Corona Borealis
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Corona Borealis

The Haunting of Joshua T. Katz: On Tantric Mammification & Liquid Symptoms

“Untitled” by Patrick Lorenzo Semple

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~in reverent memory of Toni Morrison~

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The figure of liquidity courses through the ancient Greek imaginary unpredictably, mapping a complex terrain. If, however, we move into modern discourses about classical antiquity and, in particular, about the past’s survival into the present, its meanings cluster around the sign of loss. Indeed, liquidity haunts classicism. Water erodes and erases. […] The liquid is the enemy of the monument, the destroyer of memory, the scourge of the library. Moisture corrupts texts and rots books. The reason that the majority of new textual finds from Greco-Roman antiquity come from Egypt is because its desert sand is one of the few environments sufficiently dry to preserve papyri.

— Brooke Holmes, Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Acting Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Classics, Princeton University (various emphasis mine)

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“My aim in applying to the Classics department at Princeton University is to further my research with scholars who I think will not only bolster the work I’m already doing, but also encourage me towards different avenues of interdisciplinary study. Joshua Katz’s methods of using multiple strands of inquiry to weave together his research I find resonant with my own methodologies, and I strongly feel that my research could heavily benefit from studying under him.”

—my Statement of Purpose from my 2019 Princeton PhD application, never submitted (but enjoying an afterlife in Google Docs)

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Tantric: possibly from Sanskrit tantra (loom, weave, roots of extension), used liberally in the West to denote “erotic spiritualism”.
Tantrum: Etymology unknown (perhaps from German’s Tand “vanity” or Welsh tant “gust of passion” or French trantran “the resounding of a horn” or older English slang for a phallus in a translation of Lucian of Samosata’s dialogue between Bacchus and Apollo) but generally understood colloquially as a childish hissyfit.
Mummification: a process of preserving the flesh and body of a corpse through a process of drying and displacing liquid.
Mammification: my own attempt to coin a word towards the various processes of draining that Black women embody in this country, inspired in part by the character Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

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Yesterday evening, I sat down to read “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor” because I wanted to see what Joshua Katz had written in regards to the Faculty Letter that was put forth on the Fourth to the Princeton higher-ups. I was partly interested because Katz had been a professor that I was considering working with when I was attempting to turn in my Princeton PhD application last December (before some undergrad transcript issues that were sadly unable to be resolved by the application deadline), and I was at least hoping to catch his ear at a conference or something this year before COVID-19 took most of those possibilities away. By the time I finished the article however, I found myself in tears.

Of laughter.

For three reasons mainly: 1. Trying to picture my PhD interviews with Katz and his face at my probing questions around the history of the Ivy League classicists and their influence on the American public school system 2. I literally just quoted Katz’s research at the start of quarantine in talking about how vowels are some of the most emotive forms of sonic expression — as they are our first forms of languages as infants — and now I was reading him literally throwing a hissyfit like a toddler 3. I was listening to music while reading, and two paragraphs in “ShoYoAss” by The Coup came up and I was gone from that moment on.

After the mirth, a new feeling started sinking in: embarrassment. Katz’s piece wasn’t an engaging commentary on the current state of things at Princeton so much as a personal meltdown put to digital typeface for some reason. But really it’s more indicative of one of the sadder symptoms of the classical subject in America: the field’s own Epimethean inability to engage with so much of its own impact on the racial body of academia — and the oft infantile emotional outbursts that result.

Considering classics is one of the foundational branches of the humanities, Joshua Katz’s inability to engage with the mass of resources he has at his disposal as one of the tenured Princeton faculty — dude, you work at the same institution as Imani Perry, that’s enough of a reading list for you to start with — is frankly indicative of the brand of lazy scholarship that only white men seem privileged enough to skate by on in the field.

Like the first time I read the work of Richard Martin, and all of his thoughts around muthos, the root word of myth and how it first appeared in Homer as an authoritative speech act. He wrote The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad while teaching at Princeton in the ’80s. The entire time I was reading it, I kept intoning “mention rap” over and over again, waiting for him to. Because surely wouldn’t he— teaching at an institution with all those bright young minds just a few hours south of the Bronx in the decade that invented hip-hop? Surely the direct correlation between authoritative performative speech (to varying musical beats none-the-less!) would be noticeable to a scholar working on such topics at one of the most privileged philological departments in the Ivy Leagues?

