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  • Things of the Past:Objects and Time in Greek Narrative
  • Karen Bassi

I. Seeing the Past

Wolfgang Ernst begins a 1999 article by asking, "Should the past, that fragmented landscape of data, always be described in stories?" (Ernst 1999.53). Ernst's question invites us to think about the interrelation of three contested terms: the past, data, and stories. If we agree, for example, that the past is constituted in stories, then what is that "fragmented landscape of data" that, in Ernst's metaphorical usage, pre-exists those stories?1 In the writing of history, these data occupy what de Certeau has called the "position of the real," defined as that to which the historian has only mediated access.2 This appeal to the "real" in conceptualizing the past seems both necessary and unremarkable. But its abstract (or philosophical) character also raises the question of predication: "real" what? This is the question that I'd like to think about in this paper: the referential quality of visible or material remains in the Greek narrative tradition. How do these remains-as objects of verbal description and emplotment-create and mediate the ancient past? And what can this kind of analysis tell us about the division between classical philology and archaeology (words and things) as past-making disciplines?

Two premises frame the discussion. First, the questions of evidence we find in the texts we study-for example, how visible or physical objects [End Page 1] give meaning to the past in ancient narrative-are formative of the questions we ask in our own work. And second, our questions are necessarily producedn out of the culture of evidence in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In her recent book titled Herodotus in Context, Rosalind Thomas cautions against "assuming that what [Herodotus] 'saw' was exactly what we would see if transported suddenly to the same spot" (Thomas 2000.196, emphasis in the original). This cautionary note is symptomatic of the predicament in which we find ourselves as contemporary readers of ancient texts and viewers of ancient objects. We can never see what Herodotus (or any ancient author) saw, although this is often the implied aim of our research. And when we see the remains of ancient objects, whether in situ or in a museum, their temporal distance seems more-not less-apparent.

This distance pertains not only to a history of temporal relations in the broadest sense, but also (as suggested above) to the disciplinary boundaries that divide classical philology and archaeology (Morris 2000.41-48). These boundaries are policed by, among other things, what Hal Foster refers to as the difference between "vision and visuality," or between "the datum of vision and its discursive determinations."3 In the history of science, theories about the mechanics of seeing and, by extension, the "data" of positivist historical scholarship are the domains of what Foster means by "vision." "The social, ideological, and rhetorical effects of "the visual" and "the gaze" in the fields of art history, literary theory, gender studies, and film studies are the domains of what he calls "visuality." These two categories are not entirely satisfactory, of course, since they collapse a multitude of perceptual variables and privilege the observer over the observed. They are also mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive; whatever their ontological status, visible data are both the cause and effect of visuality as a discursive phenomenon. In fact, the counter-intuitive notion that visual data are the effects of visuality is relevant to understanding how these effects are produced in the context of particular narrative forms. We can ask, for example, whether the visible objects featured in ancient epic or drama have a different relationship to time-or to a concept of the past-than those described in ancient history writing.4 [End Page 2]

As an example of "vision," the appeal to autopsy or eye witnessing in history writing is well known.5 But autopsy in narrative history is only an effect of a larger field of inquiry that might be called the materialization of the past. For contemporary writers and thinkers, this materialization is principally produced in visual media that rely on photographic technologies...


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