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Philosophical Frontiers of Ancient Science

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Brooke A. Holmes is a comparatist who has thought about the body as a conceptual object, the concept of the symptom, about ancient Greek medicine, about links between ethics and the rise of interest in natural science and medicine, about how new medical understanding changed meanings, about Nietzsche and Freud and fetishising modernity, about Galen and philosophical problems thrown up by the new medical understandings, about gender in antiquity, about what Laqueur fails to see, about Foucault and sexuality, about Epicureanism and Lucretius in particular and Deleuze’s reading. This one is bringing it all back home again…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? You’re very interdisciplinary aren’t you – do you think of yourself as a philosopher or are you a classicist – or doesn’t the distinction matter much to you?

Brooke A. Holmes: I’ve been interested in ideas for as long as I can remember. I was exposed to feminism, eco-philosophy, and political theory through high school debate. But I’ve also always loved literature as a site for thinking. After my junior year of high school I spent six weeks at Williams College as part of a Telluride Association Summer Program for a seminar on “Gender and Desire”—the first thing we read was David Halperin’s classic essay “Why is Diotima a Woman?”—and I felt immediately at home. At Columbia, I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to major in Comparative Literature, because it seemed like that would let me combine my interests in literature and theory. The entry requirements were pretty strict and I needed a second language quickly (I was already doing Russian) and so I took up Ancient Greek: there was an intensive yearlong course that would let me complete two years in one. I ended up loving the architecture of Greek, and in part because of the Core at Columbia, in part because of the importance of “the Greeks” in poststructuralist theory (and maybe in part because of that early encounter with Halperin), I became more and more fascinated by ancient Greek literature and philosophy. So that’s how I made the decision to focus on classics once I got to graduate school after a year of living mostly in the former Soviet Union (Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Tbilisi), reading Homer, and teaching myself Latin. Early on, I became very interested in the idea of the symptom from all possible angles, and so that led me to tragedy, philosophy, and medicine.

The second question is a bit harder for me to answer. The short answer would be that the distinction between philosophy and classics matters to me in that I’m interested in the different modes of knowing produced by different disciplines; but in terms of how I identify myself, neither of those labels feels entirely adequate. I draw on a range of disciplinary, methodological, and epistemic strategies to take on problems that feel compelling to me, largely problems that arise from the challenge posed by the concepts of body, nature, matter, the daemonic, and the non-human to theories of the human and accounts of subjectivity. Because I work with ancient texts as a way into these problems, I’m also always reflecting on the relationship between classical antiquity and the present, how that relationship is informed by the longue durée reception of antiquity but also what it needs to be in this historical, cultural, and conceptual moment in order to be productive and powerful. So, yes, I’m very interdisciplinary. I would probably call myself a comparatist, someone who by definition moves between different traditions, ways of knowing, languages, and disciplines: philosophy, yes, and classics, but also the history of ideas, comparative literature, the history of science, poetics, the history of medicine, anthropology. And of course the movement across time, what I would call transhistoricism, is also important to me.

It’s probably clear that I’m quite fascinated by the nature of disciplines: what they enable, what they block, as well as the forms of paradisciplinarity they produce. They’re not only a collection of historically contingent strategies for approaching strange texts, artifacts, and problems. They’re forms of constraint that enable us to get outside ourselves and think differently: otherwise, we can’t really get any traction on the present. That said, the kinds of questions that interest me, in particular, ask for methodological pluralism and suppleness. To get somewhere with them you have to be able to navigate between disciplines, to work with them, to reach beyond them, to make your own connections. In a way this is just to say that intellectual work is informed, on the one hand, by method—transindividual, reproducible practices—and on the other hand by the singularity that comes from there being an infinite number of possible connections out of which any individual builds a case of persuasive sensemaking.

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3:AM: You’ve thought about the way the body has been developed into a conceptual object. You say this started a long time ago beginning perhaps with Homer don’t you? What do you mean by ‘conceptual object’ here, and what was the body before such conceptualization? Was there no real sense of a self related to the body before then?

