Interview: Mario Telò on bringing “antiquity” into steady dialogue with the "now"

person looking at the camera
October 27, 2023

Mario Telò is a Professor of Rhetoric, Ancient Greek & Roman Studies, and Comparative Literature; participating member in the Critical Theory DE.

To start us out, how did you first come to study classics and comp lit? And are there any interests you enjoy outside of academia that you see informing your studies? 

I took Greek and Latin in high school. In some European high schools—in England, in France, in Italy—Latin and Greek are not just offered, but are actually mandatory. You have to take four or even five hours of Greek and Latin every week. I learned Greek and Latin when I was in my last year of middle school. I developed a strong interest in these languages, which was initially more of an early interest in the languages themselves—in their structures, in their complexities. I wasn’t much interested in what these texts had to say; I just wanted to solve the puzzle of putting all of these pieces together. It was kind of a game, both in middle school and high school. Later on—I would say in college—I realized that maybe they also had something interesting to say, or that one could do interesting things, in a scholarly sense, with them. How did it turn into a comp lit interest? I’ve always liked reading very much, and I’ve always read things that didn’t have anything to do with classics. Comp lit—like Rhetoric, which is my primary department now—brings together these parts of my life that seemed detached from each other. 

For comparative literature, I am interested in hearing multiple perspectives on what it is, just because I know that it is so complicated. How would you define comparative literature? 

These are conversations that are ongoing in the field of comparative literature. At UC Berkeley, we have these conversations all the time. There is a more old-fashioned way of considering the field of comp lit—and “old-fashioned” doesn’t necessarily mean bad or uninteresting. This way amounts to what the phrase “comp lit” suggests: comparing literatures of different linguistic traditions, of different cultural milieus. Juxtaposition, reading alongside, reading with, is to an extent what reading is all about; you can never read in a vacuum. But for some people, comp lit really is about comparing various linguistic traditions, various linguistic archives. For others, and I would suppose I am a part of that second group, it’s about approaching literature from a strongly theoretical point of view: not treating methodology as something that is implicit—because we all have a methodology when we read, even when a purely empirical approach is adopted—but rather making it a part of what we are doing, so that some methodological breakthroughs, some contributions to methodological possibilities, emerge through the practice of reading literature itself. This is the dichotomy, but there are also ways to bring these two views together. I, for example, started with Greek and Latin, but I work with any language—not that I know every language, of course—but I work with literature produced by very disparate cultural contexts, and translation helps me do that when I don’t know the language. 

I saw that you are involved with the Critical Theory emphasis. I know that there are not as many pathways for undergraduates to explore critical theory, so I was wondering if you can give us an explanation of some of the major theoretical schools—and this can be as brief or as long as you want.

There is the intention in the division to create a Critical Theory track for undergraduates. As for the different schools? I guess for some people critical theory starts with Kant and then continues and, of course, never stops. I don’t work on Kant. I hope it’s OK for me to say that Kant is not among the philosophers I go to when I have to develop a theoretical take on a literary problem posed by a text. But Kant is definitely presupposed by many other philosophers. At Berkeley, the Frankfurt School has always been very strong in critical theory. We have many specialists in Adorno on campus. Psychoanalysis has always been quite big, and I would say that my work is informed by it to a certain extent. Deconstruction has always been quite important on this campus, also because we have had teachers like Judith Butler, who have played a major role in shaping the way people think on this campus and beyond. Queer theory, of course, is very important. Critical race theory, obviously. Critical race theory—or what some people call Black theory—is really, at the moment, the most capacious, the most important, way of doing theory. When we talk about Black theory, we’re not just talking about what some people, very problematically, would call “identity politics.” It’s not that. It’s really a way of thinking—an all-encompassing theoretical model that engages with all the previous philosophers and traditions of thought. It really is impossible not to engage with it, even for people who are not interested in race, if it is even possible these days to consider oneself not interested in race. And so that’s very well-represented in our Critical Theory program, and the university is also making hires that are aimed at strengthening it. 

One of my main focuses for the column is looking at what humanities research is. I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about your current research.

