Brooke Holmes, “On the History of ‘Natural’ Sympathy: Contagious Affect and Universal Kinship in the Ancient Mediterranean”

Fri February 16th 2024, 12:00 - 1:00pm
Event Sponsor
Department of Classics
Building 110
450 Jane Stanford Way Building 110, Stanford, CA 94305

Talk description: The emotion we call sympathy is often understood to be among the most “natural” of human experiences.  But as theorists such as Saidiya Hartman and Susan Sontag have argued, the scene of empathetic witnessing needs to be read critically.  Rather than confirming the nature that humans hold in common, it may respond to the desire for a "common nature" that manifests spontaneously.  In this talk, I examine the early history in Greek texts of the fourth to first centuries bce of a concept of intersubjective “sympathy” (sumpatheia) within the broader context of the emergence of a concept of sympathy in discourses of nature (phusis) that cut across philosophy, medicine, natural history, and historiography.  I trace the relationship of sumpatheia to concerns about contagious affect, on the one hand, and aspirations for universal kinship, on the other.  While resisting an assimilation of this early “sympathy” to modern concepts of sympathy, I suggest that better grasping its history contributes to the de-naturalization of sympathy today.

Short bio: Brooke Holmes is the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Classics at Princeton University, where she is also Director of the Gauss Seminars in Criticism and previously directed the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities.  She is the author of The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece (2010) and Gender: Antiquity and its Legacy, in addition to the co-editor of six volumes, most recently Antiquities beyond Humanism (2019) and Coming to Know (2022). From 2012-2020 she was the PI for the Global Collaborative Network Fund project “Postclassicisms” at Princeton and co-authored Postclassicisms (2020) as part of The Postclassicisms Collective.  She is currently completing a book entitled Sympathy and the Tissue of the World: Life, Community, and Nature in the Ancient Mediterranean.  

This talk will not be available on zoom and will not be recorded