The not-so-natural world of Late Antiquity: Introduction

[This post introduces another group of five posts, each of which is the script of a short, 10-minute video lecture that I prepared for my second-years last term. These are more of my 'short reads on late antiquity'. Please remember their original context as undergraduate lectures: they are all short and simplifying, possibly over-simplifying. That said, I hope they might be interesting, especially in the current situation where the idea that teaching the pre-modern world is somehow a less interesting alternative to teaching about race and sexuality and 'decolonising the curriculum'. What follows is the introduction to the five-lecture package that I put on the students' 'Virtual Learning Evironment'.]

One of the main purposes of History is to challenge what we are told about how the world is, what is 'natural', what is 'the way things are', what is 'simply human nature'.

You can read my thoughts on this issue here.

In this lecture I want first to continue yesterday's theme by looking at a sub-category of ethnicity, which is 'race', to show that the racial categories of the modern world are neither natural nor eternal.  From there I am going to look at another set of categorisations that we are frequently told are natural/unnatural: to do with sex, gender and sexuality to make a similar point.  We are often told that there is a natural sexual order, or 'natural' categories, and that other categories are socially constructed or, alternatively, even unnatural, or signs of modern liberalism.  I want to show that this is very far from being the case.  En route we will see again how 'unexpected' the world of late antiquity, and the sixth century in particular can be.

Content Warning: The video lectures for this lecture package might well contain ideas and discussions that you could find uncomfortable. I am afraid that that is the way that history is.

Element A: The difference between race and ethnicity. In this first element I want to talk generally about how race is defined and how racial prejudice is different from, say, ethnic prejudice or rivalry. Racism is a relationship of power, The 'science' that suports racial categorisation - whether in ancient or modern contexts - is designed to support the system of categorisation; the categories do not emerge from the science.

Element B: Race in Antiquity. This video lecture moves on from the basis of the previous one to look at how race and racism might have existed in the Roman world. It makes the point that, even though race is not natural, its effects are felt as being very real. How did Romans square their racial attitudes, which could be absolutely murderous, with the fact that barbarians could rise high in Roman society? I try and answer this with reference to Slavoj Žižek’s book The Sublime Object of Ideology, which I have referred to before. Finally I ask whether barbarians in the Empire experienced life as a racialised minority. The Romans didn't assign great importance to physical, bodily (somatic) markers but did Barbarians internalise the Romans' ideas about them? I can't answer this but it is worth thinking about.

Element C: Late Antiquity was not white. I use this video lecture to propose a solution to a problem that has excited a lot of interest recently, ultimately about how one stops the late antique and medieval past from being appropriated by white supremacists by looking further into the issue of how Romans saw the world. Returning to phenomenology I argue that Romans didn't see people in the same way we do, so that the issue of modern categories of skin-colour didn't arise. This permits a radical solution which I hope will stop people thinking that the late antique past only belongs to particular people, according to what they look like, and opens it to everybody.

Element D: Sex and Society. In the second half of the Lecture Package I look at the ways in which sex and sexuality were categorised in late antiquity. In this video lecture, after a brief discussion of the schematic construction of masculinity and femininity, I use Judith Butler's work to unpick the idea that 'gender' is the social construction based upon a scintific or natural 'sex', to argue that the reality is much more complex and that in practice sex is as social constructed as gender (n.b. this does not mean that natural, biological signifiers of male and female sex somehow don't exist; that's a common misrepresentation of this argument). Finally I look briefly at some medieval attitudes towards sexual practice.

Element E: Queer late antiquity? This video lecture follows directly on from the previous one by thinking about the relationships between sexuality and identity and at how complex and diverse these were in late antiquity. It argues that late antique people were much more tolerant of a wide range of sexual behaviours and lifestyles, in a way that might surprise us. After a brief discussion of what is known as 'Queer Theory' I talk through four examples from 6th-century Gaul that illustrate how queer late antiquity could be.

Source: edgyhistorian

The not-so-natural world of Late Antiquity: Introduction