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Situated Knowledges and the Dynamics of the Field

Brooke Holmes

The term “reception” has been repeatedly criticized for assuming a too-passive relationship to the texts and artifacts transmitted from classical antiquity.  The term “response” allocates more agency to the reader, but one might worry that it allocates too much.  Yet response opens, too, onto the idea of responsibility, and with it the notion of reception as a particular kind of embedded act, one in which historical actors but also present-day scholars, are implicated in a relationship to the past and the present that entails forms of responsibility.  In this paper, I explore the conjunction of agency and openness, together with the conjunction of historical fidelity and fidelity to the present, by returning to Donna Haraway’s seminal essay, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” (Haraway 1988).  

The concept of “situatedness” that Haraway develops and advocates for in the essay is often referenced but not frequently engaged, especially by classicists.   I argue here that a close reading of the essay, and particularly the status of situatedness as an alternative to a model riven by competing fidelities, has much to offer classicists trying to work through the tensions between historicism and presentism that reception studies, or a particular branch of reception studies, has revealed with new urgency.  Haraway’s paper began as a response to Sandra Harding’s book The Science Question in Feminism (Harding 1986).  As such, it tackles head-on the debates in the 1980s between feminist philosophers of science who sought to redeem the practice of science by purging it, as much as possible, of bias (thereby creating a “successor science”) and those philosophers who insisted, in classic postmodern fashion, on the relativism of truth claims.  Haraway argues that neither the successor scientist nor the postmodernist offers an adequate model for future feminist engagements with the sciences.  She develops the idea of “situated knowledges” and “partial perspective” as an alternative. 

We may imagine that classicists face a similarly bifurcated path, between “successor” historicism and absolute relativism.  Perhaps more accurately, we classicists sensitive to the history of the discipline and its implication in cultural politics affirm relativism and carry on with historicism, alert to the paradoxes of our position only in prefaces or concluding remarks.   Haraway’s essay offers a full-frontal challenge to the domestication of this paradox by mapping another conceptual space altogether, one that is organized around the idea of responsibility.  Haraway’s development of an alternative model may therefore be valuable to classicists operating at this particular historical juncture.  It further raises questions about the politics and the ethics of reception studies, questions that, in contrast to, say, studies in the history of sexuality in the 1990s  dealt with more openly.

For Haraway, situatedness entails taking responsibility for the positions from which we articulate our beliefs and claims: she abhors what she calls the “God trick.”  Yet situatedness should not be understood as default identity politics.  Taking responsibility for a position is not just a question of owning up to the factors determining what we see but of working, learning, trying to see differently, and especially of adopting a position “from below,” that is, from outside dominant regimes of power.  The very possibility of seeing differently imposes a responsibility to decenter ourselves from inherited perspectives by adopting “techniques of visualization.”  I develop Haraway’s views by defending, first, an account of the field of classics as open and dynamic, rather than as a closed field to be mastered by the all-knowing subject, whose epistemic control restores the fragments of antiquity to a whole.  Responsibility here is not the abandonment of “rigor” but a rethinking of our techniques of knowing.  I then argue that critiques of the classical as a byword for value within reception studies require not just the historicization of classicism and classicization but new strategies for being accountable to the past and the present—that is, new strategies for imagining the value of classical studies.

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Response and Responsibility in a Postclassical World

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