Pasts Imperfect (11.18.21)

Cancel Culture, Immoral Artists, and More

While some established scholars complain about “cancel culture” and dabble in making fake universities, Nandini Pandey points out that we can do more to dethrone abusive scholars and protect their victims. Next, Sarah Derbew discusses “Mapping Black Antiquity,” Jinyu Liu underscores the challenges of translating Latin into Mandarin, medievalists ponder a newly unearthed bead mislabeled a Bible, and much more!

This week, in her first Pasts Imperfect column, Nandini Pandey asks whether we can separate the art from the artist or the scholarship from the scholar in the world of Classics—and academia in general. Pandey homes in on the ethical dilemmas that many academics face within professional cultures that force us to tread carefully around known abusers. In a week that saw the debut of a new university dedicated to truth and free expression—despite many institutions already making the same claim—we are reminded of the ongoing conflict between claims of “cancel culture,” on the one hand, and movements for more inclusive, justice-driven universities, on the other. 

It is easy to make jokes about fake universities, the rhetoric of “cancel culture,” and the panic it inspires. It may seem farcical until we realize how much damage this fear-mongering is doing to our institutions and our world. White men and women in positions of authority are those very individuals most frequently heard lamenting that they just can’t say what they want anymore. Most of those who signed on to the risible University of Austin, ironically, did so without sacrificing their large paychecks and institutional prestige. They claim they want unfettered free speech.

The flip side of this coin is the fact that there is a real and ongoing war on certain marginalized perspectives: the banning of Critical Race Theory in our schools; the denial of rights to transgender people; the national conservative effort to preserve only certain kinds of speech for certain kinds of people; and the preservation of a decidedly illiberal elite, supporting white supremacy in politics and the academy.

Here we find a particular  rhetorical tool I’ve been trying to name for some time that is a favorite of certain political operatives: accuse your opponents of doing the bad thing you’re actually doing to obscure the whole affair and evade responsibility by distraction. I could call it “the Trump”, but I prefer to make up my own Latin fallacy: the tu quoque sed primum, or, the “You Did it First!” 

In actuality, the brouhaha over “cancel culture” isn’t about free speech. It’s a McCarthyite panic aimed at protecting those in positions of authority from consequences for their use of structural power to marginalize others. Actual free speech is about responsibility as well as accountability.

When we talk about “cancel culture” and the ancient world, we too often buy into sensationalist claims. This is certainly true with the accusation that Homer is being cancelled. Too often we refuse to look at the myriad ways we are complicit in perpetuating harm and not holding one another and ourselves accountable. I suspect that the disciplines that study the premodern world aren’t worse in any meaningful ways than others, but the last year alone has seen prominent cases of abuse by senior scholars in Medieval Studies, Classics, and Biblical Studies as well.

Many of these abusers are protected by our most prestigious institutions. To be honest, universities are fundamentally conservative institutions. Our recidivism rests on some fallacious fears. From the way we shape students in our images to the way we hire and promote, we fear any change that might detract from our own power. Sharing power, then, undermines our intellectual authority by acknowledging that other ways of viewing the world matter.

But institutions are made up of people. If some angry cranks want to create a safe space for their own speech, maybe we should let them. As for the rest of us, we can follow Nandini’s lead and start by recognizing that we have the power to change our culture of complicity. (—Joel Christensen)

Read Prof. Pandey’s column here.

Seen On the Web

On the Black Perspectives website, Sarah Derbew discusses “Mapping Black Antiquityand the need to spotlight ancient Blackness in context. Look for her forthcoming book, Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity, in late Spring 2022.

In sum, ancient Greek sources deliver a variety of messages that surpass the erroneous “Black = enslaved” trope. I have put Greek antiquity in dialogue with recent histories to circumvent the wholesale importation of modern biases into the past. That is, the literary and visual culture of Greek antiquity is replete with iterations of Blackness that predate racism, and contemporary thinkers who engage with this material are poised to strip racism of its historical legitimacy while also democratizing Blackness in antiquity.

Over at Augustana College, student journalist Etta Brooks speaks to Jinyu Liu about “Translating Classics to Mandarin.

“Cross-cultural translation promotes intercultural awareness in two meaningful ways: it reduces misunderstandings between cultures and enriches cultures,” Liu said. “Translation is a dynamic process. There is no such thing as a word-for-word translation, and the translator has a lot of decisions to make.”

At Hyperallergic, Medievalist Kathleen Kennedy discusses the mislabeling of a new 15th century bead as a “Bible”—and why correcting this mistake matters.

The false stories run by the BBC and tabloids reinforce myths about a drab, bookless, ignorant Middle Ages. Instead, the bead highlights how common books were by the later Middle Ages, and how wealthy were the middle classes, who spent liberally to adorn themselves with colors and gold.

In Past & Present, Peter Sarris has just published an open-access article on “New Approaches to the Plague of Justinian” in the 6th century CE exploring fresh approaches to the nature and significance of the pandemic.

Our partner LARB has published a barnstormer of a piece by Naomi Kanakia, “The Myth of the Classically Educated Elite,” where she explores her own attraction to the classics and the fiction that elite rulers from the past and today have actually been shaped by canonized literature. While her conclusion that most of it can be ignored will alarm many, her argument resonates with what others have been saying about the dangers of classical aesthetics and the myths of our well-educated elite.

New Online Journal Issues curated by @YaleClassicsLib
Afrique: Archéologie & Arts Vol. 17 (2021) #openaccess
Greek, Roman & Byzantine Studies Vol. 61, No. 4 (2021) #openaccess NB: “Dyed in Virtue: The Qur’ān and Plato’s Republic” by Juan Cole
Gephyra Vol. 22 (2021) #openaccess NB: “Surveiller le territoire des cités d’Asie mineure aux époques hellénistique et impériale: aspects administratifs, financiers et fiscaux” by Cedric Berlaz
Oxford Journal of Archaeology Vol. 40, No. 4 (November 2021)
Classical Receptions Journal Vol. 13, No. 4 (October 2021) NB: “Not cricket, not classics? A case study in the limits of reception” by Ayelet Haimson Lushkov
Archäologischer Anzeiger 1. Halbband (2021) #openaccess
Journal of Greek Linguistics Vol. 21, No. 2 (2021) #openaccess NB: “The Homeric Dependency Lexicon: What it is and How to Use It” by Chiara Zanchi
Early Science and Medicine Vol. 26, No. 3 (2021) NB: “The Colorless History of Pseudo-Aristotle’s De coloribus” by Lisa Devriese
Illinois Classical Studies Vol. 45, No. 2 (Fall 2020) Costume Change in the Comedies of Aristophanes
Bibliotheca Orientalis Vol. 78, nos. 1-2 (2021)


The Public Books section "Antiquities" continues to take pitches for articles to be published in early 2022. You can also pitch to our “Pasts Imperfect” column at the LA Review of Books using this form. Thanks for reading!

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