Author: everydayorientalism

On the Whiteness of Anthropology

On the Whiteness of Anthropology

by Girish Daswani

cover picture: Bronisław Malinowski with Trobriand Islanders, 1918, credit: LSE

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

When studying Sociology as an undergraduate student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) (1995-1999) I was introduced to the work of three seminal thinkers of modern social theory, who are considered to be the founding fathers of Sociology: Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. My teachers at the time, while educating me on the impact of these men’s theories and their applications for an understanding of “modernity”, also emphasized that these theories emerged from a Eurocentric (“a way of seeing and not-seeing that is rooted in a number of problematic claims and assumptions”; Alatas and Sinha 2001) and Androcentric perspective. They reminded us that we should question the applications of these theories in non-Western contexts and remember the historical, gendered, and geographical milieu in which they were constructed. After all, European classical thinkers were usually men who wrote not only about their own societies, but also about the “Orient”, and “we” were representative of this feminized Orient. At the time, my lecturers were already formulating ways to make social theory relevant to their Singaporean students, to decolonize Sociology, and to further reflect on how to reorganize the teaching of social theory in a way that moved beyond “the abstract and reflexive level” acknowledgment of Eurocentrism, as well as its largely American and British contexts (Alatas and Sinha 2001). They asked important questions, such as: Why are non-Western precursors of social thought (e.g. Ibn Khaldun, José Rizal, Benoy Kumar Sarkar) left out of the syllabi? Why are these syllabi not engaging with European colonialism and its impact on how and why do we have to study these “founding fathers” as the sole originators of ideas? They did not intend to replace European thinkers like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Instead, they aimed to critically engage with their work through a decolonizing perspective and to include other, female, and non-Western social thinkers (Alatas and Sinha 2017).

In my honour’s year at NUS, I did fieldwork with “Reiki” practitioners (an energy healing, alternative-health, therapy) and wrote a thesis that drew heavily on the earlier work of Michel Foucault. I caught the research bug, decided to apply to a Master’s program in Social Anthropology and, in 2001, was accepted into the prestigious London School of Economics and Social Science (LSE). There were no grants available for Masters’ students (the “LSE’s cash-cows”, as some called us) and I was taking a financial risk in order to see where this dream might take me. It was there that I was re-educated in the history of British anthropology and on the founders of my new discipline. Names like Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, and Fortes (amongst others) replaced Marx, Weber, and Durkheim and, to my dismay, Foucault was nowhere to be found. I have to admit that I was unprepared for the vastly different approach social anthropology offered (the “Virgin Birth” debates for example – see Leach 1966) but also excited at the prospect of eventually doing a PhD under the tutelage and supervision of several respected anthropologists. Yet, there was a lack of reflection on the continuing presence of colonialism and little efforts were made to decolonize the curriculum (though I hear that things are changing). If my former teachers in NUS had asked about the paucity of indigenous (i.e. Malay) sources when studying the sociology and colonial history of Singapore, my anthropologist teachers could claim that they were studying “indigenous” people in non-European settings (formerly colonized countries). I found myself in love with the ethnographic method of fieldwork as a way to get to know people over a long period of time (I later learnt that the method too is flawed), but uncomfortable with its whiteness and lack of reflexivity.

Decolonizing Anthropology

Before I carry on, let me first explain what I mean by “Whiteness”. It does not simply imply that the majority of anthropologists are of Euro-American descent. This is not the point and increasingly not the case. And it is not my intention to insinuate that anthropology continues to be a handmaiden of colonialism or unreflective of its past. Instead, I am interested in an ideological position of Whiteness – a class aspiration whose roots are located in an imperial past (that persists in transfigured forms) – and its real institutional effects on anthropology as a discipline today. I am speaking about the lack of any real acknowledgement of the continuing presence of an elite, masculine, and imperial habitus within the discipline, which has been, to varying degrees, internalized by all of us, even non-white anthropologists of different social backgrounds, genders, and sexual orientations. It is this remnant of imperialism that allows many anthropologists to think that they do not need to have real conversations about (but simply acknowledge) the presence of indigeneity, race, and misogyny, or the need for more feminist and non-white thinkers in our syllabi.

We somehow share the assumption that, just because we are anthropologists, we have acquired the skill of social critique and of self-criticism. That we have done the colonial analysis and called out “race” as a construct, that we hate what colonialism did, and are in a noble profession. Let’s move on. Let’s get on with our jobs. And yet, we often forget how, in order to become anthropologists, and in order to prove that we are successful at what we do, we, unconsciously or consciously, become that elite, white, male anthropologist that we sometimes publicly critique. It is to this history, embedded in our own aspirations – that includes a history of Whiteness – that we have inherited and largely internalized, that I turn to next.

James Baldwin writes in his essay The White Man’s Guilt:

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

Baldwin goes on to explain that it is only with great “pain and terror” that we are able to personally assess and understand this inherited history “which has placed one where one is, and which formed one’s point of view”. For example, the anthropologist who attends the best American universities – “best” because they are recognized for their high-ranking and assumed to better train graduate students to publish in the top three American journals – potentially carries within them a history of an inherited intellectual prestige and a center-periphery relation with other universities. Baldwin claims that one can fight and struggle with this history in order to achieve “personal maturity.” But how many of us are willing to experience pain or even discomfort in order to “rob history of its tyrannical power”? Baldwin writes:

“On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”

Decolonizing anthropology also means decolonizing our minds (from the flattery that a certain history of anthropology provides). This process is also about the ongoing imperialistic powers that some prestigious universities (and anthropologists) in North America and Europe have, in their assumed self-importance, as well as in their ability to produce the “best” work and the “best” anthropologists, who tend to be systematically preferred during job searches. It means that we have to look beyond the imperial (American) or colonial (British) brand and recognize the true value of a diversity in opinions, methodological approaches, forms of knowledge production, and citational practices. We have to look past the anthropologist with an inherited tradition and ambition to be the best (and inevitably exclude others), and seek out those with a willingness to work well with others and with a generosity to share (recognition and ideas) in a more inclusive environment. Then, perhaps, which university you come from would matter less than what you are willing to bring to a community of peers and students.

A lack of self-reflection on the part of tenured anthropologists (those who put their heads down and aim to simply start the next project or write the next article or book), is part of the problem, and an important reason why decolonizing anthropology is not easy. One can, rightfully, say that another major part of the problem lies in the neoliberal university and the institutional barriers that keep it from truly creating (not just acknowledging) a meaningful diversity, and from engaging in the practice of decolonization. This is why Tania Murray Li‘s new collaborative research project Discovering University Worlds, which will study the university as an employer, a site of education, an investor, and a place for “diversity”, is an important step in the right direction. Yet, we often use, explicitely or not, our ambition to achieve “success” or continue to receive recognition in our field, to justify our lack of engagement with such questions. Not everyone has to play the same role or participate equally, but to ask and articulate these questions – because we’re angry when injustice happens, when we see our colleagues in precarious positions, when we see anthropologists behave badly, when we see barriers for graduates from Canadian universities or anthropologists from non-hegemonic universities – should become common practice for us all.

Rather than academic competition, or the desire to make anthropology great again, we need to rekindle our desire to nurture one other. We need to educate ourselves, help empower others, and not criticize them for expressing their anger. As Audra Lorde (1979: 19) famously wrote “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, and neither will they ever bring about genuine change. “And this fact is only threatening to those… who still define the master’s house as their only source of support”. To ask difficult questions, to allow them to become uncomfortable and potentially bring pain, is a good first step. The anger on social media around controversial events and topics in anthropology is one (though not the only) way to deal with that pain, and it must be recognized as a legitimate response. As Lorde also wrote:

“Anger is loaded with information and energy… We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty”.

Anger (in comparison to hatred) is, according to Lorde, “a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change”. Is the anger of junior, untenured, unemployed anthropologists more threatening than the claims of disempowerment and experiences of dis-belonging that potentially affect us all? This anger is not what truly threatens us as anthropologists. Instead, it is “our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment” (Lorde 1981).

A Contrapuntal Anthropology

I want to conclude this piece with a view from a contrapuntal anthropology. In his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said suggested that if we look at a novel contrapuntally, we are able to consider and interpret its intertwined histories and perspectives (of the colonizer and the colonized, the accused and the accuser). Borrowed from music, where it refers to the relationship between styles or themes, Said, intrigued by Bach’s multiple musical voices in counterpoint, used “contrapuntal” to refer to the relationships between narratives set in metropolitan centres and the colonies upon which the European powers depended for their wealth. Said’s “contrapuntal” analysis pointed to a multiplicity of coinciding voices that, in forming an atonality that lacked a center or a stark binary, considered a non-hierarchical order and the autonomy of the individual subject. This act of listening to the melody in life is what I call a contrapuntal anthropology, and its “atonality” serves as a reminder of an anthropological homelessness (the impossibility of return to a secure home) – or that the home of anthropology has radically altered – that is vital to its ability to be a force of social critique in the world. A contrapuntal perspective is, according to Victor Li, “less about the ease of accepting or accommodating differences than about exposing and challenging differential access to power” (forthcoming “Globalorientalization: Globalization through the Lense of Edward Said’s Orientalism“, ARIEL).

It is not lost on me that I am a child of colonialism and that this feeling of being unsettled is personal to me and my biography. My grandparents’ and parents’ generation lost their homes due to British colonial intervention and they continue to remain a diaspora and a minority in the countries they have since chosen to settle in. I have grown up in and continue to live and work in places that were colonized by – or the ruling centre of – the British empire. Yet, this feeling of living on the margins of identity has also been an opportunity, and it has become a way of doing anthropology for me. I have realized that being disconnected from the centralizing authorities of home has allowed me to connect with people and to question any real sense of stability (and flattery) that anthropology as a vocation may afford.

This feeling of being unsettled, of living in the margins, is the strength of a contrapuntal anthropology that aims to study people but that can simultaneously take enough distance from itself in order to reflect on and judge itself. This is the only way anthropologists can start to decolonize and take stock of how they treat people (sometimes unfairly) and how they start the difficult conversation of truly acknowledging the presence of others. It is not simply by getting rid of the past (our ancestors) that we can move forward. The past and its figures of authority should be read and acknowledged. However, with a decolonizing mind. Even as we acknowledge that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, let us not forget the intentional or unintentional carnage, loss of life, and disregard for others that takes place when these giants are making their way through the thicket, nor how something resembling truth may be found in the margins rather than from the heights of our achievements.

Girish Daswani is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto

Indigenizing Classics: A Teaching Guide

Indigenizing Classics: A Teaching Guide

by Katherine Blouin, Aven McMaster, David Meban & Zachary Yuzwa

“Indigenization is a process of naturalizing Indigenous knowledge systems and making them evident to transform spaces, places, and hearts. In the context of post-secondary education, this involves bringing Indigenous knowledge and approaches together with Western knowledge systems… Indigenization does not mean changing something Western into something Indigenous. The goal is not to replace Western knowledge with Indigenous knowledge, and the goal is not to merge the two into one. Rather, Indigenization can be understood as weaving or braiding together two distinct knowledge systems so that learners can come to understand and appreciate both.”

Indigenization, Decolonization, and Reconciliation by Asma-na-hi Antoine, Rachel Mason, Roberta Mason, Sophia Palahicky, and Carmen Rodriguez de France, Pulling Together: A guide for Indigenization of post-secondary institutions

Indigenization is a process that is gaining more traction at Canadian schools, and rightfully so. While the 2015 Call to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has generated a substantial amount of reckoning and initiatives in Canadian universities, in academia, and more broadly among settlers, much remains to be done. For as Eve Tuck rightly puts it, “Universities don’t become different just by wishing for it”.

This applies with even more acuteness to Classics and other Antiquity-related disciplines, where discussion on indigenization remain at an embryonic stage. We – David Meban, Aven McMaster, and Katherine Blouin – felt that it was a needed, and overdue, topic of conversation for the Classics community, so we decided to submit a panel entitled “Indigenization & Classical Studies” to the organizers of the 2019 annual meeting of the CAC, which took place May 6-9 2019 at McMaster University. Our panel was accepted, and the session took place on May 7th. The fact that it was attended by a large number of colleagues and students (the room was completely full!) testifies to the growing interest of Classicists in Canada, and we like to think also elsewhere on Turtle Island and beyond, to indigenize our teaching and research through processes of (un)learning. The same goes for the reception of Zachary Yuzwa’s talk entitled “Re-Writing the Roman Past: Identity and Exemplarity in the Latin Literature of New France”, which was given in another panel a day before ours. We are grateful to Zachary for also participating in the preparation of this post.

turtle-island-emojiChief Lady Bird, Turtle Island emoji (2018). Image: Chief Lady Bird, accessed on CBC

So what does indigenization have to do with Classics? And with Antiquity? And how can this process be respectfully and genuinely achieved?

We – as instructors, researchers, and as members of an association – experience some challenges and difficulties as we begin to contribute to the process of Indigenization. For instance:

  • How might we incorporate relevant content into a course on Roman history or Greek tragedy?
  • How can we make a respectful start when we have so few Indigenous people, and marginalized peoples in general, at the table?  Who can we partner and collaborate with?

Indeed, when David spoke with Emily Grafton, the Indigenization lead at the University of Regina, about the issues and complications of a white person, speaking to (largely) other white people about Indigenization, she remarked that a good place to begin is by asking the question of why are there so few Indigenous voices present? What have been the barriers to inclusion, and how can they be broken down?

Given the early stages of Indigenization in our field, and our shared interests, we thought a follow-up post offering some pedagogical cues and references would be a timely initiative. We thus hope that the present ‘starting guide’ might provide informative cues and constructive food for thoughts for colleagues and students who are also at the preliminary stages of this process, be it in their research or perhaps even more so in their teaching, for the latter is the area that calls most for change.

Students as Stakeholders: A Student-Driven Approach to Indigenization in Classical Studies (by David Meban)

I have learned a lot as I have started to try to Indigenize my teaching. Here are some key lessons I have learned (discussed in greater detail in my paper). I don’t share these as the most important issues, but simply as those which I found prompted a lot of thought, or which helped to clarify some of my own thinking.

1. Indigenization demands collaboration with indigenous peoples and communities

Reading through the calls to action of the TRC, for example, this is one thing that really stands out.   Whether for closing the educational gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, or for the inclusion of residential school history in the educational system, what is stressed is collaboration.   To do otherwise would only further contribute to the marginalization of Indigenous peoples.


Norval Morrisseau, The Storyteller: The Artist and His Grandfather (1978) Image:

2. Who is your target audience?

In other words, for whom are we indigenizing?  If we are introducing new content, for example, to whom is this being directed? The target audience is often considered to be non-Indigenous students. But this perspective can reinforce the status quo, since it focuses on the learning experiences of non-Indigenous, rather than Indigenous, students. The work of Adam Gaudry has been very informative for me in this regard. As he states:

the comfort of non-Indigenous students cannot come at the expense of the hard-won space of Indigenous people in the academy…. [t]he conversation needs to prioritize the needs of the Indigenous student body—no matter how large or small—to avoid once again putting the needs of Canadians above those of Indigenous people. This would, again, reinforce all that we should be undoing.

So the needs of the Indigenous student body should be the priority.

3. Indigenization and outreach beyond the ‘Western’-style classroom

Third, questions about my target audience in turn prompted thoughts about Indigenization and outreach. In other words, to me Indigenization wasn’t simply about how I could introduce Indigenous content into my course, but how I could teach and introduce Classical material in a way that would be more effective and more accessible to those of my students who had not been raised or taught in a Western or “white” environment or classroom. In other words, how might I change my teaching to make it more accessible to those students more at home in Indigenous ways of knowing and being?


Birth of Erichtonios, red figure hydria. Image: British Museum

4. Beware of pan-Indigeneity

Fourth, my thinking about my audience and how to tailor my teaching for it, led me to realize that I must also strive to avoid another fault: pan-Indigeneity. I needed to avoid simplifying Canada’s Indigenous communities, needed to avoid reducing a diverse range of traditions and histories to one monolithic group. So here I was determined that if I was to change my teaching, adapt it for my students, I needed to do so within the local and provincial context. So, for example, I might rely on or incorporate more on the histories of the specific communities and nations within Saskatchewan; and if I wanted to talk about treaty history, then I wanted to be sure to connect it specifically to Treaty four history. This extends to my students within the province. There is a wide variety: some students who have left their reservation for the first time to study at the University of Regina, others who feel no connection at all to their history and culture (and who are perhaps looking to reconnect), and some who – in the case of my online courses – are still on a reservation in a remote area of the province. In changing my teaching, I realized that I needed to do so with this wide range of students and experiences in mind.

Sprung from the Earth: Some Thoughts on Indigeneity and the Ancient History Classroom (by Katherine Blouin)

1. The inclusion – and acknowledgement – of indigenous-inspired modes of knowledge production and transmission in the classroom and in assignments can be powerful tools of educational transformation. For instance, after having been initiated to the talking circle format by Lee Maracle during the Humanities Pedagogy Confronting Colonization workshop that took place at the University of Toronto in the Fall 2018, I have adopted it in my upper level undergraduate class later on that term, and I made it a point to explain to the students (a diverse group with no self-identified Turtle Islander) the origin of this circle and its aims. The positive results on the class dynamics and on student participation were immediate. I cannot imagine myself going back solely to the usual, Western style of discussion period anymore.

