Contests and Shifts in Classical Traditions


Lorna Hardwick

The Open University, UK.


This paper examines the relationship between traditions and contexts in the construction of ideas about the texts, ideas and material culture of the classical world.


I shall discuss examples of the interpretation and appropriation of classical texts and argue that 'the Classical tradition' is a complex construct with many strands that become more or less prominent in different historical, artistic, educational and political contexts.


It is paradoxical that just as classical texts and images and the values attributed to them have been decentred from their supposed dominance in the western intellectual framework, they have instead become a significant field for cultural contest, both subjectively in the work of individual writers such as Heaney, Osofisan, Soyinka and Walcott and more widely in the literature and theatre of protest. Most recently, a new kind of cultural hybridity, taking its energy both from Greek and Roman forms and myths and from other cultural traditions (especially Asian and African) has challenged the concept of 'the classical' as well as its association with a unified 'tradition' and has also refocused attention on the relationship between constructions of the past, their use in the present and aspirations for the future. Cultural politics in Southern Africa have provided an important context for this kind of development and South African researchers have made a major contribution to its study.


At the same time, neo-conservatives internationally continue to appeal to exempla from the classical world to sanction their own ideology and the commercial film industry constructs images of figures and situations from the ancient world that provoke debates in which issues of 'authenticity' mingle with the demands of appeal to popular tastes. In the theoretical field, the end of the 'Grand Narratives' as signalled by Post-Modernism is challenged by the ethical and political imperatives of Post-Colonialism and its adjuncts. Recent praxis in both contexts draws heavily on classical constructs and on adaptations of classical texts and images and raises significant questions about the extent to which the contours of the academic, artistic and wider worlds converge and diverge.


The energy associated with the refiguration of classical material as an agent of artistic, intellectual and political change (both in antiquity and subsequently) suggests that the 'invention' of new traditions of the classical is an indicator of broader cultural shifts. I shall end with some speculation concerning the future potential of classical material as a catalyst for cultural and social reflection and transformation. This will include discussion of the extent to which the 'distancing' elements of working with classical texts, artefacts and constructs might and might not facilitate critique of the present, as well as leading to the posing of new questions in relation to the ancient texts themselves.