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Repetition Blindness. The Cyzicus Episode in Valerius Flaccus's Argonautica

Diana Librandi

University of California, Los Angeles

After contrary winds push the Argo and its crew back to the harbor they have just left, neither the Argonauts nor the Cyzicans realize that their encounter has already taken place. They engage in battle and, only at dawn, do they recognize their tragic mistake. Though having been analyzed through a narratological (Manuwald 1999, Sauer 2011) or political lens (Heerink 2016), the Cyzicus episode remains conspicuously absent in the scholarship on the philosophical leanings of the Roman Argonautica (Garani and Konstan 2014, Krasne 2018). Yet, Cyzicus is the setting of a cognitive paradox that raises a specific epistemological question: how can humans fail to recognize a place or a person they have just seen? In this paper, I argue that repetition blindness provides a compelling theoretical framework for interpreting the cognitive failures of the Argonauts and their hosts, insofar as it foregrounds Valerius Flaccus’s epistemological interest in the interplay between repetition and recognition.

A phenomenon examined in cognitive studies, repetition blindness explains why, if a picture of the same object appears twice in a rapid succession of images, observers will likely report seeing the repeated object only once. And here is the paradox: if repetition generally improves memorization, how can a repeated visual event escape the viewer’s notice? I suggest that a similarly counterintuitive process unfolds at Cyzicus. As perceiving subjects, hosts and guests fail to detect the second occurrence of the same visual event. As the Argonauts are blind (agmine caeco 3.110, caeca manu 3.79-80) to the second appearance of Cyzicus and its people, so are the Cyzicans to the second sight of the Argo and its crew.

The Cyzicans’ cognitive failures, in particular, show how two levels of repetition frequency interfere with their recognition process.  If the Argo repeats its arrival to Cyzicus only once (refertur 3.42), the incursions of the Pelasgians (refert 2.657, rediere 3.45, remeasse 3.127) occur so frequently as to prompt the Cyzicans to summarily identify their returning friends, i.e. the Argonauts, as the usual invaders, i.e. the Pelasgians. Kanwisher (1987) theorizes that repetition blindness happens because observers recognize repeated visual items as “types” rather than individuating them as specific “tokens” of those “types.” This mechanism accords with the ambiguity of the name “Pelasgians” and its appropriateness for both the Argonauts and the Anatolian intruders (Manuwald 2015). Shouting “the usual Pelasgians are back!” (soliti rediere Pelasgi 3.45), the Cyzicans succeed in identifying the “type” — the Argonauts are indeed Pelasgians  — but fail to recognize the specific “token” of that “type”— the Argonauts come from Thessaly, not from Anatolia.

Reading the Cyzicus episode through the framework of repetition blindness warns us that to consider recognition only a result of visible and tangible signs may prevent us from seeing how the sequence of events affects the recognition process. By translating an epistemological issue into narrative form, instead, Valerius Flaccus reminds the reader that recognition is not only a matter of signs, but also of a question of time.

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Flavian Epic

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