BH: I’ll start with the idea of a conceptual object. I adopted this term as a way of talking about how the body can be something that’s simultaneously tangibly present and real and inferred and imagined. This doubleness is why I talk about the physical body, and not the body in general (if there even is such a thing): I’m interested in the history of the body as a real object that’s organized by a nature (physis in Greek) that has to be read through signs. Of course, I argue that the body understood in these terms—we could call it not only a physical body but a biological body—becomes such a powerful conceptual object in the Western tradition that it comes to be conflated with “the body.”

The doubleness captured by the term “conceptual object” is also why the concept of the symptom is so important to me. A symptom is an event that erupts into experience as incontrovertibly real and other to the functional norm of the self; at the same time, the reality it makes manifest is hidden. It’s hidden not just in the sense that it resides in an unseen place, but also in the sense that we can see forces only through their effects. The physical or biological body, I argue, is seen primarily through symptoms in the classical period, which is to say it’s seen inferentially, through a conceptual leap from phenomena to hidden places and causes.

Part of the reason the symptom is so powerful in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE is because there’s no systematic dissection of the human body. You can’t open things up and see what’s inside. So the corporeal interior is an especially mysterious space, as I discuss further below. But that’s not the whole story. Even after human dissection (and probably even vivisection) is taken up, for a short period, in Hellenistic Alexandria, the structure of the symptom remains important because it’s impossible to see the forces animating the body except with the mind. The physical body is necessarily a conceptual object (and it still is: an MRI, even an fMRI, images the effects of brain activity).

Under what conditions does the physical body appear? I argue that the concept of the physical body doesn’t exist before the rise of what’s called the inquiry into nature (what we know as Presocratic natural philosophy) and before the translation of its major conceptual innovations to the domain of human nature, primarily within the early medical tradition (preserved in the writings of the Hippocratic Corpus). These developments occur largely in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Before these intellectual revolutions, symptoms were interpreted differently, which is to say they made real and present other kinds of unseen spaces and forces—namely, an unseen plane of gods and demons. (The past tense is a bit confusing here: the physical body doesn’t displace other explanatory models but it does arrogate considerable explanatory power, at least among urban elites in the Greco-Roman period.)

For a long time, pre-Hippocratic interpretations of symptoms in terms of gods and demons were seen by scholars as mere superstition. Once “rational” medicine comes along, so the story went, these superstitions are rightly displaced by insight into the real basis of disease and, indeed, reality. There were always dissenters from this “Whiggish” history but it’s not until the 1970s that this conventional story is disrupted, largely through the anthropologically informed work of G. E. R. Lloyd. Lloyd didn’t dispute that something radically different happens with the rise of naturalizing medicine. But he did object to calling that progress, science, or a discovery of something real. Lloyd’s emphasis on culture as an important mediator of what the Presocratics and medical writers “saw,” as well as on continuities between old and new ways of seeing the world, had a powerful impact on historians of ancient medicine, in particular. It had the effect of focusing attention on the medical writers as products of their culture, rather than as contributing to genuinely new concepts with powerful and escalating consequences for ideas not just about bodies but about humans and human nature and subjectivity and ethics.

To grasp what’s new it’s important to recognize that earlier modes of interpretation weren’t just superstitions but robust explanatory narratives about harm and suffering. At the center of these narratives are social agents unlike humans in some respects but like them in that they’re motivated by beliefs, emotions, intentions, desires, etc. These kinds of agents offer a clear social and ethical context for making sense of symptoms. At the same time, because these agents are super-efficacious—their intentions essentially bring about effects—the skin isn’t really a relevant boundary. Rather, divine and daemonic agents act directly on the person (in the book, I use a distinction between “the seen” and “the felt” to capture these two ways of imagining a human being).

By contrast, the medical writers reimagine the unseen place and unseen forces behind the symptom. The symptom is now understood to arise from an unseen and importantly unfelt part of the self: the interior of the body. I argue that prior to this, there is no sense of unfelt space within the self: symptoms arrive from a daemonic space exterior to the self. With the idea of unfelt (but potentially seen) space within the self, the daemonic is in an important sense internalized. At the same time, the forces behind the symptom are now impersonal powers (dynameis) with typed ways of behaving according to their natures. Lacking emotion, intention, consciousness, they are decidedly not social agents. Taken together, the imagination of unfelt, hidden space within and the power invested in impersonal forces create the concept of the physical body. This body is “seen” most powerfully in disease but it becomes the explanation for human nature more generally. The shift from an interpretive framework organized around persons to one organized around impersonal forces has crucial consequences for the meaning of symptoms.

