Reviews: Epic Facework. Self-presentation and social interaction in Homer

Mouseion: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada Volume 9, Number 3, 2009

by Ingrid E. Holmberg

Misunderstandings, slights to integrity, and insults are a common by-product of human social interaction. In Epic Facework: Self-presentation and Social Interaction in Homer, Ruth Scodel analyzes how sensitive Homeric warriors negotiate reactions to offences through complex forms of “social behavior” (ix) which defuse many, if not all, of the potentially explosive causes for violent reaction to loss of “face” (153). Scodel relies heavily on the term “face” from politeness theory, which she contextualizes with the well-known Homeric pair of t?µ? and ????? as yet another form of “prestige”: face is “the positive social worth that everyone claims in social self-representation, and that others attribute to him or her. There are two sides to face: negative face is an individual’s claim to freedom of action, while positive face is the positive self-image based on approval of the social group.” Unlike t?µ?, face is not “social capital” which can be stored, nor is it normally material (13). Threats to face provoke a heavy risk of anger: “[m]ost often … a hero replies angrily, because anger is the proper response to unjustified criticism and defends the hero’s face” (14). In addition, Theory of Mind leads Scodel to posit the inner thoughts of, and to attribute possible motives to (xi), various Homeric characters as they ponder how to behave in socially complex interactions; Scodel herself admits that “[s]ome of the preceding excursions into Theory of Mind … are probably far-fetched” (156).

Epic Facework attempts to understand primarily Agamemnon’s face [End Page 344] managing strategies within the normative social codes of the Iliad. In her preface, Scodel shares her “special concerns…with” Agamemnon, who is “an ordinary second-rate man with a bad temper in a job too difficult for him” (xi). A Homeric character such as Agamemnon has at his disposal gifts, apologies and “face-sacrifice” through which he can make amends for causing someone else’s loss of face and for restoring “communal harmony” (103); for the more hostile assaults of the seizure of captives and killing the remedies are ransom and vengeance or compensation (?p???a and p????). Particularly with respect to ransom and vengeance, Scodel engages closely with, and often relies heavily upon, Wilson’s excellent Ransom, Revenge, and Heroic Identity in the Iliad (Cambridge, 2002). Despite Scodel’s claims that at times Agamemnon can ignore “immediate face-concerns in pursuit of larger purposes” and is “capable of face-management” (138), his conflict with Chryses in Iliad 1, followed immediately by his “test” of the troops in Iliad 2, establish Agamemnon’s failure at face management in the most crucial junctures. After carefully and informatively analyzing the shifting negotiations of face in the opening lines of the Iliad, Scodel concludes that Agamemnon is unable to salvage the situation, and does not do the “massive face-sacrifice” (136) which would keep Achilles in the war. In Iliad 2 Agamemnon looks “both defeatist and incapable of controlling his army” (65) and in the end “the tactic [of the Diapeira] is not successful” (68). Despite these failures, Scodel seems to be suggesting that the combination of tactics (gift exchange, apologetic shifting of blame and increasing dependence on the defense of ?t?) to which Agamemnon resorts unsuccessfully in Iliad 9 are finally successful in persuading Achilles to fight again in Iliad 19. Yet here again Agamemnon’s face management is unequal, or irrelevant, to the task: Achilles no longer cares for the gifts, the girl, or the social niceties of the dance of “communal harmony” but is consumed with anger and guilt over Patroclus’ death. Even though the remedial exchange between Achilles and Agamemnon allows the “community to move forward as if everyone agreed,” Achilles’ dismissive attitude only highlights the expediency of these methods of maintaining “social harmony” (123) and the fragility of the system.

Scodel does an excellent job of alerting readers to how Homeric heroes typically handle loss of face, and I will in future read and teach the numerous exchanges she examines with a new understanding. The Iliad, however, is about a most untypical hero who from the very beginning has “an idiosyncratic interpretation of common norms” (146) and who seeks a “socially desirable goal” without concern for the “cost to social cohesion” (129): in Iliad 1 in particular, Achilles refuses to recognize Agamemnon’s “face needs” (132) or to realize “that Agamemnon was looking for a way to [End Page 345] withdraw…gracefully” (134). The extremity of Achilles’ ??ß? about his disagreement with Agamemnon (9.386–387) and about the death of Patroclus (19.208) confounds mitigation and compensation within the system Scodel has outlined and to which the characters otherwise adhere: Agamemnon declares that he will compensate Achilles with ?p???a or ransom (9.120 and 138) which is not an accurate description of his gifts and apology to Achilles; the retrieval of Hector’s body, also described as ?p???a (24.137, 139, 276 etc.), is closer to the normal concept of ransom but is still unusual in its application to a dead, and materially worthless but symbolically valuable, corpse rather than a living captive.

The limitation of Scodel’s commitment to the immediacy of face work prevents her for the most part from contextualizing her analysis within the larger narrative and the broader structures of meaning suggested by the epic; in contrast, Wilson consistently addresses the bond between episodes, the “monumental” narrative, and the broader social function of Homeric epic. “Face work” specifically does not adequately explain two important incidents in Iliad 23 which Scodel discusses, the Antilochus/Menelaos exchange (“it is not clear how [Antilochus’] material gain balances his face-loss,” 46) and Achilles’ face save for Agamemnon (155–157), both of which would have benefited from a larger perspective (Wilson proposes persuasive suggestions for this episode). Finally, Scodel observes that what Achilles wants is ????? (Il. 9.316, Scodel 146) and that pity is the “[o]nly … emotion [which] has any chance against … anger” (88) without pursuing either as a potential defuser of angry tension. Just as Achilles’ anger in all its Iliadic forms transcends the social emollient of “face work”, so too do gratitude and pity.


Choice Review (July 2009 Vol 46 No 11)

D. Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University

Deference expectations govern tricky interpersonal exchanges in Homer's poems. Scodel (Univ. of Michigan) applies sociologist Erving Goffman's fruitful concepts of status negotiation and "face"~at risk in all interactions~to notions of deference. She builds smartly on recent studies of reciprocity, "politeness theory," ancient emotions, approaching the rich evidence for nonverbal behaviors. Six tight chapters examine Homeric honor, gifts, "face" and threats to "face," revenge, and apologies (or whatever heroic self-repositioning passes for such). She examines Homer's most contentious quarrel between Agamemnon "most chiefly" and Achilles quickest to return slights. Scholars rightly puzzle over Agamemnon's dubiously generous offers to amend threats, clumsy face saving, and abusive management. Achilles' hurt honor and his considered desire to humiliate the Achaean war chief never find adequate satisfaction; but his goals and needs change when Patroclus dies. Scodel contends that both chieftains have respectable arguments—a good observation, since Homer's artistry eschews easy judgments. The low status Thersites' strategy deserves further comment, but the discussion of Patroclus' funeral games will impress readers. The book assumes familiarity with recent debates about Homeric ethics, honor, status, and social strategizing. Scodel carefully translates all Greek texts.

Scholia Reviews ns 19 (2010) 4 (see also

Soledad Correa
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[[1]] 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.


[[1]] D. F. Wilson, Ransom, Revenge, and Heroic Identity in the Iliad (Cambridge 2002) 14.