Questioning Greek Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism and Greek Cultural Studies

Dimitris Papanikolaou (Oxford)

Nine years ago, when I started working on Greek popular music of the 1950s and 1960s, focusing especially on the genre of Melopoiemene Poiese, I believed that the setting of poems to popular music was something exceptional to Modern Greek popular culture. In a sense, my understanding of Greek popular music was itself the product of that discourse. I did start working on Hadjidakis, Theodorakis, the various types of Entehno, and especially of Melopoiemene Poiese, in the belief that these were not only unique symbols of how popular culture developed in Greece, but also, somehow, guarantors of the value of my topic as a case study in popular music.

Imagine, then, my surprise when I presented my first research proposal paper at University College London, and I had to face a Taiwanese student asking me whether I had considered the case of Poetry Set to Music in Taiwan in the 1960s. Not only, he said, was my Greek case very much reminiscent of the popular music of his country; much more to the heart of the matter: he was accustomed to believing that this was something very peculiar to Taiwan – actually to be found only in that country, not even in China. I have never traced up this lead. In the following years I was presented with so many similar case studies, as to be made sure that it is not the only one and that, anyway, my case study was not as unique as I had first thought.

The reason I start with this story is because it shows how exceptionalist claims work on both the lay and the analytical levels, shaping perceptions, experiences and identities, often pre-structuring us as critics. It is a preliminary remark which can balance, I think, the methodological point made a couple of years ago by Franklin Hess, according to which ‘The brand of Greek exceptionalism that cohabits with a focus on popular culture studies is not the type of exceptionalism that sets out to showcase the unique spirit of the Greek people or denies the possibility of comparison between Greece and the rest of the world [but… that which] is grounded in concrete geopolitical and geo-economic realities. It recognizes the uniqueness of Greece’s predicament as a multifaceted cultural, economic, and political crossroads and argues for the creation of a dialectical encounter between the theory centers and the cultural peripheries that leaves neither unmodified. (Hess: 51)

I do not have any problems with such statement – except that it can make us neglect how the logic of exceptionalism actually operates within popular culture producing cultural [and ideological] work. Of course, as Hess seems to have in mind, there exists an identifiable exceptionalist discourse that circulates freely between cultural practice and cultural theory [criticism?] in the 20th century. It is a discursive system that comprises popular notions / characteristics (such as ‘kefi’, ‘glenti’, ‘leventia’, ‘parea’, ‘filotimo’) and analytical categories (‘residual orality’, ‘crossroad between east and west’, ‘belated modernization’, ‘performative mode of selfhood’, ‘deep soul’, ‘cultural intimacy’). Often, it provides the foundation for a belief that Greek (popular) culture has developed exceptionally or as an exception to a supposed ‘western culture’ rule. I believe that there is a long discussion to be had on such framings and how much we have to revise and contemplate them in perspective. But I would like to limit my paper today on one aspect that any reconsideration of Greek popular culture studies should take into account: the key role exceptionalist discourses assume, strategically employed, in the general development and performative shaping of a national (popular) culture. In short, I suggest that we need to think of exceptionalism in modernity as a mode of discursively taxonomizing as well as doing culture, and see how cultural studies can engage with this tendency in more complex ways. Instead of espousing exceptionalism, Greek Cultural Studies would do well to ponder on the poetics of exceptionalism as a shaping force within culture. I will try to explain what I mean by this with an analysis of a key moment in the history of Greek popular music.

I will focus on a short paragraph by Mikis Theodorakis – a flagship example in his elaborate project to introduce the new Greek Popular Music, a project which I have analyzed at great length in my recent Singing Poets (2007).

In one of his first interviews, Theodorakis, still living in France but about to repatriate, explains:

Όπως όλοι οι λαοί της γης, έτσι και ο λαός μας, όταν τραγουδάει ένα σκοπό δεν σκέπτεται αν αυτός που τον έφτιαξε είναι χριστιανός ή άθεος, μαύρος ή άσπρος, καθαρός ή ακάθαρτος, άγιος ή δολοφόνος. Το μόνο που τον νοιάζει είναι να νοιώσει τις βαθύτερες χορδές του να δονούνται, να βαλσαμώνονται οι πόνοι και να γίνονται ήχοι τα όνειρά του. Του λαού μας, στερημένου από τα πιότερα αγαθά του μηχανικού πολιτισμού (προνόμιο των προνομιούχων λαών της Ευρώπης και της Βορείου Αμερικής) δεν του έμεινε άλλη παρηγοριά απ’ το να παραμένει αυτός που ήταν πάντοτε: λαός ποιητής, λαός τραγουδιστής, λαός χορευτής. Εδώ στη Γαλλία οι Γάλλοι ζούνε με τα φαντάσματα του εαυτού τους. Αυτός που «ήταν» κάποτε ο λαός αυτός, έγινε «ήχος και φως» και εισιτήριο για τους τουρίστες. Κατά τα άλλα έχουν παραδοθεί άνευ όρων, δίχως υποψία αντιστάσεως, στα καπρίτσια του «πολιτισμού» (δηλαδή στα μεγάλα συμφέροντα). Και για να εξηγηθώ: Θα χορέψουν ροκ-εντ-ρολ, θα τραγουδήσουν α λα Εσπανιόλα – Ιταλιάνα ή α λα Γκρέκα γιατί έτσι θέλουν αυτοί που τους ξεψιλίζουν: οι μεγάλες εταιρίες δίσκων, φιλμς κλπ. Στην Ελλάδα – χάρη στη φτώχεια μας!...- δεν φτάσαμε ακόμη σ’ αυτό το σημείο. Η μουσική μας παράδοση παραμένει ακμαία μέσα στο κυκλοφοριακό σύστημα του λαού μας. (186-187)

