Ruth Scodel, Epic Facework: Self- Presentation and Social Interaction in Homer. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2009. Pp. xii + 177. ISBN 978- 1-905125-22-7. UK£45.00.
National University of Rosario–CONICET, Argentina
Scodel’s aim is try to understand Homeric characters’ personal interactions, setting particular speeches and actions against their background of expectations. Brown and Levinson's works on politeness and pragmatics and Goffman’s sociology are part of her theoretical background, although she states in the preface that she will not refer overtly to these models (p. x). In addition, she declares that her book ‘moves uneasily along the margins of some central debates. It is . . . not about the real society of the eighth century . . . ,’ nor ‘about institutions, although it examines certain institutionalized practices; . . . its central concern is how characters try to control how others evaluate them, it inevitably takes positions, implicit or explicit, about questions of responsibility and ethical norms’ (p. x). In this sense, she tries to place especial emphasis on ‘the grey areas and difficulties in how Homeric characters assess others and expect to be assessed’ (p. xi). The material is divided into six chapters, including a preface (pp. ix- xi), a conclusion (pp. 153-57), bibliography (pp. 159-67), index locorum (pp. 169-72), and, finally, a general index (pp. 173-77). Original texts are followed by their corresponding translations, and the notes are at the end of each chapter.
Chapter 1, ‘The Economy of Honor’ (pp. 1- 32), starts by challenging a common assumption among scholars, according to which all the most desirable social properties in the Homeric world, i.e. TIMH/, KU=DOJ, and KLE/OJ, are strictly limited, so nobody can improve his own standing without lowering that of someone else (pp. 7f.). Iliad 8.137-66 complicates this economy, showing that not all gains and losses in TIMH/ are zero-sum, since if Hector takes too much TIMH/ away from his opponent, he deprives himself as there is little honor to be won by defeating an opponent who has no valor (p. 9). TIMH/ has two distinguishable aspects: ‘fixed’, which is related to being in a high position (Agamemnon), and ‘flexible’, which depends on individual meritorious actions (Achilles) (p. 12). Scodel adds a third aspect, ‘prestige’, or ‘face’, in the technical sense it has in the work of Erving Goffman and in politeness theory, that is, the positive social worth that everyone claims in social self- presentation, and that others attribute to him or her. According to Scodel, ‘face complicates standard ideas about TIMH/, because it involves not only how individuals evaluate each other, but how they imagine others evaluate them’ (p. 13). An understanding of TIMH/ requires attention to the related social goods of KLE/OJ and KU=DOJ. KLE/OJ is not a simple zero-sum game in which the victor wins fame at the loser’s expense, since it is not a commodity whose total is limited: ‘Action creates it, and it extends into distant regions of both space and time so as to become unquantifiable’ (p. 22). On the other hand, KU=DOJ seems to be the divine charisma that provides victory; unlike KLE/OJ, it does not persist after death and it is inseparable from success (p. 25).
Chapter 2, ‘Gifts’ (pp. 33-48), analyses gift-giving, which is the Homeric heroes’ most salient win-win activity. Scodel defies once more the mainstream view, which has stressed inequality within gift exchanges. She argues that the ideal gift-exchange, whether it is immediately reciprocal or not, is a co-operative mechanism for displaying aristocratic merit and for preserving and generating story (p. 33). Scodel’s examination of some gift-exchanges in the poems as social performances stresses two linked aspects of the gift -- its typically public nature and its function as producer of narrative (p. 33). Nevertheless, competitive gift-giving is not completely ruled out by Scodel since gift-giving is a prestige activity, and heroes sometimes engage in what could be called ‘potlatch strategy’, giving more than the situation strictly requires in a prestige display (pp. 42f.). However, with the exception of marriage, Homeric heroes do not compete directly against each other with gifts for general social prestige, although they may well compete indirectly and covertly (p. 43). In addition, the win-win economy of the gift requires that the gift be suitable to the recipient’s appropriate TIMH/, thus ‘selecting a gift requires a judgment of the guest’s status and of his relationship to the host’ (p. 43).