I’ll just say one more thing about the implications of the account I’ve just sketched. The story of dualism in the West is usually told from the perspective of soul: the body is always there, until people stumble across the incorporeal soul. (Bruno Snell, in his classic Discovery of the Mind, gives an influential version of this story: although he denies that Homer has a notion of the body, what he really means is that Homer lacks the concept of the unified body, as distinct from soul.) You could say the body is the paradigmatic historical given. What I argue is that this story gets things backwards. It’s in large part through the elaboration of a thoroughly physicalized account of human nature, especially in medical writing, that philosophers—notably Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle—seek to recuperate concepts like intention and mind that had been explained through reference to the dynamics of the body by developing the idea of soul, as I discuss a bit more below.

I think this process repeats itself cyclically and dynamically in Western thought: materialist, sometimes aggressively reductive concepts of human nature energize the theorization of mind as somehow autonomous or discontinuous with physical forces, as in Freud’s development of the unconscious. So in short, the physical body qua conceptual object is a product of particular historical and intellectual conditions, which is not to deny its power in structuring experience and observation for us. At the same time, its explanatory power is always in flux because of the threats it poses to our sense of ourselves as human, as subjects and not simply objects.

3:AM: So what happened with Homer and those Greeks? What made them start asking about nature?

BH: That’s a tough question. Lots of people have offered hypotheses about why the first Presocratic philosopher, Thales, started asking the kinds of questions he did (influence from the Near East, the rise of money, political changes). But I don’t think it’s a question easily answered with the evidence we have. I don’t want to simply point to what’s long been referred to as the “Greek miracle.” In my work, though, I’m interested in what happens after the inquiry into nature gets going. I recognize that there are no doubt sociopolitical reasons why it does, and that those factors continue to have a role to play on why people develop the ideas they do, but I focus on how a way of thinking about nature and the body gains a momentum in the fifth century that produces very long-lived problems in the West and has all kinds of consequences for broader questions about subjectivity and ethics.

3:AM: Was ethics being developed at the same time separately or were the early ethical theories and Euripides reacting to the medics and this new idea about the body and how it relates to ourselves.

BH: There are no doubt all kinds of factors that contribute to the rise of ethical theory in the late fifth century and fourth century. But the story of how it comes about has to include the intellectual ferment that had been stirred up by the inquiry into nature and the success of the sophists in the second half of the fifth century. On the classic account, it’s Socrates, who marks the decisive break with his predecessors in setting aside questions about physics and biology in order to focus on the soul and virtue, which should be understood as what constitutes the flourishing of human nature. There’s a famous passage from Plato’s Phaedo where Socrates talks about hearing someone reading from a book of Anaxagoras where cosmic organization is assigned to mind (nous). But when Socrates goes to read Anaxagoras himself, he discovers that he doesn’t really assign sufficient power to mind and, Socrates alleges, falls back on physical causes. Socrates wants an explanatory system where the good comes first, not things like necessity, chance, and nature (to adopt the axis of evil from Plato’s anti-materialist Laws X). And he thinks that not just the intellectuals but the Athenians in general need to prioritize the care of their souls.

Now people have long been aware of the importance of the medical analogy to Plato’s development of this presumably Socratic idea of the care of the soul. In its simplest form, the analogy likens the body to the soul and postulates the need for a practice of taking care of it that is like medicine. It shows up frequently in the early “Socratic” dialogues and it also plays a significant role in the Republic and the Philebus. It’s not just in Plato you find the medical analogy—also, in the fragments of Democritus, the speeches of Isocrates, and Aristotle, and it grows even more prevalent in Hellenistic ethics.

