My reading here will have to be in some way double. On the one hand, a utopistic attempt . . . to find and reflect on the zones in the text where transgression is inscribed; on the other, a necessary recognition of the substantial weight and incredible resiliency of the symbolic order’s phallocentric law.(Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan) 1
Undoubtedly, it is as difficult to discuss the sex of a discourse as it is to discuss the sex of an angel: these two apparatuses of circulation and/or drift of meaning—one linguistic, the other cosmological—constantly avoid determinations as to their place. . . .(Michel de Certeau, Heterologies) 2
This reading of Ambrose represents an initial exercise in the arts of doubled perception required for interpreting not only the fixed coordinates but also the purposeful slippage and drift of an ancient discourse’s ambiguous inscription of its own sex. The framing of this interpretive task already announces its peculiarly late twentieth-century preoccupations and presuppositions. Indeed, such a reading may seem to risk merely confirming the construction of a currently reigning scholarly orthodoxy, by wrenching the ancient texts too violently into the interpretive categories of a school of psychoanalysis that marks language itself as “phallic” while at the same time [End Page 461] veiling the privileged maleness seemingly implicit in such a representation. 3 If the danger of an entrapping circularity cannot be altogether discounted, the historicist’s hope nevertheless persists: might not a reading of late ancient texts also prove subversive of a “phallic” orthodoxy, serving the purposes of not only a genealogical unmasking but also an unmasking of false genealogies, illumining points of disjunction in the ancient discourse—“anti-phallic” moments, as it were—in such a way as to hint at the possibilities of construing gender otherwise?
Scholars of religion have given considerable attention to the late ancient turn toward the body and to the complex convergence of ascetic practice and episcopal authority that provided the matrix for “new” articulations of gender within fourth-century Christianity. 4 Not irrelevant to these concerns with the historic constructions of gender and the body, I would argue, is the somewhat more recently arising awareness of the distinctiveness and significance of fourth-century conceptions and practices of “rhetoric.” This awareness has been given voice in two evocative sets of lectures that have appeared in publication in the last few years: Peter Brown’s Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity 5 and Averil Cameron’s Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire. 6 In conversation with Brown, this present paper explores the social context of persuasive speech in the late empire, illumining the power relations enacted in the dramatic moment in which an emperor is actually addressed and the “wild power” at the center of an autocratic political structure is to some extent controlled by the rhetorical exertions of classically educated men—in this case, by Ambrose, who in the fourth century almost uniquely combined the experiences and authority of a senatorial background, political office, and a major episcopacy. 7 In conversation with Cameron, the paper also explores the nature of the late ancient Christian discourse available to and in some sense crucially molded by men like Ambrose—a “totalizing” discourse, as Cameron names it (in [End Page 462] Foucaultian terms), a discourse of “orthodoxy” that deploys the language of both empire and martyrdom, invokes the authority of both paideia and a counter-cultural ascesis, and finally (as I will argue) utilizes gender to articulate its own paradoxical character. 8 Two sets of texts will provide the site for explorations of Ambrose’s complex rhetoric of gender, interpreted in its social and discursive contexts: first, the initial two books of De fide, which present themselves in the form of a direct address to the emperor Gratian, and second, the treatises De virginibus and De viduis, ostensibly addressed to ascetic women. All of these well-known works were written in the early years of Ambrose’s tumultuous episcopacy, at a point of significant political vulnerability for the bishop. The urgency of Ambrose’s need to strengthen his position provides an interpretive opportunity, making more transparent the complex rhetorical strategies by which the bishop constituted...