classics beyond the visual paradigm


29 April – 1 May, 2010



a Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS) Ahmanson Foundation Conference

organized by Profs. Shane Butler, Alex Purves, and Mario Telò, Dept. of Classics, UCLA


Life on earth could smell millions of years before it could see. Human infants can feel, taste, hear, and smell well before they take their first blurry look at the world. This morning, we ourselves awoke moments before opening our eyes, and to the same darkness we shall return tonight. If vision rules in the realm of the senses, then it does so as a latecomer, an upstart.

What, in fact, if vision is only a pretender to the throne? Even amid all our homage and tribute to sight, there are signs of dissidence. Can it really be an accident that we begin the history of Western literature with a blind man? And what of writing itself? It has tended to require vision — but it is not the same as vision.

Poets from Orpheus to Baudelaire (the latter has inspired our title) have often called us away from sight. But there are signs that literary scholars have grown deaf to their cries. Consider the dominant rubrics of contemporary literary analysis: theory (from theôrein, “to see”), ideology (from idein, “to see”), representation (almost always understood as a question of images). The problem is not one of etymology, but of use. One might ask, for example, why we never seem to have gotten around to theorizing smell, or why scholars of poetry (especially of ancient poetry, which the ancients themselves called “song”) so seldom discuss the ideology of sound, or whether our predication of the self on visual representation (Narcissus, Lacan) has led us to ignore Echo, even though she haunts poetry as well as any mirror can. Touch as well is often invoked by ancient poets (“To whom shall I give my new little book, its edges neatly trimmed?” begins Catullus), but outside specialized discussions of the “history of the book,” we seem barely to have begun to grapple with the implications of poetic materiality. Taste matters too: for a remarkable variety of reasons, the ancients compared poetry to “honey”; Lucretius would suggest this made it suitable to mask the bitter taste of the wormwood of truth.

What would happen if we tried to begin literary analysis not with sight, but with any (or all) of the remaining senses? At the simplest level, we would need to pay attention to metaphors like the one just cited. We would also need to treat poetry not as bodiless text but as a physical object, realized in wax, papyrus, parchment, stone, and susceptible therefore to engagement by senses other than sight. We would need to strive to listen once again to ancient poetry, privileging — like ancient euphonist critics — sound over meaning. In sum, we would need to open our senses to meanings and pleasures not solely or simply visual. Even vision, in the end, potentially emerges from the Platonic nexus of sight and truth as, instead, something sensual, made of colors and shapes — a collaborator with its sister senses, rather than their overlord.

SYNESTHESIA will bring together a group of scholars of who are working “across the senses.” Though our primary focus will be on classical literature and its traditions, we welcome proposals and participation by scholars in related fields.

Inquiries and brief abstracts should be directed to Shane Butler, Associate Professor of Classics, UCLA, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , no later than November 15, 2009.

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