Talking Circle Medicine (2005)

Leah Dorion, Talking Circle (2006). Image: Leah Dorion’s website

2. Many ancient narratives (including ‘myths’) are actually indigenous stories whose rhythm and storytelling features cannot be fully understood solely through Western conceptions of what count as a narrative, a story, a protagonist, a “source”. What happens if we approach these stories through de-Eurocentrized lenses, and as story (re)told? On indigenous stories as shifting, living, knowledge-producing practices, see notably Lee Maracle‘s work (notably her recent Memory Serves: Oratories). See also the spring 2019 JHI workshop “The University and the Challenge of Indigenous Story“.


Abraham Anghik Ruben, Sedna and Raven. Image: Abraham Anghik Ruben’s website


Winged Isis and Osiris, Hellenistic mammisi, Temple of Philae, Egypt. Image: K.Blouin

3. What ancient indigenous stories and data are occluded from dominant narratives on the history of the ancient Mediterranean/’Classical’ world? How can we do better? I find A.L. Stoler’s concept of historical occlusion to be extremely helpful here, when it comes to both ancient evidence and historiography. See her 2016 book Duress. Imperial Durabilities in our Times. The early history of Alexandria and the Mareotide, which I have discussed elsewhere and discussed during my CAC talk, offers a great case of historical and historiographical occlusion (I am currently expanding the analysis in the context of my next monograph project). So are many common historical “tags”. Think of Caesar’s ‘conquest of the Gauls’ or ‘Gallic Wars’, for instance. How would an indigenized approach to this historical event complete the still dominant, hegemonic narrative?

4. How did ancient hegemonic conceptions of indigeneity and the reception of ‘Classical’ Antiquity impact colonial – including religious – practices and policies in (settler) colonies? And vice versa? For one, as I have written elsewhere in this blog, the very concept of “civilization” is intimately linked to this question, and so are current conversations on the Anthropocene. Books that might speak to Antiquity-scholars include Frederick H. Russell’s Just War in the Middle Age, Anthony Pagden’s The Fall of Natural Man. The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology and Claude Corbo’s Jésuites québécois et le cours classique après 1945.


8f3428d62888f6cf1941e7310d7df57bTop: Lionel Royer, Vercingetorix jette ses armes aux pieds de Jules César (1899). Image: Wikipedia Bottom: Marc-Aurèle Suzor-Coté, Jacques Cartier rencontre les Indiens à Stadaconé, 1535 (1907). Image: MNBAQ

As far as studies by Classicists and other Antiquity-scholars are concerned, much remains to be done, especially when it comes to the particular context of Turtle Island and of other white settler colonies outside the Mediterranean and Near East. There is, though, ground for optimism, as Zachary Yuzwa’s CAC talk and a series of recent publications show. One can think of several articles published on Anabase (including Nicolas Faelli’s piece on ancient references among Founding Settlers Figures in 17th c. French America; see also his Ph.D. dissertation) as well of M. Bruchac’s 2017 blog post Encounters in the Cathedral: Revisiting the 1676 Huron-Wendat Wampum Belt at Chartres, France on the Penn Museum Blog, Mike Fontaine’s Aeneas in Palestine published in Eidolon, and the brand new Antipodean Antiquities. Classical Reception Down Under, edited by Marguerite Johnson. I should also mention some related studies, including Denise E. McCoskey’s Race: Antiquity and its Legacy, Phiroze Vasunia’s The Classics and Colonial India, Malcolm Reid’s “Cromer and the Classics: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Greco-Roman Past in Modern Egypt“, Barbara Goff’s edited volume Classics and Colonialism, and Diana Davis’ Resurrecting the Granaries of Rome.

A Case Study: Teaching the Aeneid on Colonized Land (by Aven McMaster)

My CAC talk focused on Indigenization and Classics in connection to the teaching of literature, and in particular the Aeneid. This paper grew from my experience last year teaching a class on Roman Epic in translation, and in particular the classes in which we discussed the second half of the Aeneid.


Ferdinand Bol, Aeneas at the Court of Latinus (1661-1663). Image: Wikipedia


The 1613 Two Row Wampum. Image: Wikipedia

Of course it is common to speak about that part of the story as a colonisation narrative, to talk about the interactions between the invading Trojans under Aeneas and the indigenous Italians led by Latinus and Turnus, and to discuss the resulting merger of the two peoples that results from Aeneas’s victory in the war with the Italians. But that discussion regularly takes place in the context of Mediterranean colonization and Roman imperial history; belatedly (and I acknowledge that it took me far too long to notice this, in part because it had been a while since I last taught the Aeneid) I realized some of the many ways this narrative resonates with the specific history of the place where I was teaching the poem. I had been for several years watching and thinking about my university’s responses to the TRC calls to action concerning higher education, and had been wondering what the place of my department and discipline could be within those responses. In particular, in my teaching of Classical literature, was there any way to reconcile the subject with the aims of indigenization? In thinking about the Aeneid, and talking to my class about my thoughts, I started to see some ways that I could perhaps work toward those goals. The central question guiding my approach was “How does the land that I am teaching on affect my teaching?”, and one key element that emerged as I thought about the Aeneid and the land I was on was the importance of treaties in the epic and in the history of Indigenous peoples (notably the 1613 Two Row Wampum – Gusweñta). You can access my full talk here and my handout here.

Latin literature and Jesuit missionaries in Nouvelle-France: Some reading suggestions (by Zachary Yuzwa)

Our understanding of the early contact period on Turtle Island has been defined by the writings of Jesuit missionaries (especially to New France) whose education, in fact whose entire world view, is permeated with classical learning and the cultural assumptions that undergird it. In this early modern period, Latin serves as a powerful—and polyvalent—cultural marker, not just of a particular learned discipline but of the imperial and colonizing interests its disciples ultimately serve. Though significant advances have been made because of the scholarship of indigenous and settler historians working with archeological evidence and with the oral and recorded histories of First Nations communities, nevertheless our historical narrative relies heavily on texts produced by and for Europeans deeply invested in the colonial project. Latin is more than just a linguistic tool in this context: it conditions the social logic of this encounter, and the consequences of this fact demand study, if we are to understand as fully as possible the experience of indigenous peoples of early Canada in the face of colonization.

Jesuit missionaries in New France produced a massive corpus of texts—in Latin, French and Italian—comprising reports and requests, queries and complaints, histories, hagiographies and sermons. Many such texts—though by no means all—have been collected and edited first by Thwaites and later by Campeau. The corpus logically includes all manner of works produced by Jesuit missionaries in New France and not just the official yearly reports (relations) sent by the head of each mission to the provincial superior in Paris.


John Henry Walker, Cover page of Relations des Jesuites en Canada (1855). Image: Musée McCord

These texts have been an essential witness for the study of early modern Canada. They document some of the earliest contacts between Europeans and the indigenous populations they encountered in the new world. They have been used by academic historians and First Nations peoples in Canada to reconstruct the social and cultural organization of historical indigenous communities and are fundamental to our understanding of this formative period in the European colonization of North America. (Campeau 1987; Trigger, 1976; Beaulieu, 1990; Grégoire 1998; Greer, 2000b, 2005; Blackburn, 2000; Podruchny & Labelle, 2011; Labelle 2013).


Page de titre. Père François du Creux, Historiae Canadensis seu Novae-Franciae… Image: Université de Lyon’s Interface Blog

But these texts are also highly rhetorical literary performances whose diverse aims and audiences produce a stunningly complex corpus. Historians have begun to acknowledge that the Jesuit Relations and related documents are discursive or rhetorical constructions adapted to the needs of author and audience (LaFleche 1989; Ferland 1992; Ouellet 1986, 1990, 1993; Blackburn 2000; Deslandres 2003; True 2007, 2015). It is essential for us to understand that this corpus does not comprise a series of documentary sources. Rather it functions as a fundamental tool in a colonizing process intent on the “production and manipulation of forms of knowledge” (Blackburn 2000, 9). The historical reconstruction of indigenous cultures in early Canada is dependent on a corpus of texts produced by authors whose cultural framework is defined by its interaction with classical literature (Haskell 2010).

Recent scholarship has shown the value of the study of Latin literature in other colonial contexts (Hardwick 2000; Rule 2005; Hardwick & Gillespie 2007; Hardwick & Stray 2008; Haskell and Ruys 2010; Golvers 2010, 2015; Laird 2015). Scholars have interrogated the ways in which early modern authors from China to Mexico to Ghana use the Roman past to reinforce contemporary imperialist impulses (Gilmore 2010; Laird 2010) but also the mechanisms by which Latin might give colonial subjects access to a discourse capable of producing emancipatory or subversive outcomes (Parker 2010).


Detail of Marc Lescarbot’s « Figure de la terre neuve, grande rivière de Canada, et côtes de l’océan en la Nouvelle France » (1609). Image: Wikipedia

More work remains to be done on classical receptions and Latin literature in early North America, but a number of scholars have made significant progress on this path. Jean-François Cottier has edited two volumes of Tangence on Latin literature in New France (Cottier 2010a, 2012a): À la recherche d’un signe oublié: Le patrimoine latin du Québec et sa culture classique  and Nova Gallia: Recherches sur les écrits latins de Nouvelle-France. There is lots of good work in both volumes (and both are freely available on Érudit) from a range of scholars. Cottier also published a piece with John Gallucci and Haijo Westra in the Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin on Latin literature in early “North America”. It is more a survey of what little work has been done (and does not focus on classical receptions in particular), but it is still worth a read. There is also Marie-Christine Pioffet’s monograph, La Tentation de l’épopée, which argues for the influence of epic (including ancient epic poetry) on the literary composition of the Jesuit Relations. A more recent and useful piece, similar in emphasis to those published in Cottier’s volumes, is Barton (2019).


Barton, William. ‘The Georgics off the Canadian Coast: Marc Lescarbot’s Adieu à la Nouvelle-France (1609) and the Virgilian Tradition’, in: Freer, N. and Xinyue, B. (eds) Reflections and New Perspectives on Virgil’s Georgics, London: Bloomsbury (2019): 155–163.

Beaulieu, Alain. Convertir les Fils de Caïn; Jésuites et Amérindiennes Nomades en Nouvelle France, 1632‐1642. Montréal: Nuit Blanche Editeur, 1990.

Blackburn, Carole. Harvest of souls. The Jesuit Missions and Colonialism in North America 1632-1650. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000.

Campeau, Lucien. La Mission des Jésuites chez les Hurons: 1634-1650. Roma: Institutum Historicum S.I., 1987.

Campeau, Lucien. Monumenta Novae Franciae. 9 vols. Roma: Monumenta Hist. Soc. Jesu, 1967-2003.

Cottier, Jean-François, ed. À la recherche d’un signe oublié: Le patrimoine latin du Québec et sa culture classique. Special issue. Tangence 92 (2010a).

Cottier, Jean-François. “Écrits latins en Nouvelle-France (1608-1763): premier état de la question.” Tangence 92 (2010b): 9–26.

——, ed. Nova Gallia: Recherches sur les écrits latins de Nouvelle-France. Special issue. Tangence 99 (2012a)

——. “Le latin comme outil de grammatisation des langues ‘sauvages’ en Nouvelle-France: à propos des notes du P. Louis André sur la langue algonquine outaouoise (introduction, édition du texte latin et traduction).” Tangence 99 (2012b): 99-122.

Cottier, Jean-François, Haijo Westra and John Gallucci. “North America.” In The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin. Edited by Sarah Knight and Stefan Tilg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Deslandres, Dominique. Croire et Faire Croire: les Missions Françaises au XVIIe Siècle. Paris: Fayard, 2003.

Gallucci, John A. “Latin terms and periphrases for Native Americans in the Jesuit Relations.” In Latinity and Alterity in the Early Modern Period. Edited by Y. Haskell and J.F. Ruys. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010.

——. “Décrire les ‘Sauvages’: réflexion sur les manières de désigner les autochtones dans le latin des Relations 1.” Tangence 99 (2012): 19–34.

Gilmore, John. “Sub herili venditur Hasta”: An Early Eighteenth-Century Justification of the Slave Trade by a Colonial Poet.” In Latinity and Alterity in the Early Modern Period. Edited by Y. Haskell and J.F. Ruys. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010.

Golvers, Noël. “From Propertius’s ‘Laudes Italiae (Romae)’ to 17-th century Jesuit ‘Laus Sinarum’: A New Aspect of Propertius’s Reception.” Humanistica Lovaniensia 59 (January 2010): 213-221.

——. “Asia.” In The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin. Edited by Sarah Knight and Stefan Tilg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Greer, Allan. The Jesuit Relations. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000a.

Greer, Allan. “Gender, Race, and Hagiography in New France.” The William and Mary Quarterly 57, no. 2 (Apr., 2000b): 323-348.

Hardwick, Lorna. Translating Words, Translating Cultures. London: Duckworth, 2000.

Hardwick, Lorna and Carol Gillespie, eds. Classics in Post-colonial Worlds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hardwick, Lorna and Christopher Stray, eds. A Companion to Classical Receptions. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

Haskell, Yasmin and J.F. Ruys, eds. Latinity and Alterity in the Early Modern Period. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010.

Haskell, Yasmine. “Practicing What They Preach? Vergil and the Jesuits.” In A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and its Tradition: Medieval and Renaissance Receptions (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2010): 203-16.

Labelle, Kathryn Magee. Dispersed but not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth-Century Wendat People. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013.

Laflèche, Guy. Les Saints Martyrs Canadiens: Histoire du Mythe. Laval: Singulier, 1989.

Laird, Andrew. “Latin in Cuauhtémoc’s Shadow: Humanism and the Politics of Language in Mexico after the Conquest.” In Latinity and Alterity in the Early Modern Period. Edited by Y. Haskell and J.F. Ruys. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010.

Laird, A. “Colonial Spanish America and Brazil.” In The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin. Edited by Sarah Knight and Stefan Tilg. Oxford: OUP, 2015).

Martindale, Charles and Richard F. Thomas, eds. Classics and the Uses of Reception. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

O’Brien “La Franciade de Le Brun : poétique ovidienne de l’exil en Nouvelle-France.” Tangence 99 (2012): 35-60.

Ouellet, Réal. “Le Discours Fragmenté de la Relation de Voyage en Nouvelle France.” Saggi e Ricerchi di Letteratura Francese 25 (1986): 178-99.

Ouellet, Réal. “Le Paratexte Liminaire de la Relation: le Voyage en Amérique.” Cahiers de lʹAssociation Internationale des Etudes Françaises 42 (1990): 177‐192.

Ouellet, Réal, ed. Rhétorique et Conquête Missionnaire: le Jésuite Paul Lejeune. Sillery: Septentrion, 1993.

Parker, Grant. “Can the subaltern speak? The case of Capitein.” In Latinity and Alterity in the Early Modern Period. Edited by Y. Haskell and J.F. Ruys. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010.

Pioffet, Marie‐Christine. La Tentation de lʹépopée dans les Relations des Jésuites. Sillery: Septentrion, 1997.

Podruchny, Carolyn and Kathryn Magee Labelle. “Jean de Brébeuf and the Wendat Voices of Seventeenth-Century New France.” Renaissance and Reformation 34, no.1/2 (Jan. 2011): 97-126.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold. Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791. Cleveland: Burrows Brothers: 1896-1901.

Trigger, Bruce. Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1600. 2 vols. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1976.

True, Micah. “Retelling Genesis: The Jesuit Relations and the Wendat Creation Myth.” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 34, no. 67 (2007): 465‐484.

——. Masters and Students: Jesuit Mission Ethnography in Seventeenth-Century New France. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.

Westra, Haijo. “Références classiques implicites et explicites dans les écrits des Jésuites sur la Nouvelle-France 1.” Tangence 92 (2010): 27–37.

