Questioning Greek Exceptionalism

Does Greek Continuity have to be Exceptionalist? –

Or: After After Antiquity

Constanze Güthenke (Princeton)

By way of introduction, this paper first locates the discourse of Greek continuity (i.e. continuity from antiquity into later periods) both within its institutional position within the Greek nation state, as much as, and importantly, within the discourse of European exceptionalism outside Greece, for which the classical tradition, and its ambivalent attitude towards continuity in Greece, has played a key role.

I then go on to use Margaret Alexiou's recent After Antiquity (2002) as a test case for new approaches to continuity within the production and the study of Greek culture and literature. Based on her approach, which stresses enabling contexts, function and an evolutionary cultural contingency, I will next analyze in which areas (including some in After Antiquity) it is very tempting to infuse arguments for and from continuity with exceptionalist thinking. This leads me to ask whether the study of continuity is possible without the epistemological side-effects of exceptionalism at all – I suggest that it may be, opening Alexiou's inquiry to such new fields and topics as the high literary culture of the languages surrounding Greece; an extension of her findings on performance and ritual to include popular culture; and the view across to studies that investigate the logic of continuity in other national contexts, such as that of Israel or India. The overriding question of this paper, which links it with the other two, is why the uncritiqued interlacing of exceptionalist frames with otherwise innovative and cautious discussions of continuity (such as that suggested by Alexiou) may be counter-productive. The tentative answer is that this link may keep other patterns of continuity from becoming visible.

Of the sites of exceptionalist discourse we have tried to identify so far, that of 'continuity' appears in many ways an easy one, and also, if one is less charitable, an easy straw man. Its workings and expressions can certainly be traced in a 'lay exceptionalist' mode (the famous Big Fat Greek Wedding line) where its obviousness makes for the spectrum of nationalist ideology and humour; its historical trajectory, on the analytical side, can also be followed with remarkable clarity, beginning with the Fallmerayer and Paparrigopoulos cases. It is tempting, therefore, to protest or laugh at one extreme, and historicize the other. Why bother, then -- this being the field where the 'productive unease' we described is for many of us, at least in its placative forms, most likely to be either unproductive, or an actual discomfort, or a matter of emotional belief.

Working in a Classics department [see panel discussion at last MGSA], one is still often confronted with a level of expectation of conforming to or rejecting a continuity thesis – a spectator sport of sorts almost, at least for some. In other words, continuity is something one will come up against one way or another, as a hard or soft claim, in one professional area or another, be it teaching, disciplinary and institutional self-definition, or research. Do we have to keep talking about it, though, and if so, how? What I suggest is that if we cannot escape continuity as a theme, we might be helped if we unpack its subject matter in terms of function and context. The lesson for our discussion of exceptionalism is to see more clearly how exceptionalist claims are a secondary discourse, which creates meaning above and beyond analyzing the occurrence of similar features across different time periods. 

In the following 15 minutes, I will use Meg Alexiou's 2002 After Antiquity as an example of how to answer some of those questions innovatively and productively. At the same time, her work allows me to project how some of her suggestions might be extended even further, to uncouple some of her tools of conceptualizing continuity as far as possible from a limiting exceptionalist framework, by admitting both particularity and new avenues of comparison.

When reviewing her book recently, not for a Modern Greek Studies publication, incidentally,[1] it became clear to me how much some of her positioning of her subject may strike readers from other fields as fighting against windmills – some of what she reacts against must look like mildly old-fashioned scholarship, indeed: similarity of motifs equaling proof of continuity, etc. Her discussion makes clear, though, how strong a model that still is (a little like the 'pots equal people' argument in archaeology, i.e. presence of artifacts of a recognizable kind means presence of people of same time and sometimes provenance – so, likewise, similarity of motif equals continuity, what looks alike has been there continuously). Alexiou is not setting up straw men here:  in the field of Greek studies in the broadest sense, especially where continuity, transmission and influence are concerned, some of the older models are still a surprisingly persistent force to be reckoned with.

In his short, but influential, prose sketch of 1823, Dialogos, Dionysios Solomos stages an encounter on the shores of his home island Zakynthos between the characters of Poet, Friend and His Excellency the Teacher, who on a balmy late afternoon are discussing language, while looking across the sea towards the mainland and the invisible battle fields of the Greek War of Independence.

