Poetics of authorial, rhythmic, and gendered identities: The subject of discourse in Pindar’s Theban partheneion

Claude Calame, École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Centre AnHiMA, Paris
(translated by Sean Harrigan, Yale University)
1968: key-date in the development of the humanities among francophone scholars. In 1968 Roland Barthes publishes a brief essay on literary texts in modernity under the heading “la mort d’auteur.” In literature, in the act of writing, it is now “le langage qui parle, ce n’est pas l’auteur”; “écrire, c’est, à travers une impersonnalité préalable […], atteindre ce point où seul le langage agit, ‘performe,’ et non ‘moi.’” [1] The voice of the author, now “writer,” no longer has an origin except language itself. There remains the text, “fait d’écritures multiples, issues de plusieurs cultures et qui entrent les unes avec les autres en dialogue, en parodie, en contestation.” With this foreshadowing of the idea of “intertextuality,” one of the two pillars of classical hermeneutics seems to collapse. [2] Language without the writer; language (Sprache) without the individual; language without the thought behind it? Is the death of the author then part of a broader paradigm for the death of the subject, if not the individual?

1. Author and subject of discourse: An anthropological perspective

Scarcely a year after Barthes’ contribution, Michel Foucault returned to the notion of the author. [3] Not “la mort de l’auteur,” but rather to the question “qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?”—a decisive reorientation in regard to classical literary hermeneutics: the author no longer as a creative individual, endowed with original thought and intentionality; the author no longer reduced to an intention that would give a literary text its meaning (“what the author wanted to say”); but under the identity that a proper name confers, the author as the result of a social construction of both a juridical and institutional order. A producer not of texts but of discourse, the author is seen above all as a function. It is the “author-function” (fonction-auteur) that allows the social recognition of discourse: nominal attribution and therefore the collective authentication, reception, and acceptance, in particular by the implicit identification of the regularities and conventions of genre; juridical attribution of texts arising from discourse: “la fonction-auteur est donc caractéristique du mode d’existence, de circulation et de fonctionnement de certains discours à l’intérieur d’une société.” Yet at the beginning of his reflection and without developing his principal point, Foucault recognizes that the “author-function” depends importantly on the position of the author not only in a particular “discursive field,” but also in his own discourse.

1.1. From the death of the philosophical subject to the rhythmization of the subject of discourse

Barthes’ hypothesis and Foucault’s proposition correspond, to some extent, in a “desubjectivation” of the author. Both the dilution of the figure of the author into the (literary) text and its reduction to the “author-function” effectively seem to fall within the epistemological configuration of the “death of the subject,” a paradigm established and expanded upon by the development of the social sciences and humanities since the 1960s. From sociology to linguistics, through social history, cultural anthropology, and psychoanalysis, the modern subject has assumed new forms. The individual constituted by philosophy on the one hand as a reflexive subject and established on the other as an autonomous and free person by Enlightenment criticism or by the declaration of human rights finds itself redefined in its very subjectivity. Actually, considered in its practices, the individual-subject appears as being made of a dense web of dependencies and constraints, as being acted out, as sub-jectum: the social subject inserted within the network of social relations and group interactions, constitutive of their very existence; the subject as collective historical agent integrated into the groups, classes, or institutions which relay social and economic structures and as subjectivity determined by its own history; the psychic subject which acts to refer both to the constraints of a past repressed in the unconscious and to the instinctual forces of the libido; the anthropological subject as agent of symbolic practices, practices which are also of the body and find their meaning in a cultural community, when these cultural expressions are not considered as the result of the unconscious structures of a (supposed) universally shared human spirit; and finally the subject of discourse communicating with those around it in a verbal and interactive effort governed by the syntactic, semantic, and referential constraints which belong to every language. Both the Cartesian subject (constituted, in a self-reflexive move, as the first atom of conscious existence and reason) and the Kantian subject (with its transcendental spatio-temporal perception of things in themselves and its moral autonomy in the judgment of reason) were victims of this social, historical, psychoanalytic, cultural, and linguistic reinsertion of the subject and individual as actor in the social group and world; as “agent,” as we might now say in English.
As for the author, before he is seen as an empirical and historical agent or a psychological and psychic subject, if not a philosophical subject, before appearing as a cultural being or being inserted into a social and institutional network, before assuming an “author-function,” he is presented to us as the subject of discourse, whatever the form of his (discursive) utterance may be. Taking the vocal and verbal “instance of enunciation” simply, as we will see, the subject of discourse is constructed through his enunciations and utterances. This means not only that the verbal enunciation can be taken as an essential process of subjectivation, on the one hand, and of authorial construction and identity dynamics on the other, as will become clear. But it also means that this complex system of authorial subjectivation by the voice of authority is governed by the different rhythms that drive the vocal utterance. These rhythms range from vocal or written cadence to the social rhythm of which the discursive action is part, including, in the case of poetry and literature, the rhythms that structure the story told, if there is narrative (récit), and the possible world which the discourse constructs with its own cadence: plural rhythms which may be accompanied, in oral and ritualized performance of traditional poetic forms, by practices of the body in collective choreography; rhythms taken on by those who say I or who are identified with the “instance of enunciation,” still to be defined.
Thus to pose the question of the rhythmic composition of the subject in terms of the subject of discourse and its voice of authority, without any recourse to transcendental philosophy, is to try to escape the egocentrism of a human existence that would be purely self-referential. It means to try to avoid the excesses of a liberal postmodernism regarding a subjectivation entirely centered on the self [4] . It means also to try to escape the philosophical propositions of a very egoistic self-reflexivity. The construction and assertion of an identity, as egocentric or as insecure as it may be, is done in particular by the use of language, of the voice and body. It is achieved by various discursive procedures which no doubt coincide with the verbal and gestural operators of subjectivation and individualization; but they involve the use of a means of (semiotic) expression and communication shared by the members of a social and cultural group.

