The Classics, (Post)Colonialism, and Reception Studies: An Interview with Phiroze Vasunia

The Classics, (Post)Colonialism, and Reception Studies: An Interview with Phiroze Vasunia

By Chiara Graf

Phiroze Vasunia is a professor in the Department of Greek and Latin and in the Programme for Comparative Literature at University College London. Since receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1996, he has written extensively on colonialism and cross-cultural contact in Antiquity, as well as on the relationship between empire and the study of Classics. He is the author of such works as The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander and The Classics and Colonial India, and he has co-edited numerous volumes, including Classics and National Cultures (co-edited with Susan A. Stephens). In this interview, he discusses postcolonial studies, reception studies, and the future of the study of Classics.

On Postcolonial Studies and the Classics

Chiara Graf: I thought I would start by asking you a little bit about yourself. What brought you to postcolonial studies?

Phiroze Vasunia: There are both academic and personal dimensions to your question.  In academic terms, I would say that, when I was a graduate student, I was frustrated by what I took to be the lack of sophistication in scholarship about such important, standard topics as the barbarian in Greek culture, and it seemed to me that classical scholars, with a few exceptions—Edith Hall, for example—had not really attempted to think through questions of method and approach, nor had they quite taken the trouble to look at developments in areas outside of Classical Studies. It seemed to me that there was both a need and an opening there for a scholarship that was informed by postcolonial studies and that was at the same time attuned to the particular specificities of the ancient world. It wasn’t just a question of reading Edward Said’s books Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism but also of engaging with a wider current of thought in postcolonial studies, of looking at scholars such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, who admittedly were only just starting to be accepted into the mainstream when I was in graduate school during the first half of the 1990s.  One wouldn’t want necessarily to criticize classical scholars for not engaging with that work, because that work was just beginning to take off and grab people’s attention. With Said, of course, Orientalism came out in 1978, so it had been there, in the academy, already for some time, and people were beginning to absorb its implications and its claims—and these scholars were working within the context of decolonization and other movements, which went back to the 40’s and 50’s. To me it seemed that there were opportunities to incorporate some of these works, to think about them, to improve upon them, and that Classical scholars, with a few notable exceptions, were not quite doing so.

I guess the personal dimension of this would be that perhaps I was a little more sensitive to these questions because I was a foreign student in America. I came from India, and I was aware, as all foreign students are, of my own foreignness to the culture, but also to what I felt was a lack of scholarly attention to developments outside of Classical Studies. I wouldn’t dwell too much on the personal side of this: I think that one need not only be an Indian, or a Kenyan, or a Malaysian, or a Cuban to work on questions of postcolonialism. There is a whole range of scholars from a whole variety of backgrounds who write on postcolonial studies. Yet, perhaps because of the education I received when I was growing up and the people I read in school, I had a slightly different upbringing than the majority of Classical scholars who were my peers. There might be a personal side to this, which is perhaps worth acknowledging at least, even if I may not quite be doing justice to it and even if I wouldn’t want to place too much stress on it.

It also seemed to me when I was a graduate student that there was a kind of aura about the history of classical scholarship. There was not just a charm to it, but there was something almost theological that Classical scholars felt about their own history.  They looked back at the giants of the discipline with a reverence that seemed excessive in proportion to what one might see in other disciplines: to figures such as Wilamowitz, or Fraenkel, or Dodds, or, going back further, to Bentley, to Porson, to the great Renaissance scholars of Antiquity as well, Isaac Casaubon, Lorenzo Valla, and going back to the Middle Ages and beyond. So it seemed to me that that this was a subject that needed to be discussed, and was not receiving sufficient attention, at least not in the early 1990’s.

I also think that, in a way, Martin Bernal with Black Athena, for all the sensationalism of his account, put the politics of scholarship on the map, and, as anyone will tell you, the better parts of his work are the ones that deal with the history of scholarship rather than with ancient material. The first volume of Black Athena gave scholars a renewed impetus to look at developments within the field in the last two to three hundred years, but an important part that was missing from Bernal’s Black Athena was in fact the question of empire.  I thought this was missing as well from important studies such as Chris Stray’s book, Classics Transformed (which came out towards the end of the 90’s), and it seemed to me that the last 200 to 300 years of the history of the discipline could not be told without thinking or talking about empire. Bernal does mention it in passing, as does Stray, but it didn’t seem to me quite thought through as it ought to have been.

CG: Why do you think Classics had been so slow to adopt the work of Said and other postcolonial scholars? What does this say about us and our anxieties as a discipline?

