Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Two seminars and a review article

I spent yesterday at Masks, Echoes, Shadows: Locating Classical Receptions in the Cinema.  This was a conference organised by Jo Paul and Anastasia Bakogianni of the Open University, aiming to look at less obvious receptions of Classics in movies, i.e. not things set in the ancient world, like Gladiator or 300, but movies using, or apparently using, classical themes in other settings.  Like Jo, who expressed this opinion in her excellent review article in the 2010 issue of Classical Receptions Journal, I am a little suspicious of identifying similar themes in two separate texts, and saying that one is a reception of the other.  For a start, I think this is territorialising, attempting to suborn other fields of study to the interests of Classics.  We Classicists have a habit of doing this, and I'm not sure it's done us a lot of favours in the past.

I also worry that once one similarity between two texts is identified, it can be too easy to go look for other similarities, and impose them upon the texts.  For instance, there is a clear similarity between Virgil's Aeneid and both versions of Battlestar Galactica  - there is a very long war locked in stalemate, which is won by one side with a ruse, leaving a few survivors from the other to flee for a new home that they have been promised in prophecy.  But not everything in the Aeneid is then repeated in Galactica - people have been looking for a Dido figure in BSG, but I don't believe there is one there.

However, Ricardo Apostol made a very interesting point in his paper on Horace and Black Swan; if readers want to see a link between a Classical text and a modern one, who are we to deny them this?  I can see this point - I have no problem with, say, using Steptoe and Son to help explain Aristophanes' Knights, without implying that I believe that Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were thinking of Attic Old Comedy when they created Albert and Harold. 

It becomes more of a problem when one starts suggesting authorial intent for these receptions on tenuous grounds.  I suspect Apostol's not interested in authorial intent anyway.  I have more regard for it - I've never fully held with 'the death of the author', as creative texts are the products of human beings, who clearly had intentions, though I am sympathetic to the idea that authorial intentions and context shouldn't be the only considerations when responding to a text.

I also am concerned about the solipsism of this a bit.  If a reception is apparent to me personally, does it have any value for anyone else?  Possibly not, but if I am going to write about it, I must believe that it does, otherwise why bother communicating this?

Anyway, an excellent day, enhanced by the fact that the afternoon's papers were all on science fiction.

The second seminar is the online e-seminar of the Classical Receptions Studies Network. This has been put together by Jessica Hughes of the OU and Alastair Blanchard of the University of Sydney. The object of the seminar is to compile a list of resources for Classical Reception scholars in the area in which they wish to study the receptions, to which end a number of experts in those fields (or people like me who straddle disciplinary boundaries) have been asked to contribute some suggestions for initial reading. My contribution is, of course, the page on science fiction. I've always said that reception scholars need to work both in Classics and in the field of the reception, and there's really no way round some solid hard work here. But this seminar should help. Go have a look and make some comments. I've already had some good feedback on my page.

The review article is Brett Rogers and Ben Stevens' 'Classical receptions in science fiction'. I knew this was coming, and had, to be honest, some trepidations - what if I didn't like it, or disagreed radically with their theoretical approach? I have a chapter in their forthcoming Classical Traditions in SF, and that could have been awkward. Fortunately, I liked this piece a lot. They engage with sf scholarship in the form of Adam Roberts and Darko Suvin, and whilst there are some odd gaps in the bibliography (such as citing Istvan Csicsery-Ronay's original 'Seven Beauties' article from Science Fiction Studies, rather than the more recent book), in a field as big as sf studies this is hardly surprising.

Their article ends with seven desiderata for the study of Classical reception in sf. I can see why a survey volume that does for sf what Jon Solomon's The Ancient World in the Cinema did for the movies might appear to be something that is needed, but I'm not sure it's possible - the field is already too diverse (to be honest, I'm not sure an update of Solomon, which is already a decade out of date, is practical now either). I'm certainly not interested in writing such a work. And I think the necessity for such a book is removed by their second desideratum, an online database of Classical receptions in sf.  The other desiderata  all seem sensible, and I certainly strongly agree that people interested in Classical receptions in sf need to get out and go to the sf conferences and conventions and present there, something I've been doing for the last decade or so.

Overall, this article has spurred me to get on with my own books in the field, the forthcoming Martial's Martians and Other Stories, which will collect a number of papers I've written on various aspect of this, and a follow-up, tentatively entitled From Constantine to Palpatine, which will be a more theoretical approach.

While I'm here, I should plug a few other events.  The BFI is running a short season of television versions of Greek drama.This has been curated by Amanda Wrigley. I've been peripherally involved - Amanda was kind enough to invite me to be her viewing buddy in the BFI archives on a couple of occasions. And I shall be speaking at the associated symposium, on the sf aesthetic in The Serpent Son. And I can't go to this event (because I shall be teaching an earlier iteration of this course), but it looks really good, and I encourage others to go and tell me what I've missed.


Juliette said...

Sorry I missed the seminar yesterday. I was particularly interested in the Black Swan paper - I love that film but have never thought to connect it to Classics!

I'm reading Paula's book on Pygmalion for review at the moment, and I'm starting to thaw a little bit towards some of the broader sorts of association. And in Pygmalion's case there is a firm Classical thread - later films might not know Ovid, but they are all relating intertextually to My Fair Lady and Pygmalion, so there's a sort of causal link there. For the most part, though, like you, I'm wary of anything not clearly and deliberately inspired by Classical material. And I'm so glad it's not just me who doesn't entirely believe in the death of the author!

Tony Keen said...

I'm reading that too - we should compare notes.