What’s the Problem With Antigone? – A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry

A bit of an editor’s note before this post, since this is going to involve some ‘inside baseball’ for Classics and some necessary background (also, this is not going to be a ‘family friendly’ post due to the subject matter; reader discretion is advised). The following essay is one I wrote very early in July discussing some of my concerns with the editorial policy of Antigone Journal, a public-facing Classics web magazine (and probably currently the largest publication of that type). Because Antigone bills itself as an ‘open forum for the Classics’ and regularly responds to complaints about it in social media with invitations to write those complaints at Antigone, I figured I would do so and submitted the essay to them. They sat on the essay for two months, before rejecting it with a set of reader comments which convinced me both that the readers were hardly impartial and also that Antigone was in fact uninterested in publishing any real critique of its policies, despite their stated commitments.

My original plan had been to publish the essay myself, seeing as I had an online platform of similar scale, but by the time they had managed to read this 1,500 word essay, the moment of interest had passed; one wonders if that was the intent (of course it may well not have been). In any case, the moment has, predictably come again with one of Antigone‘s board members choosing to publish a smoke-screen of essay which somehow equates opposition to professors having inappropriate relationships with students with wanting to ‘destroy the field of Classics.’

So here is the original essay, its core text printed without alterations from the form submitted to Antigone and rejected by their ‘open forum.’ I have, however, added a number of footnotes to address some of the editor commentary I received from Antigone‘s less-than-impartial readers and to correct two fairly minor errors of dates; I have marked these errors with footnotes but do note, “two months” should be “fourteen months” and “2017” should be “prior to 2018.” Since the original essay did contain a few footnotes, I have edited these to include ‘Original Footnote’ so you may easily see which is which. The full reader comments are also included in the form of a .docx at the end, so that no one may accuse me of having been disingenuous. As I’ve said, my own impression of the reader comments was that it was unlikely that Antigone would ever find an essay on this topic suitable for publication; that would be their choice (if they feel differently, they can contact me and I’ll gladly give them permission to repost), but it is what leads to my publication here.

(Post publication edit: this post has drawn an unusually high number of brand new anonymous commenters with fake or burner emails attached to their comments. I do not know why (and it may well just be a lot of longtime lurkers looking to weigh in). I have been holding those comments in moderation regardless of their content. As anyone can see below, I have no problem with comments that are sharply critical of my take here, but I do worry about letting ‘fake’ commenters through, since once approved subsequent comments will not come up for moderation automatically.)

With that preamble out of the way, let’s answer the question…

What’s the Problem with Antigone?

It is no new thing to observe that the field of Classics is in need of more effective outreach and that a true public-facing platform for both professional classicists and classical enthusiasts to share and expand their love for Greek and Roman antiquity has long been needed.  Yet despite Antigone seeming to speak to this need directly as an open forum for Classics, it seems that less than two full years on Antigone has earned as much if not more ire than praise from classicists and many junior scholars now regard the publication as essentially ‘out of bounds,’ despite the promise of its concept.

The concept of a public-facing open forum for Classics is not the problem.  Rather the problem is that in prioritizing famous writers whose names might bring clicks regardless of the worth of their ideas or the standard of conduct they have set as scholars, Antigone has ensured that many more early career classicists with new, valuable things to say of great interest to the public cannot do so here.  In a remarkably short time, Antigone has, by refusal to prune, let the overgrown thorns of their garden block many of its gates, for those who lack the clout or tenure to risk it.  It has created a self-closing forum to the great disservice of both potential writers and more importantly potential readers.

Of course, such a claim demands a bill of goods be presented, and so one must.