PV: I would say that it was a slow process of acceptance. Postcolonial scholars are themselves very presentist in their orientation: they look to the last 50 or 100 years, but many of them haven’t looked further back, beyond the period of modern imperialism and colonialism. Postcolonial studies itself did not show an interest in long histories.  On the other hand, as I say, there was an opening here for classical scholars, because Classics as a discipline emerged about 200 years ago, and it in some ways accompanied the rise of the modern empires.  This disciplinary history could have been explored from a postcolonial perspective, but wasn’t, at least initially. But since the 90’s there has been an increase in work done by classical scholars, historians, and archaeologists who take their inspiration from postcolonial studies.  We could mention, from a longer list, and in no particular order, Edith Hall, Richard Hingley, Pierre Briant, Tom Harrison, Lorna Hardwick, Barbara Goff, Carol Dougherty, Irad Malkin, Mark Bradley, David Mattingly, and Chris Hagerman.  These are scholars who, in my view, draw on postcolonial studies in their writings even if they may not themselves identify as postcolonial scholars.  The people who run the blog [Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad, and Rachel Mairs] are themselves people who have contributed to the way in which Classics might benefit from postcolonial studies.

CG: I’m interested in reactions to your work, and whether there have been different sorts of reactions to work on empire and “othering” within Antiquity, as opposed to your work on the reception of Classics and its appropriation by the British Empire. Does the scholarly community take to these iterations of postcolonial studies in different ways?

PV: In terms of the work that I’ve done looking at questions of empire and colonialism, I don’t think it’s been all that controversial. Generally, perhaps because of all the recent work that I was talking about, people don’t seem all that surprised now to know that there has been a connection between Classics on the one hand and colonialism on the other. There seems to be some kind of willingness to acknowledge the sorts of questions that I, and other scholars, have been raising.

There’ve been a few instances when I’ve given papers at conferences or seminars and have been criticized pretty sharply by people, but criticism arose in those cases when I suggested that the history of Classics and colonialism has a genealogy that continues to the present moment. Classical scholars seem to be unprepared to accept that claim, but I would in many ways stand by that claim still today: there is a residue–more than a residue– of empire in our scholarship, and Classics could still do with a healthy dose of decolonization, even in 2017.

As for ancient Orientalism, I’ve written mainly about Egypt and Iran, and worked also with the ideas and writings that classical scholars have themselves put forward, and used these in conjunction with work outside of Classics in postcolonial studies. I think there are some people who think that what I say about Orientalism and imperialism may be more applicable to the modern period rather than the ancient period. So perhaps you’re right; perhaps the implication of your question might be, “Are people more reluctant to accept charges of Orientalism and of colonialism in antiquity than in the present?” There might be something to that suggestion.

If I could add one related point, I think that reception studies itself has not been slow to take up questions of empire, of colonialism, of Orientalism. Far from resisting these types of questions, scholars of classical reception have actually taken up these topics and explored them with quite a heavy degree of intensity and scholarship and detail and rigor.

CG: In your work, you reject a stark binary of self and other. What do we lose when we simplify things to that binary?

PV: Clearly, we’re all complicated human beings, and things have been complicated for thousands of years, so binaries are not going to tell us a lot about the state of culture, civilization, human interaction, artistic endeavor, et cetera. Human beings tend to have multiple allegiances, and we might be partly rational, partly irrational, partly prejudiced by one thing in one part of life and quite unprejudiced in other parts of life: there might be some colonialists who were sympathetic to the people they ruled over, in however complicated a fashion, and there might have been colonial subjects who may have aspired to become as oppressive and violent as some of their colonial overlords. I’d also say that introducing issues of sympathy, for example, in these discussions is not necessarily always a sound scholarly procedure. So, if you are already sympathetic to someone who is colonized, as at least I would be instinctively drawn to be, you are in a way prejudicing your own thought in advance. And Gayatri Spivak has written about this quite extensively, that one needs to understand what one is doing and what one’s own emotional investment is in these sorts of questions, for example, when one divides up the world into colonizer and colonized and says, “I sympathize with the colonized! I think the colonizer is a brute!”– if you approach Antiquity with that attitude you are going to blind yourself to a whole range of cultural, historical, and intellectual complexities. But this is a big subject, and this does not mean that one can justify colonialism, or slavery—that’s clearly not the argument here. The argument is more about arriving at a position that’s thoughtful and self-aware and rigorous.


On Reception Studies

CG: How did you become interested in reception studies?