1.2. Greek origins of the subject and individual?

Social and cultural groups differentiated: that is, the perspective adopted here will double the approach suggested by discourse analysis (verbal enunciations in context) coupled with an approach of cultural and historical anthropology and an ethnopoetics sensitive to identities and to the social gender roles which are manufactured and broadcast in discursive forms. Such a perspective is likely to present us with several embodiments of the “subject of discourse”; it brings us back to the different representations of the entity which we moderns conceive of in the terms “subject,” “person,” and “individual,” generally masculine. In this particular case—as befits a Hellenist—comparative terrain will be offered by the poetic forms of classical Greece in a new effort of transcultural translation. [5]
Indeed, in the Eurocentric and evolutionist perspective that is still often taken by philosophy, it is of course to the Greece of the archaic age that one of the origins of the (masculine) modern subject has been attributed. More precisely, it is the first forms of poetry considered “lyric” that would have given the subject any interiority. Indeed, “the personal sentiment of lyric” would have led to the discovery of the ambiguity of the soul while seeking knowledge of community in the “spiritual”—as if the “lyric” expression of the poetic I referred directly to the subject established as a sensitive person. Moreover, this awareness of a personal intimacy would stand in contrast with Homeric poetry, where the term psukhé denotes only the breath of life; this physical power would require with other (especially divine) forces the organs of perception and intellection of a divided body, lacking the awareness that the soul (Seele) can be the point of origin of its own forces; practically a postmodern subject, a field open to a series of internal and external determinations! But in this specific case, this sub-jectum subject would mark the primitive stage of the development of European thought …; [6] as if, historically, Greek epic poetry had not undergone a simultaneously polymorphous development interacting with the innumerable forms of “melic” poetry in use. As I have endeavored many times to show, these forms of sung and ritualized poetry should not be placed under the modern and misleading label of “lyric” in the first place. [7]
Located in archaic Greece, this axial moment seems to offer circumstances favorable to a first development of the modern person or individual. Actually, to it we naturally could add many other strategic phases in the emergence of consciousness of the self in its apparent autonomy. [8] In conjunction with the philosophical perspectives very briefly raised on the subject as the atom of consciousness and reason, on the subject also as the intentional center of the will, the Enlightenment naturally has played a determining role in the definition and promotion of the concept of freedom; as a fundamental and inalienable right, freedom makes man, universally, an individual. Successive proclamations of human rights now universally establish the human being as a juridical person and a civil individual. His autonomy is guaranteed by the freedom to dispose of himself and his property, but also his consciousness, through freedom of opinion: the subject of law, but also the subject of speech, still in a Western perspective.

