Tag Archives: identity

On “the classical debt”

I was once describing to a non-archaeologist Hellenist colleague and friend how archaeology works in Greece. In the course of that discussion I mentioned in passing that the directors of regional archaeological offices are called “ephors” (Greek έφορος). “Really?” she asked, before exclaiming, “How cute!” I didn’t say anything, but privately I was annoyed at the remark. I guess that it is kind of neat for a Classicist, who naturally associates ephors with ancient Sparta… but is it really so remarkable that the word for “supervisor” in Greek (ancient) is also the word for “supervisor” in Greek (modern)?

There are two ways that I think about this little anecdote. They’re interconnected, and both have been stimulated by recent work by Johanna Hanink, an associate professor of Classics at Brown University. The first part is from an article in the journal Eidolon entitled “On not knowing (modern) Greek“, where she argues (in short) that “our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek” and that “classicists trained in the “Western” classical tradition tend to disregard Modern Greek as a scholarly language.”

She’s absolutely right, of course. One little example: I almost lost my mind when, just two years ago, a new Journal of Greek Archaeology was announced with the following statement:

Announcing an international journal printing contributions in English, French, German, and Italian…. Work from Greek scholars is particularly welcome, but should be either translated into English or sent to us for English translation or assistance.

Yeesh. I saw that statement on July 22nd, 2015. On social media there was palpable anger about the policy’s neo-colonial implication (and much gallows humor too, of course). Through direct intervention on the part of more established scholars, with cooler heads than mine, the policy was changed (to English only! Huzzah?). Part of my irritation at my colleague’s off-hand comment was, to be sure, the implication that modern Greek was cute: just cute. It didn’t really count, as demonstrated by the fact that she, a specialist in ancient Greek, didn’t really have any acquaintance with the modern language.

But this blog post was supposed to be about the second part of this: a book, The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity (Harvard University Press 2017), which I just finished last night. (There’s also a nice review in the WSJ by Alicia Stallings). This book pulls on a thread and traces it through time, that thread being the idea of the debt owed to Greece by the West because of the achievements of the Classical (senso latu) age – democracy, philosophy, and that – and especially how that idea has manifested itself and been reacted to since the economic crisis. In pulling on this thread, she deals with many interrelated issues, all dealing with the productive and strained relationships between Classical antiquity and modern Greece and the West. In the end, Hanink suggests that the debt ought to be understood as “a debt owed for the centuries of destruction that other people’s dreams of the ancient past have wrought.” It’s a really thoughtful, accessible, well-written book, and one that I’ve been recommending to anyone who will listen.

It’s also helped me to think about why the “cute” comment so rankled. As so many commentators have noted – including Hanink, who is very good on this – Greece is caught in a bind. Here’s how Michael Herzfeld describes it in Anthropology through the Looking-Glass (1987: 19):

the West supported the Greeks on the implicit understanding that the Greeks would reciprocally accept the role of living ancestors of European civilization – the standard, for most romantic writers, of civilization in the most general and absolute sense.

And yet the terms of this tacit agreement were unequal in the extreme. Whereas the Greeks sought genetic confirmation of their cultural destiny in the link with the ancient past, western observers, operating on the basis of a self-fulfilling prophecy, more often saw in it the evidence of Greek backwardness and “obsession.” The Greeks of today are still living out the consequences of that imbalance…

Or, maybe better, here’s Nikos Dimou (translation mine; cf. Hanink, p. 206):

Η σχέση μας με τους αρχαίους είναι μία πηγή του εθνικού πλέγματος κατωτερότητας. Η άλλη είναι η σύγκριση στο χώρο και όχι στο χρόνο. Με τους σύγχρονους «ανεπτυγμένους». Με την «Ευρώπη.»

Our relationship with the ancients is one source of the national inferiority complex. The other source is a comparison of space, rather than of time. With contemporary “developed” people. With “Europe.”

I’m sure that the title of έφορος for the head of a regional archaeological department was motivated by the word’s antiquity. It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t, and that corresponds to the desire to forge the “link with the ancient past” that Herzfeld refers to. Indeed, early in the history of the Greek state, the creation of a purified Greek language (Katharevousa) was extremely important (this too is well-covered by Hanink). But this purified Greek wasn’t the same as ancient Greek; it was equally built up from modern European languages, especially French. And it was crucially important to the image of Greece, internally and externally. As Herzfeld writes (1987: 52):

Katharevousa would be the means of liberating the Greeks, not only from the cultural corruption that was the legacy of the Turkocracy, but also from the shackles of their humiliatingly dependent status in the European community.

This linguistic link to antiquity, then, well illustrates the bind of being Greek. “Cute,” then, for me at least, was rubbing salt in the wound. It pointed to the inevitable failure of the attempt at Greek linguistic liberation and to both sources of the Greek inferiority complex.

