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Reception and Staying in the Field of Play

Simon Goldhill

Why should we go beyond the case study in reception studies when the case study has been so fruitful? This paper finds its starting point in the evident success of case studies – the detailed analysis of a delimited example, be it from literature, art, theatre: reception study has become a boom subject. It is indeed hard to imagine a Rezeptionsgeschichte that eschews the exemplary, and, as reception theory has moved from a model of Nachleben towards a more theoretically sophisticated conceptualization of the Post-Classical, away from a focus on unilinear questions of translation, adaptation and allusion towards more open models of cultural history, one constant has been the primacy of the case study as the meat and drink of analytic approaches. This panel suggests, however, that there are costs to such a focus – or, perhaps, that a complementary and further horizon might be drafted. Consequently, this paper explores three different ways in which we might move beyond the case study – without losing the value of exemplification that seems built into the logic of classical reception. It analyzes how broad a notion of cultural context should be: what happens to the status of the case study when the broader cultural aspects of class, gender, race and nationality are factored into the analysis? How big is the question of classical reception? It sets out to explore how dependent reception theory has been on models of great men reading great men in linear fashion – even when the lines of direction are multiplied as in the most sophisticated models of Martindale. The danger of leaving the (patri)linearity of reception as inheritance is that the field will become no more than the cultural history of an era, and lose the specifics of what is classical about classical reception.

This paper argues that there is a specific dynamic of untimeliness integral to classical reception that will allow a specific place for antiquity’s imaging within a broad cultural history. Second, it poses the question of technology and genre. What happens to the idea of classical reception when modernity’s self-proclamation of technological innovation comes to the fore? On one hand, this raises the question of popular culture, and what the consequences are when the object of study becomes mass produced and produced for an audience whose knowledge of classics cannot be assumed. Can “reception” adequately theorize the noise of modernity’s ignorance of classical imagery, even as the imagery is rehearsed. On the other hand, it raises the question of how the genres of photography, say, change the possibilities of classical reception. Not so much in toga fiction on screen, a well-travelled subject, as in modern art’s nudes or travel photography (Need; Goldhill; Wyke; Wyke and Michelakis). Third, it poses the question of scale of exemplification. That is, how far is the reception of a classical poem always inevitably caught between a very narrow ideal of reception – perhaps as localized as a single reader’s reading of a single classical word – and the very widest notion of all classical poems? Do translations of epigram – to take one case study (Nisbet)– reference all other translations of the epigram and other epigrams too?  The paradox of this panel is that it remains – thus – impossible to do without the case study, even as its limits are considered. The aim of the paper, finally, thus is to explore at what point reception studies becomes no more than cultural history. Are classicists who work in nineteenth-century reception destined to become no more than Victorianists? Is the case study the dangerous ground or the necessary foundation of reception studies? This paper aims to show that this threat is necessary, but a real resource for rethinking the role of classical antiquity in modern social forms. Indeed, it argues that a form of classical reception is a necessary vector in the cultural history of the last two centuries.

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Beyond the Case Study: Theorizing Classical Reception

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