I’m Serena Washington, one of the three S’s who run this event series. Currently, I am a Collections Intern at the Chicago History Museum, working with the fine and decorative arts collections. Last year I got my master’s degree in Art History from UIC. During my first semester, a professor told us we could write our final research paper on anything we wanted to, whatever work or topic was our passion, our reason for coming to grad school.
I am really interested in the history of fashion, because as a feminist I think that changes in clothing such as women being allowed to wear pants and not wear corsets have resulted in direct changes to every day life throughout the 20th century that allow women to have more independence and be treated more as equals in the professional world. So I wrote my paper about a dress, the Sorbet dress, designed in 1913 by Paul Poiret, a prominent French fashion designer. It was the first dress designed to be worn without a corset. Later in the year, I was asked to present that paper at a women’s and gender history symposium at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. It was a 3-day conference where I made a few friends, and saw research presented on a variety of topics from a multitude of scholars at varying points in their careers and from varied disciplines. There were undergrads, master’s students, and PHDs from English, history, gender studies, and a ton of other disciplines. That symposium was truly one of the great highlights of my time in grad school. I worked on my images in PowerPoint, struggled with what to wear, and edited and re-edited my paper for timing and clarity (which I have not done with this story).
It was great, but it got me thinking a lot about what a symposium actually is. Did you know that “Symposium” is Greek for ‘drinking party?’ It’s true. Plato named a dialogue after it.
Middle Liddell defines it awkwardly, on p. 763, as “a drinking together.”[i] According to the Internet, the etymology of the English word goes back to the 1580s: a symposium is an “account of a gathering or party,” from the Latin, “drinking party, symposium” which is from the Greek, “drinking party, convivial gathering of the educated.” From roots syn- “together,” -posis “a drinking.”[ii]
This is my Greek lexicon.
It’s called the “Middle Liddell” because it was put together by Liddell and Scott back in 1889 originally, although this is a new copy. They also made a smaller edition (called the “Little Liddell”) and a much larger edition known as the “Big Liddell.” I received this object as a gift from St. John’s College at Convocation, the day I enrolled as a freshman, because out on the East Coast they apparently like big ceremonies. I barely remember ancient Greek, but I definitely remember looking up obscure words like “logos” in this book, and having excessively detailed class discussions over the varied meanings.
Nowadays, symposium is a term which we use to signify scholarly conferences, chock full of research presentations, papers both published and unpublished, and wonderful in-depth theories by our peers and colleagues. But the term originated in Plato’s dialogue about a bunch of drunk dudes having a great time talking about raunchy things like sex and poetry.
Set around 416 BCE, the dialogue starts with two guys walking down the street talking about a party at the poet, Agathon’s house 3 years earlier. (Must have been a pretty epic party.) Agathon throws a drinking party for his friends, where everyone overeats, lies on sofas, and drinks a lot of wine while they take turns giving speeches to Eros, the God of love.
During college, I wrote a paper on this dialogue, focusing on Aristophanes’ speech, the story of the circle people. This is the most well-known story in this dialogue, and it’s popularly understood as a beautiful account of true love. Aristophanes tells us how when the world was young, humans were circular creatures with two heads, four arms, and four legs, and they rolled along the ground. There were three genders, the male, the female, and the Androgynous, a half-male, half-female creature.
When humans became too ambitious—whatever that means—Zeus got POed and cut them in half as a punishment. It turns out, people got so depressed that they just kept hugging their other half, and didn’t eat, or go to work, or do anything for the longing to be whole again. The circle people originally procreated asexually, by shooting their seed into the ground, where another person would grow out of the earth like a plant. But after Zeus cut them in half, and everyone started dying because they were so emotionally distraught by losing half of themselves, that Zeus invented sex as a distraction to give humans a temporary sense of relief from their torment. (PS Aristophanes was pretty on board with basic LGBT, or at least LG rights, since the three genders became gay men, people who were “male” circle people, lesbians who were “female” circle people, and heterosexual couples, called “Androgynous”.)
This story is typically understood to be a very romantic account of the origin of love, that people today search for their soul mate, or “other half.” But remember: Aristophanes is a satirist, a comedian. He wrote ridiculous plays filled with wacky characters and a lot of dick and fart jokes. The story of the circle people depicts humans as totally ridiculous monstrous creatures that can’t even manage to keep themselves alive until Zeus invents sex as a means of distracting them. That’s just one story in Plato’s Symposium, but it’s pretty far from the kinds of serious scholarly research presented at academic symposia today.
Plato’s famous dialogue recounts many other speeches about the origins of love, both personal—as Socrates’ story of Diotima, the woman who taught him what it means to love one person and that is more virtuous to love many—and mythic, as Aristophanes’ speech. Today that tradition of presenting speeches is carried over in the term, but we’ve left out the drinking part. (Frankly, I would say that Aristophanes’ speech, and most of the others as well, make a lot more sense when we remember that everyone in that story was drunk.)
Well, here we’ve brought it back; not because alcohol is really all that important, but because the spirit of irreverence, and the room for personal stories, both powerful and innocuous, is made easier with the informality and the bonding that comes with a bit of wine. We now give you our little symposium here tonight, where you can present your objects and their narratives. They do not have to be on the theme of Eros, nor fueled by honeyed wine; we just ask that the stories be yours, and the objects be present.
[i] Liddel and Scott, p. 763