But alas, it seems the answers to these questions are self-evident in Princeton’s own continued proximity to generative Black thought: if Katz wanted to look at the quantitative data around the impacts of race in our own field it would only be too easy for him — he teaches in the same department as Dan-el Padilla Peralta.

This is not a call for understanding, this is a public tantrum because Katz is upset. So I’m actually going to take a page out of one of his white colleague’s books (quite literally) and see if I can suss out what’s going on. I am of course referring to the exemplary work The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece by Brooke Holmes to see what possible daemons may have taken hold of Katz.

Not gonna lie — this wasn’t really how I wanted to spend my Saturday, especially in light of the never-ending cycle of white men in positions of privilege manipulating and necessitating Black and brown women dressing them down in so many evolving senses of that phrase.

But I guess it’s up to the 26 year old unfunded scholar to make a teaching moment out of a 50-something year old professor’s lazy assertions. I’m not a PhD candidate, but let’s try my hand at some…

Doctor’s Notes:

In Congress, on July 4th, 1776, came the “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Signed by 56 men, many of whom were considered national heroes just a few minutes ago, [This is a strange assertion to make in light of the discourse that many of these men have never been seen as national heroes by different demographics in this country] it opens with a long and elegant sentence whose first words every American child knows, [Again, another strange assertion to make — do you have any data regarding teaching the memorization of the first sentence of the Constitution in the American public school systems or is this just more American mythologizing?] or used to: “When in the Course of human events…” In Princeton, New Jersey, on July 4th, 2020, just two hours after my family and I sat around the festive table and read the Declaration aloud in celebration, a group of signatories now in the hundreds published a “Faculty Letter” to the president and other senior administrators at Princeton University.

Personally I’m rather taken with his positioning of the Declaration of Independence with the Princeton Faculty Letter because I’m not sure if he realizes that he inadvertantly draws a fairly synchronous parallel between the two: despite the fact that Katz found the first sentence long and elegant and recites it every year, that is in no way how it was received by its intended audience, the British Crown. It…literally led to a war that started this country. Which is exactly what he argues this letter will do later on.

This letter begins with the following blunt sentence: “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.” One important difference between the two documents might wrongly be dismissed as merely cosmetic. In 1776 there were “united States” but there was not yet the “United States”; in these past two months, by contrast, at a time when we are increasingly un-united, “black” has become “Black” while “white” remains “white.” [I know I speak for everyone when I ask, what the fuck do these garbled clauses mean? You’re upset that Blackness finally got a capital after contributing to this country for centuries? You’re sad and want to go back to the time when Whites literally had the capital W? But also you’re illuminating a point for me on racecraft and cosmetic philology, so as ridiculously nonsensical as this whole paragraph is, at least there’s something salvageable for my future pedagogy.]

I am friends with many people who signed the Princeton letter, which requests and in some places demands a dizzying array of changes, and I support their right to speak as they see fit. [I’m so sorry, I usually leave outright jokes out of these things but I can’t be the only one who hears “I have many black friends” in this, lowercase and all.] But I am embarrassed for them. To judge from conversations with friends and all too much online scouting, there are two camps: those cheering them on and those who wouldn’t dream of being associated with such a document. No one is in the middle. [Again, based on your conversations with friends that you are apparently embarrassed for…] If you haven’t yet read it, do so now. Be warned: it is long. [You. Are. An. Academic.]

There are four reasons why colleagues might have signed the letter. [Again, that “might” leaves a lot up to conjecture and conjuring of the imagination]

(1) They believe in every word. I suppose this is true for a few, including, presumably, those members of the faculty who were the initial drafters.

(2) They signed without reading it. I would not ordinarily believe this, but I am aware of a similar petition, not at Princeton, that people were asked to sign — and did so! — before knowing what they were putting their name to. [They “might” not have because of comparanda from an entirely separate institution that’s apparently exchangeable with Princeton in Katz’s reasoning]

(3) They felt peer pressure to sign. This is entirely believable. [Of course it’s believable, it’s in your imagination and on the possibility of a “might”. Anything under those constraints is believable from your perspective.]

(4) They agree with some of the demands and felt it was good to act as “allies” and bring up the numbers even though they do not assent to everything themselves.

