Interview with David HalperinLaurel M. Bowman, Favonius vol. 3 (1991), 27-43.
David Halperin is Professor of Literature at M. I. T. He has been a Fellow of the American Academy at Rome, the National Humanities Center, and the Stanford Humanities Center. He has published in a wide variety of journals, as well as the volumes Before Pastoral: Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry, and One Hundred Years of Homosexuality ,and is co-editor of Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, with Froma Zeitlin and John Winkler. He is at present (1991)working on Queering the Canon, a collection of alternative readings of traditional texts.This interview was conducted in May, 1991, in San Diego.
Bowman: When you gave the lecture at UCLA (Historicizing the Sexual Body, Resource-Sharing Lecture, May, 1991) you were wearing a button with a pink triangle and the slogan "SILENCE = DEATH". I take it that you wear the button so that people won't be able to make the standard assumption, that is, that you're heterosexual?
Halperin: Right, although it doesn't work - I was amazed at the number of people, even at UCLA, who came up to me and said "now does that say "SCIENCE = DEATH"? I would have thought by now that a lot of people, especially in major cities in the U.S., would recognize it. It's a chastening reminder of the limits of the effect the gay rights movement has had on public awareness.
B. Would you have said it was the intent of the movement to proselytize?
H. Well it is, I think, in a sense - at least the intention is to make clear that there is a kind of political component to what we're doing, and to attempt to use the sort of institutional privilege that one has to make respectable a kind of overt political involvement, in order to encourage other people to bring their politics into their professional lives, and to try to combine intellectual life with political leadership, if they can.
B. I'm curious about when you started to integrate your professional and political life. Have you always been as openly out as you are now? Assuming that button had been available, would you have been wearing it before you had tenure, for example?
H. Well, it's really hard to disentangle the evolution of my professional development from that of my political militancy, and disentangle that from what happened to America in the 80's, and to gay life in the 80's. I certainly wasn't out as a student, or as a graduate student, up to my final year in graduate school. But I finished graduate school in the summer of 1979, which was the final flowering of the gay rights movement in San Francisco. My last year was when Milk and Moskone were assassinated, and right before the AIDS epidemic really became understood. So it was a very hopeful moment. When I got to MIT, which was my first and only job, I moved there with my boyfriend at the time, and I immediately signed up to be the faculty advisor to the gay student group at MIT, which had lacked an actual faculty advisor. I signed up for that, and I brought my boyfriend with me to the various faculty parties, and the two of us entertained my colleagues, and I was very eager for us to play the role of faculty couple as I had known it from my parents; my father was a professor. So I was very much imitating that kind of life, and we thought people could be openly gay without it making much of a difference; there was of course a separate gay culture, but there was also simply fitting into the rest of life as a gay couple, and we took ourselves for granted, and we took it for granted that everybody else would ...
B. And adopted a heterosexual model lock, stock, and barrel along the way.
H. A heterosexual model lock, stock and barrel, absolutely, this was to be a kind of difference without a difference, and we were going to fit in, and people would just have to get used to it, and they did. Of course, we made it easy for them by adopting a "straight" model for our lives. They were also making it easy for us, I have to say, in all fairness, because I found, certainly, that being in a couple was especially at that period not a situation in which I felt I got a lot of support from other gay people. This was a very, uh, it was - I'm trying to figure out how to say "it was a time when everybody was sleeping with everybody else" without sounding phobic about it, because now, you know, everybody constructs the 70's as a time of promiscuity, understood as something bad; in fact it was quite wonderful ... so, anyway, being in a couple was a new experience for me, I was very insecure in it, I was never sure how long it would last, and we didn't have very clear rules, ourselves. I found that my straight friends were much more sympathetic to my situation, and were more willing to spend their time talking to me about the difficulties of being in a relationship and holding it together, than were some of the gay men that I met.
B. You were fitting into the faculty couple mold at the time, too.
H. Well, I was fitting in, not just by a drive for social conformity, but by inclination; these things aren't one way or the other; our structures aren't either purely social or purely subjective; subjectivity is constituted, it's even formed to a large extent by social expectations, and social expectations really do provide a way of playing out and internalizing certain kinds of subjective needs. In any case, I was certainly fitting in, and one of my colleagues in fact described what I had as a kind of "parody-marriage", which may have expressed a certain homophobia on his part. On the other hand, it probably did also reflect the fact that we were producing a kind of act of reputability and respectability, at least for the purposes of external consumption, and playing by all the rules, in a way that probably made the rules seem much more visible to the straight couples around us than they were used to...
B. ... or wanted to look at ...
H. Or wanted to look at. So, anyway, to make a long story short, I thought that when I got my first job I was out. I was out to my colleagues, I was serving as an advisor to the gay and lesbian students at MIT, not that they really wanted my advice, and I thought I was doing my part. But I wasn't out to the profession, and I wasn't out to my own classes. I always had my classes over to my home once a term because at Oberlin the professors had entertained their students, and I had found it very important as a student to have a sense of personal closeness with my teachers, and I very much appreciated being invited over to their homes; so I wanted to do this for my students too. And so each term I would have each of my classes over at least once; and it was clear that we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. And so in that sense, I wasn't not out to my classes, I just didn't make a point of telling my students I was gay. At that time, you see, since I wasn't doing work in lesbian or gay studies, I didn't feel I really had a way of letting them know I was gay that wouldn't seem pointed in some way, such that they would think, "why is he telling us this?" When my work took this direction, I would introduce myself to students on the first day of class by telling them who I was and what I did, and it would naturally emerge that I was gay; but before that I couldn't quite find the right way to do it that wouldn't seem artificial That's also, of course, because I hadn't quite accepted myself - at least, I hadn't found a way of integrating my own personal life and my professional life, as yet.
