Epic Life: poiesis

Sep 12, 12 Epic Life: poiesis

In my last post I suggested that the approach to homeric epic developed by Gregory Nagy beginning with The Best of the Achaeans, when considered in relationship to the rulesets of play-practices that digital culture and above all digital games make more apparent every day, provide an opportunity to describe lives lived in modern culture as epic lives. More programmatically, I suggested that such description, being essentially humanistic in that our rulesets always proceed from the past, serves as a remarkably cogent argument for the value of the humanities.

This way of describing the shaping of meaning and value diachronically (ruleset) and synchronically (performance) is, I believe, what Nagy himself calls for, when he follows the work of Albert Lord to a natural conclusion, and tells us, in the 1999 preface to the revised edition of The Best of the Achaeans,

We need to confront the general phenomenon of meaning in the media of oral poetics. On the basis of my own cumulative work, I have become convinced that meaning by way of reference in oral poetics needs to be seen diachronically as well as synchronically: “Each occurrence of a theme (on the level of content) or of a formula (on the level of form) in a given composition-in-performance refers not only to its immediate context but also to all other analogous contexts remembered by the performer or by any member of the audience” (quoting his own Poetry as Performance (1996)).

A really thorough working out of the implications of this formulation demands that we begin to describe oral poetics as a form of play, and recognize that modern game-players–in particular players of digital games–are creating meaning through the same constellation of play-practices, which draw resonance at the same time from the performance and from the ruleset, construed as broadly as an individual occasion has capacity to do. A player of Lego Star Wars, for example, is creating meaning based not only on her performance in the synchronic occasion, in which she is playing at building things to solve puzzles, but also in the relationship to the diachronic ruleset of the transmedia Star Wars franchise that those puzzles have: the clever Lego riffs on the Star Wars films, as for example when the player reassembles a radio which plays the imperial theme music, causing enemies to dance rather than attacking, draw their meaning from the ruleset of the franchise as a whole (diachronic) as well as from the game (synchronic).

This constellation of practices is what I will call in this series “epic life”: performance, reflection on the ruleset of performance, and iteration of ruleset through new performance. The ancients had a much wider view of “epic” (Greek ἔπος epos “word, epic, epic poetry”) than we do, and the songs that we think of as constituting a specialized genre of epic (notably the songs that make up what we now know as the Iliad and the Odyssey) were for them part of a very broad range of speech acts that had in common above all the element that I call practomimetic: they were playful, or, in Greek terms, ποιητικός poiētikos “maker-ly, poetic.”

That that basic Greek verb ποιέω poieō “I make, I do” could mean what is transparently in our terms playful performance (that is, a kind of performance understood not to have an immediate effect on material circumstances), in addition to meaning what is transparently “real,” “serious” (that is, non-playful) performance indicates that the culture Plato critiques in his dialogues, above all in Republic and Laws, was practiced ludically, from the assembly to the lawcourts to the Theatre of Dionysus, and everywhere in between. We are accustomed to thinking of this dimension of classical Greek culture as “agonistic,” of course, but in the context of this return to Nagy I suggest we also learn to conceive it as ludic, or perhaps simply as playful, if the barbaristic Latin/Greek melding of “ludic” rankles.

In my next post, I’ll explore the classical underpinning of this idea of playful culture a bit further, in the discourse of classical Athens.

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