I imagine that the majority fall into this last category. [Imagine all the people…] Indeed, plenty of ideas in the letter are ones I support. It is reasonable to “[g]ive new assistant professors summer move-in allowances on July 1” and to “make [admissions] fee waivers transparent, easy to use, and well-advertised.” “Accord[ing] greater importance to service as part of annual salary reviews” and “[i]mplement[ing] transparent annual reporting of demographic data on hiring, promotion, tenuring, and retention” seem unobjectionable. And I will cheerfully join the push for a “substantial expansion” of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which encourages underrepresented minorities to enter PhD programs and strive to join the professoriate. [I love how the reliefs under capitalism are reasonable but the ones that deal with the foundational issues of capitalism ie anti-Blackness cause Katz to lose it. It’s like he’s so close — he realizes that there needs to be aid against capitalism but utterly waffles when it comes to comprehending the full implications of it. Lazy, lazy scholarship.]

But then there are dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war [Again, Katz, your lack of attention to detail to the actual Civil War and Revolutionary War in this country’s history is really fucking sad considering you are an elite Ivy League humanities professor like hot damn!] on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate. Some examples: “Reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary” and “Faculty of color hired at the junior level should be guaranteed one additional semester of sabbatical” and “Provide additional human resources for the support of junior faculty of color.” Let’s leave aside who qualifies as “of color,” though this is not a trivial point. It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people — extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors — extra perks for no reason other than their pigmentation. [And this is why Katz’s article is so dangerous. Because there is such a long history of prioritizing whiteness and giving it extra perks. Your lack of awareness around the history of housing and redlining in America, not to mention the history of the public school system, and the literal laws that are still being weeded out of the institutions across our country that have benefited whiteness. You are acting like a child who has no comprehension of the nuances of impact, so clearly unwilling to learn.]

“Establish a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus.” There would be wisdom in this time of disunity in suggesting (not, in my view, requiring) that students take courses in American history and constitutionalism, both of which almost inevitably consider slavery and race, [By what assertion? If America history accurately brought up slavery and race, Black History Month wouldn’t have been established. The documentation around how those courses invariably leave out discourse around race is out there, but again — you have no interest in learning.] but that is not the same thing. Not incidentally, if you believe anti-blackness to be foundational, it is not a stretch to imagine that you will teach the 1619 Project as dogma. [Ouch bud, I don’t even need to say anything. You really shouldn’t have burned yourself with that one.]

“Commit fully to anti-racist campus iconography, beginning with the removal of the John Witherspoon statue.” Since I don’t care for this statue or its placement in front of the building in which I have my office, I would not be sad if it were moved away — but emphatically not because of Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was a major figure in Princeton and American history with a complex relationship to slavery. [Y’all I’m pretty sure this was Katz telling us all that aesthetics matter more to him than the legacy of slavery when it comes to his workspace, sometimes I can’t with white male tantrums, good lord.] There is no reason for me to say more: Innumerable sensible people have commented on the impossibility that anyone can pass the Purity Test. Someone who passes today will not pass tomorrow. [Why are white people so obsessed with purity? Black people be like “acknowledge trauma” and white people will cry “no one’s perfect why are you mean and scary????” It’s like the new form of the one-drop rule. Oh, on the mean and scary note…]

“Acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism. Such acknowledgment should, at a minimum, take the form of reparative action, beginning with a formal public University apology to the members of the Black Justice League and their allies.” The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization [Katz, just because Black people make you feel terror doesn’t make them terrorists, it makes you a scared average white man.] that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students [I’m calling racecraft]) who did not agree with its members’ demands. Recently I watched an “Instagram Live” of one of its alumni leaders, [HOLD UP, okay so we have a Princeton professor in his 50s looking up Instagram Live vids of Black organizers who he feels are terrorists S I G H why are you so un-self-aware???] who — emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood [bro?] — presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session [Bro?] against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil [BRO?] things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly. [Hear that everyone? Katz is not making a joke. He is being perfectly serious that the most evil thing he has ever witnessed in his entire life was on a 2020 Insta-live “Struggle Session”. Why???? Is he???? So embarrassing????]

Aha! We finally might be coming to something of a symptom. It seems you have a little monstrous inkling tickling at your brain, don’t you Katz? The crowd of supporters “baying for blood” would on first glance seem to be a typical lazy dogwhistle around comparing Black people to animals, one of the oldest whitest tricks in the book. But then I got to thinking, because we study around a lot of the same subjects. And I know how much myth can leak into my lexicon, especially around epithets. So while you may have been comparing Black people to animals, I wonder if in the back of your mind you were in fact haunted by the Furies.

