Synopsis of Class: August 31, 2000

We began class by continuing our discussion of the ways Homer's society differed from ours due to the fact that the technology of writing had yet to be introduced to Greek culture. (See last class' synopsis.)

DJ Dangler got us started by asking various questions about Greek religious beliefs and whether the Greeks treated their mythology as scripture. I suggested that it is difficult to make comparisons between their experience of religion and our own since, after all, the very idea of "scripture," of textuality determines our relationship to religion in a literate world. When one can write down scripture, it becomes something that achieves the effect of permanence, therefore leading to the belief that one should not change it or even represent it (as the Puritan iconoclasts, for example, believed). The writing down of scripture and then its publication in the vernacular, however, also brings religion to the individual reader. (As a result, the Puritans also opposed the hierarchical organization of Roman Catholicism, particularly the episcopacy [bishops], since they argued that each individual has the ability to access the word of God through the written word without the aid of such intermediaries.) By contrast, the oral presentation of polytheistic beliefs is, by necessity, changeable. Story elements by necessity change upon each presentation before a new audience. The experience of the story also entails a degree of entertainment and of public performance, with all the complications and considerations that result from each new contextual situation. (A storyteller might, for example, fail to mention aspects of his story that might upset a given audience)

We then began a discussion of the differences between the ways a literate, capitalist society and an oral, barter economy maintains order. Whereas the former society requires the written word of contract law to organize an increasingly decentralized populace, a barter economy relies on a gift economy. That is, one cements bonds between people through the circulation of gifts Examples include: 1) hospitality: indeed, one is not even supposed to ask the identity of a stranger until after one has showered him with gifts; this act allows for bonds to form even among enemies. It is no mere coincidence that the most powerful God, Zeus, is precisely the God of hospitality; 2) women as gifts, that is, they are circulated through marriage and dowry to cement social bonds. This could be done within ruling families (Alcínuous and Arétë, for example, are uncle and niece, which allows them to keep power "within the family") or between principalities to escape the threat of war (Alcínuous, for example, offers his daughter, Nausícaa, to Odysseus); 3) sacrifice, which could be seen as the religious equivalent or analogue of the gift.

I spent most of the class lecturing about the major differences that scholars have suggested exist between Homer's shame culture and what has been dubbed our own guilt culture. I thus attempted to prepare the way for Milton's Paradise Lost. In a shame culture, everything occurs, as it were, on the surface of things. Emotions are extreme and public because, as scholars have argued, people in this culture do not have our modern sense of subjectivity or of a private self. What therefore becomes important are questions of honor and shame, which is why, for example, Odysseus must immediately respond to the challenge of Euryalus during the Phaeacian games in Book VIII. Questions of propriety and reputation become paramount, since in an oral society collective memory is only preserved through the stories that others tell about you. As there is no subjectivity in the modern sense, there is also no sense of a person's inalienable rights in this society; hence, much more value is placed on one's ability to succeed, regardless of means (hence the value placed on force of arms and force of guile). There is no sense that Odysseus has any "right" to be a leader. He remains a leader only so long as his power of might and his power of words enables him to stay in power. Were he to be defeated and enslaved, the best he could then do is to become a worthy slave (which is why, I think, so much time is spent with Eumáios, himself of aristocratic blood, in Books XIV to XVI). There is also no sense ever that there is any moral wrong in enslaving, raping, or decimating one's defeated enemies. In a guilt culture, on the other hand, identity suddenly becomes "vertical," existing on a deep scale of internal struggle (think, for example, of the Freudian superego, ego, id model of human subjectivity). In short, the private self is invented. In this post-Christian culture, we are all always already guilty, thanks to the original sin that Milton puts at the center of his monotheistic epic vision. By this same logic, we are also all equal: slavery, warfare for mere material gain, misogyny, and rape must therefore be seen as morally corrupt. Every person according to this system, no matter how lowly, possesses certain inalienable rights that must never be denied.

One can see elements of this transition in the movement from the Old Testament's "jealous God," Jahweh, and the sacrificing Christ of the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament at various points must actively rewrite those passages in the Old Testament more evocative of the older shame culture, for example the following lines from Leviticus, Chapter 24:19-21:

Compare that to Matthew, Chapter 5:38-45 The same logic of transition can be said to drive the movement from Roman Catholicism's emphasis on public ceremony, church hierarchy, and conspicuous iconography to the Protestant (and especially Puritan) belief that each individual must approach God privately through Biblical reading and self-discipline.

The same transition can even be seen in architecture as we move from the ancient Greek and Roman atrium structure, with every door-less room oriented towards the public, communal space, to the nineteenth-century invention of the hallway that abuts the private, closed-in room.

Yet another revolution, this one in the understanding of discipline and punishment, is tied up with these changes; that is, the transition from what Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish calls a culture of spectacle to a carceral culture. (Click on the colored text for examples of each.) Whereas, in the former, punishment is effected on the body in public displays of torture, dismemberment, and obliteration, in the latter punishment and discipline become internalized and directed to the constitution and, when necessary, rehabilitation of social subjects. Melánthus' punishment in the Odyssey (p. 453), Satan's punishment in Paradise Lost (Book I), and the punishment of participants in Cromwell's revolt and regicide are examples of the former kind of punishment; Adam and Eve's punishment after the fall may be moving towards the newer form of discipline. I also discussed some of the ways that Bentham's theories about penal reform have affected such disparate social formations as the university classroom (constructed on the panoptic model) and urban planning (the grid vs. the central plaza). I also discussed some of the inherent benefits and also dangers of the present system and suggested that the current popular fascination with conspiracy-theory narratives (the X-Files and Orwell's 1984 being a prominent examples) may be a symptom of our inherent fears about certain aspects of our carceral system of social control. (The importance of anonymous denunciations in the Nazi Gestapo system was also discussed as an example of when the carceral system goes too far.)

One could argue that Milton's Paradise Lost finds itself at a moment of transition from an older culture of shame to a post-Christian culture of guilt. Whereas in the former culture of shame the emphasis was on what one could "get away with" (pirating, guile, lies, slavery are therefore acceptable, even lauded, acts), in the latter culture of guilt the emphasis is not on public shame but on private guilt (because of original sin one is therefore always already guilty). Satan and his troops are associated with the former culture, both by his own actions and Milton's epic similes; Adam and Eve, following the fall, are associated with the latter culture. The transition is effected, one could argue, in the movement from hell's public, even epic, trappings (Books I and II) to the very private situation of Eve's and Adam's individual temptation and domestic discord (Book IX).

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