Behind the (Southern) Looking Glass

by Sotirios Bahtsetzis

From the time of Charlemagne to the present day, art as an expression of the ‛South’ seems to be the ‛agic potion’ of European fantasies

Christina Dimitriadis, I Remember All of You, 2004, lambda print, 60 x 60 cm, Courtesy of the artist and Eleni Koroneou Gallery

The very title of this magazine can serve as a trigger for examining the relationship of Greece with Europe – the latter defined as the nucleus of states that shaped the modernist European hegemony in political, economic and ideological terms. In his profound analysis of this relationship, social anthropologist Michael Herzfeld makes a series of points that contribute to our understanding of modern Greek identity and ideology as well as our many national illusions. The interesting thing about Herzfeld’s insightful analysis is that he keeps his distance from both the essentialist approaches as they are established in the ethnic romance and the mainly academic theories about construction, which present the nation as a historically and culturally finite entity. Drawing on these two opposed approaches, Herzfeld goes on to make his apposite point about a “double-headed Hellenism” (East and West, “Romios” and Greek) – the cultural dipoles which shape the modern Greek conscience. One of his major findings concerns “the peculiarly Greek version of Orientialism”, which creates the twofold Greek identity and places it in the semantic space defined by the ideological projections of Europe and the respective poles of the European and the Other as they are shaped by these projections. The ambiguous Greek identity constitutes a symptom of the most important among these significations: the contrast between the ‘civilised’ capitalist Europe and the ‘barbarian’ pre-capitalist Orient. Interestingly, however, these neutral schematisations that help in historical research are also used systematically for political and economic propaganda within and outside Greece. Greeks are not described as constitutionally excluded from Europe but rather as not sufficiently the same: not sufficiently lawful, not sufficiently efficient as capitalists, not sufficiently sovereign. This is obviously an ideological approach that resorts to psychological terms about deviant behaviour and legitimises the current fiscal (and more general) ‘black pedagogy’ exerted on Greek society by its fellow members and creditors. This approach is not meant to discredit the topical pragmatic analyses of the current crisis in Greece, which is investigated in terms of the absence of development policies and the divergence in the social division of labour compared to the developed capitalist countries, and in terms of speculative attacks by the global financial markets and the political stagnation in the drive for a unified, mutually supportive Europe. Instead, it attempts to demonstrate how the hybrid dualism of ‘not sufficiently the same’ promotes political obsessions, social mentalities and economic practices. It must be stressed that this pattern appears not only as an externally imposed strategy of manipulation but also, as Herzfeld states, as an internal choice that aims to preserve the status quo. Indicatively, the entire political scene recently admitted to its own inadequacy and Mps from almost all parties spoke about decay. This confession, unthinkable for a sovereign European parliament, still does not point to an imminent catharsis, the turning over of a ‘new leaf’; on the contrary, it legitimises the ‘inadequate politicians’ in the eyes of the ‘inadequate citizens’, i.e. all of us! (Quite a lot has been written regarding the facelift of contemporary politics, both on the state of parliamentary capitalism under an apolitical and homogenising ‘consent’ (Badiou) and on a state of emergency that turns the dramatic exception into an everyday rule (Agamben), and we need not go into it in detail.) What must be seen as a political constant, however, is the fact that Herzfeld’s double-headed Hellenism is not an exclusive symptom of the modern Greek condition but exists as an underlying (and repressed) symptom of the European soul itself, as Stathis Gourgouris claims, and appears as the mask of European imperialism. For instance, the civilised, modernising facet of Europe and its systematic drive for geopolitical dominance until the nineteenth century – a driveessentially focused on splitting up the territories of “l’homme malade de l’Europe”, as the Ottoman Empire was called – had Greece as its imaginary centre. It was called philhellenism: the philhellenism of Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great. (Similarly, the economic imperialism of thirteenth century Europe adopted a religious mantle, centred on Jerusalem, and was called The Crusades.) In this sense, today’s Europe is a product of this almost millenia-long hegemony, which, after the nineteeth century, manifested itself as a peculiar kind of intra-European colonialism: as Europe’s colonial attitude towards itself! Today’s euro crisis stems in a sense from this hidden European dualism. All this makes it clear why Europe’s social and financial experimentations on itself are always implemented at the lower tip of the Balkans: that’s exactly where its imaginary centre lies, its constitutionally split unconscious. And of course this imaginary – being unconscious – centre shifts its position on the compass depending on the historical juncture and is sometimes called South and sometimes East. We do not need special academic research in order to define the contemporary South as it is delineated by intra-European colonialism; we only need to look at the Mediterranean places of origin of the migrant workers in the 1960s and 1970s, the socalled Gastarbeiter. Indeed, the German neologism Gastarbeiter (literally ‘guest worker’) may well reflect the most recent form of what is a constitutional dichotomy for Europe. So if the double-headed Hellenism is merely a metaphor, which reveals the innate dualism of the European imagination, then the South may constitute the mirror of Europe’s disenchantment, the use of which exposes the equally imaginary but carefully concealed beliefs regarding identities, mentalities and potentials. Inherently “country-less” art is probably the ideal user of such a mirror, precisely because it operates equally with reflections and disenchantments. In corroboration of this view, four decades ago the founder of modern art curating, Harald Szeemann, described his work as Agentur fur Geistige Gastarbeit (Agency for Spiritual Migrant Work). This leads us to postulate that when the celebrated film director Jean-Luc Godard movingly exclaimed “we are all Greeks” (like many a Byron and Winckelmann before him), he probably meant that Europe’s artists and intellectuals cannot be anything other than migrant workers, exactly because they inhabit its (southern) imagination. We must not be beguiled by the phony reflections of this mirror but use it, just like Alice (not Angela) in Wonderland, walk through it and discover, expose and de-mythicise its distortions which concern ourselves as well as the insufficient Others: a friendly piece of advice to all Europeans, northern or southern! Art as an expression of the South has been seen since the age of Charlemagne – the first person to use the word ‘Europe’ as a geopolitical designation – as the ‘magic potion’ of the European imagination.So let us exploit this, not with a feeling of resignation or contention but in a sensible way.

Michael Herzfeld, Anthropology Through the Looking-glass: Critical Ethnography in the Margins of Europe, (Cambridge UP, 1989). Stathis Gourgouris, Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece, (Stanford UP, 1996).

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