In May of 2021, Antigone republished to some considerable controversy “Why A New Edition of the Golden Ass?” by Peter Singer, which had originally appeared in Literary Review.  Singer is not a classicist, but an ethicist, though it was perhaps more important for the publication of his article that he is a famous ethicist.  To say that his views of ethics are controversial is to put the matter mildly.  Singer has argued, for instance, that it may be ethical to rape a mentally disabled person so long as they were sufficiently mentally disabled so as to be unaware they were being wronged and that disabled infants should be killed and “replaced” with “normal” ones. Responding to critiques that he was a eugenicist, Singer published (with co-authors) an article in the Monash Bioethics Review entitled, “Can ‘eugenics’ be defended?” in the same month as his essay appeared at Antigone in which he (et al.) concluded that eugenics “isn’t a unified category that we can simply judge as morally good or bad.”

If Singer were merely a controversial philosopher who nevertheless had strong classical bona fides and something interesting to say, one might have still argued for its inclusion.  But Singer is no classicist and confesses in the article to only recently becoming aware of Apuleius.  Singer needed Ellen Finkelpearl to translate the work for him; why he and not she writes in an ‘open forum for Classics,’ I cannot say.

But if the project were a worthy one, it would deserve attention.  Yet Singer did not propose to present the unvarnished Apuleius to a new audience hungry for Classics.  “Ten wrestlers cannot strip a naked man,” but Singer’s effort did strip Apuleius.  Singer’s abridgement removes roughly half of the text, stripping the Milesian tale of its Milesian digressions and of the original book divisions, before clothing its twice-naked form in an entirely new epilogue out of whole-cloth in which the protagonist Lucius does not become a priest of Isis.  Instead, more palatable to Singer, Lucius starts a donkey sanctuary and declares his deep empathy for animals, a sentiment hardly evinced by him in the Latin original.

Unsurprisingly Singer’s approach and the volume that resulted attracted significant criticism from classicists, both online and in a scathing review by Shadi Bartsch in the American Journal of Philology. Though Antigone was evidently aware of the reaction by classicists, the journal’s “Semestral Survey” dismissed them out of hand as ad hominem attacks on the author or as “personally malicious.”  Yet despite the controversy, no article refuting Singer’s approach ever appeared at Antigone.  Perhaps none was submitted, though given the editorial tone in the semestral survey one would be forgiven for assuming no such critique was desired, in which case I hope to have remedied that deep deficiency.  Yet the lack of such a rebuttal in this open forum for Classics would seem to speak to the limitation of the editorial approach as one could seemingly hear about the severe limitations of Singer’s dabbling everywhere except the venue where the book had been promoted.

Then in April of 2022, Antigone published “Why Compare Greek and Latin” by Joshua T. Katz, who is described, even as I write this, as the “Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and Professor Classics at Princeton University.”  Except that of course Joshua T. Katz is not either of those anymore things, having been fired from Princeton in May of the same year for egregious breaches both of university policy and professional ethics.  The Antigone article, published two months [ed.: fourteen] after The Daily Princetonian reported on Katz’ misconduct is unchanged months after his dismissal.  It gives no indication that the author might be anything other than an eminent classicist in good standing, one who “spends his time thinking” about “the disintegration of the academy,” rather than an embarrassing and disgraced figure who represents the disintegration of the academy. It is an impression which could be corrected by a mere editor’s note, yet has not been.

Katz continues to claim that Princeton’s action was in response to his political views, but the underlying uncontested facts are sufficient to run afoul of any professional ethics worthy of the name.  Katz was accused of initiating inappropriate romantic relationships with at least three of his undergraduate students, a point he does not contest.  Katz’ wife, Solveig Gold, who met Katz as an undergraduate in 2017 [ed. prior to 2018] when he was 48, has written that she finds it hard to take seriously the “claim that a 21-year-old woman cannot possibly consent to a relationship with her professor.”  Yet surely as classicists who study societies like Greece and Rome where power and sex could be so brutally intertwined, we ought to be alive to the notion that huge imbalances in power and status might well make a relationship deeply fraught if not outright unprofessional.

In any case it is for these difficult issues that we have university codes of conduct and standards of professional ethics.  They include that professors ought not take romantic or sexual advantage of their students, university rules and ethics that Katz admits he violated, describing his contact as “wrong” and that he “violated the University’s rules.”  If such ethics are to mean anything for a profession, if they are to serve any function in protecting students it must be because they carry real professional and reputational sanction.  In presenting and continuing to present Katz as a scholar in good standing, Antigone actively erodes those standards.  Once again, despite Antigone’s open forum, there has been no hint of controversy in its digital pages, a deficiency I hope I have remedied.

