Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Singular Antiquity 4: Herzfeld

What follows is a review of Michael Herzfeld, “Archaeological Etymologies: Monumentality and Domesticity in Twentieth Century Greece," in Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and the Hellenic Identity in Twentieth-Century Greece, ed. Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos (Athens, 2008), pp. 43-54.

Michael Herzfeld is nothing short of a superstar in Modern Greek studies, a founder of an entire discipline of social anthropology, making Greece a paradigm-breaker. His article in Singular Antiquity is as provocative as all his work. Despite its complexity and the variety of avenues it opens, Herzfeld’s explores a singular concept well understood by anthropologists, namely the contradictory relationship between public presentation and private secrets. In this sense, it is similar to Mark Mazower’s essay that focuses closely on land. According to Herzfeld, classical antiquity has provided Greece with a cultural façade behind which private life could enjoy illicit and familiar practices. This is more than the tired duality of public vs. private or Hellenic vs. Romeic identities, it is a historically constructed condition common to modern states whose self-imaging was created by others. As in the cases of Nepal, Ethiopia, and Thailand, Greece created a cultural model not of its own making. And Greeks, of course, hate to be compared with the third world, as evident in the response to Marin Bernal's Black Athena. The classical façade (and later the modernist polykatoikia) is western Europe’s creation; for Greece, it served as an ideal screen to disguise alternative lifestyles. Understanding this duality unlocks the inexplicable patterns of modern Greek life, most notably the juxtaposition between a “stern morality” and “a relaxed attitude to violations of the norm.”

Herzfeld’s anthropological model (inspired by E. Papataxiarchis’ study of eterotita), proves to be extremely useful but surprisingly under-utilized, for example, in architectural studies. Excluding a few case studies (some by Herzfeld’s students), the anthropological lens has not penetrated into interdisciplinary research. Studies of Greek architecture have been limited to understanding formal vocabularies rather than social practices, and they have not revealed the spatial tension between interior and exterior. Herzfeld goes beyond the monument and addresses some contemporary developments, the realization that Greece’s homogeneity was a grand myth. James Faubion’s Modern Greek Lessons: A Primer in Historical Constructivism (Princeton, 1993) opened up subjects of research that have chipped away the monolith. Herzfeld highlights that the system of classical disguise (dominant under the Greek junta and Victorian England alike) has cracked, and pluralist voices have leaped out (Moslem minorities, gay-lesbians- transsexuals, migrant workers, refugees, etc.). Herzfeld sees the dawn of a new age when the classical myth has lost its monopoly. Moreover, he sees a direct relationship between the size of the classical screen and our ability to deconstruct it today. “The Neoclassicists and the crypto-colonizers may have strengthened the classical heritage simply by letting go of it.”

On a personal note, Herzfeld’s essay brought me back to 1994-1995, when two books transformed me: Faubion’s Modern Greek Lessons and Gregory Jusdanis’ Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (Minneapolis, 1991). Much of what I think today about Modern Greece depends on those two works. Sadly, Faubion has stopped working in Greece and has moved on to equally complex places, such as Waco, Texas, see The Shadows and Lights of Waco: Millenialism Today (Princeton, 2001). Modern Greek Lessons was a double surprise to me. During his fieldwork in Greece, Faubion met Greece’s leading gay-rights activist, who just so happens to be my cousin. Faubion studied the ambivalence of sexual politics with Gregory Vallianatos as navigator. Between 2004 and 2008, Gregory wrote a column in Athens Voice. His short biting editorials have just been collected into a book that I’m infinitely grateful to my friend Anna Androulaki for sending to me. The book bears the same title as the editorial, Akatallilo, and was published by Kastaniotes (Athens, 2008). I read the editorials for the first time. They offer a glimpse through the cracks that Herzfeld discusses in Singular Antiquity. I am so proud of my cousin!

For additional reviews from Singular Antiquity, see here.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States