Like all the people of the world, our people do not think whether the creator of a song is a Christian or an atheist, black or white, clean or dirty, a saint or a killer. The only thing our people want is to feel their deeper chords palpitating, the pains soothed, and the dreams become sounds. Deprived of the goods of industrial civilization (a privilege of the privileged nations in Europe and North America), our people have been left only with the option of remaining the same as they ever were: a people poet, people singer, people dancer. Here in France the French live with the shadows of their self. What once “was” this people, has now become ‘sight and sound’ and a ticket for the tourists. They have, as it were, given themselves unconditionally and without the least resistance, to the whims of “civilization” (which is to say, of the big interests). Let me make this clear: they will dance to a rock ’n’roll, they will sing a la Espagnola, Italiana or a la Greca, because this is better suited to those who wring them dry, that is the big film and music companies.

In Greece – thanks to our poverty!- we haven’t reached that point yet. Our musical tradition still remains lively in our people’s blood.

One should first take into account the context in which this statement is being made. Theodorakis is at the centre of a media event following the release of his Epitaphios, and promotes the commercial release of his recorded music. The success of his recordings and performances will eventually introduce his larger project of New Greek Popular Music that will function as a taxonomical medium for a larger field of Greek popular culture after the 60s [this is the argument of Singing Poets].

Yet the rhetoric supporting this extract is what interests me here. Theodorakis starts with a universalist claim: what is important in a national popular music is to produce an unmediated, transparent expression of the national psyche. The next phrase reveals that in order for this to happen, more complex dialectics have to be at work. Theodorakis’s original universalist claim (all the peoples of the world), mutates thus into a statement about exclusion (the Greek people are excluded from high industrial development) paired with an argument about exception (this is why the Greek people can still be genuine) covertly supported by a banal exceptionalist claim (the idea of a people poet-singer-dancer). I have analyzed elsewhere and thus will not elaborate on how this idea of the poetry-prone, singing and dancing Greek (the prototypical Zorba) became instrumental in the new cultural politics of the 50s and 60s in Greece, and was as such redefined and reperformed as an iconic staple of identity (Papanikolaou 2006). I will neither at this stage spend time discussing the romantic (organic link of the people, through culture, to the soul of the nation), modernist (celebration of a living tradition) or progressive modernist (the role of the responsible artist) underpinnings of Theodorakis’s proclamations.

What interests me more here is the way a banal stereotyping of a people (λαός ποιητής, χορευτής, τραγουδιστής) is evoked in order to create particularity (Greek music as a particular cultural expression within a global music), or rather, a poetics of distinctiveness. In order to achieve this, Theodorakis starts by distinguishing between an inside (Greece) and an outside (France, standing metonymically as the developed world). Interestingly, even though this sorting out of the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ is based on difference, it is also linked to a larger claim about sameness: particularity is inextricably tied up with a universalist understanding of ‘all people’s genuine expression’.

In other words, the argument goes, the Greek people, because they are excluded from western development, and because they have kept up with their inner (exceptional) self, can voice their particularity in their music, something that other people have lost the ability to do. Greeks can thus be both different and distinct.  By being different they can properly aspire to the universal claim of being honest, transparent and pure.

Theodorakis’s rhetorical strategies here are an ideal case study of what Ernesto Laclau analyzed as the intertwined logics of difference and of equivalence in the production of both particularist and universalist claims and identities. Laclau, taking his cue from structural linguistics, observes that a particular(ist) identity is expressed through the assertion of difference. But in order for this differential claim to be sustained on the social level, it has also to adhere to a version of universalism (a cluster of universal principles). ‘The particular can only fully realize itself if it constantly keeps open, and constantly redefines, its relation to the universal’ (Laclau 1995: 65). Yet, as Rodolphe Gasché explains, ‘if differential identity is only conceivable within a system, the outside of the system that levels the differences that it embraces must at all times be marked within it, and this marking is achieved by the universal.’ (25) It is exactly in order to maintain this relationship with the universal, but also to produce its internal coherence, that logics of difference eventually collapse, within the system, into equivalential chains: ‘It is only by privileging the dimension of equivalence to the point that its differential nature is almost entirely obliterated – that is emptying it of its differential nature – that the system can signify itself as a totality.’ (Laclau 1995: 39)

This point is I think significant in order to fully comprehend a gesture such as Theodorakis’s: the composer, at that particular moment, used a large set of exceptionalist claims in order to produce a logic of homogeneity of the Greek people, a homogeneous λαός, whom he wanted to address, help express through a project of ‘λαϊκή μουσική’ and metonymically λαϊκή κουλτούρα and turn into a ‘progressive’ popular front. Interestingly, this was also a move to create not simply a (new) national popular culture, but a system of national popular culture with entehno laiko as its top notch; for the production of that system internal differences, even within the popular traditions used to create entehno, were eliminated.

