Born Out of Rejection

Inspired by the topic of this year’s Flexner Lectures, six Bryn Mawr faculty offered classes on the topic of refusal.
Empty Pedestal, Baltimore

Try to Remember

How does a country commemorate its past? This question seemed a reasonable structuring gambit for a class inspired by the work of Bonnie Honig, particularly for a scholar whose work focuses on the ethics and aesthetics of cultural memory.

Attuned to historical events that at once demand and defy the conventional forms of representation, Lisa Saltzman (History of Art) was struck, in Honig’s book Antigone, Interrupted, by the deft interventions into a logic and language of mourning and, in turn, into the politics and practices of commemoration. In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the question of commemoration seemed especially significant. 

Saltzman’s Flexner class, Strategies of Remembrance: Publics, Politics, and the Art of Memory, began with the question of Confederate monuments in this country—even as students considered a range of historical contexts and commemorative projects from around the globe. 

As inevitably happens, concerns of the present inflected engagement with the past and the received history of modern-era memorials, monuments, and commemorative practices.

Whose America?

“It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me,” Ishmael muses as he tries to understand the monomaniacal hunt that drives Captain Ahab and his crew of every race and creed to their watery doom. An allegory of a nation charging toward Civil War, a nation founded on ideals of freedom and equality but built on capitalist expansion, white supremacy, slavery, and genocide, Herman Melville’s 1851 Moby Dick is hailed by many as the Great American Novel. 

But which America, whose America? By turns comic, tragic, epic, mundane, thuddingly literal, and gorgeously spiritual and metaphysical, the novel rewards close reading and intense historical and critical analysis. In her class on the novel, Bethany Schneider (English) and her students took up questions of race, gender and sexuality, colonialism, the animal and the human, the oceanic, freedom, individuality, totalitarianism, capitalism, nation, and belonging. 

Despised, Rejected, Outcast

The florid wealth of Victorian Britain was fed by income from the slave trade, industrial exploitation, and imperial expansion. It was also an era that was horrified by its own growth; abolitionism, the women’s suffrage movement, the arts-and-crafts movement, and the inception of the welfare state were all 19th-century protests against the waste of human life and spirit. 

The noun “refuse” finds its etymological root in the concept of the despised, rejected, and outcast. In Refuse and Refusal in Victorian Literature, Kate Thomas (English) and students touched on key events, debates, and literatures that brought the figures of the outcast and the resister into sharp relief.

Jù (To Refuse in China)

In Yu Hua’s novel To Live, a man gambles away the family fortune, struggles through the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, and settles into the life of a peasant. In Lillian Lee’s Farewell My Concubine, two stars of the Beijing opera, denounced for their decadent art, are sent down to the countryside for reeducation.

Refusal: Chinese Civil Resistance in Literature and Films, taught by Yonglin Chiang (East Asian Languages and Cultures), looked at questions of civil resistance in China by exploring these two novels (and their film adaptations), both set during the decades that Mao dominated life and politics. Chiang led students in understanding civil resistance and refusal in general and then delved into the Chinese context—the particular forces that shape class, gender, and ethnic injustice there and the ways that the Chinese people resist in everyday life and organized movements. 

Filming the Classics

Prometheus, Antigone, Electra, Medea, and Lysistrata—the classical world bequeathed to the modern world some of its iconic figures of resistance. In their Group Seminar class, Annette Baertschi (Greek, Latin, and Classics) and Homay King (History of Art) took a look at films and other works of art that reappropriate those ancient characters and recontextualize them to shed light on contemporary historical, political, and social issues. 

The films considered in Figures of Resistance (their Flexner class), included Tony Harrison’s Prometheus, Liliana Cavani’s The Year of the Cannibals, Amy Greenfield’s Antigone/Rites of Passion, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Miklós Jancsó’s Electra, My Love, Arthur Ripstein’s, Asi Es La Vida, and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq

The Reading List

Catherine Conybeare (Greek, Latin, and Classics) shared her syllabus for Feminism in the Classics with the Bulletin

Herewith, some highlights: “We shall start by considering the relation of feminism to classics; we shall then look at the responses of feminist philosophers and theorists to a range of classical texts that may be read as resisting or refusing the master narratives of a patriarchal culture. These texts will comprise the poetry of Sappho, Sophocles’ play Antigone, Plato’s philosophical dialogue Symposium, Euripides’ play Bacchae, and selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We shall close with a reading of a fundamental text of refusal, the prison diary of Perpetua written in Carthage in 203 C.E. while she awaited her martyrdom in the arena.”

The Writing Assignments
  1. Pretend you are writing a dictionary entry for upper-level high school students. Write a 300-word essay on “classics” and a 300-word essay on “feminism.” 
  2. With reference to at least one of Bonnie Honig’s lectures: how is Honig using (one or more) classical text(s) to think with? 
  3. Choose one episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and produce your own interpretation of it, informed by feminist theory, queer theory, or a more general interpretation of gender theory.
Selected Secondary Sources
  • Toril Moi “Feminist, Female, Feminine” from The Feminist Reader. 
  • Gayle Salomon, “Rethinking gender: Judith Butler and feminist philosophy” from The History of Continental Philosophy.
  • Judith P. Hallett, “Feminist Theory, Historical Periods, Literary Canons, and the Study of Greco-Roman Antiquity” from Feminist Theory and the Classics
  • R. Fowler, “ ‘On Not Knowing Greek:’ Classics and the Woman of Letters” Classical Journal 78
  • Simon Goldhill, “Longing for Sappho,” from Love, Sex, and Tragedy and "Antigone and the Politics of Sisterhood" from Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought.
  • Marilyn B. Skinner, “Woman and Language in Archaic Greece, or Why is Sappho a Woman?” and Ellen Greene, “Apostrophe and Women’s Erotics in the Poetry of Sappho” from Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches
  • Page DuBois, “Sappho in the History of Sexuality,” Sappho is burning. 
  • Froma Zeitlin, “Playing the Other: Theater, Theatricality, and the Feminine in Greek Drama” in Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World.
  • Victoria Wohl, “Beyond Sexual Difference: Becoming-Woman in Euripides’ Bacchae” in The Soul of Tragedy.
  • Bonnie Honig,  Antigone, Interrupted. 
  • Victoria Wohl, “Sexual difference and the aporia of justice in Sophocles’ Antigone” from Bound by the City: Greek Tragedy, Sexual Difference, and the Formation of the Polis.
  • Luce Irigaray, "Sorcerer Love: A Reading of Plato, Symposium, 'Diotima's Speech'" from An Ethics of Sexual Difference.
  • Adriana Cavarero, “Diotima” and “The Maidservant from Thrace” from In Spite of Plato.
  • Vanda Zajko, "'Listening with' Ovid: Intersexuality, Queer Theory, and the Myth of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis" in Helios 36.
  • The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, in Lives of Roman Christian Women, with Philippe Mesnard, “The Power of Uncertainty,” from Perpetua’s Passions.