantly, both authors have backgrounds that take them outside a pure classics approach – Wyke has an M.A. in Film and Television Studies as well as her Classics Ph.D., and Nisbet is a long-standing comics and sf fan who I first met at an Eastercon (British National SF Convention). I haven’t read Edith Hall’s The Return of Ulysses fully yet, but from what I’ve skimmed it looks to be another example of the sort of treatment I like; it’s worth noting that the publisher has a long background in cultural studies, and is not a traditional Classical studies publisher. The sort of conferences I enjoy are the likes of Classics Hell: Re-Presenting Antiquity in Mass Cultural Media, which took place in Reading in April 2007 (the proceedings will soon be published), or the schools conference in Oxford last November, with many of the same speakers, and at which I was invited to speak.
When I write, I am aware that I am often writing for two audiences, one of Classicists and one of sf readers – this will be especially the case when (and it remains when, not if) I finally write the book on the subject that I want to. One result of this is that I have to include a lot of explanation of things that one audience would take for granted, but of which the other audience is ignorant. But it also works against a theory-heavy approach. If I write a theory-heavy book, many of the sf readers won’t look at it. There are people in the sf community who do get deeply involved with theory – mostly people in academic institutions. But there are a lot of respectable sf critics and scholars who operate outside academia, and they are as theory-resistant as Classicists.
So my approach is theory-aware, but theory-light, at least in terms of what gets onto the page, and aimed at saying something interesting to both Classicists and sf readers. Given the papers I’m having accepted, and now often invited, and the responses I’m getting, this seems to be working.
But as I say, this is all provisional. My attitude to theory has evolved a lot over the past fifteen years, and I have absolutely no doubt that it will evolve again in the future.
Baldick, Chris (2008) The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, 3rd edn.,
Beard, Mary, and
Goldhill, Simon (2004) Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes our Lives,
Hall, Edith (2008) The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey,
Hall, Edith (2008) ‘Putting the class into Classical reception’, in Hardwick, Lorna, and Stray, Christopher (eds.), A Companion to Classical Receptions (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World), Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, pp.386-97. [Online] Available from http://www.rhul.ac.uk/Research/CRGR/files/Classics_and_Class.pdf (Accessed 12 January 2009).
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Henderson, John (2008), review of Lorna Hardwick, Christopher Stray (ed.), A Companion to Classical Receptions, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.38 [Online]. Available from http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2008/2008-08-38.html (Accessed 6 January 2009).
James, Paula (2007) ‘Delapsa per Auras or Bat out of Hell? – comparing and contrasting Glorificus (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Five) with gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon’,
Jauss, Hans Robert (1970) ‘Literary history as a challenge to literary theory’, New Literary History 2.1, pp.7-37 (translated by Elizabeth Benzinger).
Keen, Antony G. (2007) ‘A Flash of Quicksilver: mythology and anti-Nazism in Jack Kirby’s Mercury’,
King, Noel (1998) ‘Hermeneutics, reception aesthetics, and film interpretation’, in Hill, John, and Gibson, Pamela Church (eds.), The Oxford Guide to Film Studies,
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Maltby, Richard (2003) Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, 2nd edn.,
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Martindale, Charles Anthony (2006) ‘Introduction: thinking through reception’, in Martindale, Charles Anthony, and Thomas, Richard F. (eds.) (2006) Classics and the uses of reception,
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McElduff, Siobhán (2006) ‘Fractured understandings: towards a history of Classical reception among non-elite groups’, in Martindale, Charles Anthony, and Thomas, Richard F. (eds.) (2006) Classics and the uses of reception, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 180-91.
Murnaghan, Sheila (2007), review of Charles Martindale, Richard F. Thomas, Classics and the Uses of Reception, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.07.19 [Online]. Available from http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2007/2007-07-19.html (Accessed 6 January 2009).
Nisbet, Gideon (2005) ‘
Nisbet, Gideon (2008) Ancient
Paul, Joanna (2007) ‘
Paul, Joanna (2008) ‘Working with film: theories and methodologies’, in Hardwick, Lorna, and Stray, Christopher (eds.), A Companion to Classical Receptions, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, pp.303-14.
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Wiseman, Peter, Bulley, Michael, and Miller, David (2006) ‘
Wyke, Maria (1997) Projecting the Past: Ancient
 Sometimes, I feel, going over the top. Michael Bulley, for example, asserted that classicists had no need of technical language, which begs the question of how one classifies such terms as ‘anapaests’ and ‘hexameter’, as well as the usages classicists put to such terms as ‘tragedy’ or ‘satire’.
 The personal voice was much promoted as an alternative to dry ‘objective’ scholarship about a decade ago (Compromising Traditions being a key text), but seems rather to have been subsumed into reception studies, at least in Classics.