B. Would you now say that "not making a point" of telling people you're gay usually entails falsification, if only by maintaining misleading silences?
H. Absolutely, and one of the things that I wasn't aware of was how much my co-operation in standard ways of doing things represented a collaboration in a certain kind of political compact that I was making with my students and with my colleagues, that it was okay to be known to be gay in my private life, as a personal fact about me, of no especial significance, with no particular consequences for how I would behave professionally, for how I would fit in. I later found that some of my colleagues even felt complimented that I hadn't felt it necessary to `conceal myself'. Of course, I was so much in love at the time that I couldn't really imagine how anybody else was going to react; I was lost in my own world, and so their reactions were the last thing on my mind. But of course the only thing I was revealing, or asking them to deal with, was simply a personal fact about myself, something with no political consequences, something that imposed no obligations on my students or on my professional life or on my colleagues...it was just a separate part of my life. At that point I was working on my Hellenistic poetics, turning my dissertation on Theocritus into a book, so it wasn't relevant to my work.
B. How did your political views come to affect your work?
H. That happened when I went back to work on Plato. When I was a graduate student, Kenneth Dover's book on Greek homosexuality came out. At that time I was TAing for Tony Raubitschek's humanities survey class, HUM 61, and Tony used to like to draw a lot of contemporary parallels in his lectures, because he thought that would be probably about as much use as teaching undergraduates about the Greeks, since they couldn't learn the Greek and couldn't really understand much of anything, so the most important thing to do was to teach them to be good people. And the way he would do this would be to talk about contemporary moral issues, not solely ancient texts. His opening lecture on the Iliad would be on the evils of divorce, or about how important it is, when you do something wrong, to apologize to people, rather than nursing your anger, or something like that.
Anyway, it so happened that his lecture on the Symposium was scheduled on the day before the vote in November 1978, on Proposition 6, which was the Briggs initiative, which was a kind of spinoff from Anita Bryant's "Save the Children" campaign - it would have been a law to prohibit homosexuals from teaching in the schools, and it would have prohibited schoolteachers from promoting homosexuality by act, word, or anything else; it was one of these crazy things, like the LaRouche initiatives more recently. It was a big issue, and I had suggested to Tony that since he liked to talk about contemporary issues, the Symposium lecture would be a good opportunity to point out that if Classical Athens had had a Briggs initiative, the entire tradition of Socratic rationality would have been strangled in the cradle. And he said, well, the Greeks weren't really doing THAT sort of thing, and I said, "oh, but have you read Dover's new book?" So we got into a series of arguments about it, and finally he said, "look, YOU give the lecture."
So I did, and I tried to make the point - actually, I was wearing a "NO ON 6" button. It was a lecture on Plato's theory of desire, and I tried to make the point that erotics played a significant role in instruction and that a proper understanding would not be phobic and would not lead to these kinds of crazy measures. Students seemed to like it, and it circulated a fair amount in manuscript, so when I was considering what to do after my book on Theocritus was finished, I decided to go back to this Plato lecture. I had focussed on Plato after reading Dover because Plato had always been used by scholars to represent what "the Greeks" as a whole thought or felt about matters of sexual desire, and Dover's book made it possible for the first time, I thought, to show how Plato had in fact diverged from what the Greeks thought, and one could use Greek convention as a background against which to measure the originality of Plato. This meant that my project on Platonic love took me directly into the study of Greek sexual conventions. While I continued to do work on Plato, and at the same time had to do a certain amount of work on Greek sex itself, it was in the course of this project that I got a contract for a book on Plato's erotic theory, which I have yet to complete ...
B. When do you expect to complete it?
H. I haven't quite figured out how to do it; I've changed my mind about Plato so many times since I've started this. I've written a number of essays on Platonic eros, but they tend now to say rather different things. But while I was working on Plato, I found myself starting to work also on Greek sex in its own right, and that work attracted more interest than anything I had done before; people started asking me to do things specifically on Greek sex, that I hadn't myself planned to. For example, it had never occurred to me to write anything on male prostitution in Athens. But Guido Ruggiero was editing a special issue of an Italian popular history journal on prostitution and asked me to do something; so it just turned out that I ended up working on Greek sex. It may be that getting tenure made me feel freer to work on it. But I had been interested in doing things with it before, and I just hadn't quite found the right voice in which to speak about this issue. Part of it had to do with my own maturation, part of it had to do with getting tenure, part of it also just had to do with when Foucault published those books, as it was truly through reading Foucault - and also through reading an earlier essay by George Chauncey on the shift from the inversion model to the homosexuality model of sexual deviance - that suddenly I had a conceptual language and a conceptual framework within which to house the insights that I had had into Greek sex and how it was different.
