Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Singular Antiquity 2: Plantzos, Introduction

In preparation for my review for BMCR, I individually review the essays in A Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in Twentieth-Century Greece, ed. Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos (Athens, 2008).

This posting is a review of Dimitris Plantzos, “Archaeology and Hellenic Identity, 1896-2004: The Frustrated Vision,” pp. 10-30.

The two editors of Singular Antiquity bracket the collection of essays by an introductory and concluding essay. Dimitris Plantzos sets the stage with an introductory chapter that achieves three primary objectives: 1) to provide some real flavor on the relation between antiquities and Greekness, 2) to couch this phenomenon in a wider theoretical context, and, 3) to provide a straightforward history of how Greece changed its relation to history through the 20th century. The essay is provocatively illustrated and carries a sharp dialectical style. Plantzos writes like an intellectual, or a good journalist who weighs his words for poetic imagery. “Notes from oblivion,” “Custodians in neverland,” “The Greekness of our discontent,” “Greek archaeology and the post-colonial blues,” From where we stand…,” the essay’s five subheadings, give a good sense of the Plantzos’ effect and a subtle desire to connect with other texts (like Dostoyevsky,’ Notes from Underground, Joyce Carol Oates’, Neverland, etc.) The text itself is crafted to expand questions rather than answer them, a feature that might frustrate some academic readers, but one that seems perfectly appropriate for the maze of meanings that confines Greek realities.

Plantzos begins his essay with an iconographic analysis of the 2004 Athens Olympics, specifically the opening ceremony choreographed by Dimitris Papaioannou. Other illustrations range from Euro Cup soccer games to Greek-Australian parades. With such interjections from popular and political culture, Plantzos succeeds with the first objective, to provide a palpable flavor of archaeological Greekness. I only have one problem with this objective. While giving focus to Greece, it fails to recognize that forms of popular culture are inherently surreal with twisted and contradictory aesthetics. The performative reliving of history can be found in popular culture across the globe; it’s part of modernity. There are endless examples, from the annual reenactment of the Battle at Gettysburg, the Society of Creative Anachronism, to staging medieval jousting competitions and Native American rituals. From England to the American Southwest, archaeology has fed the creative imagination just as much as it has manipulated national ideology. Naturally, Plantzos’ article is not the place to create a global overview of popular meaning, although there is one quick reference made to the Bengal school of art (p. 22). The lack of other national comparisons makes the Greek case-study claustrophobic. One has the feeling that Greece is taken a little too seriously, missing the wonderful theoretical categories of kitsch, camp, and irony that scholars have developed to study popular culture in a positive manner.

The second objective of the article is to relate the Greek case-study to greater theoretical debates regarding history, reality and representation. Plantzos deploys Foucault (heterotopia), Lacan (gaze), Geertz, as well as Winckelmann, Hamann, Herder and Vico to expand the issues. There is not enough room in the essay, however, to explore these connections more meaningfully. On the other hand, they are not just theoretical spice or gratuitous name-dropping. The discourse promises a thread of connections and invites the attention of an audience for whom these theorists have already been digested into house-hold names. I suspect that such literary critics, art historians, post-colonial theorists and cultural critics are Plantzos’ ideal audience. They represent dominant traditions in the humanities but rarely do they concern themselves with Greece. Singular Antiquity should be just as relevant to them as the professional archaeologist.

The third and most straightforward objective is, in my estimation, beautifully handled and seamlessly integrated within the previous two. It is an overview of changing definitions of Greekness in the 20th century. Greeks and non-Greeks alike assume that the nation was consistently defined from the beginning. Plantzos provides a historical overview that should help the non-specialist to navigate through the chapters to follow.

For additional reviews from Singular Antiquity, see here.

1 comment:

Dimitris Plantzos said...

Besides thanking you for the time and attention you have given to my text and the book on the whole (praise valued, points taken), I would simply like to state that "Notes from oblivion" is in fact a direct quote from Gregg Araki's 1992 film "The Living End" - however nice it is to read my name and Dostoyevsky's in the same sentense...

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