Et pour terminer: More Useful References! (mostly from David Meban, with some additions from the rest of us)

  • Battell Lowman, E., & Barker, A. J. (2015). Chapter 3: It’s Always about the Land. In Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada (pp. 48-68). Winnipeg, Man.: Fernwood.
  • Berry, K. (2007). Exploring the Authority of Whiteness in Education. In R. Carr & D. Lund (Eds.),The Great White North? (pp. 19-32). Rotterdam: Sense.
  • Dunne, E. and Zandstra, R. (2011) Students as change agents. Bristol: ESCalate.
  • Engaging Stakeholders in the Creation of Self-Studies and New Program Development,” in the Quality Insurance Guide produced by the Ontario Universities Council on Quality Assurance.
  • Frideres, J. (2011). Indigenous Ways of Knowing. In First Nations in the Twenty-First Century (pp. 47-64). Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press.
  • Gaudry, Adam, and Danielle Lorenz. (2018). “Indigenization as Inclusion, Reconciliation, and Decolonization: Navigating the Different Visions for Indigenizing the Canadian Academy.” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples 14, no. 3 (September 2018): 218– 27.
  • Gaudry, A. (2016).  Paved with Good Intentions: Simply Requiring Indigenous Content is not Enough. Active History.  Retrieved from
  • Gaudry, A. and Lorenz, D. (2018). Decolonization for the Masses?  Grappling with Indigenous Content Requirements in the Changing Post-Secondary Environment.    In E. Tuck, K. W. Yang, and L. T. Smith (Eds.), Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education (pp. 159-174).  London: England: Routledge.
  • Henry, F., Dua, E., James, C.E., Kobayashi, A., Li, P., Ramos, H., and Smith, M.S. 2017. The Equity Myth. Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities.
  • Kuokkanen, R. 2007. “From Cultural Conflicts to Epistemic Ignorance.” In Reshaping the University: Responsibilities, Indigenous Epistemes and the Logic of the Gift, 49-73. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
  • Maracle, L. (2017). My Conversations with Canadians. Book*Hug Press.
  • Marshall, A. (2017). Two-Eyed Seeing – Elder Albert Marshall’s Guiding Principle for Inter-Cultural Collaboration
  • McKoy, K., Tuck, E., McKenzie, M. (2016). Land Education Rethinking Pedagogies of Place from Indigenous, Postcolonial, and Decolonizing Perspectives, 1st Edition. New York: Routledge.
  • Mihesuah, D.A. and Wilson, A. (Eds).  (2004). Indigenizing the academy:  Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities.  Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Pete, S. (2016) 100 Ways: Indigenizing and decolonizing academic programs.  Aboriginal Policy Studies, 6, 81-89.
  • Smith, J., Puckett, C., & Simon, W. (2015). Indigenous Allyship: An Overview. Waterloo, Ont.: Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, Wilfred Laurier University. Retrieved from
  • Stonechild, B. (2006). Indian Higher Education and Integration. In The New Buffalo: The Struggle for Post-Secondary Education in Canada(pp. 31-43). Winnipeg, Man.: University of Manitoba Press.
  • Denis, V. (2007). Aboriginal education and anti-racist education: Building alliances across cultural and racial identity. Canadian Journal of Education30(4), 1068-1092.
  • Tuck, E. and Wayne Yang, K. (2012). “Decolonization in not a Metaphor“, Decolonization1.
  • Veracini, L. (2015). Chapter 2: Settlers are not Migrants. In TheSettler Colonial Present (pp. 32-48). New York, N.Y.: Palgrave McMillian
  • Veracini, L. (2010). Narratives. In Settler Colonialism: A theoretical overview(pp. 95-116). New York, N.Y.: Palgrave McMillian.
  • Vowel, C. (2016). Indigenous writes: A guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit issues in Canada.Winnipeg, Man.: Highwater Press.

Teaching Cleopatra: Six Classroom Activities

Rachel Mairs

Cleopatras Banner 2

(Top left-bottom right: Yanna McIntosh, Elizabeth Taylor, Theda Bara, Beyoncé, Claudette Colbert, Tamara Dobson, Kim Kardashian West, Denis O’Hare.)

Since 2017, I have run a module called ‘Cleopatras’ (the plural is intentional) in the Department of Classics at the University of Reading.  It is a 10-credit module, with ten hours of contact time, open to second and third year undergraduates.  Class sizes are capped at around 25 students, to allow for better discussion, which means that I have sometimes run the module twice in a single academic year. Since it is relevant to the content of the module, I should state that almost all of my students are white, and speak English as their only language, and there are slightly more women than men.  Students are not required to purchase any specific books, but I advise them that – if they do want to buy their own copies of something from the reading list – they will get the most use out of Prudence Jones’ Cleopatra: A Source Book and Francesca Royster’s Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon.

In addition to the official ‘assessable learning outcomes’, I have several further goals for the module:

  • To get students to realise (if they did not already) that the ancient Mediterranean world was ethnically, racially and linguistically diverse (when the timing coincides, we can also work Black History Month activities into the module);
  • To make students seriously consider what is at stake in the reception of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome in the modern world (e.g. the weaponisation of ancient history by competing modern political ideologies, and recent approaches to Cleopatra and her dynasty in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world);
  • To show how popular culture (e.g. music videos, fashion magazines, films and television shows with no intellectual pretensions) can be the subject of serious and interesting scholarly analysis.

This module is a work in progress.  Every time I run it, I change it, sometimes fundamentally.  I am not going to offer a syllabus or full reading list here, but I would like to share six activities I use in class, with some reflection on what I want them to achieve, and what kinds of results and feedback I typically get.

  1. Who was Cleopatra?

Who Was Cleopatra

My students are mostly on Classics, Ancient History or Archaeology undergraduate degree programmes, although I do get some from other subject areas.  It is really useful for me to get an idea at the very beginning of the course of what their baseline knowledge of Cleopatra is, and what preconceptions they have.  I deliberately do not ask students to write their names on their papers.  Students typically know the answers to 2 (Egypt, but not the date) and 4 (suicide by asp). About 50% know 3 (Ptolemaic). Few answer 5, 6 and 7 correctly. Common responses to 1 are ‘Egyptian’, ‘exotic’, ‘seductress’ (or similar), ‘famous’ and ‘powerful’. The most common answer to 8 is ‘Elizabeth Taylor’, but around 20% of the class are unable to name any.  We revisit this exercise in the final class, and students are able to reflect on not just how their knowledge of ‘facts’ about Cleopatra has changed, but how their perception of these ‘facts’ has too.  For example, being able to answer 7 with ‘Greek’ is one thing, but knowing that Plutarch called Cleopatra the first of her line to learn the Egyptian language opens the door to discussing much more complex political and cultural topics.

  1. A Knowing Wink

Cleo Wink.png

(© 20th Century Fox)

In class, we watch two different cinematic depictions of the same event: Cleopatra’s triumphant entry into Rome.  By this stage in the course, students are familiar with the Roman sources on Cleopatra – and their biases.  We have also compared and contrasted some different stagings of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and looked at how Shakespeare used his primary source material: Thomas North’s (1879) translation of Plutarch’s Lives.

We watch the entry into Rome from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra, starring Claudette Colbert, and the same episode from the 1963 Cleopatra starring Eizabeth Taylor and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  We watch the scenes once all the way through in silence, then again as we discuss them, pausing and interjecting.  Both scenes are fascinating (and can be found easily on YouTube), and every time I run this module we find something new.  Some questions I typically use to get the discussion rolling are:

  • How do the Roman women in the audience react to Cleopatra?
  • How are black people presented? What does this representation say a) about Cleopatra; b) about the position of African Americans at the time the film was made?
  • What is specifically Egyptian about the imagery surrounding Cleopatra? What is the immediate source of this imagery?
  • Do these scenes display a camp aesthetic? Why does Cleopatra wink at the end of the 1963 scene?  What else is subversive in these depictions?
  • What expectations do the film makers have about the background knowledge of their audience about the ancient world? (Everyone always laughs when an actor in the 1934 scene intones ‘Beware the Idea of March!’)
  • What difference did the Hays Code make to how filmmakers depicted Cleopatra?
  1. Foremothers

This is a new activity, which I have not yet run in class (anyone reading from my 2020 cohort: this is your opportunity to get a head start!).  It was inspired by discussions at Racing the Classics II, the Women’s Classical Committee UK and Writing Black Women’s Lives at the Rothermere American Institute.  I would like to thank friends and colleagues at all of these events for the chance to learn from them.

For some students, depending on where you teach, Afrocentric scholarship may be something completely new.  Some may push back; some may simply not understand, because of their own life experiences, why the idea of Cleopatra as a black woman is so important and empowering to so many people.  Some may even have difficulty understanding the symbolic and emotional importance of Cleopatra as an intelligent, politically-astute female ruler.  This exercise is therefore designed to get students to think about, and share, why Cleopatra is significant to them.

For homework, students should read Shelley Haley’s seminal 1993 article “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-empowering”.  They should also read the 2016 BBC article ‘Be Cleopatra not a Kardashian, girls advised’.

The beginnings of Haley’s intellectual journey can be used as a starting point for class discussion:

“Yet, throughout my college and graduate school experience, buried deep in the recesses of my mind was the voice of my grandmother, Ethel Clemons Haley, saying, “Remember, no matter what you learn in school, Cleopatra was black.” Now where did she get an idea like that? Schooled only as far as the seventh grade, never having learned any foreign language, just a domestic servant, a cook, she obviously had no knowledge about Cleopatra or classics or anything else intellectual. So I, the great teacher, used to tell her about the Ptolemies and how they were Greek and how Cleopatra was a Ptolemy and so she was Greek. At one point I even showed her the genealogical tables of the Cambridge Ancient History. “See,” I said, “Cleopatra was Greek!” “Oh,” she said, “and who wrote those books?” I dismissed her question with exasperation and returned to the study of the ancient sources, confident that what I had been taught to see was indeed what was there to be seen.”

Some questions to keep the discussion going:

  • What did your family and friends say when you told them you were taking a module on Cleopatra? Did any of them have particular views on her identity, like Professor Haley’s grandmother?
  • How and why did Professor Haley’s views about Cleopatra’s identity change? Have your own ideas changed?
  • Is Cleopatra a ‘good role model’? Do you agree or disagree with the points made in the BBC article?
  • Was Cleopatra a feminist?
  1. Feed the Trolls

This exercise requires a bit of advance preparation. You need to have a plan for how you, as the notional authority figure in the room (whose job may or may not be secure), are going to handle (diffuse/confront) any racist language or ideas that come up in class discussion.   If you are a white teacher, in particular, reflect on your own responsibilities: both to ‘shut up and listen’ and to step in and hold people accountable (this is a difficult balance, and I do not have any easy answers on how to achieve it).  Be sensitive to the atmosphere in the room, and be particularly on guard against individual students being vulnerable or under attack.  Take advantage of codes of conduct and teaching resources, such as those produced by Teaching Tolerance.   You should arrange to make yourself available, in private, for students who want to talk about what happened in class.  Take on board feedback, particularly from students of colour, and use it to improve your teaching.

The homework I set the week before is as follows:

Cleopatra and Race

The majority of class time is spent discussing the Oxford University Press blog on ‘Cleopatra’s true racial background’ by Duane Roller.

OUP Blog.png

I chose this blog and its comments section because it lacks a lot of the worst features – use of racist and misogynist slurs, ad hominem/mulierem insults, pseudoscholarship – of many online discussions of Cleopatra’s race (although there is a bit of Macedonia vs Greece nationalistic back-and-forth), while still tackling the big issues.  What the comments section of this blog does contain is a lot of apparently ‘reasonable’ ‘well-meaning’ people making superficially plausible, but deep-down, rather problematic points about the construction and claiming of racial identities.  I wanted students to learn how to identify the biases and prejudices in the seemingly scientific and ‘reasonable’.  I also think that the blog post itself is an excellent example of solid, open-minded scholarship which nevertheless misses some very fundamental points:

“To sum up: it is quite possible that Cleopatra was pure Macedonian Greek. But it is probable that she had some Egyptian blood, although the amount is uncertain. Certainly it was no more than half, and probably less. The best evidence is that she was three-quarters Macedonian Greek and one-quarter Egyptian. There is no room for anything else, certainly not for any black African blood.

“Yet all this argumentation is rather silly. What is important about Cleopatra is that she became one of the most powerful rulers of her era. She was a skilled linguist, a naval commander, an expert administrator, a religious leader who was seen by some as a messianic figure, and a worthy opponent of the Romans. She was worshipped in Egypt for at over 400 years after her death. Race seems irrelevant in such a situation, and it goes without saying that people should be judged by their abilities, not their race. But sadly, even in twenty-first century America, this is far from the case. It is unlikely that Cleopatra cared about her racial makeup, but people over 2000 years later still obsess about it, thus trivializing her accomplishments.”

Discussions about Cleopatra’s race are not ‘silly’.  The repeated use of the term ‘blood’ is also deeply troubling, in ways which I do not have the space to go into fully here.  Race, ethnicity and identity are things which people construct.  Ascribing a racial identity on the basis of ‘blood’ takes us back to the Bad Old Days of ‘scientific racism‘.  Check out the comments section: Kate, Shara and George (you may not get it, but you’re a good ally, George) make particularly good points.

  1. Jazz Cleopatra

Josephine Baker.png(Josephine Baker: ‘Jazz Cleopatra’, ‘Nefertiti of Now’, with her cheetah.  Photograph by Piaz Studios of Paris, Early 1930’s. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

In advance of this exercise, I set students to read Stacy Schiff’s Pulitzer-winning Cleopatra: A Life.  They also have to read one more Cleopatra biography of their choice. As well as biographies of the historical Cleopatra, this could include works about someone who played or was inspired by Cleopatra (Josephine Baker, Elizabeth Taylor, Edmonia Lewis).  We divide into groups of five or six students.

Cleo BiographyWe take about fifteen minutes (you could spend a much shorter or longer time on this task) before coming together to share our biography ideas.  I circulate among the groups to answer questions or prompt them if they are ‘stuck’. At least one group usually teases me by pitching the kind of postmodern Cleopatra biography they think aligns with my own scholarly preoccupations (“Rachel, we thought you’d give us a good mark if we put Beyoncé on the cover”).

  1. Cleopatra with a K

I got this one very wrong to begin with.  The first time I ran the Cleopatras module, I made fun of Kim Kardashian dressing up as ‘Kleopatra’ for a Harper’s Bazaar interview.  An anonymous student feedback report on the module pointed out, absolutely correctly, that I shouldn’t have belittled a media-savvy, image-manipulating businesswoman, and I certainly shouldn’t have done it in a class on Cleopatra.

There are numerous ways in which we can look at the popularisation and the commercialisation of the Cleopatra image. I’ve had great class discussions about everything from twentieth-century cosmetics advertising to Sonia Delaunay’s costumes for the Ballets Russes.  To steer class debate away from simple inventory of examples of Cleopatra’s image in popular culture, I set a few basic questions:

Cleo Pop CultureBut let me come back to ‘Cleopatra with a K’ – which is where I tend to end the module – because the 2010 magazine photoshoot I so unjustly mocked turns out to be the perfect way of summing up how ideas about Cleopatra have been transmitted and creatively manipulated.

Kleopatra.png(© Harper’s Bazaar.)

When I show this image to students in the final week of the course and ask them what they see, they have become attuned to some very different signals than they might have picked up in the first week of class. They now see not Cleopatra, but – to use Francesca Royster’s formulation – ‘Liz-Taylor-as-Cleopatra’. Some will recognise the chair from the tomb furniture of Tutankhanum, a much, much earlier ruler of Egypt.  Students tend to comment on the sexualised and racialised nature of the image.  Some may recognise the name of the photographer Terry Richardson, currently under investigation for multiple claims of sexual assault, and ask who is truly in control of/in this photograph.  Most will point out that Kardashian’s Armenian heritage is relevant, and examine how we got to this exoticised image of a generically ‘ethnic’ queen.

In this same issue of Harper’s Bazaar, Kim Kardashian interviews Elizabeth Taylor.  In this interview and elsewhere, Kardashian has repeatedly stated that she considers Taylor an inspiration.  It is more specifically ‘Liz-Taylor-as-Cleopatra’ that she has turned to time and again, such as in a 2015 photoshoot, where make-up artist Pat McGrath created a look that was “Kim Kardashian channeling Elizabeth Taylor channeling Cleopatra”.  This is an opportunity to take students back to our discussion of the costume and production design of the 1963 Cleopatra, including the neglected contribution of Egyptian filmmaker Shadi Abdel Salam.  This takes us further back to the influence of Shakespeare on the 1963 film, and still further back to Plutarch.  Although students may initially be unconvinced of the value of critical analysis of ‘Cleopatra with a K’, the exercise is a good opportunity to reflect on where our most persistent images of Cleopatra come from and what is gained and lost along the way.

Further Reading:

Haley, Shelley P. (1993) “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-empowering,” in Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin (eds.), Feminist Theory and the Classics, 23–43. New York: Routledge.

Haley, Shelley P. (2009) ‘Be Not Afraid of the Dark: Critical Race Theory and Classical Studies’, in L. Nasrallah and E. Schüssler Fiorenza (eds.), Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies, 27-49. Minneapolis, MN.

Jones, Prudence J. (2006) Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Royster, Francesca T. (2003) Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

I would like to thank the Quartet for their perceptive comments on earlier drafts of this post.

Classics, Antiquity and the Anthropocene: Some thoughts

Classics, Antiquity and the Anthropocene: Some thoughts

by Katherine Blouin

“We thought the Earth was dead but the Earth is not dead. And it is striking back at us in the most terrifying ways.”

-Amitav Ghosh on Climate Change, India Today Conclave, March 2, 2019

How do current conversations on the Anthropocene concern Classics and other Antiquity-related disciplines? And what do Classics have to contribute to the “shifting of consciousness” that pertains to the relationship between human beings and the Earth?

I’ve been aware of and preoccupied with the effects of human-driven climate changes since I was a child. I remember writing to my local councilor when I was 10 years old or so to ask for our city to implement recycling programs, and I used to send my pen pals letters wrapped in envelopes made with pages from a Sears catalogue. Thus, I naively thought, we could “save” forests, and maybe help “repair” the Ozone hole that threatened us all (remember that hole? well as it turns out, we actually did repair it). Fast-forward three decades and there I was, an environmental historian of Roman Egypt, watching the movie Anthropocene by myself on a rainy, cold Fall night. My mood was already somewhat melancholic due to a combination of damp weather, bad world news, and midterm exhaustion. The movie was excellent, but it turned out not to be the most uplifting plan I could have thought of. I left the theater so overwhelmed that I hardly slept that night. For its premise made the Ozone hole scare of my childhood look like it was nothing: The Earth we live on has now been thrown out of its habitual system as a result of human (in)actions. The human species has become so overpowering that it has caused the current, sixth mass extinction and has de facto suppressed the next ice age, which was due to take place in at most 50,000 years. No matter how many paper towel rolls we recycle or homemade envelope we make out of recycled paper, this shift cannot be stopped. It is, in many – though not all – ways, too late.