It may be precisely because the medical analogy becomes so familiar that it hasn’t been fully appreciated within the story about the rise of philosophical ethics. The importance of medicine is attributed to its status as a master techne, an art or science; or to its vision of health as a balance between the humors. In a way, I think it’s because philosophers and historians of philosophy so readily assume the higher status of philosophy vis-à-vis medicine that they don’t fully gauge the ambitions and the success of medicine and physiological accounts of human nature in this period (although perhaps the clout of neuroscience these days make it easier to take medicine seriously).

What we see in the medical texts are what we might call translations of the inquiry into nature at the cosmological level into the terms of human nature. In other words, it’s in and around medicine that we see people starting to rethink what it means to be human in terms of the reimagined cosmos of the physicists, sometimes through the work of trying to understand disease as a perversion of human nature (rather than a daemonic, external incursion), sometimes through more systematic accounts of how human nature comes into being. On these models, every aspect of our nature, including our mental states, our beliefs about what is good and bad, and our dispositions, is grounded in the mixtures and behaviors of the constituent, fluid, physical stuffs of our natures and their qualities (hot, wet, cold, dry). That means that our well being in every sense of the word is affected by the state of those stuffs.

From one perspective, a view of human nature in these terms is very satisfying. For it’s conducive to control over our well being, at least in theory: understand the material causes of a hyperactive mind, say (as in the treatise On Regimen), and you can intervene to adjust the material conditions so that they support mental focus. The seduction here isn’t just technological but also intellectual. Many of the theories of human nature we see in medical texts are, like Presocratic theories more generally, reductive or elegant, depending on your perspective. These descriptors will be of course familiar to anyone grappling with accounts of the mind being generated by cognitive science.

From another perspective, this materialist or physiological view feels inadequate. What the medical writers leave out, I’ve argued, isn’t so much soul or mind but rather an account of mental states as causes, rather than simply as effects. One conspicuous gap in their accounts of human nature has to do with beliefs, motivations, intentions, and other mental states. This is precisely where the medical analogy steps in. By using the analogy, philosophers trade on the cultural authority and explanatory success of medical models of human nature. They develop ideas about the diseases of the soul that borrow much from medicine: the soul of early philosophical ethics is not only organized by norms of nature; it’s also susceptible to the volatility and disruption associated with the humors in medical pathologies. There’s therefore a great need for us to take control of the care of our souls. Yet at the same time, the philosophers work hard to show that the soul is an independent object of care requiring a particular set of techniques for its care that only philosophy can provide. The care of the body isn’t enough. Indeed, sometimes they argue (as Socrates does in Plato’s Republic) that the proper care of the soul will enable the soul to take care of the body on its own. Just as often in Plato we find the claim that the soul is the true person and so its care is more important than the care of the body.

So I would argue that early philosophical ethics is very much responding to and building on medicine, not just pathological models but models of human nature as subject to techniques of care. The figure of analogy is important here, since it asks us to hold together both the convergence of body and soul as objects of care and the break created by the structure of an analogy between body and soul as separate objects requiring separate forms of expertise and management. It’s worth adding that the work of hiving off the soul from the body is never complete. Galen, for example, wrote a treatise in the second century CE in which he argues that all the faculties of the soul, including intellectual capacities, are dependent on the mixtures of the body. The debates we see now about whether mental illness should be treated entirely physiologically or through, say talk therapy is in this sense very old. Once the physical body comes on the scene, there’s pressure to carve out a space of the human that cannot be simply reduced to corporeal dynamics. Yet at the same time, protecting that space from what happens to the body is never easy, even for someone like Plato (who offers, for example, a pretty “medical” explanation of pathological sexual desire in the Timaeus).

3:AM: How did this change the meaning of suffering, human nature and subjectivity?

BH: First, the daemonic comes inside: no longer external or contiguous with a conscious self, the space where disease takes hold is incorporated into the subject as the unfelt cavity of the physical body; the causes of disease are pinned down as environmental and dietary triggers and the fluid, often unruly stuffs (“humors”) within the cavity. Indeed, not just the experience of pain and disease, but the very workings of what is now called, in the wake of the “inquiry into nature,” “human nature,” are located, at least within medical writing, in the behavior of physical stuffs in non-conscious space beneath the skin.

