Sunday, September 14, 2008

Singular Antiquity 1

About once a year, I succumb to the temptations of book reviewing. This time, I have buckled to a brand new volume on Greek cultural history, Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and the Hellenic Identity in Twentieth-Century Greece (Athens, 2008). Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos have here collected 25 essays from “Archaeology, Antiquity and Greekness,” a conference held at the Benaki Museum in January 2007.

The literature on archaeology and nationalism has flourished in the last couple of decades, entering even the arena of public debate. Consider, for example, the hoopla over Nadia Abu El-Haj’s tenure controversy at Columbia University. El-Haj’s quite reasonable
Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (Chicago, 2001) explores the use of archaeology in the construction of modern Israel. The controversy is detailed in Jane Kramer, "The Petition: Israel, Palestine, and a Tenure Battle at Barnard" (The New Yorker, April 14, 2008, p. 50). Archaeology’s role in Greek nationalism has its own growing bibliography, culminating with Yannis Hamilakis’ The Nation and Its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece (Oxford, 2007). All this literature, of course, depends on the ground breaking work of historian Eric Hobsbawm (Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge, 1990), who briefly considers the case of Greece. For instance, he compares katharevousa with the revival of Gaelic in Ireland and Hebrew in Israel. The discipline of archaeology has become a lot more reflexive with fundamental volumes like Stephen Dyson, In Pursuit of Ancient Pasts: A History of Classical Archaeology in the 19th and 20th Centuries (New Haven, 2006), Ian Morris ed. Classical Greece: Ancient Histories and Modern Archaeologies (Cambridge, 1994), and Bruce Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought (Cambridge, 1989). While post-colonial historiography spreads through the academy, it remains marginal to the public narrative. Departments of Classical Studies in the U.S., for example, rarely offer courses on the history and ideological foundation of their own discipline. Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (New York, 1987), the Straussian foundations of the Bush administration, or even Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (New Brunswick, 1987) are inescapable in public discourse, but almost invisible in undergraduate course offerings. Most Classics professors and graduate students care more about conjugations and declensions than the deployment of their discipline in cultural debate. Archaeologists, similarly, tend to shun away from topics of cultural heritage while news of repatriation and antiquity trafficking fill the newspapers.

The situation among Greek intellectuals, academicians, students, politicians and the general public is even more steeped in the comfort of 19th-century assumptions. Greece’s national myths are still relevant since the territorial and geopolitical conditions that gave birth to nationalism have not gone away. Membership in the European Union, Greek business expansion, itinerant labor forces and sharing in globalization does not erase the nationalist myth; it complicates it further through amplification or obfuscation.

Singular Antiquity is, therefore, terribly important. It may be that nationalism and archaeology has itself become a tired topic. The connections were obvious to most people, and not only to left intellectuals for whom nationalism was a critical foil. I think nationalism has not become tired enough. The word needs to spread from the convention centers of academia to the offices of politicians and cultural institutions. The essays in this book make it clear that the topic is far from exhaustion. The Benaki, moreover, should be praised for spearheading cultural debate in Greece and abroad (through this English-language publication)

Singular Antiquity contains essays from 25 brilliant scholars, many of whom are the pillars of Modern Greek Studies in the U.S. (e.g. Michael Herzfeld, Mark Mazower, Vasilis Lambropoulos, Artemis Leontis). I already admire the work of many contributors, but many I have never heard of. Bryn Mawr Classical Review has requested that my review be no longer than 1,000 words and I hope to oblige. The 25 essays in this book (and my wordiness) will need more space. So, I’ve decided to post longer reviews for each essay in this blog. The BMCR has also broken out into further digital openness, through a blog where comments can be posted to each review.

At first glimpse, they essays offer nuanced case studies; the book does not promote some megalithic theory, school or posse. It does not read like a party convention with postmodern platitudes or self-congratulations. For this reason, too, I think each essay deserves separate attention. Not all of the authors are academic superstars. Some are only known to small academic circles and publish in Greek. They range from young scholars unknown outside Greece, such as the art historian Elena Hamalidi, to old giants like Demitris Philippides, whose
Neoellenike Architectonike (Athens, 1984) should be in every architectural library but is unfamiliar to English-speaking audiences (even architectural historians). Their work needs to be amplified.

For additional reviews from Singular Antiquity, see here.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States