Thursday, January 21, 2016

Reception and the classics

Reception Studies

The end of the twentieth century signaled the emergence of a new (or at least newish) methodology in classical studies.

This is the trend known as Reception Studies.   The approach stems from group of German literary scholars of the School of Konstanz with Wolfgang Iser and Hans-Robert Jauss as leading figures. These scholars advanced the concept of reader-response criticism.  In a nutshell, the idea is this.  Up to now literary studies have focused on three things: source-spotting; the biography of the creator: and the process of composing the work.  Left out is what may be the most crucial aspect at all: the way the individual reader constitutes the work in the actual task of reading it, which is primarily a silent, individual endeavor.  This is the act of Reception.

The drawback of this method as originally formulated is that it may lead to critical anarchy.  How can one know which readerly approach is best if everything is in the care of the individual consumer, with all of his or her quirks and penchants?  As the Latin proverb has it, Quot homines, tot sententiae. 

Thus there is a swirl of competing interpretations, as each act of reading potentially occasions a new one.  This reign of subjectivity fostered a reformulation of the issue, recognizing that the effort of decoding the work is not just a matter of individual caprice, as it were, for such judgments respond to overarching factors that are collective in nature.  These factors include the subculture of academics (who continue to occupy the commanding heights), gender, social class, ideology, and fashion.

An early formulation of this issue is due to an American professor of English, Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in This Class, 1980).  This is the idea that there are interpretive communities.  Embracing the relativistic implications of the reader-response theory, Fish posits that a text does not have meaning apart from an overarching set of cultural assumptions.  This context includes authorial intent, though it is not limited to it.  He claims that we as individuals interpret texts because each of us is part of an interpretive community that supplies us with a particular way of reading a text.  This is so, he holds, even though we may not be fully aware of the nature of this collective endeavor and the way it shapes our perceptions,

There is also a diachronic aspect, because over the course of time different emphases are dominant.  Originally, Dante was read in Italy as a great genius who reshaped the Italian language as an instrument for expounding his profound religious and patriotic commitments.  Then in the 17th and 18th centuries the poet came under fire for his nonconformity with neoclassic ideals of literary correctness, as well as for his purported obscurantism.  After 1800 the Romantics rediscovered him as a passionate precursor. 

Thus there are three Dantes - and more.  This medieval example shows that the concept lends itself to any past cultural manifestation that we regard as valuable.  Yet in this study the issues stem from classical reception - the reception of Homer, the Pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, Vergil, Lucretius, and many other authors.  The approach may also address works of sculpture, painting, and architecture.

Reception Studies seeks to delineate this pluralism.  It has something in common with the older idea of “our classical heritage,” sometimes phrased as the Legacy of Ancient Greece and Rome, though it regards such this concepts too passive and too closely tied to the flattering idea that classical works are unchanging, inviolate paradigms of splendor.  Then there is the idea of our debt to ancient Greece and Rome.  All these metaphors - heritage, legacy, and debt are ultimately rooted in economics.

Two languages that have been major vehicles of classical scholarship yield more vital metaphors.  In German one speaks of the Nachleben of the classics, sometimes rendered as survival, but the original term is vitalistic: the classics live on.  But do they live on just as they are, or is there some quality of the supernatural?  That is they are revenants.  Continuing life is also implicit in the Italian term fortuna, though this term suggests precariousness, for the turns of the Wheel of Fortune can be capricious.  Ultimately, this term may be rooted in the Greek tyche, though this implies good fortune.

For its part, the Latin language gives us the tool of Traditio, or handing down. This time-honored concept also elides the decisive role of the consumer who in effect reshapes the work as he or she assimilates it.

In his perceptive book on Sophocles entitled “Oedipus at Thebes,” 1957, the Hellenist Bernard Knox has encapsulated the older view that the Reception approach challenges.  “What does [the Oedipus Tyrannus”] mean to us now? And the answer suggested is: the same thing it meant to them, there, then. For in this case the attempt to understand the play as a particular phenomenon reveals its universal nature, the rigidly historical method finds itself uncovering the timeless.”  This is a confidence few would endorse nowadays, as we recognize that all efforts to recover the mentality and if you will the message of works conceived long ago in a society very different from our own are frought with uncertainty.  Moreover, Knox’s own views were colored by his own experiences.  As a US Army soldier he fought in Italy in World War II.  The success of that effort encouraged some in the belief that in the radiant postwar era we were founding a new, juster world order.  And the classics would take their place among the pillars of that order.

Reception studies proceeds from very different premises.  We can have no confidence that we can recover - and then endorse - the true meaning of any work that has come down to us from the past.  

Yet it may be that Reception bears the traits of is own era, the mentality that can be broadly termed postmodernism.  In this view everything is fluid and transitional. There is no stable reality to be recovered from the past, only changing perceptions.

Like the approaches that preceded it, Reception Studies is prone to narrowness.  It is a new broom that sweeps too efficiently, carrying away earlier findings that we should still honor.  Conversely, in diluted form it may be said to embrace the whole of classical studies - an expansiveness that has been termed a Greedy Set.

While the emphasis on Reception of classical exemplars is particularly characteristic of the opening years of the 21st century, the interest is not entirely new.  For a long time a version of this pursuit had been exemplified by the somewhat lonely efforts of London’s Warburg Institute.

The Institute traces its origins to the Hamburg library of Aby Warburg (1866-1929), an innovative scholar of Renaissance art and culture who was a scion of a distinguished Jewish family.  In 1900 Warburg decided to establish the Warburg-Bibliothek für Kulturwissenschaft, a large private library, built around issues stemming from the classical survival.  The Library was funded privately, for Aby Warburg famously forfeited his right to a share of his fortune on condition that his younger brother Max would buy him any books he required,  

In 1933, under the shadow of Nazism, the facility migrated to England, where it came under the aegis of the University of London.  Today, the Warburg Institute maintains a research library of more than 350,000 items. These volumes, except for a small number of rare and valuable books, are kept on open shelves where they are accessible to all users. The Institute also maintains a large photographic collection, together with the personal archives of Aby Warburg. The Institute is notable for its unusual reference system, for the collection is arranged by subject according to Warburg's division of human history into the categories of Action, Orientation, Word, and Image. 

The Warburg Institute has never attracted many students, and from time to time its funding has come under review. Some would say for good reason. Even though its mission was defined as the study of the classical tradition, it failed to shift with the times.  Warburg himself had been interested in the occult aspects of the Renaissance tradition, a pursuit continued with great distinction into the 1960s and 70s by Frances Yates.  Yet the Institute disdained the Counterculture of that era.  More recently it has shown no real interest in the bonding of the classical tradition with modernism, including popular culture.  This neglect left room for the emergence of other institutions and groupings of scholars which, especially in Britain, have risen to prominence.

Time will tell whether the current version of Reception Studies will revitalize classics - or merely give their decline new gloss.


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