The Classics in Dialogue: Bringing New Voices to an Old Discipline

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Saturday, October 25 the Department of Classics will hold a symposium aimed at broadening the perceptions of what classics is and bringing the classics into conversation with the contemporary world. The Daily Gazette met with organizers Grace Ledbetter and Jeremy Lefkowitz to learn more.

This interview-style symposium was conceived as a natural corollary to the Martin-Ostwald Lecture the day before the symposium, at which the world-renowned Dutch classicist Ineke Sluiter will be speaking. Normally the speaker for that lecture gives a smaller class the next day, but this year, Classics professors Ledbetter and Lefkowitz decided to organize a more ambitious event where they brought more speakers to talk about one simple prompt: talk about how their work relates to Greco-Roman antiquity.

The speakers for this symposium are Patty Chang, a well-known New York artist with a series on Narcissus, Benjamin Tiven ‘01, a digital media artist and Swarthmore classics major whose work is influenced by theory on Plato and Homer, Emmanuelle Delpech, a performer and director who has directed modernized versions of Oedipus, and Ineke Sluiter, a leading authority on classics at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Ledbetter said, “The fact that some of the most famous contemporary artists have work influenced by antiquity to me is unexpected and really interesting. [Patty Chang] is not a classicist. But here she is in her other world in art doing something with it. To me it’s really exciting to see what somebody completely outside of our field who really uses it, who’s really involved in the material in their intellectual artistic work, values about it.”

The interdisciplinary approach to this symposium parallels a shift in the broader discipline. In the past 30 years, classicists have observed a major change in how they approach their study. Previously a narrow, somewhat inaccessible field where a student needed to take up to four years of Greek or Latin to really engage in the field, now the department has revamped its program to include Classical Studies, where students can learn about classics without having to take high-level Greek and Latin classes. For example, Lefkowitz taught the College’s first Classical Studies Honors Seminar where instead of translating plays from Greek, students learned about drama in performance and examined the staging, costuming decisions, and other more technical details of modern adaptations of Greek plays.

“When we switched to the classical studies model, we can read a play that takes 90 minutes to read in English and then all of a sudden, we’re liberated to explore all kinds of things, like what happened in South Africa when they staged Antigone and what are some other non-European voices that have been involved in classical interpretation? It’s not just interdisciplinarity, but also polyvocality, hearing more voices and having those voices be a part of the conversation of what we’re doing.” Lefkowitz said.

“You have to understand that classicists like to be very conservative and to not be terribly interested in what a contemporary artist does with classical mythology or what a contemporary theater director does with an Oedipus play, like how she reinterprets it and puts it in a contemporary setting. So this will be new.” Ledbetter said.

At Swarthmore, the paradigm shift mostly came about 10 years ago when the English classicist Edith Hall visited Swarthmore to talk about a class she taught on the reception of Greek tragedy. This inspired Ledbetter to rethink her Plato class and focus more on how others have interpreted Plato in subsequent years. This turn to emphasize “reception,” or the way in which modern scholars, artists, directors, and others have interpreted the classics is much of what has motivated the creation of the Classics in Dialogue Symposium.

Ledbetter said, “There was zero of this when I was in grad school. In the last 20 years, it has opened up classics because instead of just studying antiquity, people study everything subsequent to antiquity. Look at the way Virginia Woolf talked about Greek literature and what she thought was important. Look at the whole history of Renaissance art. All this used to be looked at as an illustration of a myth, but now, art historians or classicists look at it as an iteration of the myth.”

This symposium also argues for the continued relevance of the classics in the modern day. In his larger body of work, Lefkowitz grapples with the relevance of the classics: “For some reason, we end up with a very narrow conception of what relevance can mean. We end up thinking of very practical, almost monetary relevance. ‘How can this lead to a profitmaking future? How can this be applied?’ I think classicists and humanists can get a little bit nervous about that because really it’s not about an applied skill. The relevance of the material is intellectual relevance. It’s about ideas. It’s about understanding the world. It’s not about putting something to a direct application.”

He continued, “We should instead be more robust in our insistence that being attuned to the world around us and all the aesthetic experiences around us, understanding where they come from and what their past is, just being engaged with ideas a world apart, those are more important things than any applicable practical skill.”

“Rather than get bogged down in defending the classics or the humanities or the liberal arts in general, wouldn’t it be interesting to simply talk to people who are thinking about the ancient world in more different ways than we can imagine and just listen to what they have to say?” Lefkowitz said.

One might think this event would only appeal to classics majors, but Ledbetter disagrees. “The truth is that this will be automatically relevant to people not in the classics world–the question is whether they will see that. [This symposium] is really coming at classics from the angle of an outsider,” she said. The symposium bears implications for all topics within the liberal arts: Ledbetter and Lefkowitz hope this symposium might provide a template for how to conduct a cross-discipline dialogue for all departments, not just classics. It helps that the classics department already overlaps with a number of other fields, such as history, religion, literature, political science, and philosophy.

Ledbetter said, “In this symposium, we’re looking for the less obvious connections. Every classics department has at least one ancient historian; there’s your connection to history. Archaeology and religion are both well-known, established connections. But classics and contemporary art? Classics and contemporary theater? That’s really what we’re after.”

This symposium is hopefully the first in a series of symposia held by the classics department about the relationship between classics and other fields. For example, Ledbetter mentioned this coming spring the department may host an event in conjunction with Asian Studies about parallels between ancient Greek and ancient Chinese culture, focusing on the writings of Socrates and Confucius.

In short, the symposium hopes to accomplish a number of goals, including revolutionizing the study of classics by studying the “reception” of antiquity, bringing in previously unheard voices, and most importantly, saving the classics, and perhaps the liberal arts as a whole, from the mounting accusations of irrelevance.

“It’s sort of an eccentric, radical thing to slow down and say ‘I want to know what happened a long time ago.’ There’s all these forces pushing us not to look back, whether it’s market-driven forces or just pressures from family, pressures from society. […] This fits into our department’s larger vision these days of trying to show students in as many ways as possible how much antiquity is still around us, how inescapable the classical past is.” said Lefkowitz.

The symposium will be held on Saturday, October 25th in Sci 101.

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