This essay issues from my long-standing concern about the apparently inexorable growth, in Classics as generally in the humanities, of what I shall here call 'culturalism' or 'ideology critique'.1 Characteristic of such work is a hostility to talk about beauty and to aesthetic criticism, usually coupled with an almost complete ignorance of the modern tradition of philosophical aesthetics. The project began, tentatively, in 1997 with a third-year special subject that I co-taught with my friend and colleague Vanda Zajko, entitled 'Homer and Virgil: Language, the Aesthetic, and the Unconscious'. In this we undertook a reading of the two authors at the centre of the ancient canon in the light of questions raised in modern aesthetics from Kant onwards, investigating the reasons for their prestige and the sources of their power. Only three students elected to take the course, and one subsequently withdrew from the University; in the current climate of academic utilitarianism and efficiency gains, the course would doubtless not have taken place. But I, at least, found the wide-ranging, interdisciplinary exchanges immensely fruitful; whether the unpredictable and unpredicted results in the form of this book (no part of the statement of 'aims and objectives' now required within the academy in Britain) justify the venture the reader must judge for herself.
Subsequently, encouraged by William Batstone who was on an exchange visit to Bristol, another friend and colleague, Duncan Kennedy, and I organized an exploratory one-day colloquium on 'The Status of the Aesthetic', with participants drawn from
1 The victory of such criticism was indeed announced by J. Hillis Miller in his famous
address to the Modern Language Association of America in 1986: 'As everyone knows,
literary study in the past few years has undergone a sudden, almost universal turn away
from theory in the sense of an orientation toward language as such and has made a
corresponding turn toward history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender
conditions, the social context, the material base in the sense of institutionalization, conditions
of production, technology, distribution, and consumption of “cultural products”, among
other products' (Miller (1991) 313). For some good reasons for resisting this new hegemony
see Lansdown (2001).