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Classics in the Age of the Undocumented

Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Columbia University (until 6/2016), Princeton University

In his 1992 study of the refugee classical scholars whom National Socialism drove to America’s shores, W.M. Calder III observed that “American classics is entirely dependent upon a Weltpolitik which most of its practitioners prefer to denigrate and ignore.” As Calder demonstrated to powerful effect, the history of 20th- and 21st-century classics in the Western Hemisphere cannot be properly grasped without attention to geopolitical forces. In the spirit of his study, this paper will take up another form of Weltpolitik exerting a gravitational pull on contemporary American and international classical studies: US immigration policy, and in particular policy towards the undocumented. By orienting myself with the aid of Calder, I do not mean to imply that National Socialism is on the same level as the American handling of the undocumented (yet: the panel of which this paper forms part has been organized with menacing clouds on the horizon). What I will argue with no pretense to impartiality is that classicists have real skin in the game when it comes to political debates over the treatment of the undocumented in part because the field is being constituted within and through these debates. Remaining on the sidelines of these debates is simply not an option: classics has already been drafted, whether classicists like it or not.

The paper will consist of two parts. The first part is cued by Charles Rowan Beye’s musings on the presence of foreigners in American classics programs: any objections on the part of native-born Americans to their presence are not, in his reckoning, “of the order of … an auto mechanic in Los Angeles who fears his job will be taken by a Mexican wet-back” (“A Response”). Beye’s (in)felicitous analogy reveals a truth almost in spite of itself, namely the figuration of classics as a discipline whose student and faculty movements are not to be likened to those of undocumented labor. While this rhetorical move is troubling on several levels, two are singled out for the sake of illustration. For the analogy to work, the “wet-back” has to be heuristically constituted as distinct from the classicist; the presumption that the movement of classicists ought to be cleanly differentiated from the plight of the undocumented masks the workings of (classist and racialized) ideologies conceived with a view to marginalizing those undocumented who might one day become classicists. But I am interested not so much in pulverizing Beye’s analogy as I am in the proposition that the immigrant qua professional academic should expect to operate within a sentimental ecology (of adversarial or antagonistic reception) different from that experienced by the undocumented. Some autobiographical experiences will be adduced to test this claim.  

If—to rehearse a Foucauldian piety—the production of knowledge is implicated in systems of structural oppression, it is also time to reflect seriously on the possibility that the discipline of classics has been conscripted as a warrant for or legitimation of the oppression of the undocumented. Assessing the nature and extent of classics’ complicity is the motor for the second half of this paper. Here the case is pressed through an analysis of Victor Davis Hanson’s influential reconstruction of Greek warfare as quintessentially about the (triumph of) the hoplite citizen, a model subsequently refined for inclusion in the rhetoric of a civilizational antagonism between East and West (The Western Way of War; Carnage and Culture). Following Page duBois’ deconstruction of Hanson’s conservative vision in/for classics (Trojan Horses), I will explain why Hansonian effusions over hoplite warfare cannot and should not be decoupled from his strong aversion to undocumented immigrants (Mexifornia).

If classics is to progress towards greater inclusivity, it will need to identify and target other instances of this aversion. The continuing and public presence of such aversion obstructs efforts at diversifying the field; and without opening the doors to today’s undocumented, how are we to understand antiquity’s?

Session/Panel Title

The Impact of Immigration on Classical Studies in North America (organized by the Committee on the Status of Women and Minority Groups

Session/Paper Number


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