Friday, March 9, 2018

Classical Studies and Reception Theory

I'm not sure how well I understand various literary theories. It may be that I am far below average when it comes to my ability to grasp them. I do, after all, officially have a mental disability, and this may be one example of it.

On the other hand, it may be that I understand literary theories better than almost anyone, and that above all, I understand how stupid and sad they all are, and how thoroughly there is no there there. Or it may be that my aptitude in understanding literary theories is about average.

It may be by far the most prudent to assume that the first of these possibilities is the case, that I have an unusually hard time distinguishing my discourse analysis from my post-modernism, and that therefore I should proceed very carefully. (I must apologize, and clarify in advance: I have not promised that I will proceed carefully, just acknowledged that I should.) For example, when I say that reception theory, extremely popular in the past several decades in Classical Studies (and perhaps in the academic study of literature more generally, I don't know), seems to me to consist of the study of the tradition of the Classics, which was a part of Classical Studies long before anyone called anything reception theory, plus a lot of pretentious malarkey, I ought to hasten to underscore that that's how it it seems to me, and that a lot of people with much more cred than I have gone on at great length about how it's actually a whole lot more than that,

and that I am the source of the malarkey here. Far be it from me to rule out, categorically, that my writing consists primarily of malarkey.

If I understand it correctly, the study of Classical Literature can be seen figuratively as movement in two opposite directions: the editor of a Classical text uses the evidence, mostly manuscripts of the primary text, to approach, as nearly as he or she can, the text as the author intended it. In the case of an ancient text which survives in a great number of manuscripts, one of the tasks of the editor is to eliminate from consideration those manuscripts which do not contribute to the establishment of the text. For example, if it is proven that an entire group of manuscripts derive entirely from another existing manuscript, than that entire group may be of very little or no interest to the editor in his capacity as editor. The study of that text's tradition, on the other hand, starts with the author and travels in the opposite figurative direction, studying the ways in which the author's text has reached readers directly via manuscripts and printed edition, and indirectly via translations, and other literary works which imitate or otherwise make reference to the first one, and also in other media such as visual art, music, movies and what have you. No matter how many manuscripts of one text there may be, it's somewhat harder to say that any of them are of no interest whatsoever in studying the text's tradition. Not to mention printed editions and translations, which may be of interest in editing a text as well, but primarily in cases where the other manuscripts are missing or have gaps or mistakes which cannot otherwise be remedied.

It seems to me that both of these directions, if you will, are perfectly natural ways of studying Classical literature. (Ah. I might as well mention now, in case I forget to later, that reception theory has greatly increased the number of texts which are considered to belong to the Classical canon -- mostly by including works composed at later dates.) Traditionally, more weight was given by Classical scholars to the editing of text, and the constant effort to improve upon previous editions. Editing texts was the dog, and study of the transmission was the tail.

Reception theory says that studying the transmission of the texts is the proper focus of literary study, the dog itself, with textual editing being relegated to the role of the tail. Except that reception theory goes farther, and claims that there is nothing of significance to be studied before that interaction of text and reader: the reception.

Except that they go farther, and seem to be, in some instances, quite hostile to the editors. And here, if not sooner, is where reception theory begins to seem like malarkey to me, because if the text with which the reader interacts is not rigorously defined in some way, such as, oh, for instance, its relationship to the text which the author wrote -- not the only way in which a text can be defined, to be sure, but a valid example! -- then we're no longer talking about the text at all, but anything and everything, which is to say: we're talking about nothing.

It may be that before reception theory, the editors went too far in dismissing the effect of the text which they constantly strove to improve. It seems to me that both editing and study the transmission are perfectly natural things to do, and that there's no need to choose between one or the other, or to decide which one is the dog and which the mere tail. I'm more temperamentally inclined toward studying the transmission in all of its sometimes vast variety. But I'm convinced that both directions, inward toward one imagined original text and outward into all of its sometimes far-flung effects and permutations, are essential parts of studying Classical literature.

I suppose it's much easier for me to say the latter than it is for academics, who have to argue over syllabi and degree requirements and so forth.

Still: Reception theory often presents itself, in so many words, as a "provocation" to more traditional approached to Classical Studies. Maybe there was a great deal lacking in earlier approaches to the Classics, which called for a radical break.

Maybe. Still, it is very easy to provoke, and to have provoked, to have upset someone, is far from a guarantee that one has said anything of any worth. The latter is not necessarily so easy.

I don't know very many of the players involved. I worry that reception theory may be discounting the worth of scholarly editing, which would be disastrous if reception theory proves to be more than a passing fad. But perhaps I misunderstand completely, and the provocation of which reception theory seems so proud is a provocation of which it should be proud: for example, it it's a challenge to entrenched tendencies of sexism and racism and other forms of bigotry within Classical Studies.


  1. Hmm, a reader of your post might get the impression that you think that "the study of Classical Literature" consists entirely in studying manuscripts. Is this what you think? Is this even remotely true?

  2. I'm not trying to define what Classical Studies is. I have repeatedly mentioned that I am an amateur, unfamiliar with what goes on in Classics departments in universities, and that all that I am trying to convey on my blog is my own personal experience.