This particularly excites me because of all the possibilities already explored in the Black community around Medusa, the Furies, and other gorgonic creatures in the Greek imagination. I’m used to looking at those connections in terms of hair iconography, but Katz you’ve offered another fascinating layer to consider blending racecraft and mythcraft: The Furies acting as spirits of retributive justice mimics that iconic James Baldwin quote~

“The root of the Black man’s hatred is rage, and he does not so much hate the white man as simply as want them out of his way, and, more than that, out of his children’s way. The root of the white man’s hatred is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind.”

And if it’s the Furies that are haunting your psyche as you try to comprehend the fullness of Blackness, then I may know the mythic subject whom you most accurately seem to be displaying the symptoms of: Orestes the Matricide.

“Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty… Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the [usual] set of rules and procedures.” This scares me more than anything else: For colleagues to police one another’s research and publications in this way would be outrageous. [Oh Katz…what skeletons do you have in your closet?] Let me be clear: Racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process. [You seem to be unaware of if those processes are even effective.] But is there anyone who doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, [OKAY, YOU KNOW WHAT — ] punishment, suspension, even dismissal?

I WASN’T EVEN GOING TO MAKE THIS POINT BUT ALL OF YOU WHITE PEOPLE SOUND IGNORANT AS HELL WHENEVER YOU TALK ABOUT CANCEL CULTURE.

ALLOW.

ME.

TO TEACH YOU.

THE HISTORY.

So, “Cancelled!” was a phrase common in the Black community and folks who engage in AAV (African American Vernacular) whenever we’d learn about a celebrity’s shady past (often that they did some racist shit) and we would talk about that person being “cancelled” in the sense of “ion really fuck wit them no more” but still with the knowledge that that didn’t really do anything towards that person’s platform or capacity to make money for the rest of their life. But then that word trickled into the mainstream largely through Black youths using it online and that getting mimicked by white youths who then tell it to their parents who don’t understand the context and start making a big deal out of everything —

AND THIS WOULDN’T BE SO ANNOYING IF WE HADN’T GONE THROUGH LITERALLY THE EXACT SAME THING WITH WHITE ANXIETY OVER “WOKE” CULTURE A FEW YEARS BACK

So again, “stay woke” was a phrase largely in the Black community that had a lot of its own context before it started filtering through the digital sphere throughout the 2010s and took on a life of its own when picked up by mainstream white media.

It’s exhausting to endlessly go through these “oh no, the culture has gone too far!” when y’all are the ones taking phrases out of context and not knowing what to do with them.

Also if there is a true American “cancel” culture? It’s been the privilege of white elite men in this country. Lynching was cancel culture. Eartha Kitt having to leave this hemisphere for a decade for critiquing the Vietnam War at the White House was cancel culture. The graves of the BIPOC and queer activists done in by white men when they got too mouthy are cancel culture.

But also Katz? You’re crying at an opportunity to make yourself a better scholar. When it comes to the issue of “how will the classics survive?” you are doing precious little to represent that we deserve to.

A couple of weeks before the Faculty Letter, other missives to the Princeton administration were promulgated, most significantly two intemperately worded lists of demands signed by hundreds of present and former undergraduates and graduate students. The immediate consequence was the widely publicized removal of the name Woodrow Wilson from the School of Public and International Affairs and the first of the university’s six residential colleges (now blandly [Complaints of around aural aesthetics too?] renamed “First College”). I mention these letters because the Faculty Letter states twice — first in connection with graduate-level requests and then again with reference to undergraduates — “We offer these recommendations in full support of theirs.” One of the demands of Princeton Graduate Students United is that public safety be defunded since (to quote the “X-Campus Statement against State Terror and Call for Termination of University-Police Ties” that was started at the University of Minnesota) “[p]olice, and their proxies, private security companies, have no place on university campuses.” I defy any of my colleagues to argue persuasively that defunding campus police is a good idea, even at idyllic Princeton. [You have not watched the news in two months, I gather? Nor heard any of the accounts of Ivy police and racial discrimination? Right, willful ignorance, you do not wish to learn.] I defy anyone who signed that letter, directly or indirectly, to send his or her children to a college or university without campus security. Fantasizing that you can do without the police is the height of arrogant privilege. [And that’s Katz’s stance on American abolition.]

