List Restoration: An Interview With Athena Kirk

When asked to name the most famous and also oldest and longest list in literature, many a listophile would choose Homer’s catalogue of ships in the Iliad, and we would probably be correct. But would any of us have a sense of what an infinitesimal fraction of ancient Greek lists Homer’s ship list represents? Athena Kirk’s book Ancient Greek Lists: Catalogue and Inventory Across Genres (Cambridge University Press, 2021) raises the curtain on the multitudinous lists produced by the list-loving culture in Greece during Homer’s age and for generations to follow. Given its field-opening findings, we are pleased to introduce Kirk’s book to our readers by way of  the following interview with her.

  • Listology: For our audience members who might not know much about Greek antiquity, what could you state more broadly about how your book’s findings contribute to our modern understanding of lists? For example, how do you define a list? Does this definition change for you when looking at ancient versus modern examples? What might ancient lists teach us about the continued practices of keeping lists? And has your research changed anything about the way you approach, see, or make lists?

AK: I try in the book to draw somewhat of a distinction between ancient and modern lists, though they are not without similarities. As I see it, lists Greek antiquity were considered very productive, generative, and expressive text-forms, not as uncreative or boring, the way people sometimes think of lists now.  These differing opinions about lists might relate to how we define them. So for me, “list” is a very capacious ancient category. It can encompass anything from the most elaborated (like the Homeric catalogue of ships) to the most stark (say, a short series of foods in an ancient comedy). Today, I think we tend to delineate “lists” more by format (bullet points, etc) and are less apt to consider a very long, semi-narrative sequence a list.  I also think today there is a certain anxiety around lists, around information more generally, that I don’t see as much in antiquity.  In the book I quote the media theorist John Durham Peters on this, who says that now is “a time of promiscuous knowledge, and the list is one strategy to cope with and make use of our temptations amid information abundance…There can also be a certain desperation in a list, an exasperation that the universe is so wide and our time is so short.” If this is true, then the Greeks, I think, felt much more at ease with lists than we do – for them lists really often celebrate information and recuperate or restore lost value.   

  • Listology: You treat lists as evidence for economic systems of value that are otherwise invisible to modern audience (17). To what extent do you generally associate lists with accounting, or tallying of economic values? Do you have any theories about why ancient Greek poems integrated these financial details or if early reception recognized these values?

AK: I would probably associate 8 out of every 10 lists with accounting.  Just kidding! But I do think that Greek lists often have a quantitative bent, even when they don’t seem to about numbers or economics.  For instance, the archaic poet Semonides’ so-called Catalogue of Women is a lyric poem that enumerates the “types” of women, most of them related to kinds of animals, and all bad except for one (the bee-woman).  Maybe it’s all a joke, maybe it’s a serious commentary on social relationships and gender, maybe it’s interrogating human-animal divisions.  Maybe all of the above.  But when we get to the end, it turns out that it’s also about men’s not having enough resources, no matter what kind of woman they choose: “For whoever stays with a woman,” Semonides concludes, “will not soon push hunger out of his home…”.  Here I think we can read Semonides as receiving a Homeric model of commodity-catalogue and shifting it to some kind of  commentary on women and domestic life; in later poetry, such as the drama of Aristophanes, I think characters are using lists to track their personal resources in much the same ways that they have seen the Athenian polis list civic resources – sort of a poetic reception of government documents.         

  • Listology: Your book notes how lists create false divisions between disciplines like humanities and sciences (especially economics). You aim to adjust scholarship that “has often treated inventories primarily as a discrete invention of the fifth-century Athenian administration” (114). You even note displayed inventories’ appearances of “more narrative texts such as decrees or treaties than of other financial accounting or catalogic inscriptions” (127). What does it do to our understanding of inventories and of the traditional connection between literacy’s origins and financial record keeping to center them in literary conversations? How does this change the role of literature in economic history? Or how does it supply an alternative to the general tendency to privilege pragmatic studies of mathematics and hard sciences as points of origin instead of humanities?

AK: This is a great question.  First of all, in this moment in which it seems the humanities often require defense, I think it can be useful to take note of moments in the past in which literature was not disconnected from, or antithetical to, civic economics.  However: this is not to present the Greek world, or Classical Athens, as any sort of ideal, either aesthetically, politically, or economically, or really in any way at all.  These were very very unequal and socially problematic societies, and our textual narratives of them so  often come from elite perspective to begin with.  Yet here I think we do have an opportunity to study a sort of alternative model of the recording of value, and a context in which the line between “qualitative” and “quantitative” information is extremely blurry.  Envisioning those possibilities seems intellectually productive.

  • Listology: You refer to catalogues as “a traditionally male-focused textual genre” (200). Do you consider list genres in general to default to male gendering? If so, how do your examples of women keeping domestic lists function to redefine the genre from the outside?