I hope that this too-personal post doesn’t divert attention from my intention, which was to reflect on what I think is a remarkable book. Hanink richly traces the contours of the issues I’ve mentioned here (and many more), sensitively and perceptively, and shows the reader how they played out through much of Greek history, from the 5th century to the present day. It really should be required reading for anyone who’s interested in Greece, past, present or future.


Homer, the Iron Age, and Materiality

The new issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal contains an article by James Whitley, entitled “Homer’s Entangled Objects: Narrative, Agency and Personhood In and Out of Iron Age Texts.” Its abstract reads as follows:

In recent years, material culture studies have come to embrace contemporary Melanesia and European prehistory, but not classical archaeology and art. Prehistory is still thought, in many quarters, to be intrinsically more ‘ethnographic’ than historical periods; in this discourse, the Greeks (by default) become proto-modern individuals, necessarily opposed to Melanesian ‘dividuals’. Developments in the study of the Iron Age Mediterranean and the world of Homer should undermine such stark polarities. Historic and proto-historic archaeologies have rich potential for refining our notions both of agency and of personhood. This article argues that the forms of material entanglements we find in the Homeric poems, and the forms of agency (sensu Gell 1998) that we can observe in the archaeological record for the Early Iron Age of Greece (broadly 1000–500 bc) are of the same kind. The agency of objects structures Homeric narrative, and Homeric descriptions allow us precisely to define Homeric ‘human–thing entanglement’. This form of ‘material entanglement’ does not appear in the Aegean world before 1100 BC.

If Whitley is right, of course, this is an important discovery that cuts to the heart of how we understand the Greek world, the history of the Western notion of personhood, and so on. Obviously it’s not possible in a short blog post to touch on every aspect of Whitley’s argument, so I’m just going to concentrate on a series of claims that Whitley makes about the Homeric poems. Whitley argues (397)  that “it is the particular entanglements of people, narratives and things… that form much of the matter of both Homeric poems.” This argument pins down a key claim of Whitley’s, namely that (398)

the ‘entanglement’ of objects within peoples’ lives, and the agency attributed to objects in many kinds of narrative in many genres undermines the stark dichotomy between a morally autonomous ‘Western’ individual and a socially-entangled Melanesian ‘dividual’. It should no longer be taken as self-evident then that those proto-Westerners, ‘the Greeks’, whose ‘individualism’ many authors have taken as rising in Archaic times, were ‘individuals’ in the modern sense at all.

Whitley’s discussion of Homer focuses on two types of objects in Homer: those with extensive biographies, and those which are described at great length (these descriptions are known as ekphrasis). Whitley claims (399) that subjects of ekphrasis provide occasions for brilliant poetic performance, but have little narrative force, whereas biographical objects, while rarely described in detail, are often agents that drive the narrative forward. An example of an ekphrasis for Whitley is the gold brooch described by Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, to Penelope. But Whitley says that in ekphrasis “images act as a prompt to oral narrative” (399). But in this case, the brooch is entirely absent: the whole point is that Odysseus/the beggar is describing the brooch totally from memory. So it seems odd to focus on the materiality of an immaterial thing. And the fundamental immateriality of this exchange is confirmed by the fact that the brooch is just the introduction to the beggar’s overall description of Odysseus that causes Penelope to weep: the brooch is described in 6 lines (19.226-31), but the beggar’s description of Odysseus takes up a full 24 lines (19.225-248).

In fact, Whitley’s focus on material objects is a problem to begin with. Whitley focuses on artifacts (Agamemnon’s scepter, Achilles’s arms, Odysseus’s helmet) that are potentially recognizable archaeologically, because he’s an archaeologist. But this is surely far too limiting: after all, as much as archaeologists might wish it to be true, it’s not the case that the world is just made up on individuals, dividuals, and artifacts. It’s not. There are animals, plants, actions, features of persons, and divine signs, among many, many other things.

I didn’t pick these examples at random. When I think about those marks that are most entangled with personhood in Homer, I think about these, not artifacts. Odysseus’s identity, after all, is not revealed mainly by artifacts. It is instead revealed by an animal, Odysseus’s dog Argos, who dies when at last his master returns home after 20 years (Od. 17.290-310), by his amazing knock-out of Iros with a single punch (Od. 18.88-117), by a scar on his leg that he got while hunting in the mountains with his grandfather Autolykos (Od. 19.386-502), by divine portents seen by Theoklymenos (Od. 20.350-357), by his ability to string his bow — notice that it is his ability to manipulate this ‘biographical’ artifact and not the artifact itself which is decisive here — and his use of it to slaughter the suitors in his heroic persona, with divine assistance (Od. 21.404-22.41), and finally, and most decisively, by his clear and detailed recollection of a fixed bed which he built with his own hands from a living olive tree (Od. 23.181-204).

It’s very odd to read an article about non-human things and personhood in Homer that doesn’t refer to any of these things. It might be possible to describe Homeric poems as “narratives of people and things” (411), but only if we radically cut down our full range of vision to a tiny subset of interactions in order to suit one particular argument.