Second, the forces and stuffs that populate this space are unresponsive to intentions. The only means of affecting what happens in the cavity is through technological means, which requires expert advice. For knowledge about this new object, the physical body, doesn’t come from having a body, but from studying causes and observing symptoms in other people’s bodies. The subject who wants to take control of the volatile body is obliged to become a subject of medical knowledge, to occupy the epistemological position of the physician and adopt practices that instrumentalize that knowledge. In a way, he must become “disembodied” in order to exert mastery over the body; the (feared) alternative is to be nothing but a symptom or effect of the forces at work beneath the surface.

Third, for elite male subjects, there’s an ethical obligation to take responsibility for the volatile body in order to qualify as a proper subject, to be active rather than passive (the disruptive, daemonic body is, unsurprisingly, feminizing).

To understand this ethical obligation it’s important to understand changes in how the causality of disease is understood. In magico-religious explanations of disease, harm typically originates with a social agent, a god or daemon, whose intentions are unusually efficacious: if they want to cause harm, they succeed. The “instruments” of this harm—Apollo’s arrows in cases of plague, for example—are, I would argue, symbols of agency rather than actual instruments. By contrast, when cause is transferred onto impersonal stuffs both outside and inside the body, what matters is a causal chain. The south wind (which triggers an epileptic fit in On the Sacred Disease) doesn’t want to make you suffer. Rather, it’s in its nature to change the phlegm within the body so that it sets off a chain reaction resulting in the symptoms of the epileptic fit: as one medical writer puts it, one bad thing adds to another. The “macro” cause—god or daemon—is atomized into a series of micro-causes, which together, cumulatively, produce the symptom.

The fragmentation of the causal chain would seem to neutralize the question of who’s responsible for the disease. In place of intentionality and efficacious causality, there’s only a causal series. What we see actually happen is some blame get attached to the body itself. But the body, precisely because it’s impersonal, doesn’t absorb blame well. The responsibility for the disease is therefore shifted onto the nearest plausible agent, namely, the embodied person, who is now charged with managing the body. The management of the body is in fact enabled by the fragmentation of the causal chain. For with the shift to the causal series or chain, spaces open up for the knowing subject, the subject acquainted with medicine and allied with the physician, to intervene and ward off or reverse the damage occurring. Things might have been otherwise had the person taken care. That possibility is a condition of praise and blame, the basis of Greek ethics. In short, then, the physical body changes the ethics of suffering by making a theoretically intelligible—and so manageable—human nature the responsibility of (primarily) male subjects.

Finally, the situation is complicated by the crystallization of the soul as an object of care. As I discussed above, the soul comes into focus in part under the pressures of a biological or physiological view of the human. It is defined as different from the body. At the same time, through the medical analogy and the strong therapeutic streak in Greek ethics, the soul qua object of care borrows the fundamental paradox of the physical body. On the one hand, it’s not only subject to techniques of control but is understood as the rationality behind those technique. On the other hand, there’s a need for control precisely because, like the body, the soul has a daemonic side, a volatility and a capacity to misfire that is entirely interior to its nature, even as it perverts it. The emergence of the physical body, then, restructures the self not only at the physiological level. It also contributes to a broader, long-lasting revolution in how subjectivity is imagined around blind spots and across a divide between material being and something in us we believe isn’t exhausted by that being or techniques for mastering it.

3:AM: It seems that the body as something both an object of scientific knowledge and investigation, on the one hand, and an unruly, threatening, inhuman thing on the other is terrifically modern. It sounds like Nietzsche or Freud. Is it?

BH: I think that both Nietzsche and Freud are reworking the problem I’ve been sketching in ways that are profoundly original and deeply rooted in a long tradition of trying to make sense of the human as an object of systematic knowledge. Each of them, I would say, tarries with the body while at the same time radicalizing and elaborating the terms of materialism in a way that evades both scientism and transcendence. In this respect, Nietzsche, in particular, extends a long Epicurean tradition (and of course both Nietzsche and Freud self-consciously engaged in complex and multifaceted ways with ancient Greco-Roman writers). I would say, too, that as someone working in a post-Nietzschean, post-Freudian world, I can hardly get back to “the Greeks” without Nietzsche and Freud shaping the terms that I use even as I seek to displace myself from modern and postmodern frameworks.