We all know that the Greeks behaved and thought differently about these matters, but we all learn as we go through graduate school to take that for granted and to forget about it - "oh, that's just the Greeks being Greeks; yes, we know the Greeks were sort of weird about that sort of thing"; and then one goes on. And what I wanted to do was to try to see what the consequences would be of really taking seriously what it is that the Greeks - some of the Greeks - represented themselves as thinking and feeling. How would one's account of the history of sexuality have to change in order to accommodate this evidence? But my work on this topic really was, I think , highly overdetermined; I got tenure, I was older, I was more self-confident, I was working on the stuff to begin with, I needed to work on it because of my work on Plato, I encountered for the first time a really sophisticated approach to the concept of sexuality, I had read Foucault and Chauncey, and all of this came together and made it possible for me to start working on this subject.
And obviously that work involved coming out to the profession, and it ultimately involved coming out to MIT in a more politically visible way. As I started doing work on the history of sexuality I got invited to speak at a Lesbian and Gay Studies conference at Yale, and a Lesbian and Gay Speaker's Program at Harvard, and a graduate student at MIT in Philosophy heard me on both of those occasions and wanted to know if I would be interested in setting up some sort of reading group for graduate students in Gay Studies. So a bunch of students and I went to the Dean of Humanities and Social Science, and asked her for money, and she gave it to us, and we set up a reading group for faculty and graduate students in the Boston area, which is still going on. And then I decided I wanted to use the money for other things as well, such as setting up a prize for the best essay in Lesbian and Gay Studies at MIT, and ultimately, as we got more money, to bring in visiting lecturers; so gradually I became politically visible at MIT, and ultimately started teaching classes in it.
B. You now teach classes at MIT in Lesbian and Gay Studies?
H. Yes, next year I'll teach a class called "Introduction to Lesbian and Gay Studies" in the fall, and one on "Lesbian and Gay Literature" in the spring, and also a seminar on Proust in the fall.
B. You mentioned that you had been teaching "Great Books" at MIT. Did your political orientation never affect which books you wanted to put on that list?
H. Not very much. My teaching was not politicized very much at the outset. As I say, I think part of my own politicization is to be accounted for simply by the disastrous move to the right that America took in the 80's, and also of course by the AIDS catastrophe. In 1979-1980, Reagan got elected, but lesbians and gay men in America were feeling their oats, and we were making enormous strides, in very little time, and we felt that we could create exactly the kind of community that we wanted, and we didn't feel as - threatened; we knew it would be a tough fight, but we were doing okay. It was only in the 80's that we felt ourselves in a kind of genocidal situation in this country. It's that, really, that has made people feel that the situation is so desperate that all of us have to do something, and if we're teachers or professors we don't have very much that we can do, but within the intellectual community, within situations where we do have some say, we wanted to have as much say as we can, and to make as much difference as we can; and that I think has been in part what has driven people to take such a political attitude to their teaching.
But that wasn't initially the case. I was teaching great books, reinscribing patriarchal values and all that quite happily, taking part in political actions - gay pride parades and so on - also quite happily, but not feeling the need to bring gay politics into every aspect of my life. I knew that my colleagues, if I wanted, would let me teach a class in Lesbian and Gay Literature, but I also knew that they would probably also feel that there wasn't a demonstrated need for such a class, and that if they did so it would be a kind of concession to my own personal wishes; and I thought they had been good to me, and I was eager to show that I was a team player, and was also loyal to them. So we shared at that time the same vision of the intellectual enterprise in which we were engaged, which was one of general literary studies, involving certain kinds of marginal subject matter, relevant television, various minority experiences, but solidly literary.
B. How do you mean "literary"?
H. Well, one of my more conservative colleagues is worried about the extent to which our curriculum will emphasize the "margins" rather than the "center" of literary studies. When I say solidly literary I mean teaching literature in a literary way. We weren't taking a kind of cultural studies approach; we weren't talking about the politics of representation; we weren't reading against the grain for the most part. We were trying to get our students to read with critical attentiveness to theme, genre, and other well-established literary categories. We weren't departing from what she would call the "center" of literary studies.
B. Could you expand on the "politics of representation"?
H. Well, that is to say, we weren't asking questions about literary works such as "how does this literary work imagine or represent gender, how does it imagine homosocial or heterosocial bonds, how does it imagine the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another". At the moment, for example, I'm trying to work up a lecture on shame for my class on Myth & Gender at Santa Cruz. I lecture on a Western movie which I'm teaching alongside the Symposium, anthropology from New Guinea, and some cantos of Dante about Brunetto Latini; and the kinds of question I want to ask about the movie go very much against the grain of the movie, would not be the sort of questions that a spectator of the movie back in 1962 probably would have brought to the movie. They don't have to do with the terms that the movie itself establishes for its own interpretation, but rather with a set of terms that I'm interested in establishing, that have to do with certain kinds of theoretical and cultural preoccupations I have, which I'm going to bring to the film; such as, how does the film imagine the scene of instruction; how does it represent that phantasmagoric encounter in which masculinity gets transmitted from one generation to the next. The film is very much about masculinity and the representation of masculinity but not consciously so; it's not meant to be addressed and brought forward exactly as an issue; certainly not in the radical terms that I want to address it. But in our courses at that time we wouldn't bring to literary texts the sorts of questions that come from worlds way outside of them. We weren't doing the sort of thing that, say, H. A. Miller has been doing with Jane Austen in that wonderful essay he published in Raritan last summer, "The Late Jane Austen", which is really about Jane Austen and AIDS. You'd think it would be impossible to talk about Jane Austen and AIDS, but not only is it not impossible, it turns out to be extremely enlightening about Jane Austen, and also it brings these works of the canon into - ah - the critical interest of a professional American gay man living in the early 90's. So it's quite an amazing tour de force. We weren't doing that then.
B. I'm sure however that you've had some adverse commentary on bringing your politics and your personal life visibly to bear on your work, by making reference to personal experience in your lectures, for instance; some people I'm sure have asked you whether political or personal views are relevant, or appropriate, in a discussion of a classical text. How do you react to that sort of criticism?
H. The longing for decorum - the idea that people shouldn't mention certain sorts of personal experience in a professional context - functions as a kind of policing action, in which people who dictate the norms define what may or may not be said as a way of legitimating or de-legitimating certain positions. It's not hip to say out loud things like "I don't think gay men should be allowed to talk about themselves from the podium". So what gets criticized instead is "relevance"; but what's called `irrelevant' is really the claim of, in my case, a gay man on the attention of the general public - a claim to be taken seriously as gay. And then there's also the business of "objectivity". My Jewish father was told by one of his senior colleagues in history that there was a good reason why history departments didn't have Jews in them in the `30's; because history had to be written in an objective and disinterested fashion, and, of course, Jews couldn't be disinterested in the things that were going on then - they were involved in history as a prejudiced minority. Criticism of the `relevance' of personal or political views is the same sort of thing, I think. It seems to me nowadays concerning sex and sexual minorities that the only point of view that's thought of as objective and disinterested is that of a straight, white, wealthy, male - heterosexual, married, ideally, Republican, with children - but not too many - and that point of view is the only legitimate, "disinterested" one. So if as a lecturer one stages one's own subjective involvement with the material, and secondly if one presents oneself as a gay man, one is doubly de-legitimating oneself; both by manifesting personal involvement in the material, and by presenting oneself as the sort of person who is automatically NOT disinterested, but biased, prejudiced, with an axe to grind. And what seems to be a resistance to subjectivity on the part of the audience is in fact a way of de-legitimating any kind of discourse that comes from a position other than that of a straight, white, wealthy male.
B. Has the focus of your work changed since you published 100 Years of Homosexuality?
H. There are a number of things that have changed that seem to me very new things that I haven't done before. For example, just in my work everything that I did about the history of sexuality until the lecture that you heard at UCLA on 'Historicizing the Sexual Body' - on pseudo-Lucian's Erotes - has had as an excuse the elucidation of some particular text or confrontation with a particular problem. For example, the first piece that I published on homosexuality in Greece was a review in Diacritics of a book by Harald Patzer on Die griechische Knabenliebe. Now, of course, I was the one who volunteered to review that book for Diacritics, but at least in writing the review I could hide behind the review format. After all, I was reviewing a book about Greek pederasty, so of course I HAD to talk about it... this wasn't necessarily an issue that I was raising.
B. You didn't necessarily even have any particular interest in it.
H. That's right, didn't have any necessary connection to me at all; I was simply doing my job as a professional. I let the issue come to me, in that sense. Similarly in the work on Plato; it just so happens that Plato's erotic theory is couched in a homoerotic context, and so it was only my duty as a good historical critic to elucidate the social background...
B. ...at least in the footnotes ...
H. Right. What's new, I think in the talk you heard me give was that there's no reason in particular to focus on the issues, at least not that way. This is the first time that I've written a piece in which I take my political issues to the ancient texts instead of pretending that the issues have simply come to me willy-nilly from the text that I'm studying.
B. In the introduction to 100 Years, you said that some people objected to a line of research which suggested that 'homosexuality' was a cultural construct, because it undermined the position of a number of gay rights activists that homosexuality was biologically determined. What is your answer to that argument?
H. I think there are lots of things wrong with the position that says "we need to think of homosexuality as involuntary and therefore as somehow biologically or genetically or developmentally determined for the purposes of identity politics, and your work is politically undermining". And even Douglas Crimp asked me something like "why is this the most helpful thing to do at the moment? I can understand the interest of it, but what does this really accomplish? What do you answer to people who say `that kind of work doesn't give me anything useful, that I need for my politics right now.' " I think there's a lot wrong with this line of thought. First of all, issues of identity are very much the centre of an on-going critique, so whether or not identity politics is even a good thing is in question. There's no doubt however that a model of ethnic identity is very useful for a certain kind of lesbian and gay politics in America right now. I've experienced it myself in organizing against anti-gay discrimination in the U.S. Military; it's very useful to be able to make analogies between present-day discrimination against lesbians and gay men, and earlier discrimination against African-Americans. So certainly the ethnic identity model has clear political uses. However, all one needs for that is a notion of identity. It doesn't matter if that identity is determined by genes or anything else, as long as it is a stable identity. My work emphasizes that constructions are real; just because lesbian or gay identity isn't rooted in "nature" doesn't mean that it's a voluntary choice on the part of the individual, or that it's something that people could be talked out of or cured of. It's socially produced, but it's no more alterable than, say, the identity of a feudal tenant. A peasant doesn't cease being a peasant, or doesn't suddenly become liable to be turned into a feudal lord just because being a peasant isn't a natural biological condition. For the purposes of life on a medieval manor, being a peasant might as well be a natural condition; it's not revisable. And in a similar - an analogous way, not similar in every respect, being gay or lesbian is a real and I think for many people an unalterable condition. That's what counts. Where it comes from doesn't matter. Some people think that it's important to say that it's "natural", because if people think that it's socially constructed, they will think that it can be socially dismantled, and that people can be "cured" of it. And part of what's behind this, I think, has to do with the long-standing stigma of "unnaturalness" that is attached to various sorts of sexual practices. So if we can claim that is is "just as natural" as heterosexuality, then we've to some extent refuted the charge of "unnaturalness". But I don't think that that follows at all.
The example I cited in my book is that of the homosexual rights movement in Germany, which wanted precisely to establish the fact that homosexuality was not an acquired condition, a wilful perversity, for which homosexuals were themselves to blame, but was a natural condition. And these polemicists were believed, so much so that a lot of the early medical and scientific descriptions of homosexuality focussed as their evidence on the self-representation of these gay polemicists. And the result was that instead of being sent to prison for a fixed term, as the perpetrators of a crime, lesbians and gay men were put into institutions and insane asylums for life; because it was thought to be a condition.
B. And under the Nazis they were sent to concentration camps.
H. Right. They were exterminated, as the members of a degenerate species. What this shows is that politics is not a game you can win by ideology alone, because whatever representation of yourself you decide to put forward, it can always be reconfigured by the powers that be, in that ways that will be hostile to you, if the powers that be are hostile to you. It's a mistake to think that we can control the way that we're going to be thought of simply by giving accounts of ourselves that seem to pander to what we think of as popular prejudices. It's not going to do any good. So we might as well give up trying to come up with a view of ourselves that we think will play well to straight people, and try to understand the nature of sexuality as best we can, and do the kind of political work as best we can that will make the world a safe place for us to inhabit. And I think that the outcome of the political struggle will determine the outcome of the representational struggle.
B. You've advised elsewhere that academics in general should make their politics part of their work. Why is that?
H. Well, I don't want to legislate for people. I think certainly that it's taken me a long time to do the sort of work I'm doing. As I say, it's been affected very much by political conditions in this country, and by intellectual developments in my own field. I think that everyone has to move at their own rate, and I think there is room in the world for all sorts of work and all sorts of approaches to politics and to the classics. But I am myself interested in doing work that foregrounds some of these issues, partly because I'm driven by a certain kind of - what I think of as political necessity - by my sense of rage and helplessness at what's happening to this country, and to minorities of all sorts in this country; and partly because I find these issues to be the most interesting. They speak to me at a very personal level, and they're part of an ongoing process of self-understanding on my part.
B. I tend to wonder how much of my own interest in women in tragedy is a product of my superimposing my political agenda on a text that perhaps does not support it, rather than being produced by a close reading of text itself - I tend to think to think of the latter as the "legitimate" approach.
H. Well, I don't think so at all. I think there are all sorts of things to do with text, all sorts of ways to read text, and I don't believe there's any set of rules that will determine what the right way to use a text is. There are certainly ways of treating a text that the text itself seems to ask for. Then there are ways of treating the text that the text doesn't seem to ask for but rather seems entirely oblivious to, but that can be some of the most interesting work. I see a tendency in Classics towards rather pious readings of the text; that is to say, simple attempts to excavate certain kinds of historical or authorial meanings. It's a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and it's often very difficult and requires all the learning that scholars have. Many of my colleagues in Classics are much more learned about these things than I am, and I don't want to seem to depreciate their learning, which I admire. But I also think that there are lots of other things to do with these texts, and some of them are much more exciting, to me.
Q Why is it, do you think, that papers excavating various kinds of authorial intent or historical perspective are given priority over other approaches in Classics?
A I think scholars don't tend to imagine for themselves the broader possibilities of their work, and I think it's a shame. One of the results is that people do get bored with their own work and with other people's work much more quickly than they need to. I've been much struck recently by the extent to which people in Classics often really don't seem to themselves enjoy or take seriously the sorts of work that they think they should take seriously. They know certain things are important; they think that they have to pay attention to them. But at the same time, it doesn't seem to speak to anything they really care about themselves. But some of the work that I encounter outside of Classics, especially gender studies or other kinds of cultural studies or literary studies, while it may be flaky in all sorts of ways, undisciplined compared to Classics, self-indulgent, not rigorous or not worded according to Classical standards - although it often is, in fact, carefully worded and quite rigorous - at least keeps people's attention. And I don't have the feeling that the people who go to conferences in these other disciplines think of themselves as, oh, doing their duty ...
Q ...performing a religious rite ...
A ... performing a religious rite, meeting a professional obligation. I don't think they think of themselves as involved in a standard professional activity. I'm sure some people are going to hear trendy people talk about trendy things; but at the same time, I I think there's a certain real connection with their material. They believe their work is important, that it makes a difference. Classical conferences would be more joyous and passionate events if people were undertaking work that had more meaning to them.
B. I went to the panel sponsored by the Gays & Lesbians Caucus at the A.P.A. this year, and was struck by the kind of energy in both the papers and in the audience response; everyone was very actively engaged. It would be great to see more of that. Why is it, do you think, scholars do so often choose topics which seem distant from their actual interests?
H. I think people often do the work that they think they should do, that they've been taught to regard as important or necessary, but which they wouldn't exactly bother with if they didn't think it were their job.
