Archaic and classical Greek texts are overflowing with things: from the Lydian mitra coveted by Sappho (fr. 98a, 98b) to the divine shield of Achilles (Iliad 18.478-609) to Plato’s “many-colored cloak” (Republic 557c5-9), objects both fabulous and mundane proliferate in literary genres of all types. Among these depictions, the aesthetic quality of poikilia looms large. Often translated as “decorated” or “elaborate,” poikilia is an attribute of a wide variety of objects and phenomena, from textiles to music to the cosmos. Moreover, this is also a term that surfaces in accounts of human cognition to describe the kind of cunning intelligence espoused by figures like Odysseus and Prometheus. Poikilia thus provides a useful rubric for teasing out the relations between materiality and human thought because its semantic range encompasses both artifacts and mental processes from its earliest attestations onward. It was this semantic complexity that formed the subject of my 2016 dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin (“Sense and Sensibility: The Experience of Poikilia in Archaic and Classical Greek Thought”). Since then, as an assistant professor of classics at Wake Forest University, I have begun to establish myself in the burgeoning field of ancient aesthetics by publishing several articles devoted to aesthetic, cognitive, and sensory experience in antiquity. My book, Materiality and Aesthetics in Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry, represents a substantial transformation of the dissertation because it synthesizes recent developments in critical theory and the cognitive humanities to bring to light patterns of interaction between living and inorganic beings through the lens of poikilia.
Across the humanities, scholars have sought to develop non-anthropocentric approaches to material culture that can articulate the agency of matter in shaping human experience (broadly characterized as the field of the “new materialisms”). Similarly, numerous philosophical theories of mind have advanced the notion that cognitive processes may extend outwards into the world (“4E” cognition). This study intertwines both theoretical perspectives by considering how forms of poikilia impinge on human thought and activity as well as how human cognitive processes develop and evolve from their interactions with material things. Materiality and Aesthetics was commissioned in fall 2017 to be one of the first contributions to a new interdisciplinary series produced by Edinburgh University Press, “Ancient Cultures, New Materialisms,” edited by Lilah Grace Canevaro and Melissa Mueller. The series is the first of its kind devoted to bringing into dialogue with ancient Greco-Roman studies the growing and heterogeneous body of theory known as the new materialisms.
During my time at the CHS, I have been working on the final two chapters of my book, which focus on the connections between poikilia and deception. On the one hand, there is a peculiarly masculine domain of knowledge associated with the term mētis and encapsulated in the figures of Prometheus, Hermes, and Odysseus. On the other hand, we have numerous infamous portrayals of feminine seduction and deceit executed by figures like Hera and Aphrodite, as well as Clytemnestra and Medea. This group of examples provides the capstone to my study because each of the characters under discussion exploits the close connections between humans and material things illuminated in previous chapters. Ultimately, what we find in these accounts is a heightened awareness of how, in the context of deception, it becomes challenging to disentangle mental states and intentions from embodied actions and material objects. These chapters thus formulate the question with which I hope to conclude my book: where does the mind end and the bodily, physical world begin?
Amy Lather is currently an Assistant Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016 with a dissertation entitled “Sense and Sensibility: The Experience of Poikilia in Archaic and Classical Greek Thought.” She has published articles on artificial intelligence, musical aesthetics, and sense experience in archaic Greek poetry and Attic tragedy and is currently working on her first monograph, Matters of the Mind: Materiality and Aesthetics in Ancient Greek Thought.