Last year I published two books. One was on Greek tragedy in the pandemic. There will be a book chat about it at the Townsend Center. This is a book I conceived during the lockdown, and in the months after the end of the lockdown. The question is: What does it mean to read tragedy in a situation as weird and tragic as that? Then I published a book on Aristophanes in an attempt to re-read this comedian in a radical way, or a way that was strongly informed by critical theoretical approaches—something that scholars are usually quite reluctant to do. This summer I finished a book that will come out, I hope, in the spring. That’s a book on Greek tragedy and Judith Butler, because Butler wrote a famous book on AntigoneAntigone’s Claim—which was published in 2000. More recently, they published a lecture on Bacchae, and another paper on Eumenides. So I developed an idea that this is Butler’s trilogy. I tried to use the book as an opportunity to think about tragedy in relation to the contemporary. I would say that this is a central concern of mine: to bring what we call “antiquity” into steady dialogue with the now, with the present, in ways that can vary, whether I deal with specific receptions of these texts in the contemporary world, or whether I bring them into dialogue with modes of thinking that are strongly shaped by the critical moment, by the moment of crisis, that we are all experiencing. And then, I need to finish a book called Roman Comedy against the Subject, which is about a series of plays that have an object in the title. This is an opportunity to think about post-subjectivity, which is a central theme in the current theoretical discourse in various schools. Can we get rid of the idea of the subject? Another colleague of mine at Berkeley, for example, suggested that we switch from “she,” “he,” and “they,” to “it”—an idea of “it”-ness. Thinking about the subject, or the human, in a way, always implicates forms of dehumanization or desubjectification. There is no human without, at the same time, the exclusion of some people from that privileged category that is the human. Is the solution to that getting rid of the idea of the human as a whole? You can deal with some of these issues if you have to talk about plays that seem to be centered not around a human character but around an object. The book also gives me the opportunity to discuss something very dear to me, which is neurodiversity or neuroqueerness. This is a book that is very much about counter-social possibilities. 

One question I had about what you were saying before—this idea of blending antiquity with the present: What is the position of a historical lens to literature? I know with close reading, we’re not supposed to take into account historical contexts, but at the same time, in most literature classes, a large portion of the “point” is to better understand the social and historical contexts that these literatures are grounded in. I was wondering about the possibilities, but also the constraints, of a historical lens.

That’s a very important question. I wouldn’t say that my approach is historicist; it probably is non-historicist, or an-historicist, but I will try to engage with the very important problem that you are posing. It is, as you said, a very well-established tendency in literary studies to contextualize a text within a political or a social “other”: contextualize it within an externality—with something that goes beyond itself. Call it social materiality, everyday reality, and so forth. Now, when you try to do that with the premodern—with antiquity in particular—that operation becomes quite tricky, because it’s the texts themselves that provide the context. What I’m saying is that, you have very little external to the texts themselves that can provide the con- in context. What a lot of people do is use the texts themselves to reconstruct the context—to make assumptions about the context. I’m not saying that this cannot be done, or should not be done, but I’m just saying that sometimes there is the danger of a kind of circularity. That is to say, you’re using a text to extrapolate, to extract, certain facts, and then you are using the factual consequences of these operations—the facts that you extracted from the texts themselves—to interpret the same texts. That can produce a certain circularity, which makes me uncomfortable. Once again, I’m not saying that such an approach cannot be productive in certain situations. I’m just saying that in the case of antiquity, there is a contextual void that can become a possibility, that can turn antiquity into an opportunity for thinking about untimeliness. When we think about context, we shouldn’t just think about what we call the “original context,” the context that is closest to the temporal contexts that generated a certain literary product. We have to think about contexts in the plural: a multiplicity of historical conditions. That multiplicity of historical conditions clearly produces different meanings, and it gives us a strong sense of the richness of these texts, which can lend themselves to plural potentialities. When I teach a lower-division lecture class, which was called “Introduction to Greek Civilization” but is now called “Meeting the Greeks,” I always give the example of the Parthenon. The Parthenon is a temple that is the symbol of Classical Athens, but then the Parthenon was turned into a mosque. Of course, we are interested in the Parthenon of the fifth century, but shall we forget about the later uses of this monument? How can we develop an interpretive approach that is attuned not just to what we call the “original social context” but also later historical contexts that produced the temporal accretions of a monument, a work of art, or a work of literature? 

You’re a professor of rhetoric as well. Could tell us a little more about the field. And I saw that you’re teaching a class in the spring—can you tell us a bit about that? 

Next spring I’m teaching an introduction to psychoanalysis called “Philosophy of the Self,” a course on Freud, on Lacan, trying to expose undergraduates to the reasons that we’re still thinking about these ideas: why they are still helpful, to an extent still necessary to come to terms with, when we think about subjectivity, ethics, and politics. Rhetoric and comp lit are similar in that they are not area studies. Interdisciplinarity is intrinsic to each department, so there is a constant attempt to complicate and problematize disciplinary boundaries. But in comp lit, as the phrase indicates, the focus is literature. In rhetoric, the focus is not necessarily literature; it is discourse broadly conceived: language in all of its manifestations, in all of its cultural and aesthetic formations, which don’t necessarily congeal into a literary project. That’s why in rhetoric we do a lot of philosophy—and I’m talking about continental philosophy,  critical theory, not analytic philosophy. Rhetoric was created as a kind of critical theory department, but we also have people who work on the history of science, for example, and a lot of graduate students are interested in questions related to digital media and cybernetics, and they are interested in thinking about the complex hermeneutic foundations of what calls itself science. In rhetoric, many colleagues of mine and students are interested in complicating the way STEM presents itself—or complicating its epistemology. Most disciplines fetishize objectivity to an extent, and undergraduates, when they take humanities courses, feel the discomfort of not knowing what the right answer is. For example, in a writing exercise, because of the kind of epistemology that they have in the sciences, there is a belief that there is one correct answer, and it’s possible to establish what is true and what is not, what is correct and what is not. We are trying to show that even the sciences are very messy and univocal answers are not so univocal. There is a constant problematization of various discourses, not just literary discourses, that we take for granted. You can do that with politics, with law—I have two colleagues who do legal theory, for example—and you can do that with science. 