Still, I think that we often fetishize modernity—and by extension our own postmodern condition. Its disenchantment, insofar as it subtly reads as sophistication, allows a progressivism or Whiggism in through the back door. Greco-Roman antiquity is utterly strange and unfamiliar. But it’s also uncannily familiar, and there’s a long and complex, wild and brilliant philosophical tradition trying to work through problems we’re still grapping with—indeed, problems that may morph but that we’ll never “solve” because it falls to each generation, each age to work them through on their own terms. These problems have to be understood, I would insist, as growing out of the emergence of our most familiar terms in ancient Greece: body, and also nature. There are continuities that get lost when modernity is used to name everything that we think of as conceptually interesting or powerful in the present. The great challenge is to read ancient texts in a way that allows them to decenter us, that respects their strangeness while at the same time opening ourselves to the deep resonances they can create with our attempts to think through contemporary problems. It’s always a question of living up to the imperative of what Nietzsche called “untimeliness.”

3:AM: Cartesian mind/body dualism from this perspective looks like it’s going to the position before the Gods were replaced by powers and symptoms. The mind in Dualism is as mysteriously not-the-body as the Gods once were. Do you think your historical perspective can help sort out some of the contemporary approaches to investigating the nature of consciousness by reminding us of previous, perhaps overlooked, insights from these ancient guys?

BH: That’s an interesting claim! I guess I would say that once you’ve made the body central to an account of the human subject, there’s no going back. But what you see after the first wave of physiological accounts of human nature and then the push to isolate out something called soul or mind that’s not just causally determined by the state of the body is a long and fascinating tradition of trying to suture these two halves of the person back together. The book I’m working now takes up the concept of sympathy as it develops in the postclassical period (basically from later fourth century BCE to late antiquity), and one of the main reasons why sympathy is important, I would argue, is that it’s a way of describing the interdependence and mutual affectability of body and soul while respecting a boundary between them. We see sympathy start to play this role a little bit in Aristotle and esp. later Peripatetics, but it comes into its own in the Stoics and Epicureans, who both use sympathy to capture the corporeality of the soul but also its difference from the body.

Once you’re in this kind of conceptual world, different and often fascinating kinds of approaches to the relationship of body/soul or body/mind become possible. Galen is especially interesting on these questions, sometimes pointing to the dependence of mental states on the “mixtures” of the body, sometimes recommending the psychic management of emotions along the lines of most ethical philosophy in the second century CE (the techniques of the self studied by Hadot and Foucault). He’s ultimately agnostic about the nature of the soul, saying it’s not a question that medicine’s empirical method can answer. The sophistication of someone like Galen, together with the strangeness of his models, make him and other ancient sources incredibly important, I find, for getting a fresh angle on contemporary problems raised by the irreducibility of consciousness, the persistence of a tension between first-personal and third-personal perspectives, the epistemic limits of medicine and science, the split of any biological subject, etc. I’ve just starting taking classes in the bioethics program at NYU as part of a Mellon New Directions fellowship, and it’s been amazing to see the persistence of the problems around embodiment you already see in the Greek sources.

These questions also come back in relationship to current thinking about the non-human and the extension of “mind” beyond the human, into the animal and even plants and beyond. My current book project follows the concept of sympathy (sympatheia) as the basis of what I call an untimely ecology, an attempt to follow the emergence not so much of a concept of nature—the “inquiry into nature” gets going in the sixth century—but a concept of “capital-N” Nature: Nature as a transindividual mind or agent who is also immanent in individual natures. I’m interested in the problem that Nature emerges to “solve,” which I would sum up as the problem of the relation between natures after Aristotle: how might we imagine a community of natures that neither reduces those natures to material bodies exchanging constituent elements nor projects them as social agents, as in traditional Greek religion, but recognizes the integrity of individual, usually organismic, natures. I suggest that sympathy and sometimes antipathy are important strategies for thinking about relationality within this non-human community. But the very difficulty of ascribing “loves” and “hates” to ostensibly non-rational natures (animals, plants) means that the apparent sociality between these natures is read in terms of an overarching agent: Nature, capital N. By looking at why and how Nature gains traction in this period as way of dealing with the quasi-mindfulness and sociality of non-human natures, we can better reflect on our own investments in the concept. For if there’s one thing that a lot of people are thinking about—Bruno Latour, Philippe Descola, Tim Morton, to name some of the most important—it’s whether “nature” is something we need to throw out in the name of ecology.