It may well be argued that these are just two such instances, but equally that is two such instances in as many years since the founding of the journal.  Any precarious or early career classicist who reacted with delight, as I did, about the news of a new public-facing Classics publication must now consider it with trepidation: not merely what names will appear next to theirs already but what new names might be added in the future.  We may wish that we lived in a world where authors were judged independent of the publications their names appear in, but we do not.

Yet the great promise of an online open forum for the Classics is the opportunity for less well-known students of the ancient world to present their work and interests.  Well known classicists and famous Classics enthusiasts of course should be applauded for lending their voices here and elsewhere but they do not lack for opportunities.  And therein lies the damage.  In the name of running articles by two men who have no problem presenting their views to the public in any number of widely read fora, Antigone has compromised their ability to provide a place for the interested public to discover the work of less well-known scholars.  The result is an editorial policy that does a disservice both to its field and to its readers.

An open forum for Classics is still desperately needed for a discipline that finds itself increasingly under siege in its institutional homes.  Reintroducing the public to the real Greeks and Romans and their fascinating literature and culture is still an essential task.  The problem is that Antigone has let a reckless editorial policy obstruct those goals and so reduced its value to Classics itself.

As noted above, I have attached below the submitted and commented upon text of the article with Antigone rejected. Since then no other critique of either of these articles has, to my knowledge, yet appeared in Antigone’s pages. I do think this speaks to problems with Antigone’s ‘open forum’ and general demand that critics debate their choices in Antigone’s pages. If ‘come, debate us!’ is to be the publication’s response to critique, the door for that debate must be open wide indeed.

More recently, Solveig Gold, who sits on the board of editors, responded to an article by Professor Nadya Williams in Inside Higher Ed calling for a greater emphasis on virtue and character and citing Joshua Katz among others as examples where sanction by the field was the appropriate response to inappropriate conduct. Gold’s article seems to reflect an awareness, denied by the ‘readers’ above that Katz represents a tainted figure in Classics (which is usually what happens when someone is fired in disgrace for sexual misconduct).

More broadly, Gold equates Williams and her critique with classicists who’d “like the traditional field of classics to die,” an absurd critique from anyone even vaguely familiar with Williams’ work and quite public views. Indeed, Williams’ core argument is that these sanctions “represent a character judgment that should unite the left and the right.” I agree and I do not think the idea that professors should not engage in romantic relationships with their students (particularly those expressly forbidden by their institutions, but I believe that all such relationships should be impermissible) is a particularly partisan issue. Given that part of my critique of Antigone is that they are insufficiently clear about their relationship with the professor whose reputation they are attempting to launder, I suppose I should note that I consider Nadya a valued colleague.

It was Gold’s decision to end her essay presenting Antigone has a ‘reason for optimism’ in pushing back against the ‘woke classicists’ (including the conservative Evangelical Christian she was replying to) who want professors not to canoodle with their students that led me to resurface the essay above. I intend it to be my last word on the question, as I find jousting with the Antigone editorial board tiring and pointless. Let me say, for as little as it matters, that I bear no censure nor ill-will to anyone who publishes through Antigone, but I do think that if the journal wishes to truly fulfill its purpose as an ‘open forum for Classics’ rather than merely ‘Eidolon but with inverted politics’ it will need to make some changes.

I remain of the belief that Classics needs better public outreach, but a magazine that courts controversy, serves to launder the reputations of disgraced academics who happen to be connected to its board, whose members then hides behind culture war nonsense to obfuscate that fact, that sort of magazine isn’t able to fill that need. Maybe Antigone can change to become the outreach venue Classics does need, but it needs more than a little soul-searching to get there.

And now I’ve said my bit and so we shouldn’t need to revisit this topic in the future.

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