Byzantium and the Public Sphere

In a couple of weeks, I head back east to the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at the Hellenic College Holy Cross to be on a panel of scholars who “use traditional and digital means to build a broader audience for the field inside and outside of the academy.” I suspect my blog caught their attention or a series of posts a couple of years ago on marketing my Byzantine history class to unsuspecting undergraduates. 

In these blog posts, I complained that the place of Byzantium in most “master narratives” presented to college students, limits how we can present the Byzantine Empire to an unfamiliar audience on campus. Some of these approaches are useful. In my very traditional history department, Byzantine history serves as another way to complicate what the students understand to be “the Western tradition.” To simplify this discussion (as I would present it to undergraduates unfamiliar with Byzantium), the Byzantine world has a Western pedigree: it represented the persistence of the Roman Empire, it was ruled and populated by “people of the book” (Jews, Christian, and Muslims), and it partook in familiar practices that ranged from Hellenic philosophy, to architecture, forms of literature, and political history. At my lowest points, I found myself saying: “Don’t worry, it will be far more familiar than the world of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin!” (Putting aside that these worlds were made up and featured, you know, dragons). In my best moments, I found that I could channel my inner Anthony Kaldellis

Appeals to familiarity, of course, only serve to highlight the things about Byzantium that are utterly unfamiliar. On a short flight this past month, I read over Averill Cameron’s slim volume titled Byzantine Matters. The book provides a useful, if incomplete view of trends in the field over the author’s influential career (or since the publication of Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State in 1969. More than that, her book is accessible and generally indicates some profitable lines of inquiry that challenge the traditional view of Byzantium as a theocratic despotism satisfied to simmer gently beneath the ponderous weight of Orthodox uniformity. This approach not only offers a way to open up Byzantium to questions that are profoundly Western (e.g. what was the relationship between church and state?), but also to urge students to see the study of Byzantium as a way to critique Orientalism and its view of unchanging, almost unthinking traditionalism. This may be a hook to ensure that “Byzantium belongs to all of us, and … belongs to mainstream history.” Lest we imagine that Cameron went all populist on us, she also calls for renewed attention to Byzantine religious writing (sermons, theological treatises, et c.) as works of literature. Nothing is likely to broaden the appeal of Byzantium more than combining the study of literature, with all its theoretical pretensions, with the study of theological texts which were probably bored the vast majority of the Byzantine world. That being said, this suggestion does follow her overarching argument for hidden complexity in the Byzantium world.

I don’t think that I was invited to this panel to share my penetrating understanding of Byzantine historiography, however. 

I think I’ll try to inject a few observations.

1. Blogging Byzantium. Over the last 10 years or so, there has been a constant presence of Byzantine bloggers on the web. In most cases, these blogs are pretty traditional, text-driven places. None of us have truly embraced the potential of social and new media although a few of the blogs feature videos from time to time.

There are a few exceptions. For example, there is Lars Brownworth’s 12 Rulers of Byzantium which started as a podcast and has expanded into a media empire featuring videos and a book. The Cry for Byzantium Twitter feed of Alexius I Comnenus pushes Byzantium into the social media sphere. The /r/Byzantine page on Reddit appears to be thriving.

The typical Byzantine Blogger, however, is pretty textual with the occasional image of a domed church or a map. There are, of course, a few panoramic views of Byzantine churches and a mishmash of mostly outdated efforts to create interactive maps of Constantinople or whatever. Generally speaking, scholars of Byzantium have stayed on the sideline of recent trends to create a more dynamic web. These kinds of projects require significant funding and, perhaps more importantly, a clearly-defined audience.

2. Byzantine Archaeology as World Archaeology. I need to work this into a fuller post at some point in the near future, but one observation that my buddy Kostis Kourelis made a few years back is that a meaningful subset of Byzantine archaeologists also do archaeology in their local communities. What brought this to mind was David Pettegrew’s recent work on mapping 19th century Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and the Greek community there. Kostis has been involved in my North Dakota Man Camp Project and various initiatives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he teaches. The willingness of archaeologists of the Byzantine world to engage in the archaeology of their local communities hints that Byzantinists are not as disengaged as our scholarly output might suggest. In fact, it suggests that some of the trends in Byzantine archaeology resonate with issues prevalent in world archaeology. For a discipline that almost takes a perverse pride in its idiosyncratic conventions, this is a significant revelation and offers hope for Byzantinists everywhere that our skills and professional interests can have a direct impact on local communities in North America.

3. Mash-Up and Convergence. Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about how our scholarly production – books and articles – rarely extend beyond their academic audiences and rarely enjoy lives outside of their final, published copies. The divergence between academic works and popular books could not be more stark as influential popular books often feed a growing participatory community engaged in fan fiction, form the basis for transmedia productions like films and video games, and spawn communities of commentators and critics. George R.R. Martin’s mostly-depraved Game of Thrones series of books and TV series is just the most recent and perhaps most visible example.

As Byzantinists contemplate engaging the public sphere more fully, it might behoove us to consider the changing the changing state of popular media. How do we ensure that our books and articles become living, media entities that go beyond their utility to a small group of scholars? Do we push to make our work available in open access? Do we work harder to contribute to linked-data practices? How does our work interact or intersect with the larger media universe? 

To my mind, this is not simply about making our work known to more people, but making it more accessible to audiences who think about media in new and more dynamic ways. Books and articles are more than just forms of scholarly communication or instruments designed to get tenure, but simply aspects of an increasingly dynamic media universe that extends beyond the life of a publication, its physical or digital form, and goals of the academic author. How can Byzantine studies engage this world?

One Comment

  1. vincentoreilly March 31, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    Big problem is the popular conception of Byzantium as entirely static; and to our secular age it being religion bound That is boring to young readers (Believe me, it took me two boring introductory chapters to outline the furor over iconoclasm which most young folk have never heard of or care about the fuss over. My proof reader did not even know what the Eucharist is. My own YouTube video has received little play and twitterers are only tweeting to each other. Reddit’s Byzantium section is rather bare though I can occasionally lift an item from there to post on Twitter. However I have very few followers on Twitter.

    Suggested titles:
    Byzantium without icons
    Byzantium – Not just a china pattern
    More seriously:
    The East Roman Defense Of European Civilization

    Formatted as was Thomas Cahill’s attractive Mysteries Of The Middle Ages and released for Christmas gift giving.

    Taking full advantage of the cost effectiveness of e-books and the internet for both author and reader what is most needed is not new material but promotion and promotion doesn’t come cheap. Unfortunately internet sites dedicated to the Middle Ages still give short shift to Eastern Europe and those to Rome to the post classical as part of the continuum. Constantinople deserves to more often be a stop on tours of Greece and the Holy land.

    Reply

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