I was watching the book chat you had on Archive Feelings, and I was wondering if you could speak more on the death drive and how it applies to Greek tragedy. 

In very simple terms, I can say that there is a tendency in the scholarship on Greek tragedy to think that at the end of a tragic performance you feel relieved. Yes, there is pain, but on the other hand, that pain is contained, and there is a beneficial filter that is operating there. In banal terms: what is happening onstage is not happening to you; it’s happening to others. That creates a sense of safety. But I am quite critical of approaches that are predicated on a fetishization of a liberal idea of the subject, a subject in control of their emotions, able to contain feelings and never go beyond the limits of what is considered proper. According to Aristotle, but also many others, tragedy produces, it achieves, a kind of purgation or purification: a catharsis of problematic feelings, of feelings like fear or pity, or even worse feelings. If these feelings stay with you, they can be disruptive. I try to develop a model that valorizes the possibility of staying with those feelings, even indulging in the experience of those feelings—those feelings that are usually considered ugly or inappropriate. Among these feelings, there are forms of masochism or of pleasure in pain. The death drive is a concept with a long history in psychoanalysis, starting with Freud—actually starting with the female psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, who inspired Freud—and then continues, and people still are talking about it. It is an attempt to capture theoretically a tendency in the human being to repeat, and to give in to compulsive feelings, or give in to impulses toward activities that don’t have a teleology—that don’t crystallize into a goal. An expression of the death drive is going nowhere, as opposed to going somewhere. If you think of “going nowhere,” it’s not just not a matter of failing to reach a destination; it also means going in circles, looping around. If you think about certain feelings, not just of trauma, but maybe more ordinary feelings of anxiety, of rumination, you can have a sense of the importance that this circularity has for subjectivity. Subjectivity consequently becomes, not something that can be easily contained in its most abject expressions, but actually is defined by those ‘ugly’ sensations. Fundamentally, what tragedy gives us with the death drive, I would say, is an example of the impossibility of conceiving of the subject as self-possessed. Tragedy is a constant manifestation of the dispossessed subject, of the subject that is always subjected to other forces. For example, these emotions that I was talking about, one is never in control of them, but is constantly objectified by them. Now, what does that have to do with the archive? The archive is, in a sense, the search for the origin. It’s a desire to reconstruct the past, which is integral to historical reconstruction. There is always this desire to get to the foundations of things, to get to the origins of things, and it’s a process that never ends until you confront the origin of everything, the origin of origins, which is death or, you can say, the abyss—the unknowable abyss from which we come. The search for the origin is always a confrontation with the void from which we come, so that’s why the archive is implicated with the death drive.

Going back to something you were talking about earlier, I’m wondering about the place of neurodiversity in your scholarship. 

I would say that is a continuation of my interest in queer theory and also of my interest in new materialism and object-oriented ontology: schools of thought that try to destabilize the idea of the subject. Scholars who have worked on neurodiversity, or are neurodiverse themselves, have made the point that people whom we call autistic establish relations with forms of non-human life that are unheard of for neurotypicals—relations with animals, in particular, but also with objects of everyday life. This is usually seen as an expression of the stereotypical image of the autistic person as non-social, or asocial, but focusing on those relations with non-human lives can become an opportunity to expand the possibilities of the social—to express some form of discomfort with the social as it is codified through a neurotypical lens. I guess I agree with people who see neurodiversity as a possibility of re-conceiving, radically, the ways that we interact with each other—ways that are conditioned by the central role of language as opposed to other forms of interaction or in-betweenness: breath, for example.  

My last question: What book would you recommend to everyone reading this? 

I would recommend any of the novels by Toni Morrison—the whole Toni Morrison corpus, for literature in particular. I am a big fan of Paradise and The Bluest Eye, so I would recommend those works. Second, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, or, In Search of Lost Time. I know that it seems very daunting to people. The first time I read it in high school, I really didn’t like it. But then I went back to it when I was in college, and I spent a year reading the whole thing. It’s a kind of secular Bible that people should read. It tells us so much about what living in a society is like, what being an intellectual is like, what trying to achieve something is like, and the problems of the very idea of wanting to achieve. It’s one of those books that really give you an all-encompassing view of the world.