How does this manmade mess relate to Antiquity? Is there even a point to try to make that link, other than surf on the “trend” and, to paraphrase Philippe Leveau’s criticism of catastrophy- and collapse-driven scholarship on the Roman Empire, get funding for our research projects? To put it bluntly: What’s the point? This is the question I posed myself in preparation for the opening keynote I was invited to give at the graduate conference “Classics in the Anthropocene“, which took place at the UofT on April 19-20, 2019.

While a growing number of scholars of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East do think, speak, write and teach about ancient environmental, and at times climatic (hi)stories, not much is available out there that attempts to specifically reflect on the connections between Antiquity and the Anthropocene (one notable exception is Katie Kearns’ work on “Mediterranean archeology and environmental histories in the spotlight of the Anthropocene”, as well as that of Brooke Holmes, who gave the concluding keynote at the “Classics in the Anthropocene” conference). Why is that? The answer might partly reside in the sheer scale of both what the Anthropocene means, and what its implications for our disciplines are.

For both the Anthropocene and academia’s common relationships to ‘modernity’ show through a series of binaries. These are commonly used to articulate the present-day climate crisis and to structure knowledge (production and transmission) about the ancient past: Holocene/Anthropocene; pre-1500/post 1500; human/environment; culture/nature; rational/subjective; ‘West’/’East’; ‘North’/’South’; linear/non linear time. The organizing and legitimizing role played by these binaries within modern worldviews and geopolitics is well attested, and many public intellectuals – Dipesh Chakrabarty, Amitav Ghosh, Bruno Latour, and Naomi Klein to name a few – have justly pointed how limiting and detrimental they are to our understanding of the Anthropocene. Yet the chronological scopes of these discussion is, from an ancient historian’s point of view, strikingly limited, whereas very few voices within the realm of Antiquity-related studies have spoken about these issues. The time might be ripe for a substantial expansion of the voices we include in the conversation. One that is not only spatial and agential, but also chronological. In this post, I propose some reflections on this existential issue. I by no means have any claim to exhaustiveness. Rather, I hope that these gathered thoughts will spark more reflections about the Anthropocene within Antiquity-related fields, and vice versa.

Pre-1500 (geo)history matters

The pre-/post-1500 divide that is at the core of most history curricula worldwide amounts to a fetishized, self-serving chronological boundary between, on the one hand, an “advancing” modernity that starts with European imperial expansion, and, on the other hand, everything that came before. This bipartite organization of historical time feeds into a Eurocentric narrative whereby a future-oriented, modern “us” reigns supreme over a primitive and slower “prehistoric”, “ancient” or “medieval” otherness that is generally rendered through bundles of tropes. Whether they appear in general history books or in theoretically-informed scholarship, passing content regarding ancient “civilizations” or “times” do not suffice. Worst, they are counter-productive. What we need is true engagement of post-1500 scholars with pre-1500 material, and vice versa (though I would say Antiquity scholars are, overall, better at that already). Just like one cannot possibly claim to understand the history of 17th-c. Brazil, China or Egypt while ignoring the broader geopolitics of the day, so we cannot operate in periodical closed cups anymore. And this is all the more true when it comes to reflections about the Anthropocene.

One notable problem with pointing to European colonial Empires as the root of our current climate crisis is that by doing so, one also unduly inflates the levels of novelties brought about by modern European Empires. Let me give you an example: In his wonderful book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh reflects on the historical relationship between the Anthropocene and European imperialism and colonialism. Focusing more particularly on the foundation of coastal settlements by British imperial officials, he highlights how several of these foundations were positioned in “risky” settings:

“But haven’t people always liked to live by the water?

Not really; through much of human history, people regarded the ocean with great wariness. Even when they made their living from the sea, through fishing or trade, they generally did not build large settlements on the water’s edge: the great old port cities of Europe, like London, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Lisbon and Hamburg, are all protected from the open ocean by bays, estuaries, or deltaic river systems. The same is true of old Asian ports: Cochin, Surat, Tamluk, Dhaka, Mrauk-U, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, and Malacca are all cases in point. It is as if, before the early modern era, there had existed a general acceptance that provision had to be made for the unpredictable furies of the ocean – tsunamis, storm surges, and the like.

An element of that caution seems to have lingered even after the age of European global expansion began in the sixteenth century: it was not until the seventeenth century that colonial cities began to rise on seafronts around the world” (p.37)

Being an ancient environmental historian, this passage triggered two immediate responses in me: First, as I wrote in the margin of my copy of the book, “this is nothing new”. Indeed, the very idea of founding and maintaining a city on a strategic location despite the fact that it presents serious hydrological risks – and be it located by the sea, in a delta, by a river or by any other types of (shifting) water body – is by no means a modern phenomenon. Ancient examples, including imperial and colonial foundations, do abound: just think of Gades, Carthage, Puteoli, Leptis Magna, Alexandria (picture 1), Thonis-Herakleion (picture 2) and Tyre (for a longer list, see the Ancient Ports – Ports antiques project).


1. Alexandria’s maritime harbour: “Jondet’s map compared to Google Earth’s picture (20/1/2015) showing the main north breakwater of the ancient Pharos port” Source: Ancient Ports – Ports antiques

2. Reconstitution of Thonis-Herakleion Credits: Yann Bernard, © Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation

What archaeological and literary evidence tell us is that the authorities, economic agents and locals who lived, traded in, and ruled these cities were very aware of the risks that came with these locations, yet knowingly taking these risks because of the outgrowing benefits that were perceived to come with the said location. As a general rule of thumb, it seems that the more potential benefits came with a location, the more open (and resilient) to risk a settlement was, and still is. This is compellingly exemplified in the Roman period by the case of the Rhone Delta (picture 3).


3. “Ancient coastline near Marius’ canal” Image: Ancient Ports – Ports antiques; from Provansal et al, 2003

A series of multidisciplinary studies in this area by French geoarchaeologists and historians since the 1990s has led to a completely renewed understanding of sites such as Arles (ancient Arelate), the nearby Barbegal mills, and Marius’ canal (picture 3), as well as to a ground-breaking reassessment of the ways in which ancient Mediterranean societies interacted with “attraction and risk” (there are many relevant publications; see for instance Leveau’s 2004 article on Arles and the Rhone and Cécile Alline’s 2007 study on “Roman Cities and Floods”).

Second, when it comes to settlements located by a body of water, we ought to adopt a broader hydrological approach that takes into account all intersecting waterscapes. Take the case of ancient Rome: As Ghosh rightfully points out, the city was not located by the sea, but by the Tiber river. This can be interpreted as a defensive mechanism: a fluvial foundation offers protection from sea-borne floods, erosion and salinization, as well as from invaders, for instance. But it can also, at the same time, proceed from proactive and opportunistic (to refer to Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s seminal The Corrupting Sea) considerations: Better control of fluvial traffic (including coming from the sea), access to fresh water, better defensive potential. Now a Tiberine location did not come without its own potential risks either: the marshy lowlands between the city’s seven hills were originally marshy, and so had to be drained (thanks to Etruscan expertise), and the Tiber was prone to floods and its course could shift. Further, the case of ancient Rome cannot be disconnected from that of Ostia, its deltaic fluvial harbor, and of Portus, its maritime harbor, whose foundation in the early Principate followed the silting up of Ostia between the 1st c. BCE and the 1st c. CE (since the early 2000s, the site of Portus is the subject of a multidisciplinary research project led by Simon Keay from the University of Southampton).


4. Map of Ostia and its delta. Source: J.Ph. Goiran et al. (2012), “Port antique d’Ostie

In many ways, Ostia and Rome formed a coherent unit, and one could also argue that this unit included many other, more distant harbors, from Puteoli to Carthage to Alexandria. Just like the modern examples provided by Ghosh, the fate of these ancient cities-harbors is inseparable from imperial geopolitics, and this is how their relationship to the environmental uncanny must be understood.

Ghosh’s thesis thus overestimates the novelties brought about by “modernity”, and minimizes the numerous continuities known by pre-1500 scholars. This is by no means an isolated case. Rather, it is the norm: I bet you that should the list of ‘novelties’ brought about by the British Empire be submitted to socio-economic historians of the ancient world, the list would be reduced by a great, great deal. As I’ve written above, this truncated, modernity-focused approach to the Anthropocene illustrates the widespread, systemic lack of conversation between scholars of Antiquity – and everything pre-1500 for that matter – and the rest of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Think of Edward Said’s limited discussion of ancient Greek sources in Orientalism, which might be the weakest part of his book. If he, and so many scholars, even within Classics, cannot relate to anything ancient beyond the hegemonic, Eurocentric “Classical” canon, who can? For general knowledge about Antiquity remains abysmal not only within wider audiences, but also among most Humanists and Social Scientists, including those with a “Classical” training. Likewise, the quasi absence of Antiquity from public discourses and media tends to confine whatever is covered in the media to Eurocentric or Orientalist tropes, which, although they are increasingly challenged by scholarly voices, remain more often than not misinterpreted and instrumentalized for racist, fascist and/or neocolonial ends. Think for instance of Jordan Peterson’s appalling use of Babylonian myths, as evidenced by Emily Pothast, or of the appropriation of Greco-Roman Antiquity by hate groups that the online project Pharos and Donna Zuckerberg’s latest monograph document.

Let me give you another example from The Great Derangement:

“Before the advent of the carbon-intensive technology, the populations of the “old world” were not divided by vast gaps in technology. For millennia, trade connections were close enough to ensure that innovations in thoughts and techniques were transmitted quite rapidly over long distances. Even “deep”, long-term historical processes sometimes unfolded at roughly the same time in places far removed from each other. The vernacularization of languages is an example of one such: as Sheldon Pollock has shown, this process began almost simultaneously in Europe and in the Indian subcontinent. The stimulus may also have been the same in both instances, consisting of the forces set in motion by the Islamic expansion.” (p.94)

I very much would like to be provided with specific examples, be they from Pollock’s book or from elsewhere. Second, did the vernacularization of languages really came about following the Islamic expansion in Europe and Asia? The papyrologist in me must ask: What about Greek koine? What about Alexandrian Greek, which was even the subject of a monograph by Jean-Luc Fournet? What about, more generally, the thousands upon thousands of ancient documentary papyri, ostraca, tablets and graffiti, whose geographical scope ranges, beyond Egypt where most of the finds come from, from Britain to Afghanistan? These are actual ancient documents written by actual ancient people, with all the mistakes and vernacular variations it implies. As such, they document many processes of/comparable to vernacularization that date from way before the Islamic expansion that are otherwise almost impossible to detect in traditional (read literary) “Classical” sources. While it may just be that this statement needs some clarification and nuance, my informed guess is that it true engagement with pre-Islamic everyday writings in the Mediterranean and Near East would greatly benefit such discussions, and lead to a complication and chronological adjustment of this model.

What does it mean to say that “modernity” is the compounded outcome of everything that came before, Antiquity-included? How does “modernity” color our reading of Antiquity? Why? What is thus left out? And can we do better? I like to think so.

Risk, agency, and history beyond the human

“One of the main puzzles of Western history is not that “there are people who still believe in animism”, but the rather naive belief that many still have in a de-animated world of mere stuff; just at the moment when they themselves multiply the agencies with which they are more deeply entangled every day. The more we move in geostory, the more this belief seems difficult to understand”.

-Bruno Latour (2014), “Agency at the Time of the Anthopocene”

“[T]he reemergence of voices like [Max] Scheler’s within the ecological and environmental movement (as well as within anticolonialist discourses) signals the insufficiency, if not inadequacy, of the liberal tradition in dealing with the crises in the natural habitat, and hence with the self as being itself the seat of the problem. That is to say, the required changes are wide and deep, going into the very values of the modern subject and no less into the very technologies of the self that can reconstitute not only a new conception of rationality but also, and equally importantly, certain types of ethical formation.”

-Wael B. Hallaq (2018) Restating Orientalism. A Critique of Modern Knowledge, 256

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the ancient history and the Anthropocene collide. One important way in which they do so, as I hope to have shown, is through the notion of ‘risk’ (understood as the produce of a hazard and a vulnerability), a concept which is very akin to what Ghosh calls the ‘uncanny’. Ancient environmental ‘crises’ might have unfolded before the time of the Anthropocene, but they did impact, and they were dealt with by, human societies through religious, cultural, economic, and political mechanisms. Now if one takes aside technological advances and the intricacies of each particular historico-cultural contexts, these human responses to risk/uncanniness share several, fundamental features. In a way, they form a thread that not only runs throughout human history, but also transcends it. I introduced the cases of Rome and of the Rhone Delta above through a socio-economic angle, but we could also very well look at these examples through the lens of foundational narratives. In this regard, ancient stories – whether we call them myth or not – have a lot to teach us about how our species approached the uncertainties of the world. Take for instance Livy‘s famous account of the founding myth of Rome:

“But the Fates had, I believe, already decreed the origin of this great city and the foundation of the mightiest empire under heaven. The Vestal was forcibly violated and gave birth to twins. She named Mars as their father, either because she really believed it, or because the fault might appear less heinous if a deity were the cause of it. But neither gods nor men sheltered her or her babes from the king‘s cruelty; the priestess was thrown into prison, the boys were ordered to be thrown into the river. By a heaven-sent chance it happened that the Tiber was then overflowing its banks, and stretches of standing water prevented any approach to the main channel. Those who were carrying the children expected that this stagnant water would be sufficient to drown them, so under the impression that they were carrying out the king’s orders they exposed the boys at the nearest point of the overflow, where the Ficus Ruminalis (said to have been formerly called Romularis) now stands. The locality was then a wild solitude. The tradition goes on to say that after the floating cradle in which the boys had been exposed had been left by the retreating water on dry land, a thirsty she-wolf from the surrounding hills, attracted by the crying of the children, came to them, gave them her teats to suck and was so gentle towards them that the king’s flock-master found her licking the boys with her tongue. According to the story his name was Faustulus. He took the children to his hut and gave them to his wife Larentia to bring up. Some writers think that Larentia, from her unchaste life, had got the nickname of `She-wolf’ amongst the shepherds, and that this was the origin of the marvellous story.” (Livy, The History of Rome Book 1.4, Roberts 1912 transl., my bold)

I could have quoted so many other ancient narratives, so many stories that would qualify as “mythical” or “religious” in the western sense of the word, be it the Gilgamesh epic, the Heliopolitan creation myth (picture 5), the Odyssey, the Vedas, the Bible, etc.

COMPASS Title: Vignette from the Book of the Dead of Nesitanebtashru;Book of the Dead5. The Greenfield Papyrus (EA10554,87) = Book of the Dead of Nestanebetisheru, sheet 87: Geb (Earth), Nut (Sky) and Shou (Air), Deir el-Bahari, Egypt, c.950-930 BCE Image: The British Museum

I picked this passage because this is one of my favorite stories to teach; one that strikingly involves a diverse, intersectional array of (non-)human agents: the Fates, the Vestal priestress, Mars, the king, the cradle bearers, the Tiber, the she-Wolf, Faustulus, Larentia. The description of the landscape, and its intersection with the role of sexualized female protagonists (a raped priestress of Vesta, goddess of the Hearth; a breastfeeding she-wolf; a possibly promiscuous “wife”), are infused with societally-anchored, sacred meanings that I don’t have space to expand on here. But the one crucial element of this story I want to emphasize here is the role of the flooding Tiber.


6. Altar to Mars and Venus, Ostia, reign of Trajan, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Image: Wikimedia

It is the river in flood who saved the twins. More, it is the timing of the boys’ cradle’s exposition on the edges of the river’s high waters, and of its ensuing landing on dry land as the flood receded, that saved them, allowing for the she-wolf to reach, and nurse, them. In that regard, the 2nd c. CE altar to Mars and Venus found in Ostia and now at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (picture 6) offers a powerful visual complement to Livy’s narrative: Portrayed, as it was the custom by then, as a lounging, bearded man and positioned at the bottom right corner of the scene, the Tiber looks over the twins as they suckle onto the breasts of the she-wolf.  One could thus argue that the flooding Tiber is the main character of the story; it is he who ultimately saves the life of the twins. It is, metaphorically and literally, Rome’s navel. The very hydric risk Rome was to be wary of throughout its history was also the very actor thanks to which its founder was kept alive. While Livy’s own narration does indicates that this story was already subject to different interpretation in Antiquity, to label it as an ancient “myths” might well be too limiting and anachronistic.

This brief example poses the question of the limitations of current forms of historiographical writings and methodologies used by scholars working on Antiquity. Let’s be real: What is valued as “rationality” in western scholarship is nothing but a harnessed, period-specific type of subjectivity that goes back to the Enlightenment. Now given that Enlightenment scholars were themselves nourished by a particular set of (elitist, hegemonic, male, literary) representations of Antiquity, we find ourselves confined to a circular reasoning that excludes many voices from the equation, and thus provide a too limited set of epistemological models. As the quote from Wael B. Hallaq in the opening of that section argues, this issue calls for a critique and an expansion of the narrow notion of the “self” as it is currently shaped in most neoliberal, so-called “western” societies.