B. Do you think that's all? When I started graduate school I thought my best bet, if I was ever planning to write anything and actually finish it, was to avoid my major interests, which are religion & women. Otherwise I thought I would simply keep revising, never publish, fall in and get lost ... subjects that really interested me frightened me.
H. Yes, there's that too. I felt the same way when I was a graduate student. One's work as a graduate student is always so alienated from one's self by being part of the requirements for getting the degree - I deliberately picked a topic that I was much less interested in, that was more purely technical because I thought it was something that I could complete. Of course it was a subject on which I had something sufficiently original to say that it was worth doing. But for that reason, I especially admire those graduate students now who seem to be finding it possible to prosecute their own personal agenda for their dissertation. I find it more and more, not so much among Classics graduates, but certainly among graduate students in various modern fields.
B. Would you suggest then that people who are planning to finish a degree would be wise to pick a subject that had nothing to do with anything they're actually interested in?
H. No, I certainly wouldn't. I think it really depends very much on your personal situation, your graduate department, your relations with your teachers and your fellow students - I don't think it's the sort of thing that can be settled entirely either on principle, or on the particulars of the situation. But I would encourage people to sacrifice themselves to the demands of the profession as little as possible, and to at least consider their genuine concerns in their approach to their work; it's been a lifesaver for me. At a certain point it's necessary to find a way of renewing for yourself the interests of the material. A lot of my colleagues, not just Classicists but those in other fields as well, get to a certain point in their careers where they've published a book or two. Writing books is very hard work, and it takes a lot of self-denial to achieve often. At that point, they have tenure, they're comfortable, and they spend more time with their families or their friends. They develop hobbies, they enjoy teaching and reading books but they aren't terribly engaged anymore in their profession. They've proved to themselves now that they can do it, and it's no longer that challenging or interesting to them, and the material doesn't relate to them terribly much; so they lose interest, and they find other things in life much more absorbing, and I don't blame them. But I think one of the ways one stays alive in the field is by finding ways to make your subject matter interesting to yourself, and I think it's great if you can do it as a graduate student, but if you can't do it then, you're going to have to do it sooner or later or you'll lose interest, run out of steam.
B. I was very interested in your essay, "Heroes and their Pals" - I really liked the title, by the way ...
H. Yes, well, it was originally entitled something much more pretentious, which I won't burden you with ...
B. I was wondering if you were planning to do more with it? The last point you make is that the standard cultural signifiers for human relationships are limited to kinship and conjugality, which were used as metaphors for friendship; but, in fact, that friendship was considered more important than either. So what does that make of friendship in ancient culture?
H. I am making more of that paper. I've recast the essay for a lecture I gave this term in my class on Myth & Gender, in which we read Gilgamesh and Samuel and the Iliad, and I have to say that when I went back to my book and looked at that essay, in the light of what I was doing with this material now, it struck me as very tame.
B. Not "tame", exactly; I just wondered why you'd stopped where you did.
H. I think I would want to get more centrally at the paradox that a certain kind of relation between men is on the one hand absolutely central to a number of western texts, and, on the other hand, never acknowledged to be central. I talked about the marginality of friendship, but what I said in the essay was that friendship is an anomalous relationship, that it's interstitial in the social structure of Western societies. But I don't know that it's so interstitial. On the one hand, it's represented asinterstitial; but at the same time, it's what those texts are all about. I'm very interested that a system of male dominance may require a kind of compulsory homosociality but, at the same time, require that no acknowledgement of this be made; that's why "homosociality" is such a novel and outlandish term. No one has ever talked about the absolutely systematic character of the enforcement of relations between men in patriarchal societies. Everybody knows about it; men grow up being taught it. Everybody knows how to practice it. There are certain ways of representing it, speaking about it, that accord it centrality without exactly calling it central, but it never gets discusses as an issue in its own right - I want to do more with this topic.
B. One thing you commented on, that I hoped you would come back to, was the effect of these relationships on the public sphere, to which they are represented as marginal. But in fact, in the texts you mention, those friendships have a decisive effect on the political bodies they're attached to. In fact, rather than being marginal to the public sphere, I began to wonder if male friendships were not in fact what generated & reinforced the public sphere; if friendship between males was not paradoxically the core relationship establishing the patriarchy, Western culture - was central and marginal at the same time.
H. I'm more interested in the curious paradox of how homoeroticism turns out to be central and at the same time- well, my thinking isn't very advanced on this as yet, but one of the interesting things about some of these early texts is that they portray situations in which homoeroticism is basic. What interests me is the ambiguous value of homoeroticism. I want to use the homoeroticism in these central canonical texts to challenge a certain kind of traditional homophobia and homophobic readings of these texts. At the same time, I want to show how this kind of homoeroticism doesn't exactly disturb male dominance, but helps to establish a foundation for it, and I'm interested in the shifting valence that these homoerotic relationships have, as both somehow validating a certain kind of male desire for men and at the same time underwriting a certain - you might almost say "gay-bashing" attitude. It's not clear to me where Achilles & Patroclus would be nowadays, whether they would be in Queer Nation or throwing bricks from the sidelines. Of course, the argument is that they don't fit in either camp exactly. But as I'm trying to do a kind of genealogy of masculine desire in Western culture, I'm interested in the kind of ambiguous situation that these male friendships early texts have in relation to what comes after. Are they at the genealogical origin of a certain kind of gay identity? Or of a certain homophobic hatred? I think really they're both, and that's what I want to try to understand better. I'd like to look more into the ambiguous role that a certain institutionalized homoeroticism plays, in order to subvert the notion that a) gay life was just recently invented, and b) there's something inherently subversive about bonds between men.
