Catherine Conybeare is Leslie Clark Professor in the Humanities and Chair of Greek, Latin and Classical Studies at Bryn Mawr College. She recently guest-edited a special issue of UC Press’s journal Classical Antiquity responding to Bonnie Honig’s book A Feminist Theory of Refusal (Harvard, 2021).
The Bacchae, Euripides’s fifth-century tragedy, famously depicts the wine god Dionysus and the women who follow him as indolent, drunken, mad. But Bonnie Honig sees the women differently. They reject work, not out of laziness, but because they have had enough of women’s routine obedience.—From Harvard University Press’s introduction to A Feminist Theory of Refusal.
UCP: What do classicists owe to the world in which they practice the discipline?
CC: Let’s first say what we do not owe to the world—and that is yet more navel-gazing. For decades now, classicists have been engaged in an agonized internal debate about the relevance of our subject. How do we take what we do and make it more inclusive? More vibrant? More engaged with the contemporary world?
It is not that such questions are not worth asking, it is that the answers all too soon strike a bedrock of assumptions about what the discipline must be and must do, what has to remain unchanged for classics still to be, well, itself. Not surprisingly, calls for inclusivity founder on an instinctive and ill-articulated notion of purity.
But the world goes on, and classical motifs are part of it. When the rioters at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, started using the phrase “Molon labe”, they were making an implicit argument for the relevance of our discipline, whether we like it or not. At the other end of the political spectrum, Bonnie Honig makes another argument for relevance by using Euripides’ Bacchae as a springboard for her feminist theory of refusal.
One of the things that we owe to our world is informed engagement with the political uses of our texts. That is why I invited a group of classicists to respond to Honig’s book.
UCP: What is distinctive about these responses?
CC: It is too easy for classicists to say to those outside the discipline, “Ah, but if you understood the ancient context/ knew this language/ were immersed in this style, you wouldn’t be able to say that.” There is a long and, to my mind, undesirable tradition of this type of response. It dates back to the days in which classicists spoke only to circles for whom their cultural hegemony was absolute. And—this is the main thing—it is easy. Too easy. Any discipline can take its own idiolect and criticize others for not understanding it. It is just that this response from classicists is bolstered by centuries of tradition.
Each of the respondents here was instructed to think with Honig: to take a “Yes, and” approach, not an “Ah, but” one. We are fortunate that those from outside our discipline—even those with whom we profoundly disagree—still sometimes use our icons to think with. We should be flattered. We should recognize that thinking for the intellectual springboard that it is and try to respond in like terms. How exciting, that others should treat our discipline as relevant to their ideas. What a range of reference that treatment provokes.
And so these essays bring together Hecuba’s despair and Kehinde Wiley’s optimism. They juxtapose Hellenistic nostalgia and feminist futures. They think not just about words but about actions—and about the extraordinary power of inaction, too. They provide, implicitly, an urgent counter-narrative to the “Molon labe” of the Capitol Hill riots. And then, in a response, Bonnie Honig takes the respondents’ ideas as the friendly provocation that they are: she plays with the provocation, refines her ideas, amplifies them, nuances them. We should all be so lucky as to have cross-disciplinary conversations with such generous interlocutors.
About Classical Antiquity
What happens when verse from Ovid, history as written by Herodotus, satyr plays, the works of Thucydides, an Attic red-figure kylix, and tracts describing medicinal practice of the ancient world are gathered in one place and analyzed with scholarly verve? You have none other than Classical Antiquity—a journal that combines the pleasures, politics, intellectualism, cultural production, sciences, and linguistics of European traditions, centuries past.