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Textualization of Experience

Studies on Ancient Greek Literature

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Paweł Majewski

The book is an analysis of Greek Hellenistic literature with the help of conceptual tools of cultural studies and media theory. Its main aim is to describe the cultural process during which Greek authors in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. made the “textualization of experience", that is, transferred phenomenalistically understood qualities of human sensory experience to the categories characteristic for textual description – as far as possible for them. This process is shown by examples from the works of Xenophon, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Philitas of Kos and Archimedes. The author also tries to show some of the consequences that the phenomenon of the Hellenistic textualization of experience had for the later epochs of European culture.

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Chapter 2 Beginnings and development of technical writing: Fachliteratur

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Chapter 2 Beginnings and development of technical writing: Fachliteratur

Memory, understood as a psychological ability, and not as an intellectual disposition mediated and strengthened by notation, was no longer one of the main tools for conveying symbolic content in the post-classical eras of Greek culture. These were epochs of an increasing influence of the text, which with time began to take on forms and enter into cycles exceeding even the achievements of Alexandria’s scholars in the field of philology and text-centered literary forms. However, the power of the text over human cognitive processes became neither indivisible nor unambiguous.

Alexandrian creators and scholars, active in the third and the second centuries BC, developed textual practices to replace the Lebenswelt experience in the way we see for the first time in the works of Aristotle, whose demands they developed intensively, though not necessarily under his direct influence, in their textual “theory-practice.”35 But the first attempts at the textualization of experience came much earlier among the Greeks. These attempts, made by logographs and sophists, remained isolated in the fifth century. However, at the end of this century, and in the century to follow, new, more numerous texts with a textbook function appeared, providing theoretical knowledge on various social practices and forms of action. The section of ancient literature usually referred to as Fachliteratur in German (“specialized literature” or “professional literature”) can be considered as one of the explicit implementations of the principles of textualization of experience. However, the question must be asked about the internal diversity of this literature, both in terms of the forms of written expression it uses and in terms of the type of social and target group circuits.36

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For, as in other genres of ancient text, it is possible to see here an evolution that has been influenced by the processes of dissemination of writing practices in ancient Greek culture and society. These processes, however, are taking a different course from that of the earliest philosophical or sophistical texts with which I dealt in my previous book. There, I tried to show that for people like Gorgias, Plato or Alcidamas, writing, text, and related cultural activities were objects of intense reflection, a new problematic tool for cultural existence. In the case of textbooks, such as works of Fachliterature, the presence of writing and text can no longer be problematic, because the very existence of a textbook is due to the recognition of the obvious possibility of the textual transmission of experience. Aristotle had a great influence on the development of such an approach, and himself practiced it in his works, and in the Organon he not only practiced but also codified it. But even before his activity, there were texts that fell under the category of “textbook transfer of practical knowledge.” These texts are of particular interest to the researcher of the media aspects of the circulation of cultural content, because they occupy a liminal position in the dynamics of this circulation, namely – they still derive in part from a culture dominated by direct oral communication, by the environment of speech; but on the other hand, their task is to influence at a distance, to transfer the stock of practical experience connected with social and motoric activities – in the form of a symbolic text record. The question then arises: how did their authors find themselves in the face of this double nature of their own message?

We have less than scarce data about the earliest texts of this kind. We do not even know whether their titles and authorship, certified by much later authors, already acting under the influence of deeply textualized cultural mechanisms, are fully credible, or whether they represent a retrospective cultural projection. In his seminal study Athenian Books in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC, Eric G. Turner lists the following positions:

Through the Ionian Anaxagoras [as the author of the first known book as such – add. PM], as I suppose, this notion of a book is introduced into Athens; and this I take to be the style and intention of those technical manuals of the middle of the fifth century which are only names to us – Sophocles On Greek Tragedy (peri ←38 | 39→chorou), Agatharchus On Scene Painting, Ictinus On the Parthenon, Polyclytus On the Symmetry of the Human Body, Meton On the Calendar, Hippodamus On Townplanning, to mention the better known.37

