Ancient aesthetics and modern identity politics

Ancient aesthetics and modern identity politics

Whe may write about whom, who portray whom? A strict identity-political surveillance regime has grown out of the criticism of racist practices such as blackfacing. Jeanine Cummings has been heavily criticized for telling the story of an illegal immigrant from Mexico in her bestselling novel American Dirt (2020) despite not being Latina. After death threats, she canceled a reading tour. The white theologian Jennifer M. Buck examined trap feminism, a variety of “black feminism” – the publisher withdrew the book under massive pressure. tom hanks has internalized the guidelines of identity politics and declared that he would no longer play the lawyer in “Philadelphia” today: heterosexuals should no longer portray homosexuals.

It is worth considering this development against the background of antiquity consider. As early as Greco-Roman antiquity, a close relationship was assumed between authors and characters, actors and roles. Although Catullus proclaimed: “For the pious poet himself must be chaste, but by no means his little verses.” But in general, the poetic ego was immediately identified with the author: the archaic poet Archilochus was considered the son of a slave, a voluptuous adulterer and a coward who broke the shield left behind on the battlefield because his poems are about such experiences. The term “persona” is of Latin origin, but in antiquity there was no persona theory that categorically separates the author from the narrator.

Close relationship between author and character

The identification was by no means limited to the poetic I. If schoolchildren learn today that the characters in dialogues should not be understood as the author’s mouthpiece, the Roman speech teacher Quintilian has no hesitation in listening to Plato in Socrates. Without hesitation, ancient grammarians ascribe the utterances of Oedipus and Antigone to Sophocles. The close relationship between author and character in the comedy is turned satirically: in Aristophanes’ Acharnians, Euripides appears as a sluggish figure clad in rags – just like the characters in his tragedies, the farmer Dikaiopolis notes.

Another comedy by Aristophanes, the Thesmophoriazusen, brings us close to current discussions: when the tragedian Agathon appears, a character wonders whether it is a man or a woman: the young man is wearing a saffron dress with a bosom band, but has no breasts and also holds a sword next to the mirror. Agathon defends his attire by saying that when he writes women’s drama he must also be ‘physically involved’. Because the basic principle is: “One necessarily creates something similar to one’s own nature.” One must not forget the comic character of this scene in which Aristophanes entertains the Athenians at the expense of a fellow poet known for his androgyny and effeminateness. Nevertheless, the close connection between characters and their authors, which runs through all of antiquity and is reminiscent of current discussions here in its focus on gender, is concentrated in it.

No representation bans in antiquity

At the same time, there is a fundamental difference between the ancient understanding and the regime of the identity politics in the eye: The identity of an author is not used in order to prevent him from dealing with certain characters and topics. Rather, it serves to explain an author’s preferences for character types through his character, or, conversely, one reads this character from the behavior of the characters – in Aristophanes’s Frogs, the cunning Euripides confronts the ponderous, heroic Aeschylus, who behaves like his character Achilles in silence before speaking in bombastic verse. Antiquity shares the close connection between author and character with identity politics, but does not derive any prohibitions on representation from this.

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