2. The I as “instance of discourse”: Enunciative shifts

So back to the subject of discourse as it stands in its verbal expression, in its enunciation: in some way “putting into discourse” (mise en discours) as a process of subjectivation in the assertion of one’s enunciative identity. Following a three-volume discussion of the discursive configurations of time by means of narrative, [9] Paul Ricoeur examined the identity of the self in terms of the pragmatics of discourse. For the author of Soi-même comme un autre, the individual self is divided between an idem-identity and an ipse-identity: an identity of the same (idem), rapidly assimilated to the constellation of traits that make up an individual in his temporal permanence; and an identity of the self (ipse), of the soi, responsible for maintaining oneself, for example, in the moral constancy of keeping one’s word. Crucial to assuring the dialectic between “sameness” and “selfhood” (ipseity) are the speaking subject’s acts of “self-designation,” in particular with speech acts. But, according to Ricoeur, the pragmatic side of the philosophy of language would result in the dissolution of the ipse in the reference to the act, in referring to the exterior of the I, in the reference to the exteriority of the idem, and consequently in the reduction of the action to he. Speech acts with I would thus reflect a narrative identity of he. [10]
Yet every type of discourse, however fictional, proves remarkably regular in offering a semantic consistency and, through this, a referential relationship with the “natural”, social and cultural world from which it has come. It is specifically on this point of extra-discursive references that his eagerness to resolve the alleged aporias of the philosophy of speech acts led Ricoeur to falter. In the proposed interaction between the composition of the self as ipse and the construction of a personal identity, there is too quick a leap in hermeneutic philosophy from the self-referentiality implied by any verbal act with I (of the type “I promise”) to narrative forms presented by novelistic literature: narrative forms of the novel which, in general, replace I/you with he/she, here with there, now with then. Yet even if it is now widely recognized as permeable, the classic distinction drawn by Benveniste for every utterance between “narrative” (histoire/récit) and “discourse” (discours) remains essential: the distinction, by means of “the formal apparatus of enunciation,” between the verbal markers of he/she, there, then and those of I/you, hic, and nunc. It is an ad hoc distinction, since in fact there are numerous overlaps between the narrative (and enuncive) order and the discursive (and enunciative) order; particularly insofar as every utterance is necessarily taken by a speaker present in the discourse as an “instance of enunciation,” an instance that at first is purely verbal. [11]
Indeed, beyond the written European literature to which Ricoeur refers, there are many forms of rhythmic poetic fiction in traditional cultures which are focused not on the he/she but on the I. The linguistic I/we is the site, in the course of cadenced verbal expression, of a double form of self-referentiality: reference on the one hand to the (extra-discursive) self in Ricoeur’s understanding of ipse and idem; but reference also to the I which speaks and constructs itself, intra-discursively, in the discourse: the subject of discourse or, better still, the insubstantial instance of enunciation. This is the double aspect of the act of enunciation: on one hand the I of the speaker who in enunciating himself brings his own body into his social and cultural environment, if only through the verbal and rhythmic expressivity of his voice; on the other, in the act of enunciation, the I in speaking constructs its own discursive posture. As the focal point of the enunciation as a discursive process and a verbal act, the instance of enunciation acquires in the utterance a semantic consistency and discursive spatio-temporal features. It is through this verbal mediation that it refers to the self acting in the world, with its personal identity; in this way the subject is referred to the individual. The mediation here is double: concerning purely linguistic potentialities for verbal creation grounded in the instance of enunciation on the one hand; concerning the interpretation which others give, in the course of the act of communication (or reading), to the enunciation’s verbal utterances on the other.
Thus the subject of discourse is constructed through the different rhythms behind its own discourse, often involving the body: verbal intonation, cadence of the phonic substance, metrical rhythm, driving force of any musical melody, semantic rhythms organized by the isotopies running through the discursive transmission, especially when it is poetic, etc. [12] Moreover the enunciation itself is a form of insubstantial subjectivation which is reiterated at each moment the utterance concerned is received. What we find, then, especially with poetic creation and communication, is a series of processes of subjectivation, having more to do with intersubjective, if not hermeneutic, interaction than fidelity to the uttered word. It is, if anything, an “anthropopoietic” process of subjectivation, as we will see in the conclusion.

