Not really, but I’ve always wanted to do a post with that title…
I am here in Philadelphia at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association. So far the conference gets a thumbs up for space: the hotel I’m staying in is wonderful, conveniently accessible by train from the airport, and surrounded by plentiful and inexpensive places to eat. The meeting rooms (at least those I’ve attended talks in) are on the small side – all the sessions I’ve attended have had people standing or sitting on the floor. Maybe the organizers just underestimated interest in those particular topics.
But they really should have been able to predict the interest in at least one of those sessions, yesterday afternoon, titled “Rethinking Homosexual Behavior in Antiquity.” The idea behind the panel was to foreground a recent debate in ancient gender studies. Specifically, there has been increasing push-back, for the last several years, against the helpfulness of the Foucault-inspired model of thinking about ancient sexuality that had achieved a fair amount of consensus since the 90s. The panel organizers cited James Davidson, but of course Amy Richlin has been fighting this battle for much longer. The panel consisted of five speakers (Michael Broder, Hunter Gardner, Thomas K. Hubbard, Gregory Jones, and Zsuzsanna Varhelyi) who presented evidence they felt contradicted the model of norming sexual behavior along axes of dominance-submission/penetrator-penetrated rather than considering the gender of the partners. Then there was a response from Holt Parker, who explained quite bluntly why he found none of the papers convincing.
Now this is just what conferences should do, and I attended the panel hoping for some substantive discussion of what I find a really interesting debate. But then the panel ended! The planners had scheduled 6 20-minute talks in a 2 and a half-hour session, and predictably the introduction, the talks and the shifting time between took the entire time. It is hard not to assume that they actually didn’t want discussion, which might well have been pretty acrimonious. But I can read talks and responses from the comfort of my home in Northfield: it’s the discussion that justifies the greenhouse gases produced as all of us travel to Philadelphia.
Parker ended with an interesting observation, which is what I would have asked him about had I had the chance to ask questions. He voiced disappointment that five scholars had ventured out into the “thickets of the Past” (I think he said “thickets”!) and returned with – us. That is, when they purported to find instances contradicting the dominance model of sexuality, what they were finding was modern gay and lesbian people. He bemoaned this impulse, although he acknowledged the status it implied for the field (nobody is looking for instances of modern gay people among the Mayans, he claimed, although I’m not so sure about that).
I have enormous respect for Holt Parker, and am a big fan of his (very prolific) work. And I have to say that I agreed with his take-down of most of the papers, although I would have greatly appreciated hearing the speakers’ responses to it. But from the perspective of a teacher, rather than a scholar, I have to say that the project of looking for “us” – looking for what is familiar, and possibly universal, in those texts, seems like one of the principal reasons that they bring us pleasure and enrichment. Of course it shouldn’t be done irresponsibly, and it’s probably only degree we might disagree about. But if any hint of the familiar is automatically suspect, it’s much less clear to me why I (or my students) might want to spend time reading and thinking about these texts.
OK, even if there had been time I would have been embarrassed to ask him this in the context of an APA panel. But that’s what blogs are for.