[Differences between, for instance, Marinella and Linda, or Bithikotsis, Kazantzidis and Hiotis, or between these artists and traditional musicians, differences between popular lyricists like Virvos and the poet Ritsos, between Ritsos and Anagnostakis, or between these poets and Seferis or Elytis, were[i] all subsumed under this project of creating a new Greek popular music, which in turn, would itself eventually furnish the national vocabulary with an array of banal exceptionalist claims.]

Let us go back to the extract for a last time: Theodorakis started this complex structure by using this easily identifiable image: ο λαός μας, λαός ποιητής, λαός τραγουδιστής, λαός χορευτής.

I characterized this statement as banal exceptionalism (which I have coined in an analogy to Michael billig’s banal nationalism): banal exceptionalism is an exceptionalist discursive strategy that orders the fabric of the popular and the everyday within a certain (national) frame – banal exceptionalism is everywhere, in the guise of all the statements about the exceptional character of a culture and an identity that surround use with nobody really taking seriously [of ‘Live your myth in Greece’; ‘Greece place of gods’ type].

My point is that this banal exceptionalist fabric of a culture is at times used strategically in order to determine and systematize national cultural spaces. In turn, the cultural systems that are produced by this systematization eventually furnish the national vocabulary with a new array of banal exceptionalist claims.

[I have in my work identified a series of banal assertions still operative today when people talk about Greek music, many of which can be traced back to the rhetorics of Theodorakis’s New Greek Song of the 1960s: the widely held belief, for instance, that good Greek song lyrics are a form of poetry (and that this happens only in Greece); or that poetry set to music is a unique trend only to be found in Greece, evidence of the inherent orality of Greek poetry; or equally evidence of the ‘genuine character’ of the ’Entehno’ (Art-popular) song (a term promoted in the 1960s); or even the deep soul credentials of rebetiko and bouzouki and the dance of zeibekiko. In other times some of these were hotly contested territories: after the 60s they became enrichments of the banal image of the ‘people singer, poet, dancer’.]

With this discussion I have tried to emphasize that

  • we have to see exceptionalism as a type of discourse operating, to an important degree, within a contemporary national culture

  • - this discourse is equivalential: it creates commonalities aiming to erase differences

  • - forms of exceptionalist statements related to identity and cultural specificity, especially those that are commonly understood and widely circulated, are used strategically in the construction and proliferation of nationally aspiring cultural systems.

  • - these systems created by and for national culture in their turn rework, recreate and help proliferate instances of what we could term the fabric of banal exceptionalism. In other words: central elements of these systems circulate back in the vocabulary of banal exceptionalism, a vocabulary shared equally by cultural and national identity. [Most of the time, this happens when the systems themselves have lost their full power.][ii]

I would argue that in the analysis of Greek culture, especially popular culture, we are used to identify, contextualize and critique banal exceptionalisms, but we often fail to see their strategic use, in exactly those systems of Greek culture that we have been trained to recognize as particular and unique. To put it very simply, we can easily issue disclaimers for the ‘Live your myth in Greece’ touristic statements, but we are prone to read Theodorakis’s songs through that very idea of the people poet, singer, dancer that positioned his music in the centre of the cultural system in the first place.

If there is a point to be made as a conclusion regarding Greek cultural studies, it is the need for the field to take into account the production and circulation of cultural systems, and contemplate their exceptionalist fabric; if (or when) it doesn’t do that, the field of Greek cultural studies ends up simply celebrating and replicating endlessly that very exceptionalist fabric it has set out to analyze.


Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. London: Sage.

Gasché, Rodolphe. 2004. ‘How Empty Can Empty Be? On the place of the universal’. In Critchley, Simon and Oliver Marchart (eds), Laclau: A Critical Reader. London/New York: Routledge, pp. 17-34.

Laclau, Ernesto. 1996. Emancipation(s). London: Verso.

Papanikolaou, Dimitris. 2006. ‘Oi metamorphoseis tou Zorba’ (Zorba transfigured). Pp. 91-108. In Kazantzakes: To ergo kai e proslepse (Kazantzakis: The reception of his work). Herakleion: Centre for Cretan Literature, pp. 91-108 [in Greek]

Papanikolaou, Dimitris. 2007. Singing Poets: Popular Music and Literature in France and Greece. Oxford: Legenda.

Theodorakis, Mikis. 1986. Gia ten ellenike mousike (On Greek music). Athens: Kastaniotes.

[i] Poets whose work Theodorakis would soon be setting in extremely popular song cycles.

[ii] Theorists of popular culture who work with the idea of the cultural system (and in literature theorists of genre), have shown how a system is uttered / imposed while also transgressed by the very cultural practices it invites. In that sense one could argue that banal exceptionalism stays behind as the relic of a system which defines a space from where one speaks, but is also constantly transgressed.


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