Who is allowed to write about whom, who is allowed to portray whom? The criticism of racist practices such as blackfacing has given rise to a strict identity-political surveillance regime. Jeanine Cummings has been heavily criticized for telling the story of an illegal immigrant from Mexico in her successful novel "American Dirt" (2020), even though she is not Latin. After death threats, she canceled a reading tour. The white theologian Jennifer M. Buck examined trap feminism, a variety of "black feminism" – due to massive pressure, the publisher withdrew the book. Tom Hanks has internalized the identity politics guidelines and declared that he would no longer play the lawyer in "Philadelphia" today: heterosexuals should no longer be homosexuals.
It is worth considering this development against the background of antiquity. Already in Greco-Roman antiquity, a close relationship between authors and characters, actors and roles was assumed. Catullus proclaimed: "For the pious poet himself must be chaste, but by no means his little verses." But in general, the poetic ego was easily identified with the author: The archaic poet Archilochus was considered the son of a slave, lustful adulterer and coward who left the shield on the battlefield because his poems deal with such experiences. The term "persona" is of Latin origin, but a persona theory that categorically separates the author from the narrative self did not exist in antiquity.
Close relationship between author and character
Identification was by no means limited to the poetic ego. If students today already learn that the characters in dialogues should not easily be understood as the mouthpiece of the author, the Roman oratory teacher Quintilian has no qualms about hearing Plato in Socrates. Without hesitation, ancient grammarians attribute the utterances of Oedipus and Antigone to Sophocles. The close relationship between author and character is turned satirically in the comedy: In Aristophanes' Acharnern Euripides appears as a sluggish figure wrapped in rags - just like the characters in his tragedies, notes the peasant Dikaiopolis.
Another comedy by Aristophanes, the Thesmophoriazusenes, brings us close to current discussions: in the performance of the tragic poet Agathon, a character wonders whether it is a man or a woman: the young person wears a saffron dress with a bosom band, but has no breasts and holds a sword next to the mirror. Agathon defends his elevator by saying that when he writes women's dramas, he must also be "physically involved". Because basically applies: "Necessarily one creates the same for one's own nature." One must not forget the comic character of this scene, in which Aristophanes entertains the Athenians at the expense of a poet colleague known for his androgyny and efficiency. Nevertheless, the close connection of figures to their authors is condensed in it, which runs through the entire period of antiquity and is reminiscent of current discussions in its focus on sexuality.
No bans on representation in antiquity
At the same time, a fundamental difference between the ancient understanding and the regime of identity politics stands out: the identity of an author is not invoked to prohibit him from dealing with certain figures and themes. Rather, it serves to explain an author's preferences for character types through his character, or, conversely, one reads this character from the behavior of the characters – in the frogs of Aristophanes, the cunning Euripides is confronted by the lumbering, heroic Aeschylus, who, like his character Achilles, shrouds himself in silence before speaking in bombastic verse. Antiquity shares the close connection between author and figure with identity politics, but does not derive any prohibitions of representation from this.