3. Greek poetics of enunciation: Discursive and collective ipseities

Thus we return to the triple distinction, also ad hoc in nature, required in particular for the study of a Greek poetry whose oral communication is always ritualized in rhythmic performance. In general, the poem is sung on a ritual, if not cultic, occasion found within the calendar that rhythmically marks out the civic and cultural life of the different groups that make up the civic community: the rhythm of the performance, sung and choreographed with the different levels of expression that have been mentioned; the rhythm of the celebrations articulating the politico-religious calendar of the city; the rhythm of the ritual practices marking (in a collective and anthropopoietical way) the transitional moments in the life of the individual, male or female.
From a point of view internal to any discourse, first of all, the division which allows us to trace the ad hoc distinction seen between “discourse” (discours) and “narrative” (histoire/récit) is essential: the division between on one hand the figure, developed as instance of enunciation in , that represents the I (with its own spatio-temporal reference points, hic et nunc), and on the other hand the figures which are constructed in the action recounted or dramatized (he/they) in a time and space more or less distant (for example, the time and space of the age of heroes, in our eyes the realm of myth); and that with numerous crossovers or coincidences between the parameters of “discourse” and “narrative” : I-speaker on one hand, they-protagonists on the other; enunciative identity to one side, narrative identities to the other. [13] The enunciative identity of any form of discourse, especially poetic, can be interpreted in terms of a discursive simulacrum, a mask of authority, an enunciative posture, an authorial figure.
Moreover, there is an inevitable referential transition from the interior of the discourse with the possible narrative world and the possible enunciative world which it constructs, to an exterior represented by its situation of utterance with the historical and cultural circumstances in the background. It is in this essential transition that we find the distinction, already outlined, between the enunciative and authorial identity as it is rhythmically constructed by verbal means, and the identity of the author as a social actor, as much in his institutional “author-function” as in his psycho-cultural reality as part of the world. Additionally, since Greek poetry is poetry of ritual performance and not of writing and silent reading, the individual or choral performer who takes up the sung words is often distinct from the poet; the performer may not belong to the same sex as the poet. Through the mediation of the enunciative posture constructed in the discourse, the performer (often a female choral group) undertakes the communication between the poet and the community to which the poem is addressed; it gives the performer a verbal body in sung and rhythmically ritualized language. [14]

3.1 Polyphonic enunciation and mixed authorial identity

To refer once more to Hellenic poetic art, let us illustrate the matter with a poem that is not lyric in the common sense of the term, but melic; a poem composed by one of the “very ancient poets” (identified by Barthes in contrast with the writer bringing about the death of the author); a poem sung in the performative mode, in an enunciation which points to the act in which the poem is sung. [15] Performed by a chorus of young women, this poetic song was certainly composed by Pindar of Thebes at the beginning of the classical period. Its rhythmic structure consists of a sequence of seven or eight triads of fifteen “verses”; the triads themselves are articulated as two units in responsion before a unit offering variations on the same rhythm: strophe, antistrophe, epode sung following the same patterns of Aeolic metrical cadence as those found in the poems of Sappho, and danced to the corresponding choreographic rhythm; triads reflecting a choral musical performance.

Apollo indeed has come
with a heart eager
to pour over Thebes an immortal grace.
Come, my péplos fitted without delay,
holding in my soft hands
a brightly gleaming branch of laurel,
I am about to sing the glorious house of Aioladas
and of his son Pagondas,

my young woman’s hair
covered in blooming garlands.
And, to the sound of lotus-oboes,
I shall imitate in my song
the sonorous voice of the Sirens
which silences the light breath of Zephyr


Many are the actions of the past
which I have adorned in my verses […];
Zeus knows. But it is fitting for me
to have the thoughts of a young woman
and to say them with my voice.
Neither man nor woman, whose offspring I honor
must escape my eager song.
I have joined the chorus
as a faithful witness of Agasicles
and his noble parents.
Because of their hospitality,
both were honored by their neighbors
in the past just as today,
for their famous victories
in races of swift horses.
Such are the most legible parts of a choral song whose text has reached us on the scraps of a papyrus roll exhumed from the sand-covered ruins of a small Greek city in Egypt. [16] The cultic ceremony for which the ritual poem was intended is well known to us. On the occasion of the celebration of the Daphnephoria at Thebes in Boeotia, a procession made its way to the temple of Apollo Ismenios situated near the river of the same name on a small hill near the city gates. The procession was led by a daphnephóros, a child who still had his father and mother; the pre-adolescent was assisted by his nearest relative in bearing a ritual pole decorated with laurel branches, flowers, and various objects with cosmological significance. The young man held the role of choregós of a choral group of adolescent girls, young Thebans bearing branches of supplication while singing hymns in well-defined ritual roles. The poem composed by the Theban Pindar is without doubt one of these.
Belonging to the melic genre of parthéneion, the daphnephoric song by Pindar presents enough enunciative indications to confirm that it was performed by a choral group of young women (parthénoi); these indications allow us to identify Agasicles as the child daphnephóros while his sister Damaina seems to assume the role of choregós. Thus the members of the daphnephóros’ family, in their cultic function, are made the object of praise sung at the same time in the voice of the young women and the voice of the poet’s authority. Such an enunciative polyphony is also characteristic of Pindar’s Epinicians. [17]
In a self-referential turn very common in poems belonging to the great genre of mélos, the chorus-members use I in describing the singing action in which they are engaged (whether in reference to the very recent past or in a slight anticipation of what they intend). This technique of self-reference with regard to verbal and vocal expression is often conveyed by the use of forms of the “performative future”: in the particular case of Pindar’s partheneion, humnéso (verse 11), “I shall sing” (and I am singing now), and mimésomai aoidaîs (verse 15), “I shall represent with my song.” These descriptions of action in the first person, with occasional alternation of singular and plural forms, make such self-referential utterances speech acts and consequently song acts. By the choreographic rhythm prescribed for the processional march or the choral dance, these sung acts are made part of a ritual celebration for one of the heroes or gods of the city, like Apollo Ismenios; ritual celebration makes them cultic acts.
Not only are they-identities constructed in the poem, whether in the present through the praise of an aristocratic family’s great deeds or in the past through the narration of an exemplary heroic story (the “myth”); but an I-identity is equally constructed in the sung performance. This involves an authorial identity whose êthos is all the more complex in that it is not only collective, but double: it refers both to the voice of the male poet as witness and to the voice of the female chorus-members as choral actors. In Pindar’s partheneion and daphnephorikón this enunciative polyphony is all the more striking in that the poetic I puts a choral and feminine spin on the function of his testimony: “I have joined the chorus as a faithful witness” (pistà mártus, verses 38-39)—sing the young women of the choral group. Female speech, underscored by the “thoughts of a young woman,” is accompanied by a performative choral gesture. This enunciative posture, constructed in the poem and in performance, is ambivalent. By the performative nature of enunciative self-referentiality, the authorial ethos refers at the same time to the poet who composes in the service of his native city to praise one of its great families and to the young women in their role as attendants of the cult consecrated to the god Apollo: the historical poet in his “author-function”; the young Thebans in their “performer-function,” in shared choral authority. This verbal and enunciative identity exists beyond differences in sex and age, before any individual biographical and psycho-social identity, through the association, in the choral and ritual performance, of the adult male poet and the young female chorus-members in the same voice of authority [18] .
The enunciative scenario offered by Pindar’s daphnephoric poem presents, in short, a reverse case of that envisioned by Pierre Bourdieu in his study of “authorized language”: [19] the “authorized representative” is here the (choral) female group. In its ritual function in service of Apollo Ismenios, it assumes in and by its poetic performance the voice of the poet acting in his author-function, for the benefit of the social and religious role of an aristocratic family of the city of Thebes.

3.2 Rhythmic and collective subjects of enunciation

Even more than narrative identity, it is surely this enunciative, often polyphonic identity, that is able to contribute to the constitution of the ipse-self apart from the temporal permanence of the idem-self—if we take up again the dialectical idea developed by Ricoeur in Soi-même comme un autre. And, as far as we are concerned, the other now not only in lower case but plural: no longer the Other, but the others associated as one in a group expressing itself in a single voice and in a single bodily undertaking of authority. It is a matter of a discursive collective self, a shared I-self. In a performance that is vocal and rhythmic and consequently in a process of subjectivation at the same time discursive and physical, this we-self subsumes the specificities of individual characteristics: a way of vocally and physically being present in space and time, collectively and rhythmically: a way of being realized in space-time, by ritual action joined in harmony with others and by communal participation in and through the sung performance. The motions of the body are thus associated in the same aesthetic to achieve the musical rhythm of verbal and poetic enunciation.
This rhythmic, physical participation makes the poetic presentation of the discursive and enunciative identity a true process of collective “anthropopoiesiss”: the social and cultural construction of man as a cultural being in moral, religious, and especially symbolic circumstances. Ritualized and rhythmic choral performance is clearly a privileged means of fashioning human identity which starts from a constitutive incompleteness and plasticity, through a symbolic practical creation. [20] The enunciative strategies which convey the chorus-members’ vocal and verbal transmission make them a process of discursive subjectivation that is without doubt all the more effective in that they include the voice of the poet’s authority; not only master of ceremonies, the poet is often considered in his author-function as the “master of the chorus” (khorodidáskalos) of the young chorus-members, male or female adolescents. [21] The subject of discourse engaged in performative acts involving rhythmic expressions and movements of the body and voice, in a poetic and authorial aesthetic all the more strongly anthropopoietic in that the acts correspond to cultural practices: practices of rhythmic and cultural construction, through performed poetry. In the case of Pindar’s partheneion they are ritual practices of an initiatory nature, performed by the young women of the Theban choral group assuming the voice of the poet of Thebes.

