Ancients Anonymous

by Dr Tom Geue

16 Oct 2015

On 8 October 2013, the popular darling/critical whipping boy ‘Banksy’ scrawled a little masterpiece of epigraphy on a Brooklyn door. That is, the artist or collective of artists working under this broad-church, catch-all pseudonym told us (via the unreliable and anonymous internet) that they had posted up the next instalment in their month-long New York ‘residency’ (Better Out Than In).

The piece turned out to be one of the least prepossessing of the lot. A straight chunk of text delivered in small, shaky capitals; that’s it? It looked like an uneasy cross between an ancient inscription (a typographical nod of the unsteady, unpunctuated upper case letters, which are the chosen font of much stone-based text in the ancient world) and a young child making their first tentative baby-steps into literacy. So much for the medium.

The message framed itself as a quote from Plato, which self-referentially validated its own point: “‘I have a theory that you can make any sentence seem profound by writing the name of a dead philosopher at the end of it.’ – Plato.” As with all Banksy, the piece was alternately hailed as profoundly superficial, or nailed as superficially profound. It depended on your estimation of this shadowy name; who was this figure flickering hyperactively between serious artist and dunderheaded prankster? Who said Plato said it?

Classicists worldwide might have been equally divided. We’re a tribe for whom all publicity is generally good publicity. But we also take misattribution very seriously; once upon a time you could almost make or break a classical career by ‘proving’ a different answer to the question ‘who said it’? Now it wouldn’t take a classical scholar to tell you that Plato didn’t actually write that. Presumably that recognition is the minimum required to get this joke, and some critics would happily leave it at that (‘Banksy? Bah! Instant gratification slapped on a wall!’). But then again, at some superficially deep level, doesn’t this also say something smart about Platonic ‘form’, and the philosophical tradition of quotation and authority? Plato, after all, was a mercurial jokester of his time. He never ‘said’ anything, only ‘transcribed’ conversations of his philosophical head honcho Socrates; he always ascribed speech to other people, never signed his own name to it. And yet when mining wisdom from the rich seam of the Platonic corpus, later thinkers would often ignore the dialogue form of the texts, and ledger all that philosophical treasure under the name ‘Plato’. So this surface scribble comments on an authority, and an approach to this authority, which even the highest brow (by now nice and furrowed) would have to acknowledge runs pretty deep in the western circulatory system.

Then there’s the name itself, always worth scrutinising in an artist (collective?) who is at once so unnamed, and so very named. Plato is our anglicised version of Greek Platon, a name based on an adjective meaning broad-shouldered; but etymologically it is shoulder-to-shoulder with platos, a noun meaning breadth, or in geometry ‘plane, flat surface’. Through a subtle trail of nominal determinism, then, Plato becomes the patron saint of planes, i.e. such ‘superficial’ two-dimensional spaces as walls and doors, the very canvasses of the urban graffiti artist. So Plato, as the original flat-writer, not to mention wriggly disappearing act, is hauled on to act as underlying authority yet again. Plato did say it, sort of.

As the work of Banksy, Plato, a faux-quote of Plato, and my quick gloss of that faux-quote all variously militate to tell us, there is a lot hanging on the name which emblazons a work of art/chunk of text. Classicists have always known this. More than that, they have been actively invested in this; they have been singularly, instrumentally destructive in making authority and authenticity so important in western notions of what counts. A tonne of lead, ink, and battery life has been spilt on questions of authorship: was this text really written by Virgil? Is this really a line of Homer? The history of classical scholarship – especially in its crucially formative phase over the 18th and 19th centuries – overlaps intimately with that of ‘textual criticism’: the science (art) of establishing exactly what the author originally wrote.

That carousel around the genuine and the spurious is one of the most familiar thought patterns for classicists still today. Given our unique chronic condition of having to deal with so much fragmentary evidence, day-in, day-out, many texts, and parts of texts, are plagued by the ‘authorship question’. Scholar X says they did say it; scholar Y says they didn’t say it. The cosmic ballet of authority goes on.

Now we may want to believe we’re living in a post-author universe (‘Death of the Author’ and all that); but in practice, the sense of an author makes a big difference. To take an example from my own backyard: if we think Tacitus wrote a text called the Dialogus (a short Cicero-style dialogue about the decline of oratory at Rome, dated c. 100 CE), we’ll read it more confidently (Tacitus was a genius, and up to all sorts of literary tricks); and we’ll read it against contemporary history and the rest of the Tacitean corpus.

But my new BA-funded project (The Muted Voice) is busting to treat authorship at this period a little differently. It’s my theory (as Plato would say) that many authors in the early Roman principate (say 31 BCE – 130 CE) actually wanted to lie down and play anonymous; and that this sense of ‘hunting the author’ is a crucial part of the dynamics of reading these texts. There are a host of political and literary reasons for this, but one context I’d like to see given more air is that of the scurrilous lampoon, a kind of unauthorised text posted in public, or doing the rounds of the literate elite, to troll the incumbent emperor or big-cheese politicians of the day. In other words, I’ll be chasing the Banksys of first century Rome, and seeing how their aesthetic of anonymity is smuggled into even the most prestigious types of high-literary production. These urban Romans knew well the power and potential of textual technology to make the author vanish. It’s time we wrung more life from a different approach to that age-old question ‘who said it?’

(You said it.)

Tom Geue is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews. He is currently polishing his doctoral thesis for publication (Satirist without Qualities: Juvenal and the Poetics of Anonymity) while gritting away in the first stages of a new monograph on the anonymous author in imperial Rome (The Muted Voice: Authorship, Autocracy and Anonymity in the Early Roman Principate). Both projects are interested in the special magic of the text as a technology of absence and anonymity. 

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