AK: This is a point I made in Chapter 2 of the book, on Greek lists about women. I think since then I’ve revised my stance a bit – as usual, it’s not so simple. First of all, I’ve been reconsidering some rare moments in women in archaic poetry make the lists—such as when Kallidike, an Eleusinian princess in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, says to the goddess Demeter when she comes to town disguised as a stranger: “I will put forth and name for you the men who have great power here from their honor, and who are preeminent among the people” (Loeb translation).  Now, Kallidike is listing a bunch of influential men to help Demeter get a social footing, so it’s hard to see this passage as quite upending the norms of gendered poetics; but it does complicate the idea of lists as a male tool for controlling things (including women).  This poem also provides an account of the mythical founding of the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis, a large pan-Hellenic pilgrimage site throughout antiquity. According to the Roman-era travel-writer Pausanias, the same Kallidike and her sisters were the first administrators of the rites at Eleusis – so in this example, a woman is cast as both a social and an administrative listmaker.  I think there is likely some significant slippage of the domestic and the sacred space here.

  • Listology: You specify that “Across oral poetry, written document, and the many genres in between, the list creates, embodies, and ultimately even replaces the objects it purports to represent. Furthermore, its cultural weights and its generative capacities only increase in influence with time” (211). Translation studies, such as Rita Copeland’s Rhetoric, Hermeneutics and Translation in the Middle Ages similarly refer to translations as replacements of their source texts. How might lists relate to translations?

AK: I hadn’t really thought much about this connection – it’s very interesting! I suppose on the one hand that if you think of lists as distillations of narrative, or selections of only the “stuff” of a story without many discourse markers or much syntax, you can think of them as a sort of translation of some fuller original. I prefer not to think of lists this way, though, as somehow deficient compared to some putative original, and I think most translation theory prefers not to think of translation this way either. But if, as Copeland does for translation, we think of listing as a kind of critical practice that has consequences for meaning and expression in a certain time and place, then I think there are a lot of connections we can make.  The listmaker, particularly the one making lists of physical objects, holds a great deal of power in determining what to call something (I think here of clothing inventories from the Greek sanctuary of Brauron, where the listers establish an impressive and unique lexicon of vocabulary related to textiles and visual detail), and how to render a complex physical reality into words. Surely the task and intellectual process of the translator is at times analogous.

  • Listology: Chapter 4 discusses the purpose, use, and origins of “epigraphic inventories of the fifth and fourth centuries,” such as inventories of treasures, which began to wane at the end of the fourth century (110). You say that your first example resembles literary lists by emphasizing “formulaics, counting, and value, at times to distraction” (112). Which do you consider to be the influencing model—the literary to the epigraphic inventory or the itemization to the literary? Michael Clanchy argues that accounting concerns inspired literacy to develop in the first place. Would you agree that this accounting impulse in lists relates to literacy forming in early Greek written traditions? How might these catalogues and lists confirm early Greek literacy’s impulse to record finances?  

AK: The history of Greek literacy is a fraught one, because no one fully agrees on when or why the Greeks started using the alphabet. But if we take one prevailing view, that they began writing things down sometime early in the first millennium BCE, and that the earliest inscriptions were small hexametric poems on pots (and not some other kind of document now lost to us), then we have to conclude that accounting of finances did not motivate early Greek literacy.  In fact, we don’t see financial accounting documents in writing until much later.  So on that view, the literary certainly precedes the epigraphic inventory – a conclusion supported by the prevalence of literary catalogues in Homeric oral, pre-alphabetic poetry.  However: the wrinkle here is Linear B, the syllabic writing system used by the Myceneans in the mid 2nd millennium BCE, long before alphabetic Greek writing.  By contrast to later “alphabetic” Greek, the Linear B tablets record writing used only for the administrative purpose of listmaking in palace records.  And it’s not clear to what extent the later Greeks who adopted the alphabet knew about this tradition at all.  So we are left with a bit of a puzzle, in which the “alphabetic” Greeks appear to use writing differently from many other cultures, but the Myceneans are more in line with a model like Clanchy’s (though I find it limiting) – either that, or we are perhaps missing some key evidence that would clarify things.

  • Listology: You conclude that lists should be regarded as an “enduring medium in which the Greeks express cultural value,” rather than as a mere format for a text (211). What do you think distinguishes a list as a format from a list as a medium? How does this framework make lists different from other genres that exist only as formats, such as the epics in which some of your lists appear? How do you differentiate lists from literature?

AK: Well, one clue that Greek lists might be media is that as vehicles for content, they are often more important than that content itself. The best examples in the book are large inscribed stone inventories, which form monuments and create meaning even when people for various reasons can’t read them.  These stone stelae, displayed publicly in prominent places like the Acropolis in Athens, really are early mass media.  I  think it’s also useful to think of listmaking as a so-called cultural technique. Cultural techniques are difficult to define, but, as Bernhard Siegert and others think of them, they are things that people do to navigate their relationships with the material world, and they are often shifty, or intermediaries between people and things.  Ancient Greek lists, we could say then, are medial in that they often provide a means of navigating both discrete values in the form of individual objects, and also as a whole the idea of value itself.  I do not see lists as coterminous with literature (though literature, or its genres, can be a cultural technique too); Greek lists play a central role within the literary, but they also exist outside literature, though here too one needs to define what counts as literature.  If, however, we agree that a shopping list or an account of temple officials is not the best example of literature, then we are looking at something perhaps better described in terms of media than in terms of literary genres.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: