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.