These “book entities,” or rather their shadows, are probably fictions created in written prejudices, emerged in a cultural process a few centuries later, when the possibility of building the Parthenon, sculpting Doryphoros, determining any counting of time, designing an urban space or exhibiting Antigone was no longer imaginable without the guidance of a textbook. Modern researchers have willingly recognized this possibility of early textualization of cultural experience by the Greeks, as can be seen in the English equivalent of the title of the alleged treatise of Sophocles used by Turner. The phrase “peri chorou” (literally: “about the [tragic] chorus”) only with a great deal of freedom can be rendered as a title suggesting to the reader from the twentieth century a historical or theoretical work devoted to dramaturgy. The information that Sophocles put his creative activity within the framework of some discursive or even theoretical written expression is intriguing, especially if we consider that during its heyday Attic drama belonged to the performing arts, not to “literature” or “philosophy,” by which I mean that at that time there was no tendency to theorize it, especially in a text.38 However, all our sources in this case are two mentions, one in Suda Lexicon (tenth century) and the other in Plutarch (first/second century). In the Byzantine lexicon, we read in the biography of Sophocles:

He wrote elegy and paeans and an account in prose [logon katalogaden] of the chorus [peri tou chorou], in rivalry with Thespis and Choirilos. (Liber Suda, sigma 815 Adler)39

In Plutarch’s text, How a Man May Become Aware of his Progress in Virtue (7, 79 b), we have a note that Sophocles was critical about Aeschylus’ style, ←39 | 40→but this fragment, very damaged in manuscripts, does not contain any notions connected with the written word, and Plutarch could have meant an oral statement, an ad hoc one, transmitted in some relation – not a developed author’s stamped text. Suda’s testimony, widely discussed by specialists,40 is suspicious inasmuch as it suggests that Sophocles has somehow been arguing with the fathers of the tragedy, Thespis and Choerilus, whose life and work were already unknown in the classical era. This sample allows us to see how fragile and illusory are the traces of these alleged earliest “theoretical” or “professional” treatises in our sources.41


35 See: Roy Harris, Rationality and Literate Mind, Routledge 2009, Paweł Majewski, Pismo, tekst, literature [Writing, text, literature], Warszawa 2013.

36 Contemporary specialist literature devoted to ancient specialist literature is very rich. In the following sections, I will cite representative examples on individual partial topics. On the general quality of Greek technical writing see. e.g. Philip J. van der Eijk, Towards a Rhetoric of Ancient Scientific Discourse: Some Formal Characteristics of Greek Medical and Philosophical Texts, in: Egbert J. Bakker (ed.), Grammar as Intepretation. Greek Literature in its Linguistic Contexts, Brill 1997, pp. 77–130.

37 Eric G. Turner, Athenian Books in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC, London 1951, p. 18.

38 The question of whether it is possible to theorize practical experience in a non-textual way is left unanswered here. Perhaps, it can be regarded as equivalent to the “lessons of masters” given to students in the form of comments on practical activities.

39 Internet translation (“Suda Online”), https://www.cs.uky.edu/~raphael/sol/sol-entries/sigma/815 [2020.05.28].

40 Antique treatises on dramatic art were thoroughly examined in the monograph: Antonio Bagordo Die antiken Traktate über das Drama (Lepizig 1998). The researcher collected testimonies concerning eighty-eight authors living between the fifth century BC and the third century AD, but nearly all these testimonies consist only of allusions and loose references to the existence of one or another treatise. Thus, such a fascinating form of the textualization of experience, which was the ancient theoretical approach to performative practices related to drama, will remain unknown to us. As far as Sophocles is concerned, Bagordo quotes the opinions of such experts on the subject as K. J. Dover, O. Crusius, T. B. L. Webster and A. W. Pickard-Cambridge – all of them deny the value of the mention about Peri chorou.

41 Several dozen Greek treatises on building and decorative art are enumerated by Vitruvius (On architecture, book VII, preface, 11 ff.), but also in this case we do not learn any more details. Besides, a large part of this enumeration concerns the authors of the Hellenistic era, sometimes well-known from elsewhere.