What does it mean to recognize that beyond the pro-Augustus undertone of Livy’s work, his testimony also documents indigenous forms of knowledge? How does our grasp of that story change if we step back from the western, “rational”, anthropocentric tradition and acknowledge that Mars, the Tiber and the she-wolf are active protagonists endowed with agency? More broadly: What if we understand ancient “myths” as Indigenous stories that both produce, process, and transmit knowledge? What if we accept more widely that, in line with Bruno Latour’s reflection quoted above, different “geostorical” paradigms have always existed, including alongside the modernist, Eurocentric tradition? What if we get rid of the idea, often implied, whereby Judaeo-Christian monotheism is more sophisticated, and “advanced” than other “religious” systems/traditions? How would that impact our understanding of the scene depicted in picture 7 for instance? What would indigenized Classics and Antiquity-related knowledge look like? In that regard, Classicists and other Antiquity-related scholars and teachers have a lot to contribute. And to (un)learn.


7. Isis nursing Horus-Harpokrates in the Nile Delta’s marshes; mammisi of Philae, Ptolemaic period

As a graphic saying from Québec says, some people only smell shit once their nose is immersed in it. The Anthropocene is one of those scenarios. The current climate crisis is taking place on such an broad, ungraspable scale that it forces us to rethink the way modern States, corporations, and consumerist societies interact with, see, and live on this planet. By the same token, it confronts us to the not only limited, but in many ways detrimental nature of the ways in which knowledge is produced in the European, “western” tradition. As Dipesh Chakrabarty writes:

“what scientists have said about climate change challenges not only the ideas about the human that usually sustain the discipline of history but also the analytic strategies that postcolonial and postimperial historians have deployed in the last two decades in response to the postwar scenario of decolonization and globalization” ((2008), « The Climate of History: Four Theses », 198)

The implications of such a realization are profound: they pertain not only to the way research is conducted, but also to how curricula are built, programs designed, disciplinary barriers – including the subjective divide between Nature and Culture – (de)constructed. We need to expand, diversify and indigenize the way we look at the world. And to do so, we need to let in more voices, more perspectives, more traditionally marginalized and indigenous outlooks on the Earth, on time, on space. It is not a matter of excluding or completely discrediting current, hegemonic voices, but rather of fostering polyphonic discussions involving a broader range of positionalities, agency webs, and subjectivities. It is, in sum, a matter of making the way we approach the Earth, and our place in it, more in tune with and receptive to what the Earth, and our species, look like. I thus agree with this Heather Davis and Zoe Todd when they write:

“We call here for those studying and storying the Anthropocene to tend to the ruptures and cleavages between land and flesh, story and law, human and more-than-human. Rather than positioning the salvation of Man – the liberation of humanity from the horrors of the Anthropocene – in the technics and technologies of the noösphere, we call here for a tending once again to relations, to kin, to life, longing, and care.” (p.775)

This call is in line with Katie Kearn’s plea regarding the study of past human-environment relationships by archaeologist, which might as well apply to all scholars working on ancient history:

“Attending more substantively to the study of past human environment relationships requires the reempowering of “land” in landscape and to include investigations not only on the instrumentality of politically charged and socially constructed spaces and places but also on things such as trees, soils, or pollen that participate in expected and imagined conditions or ecological challenges in flux.” (p.4)

The Anthropocene and its possible antidotes are, in a way deeper fashion than is generally assumed, shaped by complex and multilayered webs of historical dynamics, some of which can be traced back to Antiquity. Moreover, modern imperialism, colonialism, and neoliberalism suppose self-fashioning mechanisms that rely notably on highly curated readings of ancient ‘Greek’ and ‘Roman’ hegemonies. As long as we don’t come to terms with the full length, depth, and multifaceted tapestry of (geo)history, our grasp of what the Anthropocene means and our ability to imagine potent approaches to what Ghosh aptly calls “the unthinkable” will be severely hindered. We owe it to ourselves, and to the Earth, to do better.

Papyri, Classics and what-not: Topics, tongues and occluded histories at the International Congresses of Papyrology

Papyri, Classics and what-not: Topics, tongues and occluded histories at the International Congresses of Papyrology

By Katherine Blouin

To anyone reviewing the history of classical scholarship as it is written by its practitioners today, the most glaring lacuna in it remains the failure to explore the ramifications of a book already twenty-five years old and with direct relevance to the field. There is no developed history of classical scholarship that takes into account the intersection of the discipline with European colonialism and imperialism from the 1700s to the 1900s. For reasons that are of considerable interest, scholars seem to be unable or uninterested in exploring the collusion between Classics and empire, despite the indisputable evidence for such collusion. If Said’s powerful demonstration of the relationship between Orientalist discourse and European colonial power seems not to have inspired similar work about the field of classics, within and without the discipline, then we are obliged to interrogate this resistance to the politics of Classical scholarship, and in particular to the coincidence between Classics and Empire.

– Ph. Vasunia 2003, 7

As to colonialism, I fear that we have here a classic case of scholars of antiquity grabbing at a modern critical wave long after it has passed its peak. Much of what Said had to say about orientalism has been demolished by subsequent scholars; it was at best reductive at the time. That’s my view, anyway. But is this really the place to make an argument for its continuing utility? I would not think so, because its link to what we see in the analysis of the congresses is at best indirect, if not wholly fictitious.

-Referee 1 2017; report on the joint paper submitted by Blouin, Gad and Mairs to the editors of the 28th ICP Proceedings

This post stems from a contribution originally presented at the 28th International Congress of Papyrology (henceforth ICP; Barcelona, 2016) as part of a tripartite thematic panel entitled “Inside Out: An Introspective Look at Papyrology Through its International Congresses”, which was co-organized by Usama Ali Gad, Rachel Mairs and myself and whose main data are now available on this blog. It discusses the ancient languages, periods, places, topics, and concepts that were the focus of oral and written papers during the past ICP as they appear in the congresses’ programs and proceedings, as well as the languages used for oral presentations and publications in the proceedings. In lieu of a conclusion, an addendum offers some preliminary data on the committee of the Association Internationale des Papyrologues (henceforth AIP). These are meant to offer a broader, institutional complement to the papers offered during this workshop.

Introduction: P.Congress‘ (occluded) voices

Thus, the effort is to understand that occlusion is an ongoing, malleable process, sometimes in a form already congealed and seemingly over as it acts on the present, making of us unwittingly compliant observers, nearly always belated in identifying just how it works.

-A.L. Stoler 2016, 14

Like any corpus, the ICP’s programs and proceedings have potentialities and limits. For a variety of reasons, they are not entirely representative of the field of papyrology: not all scholars associating with the field did attend these conferences, and when they did, they might not have done so continuously; the groupings of talks into panels and the topics of plenary sessions were made by the organizers and thus cannot speak to how individual speakers conceived of the themes dealt with in their papers; individual papers can only testify to a particular aspect of one’s scholarly output as far as topics and languages are concerned. Yet despite these pitfalls and because of their all-at-once longitudinal, institutional and international nature, I suggest that what we have called for convenience sake P.Congress offers a promising window into how the discipline self-fashioned and (re)produced its content (themes) and shape (panels, modern languages used) in the longue durée. By the same token, it allows thus us to assess how these trends do (not) intersect with issues that affected academia and the wider world between 1930 and 2016. It does so not only because of the data it contains, but also, crucially, because of what is not there; what Ann Laura Stoler refers to as “occluded histories” in her book Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times. For Stoler, “colonial constraints and imperial dispositions have tenacious presence in less obvious ways” (Stoler 2016 4). I argue that such colonial presences can be found in the way Papyrology (like most Antiquity-related fields) has been organized, performed, and displayed since its inception at scholarly venues such as the ICPs and the AIP, whose mandate it is to oversee papyrological outputs such as the ICP[1].

To what extent do the themes, topics, languages that are almost or entirely absent from the ICPs testify to layers of occlusion within the field? To what extent can we identify variations or stagnation of such occlusions over time? How can the data compiled in preparation for our “Inside Out” panel participate to broader self-reflective discussions within the field? How can the anonymized referees’ reports on the joint, non-anonymized paper Gad, Mairs and myself submitted to the editors of the 28th ICP Proceedings help, by their form as well as their content, illuminate the power structures at play and the discursive mechanisms of colonial presences and occlusions in the field? How can we make sense of the incommensurability between what we know exists elsewhere (in papyri, in academia, in the world) and what/who is not in the ICPs corpus and AIP’s establishment? Just like Stoler’s, my approach is not about ” “fault finding” and judgment but about restoring the forms that occlusion takes and the questions that its effects may lead us to ask” (Stoler 2016 14). By doing so, I hope to contribute to wider conversations on the history, nature and future of papyrology in particular, and of Classics and other Antiquity-related disciplines by extension.

Themes, topics, and concepts (Annex 1)

All talks have been indexed with relevant keywords. These were established on the basis of the title of the talk, its abstract, as well as, whenever needed, the article published in the Proceedings. The data is too dense for me to attempt an in-depth discussion of all topics covered during all ICPs here. Instead, I shall focus on the sessions these papers were grouped into. If we exclude a small number of colloquia/workshops[2], sessions were conceived and named by the organizers. As such, they partly proceed from the particular set of abstracts of each ICP, but also bear witness to historiographical and epistemological trends within the field.

Based on the available documentation, the papers offered during the 1st to 8th ICP (1930-1955) were generally not numerous enough to be grouped in sessions. The only exception is the 5th ICP (Oxford 1937; see Hombert 1938, xi). The first session titles we could find are those of the 9th ICP (“Reports from papyri collections”; Oslo 1958), but the practice doesn’t become the norm until the 16th congress (NYC 1980). The descriptive nature of most session titles conveys the logic behind the groupings. A great variety of titles are attested, but several ones (i.e. “literary papyri/papyrology”, “Herculanum papyri” and “Unpublished papyri”) reappear consistently. Congresses whose programs proceed from the most varied sets of organizing principles (14) are the most recent ones (24th, 27th and 28th). This phenomenon may result from the growth of the discipline and more nuanced approaches to the nature and potential of papyri.

As can be seen in Annex 1, the overall logic underlying sessions (and talks) remains the same throughout the history of the Congress. A first level of distinction exists between sessions on methodology and historiography (including studies of papyri collections) and those focusing on papyri. Sessions belonging to the latest category can systematically be subdivided into two themes: Materiality (writing support, writing implements, palaeography, restoration), and content (unpublished papyri, literary papyri, documentary papyri). Within the latest subcategory, the divide between literary and documentary papyri is a fundamental one, as is the habit of grouping literary papyri from Herculaneum in separate sessions. This compartmentalized approach, which mirrors the philology/history divide, has important limitations, which Jean-Luc Fournet laid out during a plenary session at the 27th ICP (Fournet 2013).

An illustration of the pitfalls of such traditional groupings is the case of “para-”, “sub-”, or “semi-” literary papyri (Table 1). Texts related to medicine, astronomy, astrology, religion, magic, music, as well as school exercises have traditionally been treated as literary ones[3]. For this very reason perhaps, they have, until recently, attracted considerably less interest than fragments of « Classical » authors or Biblical texts.

Para-/Sub-/Semi-literary papyriX X  XX
Paraliterary and figurativeX      
Scholastic textX      
Literary and semi-literary papyri  X    
Subliterary texts     X 
Paraliterary papyri – Medicine      X
School texts      X
School texts and scribal practices      X
Astronomy and astrology      X

Table 1: Sessions dedicated to para-/sub-/semi-literary papyri

The first sessions dedicated to such documents took place in 1998, during the 22nd ICP (Florence). They were respectively dedicated to “paraliterary and figurative texts”, as well as to “scholastic texts”. The 24th ICP program (Helsinki 2004) includes one session on “literary and semiliterary papyri”, and a session on “subliterary papyri” took place at the 27th one (Warsaw 2013). The program of the latest, 28th congress included four sessions dedicated to medical, school, astrological, and astronomical texts.

That there were enough talks to form one, then a few sessions dedicated to such genres indicates the growing interest of papyrologists for these types of texts. Yet the varying prefixes used during the 22nd, 24th, and 27th ICP, and the fact that papers dedicated to different “paraliterary” genres were at times lumped together, highlight the challenges associated with fitting these non-canonical texts within standard categories, whose origins go back to the early stages of the discipline. Such a phenomenon can also be observed with papers focusing on non-Greek papyri, as we shall see below.

From a theoretical and methodological point of view, two main trends emerge from the ICP’s programs (both talks and sessions): A limited level of engagement with post-colonial theory, methodologies, and topics on the one hand, and a pioneering interest in the digital humanities on the other (Table 2).


Table 2: ICP panels named after post-colonial theories, methods and themes

The post-colonial themes that have been of most interest to papyrologists are the use of digital technologies for papyrology, topics related to space (including toponymy and topography), as well as Graeco-Egyptian bilingualism. One also notes one panel on affects and emotions. Given the substantial impact of feminist and gender theories and, more recently, of environmental history on the humanities and social sciences, the absence of sessions dedicated to them is particularly noticeable.

Capture d’écran 2019-03-03 à 07.01.11

Table 3: Topics of plenary panels at the ICP

Apart from a plenary panel at the 25th ICP (Ann Arbor 2007) and Roberta Mazza’s plenary talk during the 28th one, ethical issues surrounding the illicit excavation and trade of papyri have attracted close to no attention, and so have postcolonial approaches to the history of the field, whose quasi absence is striking in the light of the long-lasting, and ongoing impact they have had on most fields within the Humanities and Social Sciences. It is not to say that no papyrologists have worked on such questions and approaches in other contexts and venues. Yet the lack of representation of postcolonial scholarship within the programs and proceedings does testify to the more conservative nature of the field, a characteristic which papyrology shares with most Antiquity-related disciplines, Classics and Egyptology included. Inversely, a plenary panel on “Computer uses in papyrology” at the 12th ICP (Ann Arbor 1968), and the recurrence of this topics in numerous sessions and in two plenaries since then is in line with the ground breaking digital work done by papyrologists over the past 50 years. In that regard, the discipline is well ahead of many other Humanities fields. If one excludes the three plenaries just mentioned, plenary sessions appear as opportunities to reflect on issues pertaining to disciplinary “state of the field” or recent scholarship on particular groups of texts (defined by period, genre, language or origin; Table 3).

Places, languages, and scripts (Annexes 2 and 3)

Annex 2 shows the sites/regions discussed in each ICP. In total, 15 different sites or regions are attested. One notes a gradual increase in the number of places represented. Yet despite such qualitative diversity, the vast majority of talks deal with Egyptian documents. This comes as no surprise given the geographical distribution of papyri. The Herculaneum papyri make up the second best represented corpus. Texts found elsewhere tend to be discussed shortly after their discovery/edition. Only a few corpora are represented in more than one ICP, a trend that must be understood in the light of the limited size of these non-Egyptian documentary samples.

Languages/scriptsTotal ICP1st ICP
Greek281 (1930)
Greek dipinti126 (2010)
Latin261 (1930)
Demotic242 (1931)
Coptic232 (1931)
Arabic143 (1933)
Aramaic116 (1939)
Egyptian (general)714 (1974)
Hieratic74 (1935)
Hieroglyphics66 (1939)
Hebrew66 (1939)
Old Nubian512 (1968)
Nabatean318 (1974)
Pahlavi219 (1989)
Cuneiform15 (1937)
Carian113 (1971)
Syriac114 (1974)
Meroitic112 (1968)
Armenian122 (1998)
Unknown language116 (1980)
Tachygraphy/stenography311 (1965)
Bi-/Multilingual pap.76 (1939)

Table 4: Ancient languages in ICP talks sorted by the total number of congresses where they feature

20 ancient languages and scripts are attested throughout the history of the ICP (Table 4). Greek dominates (28 ICP), followed closely by Latin (26 ICP), Demotic (24 ICP), Coptic (23 ICP), Arabic (14 ICP), and Aramaic (11 ICP). The quasi-absence of papers dedicated to hieratic papyri seems to stem from the fact that Hieratic (7 ICP) was very early on categorized as “belonging” to Egyptology. The same logic must be invoked when it comes to understanding why, even though Latin remained marginal in the eastern Mediterranean (that is the region where most papyrological texts come from) throughout the Roman period, Latin documents were discussed in more conferences than Demotic and Coptic ones. That papyrology was originally – and still is in the eyes of many scholars – conceived as a by-product of Classics certainly plays a role here (see Keenan 2009).

While many papyrologists still argue that they do, in fact, “belong” to the Classics, a more inclusive (and recent) conception of the discipline defines it as the study of ancient handwritten texts on particular types of writing supports (papyrus, ostraca, leather, wax or wooden tablets, bones), no matter their language, script or origin. This tension is already visible in the first 3 ICPs, where all five main languages and scripts are the subject of at least one talk (Annex 3).

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Table 5: Panels named after language(s) at the ICP

Talks given at the 1st ICP only focus on Greek and Latin papyri, but Demotic and Coptic appear at the 2nd congress, and Arabic at the 3rd (but only to reappear at the 23rd ICP). Nevertheless, discussions of non-Greek or bilingual papyri remain marginal, especially before the 1980s. The tendency to isolate these documents in separate panels also speaks to the tension between an enduring « Classico-centric » conception of the field and its gradual re-articulation in the light of more recent studies on bilingualism and multilingualism in Antiquity, as well as diachronic approaches to ancient history and culture. Most often, instead of being grouped on the basis of the topic, issues or period discussed, they are joined together in a monolingual (and often pluri-scriptural in the case of Egyptian) panel (Table 5). Such linguistic compartmentalization echoes the organization of manuscript collections according to language and script, which is behind the dismembering of several coherent, multilingual papyrological archives (see Blouin 2016).

