Wednesday, June 14, 2006

More Books I'll Never Read

Well now let's see if I can tick off ol' Apollodorus with another rant about books I haven't read.

Today's email brought me a review from Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews of a new collection of essays out from Duke University Press: Dale B. Martin, Patricia Cox Miller, The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. Pp. 364. ISBN 0-8223-3422-4. I imagine the title is based on the title of Richard Rorty's collection of essays The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago). The three elements of the subtitle of the newer collection (is it some kind of unwritten rule, by the way, that all academic books must now have subtitles? I can't remember the last time I saw one without one) pick out what have been, arguably, the three biggest areas of emphasis in cultural studies in classics departments since the late 1970s. The element that unites them is what a philosopher might call constructivism, the idea that concepts such as gender, asceticism, and history are in and of themselves cultural constructs and, hence, open to a wide variety of interpretations that are dependent only upon one's cultural milieux. This has the effect of banishing realist normativity from the study of such concepts.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I suspect that gender really is nothing more than a social construct. Asceticism may be, too, for all I know, and history certainly is. But check out this claim from the review:
...the essays make substantive claims about monastic ideology, Christology, clerical and episcopal authority, heresy, Hellenism, individual characters, and the invention of Christian Rome. The essays admirably apply theoretical models to specific exempla, thereby illuminating methodology while simultaneously advancing our understanding of particular subjects and providing numerous insightful readings.
There is an interesting tension here between the deconstructive critique that is almost always at work in such scholarship and the notion of the possibility of "substantive claims", particularly those that claim to "advance our understanding" of anything. You'd think that if we'd learned nothing else from postmodernism it is that there's no such thing as "understanding" as such when it comes to areas of study such as this. I suspect that what our reviewer really means is that he finds these essays interesting to read and, after reading them, he felt as though he knew more than he did before. That is an admirable effect for any collection of scholarly essays to have, but it should probably be embarrassing for this one to have it. Oh well, shame went out the window during the sexual revolution. I mean during the cultural turn.

This is not to say that these essays do not sound interesting in spite of the difficulties that their own methodologies raise for their own results. Here's a good example:
Starting from the recognition that in the world of the monks women were physically absent, but mentally omnipresent, David Brakke accounts for the anomalous instances of the presence of actual women in a place where "there are no women" (p.25). Such rare instances involve a female pretending to be a male monk, whose true gender is revealed only after her death. Since, however, these instances of real women appear in apophthegmata and sayings attributed to Amma Sarah, the "actual" female must be viewed as a discursive construct, who, according to Brakke, ultimately complicates or reinscribes monastic conceptions of gender. For the monks, manliness is performed by resistance to the female. Such accounts reveal the performative character of the real and rhetorical monastic world because they include the discovery (what Brakke calls "materialization") that a female played the role of male.
There's so much equivocation here in just a few sentences on the words "actual" and "real" that it's difficult to distinguish it from self-parody. Buried in there somewhere is the very interesting idea that men who live together in a community sometimes think about women, but the jargonics are rather thick: "manliness is performed by resistance to the female," for example, is really just a way of saying that some men find it macho to put on a show of not thinking about women. This "reveal[s] the performative character of the real and rhetorical monastic world", that is, those monks weren't fooling anybody--we all know they were thinking about women. The proof lies in the "fact" (whatever that is on this account) that a woman snuck into a monastery now and then and pretended to be a man, or at least some later woman outside the monastery told a story according to which that kind of thing happened, but stories and histories are all interchangeable anyway, so what difference does it make. Oh, and don't forget about Pope Joan.

I was a little more excited by the description of an essay from Dennis Trout, perhaps because I know him from Duke. His essay has an archeological flavor:
The tombs of the martyrs become a national cemetery performing a national Christian ideology: whoever stands at the tomb of the martyr beholds a direct link between heaven and earth.
An interesting idea, and true, to boot. I mean in a realist sense of truth. You've always got to add that in these contexts. But wait--there's more:
Damasus's work provides a specific instance of Henri Lefebvre's general observation "that the impulse to civic 'self-presentation and self-representation' readily lodges in sites where death can be both 'represented and rejected'" (p.305). In this sense then, Damasus is like a new Augustus and new Livy.
Don't go too far, now, he's like a new Augustus and a new Livy. Presumably we're told, somewhere, how Augustus and Livy represented and rejected death and, more importantly, why they're the ones to compare Damasus to.

In short, you gotta love this stuff because it plays on both sides of the street: it champions underdetermination like no other discipline, only without saying so, only to put on a studied ignorance of the phenomenon when drawing inferences. In fact, why draw inferences when mere assertion will do? Inferences are for realist saps; real men, when they're not thinking about women, or just dressing like them, go for heartfelt avowal every time.