Chapter 3, ‘Managing Face’ (pp. 49-73), discusses anger, which for the Homeric hero is the normal and correct reaction to most serious face-threats, since not responding angrily to insults implies not just weakness but a failure to value one’s own TIMH/ (p. 49). In this sense, if heroes are prone to extreme sensitivity to such face-threats, a failure to respond angrily to them is an indication of the lack of heroic AIDW/J. Consequently, Paris’ inability to become angry in response to criticism (Il. 3.59) is a symptom of the lack of concern for his reputation that drives other heroes (p. 53). However, it is hard to judge when anger is appropriate, and how much anger an offense should arouse because, although anger in response to offense is expected and correct, it is also wrong to be too easily provoked and to provoke others unnecessarily since to be ‘friendly- minded’ requires moderating one’s response to offenses in the interests of solidarity (p. 56). Bearing in mind that it is long-term honor that matters most, heroes sometimes act in ways that give up immediate face in the interest of longer- term glory -- Odysseus disguised as a beggar in the Ithacan books of the Odyssey is a case in point (p. 58).
In Chapter 4, ‘Ransom and Revenge’ (pp. 75-93), Scodel’s starting point is Wilson’s[] distinction between A)/POINA, ‘ransom’, which leaves the parties in unequal terms, and POINH/, ‘revenge’, which re-establishes an equilibrium that a killing or other significant offence has destroyed. A)/POINA and POINH/ differ in that a character offers ransom when he has lost something, or, more precisely, someone, whom he hopes to recover. In contrast, a hero seeks POINH/ when he has lost something that he cannot possibly recover, typically a friend’s or relative’s life (p. 75). In some situations revenge is to be preferred on face grounds over ransom, because a hero who accepts ransom shows that he is not angry or that his anger is controlled. Yet no rule explains how an injury must be calculated. While ransom is always more than adequate, compensation for a killing is always inadequate, since the loss is infinite and irretrievable (p. 84).
Chapter 5, ‘Apologies’ (pp. 95-125), starts by stating that, strictly speaking, there are no apologies in Homeric epic. In effect, modern literature on apology insists that someone who apologizes agrees that a specified offense took place, takes responsibility for it, and expresses sorrow and remorse for it. Nowhere do Homeric characters perform all three of these actions. Nonetheless, they engage in remedial exchanges -- close to modern Western apologies -- which seek to restore a damaged relationship maintaining community. However, whereas the modern apology is close to a zero-sum transaction -- the offender must surrender face in order to restore the offended party -- Homeric practices aim at restoring the victim at minimal face- cost to the offender (p. 95). Homeric characters can effectively defuse another’s anger even if they do not admit wrongdoing or say overtly that they regret their actions. They also use a different strategy for remedial exchanges when they identify someone other than the present participants as the one who is AI)/TIOJ, that is, the ‘real’ origin of the action or event, and thereby the proper focus of negative evaluation (p. 107). Although not being AI)/TIOJ does not entirely relieve an actor from the need to compensate another, to claim that one is not AI)/TIOJ is to claim that only routine compensation is required (p.108). When an individual denies being AI)/TIOJ, he creates a narrative in which his own role is not open to criticism, or his own failures are relatively minor (p. 108).
Chapter 6, ‘Quarrel and Embassy’ (pp. 127-152), shows how the gifts offered by Agamemnon represent a potlatch strategy, in which he tries to rescue some of his lost face through a display of wealth and generosity. In the embassy scene in the Iliad, once Odysseus fails to induce Achilles to think more about the other Achaeans than about Agamemnon, Achilles sees only the attempt to save Agamemnon’s face, makes it the basis of his understanding of the speech, and rejects it. Achilles demands not gifts but XA/RIJ, the attitude appropriate to the favor he is performing to the Atridae by fighting at Troy (p. 146). The size of Agamemnon’s offer only reminds Achilles of how bad the offense was and how insincere Agamemnon is. Once Achilles abandons the social expectations that would expect him to allow Agamemnon to save his own face and to accept public compensation, Agamemnon cannot win, because Achilles does not believe that Agamemnon respects him (p. 149). It appears that Achilles is deliberately exchanging the visible TIMH/ he can obtain only by allowing Agamemnon to save face for an invisible one he can win by not taking the gifts (p. 150).
On the whole, this book makes a meaningful and thought-provoking contribution to the field of Homeric studies. Although some may find Scodel’s interpretations highly speculative at times, I believe that, by avoiding sweeping generalizations, they help to make better sense of many Homeric social interactions, and this makes it very well worth reading to anyone willing to take a fresh approach to the Homeric poems.
[] D. F. Wilson, Ransom, Revenge, and Heroic Identity in the Iliad (Cambridge 2002) 14.