Modern languages

These languages [ancient Greek, Latin, German, French and Italian] are the tools of the trade, but they are also metonyms for the philological traditions that we are expected to put on a convincing show of knowing — with, say, the occasional name-check of Wilamowitz. Once you decide to get serious about the field, you learn to take these traditions for granted as the most inherently valuable. The history of European classical scholarship is entangled with the esteem that Greek and Latin have enjoyed in countries where German, French, Italian, or English is spoken. Many scholars who identify with the European classical tradition assume that any scholarship worth reading, or at least citing, will be in one of those four languages.

J. Hanink 2016

Table 6 summarizes the fate of all four official AIP languages throughout the history of the ICP. The four official languages of the ICP (French, German, Italian, and German) have been the same since the origin of the congress[4]. Their status must be understood within the wider imperial context of the time, which is also the period when Classical, Near Eastern, and Egyptological studies developed (Goff 2013; Marchand 2005; Reid 2002 and 2015; Vasunia 2003 and 2013). While English reigns supreme in most disciplines within the Humanities and Social Sciences, Antiquity-related fields such as Classical Studies, Egyptology, and Papyrology have been able to maintain a higher degree of scholarly multilingualism despite the clear growth of English in all but a few niche fields. Once again, this phenomenon is not disconnected from the conservative (and traditionally élitist) nature of these disciplines (Goff 2013; Vasunia 2013).

ICPNumber of talks% English% French% German% Italian%Other
1 (Brussels 1930)19165316105 (modern Greek)
2 (Leiden 1931)30104730130
3 (Munich 1933)25161256124 (ancient Greek)
4 (Florence 1935)39102823390
5 (Oxford 1937)6448113380
6 (Paris 1939)71215513101 (Latin)[5]
7 (Geneva 1952)1127551800
8 (Vienna 1955)31192348100
9 (Oslo 1958)3027273736 (Latin?)
10 (Warsaw 1961)3213374730
11 (Milan 1965)542020173112 (1 Latin;

5 Spanish)

12 (Ann Arbor 1968)65512314111 (Spanish)
13 (Marburg-Lahn 1971)67301933135 (1 Latin; 2 Spanish)
14 (Oxford 1974)102621610120
15 (Brussels 1978)68372910230
16 (NYC 1980)102561512170
17 (Naples 1983)17837144450
18 (Athens 1986)10846165303 (1 Spanish; 2 Greek)
19 (Cairo 1989)168501611185 (6 Arabic; 1 modern Greek; 1 Spanish)
20 (Copenhagen 1992)96531811180
21 (Berlin 1995)180441423190
22 (Florence 1998)166431612290
23 (Vienna 2001)152441220240
24 (Helsinki 2004)148571112200
25 (Ann Arbor 2007)1488271100
26 (Geneva 2010)189581612140
27 (Warsaw 2013)25772107110
28 (Barcelona 2016)2817983100

Table 7: Modern languages at the ICP

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Graph 1: Modern languages in P.Congress

In the case of papyrology, the close connection with Classics, the bias in favour of Greek and Latin, and the distribution of papyrological collections/research poles mean that the best basin of recruitment for future papyrologists have traditionally been found in Europe and North America. For, as emphasized by Johanna Hanink in the quote provided at the start of this section, this is where the “myths” of a direct connection between European nation-States and the “Classical world” justifies an enduring (though increasingly threatened) valorisation of Greek and Latin learning in secondary schools. A similar phenomenon, coupled with the very origin of the Herculaneum papyri, explains the prevalence of Italian within the sub-field of literary papyrology, whereas the strength of German in the sub-field of juristic papyrology might stem from Germany’s enduring leadership role (together with Italy) in the broader fields of Roman law and legal history.

Table 7 and graphs 1-6 allow for some, general observations: One must distinguish between sharp peaks, which indicate that the language in question was the one spoken in the country where that year’s ICP took place (or that it was, like the case of Poland with German, French, and English shows, a dominant second language), and the general trajectory of a language.

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Graphs 2 and 3: French and German at the ICP

French and German have been experiencing a steady decline, especially since after WWII. The case of Italian is slightly different. The Bell curve-like graph visible between the 1978 and 2004 ICP reflects the development of literary papyrology (notably Herculaneum papyri studies) in the country during this period.

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Graph 4: Italian at the ICP

Finally, the constant rise of English since the early 1970s is in direct line with the hegemonic status of this language on the international stage, within and beyond academia (Ammon 2010; Genç and Bada 2010 ; Hamel 2013 ; Salomone 2013). It’s total dominance in the last two ICP (which took place in non-anglophone countries where the vernacular language is not one of the AIP’s four official languages), indicates that this trend cuts across sub-disciplines and national traditions. 89% of all talks given at the 28th ICP were given in English, compared to 10% in Italian (essentially on literary papyri), 8% in French, and 3% in German.

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Graph 5: English at the ICP

Such a dramatic contrast poses the question of the future of papyrological multilingualism. Spanish, modern Greek, and Arabic are each attested at most a few times in the programs, and a few titles in ancient Greek or Latin seem to refer to papers delivered in that language.

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Graph 6: Other languages at the ICP

The case of modern Arabic is particularly interesting: Although the official language of the region where the vast majority of papyri comes from (Egypt mostly, but also Syria and Israel-Palestine), and despite the growing importance of Arabic papyrology, only six talks in Arabic are attested, all at the 19th ICP (Cairo, 1986). Arabic is also absent from the programs and proceedings (whose overall corpus we call P.Congress; see graph 6). As Referee 2 has rightfully pointed out in their report to the joint paper we submitted for publication in the Barcelona ICP Proceedings (and as my own choice of English over French, which is my mother tongue, also shows), this phenomenon results to a great extent from one’s wish to maximize one’s audience:

In Cairo (1989), if I recall correctly, Greek scholars asked that Modern Greek be accepted as a language for giving papers in AIP Congresses. Jean Bingen, who was AIP Secretary at the time, replied that our Greek friends could well give their papers in Modern Greek if they so wished; nobody but the Greeks, however, would attend. To this pragmatic argument, Greek colleagues answered nothing and never formally repeated their request in AIP Congresses. (Referee 2 2017)

The referee’s comment confirms what everyone in the field knows: There were, and still are, Greek papyrologists who produce (some of) their scholarly work in modern Greek. Now not only does this story remind us of this, it also shows that some of the Greek papyrologists specifically asked to present papers in their modern tongue at the 1989 conference. Bingen’s response to his “friends” was a double-edged sword: They “could well give their papers in modern Greek”, but “nobody but Greeks” would be able to understand them. Jean Bingen’s “pragmatic argument” silenced Greek papyrologists (they “answered nothing”) durably, for they have “never formally repeated their request” since then. I would like to suggest that what is presented as a “pragmatic argument” by Referee 2 is in fact both an acknowledgement and a reinforcement of the customary occlusion of modern Greek scholarship from the field. The same argument is generally invoked in Classics as a justification for the status quo. Yet, as Hanink notes regarding the position of modern Greek in the field of Classics, these positionings are nothing but objective:

So why does Modern Greek still not have a seat at the classicists’ table?

This is, bluntly put, largely because our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek. Historians and anthropologists who work on Greece have been much more willing than classicists to acknowledge the country’s legacy of metaphorical colonization: not by the Ottomans, but by the early European antiquaries and travelers who planted their flags in the ruins of Greek antiquity. (Hanink 2016)

The same could be said regarding Arabic. As Usama Ali Gad’s blog Classics in Arabic shows, there is papyrological (and other Antiquity-related) scholarship being done in Arabic. Outside the field of Arabic papyrology and the Arab-speaking academic world though, it is in general completely ignored by non-Arab speakers. Thus during the Q&A that followed our panel, one of the European members of the audience rationalized their opposition to the inclusion of Arabic as one of the official languages of the AIP by saying: “I come here to listen to talks in languages I understand”. Likewise, the argument whereby good quality scholarship in Arabic is lacking is a common though flimsy argument that would be worth contextualizing and unpacking. But it is not my point here. My point is that the occlusion of Arabic (and modern Greek for that matter) is, in itself, meaningful. It is so because it not only proceeds from historically-anchored dynamics within the field, but also generates in turn further, overlapping layers of occlusions. In response to the suggestion whereby the AIP might want to consider making Arabic one of its official languages that was included into the manuscript we submitted for publication in the Barcelona conference proceedings, Referee 1 wrote the following:

The other subjects of the paper include an attempt at postcolonial analysis of the discipline, the history of classics and papyrology in Egypt, and an attempt to make a case for a larger role for Egypt and for Arabic in the field of papyrology. It is not surprising that the interconnections of these goals are not very compellingly made, and indeed the combination of analysis and advocacy is a tricky business. If the choice of language at a congress is made to assert national pride (and this is basically what the advocacy of Arabic as a congress language comes down to, despite the attacks on nationalism elsewhere in the paper!), then every language should be included. If the choice is made to facilitate comprehension and communication, then the long-standing restriction makes sense. That most participants are interested mainly in communication is made clear by the dominance of English in Barcelona. Indeed, it is precisely the lack of knowledge of other European languages by participants from countries outside Europe and North America that makes the dominance of English useful. A little more candor about the realities of life would help.

I shall let the readers judge for themselves whether this passage offers a fair and balanced reading of the data laid out in our previous and in this post, and whether our analysis amounts to “attacks” on European and American nationalisms. I for now wish to highlight how Referee 1’s argument exemplifies some of the mechanisms of colonial occlusion and historical aphasia[6] that are still reproduced by a number of scholars within the field. Here, the dismissal of Arabic is justified on the basis of custom (“long-standing restriction”), practical concerns (the avoid a Babel tower situation), and universalism, whereas the case for the inclusion of Arabic is presented as a form of “advocacy”, a “tricky business” that “is made to assert national pride” (as if Arabic was a “national” language) and shows a lack of “candor about the realities of life”. Meanwhile, references to the relationships between imperialism, colonialism and the trajectory of the discipline are amounted to “attacks on nationalism”. Lastly, the “dominance of English” is presented as “useful” due to “the lack of knowledge of other European languages by participants from countries outside Europe and North America”. In other words, papyrologists from outside Europe and North America lack the knowledge of European languages, so having English as the lingua franca is actually a good thing for these scholars. Referee 1’s argument relies on two problematic over-generalizations: that papyrologists from Europe and North America do know all of the field’s “European” languages; that those from countries outside that sphere do not. Which countries did Referee 1 include in the second group? Given the passage is a reaction to our discussion of Arabic, one obvious contender is Egypt. One is reminded of the dichotomic topos of the stoic, charitable, enlightened, cosmopolitan, white scholar looking down on the hysterical, self-centered, misinformed, uneducated, nationalist Oriental or colonized described by Frantz Fanon[7]

Addendum – “Scholarly eminence is the main criterion”: Some thoughts on the AIP’s committee

In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. From then on and for nearly a millennium, the country, while retaining its own traditions, belonged to the Greek world. It came to be under Ptolemaic, then Roman, then Byzantine administration. The International Association of Papyrologists (AIP), which originated in a meeting held in Brussels in 1930, attempts to link together all who are interested in Graeco-Roman Egypt, in particular in the thousands of Greek texts that the climate of the Nile valley has preserved up to now. The ultimate rule for the Association is the amicitia papyrologorum. The AIP is member of the International Federation of the Societies of Classical Studies (FIEC).

AIP statement  (Oct. 16, 2018)

Le colon fait l’histoire et sait qu’il la fait. Et parce qu’il se réfère constamment à l’histoire de sa métropole, il indique en clair qu’il est ici le prolongement de cette métropole.

-F. Fanon 2011 (1961), 53

This addendum offers a preliminary reflection on the list of Presidents and Vice-Presidents of the AIP since its inception, as well as on the absence of Egyptian representatives from all AIP committees (an analysis of the composition of the committees as a whole would be a valuable undertaking). The central role played by the AIP’s President, Vice-President, and committee in the overseeing of the AIP, in the choice of host cities, as well as in the overseeing of the ICP’s organization and Proceedings make it one of the centers of symbolic and effective power and prestige within the discipline. For this reason, it both complements and contextualizes the evidence analyzed in this post, as well as the general data highlighted previously on this blog.

To date, the AIP has had eleven presidents, of which three are women (Table 8).

Bruxelles 1930P. JouguetMFrancenone
Bruxelles 1947

Paris 1949

Genève 1952

H.I. BellMUKnone (1947)

V. Martin (1949, 1952)



Wien 1955

Oslo 1958

Warszawa 1961

V. MartinMSwitzerlandA. CalderiniMItaly
Milano 1965

Ann Arbor 1968

Marburg 1971

E.G. TurnerMUKN. LewisMUSA
Oxford 1974

Bruxelles 1977

NYC 1980

N. LewisMUSAR. Merkelbach (1974-1977)

O. Montevecchi (1980)





Napoli 1983

Athinai 1986

O. MontevecchiFItalyP.J. ParsonsMUK
Cairo 1989

København 1992

H.-A. RupprechtMGermany
Berlin 1995

Firenze 1998

L. KoenenMGermanyG. Husson (1995)

D.J. Thompson (1998)





Wien 2001

Helsinki 2004

D.J. ThompsonFUKJ. GascouMFrance
Ann Arbor 2007

Genève 2010

R.S. BagnallMUSAG. BastianiniMItaly
Warszawa 2013

Barcelona 2016

A. JördensFGermanyP. SchubertMSwitzerland
Total118 M (73%)

3 F (27%)

6 countries118 M (73%)

3 F (27%)

7 countries

Table 8: Presidents of the AIP

Two are American; the others were/are Europeans (in the pre-Brexit sense of the term). Five presidents spoke English as their mother tongue, three German, two French, and one Italian. The list of Vice-Presidents follows the same gender distribution, and the countries and mother tongues represented are the same. Four Vice-Presidents became Presidents (Martin, Lewis, Montevecchi and Thompson). In terms of research interests, Greek documentary papyrology dominates.

While the AIP’s committees have historically included a more diversified and (increasingly) gender-balanced group of scholars, several of the countries that host papyrus collections and where papyrologists conduct research and teach are absent from Table 8. These include many of the countries that have so far hosted ICPs: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Netherlands, Poland, Spain. As for the absence of Egyptian (Vice)-President, it is in line with the composition of the AIP’s committees, none of which has, so far, included an Egyptian member[8]. According to the author of the first referee report on the joint paper submitted by Gad, Mairs and myself to the editors of the 28th ICP Proceedings, the AIP committee members must be “seniors” papyrologists who attend the ICP on a regular basis. Referee 1 argues that only two Egyptian scholars have met these criteria since the creation of the Association. They then go on to justify the two scholars’ exclusion from the committee:

As to the Comité, I must be blunt. In the previous generation the only plausible candidate would have been xxx […]. But not only [were they] not a scholar on a level with the rest of the committee, [they were] regarded by the leadership of the time as of doubtful probity. The only senior person since then who was at all active in coming to congresses was yyy, also not generally viewed as of scholarly distinction. Although there is some effort at geographical diversity on the Comité, scholarly eminence is the main criterion. (Referee 1 2017)

Referee 1 argues that “only” two Egyptian scholars from the previous generation were ever deemed “plausible”/”senior”/”active in coming to congresses”, but that even they were excluded from the committee due to their lack of “scholarly eminence” (“not on a scholarly level with the rest of the committee”, ‘not generally viewed as of scholarly distinction”) and, in one case, their corruption (“of doubtful probity”). The terminology and tone of this remark are reminiscent of the discourses and practices analyzed in Timothy Mitchell’s seminal Colonising Egypt. Mitchell’s 1991 work has compellingly demonstrated the all-encompassing and ongoing “enframing” of Egypt through the production of “truths” about its people, resources, economy, and history, by colonial “experts”:

The truth of colonialism was congruous with the literature of nineteenth-century Orientalism […]. These images in turn referred back to the great Description de l’Égypte produced during Egypt’s earlier period of European occupation, under Napoléon. By the end of the nineteenth century, as Said as shown, knowledge of the Orient had become an expertise institutionalised in the centres of colonial administration, in government ministries, and in universities. This expertise, combined with images of the Orient in popular writing, entertainment, the press, government reports, guidebooks, travelogues and the memoires of colonial officials, came to form a broad discursive field, a vast theater or exhibition of the real. Within this theatrical machinery, elaborate representations of the ‘objects’ of colonial authority could be produced. (Mitchell 1991, 168; see also Mitchell 2002)

As has been shown beyond doubt recently by Malcolm Reid, Egyptology, Classics, papyrology, and other Antiquity-related disciplines with a focus on Egypt, have all been profoundly shaped by and partaker in these objectifying dynamics (Reid 2002 and 2015; see also Moyer 2011 and Quirke 2010 regarding Egypt and, more broadly, Hanink 2017 and Vasunia 2003 and 2013). This is in line with Vasunia’s observation quoted at the start of this post.

With that geopolitical contextualization in mind, the joint examination of the occlusion of Egyptians from the AIP committee, of Referee 1’s report and of Mitchell’s work raises the existential question, to date largely underexplored, of papyrology’s role in the past and ongoing “theatrical machinery” of truth. To what extent is papyrology, in terms of both who performs it and how it produces expert knowledge on the Egyptian past, still behaving as a Classically-led branch of scholarly Orientalism? And why is that so? Concomitantly, (how) has the AIP, its committee, and its members dealt with the chronic, structural imbalances that pervade the field, and academia in general? To what extent has it engaged with questions such as who can access higher education and specialized training; who can afford to travel to international conferences such as the ICP; and, increasingly, who must and is able to get a travel or study visa (on time)?