PV: In some ways, I think I’ve touched on that question: partly, I was of the view that the history of classical scholarship, which in some ways can be seen as a branch of reception studies, had not sufficiently dealt with imperialism and colonialism. But secondly, it also seemed to me that the practitioners of the subject, today, 50 years ago, and maybe even 100 years ago, had a sense of this specialness that ancient Greece and Rome seemed to be imbued with. And it was attempting to understand this charisma coming from classical Greek and Roman Antiquity, trying to understand why Greek and Roman Antiquity still had this powerful hold, within especially elite but also non-elite cultures in Western Europe and North America, that seemed to me a subject worth studying. And also trying to understand my own reaction to this force, this attraction that I felt emanating from Antiquity. And it seemed to me that it wasn’t just true of the present but it was true of Edwardian England, it was true of Victorian England, it was true of 19th century Germany, France, Spain, Italy, modern Greece, the cultures of Eastern Europe. There was this powerful hold that Greek and Roman Antiquity had on thinkers, writers, intellectuals, critics, artists, scholars, and even though I was a student at a time when a disenchantment with Antiquity seemed to be taking root, it seemed to me that there were still traces of this powerful valuation. And so, I think I wanted to understand that better.

CG: Yeah, I’m really interested in that attraction, too, and I wonder, do scholars feel drawn to Antiquity solely out of identification, or do you think there’s any Orientalizing of Antiquity itself that brings some fascination with it?

PV: Yes, it would seem that there are both of those things going on in some ways. We tend to put Antiquity up on a pedestal, we tend to exoticize it, we tend to treat it as if it’s “desperately foreign,” to use that expression, and as a result of that kind of exoticism we feel drawn to whatever construction we are ourselves putting on the ancient world. And part of that invention is clearly a projection of our own fantasies and desires and psychological urges. But I wouldn’t say it’s just that; I think that that’s part of it, and there are many ways in which that fetishizing happens. The fetishism could be connected with nationalism, or with questions of class, questions of civility, questions of gender, education, elitism, as well as personal psychology. So, the Orientalism, to use that word very broadly now, would be very complicated, it wouldn’t just be a simple phenomenon. But I think thanks to the work of the last 20 to 25 years we’ve begun to understand that kind of mystification a little bit better, in our own work and in the writings of earlier scholars. That can be a healthy thing, in two ways: one is that it’s a spur to further thought and scholarly activity, and secondly, it’s also good to say that Antiquity is different from modernity. We wouldn’t want to be surrounded by people who say there is no difference between the ancients and moderns; that would be a very troubling position. So in some ways I think the exoticism is even necessary.


On the Present and Future of Classics

CG: What do you think we can do to ensure that Classics doesn’t continue to either reinforce imperial aims or be appropriated for those aims?

PV: I think any scholar who is self-aware and brings a degree of methodological self-consciousness to his or her work is already doing what he or she can do to avoid being called colonialist, or presentist, or Eurocentric, or elitist. So, a critical engagement with Antiquity, one that is self-aware, one that is rigorous, one that is methodologically scrupulous, is the best that we can hope for. But it’s what a lot of the best practitioners already offer.  Also, being a little more aware of the history of the discipline over the last 200 to 300 years would not be a bad thing for classical scholars. Whatever they’re dealing with– questions about the Roman Empire, or Romanization, or questions of minority cultures, or the Greek-Barbarian issue, or whether they’re dealing with other questions, archaeological, anthropological– I think understanding the circumstances in which these questions have arisen and taken hold and then been pursued can only be a good thing.

CG: Lastly, I’m curious about your prognosis of the field. It sounds like you think we’re moving in the right direction. Do you think we have to continue moving in that direction in order to stay relevant? Do you think there will always be a holdout of people who are resistant to these ideas?

PV: Yes, there probably will always be people who are resistant to questions of colonialism and empire. And I don’t expect everyone in the field necessarily to be writing about these questions either all the time; that would be silly. But yes, I think that as a variety of people come into the discipline from a variety of different backgrounds, and as the subject itself is studied more and more outside of North America and Europe, in countries such as China, or in South and Central America– the more that happens, the healthier will the field be. I also think that if we accept that there is a range of classicisms in the world, not just Greek and Roman but also Chinese, Indian, Persian, Arabic, and if we attempt to understand how these classicisms are similar and different, and not just see Greco-Roman as somehow unique, then I think we’ll arrive at a deeper understanding of the particular classical culture that we at least spend our time studying. So yes, I think, as you say, that things are moving in the right direction, and, with any luck, will continue to move in that direction, and I also think that some of the scholarship from the 80s and 90s and the early part of the 21st century has actually trickled down and been assimilated and absorbed by teachers and students. And it’s practiced by scholars and others without their having to justify the entire scholarly apparatus or scholarly history that others might have had to explain in earlier times. It’s already more a part of the discipline than it was.

Chiara Graf is a Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Toronto


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