You are here

Quantum Classics: Untimely Chronologies and Postclassical Literary Histories

Tim Whitmarsh

Cultural histories are always metaphorical. Without analogies there is no way of articulating the vast complexity of a cultural field, with all of its transformations over time and space. To speak of a ‘field’, for example, is to mobilise the root meaning of ‘culture’ as the tilling of arable space. It follows, however, that any such metaphors constrain apprehension even as they enable it. As Franco Moretti (2005) in particular has observed, models for literary history have tended to be rooted in German idealism. That tradition has tended to promote a view of culture (a) in terms narrowly of high aesthetics, and (b) as a barometer of ‘national’ health.

Postclassical Greek literary history exemplifies this point ideally, focusing as it has done on two sets of question. The first (corresponding to (a) above) relate to value: does Greek literature decline after Alexander? The second (corresponding to (b)) focus on the matter of cultural hybridity: does Greek culture subsist in isolation, or does it continue in isolation? As John Ma (2008: 372) has observed in connection with the historiography of the polis), answers given to these two questions reinforce each other: cultural fusion is taken to support a view of decline, cultural apartheid a view of continued vitality. There is a fundamental naivety to any such formulation. Few would deny that literary ‘value’ has a strongly subjective / culturally constructed component; few would deny that the question ‘did postclassical cultures practice apartheid or hybridisation?’ is hopelessly crude and undernuanced. Yet we are still wedded to these clumsy paradigms.

In this paper, I propose a different way of modelling literary history. Following Moretti’s lead, I turn from philosophical idealism to science as the basis. Specifically, I look for my analogy (and it is no more than that, a productive metaphor) to quantum physics, and to the distinction between waves and particles. Existing literary history tends to be ‘particulate’: it assumes that history is constituted by definite things happening in definite spaces at definite times, which then have consequences in abutting spaces and times; all of these effects can be observed, recorded and then related to each other. A quantum classics, by contrast, would insist that the very processes of measurement and analysis are integral parts of the ‘reality’ being captured. Reality is not just out there waiting to be described; it is an effect of our own participation in it as scholars, our ‘entanglement’ (to use Karen Barad’s (2007) term). The real question, then, is not ‘what model should we use for postclassical Greek literary history?’ but ‘how do we account for the multiple, diverse and conflicting results generated by different models?’ How, in other words, do we explain literary history as a wave function?

To illustrate this point I consider Hellenistic Greco-Jewish literature, a phenomenon that seems from the perspective of ‘particulate’ literary history almost too paradoxical to narrate. Not only is it out-of-place, occupying a liminal position between Greek and Jewish literary traditions, it also seems ‘untimely’ in its odd foreshadowings of the Second Sophistic (Whitmarsh 2013): the focus on identity politics, empire and hybridity, eroticism, novelistic discourse, ecphrasis and (of course) monotheism seem to ‘fit’ much better with imperial Greek literary culture. This out-of-placeness and untimeliness, however, should provoke us not to exclude this material from a single story (as standard accounts do), but to expand the range of possible stories – to find the ‘truth’ not in the dominance of one version but in the waviness of multiple, conflicting accounts.

Session/Panel Title

Untimeliness and Classical Knowing

Session/Paper Number

32.4

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy