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To the edges of normality: Argonauts and the diversity of Classics

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Helen Lovatt, Professor of Classics at the University of Nottingham, spoke at our 2017 AGM on ‘To the Edges of Normality: Myth, Reception and Argonauts’; this blog post is based on that talk. You can also find Prof. Lovatt on Twitter.

In a recent Eidolon article, Johanna Hanink calls for a new discipline of ‘Critical Classical Reception Studies’, that challenges Eurocentric models of the Classical Tradition. Hanink emphasises that we should not overstate the case for the importance of Greek and Roman civilisations in world culture. But she does also acknowledge that:

‘Certain classicists, of course, are already working to disrupt, interrogate, and critique the Eurocentrism of the authorized narratives of Greco-Roman antiquity and its tradition. It’s what scholars who work on ancient connectivity and cosmopolitanism, and on non-canonical classical periods, authors, and texts, have been doing for years.’

This critical mode is exactly what the WCC day on diversity and Classics was trying to encourage. My contribution is really from the perspective of someone who has always brought the non-canonical into contact with the highly canonised. When I first decided to work on Statius, my director of studies looked incredulous and rather horrified. Now, of course, it is hardly a controversial choice, and the Oxford University Press book stall at the 2017 Classical Association conference had a special display of commentaries on Flavian epic.

My contribution to ‘Critical Classics’, if we want to call it that, in this post, is to remind ourselves that Classics is already a vast, varied and diverse discipline. For every ‘Great Man’ module there is another on slavery or sexuality. Classics is important because it includes many different things: it is an area study of the ancient Mediterranean, not just Greece and Rome, but also the Near East, North Africa, the Celts. It is not just literature, but linguistics, epigraphy, palaeography, material culture, visual culture, philosophy, history. Chronologically it ranges from pre-history to the present day (via reception studies), with a central focus on the millennia either side of the birth of Christ. The interactions between Classics and other cultures is also fascinating, but Classics is not in great demand at the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus, and this is not particularly surprising. Real collaboration and engagement between cultures, which does not impose, but allows dialogue, is an exciting area for the future: the Globalizing Ovid conference which is taking place at Shanghai at the end of May 2017 looks like a promising example of this.

The Argonaut myth is a particularly interesting one for approaching the diversity of Classics. It takes its start from the fragmentary beginnings of myth and the difficult questions of the relationship with myths of earlier cultures, mostly in the Near East. It enshrines narratives of colonisation, but questions and problematises them (the Argonauts are sent by a Greek tyrant to steal from a matching Eastern tyrant in an advanced civilisation elsewhere). It is used as an image of exploration by those who colonised the Americas. It puts centre stage the importance of sexuality in contrast to war, and leaves heroism to the barbarian woman. It is re-used in a myriad of ways for a myriad of purposes in all sorts of cultural contexts. It is particularly important in less valorised cultural contexts, such as genre fiction and children’s literature.

Another research question to add to my list: how European is the Argonaut myth? Can we tell a non-Eurocentric version of it? Where are the boundaries of Europe anyway? Technically the Argonauts precisely depart from Europe when they cross the Bosphorus. But if they are still in the Hellenic sphere of influence, what difference does that make?

Rather than policing how we speak about our subject and its importance, how about letting the richness and complexity of the material make its own case. Let us keep bringing out the less well-travelled parts of Classics and re-reading Classics from different perspectives, as intersectional feminists who also care about the ancient world.

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