On the evening of Tuesday, April 16th, Page duBois, Distinguished Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC San Diego, spoke on Princeton’s campus, delivering a thought-provoking Faber Lecture entitled “The Politics of the Swarm.” Professor duBois’s lecture will be well-remembered by all who were in attendance, as she spoke directly to this political moment and sought to challenge some traditional methodological assumptions in the discipline of Classics.
The event began with an introduction by Professor Johannes Haubold, who highlighted Professor duBois’s long and impressive publication record. DuBois then launched into her subject with some reflections on the appropriation of the Classics by contemporary right-wing political movements, particularly in the years since the rise of Trumpianism on the national stage. DuBois cited several examples of the ways that the rhetoric of alt-right and white nationalist groups continues to invoke the idea of a pure, white, European classical past as an ideal to be nostalgically emulated and defended. DuBois focused special criticism on the book The Case for Trumpby Victor Davis Hanson, in which he seeks to assimilate President Trump to a variety of heroic paradigms drawn from Sophoclean tragedy.
Professor duBois used these observations as a springboard to suggest an alternate path forward for the study of Ancient Greek drama, and for the discipline of Classics more generally. DuBois suggested that it is not enough for Classicists to correct the erroneous interpretations of the past being offered by the far-right, but that they must also diversify the discipline itself. As part of this, they need to redefine their methodologies in such a way that we do not need to simply content ourselves with the negative role of resisting our discipline’s historical complicity in ideologies of racial and cultural supremacy. She suggests that we can, instead, envision alternate, positive ways to construct classics as a discipline that can actively promote a radical politics for the future.
Professor duBois’s latest research project would, as she argues, suggest one model for how scholars in classics might reimagine the field. DuBois observes a bias, in the study of Greek drama, in favor of tragedy, and Sophoclean tragedy in particular, with its emphasis on heroic individualism. An extreme outcome of this individualism would be Hanson’s distorted notion of Trump as a sort of Greek hero. DuBois offers, as an antidote to this emphasis on the tragic, a paradigm for reading Greek comedy through the lens of the collectivist chorus, the “swarm” of her lecture’s title. DuBois sees the chorus as a site in which can be located a strain of anarchism, and even communism, and argues that this represents an important phase in the genealogy of modern collective movements from Occupy to Black Lives Matter. These Aristophanic “swarms,” whether composed of birds, frogs, wasps, or simply women, offer pockets of resistance to the ideologies represented in the conservative traditions of classical scholarship and tragic criticism, and by focusing on these voices rather than succumbing to an Aristotelian obsession with plot, we may even transcend the authorial voice of Aristophanes. In calling these collectives “swarms,” DuBois seeks to appropriate the negative connotation of the word by focusing on the ways in which swarms can model a post-human framework of collective action – not without retaining some of the threat implicit in the word, the idea that swarms, when pressed, will sting.
The question and answer session following this well-attended talk was highly energetic, as was to be expected from the series of provocative intellectual and political gestures that made her lecture so engaging. Topics of discussion ranged from the pedagogical implications of her model of the “swarm” to the comparative merits of readings which focus on the τέλοςof the plot as opposed to those which seek to liberate individual voices from the tyranny of an author’s designs. Whether or not the Classics community at Princeton will embrace the label of “swarm” remains to be determined – but, in any case, the hive mind has been left with something new to ponder.
The author of this article is William Dingee, a PhD candidate in Classics at Princeton.