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3:AM: In your next book you looked specifically at how modern gender studies has been shaped through encounters with Greco-Roman antiquity. You wanted to put ancient ideas about gender in their historical context because you felt they were not being understood properly didn’t you? What kinds of things were happening in gender studies that you wanted to change, or at least, add to? Were there particular positions that you noticed would benefit from historical contextualization?

BH: I wanted to return to antiquity for two reasons. First, it’s true I felt there were positions that were being based on ancient sources that were not just limited as historical accounts but as contributions to the theorization of sex and gender. One of the most important for me was the claim made by Laqueur and regularly repeated in handbooks on gender that the Greeks didn’t locate sex in the body: the body, on this reading, is too fluid to ground sex, so that what we think of as “gender”—the social, the cultural, the metaphysical—is actually the stable term and bodies are fluid and malleable. Now there are important historical changes, clustered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that seem to result in an investment in nature and the body as the bedrock of sexual identity. But the real problem with Laqueur, I think, is that he takes the very opposition of sex (nature)/gender (culture) as a transhistorical tool that then gets applied to antiquity so that the ancient become the inversion of modernity.

In doing this, Laqueur fails to see that the very opposition of sex/gender along these lines is the product of the twentieth-century history of feminism and gender studies. So he ends up straitjacketing the ancient sources in ways that block us from seeing their complexity while at the same time not recognizing that his own analytical tools are a product of recent history. There are sexed bodies in antiquity—you can’t just slide back and forth between being a man and a woman, for example; sex is the result of a relative fixing of matter in utero. But at the same time, bodies are malleable especially in response to practices; and in fact the inherent malleability of the body means that to be a free male subject you have to manage the body in such a way as to secure masculinity. To be passive vis-à-vis the body is to be feminized (though not to become a woman). So if you look more closely, you find an entwinement of bodies and practices, informed by a notion of matter as unpredictably fixed and fluid, that resonates powerfully with, say, new materialist work to get past the rigid opposition between sex/gender and nature/culture. Taking the complexity of the ancient sources seriously directly supports the work of better theorizing what Donna Haraway calls naturecultures. That’s just one example from the book’s first chapter. I also look at the debates in the history of sexuality about the absence of homosexuality in Greece and Rome and, in the third chapter, at the almost talismanic power of Antigone in political theory, psychoanalysis, feminism and gender studies, etc.

That points to my second aim: I wanted to show just how important claims about antiquity had been to the formation of gender studies as a field. At a moment when gender studies is in a kind of crisis about its object—is gender still a useful category of analysis?—it seemed important to get clearer about how certain patterns of thinking were indebted to readings of ancient sources that could be disrupted. The very hold of the ancient material is what makes it such an important site of disruption, as the political theorist Bonnie Honig has claimed in her recent book Antigone, Interrupted. It’s not just contemporary theorists and feminist philosophers who need to recognize this, but classicists, who are too often ensconced within the parameters of their own field and passive with respect to contemporary theory.

3:AM: Some will be surprised that Plato and Aristotle are helpful to gender studies. Didn’t they have pretty fixed gender positions that were anti-women?

BH: It depends on who you ask but I would say that on balance, there’s not much to be gained by trying to revive Plato and Aristotle as proto-feminists. Nor do I think it’s worth hiving off the problematic things they say about women or the female—Plato’s idea in the Timaeus, say, that men who fail ethically in one life are reborn as a woman in the next, or Aristotle’s infamous remarks about women as crippled men—to try to find what’s useful in their philosophies. The feminization of matter, together with the devaluation of matter, are at the core of both Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies. That’s pretty well-established, and for Aristotle, there’s now an excellent new book by Emanuela Bianchi, The Feminine Symptom, that gets us so much further in thinking about matter and the feminine in Aristotle. But I also think there’s important work to be done with and through Plato and Aristotle to understand concepts that are potential resources for gender theory and all kinds of theoretical work being done under the banner of new materialism, the history of biology and vitalism, etc.—not just the concept of the body but also of nature.