B. Your essay also mentioned the "erotics of comradeship" - could you expand on that?
H. Yes. I'm interested in the dynamics of desire apart from a textual context. It's typical of American culture to sexualize erotics, and to think of everything that has to do with desire as something that has to do with sex. I think that's misleading in all sorts of ways. We live in a highly erotic culture; commodities are marketed to people by eroticizing them. So understanding the dynamics of desire is absolutely necessary for criticism of the world we live in. But at the same time, one of the things that the sexualization of erotics makes impossible is the description of the workings of desire in relationships that aren't intrinsically or characteristically sexual, including friendships between men who weren't gay men. Now when you talk about the erotics of male friendship people tend to assume that you're talking about either repressed or latent homosexual desire. But it seems to me that anybody who grows up in the male homosocial world of contemporary America has a great deal of experience with the various kinds of desire that circulate in the male community, but which are never talked about as such. The kinds of jealousies and possessiveness-es; the fascination, the admirations that are part and parcel of the male world, but that can't be addressed partly because to address them at all is to sexualize them. And what I'm interested in is the way that desire is produced and institutionalized in all sorts of ways that don't have to do with purely sexual relations. I think that there's something about the suppression of the subject matter that somehow allows a certain kind of male homosocial community to strengthen itself at the expense of, say, women and gay men, in a way that I don't entirely understand, but I believe it has to do somehow with the way that homoeroticism is both institutionalized and denied. I'd like to try to get at that, and describe how that particular structure works and how we can see it work in certain texts of the Euro-American tradition.
B. This sounds like what you read in British school stories, Maurice for example; Forster says that in the public schools,close friendships between boys were assumed to be perverse, and were therefore destroyed. The boys lived all together in a group, constantly at close quarters; the masters' task was to break up any knot they saw forming, any relationship that got TOO close. But at the same time, the boys were being forced to live together in this all-male society; so bonds between males were constantly created and enforced, and then rigorously policed.
H. Yes. I think that one of the ideological effects that the myth of heterosexuality produces is precisely to obscure the nature of the erotic connections between men, which play such a major role in the solidification of male power in our society.
B. I'm reminded of Iragaray's short article on male homosexuality as being the foundation of Western culture - that Western culture is based on a certain constant homoerotic tension, to give males would have a reason to get together and trade and do cooperative things; and of course the tension can't be cashed out in actual homosexual acts, because it's the tension, not the satisfaction of it, that's useful to the culture.
H. It's interesting that Aristophanes in the Symposium says just the opposite; that if people of the same sex had sex, they would be satisfied, and then be able to go back to work. I'm not sure how to tackle this issue yet; it's one of the issue's I'm interested in.
B. Besides Foucault, Dover, and Chauncey, have there been any other major influences on your work?
H. Well, Jack Winkler, of course, was an enormous influence. He arrived at Stanford just as I was finishing my dissertation, and I got to know him that summer. He was the one who persuaded my boyfriend at the time that he really wanted to move out to MIT with me.
B. What are you hoping for from the Memorial Fund for Jack Winkler?
H. Well, I think what Jack wanted was something that would reward Classics students for being outrageous - he felt that there were so many pressures in the profession for people to be, not just conformists, but to be dull and traditional as a way of getting ahead, and I think he envisioned this as a kind of institutional encouragement for students to be untraditional and unconventional. I'm hoping that there will gradually be enough appreciation for originality and unconventionality in Classics that this prize will be something that students will covet. We've just awarded the first one. So it remains to be seen what will happen to the poor guy's career as a result, whether this will be the kiss of death. The winning paper this year was on Catullus 64; in particular, a study of the way in which critics of the poem have, in effect, allied themselves in their attitudes with Theseus against Ariadne. It's called "The Use and Abuse of Ariadne", by Kirk Ormand, who did in fact take a class from Jack; but all the papers were read anonymously, so there's no question of favoritism.
B. Will these papers be collected and published?
H. I think it will be published eventually, when Kirk revises it - he's not satisfied with it at the moment - but there's no automatic mechanism for publishing. It would be nice if the papers all along were good enough to eventually collect and publish as a volume; it would be an interesting collection.
B. What developments do you see in the future of the field of Classics?
H. It's hard to know. I think that there's always the danger of losing the kind of philological competence that the great scholars have always managed to attain. On the other hand, what I hope will happen is that Classics will become more a part of general movements within the communities in literary and textual and historical and cultural studies, and that it will become less isolated as a discipline, and that it will both have more influence on work that's being done elsewhere in literary studies, and at the same time be much more affected by general movements in other disciplines.
B. What do you think will be the future of cultural or gender studies in the Classics?
H. I think they're very much the wave of the future. I'm proposing to one press to edit a series of volumes of classical texts that are already primed to enter the new canon of literary and historical studies, if only they were translated in such a way as to make them relevant to the concerns of cultural studies. If they were presented with the right sorts of annotations, it would make it possible for generalists to teach them. I think, in other words, that one would translate and edit classical texts very differently if they were going to be designed to be taught in classes on the history of the construction of gender, for example, and I also think that the availability of such translations would make it possible for progressive classicists to do more wide-ranging things with the texts in their own classes, even in Greek or Roman literature.
