Finding Nowhere

Mapping the Future Study of Antiquity
What does the ancient world look like beyond Greece and Rome? Could imagining a collective human future start with seeing the past anew?

This project inaugurates a new section: Antiquities, edited by Stephanie Wong and Sarah E. Bond. The conversation “Finding Nowhere” allows both Wong and Bond to explain their vision for what the ancient world looks like beyond Greece and Rome, and why imagining a collective human future may start with learning to unsee the past as fragmented.

Stephanie Wong (SW): I wanted to be part of Antiquities with Public Books because I wanted to see the writing I wanted to read, frankly. I feel less and less interested in belonging to a space that traditionally has not welcomed writers like Vanessa Stovall, Ali Olomi, and Ismael Cuevas Jr.

And I could do without the underdoggery of it all, too—I would rather celebrate new structures, experimental ideas, than playact “inferiority” or “unseriousness.” It’s so funny to me to think of this kind of work as what a lot of academics call “second book” material.

But what do you think? I’d love to hear your perspective as my academic elder sister figure.


Sarah Bond (SB): About a month after the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) and Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) joint annual meeting in January 2019 in San Diego, I lost my faith. Specifically, I lost faith in the existence of a field called “classics.”

The term itself is not ancient. In fact, it was popularized in English school systems beginning in the 16th century and then caught on in the 18th century as shorthand for referring to the study of ancient Greeks and Romans.

Classics, as a field, has been used as an instrument for white supremacy and an argument for Western exceptionalism. Seeing this, both before and after that 2019 meeting, I wanted to transition from classics back to the field of history. So I changed academic departments, in order to try to figure out how the emerging field of “global antiquity”—wherein we see the ancient world in a global perspective, without privileging Greece and Rome—could be reified.

Besides that, working with an Antiquities section was important because I needed to learn to decenter myself as a white woman and instead begin to create spaces to amplify the next generation. I had long admired Stephanie’s work in Eidolon and was delighted we could come together to create fora for emerging voices that truly were the future of the study of antiquity. That’s why we decided to start the section together, and why we selected these three remarkable authors to inaugurate it.


SW: As astrology enthusiasts ourselves, wasn’t it fun to see how Ali Olomi’s piece developed? It’s clear that medieval Muslim dynasties considered elective astrology a valuable, highly intellectual tool for literal world building. If you want to see something spectacular, take a look at the horoscope for the founding of Baghdad that Ali created for this essay. Eat your hearts out, astrology memers.


SB: Yes, I love how Ali reveals the connection between the terrestrial and heavenly spheres in the founding of Baghdad. And this connection really speaks to my interest in the history of how we order space: reading geography as a kind of text that can help us recover identity.

During this period of uncertainty in a global pandemic, to explore such a city plan—which served to connect individuals to a higher power, and which reflected a celestial order—provides insight into how urban planning can reflect belief systems. The strong connections among space, religion, and the founding of a new place were also something that spoke to me in embarking on this new venture we are forming together.

How do foundational acts reflect our ideals? How can they create a framework for the future? As we move forward at Antiquities, how can our beginnings reflect where we hope to be?


SW: Ish Cuevas’s essay feels particularly close to me, both emotionally and geographically. As this project approaches the last stages of publication, I’m currently preparing to move from my apartment on the very street (la diez y ocho in Chicago’s Pilsen) that Ish writes about to the heart of Mexico City, where my dissertation research is based. Right now, I even shop for groceries at the supermarket in Plaza Tenochtitlan!

For me, Ish’s piece reflects the tangly interweavings of diaspora, nationalism, and neocolonialism in a single, singular space. For anyone interested in the connections between urban planning and immigrant communities, this one’s for you. And for the Chicagoans out there—we’re big fans of the Midwest over here.

Western civilization, and by extension classics, is not a real place or culture—and never was.

SB: Moving from Ali’s piece to Ish’s, I was interested to see how individuals in a community could work to remake identity within a space, and above all, Ish also underscores the power of community action. It was Cortes and the European geographers who controlled the narrative of Tenochtitlan when the first map of the site was published in 1524—even if the map may have had indigenous origins. An important copy of this map is held at the Newberry Library in Chicago (see Analú María López’s remarks for more) and reveals how both material culture and space can connect us to the past but also can encapsulate the pain of colonialism. As Ish reflected on the 500th anniversary in 2021 of the fall of Tenochtitlan to Spanish forces, I was moved by his detailed history of the plaza and its meaning to the Mexican community in Chicago.


SW: Reading Vanessa’s piece made me wonder why we don’t think of mythology in a material way. Any classical philologist can tell you that the word “text” is derived from texo (weave). Any weaver can tell you that fiber arts is all about the touch-y nature of the medium, reacting to the text(ure) of the piece. Vanessa places Sappho, Gilles Deleuze, and Saidiya Hartman in conversation with one another, uniting the trio under a Black feminist analytical umbrella. Damn, I wish I’d first read Sappho like this.


SB: Moving from the external space of the city and the place to the internal space that structures our thinking, Vanessa strips away many of the traditional constructions of myth many of us consciously or subconsciously hold in our minds. Her careful readings of authors from Sappho to Saidiya Hartman helped me to rethink the power of fragments and of myth more generally.

I had to put down the article when Vanessa notes, “​​Everything is fabricated, so what precisely is the fabric of our reality?” I have pondered the fabrication of classics for so long, and Vanessa provides some essential methods of stripping and then rebuilding our field.

SW: Both of our educational backgrounds are in classics, though I feel we have both felt at best critical and at worst disgusted by events we have observed and experienced in the discipline. But, to think more broadly, what about the study of antiquities? And, a question I contemplate on a near-daily basis: What’s the point?


SB: You and I have often wondered why people can conceptualize a collective future as one with a unified humanity but cannot see the past in the same way.

Ideas of cultural hierarchies have long privileged Greece and Rome as the progenitors of a “Western civilization.” But, as many argue, Western civilization, and by extension classics, is not a real place or culture—and never was.

Knowing this is at once liberating and terrifying to some. But with the traditional, imposed borders for antiquity erased, perhaps we can now embrace the nowhere of it all as a means of welcoming all who study the ancient world. Without borders, there cannot be a margin.


SW: As someone who cares about words and how to use them, I always find it a challenge to define “antiquities.” What counts as antique or not? We’re historians, who conventionally care a lot about periodization; we’re classics apostates, who conventionally care a lot about an ultralimited geography and time period. My beloved graduate school friend Taaja El-Shabazz puts it best: it’s our job to pluralize and diversify the meaning of catchall words. In this role I feel much less like an editor and more like a student. icon

Featured Image: Ottoman Oval World Map, c.17th - 18th c / The Walters Art Museum (Wiki Commons - Public Domain)