4. Conclusion: Contemporary individualism

Thus the enunciative identity that emerges in every form of discourse, literary and poetic especially, is as meaningful as the narrative identity that a story can produce. Beyond the performative forms of Greek melic poetry, it is via the complex enunciative figure of the author, via his “posture”, that each reader must reappropriate, in the act of reading, the discursive authority of the text—for the enrichment of his or her unique ipseity. Dialogue is established with both the idem-identity (and the ipse-identity!) of the protagonists of the enunciative scene and with those of the potential narrative scene, in a rhythmic linkage that has less to do with performance than with anthropopoietic hermeneutics. As Henri Meschonnic puts it, “Si une écriture produit une reprise peut-être indéfinie de la lecture, sa subjectivité est une intersubjectivité, une trans-subjectivité […]. Cette écriture est une énonciation qui n’aboutit pas seulement à un énoncé, mais à une chaîne de réénonciations.” [22]
From an instance of enunciation which constitutes an instance of discursive subjectivity and before the production of any narrative identity, going through Greek poetry and its enunciative strategies opens up new perspectives on a specific form of ipseity: a subject-form to be considered in terms of anthropopoietic and rhythmic interaction and intersubjectivity, sometimes beyond differences in sex; the collective subject of discourse likely in contrast with the personal self and the free individual advocated by the Eurocentric philosophy of (moral) consciousness. But we have to avoid to go back without returning to the great anthropological and evolutionist division between a holistic “we” and an individual endowed with privacy of consciousness and established as a person, if not as a juridical subject. By means of the different symbolic forms that generally occur in discursive configurations, man, as homo symbolicus, constitutes a relational and rhythmic cultural individual. As shared practical representations, generally communicated by the configuring means of language, these fictions in the etymological sense of the term engage the individual in action on the natural and social environment which, for its part, has “made” it a human being. Further complicating the distinction between nature and culture, this interactive process of anthropopoiesis continues, beyond childhood and adolescence, throughout the careers of mortal men and women; by different processes of subjectivation, it assures the permanence, sometimes contradictory and conflicting, of the psychic and moral subject; this subject is nowadays founded on a neuronal datum that can only survive and develop if it is socially and culturally determined.
Such an anthropopoietic conception of the individual and subject makes obsolete the distinction, for example, between homo hierarchicus and homo aequalis as well as the sharp divide between holistic and individualist societies. The former would correspond to traditional societies in which each member has existence and reality only in relation to the whole, by the place and function he or she occupies within a generally hierarchical system like the society of ancient India. The latter would coincide with modern societies whose members are constituted as individuals, as rational beings, as normative subjects of their own laws and institutions—the emergence of the individual involving liberation from social constraints and subjective and assumed autonomy, “indépendamment de toute attache sociale et politique,” in a self-sufficient manner. [23]
For the classical Greek world, the distinction drawn in the works of Louis Dumont has been taken up and more strongly qualified by Jean-Pierre Vernant. Investigating classical Greek culture, he attempted to situate “the individual in the city” between a traditional, holistic society and a modern, individualist society. The question of the care of the self along which Foucault retraced the western history of sexuality prompts the anthropologist of ancient Greece to distinguish three categories: the individual defining himself by his place and function within a group to which he belongs; the subject identified with the individual who expresses himself in the first person; and finally the ego or the person who in his interiority constitutes the individual as a unique being. [24] Certainly Greek culture offers examples of exceptional individuals: Homeric heroes like Achilles, men with divine powers such as seers, citizens heroized for their great deeds in war. Moreover, the development of law establishes the idea of an individual agent responsible for his or her own actions. And if the ego is still to be considered an “open field of multiple forces” before it is identified with a soul considered suprapersonal, it is apparently only very belatedly that it leads to the care of the self. The subject, in turn, would correspond to the I of “lyric” poetry, the “discours où le sujet s’exprime en disant je”; an I that would refer directly to the author and the poet in his critical subjectivity, in the emotional experience of time, between nostalgia and hope. Back to the Romantic “lyric I”?
Actually, with Pindar’s partheneion as a model, it has just been shown that it is impossible to project the romantic concept of lyric subjectivity onto the different forms of melic poetry. Even verses which seem to us to be the poetic expression of the most private sentiments refer to a polymorphous I grounded in community. Ancient Greek culture presents us with various modes of subjectivation and individualization, different modes which we must resist placing along an evolutionary line that would bring us from muthos to logos: in the particular case of man from a sub-jectum as being governed by powers external to the autonomous, rational, conscious individual of modernity, in a purely Western perspective …
Whether a social community is traditional, modern, or postmodern, the self-sufficient autonomy of the individual is sheer fantasy. Far from any attempt to reinforce the Great Divide (between primitive and civilized, holistic and individualist), the necessary social and cultural construction of man and the development of the uniqueness of the individual as subject must be considered in interactive dialectic terms. Human identity coinciding with social status and recognition by one’s peers and the identity attached to the growth of the individual person with its critical reflexivity overlap and interact with each other; the subject is at the same time sub-jectum and agent. Emotional and intellectual emancipation of the individual, the assertion and maintaining of a mature personal identity can only come through multiple rhythmic processes of subjectivation, interacting with several circles of social, institutional, and cultural belonging, through the intersection and practical combination of several social functions and levels of collective identity: [25] processes of subjectivation that are interactional and anthropopoietic in the assertion of a plural discursive authority and in common rhythms (starting from a psychic and neuronal organism whose powerful capabilities we are only just discovering). In these processes of social individualization and subjectivation of the self, the author’s position as subject of discourse plays a determining role, if only as an enunciative mirror in which other discursive Is and wes are reflected, with their own shared social functions and rhythms. [26]
Composed by a male poet and sung by a choral group of young women, the partheneion by Pindar has helped us to approach critically not only the question of the “lyric I” as “instance d’énonciation” with its polyphonic authority, but also the problem of the modern and individualistic self as subject of discourse: approaching a different culture in order to have a critical look at our own. The historic anthropology of Greek culture and poetry leads us to question our own cultural and ideological paradigm.