For example, I think there's a need to collect the three women's plays of Aristophanes, the Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazusae, and Ecclesiazusae into a single volume, in unexpurgated form and with precise scholarly annotations about the social context of the plays. I think that such a collection would be an absolute cornerstone of work in the history of gender, for people in a number of different disciplines, and I think it would also help for the teaching of courses in Classical translation as well. No such collection exists as far as I know. I think there needs to be a one-volume collection of most embryological and gynecological writings of antiquity; a number of them have been excerpted in source books, and I think Penguin is publishing some of the Hippocratic treatises, but there needs to be a small, modern one-volume collection of the most interesting texts for such purposes. There needs to be an accurate and unhomophobic translation and commentary of the Symposium, one that doesn't say "well, we're very embarrassed about this, and it really doesn't mean what it says here", or "this is really all just part of the theme of education", for example ...
B. ..oh yes, and Sappho was really just running a girl's school...
H. Right, so that makes it okay. I wouldn't have minded that simple parroting of the old-fashioned attitude so much if it didn't produce homophobic readings of the text on the part of my students, as it does. So there needs to be a series of translations of selected classical texts that are undertaken by people who are sympathetic to the aims of cultural studies; and I think that would also help to generate a renewal of interest in the Classics; of renewing interest in the canon, and at the same time altering the priorities that have governed the use of the canon in the past.
B. Have any tips for graduate students on how to survive graduate school?
H. Graduate students in Classics are in a difficult situation. Graduate students are in a liminal position in any case, and there's more of a burden on them than there's ever been, it seems to me. First of all, they have to take in the whole course of Greek and Latin texts, and then there's a whole battery of methods you're supposed to learn, the history of scholarship, and all the traditional training of Classics, which has always been massive and it's only getting bigger. And in addition to that you have to know about critical theory and a variety of current methodologies, and on top of that you hvae to learn all sorts of new critical languages and fashions. And apparently you also have to absorb quantities of popular culture, because this is what a lot of the critical theory is being applied to. So unless you've been watching a lot of T.V. or reading People magazine or looking at ads or, especially, watching MTV, you can't judge what it is that these people are doing. It's an enormous amount to have to absorb. And obviously it can't be done. So what one has to do it make up one's mind that one isn't going to be fully competent by the time one leaves graduate school; one is simply going to accomplish a certain number of goals and will do more later as opportunities present themselves. It's certainly the case that one learns an enormous amount more by teaching than by studying. So the important thing, if you really want to learn about things, is to get your degree and get a job as quickly as possible; not to make the mistake of thinking that you have to be an expert by the time you get your degree so as to be competent to teach; you become a competent teacher by teaching. So you shouldn't wait to try to accredit yourself in order to get the degree; you don't need to be an expert by the time you get your Ph.H.
B. Of course this isn't exactly what the graduate program is going to tell us.
H. No; graduate programs, of course, are interested in making sure that their students don't disgrace themselves when they get jobs, and are going to be ready to uphold certain kinds of professional standards and be held accountable for certain standards of excellence and so on; but it seems to me that the students' interest is in negotiating the obstacles that graduate departments put in their path, and getting credentials as quickly as possible, so as to be authorized as a teacher and an interpreter, so that one can then set about the business of learning something, because that's when the process really begins. You only absorb what you're going to use, and once you're teaching you are using what you learn, and you see a need for it, so you retain it.
B. Do you think taking courses in critical theory would be useful for Classics graduate students?
H. It's the same with critical theory. It's probably wrong for graduate students in Classics to think that they simply need to take a survey course in critical theory, long before they have a notion of what they wanted to use the theory for. I think it's more important to read widely, to go to interesting conferences, to try to get a sense of what theories or methods people you admire are actually using and then try to get a sense of what sort of work you're interested in doing, and what sort of theoretical approaches would be useful for you, and try to find out something about those; rather than taking a kind of theory class that reproduces in a modern form something like ancient doxography, simply surveying the opinions of different theorists. Though there are good ways to teach theory to graduate students in Classics. When I was at the Stanford Humanity Centre, I did this on my own with a bunch of graduate students in Classics. It just so happens, of course, that a number of major theoretical thinkers have also been classicists, like Freud, Marx and Nietszche; and others, of course, had a certain amount of classical training. So it's quite possible to do an introduction to issues of interpretation by reading theorists who speak specifically to the interpretation of ancient texts. But it's very easy for graduate students in Classics to apply to critical theory the attitude they have towards everything else that they're supposed to learn: namely, that in order to professionally competent, I should know a certain amount about a certain body of material; so they think, well, then I should have an introductory course in critical theory. I do think it's vital for Classics students to be able to talk to other graduate students about issues of interpretation, which they need some grounding in theory to do. But the way to get that is not simply to take a survey course, but to try to take part more in the life of other departments and to hear interpreters in action, to try to figure out from them what the range of possibilities for interpretation might be, and then to zero in on those which might be useful. Ultimately, it would be useful just to glance at the articles in some of the other professional journals, Diacritics, Differences, Critical Theory, Raritan, etc., just some of the major journals in which people are actually trying out applications of new critical ideas.
last revised 6/27/96 ------------------------------------------------------------------------