Letters and communities project
Theme and research context
It is easy to associate the writing of letters with a single author and a single addressee, who are often imagined as sharing in the exchange of intimate thoughts across distances of space and time. This model underwrites iconic notions evoked by epistolography, such as the letter representing an 'image of the soul of the author' or constituting 'one half of a dialogue'. However justified this conception of letter-writing may be in particular instances, it tends to marginalize a range of issues that were central to epistolary communication in the ancient world and have yet to receive sustained and systematic investigation. In particular, it overlooks the fact that letters frequently presuppose and are designed to reinforce communities-or, indeed, constitute them in the first place.
Ancient letter writing has seen a welcome increase in scholarship in recent years, and a range of editions, edited collections, and case studies have done much to illuminate the formal characteristic, literary qualities, and communicative protocols of the genre. Our seminar series and conference aim to build on this body of work by foregrounding the complex socio-political dimensions that are implied by such categories as 'real', 'explicit', or 'implied' author and (especially) addressee-in other words, the ways in which the formal aspects of the genre interlock with processes of group formation and identity construction. From this perspective, the letter emerges as the kit that imagines and connects communities, above and beyond its function as a medium of communication between alter and ego.
We plan to address the issues detailed below in the course of a seminar series, running through the Academic year 2010-11, as well as, more specifically, in a concluding conference, scheduled for 14-16 July 2011.
The 'communal' aspects of epistolary communication play themselves out in a variety of ways. Most obviously, there are the different relationships that we find instantiated in letters, with communities writing to individuals (such as a polis to a king), individuals writing to communities (a king, say, to a city or an authoritative religious figure to a Christian community in an urban centre), or communities writing to one another (polis to polis)-besides those cases where a community is strongly implied, even though the letter may be addressed to a specific individual. These phenomena give rise to a range of heuristic interests, which may be mapped out as follows:
1 The identity-politics of ethopoiia and prosopopoiia: the rhetorical creation and projection of character and the strategic adoption of a persona (at times under the pretence of a transparent fiction) are two well-recognized aspects of epistolary communication, from Ovid's Heroides to the farmers, fishermen, parasites and courtesans that feature as apparent letter-writers in the Second Sophistic. We would like to investigate how authorial self-promotion (or, indeed, self-fashioning) interacts with the communities of readers to which the letter is addressed, which may be real or imagined, 'contemporary' or situated in the past or, especially, some more or less distant future. A related issue is the appearance of pseudonymous letters in the Jewish and Christian tradition. How do such letters construe their authors and addressees, and what might this tell us about the relation of texts and communities?
2 Corporate authorship and collective addressees: as a rule of thumb, in the ancient Near East and classical and Hellenistic Greece, individuals (such as kings or tyrants) write letters, whereas communities opt for a different type of genre to articulate their collective view (such as the decree), even when responding to a letter. But there are notable exceptions, especially in the Jewish and Christian tradition. E.g., we find the Jews from Jerusalem and Judaea writing to those of Egypt (2 Maccabees) or the church in Rome to that in Corinth (First Clement). The apostle Paul often employs co-senders in his letters to communities; what does this tell us about the character of these letters? How do we assess the fact that some letters to or between Jewish or Christian communities use elements of the protocol of official letters? Likewise, letters often have one explicit addressee, but he or she is often just singled out for strategic reasons against the background of a larger community of (frequently more important) implied recipients.
3 Functional equivalences - personal appearance, oral messenger, sending a letter: What is the difference in terms of community-construction between sending a messenger with an oral message and sending one with a letter? If the senders had a choice, under what conditions did they opt for an oral rather than a written message (and vice versa)? What is the relationship between the statements of the messenger (who brings the letter) and the letter itself? And what is the relationship with other genres that constitute a community (usually from the inside only), e.g. the decree?
4 Community and confidentiality: How do 'communal' letters position themselves vis-à-vis epistolary communication that emphasizes the exclusive and confidential nature of letter writing? How do authors deal with the fact of different audiences, some intended, other clearly undesirable if possible in case a letter gets intercepted and receives wider circulation than planned? How do issues of confidentiality (and the possibility of a breach thereof) affect the socio-political dimension of the text?
5 Letters as means of communicating with geographically dispersed addressees: what communities in the ancient world are formed on the basis of letter-writing (see e.g. Epicurean school of philosophy)? How are letters used in order to maintain a network of communities, e.g., between Jews in the land of Israel and those in the Diaspora, or between Christian communities? What constitutes the imagined community of the readers of philosophical treatises in epistolary form?
6 Ancient epistolary theory: how do handbooks, and reflections in letters, address the 'communal' aspects of epistolary communication, i.e. to what extent do the handbooks cover letter-writing beyond the private letter?
As our choice of illustrative examples indicates, we believe that this set of question is best addressed from a comparative perspective. Hence we are looking for case studies from across the Ancient Mediterranean and the Near East. We are interested in how the construction of community functions in different types of letters, under whatever label they conventionally figure (fictive, literary, documentary). In fact, we hope that papers in the seminar series and at the conference will further refine, or indeed question these categories.
Our plans include the publication of a selection of papers from the Seminar series and the Conference, in the form of one (or more) edited volumes