The recommendations of the AIP’s Working Party on the Commerce of Papyri that were approved in a plenary session at the 2007 Ann Arbor conference do include “measures that may appropriately serve the purposes of scholarship, support the development of papyrological studies in Egypt and further the preservation of the documentary heritage of Egypt and other countries”. These measures notably include the following:

(9) That the AIP should explore with all relevant parties the possibilities for the creation of an Egyptian National Center for Papyri to be located in Cairo, which could help serve the research needs of Egyptian and non-Egyptian scholars for access to scholarly information and for facilities for scholarly interchange of all kinds. Such a center should

  – provide access to material for authorized scholars without the burden of separate permits and security clearances;

– have a teaching function involving academic staff cross-appointed from universities in Egypt;

– have a scientific board that includes international scholars and the directors of at least some of the foreign research institutes in Egypt;

– provide a means for centralizing flows of external funding for papyrological research and education in a fashion that will be transparent and avoid any suspicion of favoritism or patronage.


(15) That the AIP should sponsor an ongoing series of lectures and seminars in Egypt, coordinating the presence of international scholars visiting or working in Egypt and willing to give such lectures or seminars, which could be held in rotation at a variety of institutions in Cairo and Alexandria. The working party envisages such lectures being given without payment to the lecturer and without charge to the audience, with coordination both internationally and in Egypt.

(16) That the AIP should seek funding for a program of competitively-awarded scholarships for Egyptian students to study papyrology abroad for a year, whether in connection with a master’s degree program or as part of a continuing doctoral program. This program would be administered by the AIP. The working party recommends a level of 2-4 such grants per year at a level sufficient to allow residence at a foreign center of papyrology for a full academic year. Such grants might be linked to the availability to Egyptian students of suitable unpublished material from Egyptian collections and the digitization of that material. 

To what extent have these recommendations been implemented over the past decade remains to be seen (we must also keep in mind that this period includes the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, whose aftermaths have had substantially disruptive impacts on archaeological – including papyrological – fieldwork). The working group and the Ann Arbor congress’ plenary session during which the recommendations above were discussed and approved were exclusively made of European and North American scholars (AIP 2007, 2; all male except from Cornelia Römer; a female representative from the UNESCO also participated in the plenary). This is striking for two reasons. First, the exclusion of Egyptian scholars and heritage specialists/actors from such working group, whose mandate pertained to a great extent to Egypt’s sites and history, is in line with other mechanisms of occlusion visible in the P.Congress and in passages from Referee 1 and 2’s reports analyzed throughout this post. Second, the imperial nature of this process did not strike me at the time, and I haven’t witnessed nor heard of any audible outrage at the absence of Egyptian voices in this panel at nor after the conference. This very absence of audible critique is telling. It is so because it illuminates how colonial papyrology’s (and more broadly Antiquity-related fields’) power structures still are; how much most of us have internalized how things work, why they should keep on working this way, and why, as the case of the anonymized report of Referee 1 analyzed in this paper (and more recent debates surrounding anonymous outputs in the Classics community) exemplifies, openly suggesting otherwise can, depending on the venue and the audience, expose one to having their voices discredited (as a “nationalist”, “proud”, “activist”, “bad”, “young” or “dishonest” papyrologist), and thus further marginalized and potentially shut. That is all the more so the case when the (non-anonymized) voices in question are junior, female, educated in/from the Global South (including Egypt), or from other traditionally marginalized groups/communities.

While papyrology’s ground-breaking work in the digital Humanities, the increasingly multilingual nature of the evidence discussed at the ICPs and the AIP’s 2007 recommendations are constructive, encouraging developments, P.Congress tends to show that sur le fond, and contrary to most fields within the wider Humanities, the discipline has not changed very much over the past century. The topics, themes, ancient and modern languages attested in the ICPs’ programs and proceedings send the image of a fundamentally Eurocentric field. As long as the Association, its Congress organizers, and its members avoid engaging with the thorny yet fundamental and urgent questions raised in this paper, the discipline runs the risk of losing its relevance within academia, and the broader world. This is all the more so the case that the Humanities, including Classics and other Antiquity-related fields, are facing a severe crisis worldwide.

As Stó: Nation author and teacher Lee Maracle aptly said in October 2018 at the University of Toronto’s “Humanities Pedagogy: Confronting Colonization” workshop, when looking at our field in the eyes, we scholars ought not to “take anything away”. Rather, we need to “change the way we look at it. The start is facing ourselves and our own history.”


[1] “L’Association Internationale de Papyrologues a pour but de favoriser la collaboration internationale dans le domaine de la papyrologie et de contribuer aux progrès de cette science par l’organisation de congrès internationaux, par la publication ou la revision d’ouvrages de référence ou d’autres subsidia essentiels au papyrologue et par tous autres moyens qui seront jugés utiles”. Article 1 of the AIP’s Status.

[2] The first three ones whose titles I was able to trace took place at the 16th ICP (NYC, 1980) and were entitled “Apokrimata”, “The fourth century”, and “The interconnection of Greek and Demotic documentation”.

[3] As such, they are not integrated into but, rather, in

[4] The Association Internationale d’Épigraphie Grecque et Latine has five official languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish), the International Association of Egyptologists (English, French, German) and the Associazione Internazionale di Archaeologua Classica (Italian, English, French) three, and the International Federation of Associations of Classical Studies as well as the International Association for Coptic Studies two (French and English).

[5] Two Italian female speakers, Rita Calderini and Orsollina Montevecchi, are also said to “have used” Latin in their talks; Calderini 1949, 194.

[6] See on the matter Stoler 2016, 12-13: “Aphasia is a condition in which the occlusion of knowledge is at once a dismembering of words from the objects to which they refer, a difficulty retrieving both the semantic and lexical components of vocabularies, a loss of access that may verge on active dissociation, a difficulty comprehending what is seen and spoken… This capacity to know and not know simultaneously renders the space between ignorance and ignoring not an etymological exercise but a concerted political and personal one. “Self-deception” does not do justice to the ways we each find to turn away.”

[7] Fanon 2011 (1961), notably 459-463 (463 cit.): “« Le colon fait l’histoire. Sa vie est une épopée, une odyssée. Il est le commencement absolu: « Cette terre, c’est nous qui l’avons faite. » Il est la cause continuée: « Si nous partons, tout est perdu, cette terre retournera au Moyen Âge. » En face de lui, des êtres engourdis, travaillés de l’intérieur par les fièvres et les « coutumes ancestrales », constituent un cadre quasi minéral au dynamisme novateur du mercantilisme colonial.” See also Mitchell 2002, 165-269, with reference to Said’s work on Orientalism.

[8] In comparison, the International Association of Egyptologists has had no Egyptian President, but there are currently three members of the council. The 2016-2020 Board of the International Association for Coptic Studies does not include any Egyptian. Apart from Malcolm Choat, board members are all (pre-Brexit) Europeans. See also, more generally, Blouin 2018.


AIP (2007) Association Internationale des Papyrologues’ Working Party on the Commerce in Papyri. Recommendations.

Ammon, U. (2010) “L’hégémonie de l’anglais”, Rapport mondial sur les sciences sociales. Paris: UNESCO, 156-157.

Blouin, K. (2018) ” Wonder how male & Eurocentric your Antiquity-related field is? Try the committee test!“, Everyday Orientalism,

Blouin, K. (2016) “Papyri in Paris : The Greek Papyri Collection in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France”, Urbanik, J., A. Łajtar and T. Derda eds. The Journal of the Juristic Papyrology: Proceedings of the 27th International Congress of Papyrology. Warsaw, 853-881.

Calderini, A. (1949) “Appunti e notizie”, Aegyptus 29.1-2, 190-197.

Fanon, F. 2011 (1961) Frantz Fanon. Œuvres. Paris: La découverte.

Fournet, J.-L. (2013 [2015]) “Culture grecque et document dans l’Égypte de l’Antiquité tardive”, Journal of Juristic Papyrology 43, 135-162.

Genç, B. and E. Bada (2010) “English as a World Language in Academic Writing”, The Reading Matrix 10.2, 142-151.

Goff, B. (2013) ‘Your Secret Language’. Classics in the British Colonies of West Africa. London: Bloomsbury.

Hamel, R.E. (2013) “L’anglais, langue unique pour les sciences? Le rôle des modèles plurilingues dans la recherche, la communication scientifique et l’enseignement supérieur”, Synergies Europe 8, 53-66.

Hanink, J. (2017) The Classical Debt. Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Hanink. J. (2016) “On Not Knowing (Modern) Greek“, Eidolon

Hombert, M. (1938) “Compte rendu du Congrès”, Actes du Ve congrès international de papyrologie. Bruxelles: Fondation égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, i-xxiii.

Keenan, J.G. (2009) “The History of the Discipline” in Bagnall, R.S. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (Oxford) 59-78.

Marchand, S. (2005) “Philhellénisme et orientalisme en Allemagne”, Revue germanique internationale 1-2, 9-22.

Mitchell, T. (2002) Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. Berkeley: California University Press.

Mitchell, T. (1991) Colonising Egypt. Berkeley: California University Press.

Moyer, I. (2011) Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quirke, S. (2010) Hidden Hands. Egyptian Workforces in Petrie Excavation Archives, 1880-1924. London: Bloomsbury.

Reid, M. (2015) Contesting Antiquity in Egypt. Archaeologies, Museums & the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser. Cairo: AUC Press.

Reid, M. (2002) Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I. Cairo: AUC Press.

Salomone, R. (2013) “The Rise of English in Academe – A Cautionary Tale“, University World News 282,

Stoler, A.L. (2061) Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times. Durham: Duke University Press.

Vasunia, P. (2013) The Classics and Colonial India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vasunia, P. (2003) “Hellenism and Empire: Reading Edward Said”, Parallax, 9.4, 88-97.

Inside Out: An Introspective Look at Papyrology through its International Congresses

Research for this piece was conducted by Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad and Rachel Mairs.  It is the first of a series on the data from the International Congresses of Papyrology, which will be published on Everyday Orientalism over the coming months.


(l-r Roberta Mazza, Usama Ali Gad (T-shirt: Danielle Bonneau), Katherine Blouin (T-shirt Abdalla Hassan el-Mosallamy), Rachel Mairs (T-shirt: Claire Préaux), and the backs of the heads of some esteemed colleagues. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, August 2016.)

Like the rest of the international Classics community, we at Everyday Orientalism have been following the fallout from events at this year’s Society of Classical Studies meeting in San Diego.  (Sarah Bond has assembled a useful collection of links to accounts of, and responses to, the racist incidents here.) We stand in solidarity with colleagues who are working to make our field a more diverse community, where questions of race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality are addressed openly and respectfully.

Professor Dan-El Padilla Peralta’s SCS paper ‘Racial Equity and the Production of Knowledge’ presents stark evidence on the continuing (and disproportionate) white, Anglo, male dominance among published contributors to major scholarly journals.  In the interest of contributing to this debate about the state of the field, and what we can do to bring a more diverse profile of authors to the fore, we present here some data which we have gathered from a similar exercise to Professor Padilla Peralta’s.

In 2016, we presented a panel at the 28th International Congress of Papyrologists at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona called ‘Inside Out: An Introspective Look at Papyrology through its International Congresses’. This panel was followed by a workshop at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in November 2018.  We wished to pay tribute to papyrology’s long history of inclusion and diversity (relative to the times), and suggest ways in which we could honour this history by promoting greater diversity in the future.  We collected data on speakers at 28 congresses over 86 years (1930-2016), including information on gender, nationality (of affiliation and origin), language and subject of paper.

We are not yet ready to publish our full analysis of this material – it is an enormous data-set –  but it seems an appropriate moment to make available some of our raw data, for readers interested in the history of diversity within Classics publishing.  This data is tabulated in the Excel spreadsheet linked at the foot of this post.  We assembled the data mostly from published programmes and proceedings of Congresses.  Unfortunately, especially for early Congresses, there is often little or no information surviving on participants who did not deliver a paper. We have tracked down information on speakers’ nationality of origin and professional affiliation using online biographies (Wikipedia is quite good for early period), the data service of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and library catalogues.  Where possible, we verified the professional affiliation of the speaker in the year of the congress by checking affiliations stated in their published journal articles (the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik is especially useful).  We tried not to make assumptions about nationality of birth, or gender, from the name of the speaker.

So what did we find?  Many of our findings are sadly predictable.  Male outnumbered female speakers, usually by a considerable margin, at all ICPs in the 20th century.  Where information is available on participants who did not deliver a paper, there tends to be a slightly higher percentage of women among the audience members than among the speakers.  The 21st century data shows a dramatic improvement: at the Barcelona ICP in 2016, female outnumbered male speakers for the first time.  (We think it would be premature, however, to celebrate the victory of gender equality.)

Figure 1: Numbers of male and female speakers at ICPs, 1930-2001.  (Some papers were co-authored, which is why the number of speakers is not the same as the number of talks.)

ICP Number of talks Male Speakers Female Speakers
1 (Brussels 1930) 19 15 1
2 (Leiden 1931) 30 24 2
3 (Munich 1933) 25 24 0
4 (Florence 1935) 39 39 2
5 (Oxford 1937) 64 62 3
6 (Paris 1949) 71 58 7
7 (Geneva 1952) 11 10 1
8 (Vienna 1955) 31 28 3
9 (Oslo 1958) 30 27 4
10 (Warsaw 1961) 32 28 4
11 (Milan 1965) 54 47 5
12 (Ann Arbor 1968) 66 58 9
13 (Marburg-Lahn 1971) 67 60 8
14 (Oxford 1974) 102 83 20
15 (Brussels 1978) 68 49 18
16 (NYC 1980) 102 77 27
17 (Naples 1983) 178 129 50
18 (Athens 1986) 108 78 33
19 (Cairo 1989) 79 50 33
20 (Copenhagen 1992) 96 67 29
21 (Berlin 1995) 180 125 56
22 (Florence 1998) 166 109 61
23 (Vienna 2001) 152 100 53

Figure 2 and Figure 3: Numbers and percentages of male and female speakers at ICPs, 1930-2016.  Data is also included for non-presenting participants, where available.

Barcelona Gender 1Barcelona Gender 2

The vast majority of ICPs have been held in Europe and the United States of America.  Italy has hosted the Congress four times, which will rise to five in at Lecce in 2019 (we’ll see you there!).

Figure 4: Number of congresses per country, 1930-2016.


Speakers at congresses have, however, come from a much wider range of countries.  Most speakers come from Italy: 558, then the USA: 338, Germany: 314, UK: 242, France: 207 and Belgium: 153. Egypt comes sixth with 131 speakers. The 3 Saudi Arabian speakers are mostly Egyptian scholars working in Saudi Arabian Universities. (Note that these figures refer to papers delivered, not to individuals.)

Figure 5: Speakers in ICPs from 1949-2016, according to country of affiliation.


When we come to look at membership of the Comité International de Papyrologie, the geographical coverage contracts.  47 members have come from German institutions, 38 from the USA, 37 from France, 25 from Italy, 22 from the Netherlands and 21 from the UK.  None have been from Egypt.

Figure 6: Members of the International Committee of Papyrology, according to country of affiliation, 1930-2016.


The data we present in this preliminary post is incomplete.  While the charts above for the most part cover the full period 1930-2016, the fuller tabulation of names, affiliations, paper titles, language of presentation (etc., etc.) below covers only 1930-2001.  We will make the 21st century data – as well as our analyses of the full data set – available at a later time.  In addition to the gender and affiliation of speakers, this material gives us information to explore international mobility of scholars, and shifts in dominant languages used at congresses in different periods.  All of this information is publicly available, in the published programmes and proceedings of the Congresses.

The spreadsheet containing our data from 1930 – 2001 may be downloaded here: Papyrology Congresses 1930 – 2001.  Given that it contains information on hundreds of individuals, there are bound to be some errors: any corrections will be gratefully received.

Rachel Mairs, University of Reading, UK:

Katherine Blouin, University of Toronto, Canada:

Usama Ali Gad, Ain Shams University, Egypt:

Walk Like an Egyptian? How Modern Fashion Appropriates Antiquity

Walk Like an Egyptian? How Modern Fashion Appropriates Antiquity

by Katherine Blouin

Chanel took over New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Arts on December 4 for its annual Arts et Métiers fashion show. This year’s theme? Egypt. Except that, in many ways, it was not. What, and most importantly, who was showcased, then? The answer is unsurprisingly predictable, yet for this very reason, it powerfully illuminates the current, Orientalist and colonial reception of ancient Egypt in contemporary fashion and pop culture, and the ways in which this reception hasn’t changed much (if at all) since Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of the country in the late 18th century.