Fun fact: the review was written by a Rabbi. Read the whole thing here.

4 comments:

Apollodorus said...

Oh, you've done it again.

I have been surprised, since I began gradudate work, at the level of hostility towards 'theory' among many of my fellow graduate students. Typically, the hostility is due to the simple fact that they do not like what some approach makes out of their favorite author, or what it suggests about how culture really works, or they just don't understand it. At any rate, their criticisms tend not to be as sophisticated as yours. That said, I think your criticisms might be a little bit unfair, in a few senses anyway.

Plenty of people, critics and proponents of 'theory' alike, sometimes fail to acknowledge that recognizing that certain cultural categories are constructed through a very complex process of discourse and action does not necessarily commit us to saying that our interpretations of those constructs are arbitrary or unable to be evaluated for their accuracy. There are a good number of people writing in classical studies who take it as their primary goal to show how certain constructs are constructed and negotiated, and they quite openly make arguments that they expect to be amenable to rational evaluation. There is no necessary connection between employing theoretical models that take cultural categories as 'constructs' and believing that interpretation is an arbitrary matter.

It might be appropriate at times (often, I'd say) to fault scholars for failing to consider the truth of some particular construct, and the regular failure to do so does, I think, come from the general lack of belief that any of these constructs could possibly be 'true.' Some people might assume that the very idea of a 'construct' implies that the idea of truth is inapplicable, but I'm not sure that's the case. Surely it is possible to say, for instance, that early Christian discourse about the nature of Christ gave rise to several distinct Christological constructions which were in tension and competition and that some one or another of these constructions, or some elements of some of them, were actually correct about the nature of Christ. Cultural analysis of that sort can be more revealing than a strictly theological study, since it will not be looking to find out only what was actually true, or only what the theological positions articulated by the Church Fathers were, but how various different 'constructions' of the nature of Christ were deployed by Christians outside the context of attempts to make such concepts clear. The question becomes: how did the ideas that people had effect the way that they lived and communicated? Socio-rhetorical analysis can be extremely insightful even if we do believe that there's a truth in the matter at hand.

That said, there's also a lot of flopping around among classicists about whether or not anything can be true, and I suspect that ultimately this has a lot to do with the fact that classics is a deeply pluralistic discipline populated largely by people who are unwilling to engage the various, contradictory theoretical models that different scholars use to a careful theoretical -- could we say philosophical? -- analysis. I do wish that people were more careful and critical, but the plurality of different approaches does make classics exciting, at least.

Scott Carson said...

There is no necessary connection between employing theoretical models that take cultural categories as 'constructs' and believing that interpretation is an arbitrary matter.

I'd say that this goes without saying, actually, but since you've said it I'll point out only that my view is not that there is any such necessary connection but only that once you've committed yourself to the kind of anti-realism that these folks have committed themselves to the process of determining what is what is not constructed is entirely arbitrary.

My own post was nicely nuanced in just this way, since I arbitrarily selected just those parts of the review that I wanted to be petulant about.

Apollodorus said...

Well, I thought it went without saying, too, but plenty of people in the Humanities seem not to get it. The word 'construct' seems to insinuate falsity in many people's writing, and I can't count how many times I've had someone object to some argument I've made by saying, "But you're just constructing [insert relevant, or not so relevant, item here]..."

So, now that I've said what goes without saying, the only real point left is another one that should also go without saying, namely that "these people" who talk about cultural constructs have not necessarily committed themselves to a kind of anti-realism that makes interpretation arbitrary. Some very loud constructivists have also been very loud anti-realists, but there are plenty of people who are constructivists about culture yet really do believe that some statements and theories are better than others, that we can get things right or wrong, and that truth is a whole lot more than mere 'justification before one's peers,' as Richard Rorty puts it.

All I'm really saying is, it's mean to overgeneralize. Be nice. ;-)

Scott Carson said...

Well, maybe I should say something that shouldn't be said...or, I mean, say something that's not obvious, or something:

there are plenty of people who are constructivists about culture yet really do believe that some statements and theories are better than others, that we can get things right or wrong, and that truth is a whole lot more than mere 'justification before one's peers,' as Richard Rorty puts it.

When you start citing Richard Rorty as an example of something that's supposed to make sense of some view or other, you know you're in trouble. Do you really think that this position that you've just described makes any sense? I frankly don't see how these folks can have it their way.

But what do you expect from a stupid realist? I guess I just don't get it, man.