Solomos’ Poet, faced with the learned Teacher’s support for an archaizing, purifying language program oriented on Ancient Greek, tries to counter the latter’s bout of educational enthusiasm about the notion that ideas are imparted by way of the words they come in.  Even if words contain ideas, this surely doesn’t mean that everyone using the same words has therefore also the same ideas.  To elaborate, the Poet uses the example of money: its usefulness, despite its currency value, depends entirely on who holds it and knows what to do with it: “The coins of the country where you live have the same exchange value;  for all that, they are worth nothing in my hands, because I would not know how to spend them;  in your hands they are worth much more, because you know how to manage them;  and in the hands of a third they increase quickly”.[2]  The question of how to handle money, how to buy, how to increase is not unlike the question of what purchase Greek continuity has:  instead of coins, the currency consists of analogies and similarities of a linguistic or formal nature, motifs, narrative patterns, or genres.  Money, for Solomos’ Poet, is of course a metaphor for language, and like metaphor money is relational and, without its context, without value.

As Loring Danforth summarized the state of affairs in a seminal article a good twenty years ago, “[t]he assertion or denial of the continuity of Greek culture must be seen for what it is, a rhetorical strategy that is effective in a variety of contexts”.[3]  The discussion of continuity, whether it is detected in the elements of language, motifs or the characteristics of the nation imagined as a developing human organism, has therefore been an issue largely in the context of historiography, and in Greece and regarding Greece it is heavily associated with the framework of nineteenth century historicism and romantic nationalism, hardening in its parameters as the century wore on.  Its clearest expression, in reaction against J. Ph. Fallmerayer’s incendiary claim that there was no racial link between the ancient and modern Greeks, came maybe in the shape of K. Paparrigopoulos’ large-scale project of a history of Greece from antiquity through the Medieval or Byzantine period to the modern age.[4]  What is significant is Alexiou’s observation that the teleological linking of periods of Greek culture, has, paradoxically, also led to compartmentalization into three distinct fields, ancient, Byzantine and modern, with a sense of mutual rivalry and anxiety of trespass. Instead of such categorization, space should be made for diachronic and synchronic study side by side, an approach, as Alexiou rightly points out, with its mightiest flagship maybe in recent anthropology and ethnography.

Alexiou's operative mode of analysis is that of function.  Function permits her to ask how language, myth and metaphor are interrelated, how things mean, rather than what they mean, and how we read in the first place, ‘we’ the scholars as much as ‘we’ the recipients of a fully contextualized textual source, taking in all its performative and ritual aspects. Her own concept of transmission, if it is just a single one, is to look at the relevance of earlier to later texts in terms of what potential models the earlier could give to the latter.  Productivity thereby replaces dependency in the critical vocabulary, and integration takes over from imitation.  When discussing the structure, yet variety, of wondertales later on, Alexiou has recourse to the idea of evolutionary contingency (a la Gould) to explain the narrative contingency, which she finds, for example, in the genre of the paramythi. In other words, development can be traced back, even if the conditions for that development could at any juncture have produced very different results as well. What is more, the same notion of evolutionary or cultural contingency as a model for transmission seems applicable to her case of the Greek tradition as a whole. Against direct, causal relationships, she suggests that connections be traced “through language, myth and metaphor, with comparable modes of perception and representation” (98).

There is a lingering thesis that certain modes of perception and representation, as they keep being reintegrated into a tradition as key features, are not only specific to the web of Greek texts across genres, space and time, but are also exclusive to Greek. Alexiou is rightly very firm that “Greeks, to this day and throughout their history, have a share in both East and West” (14), and she has no problem acknowledging external influences and centuries of interaction without discounting continuity.  In fact, she insists that a study of Greek material ought to include the Balkans and Anatolia, certainly in the case of folk song, and most of her case studies reveal how Greek has been bordering on territories which themselves have a rich history of linguistic ambivalence and coexisting registers (think of Ottoman as a melding of spoken Turkish with classical Arabic and Persian).  Integration of highly literary material from those areas, too, is a promising venture and one that still needs much overdue research.  And yet, it remains unclear how strong a claim for Greek uniqueness she wishes to make. From our present point of view of inquiry, therefore, what is most interesting is her enthusiasm to provoke comparative work, with the Balkans and the Levant; and also her simultaneous reluctance to admit comparison, within the same parameters of functionality and full context or thick description, with other high literary cultures or elements. Or with the West.

The argument for contextualizing instead of universalizing is forcefully and convincingly made.  But what about excpetionalizing? Among other things, Alexiou asks “how [do] mythical genres explore dangerous subjects in order to challenge authority, while strengthening a sense of community” (155) – and on that note a study that comes to mind on the issue of comparability and comparatism is Herzfeld’s recent re-edition of Cultural Intimacy (1991; 2nd, rev. ed. 2005).  Herzfeld identifies a pattern of challenging authority while creating internal community as the logic of cultural intimacy, and this is a pattern similar to what Alexiou argues for the effects and workings of wondertales, and he does so regarding the case of the Greek nation state.  In a new introduction to the second edition, however, he attempts to show the relevance of this pattern for other select societies as well.[5]