The yearly Arts et Métiers show began in 2002. It aims at showcasing the wide-ranging array of Métiers d’art that are part of Chanel under the Paraffection umbrella. The event is staged in and pays tribute to cities that are connected to the life of Gabrielle Chanel: Paris, mostly, but also Dallas, Edinburgh, Salzburg, Rome, Hamburg and, this year, New York, a place that Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel first visited in 1931, and where she returned in 1939 as one of France’s representatives of the “Couture and Perfumery” during the New York World’s Fair. The Fair’s theme was “The World of Tomorrow“. Yet despite, or perhaps rather because, its futuristic, consumerist craze, that ” tomorrow” proved to be a grim one, for within six months of the fair’s opening, World War II broke. This might be one of the reasons why, apart from Chanel’s emblematic tweeds and geometric patterns alluding to the city’s skyscrapers, Karl Lagerfeld’s designs avoid any obvious reference to the New York of the late 1930s. Instead, the designer proposed a nostalgic, Orientalist take on the city’s – and on France’s – relationship to Egyptian Antiquities. His New York is an Egyptomaniac one, whose focal point is the Temple of Dendur.

capture d_écran 2019-01-11 à 16.17.27Details of the 2018/19 #CHANELMetiersdArt collection … including gold and scarab beetle adornments by #Montex.” (Image and caption: Chanel’s Instagram)

Set around the temple, the 15-minute procession of Hatshepsut-eyed models was a spectacular display of craftsmanship, and a testimony to Karl Lagerfeld’s unstoppable creative genius. The theme was further enhanced by the musical soundtrack, which began and ended with Egyptian Lover’s 1984 Egypt, Egypt. There were dozens of mostly white, but also black, brown, and Asian models, whose long, regal silhouettes walked in circle around the sandstone temple. There was gold, black, lapis lazuli blue, turquoise and silver. There was a dress covered in feathers arranged in chevrons, pleated skirts and an overabundance of intricate, heavy jewels. There were pyramid handbags, metallic gloves and collars made of dyed reptile skins, gems and pearls. There was Pharrell walking in an all-gold ensemble. There were dresses covered in hieroglyphic-like graffiti, diaphanous underskirts that echoed Hathoric dresses and mummy wrappings. There were lions, lotuses and scarab beetles, gilded tweeds, beaded fishnets and golden flats.

Capture d’écran 2019-01-11 à 16.02.46.png

Pharrell walking the runway Chanel Arts et Métiers 2018 show (Image: Pharrell’s Instagram)

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Hand-applied feather marquetry by #MaisonLemarie at the #CHANELMetiersdArt show in the @metmuseum, depicting a graphic reinterpretation of Egyptian paintings” (Image and caption: Chanel’s Instagram)

The temple of Dendur’s impassive presence acted as the stage’s pivotal anchor. The getaway and temple were originally located on the Nubian site of Dendur, south of the traditional Egyptian border at Aswan. The ensemble was completed in 10 BCE, that is twenty years after Octavian-Augustus’ victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium and the ensuing annexation of the Ptolemaic kingdom to Rome’s Empire. The temple, thus, like several of the most popular temples of Upper Egypt (Edfu, Dendera, Kom Ombo and Philae) was built (in great part) under Macedonian and Roman rules. It is primarily dedicated to Isis of Philae, a name that refers to the island of Philae (c.80 km north of Dendur), which hosts a larger temple to Isis. In addition to her, her spouse Osiris, as well as Pedesi and Pihor, two brothers who might have been deified sons of chieftains, and the Nubian gods Mandulis and Arsenuphis, are also honored. Like the several other Egyptian temples commissioned by Augustus, the Dendur one follows native architectural, iconographical, epigraphical standards. Augustus’ regal profile shows him in full Pharaonic garb, surrounded by hieroglyphic texts. If you are not an Egyptologist, you cannot tell the reliefs date from the Roman period and were commissioned by a foreign ruler.

Capture d’écran 2019-01-11 à 16.08.21.pngKarl Lagerfeld was inspired by Egyptian civilisation and the spirit of New York for the 2018/19 #CHANELMetiersdArt collection dedicated to the savoir faire of CHANEL’s Métiers d’art, presenting it in The Temple of Dendur in the @metmuseum” (Image and caption: Chanel’s Instagram

Fast forward almost two millennia, to the 1960s, and Lower Nubia, a region that stretches from southern Egypt to northern Sudan, found itself about to be submerged following the construction of the High Aswan dam. Lake Nasser, the vast reservoir lake called after the then President of Egypt Gamal Adbel Nasser, eventually covered c.2,000m2 of land, forcing the relocation of local, Nubian communities, and the destruction of many archaeological sites. Ahead of its creation, the UNESCO set up the “International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia“. Fifty countries took part in the campaign, including the USA, which offered the biggest monetary contribution and thus were the first to choose their archaeological “gift” among some of the salvaged monuments. Their pick: The temple of Dendur. In 1965, Egypt officially gave the USA the temple and its getaway and two years later, after a competition among interested American cities and institutions, President Lyndon B. Johnson offered it to the Met. The dismantled structure was shipped to New York, before being restored and rebuilt within the Sackler Wing. Bordered by a reflecting pool and naturally lit thanks to a large bay window that overlooks Central Park, Gallery 131 is more than a museum display of Pharaonic-style sacred architecture and Nubian heritage. It is, also, a rendition of Egypt’s topography that acts as a versatile, socio-cultural space of its own.

Contrary to what the temple itself and the monochromic tones of the room might indicate at first glance, it was originally, like all ancient Egyptian (and ancient Mediterranean) temples, painted in deep, vivid colors. Just like for statues, what mostly remains today of these ancient buildings is their bone structure. Likewise, average ancient Egyptians did not walk around covered in gold, lapis lazuli and turquoise, looking like Tutankhamun’s funerary mask or Isis Almighty. Nope. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that Chanel’s Egypt is a familiar place for western audiences. And we can conveniently blame Napoléon and his army of scientists and scholars for it.

When Napoléon Bonaparte added Egypt to his empire in 1798, he brought with him a contingent of French engineers, artists, and scholars, whose duty was to document all aspects of ancient and modern Egypt’s landscapes, ruins, cities, villages and customs. The final result was the Description de l’Égypte (“Description of Egypt”, thereby DE), a massive series of thirty-four, almost 1m2 volumes published in Paris between 1809 and 1829. The DE was an imperial vanity project; one whose scholarly and cultural ambition was to compensate for Napoléon’s loss of Egypt (and of the Rosetta Stone) to the British in 1802. If France didn’t occupy Egypt militarily anymore, it still, so the DE signaled, controlled and produced the knowledge pertaining to its past and present. Edward Said has brilliantly analyzed the implications of this enterprise and the foundational impact it had on Orientalist scholarship ever since in his seminal work Orientalism.

DE Frontispice bordure

Description de l’Égypte, frontispiece page

I’ve been obsessed with engineer, drawer and member of the Expédition d’Égypte François-Charles Cécile’s 1809 frontispiece page of the DE for a while now. To me, this black and white work is the foundational articulation of all “Western” (that is European and North American) political, cultural, and scholarly treatments of Egypt ever since. The frontispiece is also a wonderful pedagogical tool, which I’ve been using in several of my classes. I often say that should Classicists and Egyptologists spend more time mulling over it, we would save ourselves a great part of the psychoanalytical work our disciplines remain in dire need of. For almost all of the ensuing representations and receptions of the country replicate its fundamental characteristics.

So, what do we see?

We see two distinctive components: A Classically-inspired frame, and an ‘Egyptianizing’ center. The central drawing is a shrunk landscape of Egypt that runs from the Mediterranean shore on the top right, to Aswan, at the rear. A selection of Pharaonic-style monuments are set along the meandering Nile, which acts as the drawing’s topographic anchor and gives rhythm and further perspective to the composition. The only dissonant element is the so-called column of Pompey, in reality the sole remaining column of Alexandria’s famous Serapeum (temple to Sarapis). The fact that the column was a common feature of European touristic and cartographic representations of Egypt in the early modern period might explain why it made it into the frontispiece despite its Greek look. Left of the column, “Cleopatra’s needle” stands out. The “needle” is in fact a reused granite obelisk from the reign of Thutmoses III that was first erected in Heliopolis. Together with a second one that now stands in London, it was moved to Alexandria in 13 or 12 BCE in order to be integrated to the city’s Caesareum (temple to the deified Julius Caesar whose foundation dates from Cleopatra VII’s reign). In 1880, the Khedive Ismail offered it to New York, and it now stands in Central Park.

nile statue rome

Statue of the Nile, Piazza del Campidoglio (author’s picture)

In lieu of frame, the composition is surrounded by a neo-Classical frieze that pays tribute to Napoléon’s military prowess and civilizing mission in Egypt. It also contains to symbolic references to his Italian campaigns (1792-1802). The top register features Napoléon-Apollo followed by Muses-like female personifications of the Arts and Sciences. Naked except from a flowing cape, the French emperor rides a four-horse chariot. And this is not any random four-horse chariot, but the bronze quadriga looted in Constantinople’s hippodrome by the Venetians during their sack of the Byzantine Empire in the context of the fourth crusade (1202-1204). The bronze horses were embedded in the central façade of the Saint Mark basilica, but they’ve since been replaced by a replica, the original being housed in the basilica’s Treasury. Thus riding his Constantinopolitan/Venetian horses, Apollo-Napoléon rolls towards the right of the frieze, preceded by the imperial eagle. His targets? The defeated Mamluks, who are portrayed on horseback fleeing Egypt. The latter is represented at the bottom right of the register as a reclining bearded man holding a cornupia. This personification of the Nile River corresponds to the statue that now stands, together with a similar statue of the Tiber River, in Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio. In Antiquity, the pair was part of the city’s Serapeum. On the left and right-hand sides of the frame, one sees a series of Roman-style military standards with the name of battles Napoléon’s army won during its campaigns in Syria-Palestine and Egypt. At the bottom, Magi-looking Mamluks and their camels are seen bringing tributes to Napoléon, who is represented by a crowned letter N. The message couldn’t be clearer: Pharaonic Egypt’s monumental glory is enframed, contained and enlightened through the arts and sciences by Napoléon, who is portrayed as the embodiment and promoter of a French, Classically-fed imperialism, and the antidote to Oriental despotism.

If that is what we see when we look at the frontispiece, then what is not there?

As a matter of fact, we don’t really see Egypt. There are no living beings, be they animal, humans or, except a few palm trees here and there, vegetal; no villages; no cities; no fields or agricultural landscapes; no dikes, canals, roads, boats or harbors; no life. The DE‘s Egypt is an empty, still space whose monuments are up for grab.

Chanel’s Met show represents yet another rendition of the DE‘s frontispiece page. A swirling one that is, where temporality is articulated according to a cultural divide: on the one hand, Egypt is firmly rooted in a grandiose, gilded and mysterious yet immobile past; on the other, that static, Oriental past is pulled forward and into the future by western know how. Model, photographer and Vogue UK contributor Laura Bailey’s take on the show eloquently testifies to how, despite its claim to innovation, the story proposed by Chanel is one we’ve heard many times before, one saturated with the same old Orientalist dichotomies: East and West; old and new; spirituality and technology; eternal, mysterious past and futuristic modernity. The same old story with the same old tropes, packaged as “futurism”.

Creation is turning the old into new.

Creation is spolia.

The term spolia is a Latin word that originally designated spoils of war. In modern scholarship, it refers to the practice of reusing and repurposing older precious objects and (parts of) monuments into more recent buildings and works of arts. While spolia have traditionally been associated with Late Antique art (and thus deemed less sophisticated than earlier, “original” works from earlier, “Classical” periods), the truth of the matter is, the practice has always existed. Rulers and artists have traditionally practiced spolia out of both practical (re-use of abandoned monuments and building materials; saving costs and time) and ideological (boosting one’s reign and socio-political or religious capital by associating oneself with a popular ruler, god or saint) reasons. In many ways, it continues to this day, from former factories-turned condos or restaurants to vintage fashion, to musical sampling, to the practice of excavating, collecting, and exhibiting older objects, monuments and bodies. It also includes the Met’s Gallery 131, as well as the Chanel show that took place in it.

For the Temple of Dendur is not the only Antiquity on display in Gallery 131 of the Sackler Wing. Two statues of Amenhotep III (c. 1390-1353 BCE) from the temple of Amun at Luxor stand in front of the water pool, as if to guard the temple. These were offered by the Egyptian Government in 1922. Towards the back of the temple’s left side, one also finds a pink granite sphinx of female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c.1479-1458 BCE) that originally stood in the ruler’s funerary temple of Deir el-Bahari on the westbank of Luxor, and that features prominently in the video caption of the show. The sphinx, which was found in the context of the Met’s 1926-1928 excavations, came to the Museum following a division of finds in 1931.

dendur 01Temple of Dendur (Image: Metmuseum)

Just like the DE frontispiece, Chanel’s vision of Egypt is a disembodied one inasmuch as it draws its inspiration from artifacts found for the most part in funerary and religious contexts. What mattered most with the Paris-New York show was not Egypt per se; it was America’s, France’s, Chanel’s Egypt. Karl Lagerfeld’s Egypt is bookish and touristic, and this should not come as a surprise. How many of us are willing to experience Egypt beyond what we imagine it to be? From Napoléon to today, the country remains, for most audiences, a lifeless landscape made of sand and stones, of colossal monuments and sphinxes and obelisks. Egypt is a stage. Egypt is a fossil of a long-past imperial glory whose appropriation by the “West” can only be rationalized through its complete disconnect from everything that came after that purported “grandeur”, and especially the Arab conquest and the slow conversion of the country’s population to Islam.

It is to that effect telling to compare the New York show with the 2015 Dubai Chanel Cruise one. While the latter drew heavily from local craftsmanship, fashion codes and esthetics, and while it took place in Dubai itself and included a substantial amount of local guests, judging from the footages and pictures available online, modern and contemporary Egypt were completely absent, and so were living Egyptians and their culture, from the New York Arts et Métiers show. That there is a substantial market for Chanel in the Gulf States certainly justifies the choice of Dubai, and the same can be said of the 2009 Paris-Shanghai Arts et Métiers show, which was staged in Shanghai’s Bund area. More recently, Karl Lagerfeld wanted to stage the 2018 Chanel Cruise show amidst Greek ruins, but facing the refusal of Greek officials, he decided to recreate his vision of ancient Greece in Paris. What was his vision? Not colorful ancient Athens, but the white ruins that are left of it.

Capture d’écran 2019-01-11 à 16.13.04.pngChanel Cruise 2018 show (Image: Chanel’s Instagram)

The show’s set up recalls the 2010 Paris-Byzance and 2011 Paris-Bombay Arts et Métiers shows: Both were inspired by places located in the “East” (Turkey and India) yet staged in Paris; both are named after old toponyms (Byzance rather than Istanbul; Bombay rather than Mumbai) that echo European, Christian Empires; both drew heavily from local iconography, craftsmanship and esthetic codes, leading, in the case of Paris-Bombay, to discussion around cultural appropriation. In an interview given during the 2011 Paris-Bombay show, Lagerfeld said “India for me is an idea. I know nothing about reality, so I have the poetic vision of something maybe less poetic”.

What these fashion events have in common is their location in an imagined Orient; one whose relationship to Chanel’s esthetics resides in ideas surrounding its past, immemorial, imperial grandeur and exoticism. In places where the wealthy ruling class’ buying power is high and the (female) demand for French luxury fashion particularly strong, we see Chanel runways move East (Shanghai, Dubai). Otherwise (Turkey, India, Egypt), shows seem to have stemmed more from a desire to explore the western, French or American, gaze on foreign (past) lands and cultures than from a will to engage in an unmediated way with these locations.

Given that, one can hardly ignore how Chanel’s New York show was also staged so as to maximize the brand’s ability to tap into the current force, and therefore marketable potential, of Afrocentrist, Afrofuturistic and Afrosurrealist esthetics among African American and other black communities beyond the USA. Singer and Chanel ambassador Janelle Monae sums it up well: “I love that Egypt was an inspiration, a futuristic yet timeless place, and that’s what I got from the collection”. Chanel here follows Balmain in appealing directly to African-American customers by offering them pieces of design that tap into the central, ongoing role played by Pharaonic Egypt in Afrocentrist discourses. Beyoncé’s Nefertiti looks at Beychella? Olivier Rousteing for Balmain. The feathered hieroglyphic outfit she wore during her Global Citizens Festival set in Johannesburgh in early December? Olivier Rousteing for Balmain. Rousteing, a black designer who is known for advocating for more diversity in the fashion world, approaches Egypt from a deeply personal, future-oriented place. As Manon Renault has shown, both his and British creator Pam Hogg’s Egyptian references partake in a political agenda that draws from and contest the established (gender, racial) order.

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One of Beyoncé’s custom-made Balmain looks (Source: Balmain’s Instagram)

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Beyoncé’s custom-made Balmain look for the 2018 Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100! (Image: Balmain’s Instagram)

Chanel’s idea of Egypt is a highly selective and curated one; one that speaks more of the creators’, brand’s and audience’s own positioning than of Egypt’s actual history, heritage and multi-layered culture. The thing is, Karl Lagerfeld’s and Chanel’s Egypt is not about Egypt. It is about Paris and New York. It is about the wealthy, Western “us”. It is about the ideas, the stories of Egypt that the world has been retelling itself again and again since 1798. It is about a fantasy of Egypt that sells. It is an impeccable, inspired, beautiful but ultimately truncated representation of peoples, cultures and histories; one that fetishizes the rich and the powerful; one that does care about Egypt only so far as it sends back to oneself the feeling that one can, too, partake in the riches, power, and enduring memory.

This is a cross-post with the SCS blog