Greece for the Greeks?
Yesterday I went to the Piraeus with my husband. He’s the best. I’d recount our entire conversation to you, but it would take all night. At first, I didn’t want to stay to eat down there because I wasn’t entirely impressed by the restaurants which range from KFC to frozen seafood places. But I let myself be persuaded.
Earlier in the day, we went to the Benake Museum, which is in an old mansion near the Parliament building. It houses archaeological finds dating back to the Neolithic Era around 7000 BCE and art through the 19th and 20th centuries. I’ve been thinking since I arrived in Greece about how the Greeks occupy an ambiguous racial position (stay with me here, I promise this will bring me back to the Benake): not entirely white if that really has come to mean European, and Northern European at that. If whiteness gets associated with reason and control, modern Greeks are not perceived as ‘white’ in the same way say, Brits, are. Let’s acknowledge that whiteness is a floating signifier, which, like blackness, has no biological basis or determinant, but has a lot of cultural significance, and as a floating signifier can come to apply to many different skin ‘colors’. Most people don’t think it is good that some people have advantages on the basis of their skin color, and too often, that leads them to say that race should be ignored. That would be a nice thing to do if there weren’t a history that leads up to now of race meaning something, and of people being judged to have a certain character because of their skin color. So when I say that modern Greeks are not perceived as white, I am saying that they don’t quite claim the cultural capital that is associated with whiteness–they don’t make claim to the respect, the assumption of responsibility and capacity, that often goes with European whiteness. The things people think about modern Greeks–that they are passionate (read emotional or overly sexual, not capable of managing their desire), prone to anger and violence, not capable of managing their own economy (read, irresponsible)–are things that have been associated with the colonized of Asia and Africa for several centuries. Frantz Fanon argued that by this association, the white man was able to project his anxieties outside of himself onto another who he could consider “Other” and shun in a symbolic effort to shun his own passion, anger, violence, and sexuality.
So several things struck me at the Benake. One was that the ancient Greeks were engaged in this “Othering” themselves. What the installation notes called the “ithophallic satyr”–a comic figure associated with the cult of Dionysius that had a very large, well, member–was strikingly Egyptian looking. The installation notes even pointed to this Orientalism that occurred when the Greeks began to renew relations with the East after the so-called Dark Ages. Orientalism, a term made popular by Edward Said, is the notion that the European West produced their Other in the east by studying and exploring beyond Europe in a way that allowed them to keep open what they meant by the East, so that it could mean the Pacific Rim, the Middle East, the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean, the Polynesian Islands–what it signified always floated so that it could apply to whatever the West wanted to define itself against, and by so doing, to exclude. Even the ancient Greeks seemed engaged in this practice, producing the dark, overly sexualized comic figure whose very nature was to have uncontrolled desire.
But another thing that struck me is that the modern Greek seems to have been excluded from the inheritance of the tradition of the Ancient Greeks. The paintings of Greece from the 19th century in the Benake are by Germans and Britons. When you think about the go-to sources for understanding and thinking about ancient Greek history, philosophy and literature, you don’t think of Greeks from the past several centuries, you think of the English and the Germans. You think of Goethe, Byron, Hegel and Frede. Somehow, the Greeks don’t seem to have the cultural capital that accompanies the tradition that understands itself as rooted in Greek thought. Martin Bernal argues in Black Athena that the Greeks themselves appropriated many of their ideas from North Africa. Now modern Greece, with its questionable racialization, seems to have been excluded from having the same kind of access to its cultural history that the German intellectual tradition claims to have to Greek intellectual history. I’m not entirely sure that the Greeks can read Plato better just because they are Greek. But I am led to wonder if it isn’t that the Greeks don’t have anything important to say, but that we don’t think of them as if they have anything important to say, and that, in part, is because we think of them as not really white, not really European. Even though they stand on the soil that we claim to spring autochthonous from, the soil of the great thinkers of Western philosophy, from Thales to Proclus.
I suppose it is fitting that a day that ends with a trip to the Piraeus included concern for proper appropriation: What does it mean to give what is proper to whom? When we appropriate by taking over and making our own, are we always taking improperly? Even Plato takes from Socrates by writing in his voice. Does he ever give appropriately back to Socrates? Does Plato have the right to do this? In the effort to think anew and to think anew in relation to history, must we admit that Hegel is right, the only innocence is inaction? As you can see, I’m trying to memorialize Plato with questioning.
The picture accompanying this post is from Monastiraki Square showing the diversity of contemporary modern Greece against the ancient ruins of the Acropolis.