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Kennedy’s Dialect Twist—Could This Really Be the End?

Elena Giusti

In 1992, the static continental divide between the Harvard and the European readings of Virgil’s Aeneid was shut, rather than bridged, by Duncan Kennedy’s single – dynamic – dialectic twist. All of a sudden, the abstract adjective ‘Augustan,’ realizing that it had always already implied and necessitated its own subversion, turned its opposite from antagonist to accomplice, from ‘against-Augustan’ to ‘within-Augustan,’ with anti- being left out as a mis-representative prefix which did nothing but reinforce the all-encompassing nature of the abstract: the (anti-)Augustan ideology.

The mind-blowing deconstruction of all polarities was much stronger than even the insiders could foretell: notwithstanding Barchiesi’s convictions (Barchiesi 1997: 6 n. 1, orig. 1994), the contest  demonstrated to have less of a future than even Kennedy allowed. ‘Reflections on Terms of Reference’ soon became the one article that everybody would reference, rather than engage with, unleashing Virgilian studies to investigate new shores. ‘Anti-Augustan,’ as a term, was implicitly and subconsciously banned; with a few exceptions, the whole debate became unfashionable, the questions it had raised were deemed fruitless and sterile.

However, not unlike the Augustan revolution, Kennedy 1992 did not come out of the blue, but was rather in the air: in 1991, John Elsner had just deconstructed Zanker’s reading of the Ara Pacis (Zanker 1988) by interpreting (sacrificial) blood as an inherent part of the Augustan artistic, literary and ideological construction; and, retrospectively, even the milestone of the European school, Philip Hardie’s Cosmos and Imperium (1986), by emphasising the inherence of a polarity within the monopoly, had much that would push Virgilian readers towards the bridging of the gap on which they eventually landed. Certainly it was the subtlety of the arguments, its dialectic sophistication, and the directedness of the message that turned Kennedy’s chapter into the landmark that we now acknowledge, and yet it was also the right contribution at the right time: the scholarly context was ripe, the arguments were drained, both the ‘90s and especially the 2000s requested a drastic shift of interests and focus.

After more than twenty years, this paper shall explore the background to ‘Reflections on Terms of Reference,’ the reactions to it, and the astonishing influence that it had on Virgilian studies, arguing that its use in many contributions from the ‘90s and more extensively from the 2000s can often be pinned down as cases of academic idleness and scholarly opportunism on behalf of some Virgilian criticism, to whom it was more than advantageous to seal a debate that, exhausting though it was, should not have been sealed. There have been of course many exceptions to the trend, even in more recent years, but these have not yet undermined the influence of Kennedy’s twist: in 2006, Peter J. Davis’ necessity to deconstruct Kennedy’s deconstruction before providing his political reading of Ovid’s erotic poems proves that, at fourteen years of distance, one cannot even attempt to reopen the debate without disproving Kennedy first.

Kennedy’s dialectic twist has been the most influential contribution in directing Virgilian criticism towards more nuanced and sophisticated readings of the Aeneid. And yet this came at the cost of losing a debate that was as instructive for our understanding of the Aeneid as for the analysis of our very own interpretative methodologies. In Europe, unsurprisingly, Kennedy 1992 marked the final victory of the European school; in the USA, it shifted the focus of Virgilian studies. But this dialectic ending was only deceptively satisfactory: by leaving us with the false myth of an autocratic literary and artistic language devoid of opposition if not that already implied in its own ideological restrictions, it denies the possibility of the existence – not to mention the recoverability – of a genuine anti-Augustan message. But when the anti- becomes part, or pretends to become part, of the dominant ideology itself, aren’t the possibilities of ambiguously subversive nuances multiplied rather than diminished?     

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