Independence of thought is considered the hallmark of academia, but everyone deserves it. In the United States, thank heavens, freedom to think for oneself is still a right, not a privilege. To my colleagues who signed the Faculty Letter: If you signed it independently and thoughtfully, good for you. I hereby solemnly publish and declare my own declaration. [I just…was this supposed to say independence and it was a typo? Because otherwise that is the most self-reflexive…]

Sadly, as Katz has demonstrated, while in the United States there is freedom to think for oneself, that does not necessarily garner one the ability to reason.

That was a lot of garbled mess, but I do think there are some threads to be pulled out. That “baying for blood” is one I’m going to have fun turning over and over again. Usually this is the part where I would try to wrap things up in a way that pushes whoever I’m talking about towards the future, but I actually don’t really care to do that full work with Joshua Katz because I doubt he would care about any Black authors I would have to cite for him.

So instead I’m leaving him with Brooke’s work, specifically “Chapter 6: Forces of Nature, Acts of Gods: Euripides’ Symptoms” and the sections on the symptoms of Orestes. For me, the story of Orestes of all the Greek myths best parallels so many of the embodied terrors that the breakdown of the American dream can bring about. Perhaps Katz will come to cognition around the baying in his ears.

And hey Katz, I get it. Dealing with ideological breakdown sucks and it’s never easy on the body — literally why I study ideology, because something so fabricated and ephemeral can have so much impact. But like…you gotta stop this foolishness. Because I’ve already talked to four colleagues today who were literally gobsmacked at what you said and felt like they couldn’t continue engaging with you based on your words and actions.

That’s been your impact so far.

I don’t really have anything to offer you by way of suggestions, so instead I’m gonna leave you with a tune. Not a declaration, but an offer at empathy that’s highly anticipatory of rejection. I originally wrote it in my folk phase before grad school, after I’d written my undergrad thesis on the House of Atreus. As I was writing it, I kept alternating thinking through either Electra or the Furies singing it — after that scene in Euripides’ Orestes when Orestes mistakes his sister for a gorgon.

I don’t know what’s got you so freaked out about Blackness, Katz. But maybe the words of this lullaby hissing through your ears at night might give you some inkling.

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Orestes-ily
Written by v ness (2017)

Oh my sweetest dear
I do not right now care to hear
Your tired testimonies rearing to placate all of your errors
I’m eternally more worried
Of all these demons that you’ve buried
Coming forth as fearsome furies from your constant nightly terrors.

But you cannot count forever on your all-too-guilty grins
Oh Orestes, my poor darling, you must think upon your sins.

Oh rest easy, my sweet dear
Oh rest easy, for I’m here
Can’t rest easy with that trauma
Can’t rest easy — you killed ya mama.
Oh rest easy, my poor man
Oh rest easy, don’t think you can
Can’t rest easy with them dreams
’Cause you can’t stop hearing ya mama’s screams.

Oh my darling man
I do not know if I can stand
To watch (y)our family members landing on that cursed unceasing pyre.
So instead I try to rouse you
From your dreamt and broken vows to
Pull you from this damned old house to which you keep on setting fire.

But you cannot count forever on your all-too-guilty grins
Oh Orestes, my poor darling, you must think upon your sins.

Oh rest easy, my sweet dear
Oh rest easy, for I’m here
Can’t rest easy with that trauma
Can’t rest easy — you killed ya mama.
Oh rest easy, my poor man
Oh rest easy, don’t think you can
Can’t rest easy with them dreams
’Cause you can’t stop hearing ya mama’s screams.

Oh my darling boy
I do not know if I annoy
You with my constant questions toying with your most unstable mind.
But you were the one who led me
On this path so dark and deadly
In our murderous medley, so I tell you now in kind:

Goodbye Orestes, now you leave me to go off alone and roam.
Goodbye Orestes, how I miss you when I know you won’t come home.

Can’t rest easy, my sweet dear
Can’t rest easy when I’m near
You’ll never rest easy with that trauma
You can’t rest easy ’cause you killed (y)our mama.
Can’t rest easy, my poor man
Can’t rest easy in any land
You can’t rest easy with them dreams
’Cause you‘ll never stop hearing (y)our mama’s screams.