Defining Socio-Literary Spheres

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.35 (21/3/15)

‘Defining socio-literary spheres: the Methodology of Describing and Comparing First and Second Century Greco-Roman Literature’                                                                                        Paul Robertson

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

In this paper, I will argue for a new way of describing and comparing literature during the first and second centuries. Using what I term ‘socio-literary spheres’, I discuss the shortcomings of previous methodologies, forward my own, and demonstate its application and utility by applying my methodology to several diverse texts from the first and second centuries that seem highly different: Dio Chrysostom’s Orations, Epictetus’ Discourses, and the Christian Acts of the Apostles.

I define ‘socio-literary spheres’ as semi-autonomous fields of literate, cultural production that develop their own standards and modes of discourse, usually implicitly, which are appropriated and re-inscribed by authors who deploy these discourse conventions due to the implicit but fundamental tie between literary content, form, and social purpose. This language of ‘spheres’ (or clusters, circles, groups, etc.) explicitly departs from, and disputes the methodological utility of, views of ancient literature that describe texts along hierarchical, normative lines of ‘high versus low’ or ‘literary versus non-literary’ texts. It also specifically avoids characterizing literature in other commonly delineated ways, such as genre (e.g., autobiography vs. history), geography (e.g., Western vs. Eastern), culture (e.g., Greek vs. Christian literature), or ethnicity (e.g., Jewish or Judaean).

Understanding overlaps and/or boundaries between different texts and different groups of texts is in many ways a problem of description and taxonomy. Methodologically speaking, to understand the overlaps between texts across boundaries such as culture, ethnicity, geography, or even language requires a more sophisticated description and taxonomy of literature. I propose a polythetic classification, namely one that is based on a particular cluster of characteristics, none of which are necessary to a given sphere. These characteristics involve a text’s style (grammar, vocabulary, etc.), but also types of content (e.g., group identity, ethical exemplarity, cosmological claims, etc.) that are linked to shared social purposes (group formation, establishing authority, etc.). Socio-literary spheres are the particular constellations of generally shared characteristics of literary style, content, and social purpose.

It in my contention that a properly nuanced taxonomy based on such socio-literary spheres allows for the identification of socio-literary spheres that functioned as pan-Mediterranean phenomena. These spheres cut across essentialized distinctions such as culture, geography, and language. I thus propose a different way of conceiving of and approaching intertextuality that engages with both social practices and certain types of literary content.