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[ back ] 1. Barthes 1968/1984:64 and 69, with qualifications introduced in 1973:45–46. The French version of the present text has been published in Mètis H.S., 2013:21–38.
[ back ] 2. Cf. Schleiermacher 1809/1987:73–110.
[ back ] 3. Foucault 1969/1994:798 for the quotation; for Greco-Roman Antiquity, see the studies published in Calame and Chartier 2004 and Calame 2016.
[ back ] 4. See the different critical perspectives concerning contemporary individualism and its liberal cult of self presented in Calame 2008b.
[ back ] 5. For the semiotic and hermeneutic challenge such an effort represents, cf. Calame 2002.
[ back ] 6. Snell 1975:81 and 13–29.
[ back ] 7. On the irrelevance of the notion of “lyric” for the different forms of performed poetry that the Greeks placed in the great genre of mélos, cf. infra note 15.
[ back ] 8. For example, in late antiquity, in the personal relationship with the single God who replaces the contrasting divine figures of polytheism: see Brown 1985:72–79; for other stages marking the origin of the European subject/self, see for example the now classic study by Taylor 1989:139–198.
[ back ] 9. One can refer in particular to Ricoeur 1983:55–136 (on the three Mimeseis as prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration of time) and 173–246 (on “emplotment” (mise en intrigue)); in the introduction to my book of 2009b:8–24, I have tried to show, in connection with Greek arts of cultural memory, the misunderstandings maintained by this too narratological conception of history, in particular from the point of view of the enunciation of historiographical discourse and its pragmatics.
[ back ] 10. Ricoeur 1990:55–72 in particular.
[ back ] 11. Cf. Benveniste 1966:237–250 and 251–266 as well as 1974:79–88, with the qualifications that I have tried to introduce especially in Calame 2004a:415–434 and 2005:1–13, particularly as far as Greek melic poetry is concerned.
[ back ] 12. For an anthropology of rhythm in its verbal and poetic component in particular, see Michon 2005:245–289.
[ back ] 13. I have by now insisted only too often on the importance of this distinction for the study of Greek poetry, especially in the introductory chapter of Calame 1995:3–17.
[ back ] 14. For these distinctions, cf. Calame 2005a:1–13; see also 2004a:11–17, and on the role of the performer in the enactment of the authority of the poet, the important remarks by Nagy 1996:17–19 and 220–224. A good definition of authorial “posture” that is one part discursive and one part social can be found, for example, in Meizoz 2005. For the “lyric” poet see also now Maslov 2015:47–61.
[ back ] 15. In Calame 1998/2008a in particular, I have advocated returning to the indigenous category of mélos in order to avoid the serious misconceptions maintained by the modern category of “lyric,” which suggests, in our encyclopedic knowledge, the direct poetic expression of the personal feelings of the author; cf. Barthes 1968/1984:66–67.
[ back ] 16. Pindar fr. 94b Maehler; for a discussion with references to the cult of Apollo Ismenios and the numerous bibliographical references to be expected in any work of Altertumswissenschaft, I will allow myself once more to play the game of self-reference in referring to Calame 2001:59–63 and 101–104.
[ back ] 17. On the debate around the choral or monodic performance of Pindar’s Epinicians, see the relevant study of D’Alessio 1994, with numerous references to that controversial question.
[ back ] 18. For an even more sophisticated procedure of authoritative chorality in mimesis as performance as displayed at the end of the Delian part of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, see Nagy 2013:235–240. For the enunciative polyphony in an epinician like Olympian 6, see Calame 2012:307–314.
[ back ] 19. Bourdieu 1975/2001:159–165.
[ back ] 20. For the anthropological and critical potentialities of the working concept of “anthropopoiesis,” see the collective research conducted by Affergan, Borutti, Calame, Fabietti, Kilani, Remotti 2003, in particular Remotti 2003.
[ back ] 21. This is the case, for example, of the poet Alcman, who, in late seventh-century Sparta, also composed parthéneia for groups of young women of which he was the chorus-master; cf. Calame 2005a:4–14 as well as Klinck 2001.
[ back ] 22. Meschonnic 1982:87, which merits rereading with the perspective proposed by Michon 2010:159–181.
[ back ] 23. Dumont 1983:67–84 and 215–253, with the critical remarks suggested by Renaut 1989:69–112, but for a defense of the individual.
[ back ] 24. Vernant 1989:211–232; for the fundamental misconception maintained for Greek poetry by the concept of “lyric,” see note 16 above.
[ back ] 25. See especially Wieviorka 2005:67–102.
[ back ] 26. Remotti 2009:325–341 shows that critical anthropology provides access to societies which hold up a mirror to the traits of our own “we”; see also Michon 2010:216–217.