As a complement to the spatial comparison, the temporal frame could also profitably be extended. Another possible route, therefore, would be to test Alexiou’s insights against Greek popular culture of the present (her fieldwork data seems to stop somewhere in the early 80s), a culture that still relishes the mix between oral and literary, between genres, media and modes of expression, verbal and non-verbal, a culture that is urban and increasingly cosmopolitan.  In short, a Greece that in all its interdependence is no longer the center of Alexiou’s own fieldwork, but most likely still a fertile ground for her analysis.[6]

Another possible model of lateral comparison is that with other continuity claims, either of the Western European kind, such as the 'English continuity thesis' of Victorian Britain (E.A. Freeman); or of non- or ambivalently European kinds, such as those of India, Israel, China, Persia or Egypt, places considered outside parameters of historiography and historical consciousness in a now much-maligned and deservedly criticized Euro-centric model. In other words, we would like to conceive of comparison as something that thinks in terms of variation, rather than conformity or deviance, however productively resistant, in relation to a central model.

One reformulation, to take this thought into a slightly different direction, that has had traction in recent critiques of Eurocentrism is Dipesh Chakrabarty's call for 'provincializing Europe' as a critical and analytic response (2000): do we need to "re-provincialize" Greece as well, as a first step, rather than make it either exceptional, or, thereby, still exemplary? In other words, can the material of our field(s)//Modern Greek Studies generate theory, while not having to justify itself by being a model or hook for theory beyond itself, as Korais put it in the very beginning paragraph of his famous lecture to be delivered before the Société des observateurs de l'homme in Paris in 1803. Taking their mission, the observation of man, serious, he begins his 'Report on the Present State of Civilization in Greece' in the following way: "If the state of a nation is to be fruitfully observed, it is mainly in the period when this nation degenerates from the virtues of its ancestors, as well as in the period when it is in the process of regeneration. The observer in both cases is placed at a vantage point which, by placing before him the succession of causes which lead to civilization being fostered or destroyed, affords him lessons useful for humanity" (153). With this, the tone seems set to perceive the observation of the state of Greece as something that is only fruitful and valuable under two conditions: a) at a time when it is not 'normal': either degenerating or regenerating; and b) when that state of 'eccentricity' affords insights, or 'theory' applicable more widely to humanity. Some of that framework, we suggest, still stays with us as Modern Greek Studies are moving into the 21st century, whether we like it or not.

Continuity, like exceptionalism, is something historically keyed to the nation, but, and this is important, it is not co-extensive with it, and again we do not want to equate the two concepts and their analysis. With continuity, therefore, just as with exceptionalism, we suggest to uncouple the term from discussion of the nation and prise open their relation instead.

Let me finish with two final quotations; Peter Bien in his 2005 JMGS piece, talking of nationalism, views it, like religion, as an avoidance or sheltering mechanism against contingency. Niklas Luhman, the sociologist of 'social systems' and their theory, in an interview some twenty years ago re-described biography as a series of contingencies, where the sense of continuity emerges from a sensitivity to the contingent and accidental.[7] – Maybe it is time we reclaimed continuity, if we cannot avoid it, by disengaging it from exceptionalism, and, following Alexiou's suggestion, by taking seriously the contingent.


[1] C. Güthenke, 'The Fabric of Continuity', in Classical and Modern Literature 27/2 (2007).

[2] Dionysios Solomos, Apanta 2: Peza kai Italika, ed. L. Politis 1955:14.

[3] L. Danforth, ‘The Ideological Context of the Search for Continuities in Greek Culture’, Journal of Modern Greek Culture 2:1 (1984), 53-85:84.

[4] The historian and traveler J.Ph. Fallmerayer published a series of investigtions on Greek history in the 1830s, motivated mainly, however, by a fear of future pan-Slavic claims; so, for example, Über die Entstehung der Neugriechen (Stuttgart 1835), and Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea (Stuttgart 1830-36). K. Paparrigopoulos, Historia tou Hellenikou ethnous, apo ton archaiotaton chronon mechri ton kath’emas (Athens 1885-87), begun as a school textbook before flowering into a five-volume edition.

[5] M. Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State, 2nd ed. (New York 2005)

[6] For a provocative call for the integration of popular culture studies into Modern Greek Studies, see recently F. Hess, ‘Close Encounters of the Common Kind: the Theoretical and Practical Implications of Popular Culture for Modern Greek Studies’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies 21 (2003): 37-66.

[7] "Eine Biographie ist eine Sammlung von Zufällen, das Kontinuierliche besteht in der Sensibilität für Zufälle", Niklas Luhman, 'Biographie, Attitüden, Zettelkasten', in Archimedes und Wir. Interviews, ed. by Dirk Baecker and Georg Stanitzek (Berlin, 1987), 125-155, 134.


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