Teaching Thursday: Revisiting Clark’s History, Theory, Text

This semester, I’m teaching a small graduate seminar that is a combination historical methods, theory, and historiography. The syllabus is uncomplicated and involves only 10 or 11 books, a couple of short paper, and a draft of a prospectus.

The third book on the syllabus of Elizabeth Clark’s 2004 classic, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Reading the book this weekend and it evoked a serious case of nostalgia. I remember how excited I was to read this book in 2004 when I was just a year out from my dissertation and still waking from over two years of focused research at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. I largely spent my time in Greece finishing my dissertation, trying to understand how to publish Hellenistic fortifications, and getting my first archaeological project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, started. It was great fun, but it also saw a real narrowing of my perspectives on how to study the ancient world. My years in Athens helped me become more technically and methodologically proficient. 

At the same time, I grew increasingly distant from the conversations taking place in the larger field of history. This probably started long before I decamped from Ohio State’s history department to the American School in Athens, but my time in Athens exaggerated this feeling. When I read Elizabeth Clark’s book some 6 months after returning to the U.S., I felt like I had some catching up to do.

For those unfamiliar with this book, it stands as a survey of the “linguistic turn” in the humanities with particular attention the study of Late Roman Christian literature. The book remains as fresh as ever, in part, because the potential of critical theory is still being unpacked, negotiated, and debated in the humanities and because so many of the key works were already decades old by the time that Clark’s book arrived. The books is not casual. It’s dense, articulate, careful in its intention to open the linguist turn to scholars who were steeped in other traditions or downright skeptical of its applicability to Christian texts of Late Antiquity. 

Today, the main reason that the book feels dated is that so much of the linguistic turn has been internalized over the last 15 years. Clark, along with Averil Cameron, Virginia Burrus, and others whose work introduced critical theory to the study of Late Roman Christianity have produced students, inspired the peers, and led to a sea change in our field. 

At the same time, the book also feels oddly apolitical. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but as a refection both on our own politically age and the increased intermingling of the critical theory with its concern for language with social theory and its concern for institutions, communities, individuals, and agency. While these bodies of theory are, by no means, mutually exclusive (and tend to intersect in the work of Bourdieu, Foucault, Althusser and others), they tended occupy different places in our critical tool kit. As an archaeologist, I think its safe to say that we’ve tended to be drawn more closely to social theory and its direct applicability the kinds of problems that our work explores: development and change in states, social organization, identity formation, etc. 

It seems to me that this integration of the critical  theory with social theory has provided the most effective foundation for the most recent generation of powerful and overtly political scholarship on the ancient world. I’m staring at a copy of Dayna S. Kalleres City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity (2015) for example, sitting on my “to read” list. And was incredible impressed with Kristina Sessa’s The formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere (2012) (blogged about here.) These are but two books in a massive stack of impressive work over the past decade that considers authority, poverty, ethnicity, and social order at the end of the ancient world. 

I’m looking forward to walking through this book with my little seminar this afternoon and thinking about the linguistic turn and its impact on how we think about texts from the past. It’ll bring back good memories too and remind me how little I’ve done to keep my fingers on the recent trends in my field.  

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