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    • Document type
      Review (monograph)
      Author (review)
      • Squire, Michael
      Language (review)
      Language (monograph)
      Editor (monograph)
      • Bielfeldt, Ruth
      Ding und Mensch in der Antike. Gegenwart und Vergegenwärtigung
      Gegenwart und Vergegenwärtigung
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      Universitätsverlag Winter
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      Social and Cultural History
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      until 499 AD → 999 - 1 BC, until 499 AD → 1st - 5th century AD
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      Ancient World → Greece / ancient, Ancient World → Roman Empire
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      Griechenland <Altertum>
      Römisches Reich
      Heidelberg <2008>
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Ruth Bielfeldt (ed.): Ding und Mensch in der Antike. Gegenwart und Vergegenwärtigung (reviewed by Michael Squire)

sehepunkte 15 (2015), Nr. 5

Ruth Bielfeldt (Hg.): Ding und Mensch in der Antike

'What in the thing is thingly?', asked Martin Heidegger in his classic 1950 essay: 'we shall not reach the thing in itself until our thinking has first reached the thing as a thing'. [ 1 ] According to Heidegger - and the numerous 'thing theorists' who have followed in his wake - acknowledging 'thingness' means re-conceptualizing the world and our metaphysical place within it. Things are more than passive objects. Nor (as Plato might have us think) are things mere shadows of conceptual ideas. The 'thingness' of things instead lies in their physical and conceptual tangibility - their capacity to interact with our human worlds and define our subjective relationships. [ 2 ]

Ding und Mensch in der Antike is the first book to explore 'thing theory' from the historicist perspective of Graeco-Roman antiquity. Starting out from an unabashedly modern ('gegenwärtig') viewpoint, the aim is to investigate how such phenomenological questions about 'presence and presentification' ('Gegenwart und Vergegenwärtigung') hark back to classical philosophy, art and literature: what did 'things' mean in antiquity, and how does the 'thingness' of things come to be defined, theorized and played out? [ 3 ]

Structurally speaking, the book is organized around three loosely intersecting parts (8-12). After a brief forward and well-rounded editorial introduction ('Dynamische Dinge im Ausgang von Homer'), the first four chapters begin with ancient and modern modes of conceptualizing 'things' (G. Figal, F.W. Heubach, H.P. Hahn, T. Schirren). Where Figal nicely compares traditions of approaching subject-object relations in antiquity and modernity (especially 53), [ 4 ] Heubach's brief chapter explores what archaeology might learn from modern-day psychoanalytic approaches to Das Bedingte Leben . [ 5 ] Hahn's chapter is still broader in scope, reviewing different 'Modelle der Wahrnehmung der dinglichen Welt' over the last century (albeit - rather puzzlingly - without reference to Heidegger). Schirren, by contrast, sticks more doggedly to antiquity, analysing 'das Problem der sinnlichen Erscheinung' in pre-Socratic philosophy (and above all Democritus).

The next five chapters - by A. Stähli, K. Müller, T. Hölscher, R. Bielfeldt and F. Hölscher - are addressed to classical archaeologists. Stähli's chapter deals less with 'things' than with 'objects' ('sprechende Gegenstände'), to quote B. Brown's important semantic distinction [ 6 ]: rather than 'speaking for' objects, Stähli argues, inscribed Archaic and Classical Greek texts functioned as 'Elemente einer Kommunikationssituation' (135). [ 7 ] K. Müller remains with 'der Schrift auf den Dingen', albeit this time in the context of western mediaeval visual culture. The resulting chapter seems a little out of place: rather than consider 'Ding und Mensch in der Antike', K. Müller explores subject-object relations in the mediaeval Christian world, underplaying their theological remove from earlier 'pagan' attitudes. [ 8 ] T. Hölscher's chapter takes us squarely back to ancient Greece (above all to the period around 500 BC), examining the 'Ambivalenz der Bildwerke zwischen Lebendigkeit und Materialität' (182); by introducing the key question of Greek religious practice, F. Hölscher's essay (on 'die Präsenz der Gottheit in einer unbeweglichen Statue', 249) at once develops and enriches that theme. It is consequently left to Bielfeldt - in the intervening contribution - to tackle 'Roman' as opposed to 'Greek' antiquity, with specific reference to the agency of Roman Imperial lamps.

The volume draws to a close with three final 'Studien zu performativen und poetischen Vergegenwärtigungsstrategien auf der Bühne, in der Dichtung und der Kunstphilosophie' (11: F. Müller, A. Wessels, N. Koch). First, F. Müller explores how objects could function as dramatic agents on the Attic stage (specifically in Sophocles' Electra ). Second, Wessels examines Hellenistic Greek texts (above all Hellenistic epigrams on artworks), demonstrating an underlying 'Wechselspiel von Nähe und Distanz, Lebendigkeit und Kunst' (290). Finally Koch returns to the quality that ancient Greek writers labelled enargeia ('das Herstellen von Präsenz', 301), with particular reference to Longinus' On the Sublime .

So much for the parts. But what to make of the book as a whole? An undoubted strength is the volume's plurality of disciplinary approaches ('seine theoretische und thematische Vielfalt ist Programm': 7). Within a decidedly miscellaneous collection, some chapters likewise stand out. Bielfeldt's contribution on Roman Imperial lamps deserves special mention here, building an important disciplinary bridge between formalist art history and broader cultural history: the result will be essential reading for both its methodological sophistication and introductory survey, illuminating 'wie der Bild- und Figurenreichtum aus dem dingeigenen "Operationsmodus" der Lampe heraus verstanden werden kann' (199).

For all its disciplinary variety, the book nonetheless testifies to some residual inter disciplinary challenges. Particularly frustrating, I felt, was the reluctance of individual chapters to cross-fertilise (a recurrent problem in such edited projects). Although they both deal with (inscribed or written) 'talking' texts, for example, the essays by Stähli and Wessels make little effort to cross the disciplinary lines of 'Klassische Archäologie' und 'Klassiche Philologie'. Likewise, it is striking how few of the later chapters explicitly engage with the broader 'theoretical' discussions opening the book (with the exception of a footnote by T. Hölscher: 184, n.43). The situation is all the more puzzling given the volume's derivation from a collaborative 2008 Heidelberg workshop (7-8, 12-13): [ 9 ] what sorts of cross-disciplinary conversations resulted from the original conference, one wonders, and in what ways did contributors change their individual thinking? Some practical solutions might have eased the resulting sense of disciplinary isolationism: one misses a final conclusion, for example, and an index would have been helpful in navigating across chapters.

A more serious difficulty lies in the book's selective engagement with previous work (and above all scholarship beyond the German-speaking academy). Within so cutting-edge a project, it is perhaps regrettable that 'einige Beiträge wurden bereits 2010 eingereicht und repräsentieren den Forschungsstand von 2009' (14). Yet even with works published before 2009, there are some conspicuous omissions. [ 10 ] F. Hölscher's chapter on 'Gottheit und Bild - Gottheit im Bild' provides just one example. Over the last twenty or so years, there has been an explosion of interest in this theme, and from all manner of different perspectives. [ 11 ] Yet in line with a broadening - and deeply problematic - divide between Anglophone and German scholarship, very little of this work informs F. Hölscher's essay. This is not just a case of filling out the footnotes. Instead, in my view, a closer engagement might have ironed out some larger methodological difficulties. Doesn't F. Hölscher's recurrent talk of 'belief' (e.g. 255: 'der Glaube an die Gottheit im Bild'), for example, smack of Judaeo-Christian anachronism? And does her straightforward distinction between image and 'die Göttin selbst' (256) have more to do with sixteenth-century Protestant apologists rather than with ancient cultural thinking? [ 12 ] F. Hölscher is of course right to emphasise religion's role in shaping ancient thinking about 'things'. And yet, as numerous scholars have stressed, the relationships between material 'thing' and divinities were deeply complex and contradictory: to have any chance of reconstructing that ancient relationship means probing a much longer span of cultural, intellectual and theological history. [ 13 ]

None of these reservations need overly distract. This is a highly innovative book and one that certainly repays attentive reading; most importantly, it succeeds in challenging some of the more conservative leanings of German ancient history, classical archaeology and philology ('Die primäre Unzufriedenheit mit der einseitig konstruktivistischen Weltsicht der Altertumswissenschaft war der Ausgangspunkt...', 22). The residual (sub)disciplinary boundaries - not to mention the chasms between national scholarly traditions - show that there is still some work to be done. But the volume will nonetheless challenge, stimulate and provoke: as a 'thing' in its own right, the book must now forge its own scholarly path.

Notes :

[ 1 ] 'Was ist das Dingliche am Ding? Was ist das Ding an sich? Wir gelangen erst dann zum Ding an sich, wenn unser Denken zuvor erst einmal das Ding als Ding erlangt hat': I quote from A. Hofstader's translation of Heidegger's essay on 'the thing' (in Poetry, Language, Thought (New York, 1971), 163-184, at 165).

[ 2 ] For a review of scholarship, see especially 15-21; given the theme - and not least the title - the only surprising omission is H.U. Gumbrecht, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford, 2004).

[ 3 ] Die Beiträge zielen nicht vorrangig auf eine Rekonstruktion von politischen, sozialen oder religiösen Bedeutungszuschreibungen an Objekte und deren 'Semantisierung', as the editor explains, 'sondern darauf, die Dinge der Antike als kulturelle Präsenzgesten wiederzugewinnen' (7).

[ 4 ] The chapter is reprised from G. Figal, Verstehensfragen: Studien zur phänomenologisch-hermeneutischen Philosophie (Tübingen 2009), 291-300.

[ 5 ] Cf. F.W. Heubach, Das Bedingte Leben - Theorie der pyscho-logischen Gegenständlichkeit der Dinge: Ein Beitrag zur Psychologie des Alltags (Munich, 1987).

[ 6 ] See B. Brown, 'Thing theory', Critical Inquiry 28 (2001): 1-22, especially 3-5; cf. id., A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago, 2004).

[ 7 ] In doing so, Stähli arguably privileges what inscriptions say rather than their 'graphic' means of doing so: for some different perspectives, e.g. R. Osborne and A. Pappas, 'Writing on Archaic Greek pottery', in Z. Newby and R. Leader-Newby (eds.), Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World (Cambridge, 2007), 131-155; N. Dietrich, 'Framing Archaic Greek sculpture: Figure, ornament and script', in V.J. Platt and M.J. Squire, Framing the Visual in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Cambridge, forthcoming) (with further bibliography).

[ 8 ] How does Christian theology, for example, reconfigure approaches to 'words' and 'images', and how do such attitudes inform ideas about 'relics' specifically (the subject of K. Müller's chapter)? For some stimulating introductory thoughts, see e.g. J. Elsner, 'From the culture of spoils to the cult of relics: The Arch of Constantine and the genesis of late antique forms', Papers of the British School at Rome 68 (2000): 149-184; P. Cox Miller, The Corporeal Imagination: Signifying the Holy in Late Ancient Christianity (Philadelphia, 2009), especially 42-61; R. Osborne, 'Relics and remains in an ancient Greek world full of anthropomorphic gods,' in A. Walsham, Relics and Remains (Oxford, 2010), 56-72. It is likewise unfortunate that K. Müller overlooks C.W. Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (New York, 2011).

[ 9 ] For the conference programme, see (the contributions by M. Langner, H. Wirth, M. García Morcillo, S. Sommerer, B. Borg and L. Giuliani have been omitted).

[ 10 ] One pertinent contribution in the context of both Stähli's and Wessels' chapters, for example, is M.A. Tueller, Look Who's Talking: Innovations in Voice and Identity in Hellenistic Epigram (Leuven: Peeters, 2008). Tueller's work has particular relevance for Wessels' chapter. But it is just one of many omissions: where Wessels explores 'die Gattung des Epigramms' as straightforward historical evidence for 'die Illusion von lebensechten Darstellungen' (288), others have read these texts in strikingly more metapoetic ways. For my own views (with more detailed further bibliography), see e.g. M.J. Squire, 'Making Myron's cow moo? Ecphrastic epigram and the poetics of simulation', American Journal of Philology 131.4 (2010): 589-634; 'Reading a view: Poem and picture in the Greek Anthology', Ramus 39 (2010): 73-103; 'Invertire l' ekphrasis : l'epigramma ellenistico e la traslazione di parola e immagine', Estetica: Studi e ricerche 2013: 109-36.

[ 11 ] It is not just 'Anglophone' scholarship that is downplayed in F. Hölscher's chapter: one notices, for example, the conspicuous absence of J.-P. Vernant (whose work is most handily accessible in F. Zeitlin's edited anthology: J.-P. Vernant, Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays (Princeton, 1990)), not to mention R. Koch Piettre (e.g. 'Images et perception de la présence divine en Grèce ancienne', Mélanges de l'École française de Rome 113 (2001): 211-24). In terms of Anglo-American work, foundational is R. Gordon, 'The real and the imaginary: Production and religion in the Graeco-Roman world', Art History 2 (1979): 5-34; cf., e.g., J. Elsner, 'Between mimesis and divine power: Visuality in the Greek and Roman world', in R. Nelson (ed.), Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as Others Saw (Cambridge, 2000), 45-69; V.J. Platt, Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion (Cambridge, 2011); R. Osborne, The History Written on the Greek Body (Cambridge, 2011), 185-215; M.J. Squire, The Art of the Body: Antiquity and its Legacy (London, 2011), 154-201; M. Gaifman, Aniconism in Greek Antiquity (Oxford, 2012). Of these contributions, Hölscher briefly cites the work of 'Varity [ sic ] Platt' (246, n.15; cf. 251, n.26) - but with a puzzling quip about Platt's supposed 'Epiphaniebegriff'.

[ 12 ] See especially J. Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (London, 2004); cf. M.J. Squire, Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Cambridge, 2009), 1-193, especially 15-41, 111-120 (with further bibliography).

[ 13 ] The point was most famously championed by G.W.F. Hegel (whose important Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik go without mention in both F. Hölscher's chapter and the larger book). For a recent re-telling of Hegel's narrative and its phenomenological implications, see A. Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Icononclasm (trans J. M. Todd: Chicago, 2000).