3:AM: Is Foucault guilty of decontextualising the ancients in his approach to gender?

BH: Foucault doesn’t care much that the ancient subject of the souci de soi is male. He’s been taken to task for this, and rightly. The account he gives in the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality is, as many people have noted, hampered by its dependence on moralizing and largely normative discourses, and a sort of optimism that doesn’t do justice to all the complexities of the care of the self, which I tried to sketch out above. That said, I think that Foucault’s analysis in those two volumes was brilliant and in many ways I would consider myself a Foucauldian. It’s true he built on Dover and Hadot but he crystallized a critical angle on understanding what was going on in these periods to constitute new forms of subjectivity. My first book was in some sense inspired by Foucault’s genealogical work, extended to the very category of “the body,” which Foucault, in going back to the Greeks as origin point, just takes for granted. By interrogating the concept of the “body” I think you get a much more interesting and powerful story of the formation of the ethical subject in antiquity.

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3:AM: You co-edited a collection of essays on Epicureanism which you describe not as a philosophical system but a dynamic text. So what’s interesting about Epicureanism for the contemporary reader – and again, are current discussions historical enough to be interesting?

BH: I have always been fascinated by Epicureanism, and Lucretius in particular; and of course in the last few years, there’s been a bit of a Lucretius revival. There’s so much that is interesting about Epicureanism! But I think I would boil it down to the rigorous thinking of a world in which there is no providence, no teleology, no special care for the human. But the Epicurean challenge is not just to dethrone the human. It’s to work out an ethics, a strategy for human flourishing, given an atomist physics: for Epicurus, as for all ancient philosophies, physics exists only as part of an ethical story. It’s not that everything reduces to the third-personal perspective. It’s the instability between third-personal and first-personal perspective that makes Lucretius and Epicureanism so rich.

The very necessity of thinking ethics and physics together is itself one of the provocations of Lucretius—you can see this taken up in a serious way in Michel Serres’ Birth of Physics. What Serres wants to do there is not just give an account of Lucretius though, but to use Lucretius to think about what he calls “liquid history,” a non-linear understanding of time whereby the De rerum natura can appear on the threshold of the postmodern world as a fresh provocation. Serres gives a famous example of a handkerchief on which two points are marked. If you crumple the handkerchief, the two points can become proximate. For him, Epicurean physics (which he understands, pretty unpersuasively I will admit, as informed by Archimedean mathematics) stand next to chaos theory as a physics of flow. I find this a fascinating provocation to our linear notions of historical reception.

In fact, one of the things that my co-editor Will Shearin and I were trying to think about in that volume was how Epicureanism produces theories that become available to understanding its own historical reception, as well as its power to provoke in the present. Serres is one example that we don’t actually engage that much with in the volume. Another would be to imagine Epicureanism as a text with virtual powers that are realized differently depending on when and where and by whom it is received: there are commonalities here, a series, that can encompass what might be called “misreadings” of Epicureanism (e.g., its equation with simple hedonism, though what Epicurus advocates for is ataraxia, the absence of disturbance, also called katastematic pleasure), but also variations across time. The text is like a body that produces a range of reactions in the bodies it encounters. This was one way of trying to give a more materialist account of reception, which has been overly invested in epistemology, what a given “recipient” can know of the text she encounters. I was also very interested in that project in Deleuze’s reading of Lucretius in an appendix to The Logic of Sense. There again, you can see in the reading of Lucretius a model through which we understand why reading Lucretius is a productive practice in the ongoing project of naturalism (continued, for Deleuze, via Spinoza, Nietzsche, and his own philosophy), that is, why each generation may need to read Lucretius in order to further the philosophical and ethical work of naturalism.

3:AM: And finally, for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books (other than your own which we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this) that you could recommend for us to think further about these issues?

B. Snell, The Discovery of the Mind
M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure
M. Serres and B. Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time.
C. Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion.
G. Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 6th, 2015.