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Sunday, September 15, 2002

Book Reviews

Greece’s City on the Hill

The Acropolis: Global Fame, Local Claim by Eleana Yalouri. Berg, 2001, Oxford, 238 pp, $68.

Some years ago, the anthropologist Maurice Bloch wrote an essay, now well known, in which he argued that while many of us assume that a concern with the past and its preservation is commonsensical, obvious, human, and universal, the presence of the past in the present (as the essay was called) is actually a very specific social phenomenon. Serving particular interests, the preservation of a past is generally the concern of a dominant class interested in naturalizing its claims to power through imaginary social structures of an enduring nature. Many small, politically egalitarian societies do indeed seem to be indifferent to the historical past as a focus of attention. It follows, then, that in this era of the memoir, we should be asking questions about our own intense interest in the proofs of our pasts. As Eleana Yalouri notes in The Acropolis: Global Fame, Local Claim, the Greek case demonstrates the extent to which some societies conceive of historicity itself as a virtue. More than this, the past is perceived as a spatial and material object of a certain weight, breadth, and depth; as a body that requires protection; and as a soul that makes demands upon the living. Yalouri rightly describes Greece’s material heritage as both enabling and subordinating.

Yalouri’s book addresses the question of global and local sentiments and interests connected to the structures (above all, the Parthenon) and site of the Acropolis – sentiments and interests that concern Greece’s relationship to its classical past and geopolitical present. She does this as a scholar with a training in archeology and social anthropology, but her book will be of greatest appeal and use to the general reader who is curious about why the Acropolis generates so much debate within the Greek press, and why it remains the epitome (along with, arguably, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, and so on) of the tourist landmark. Yalouri extends her analysis to other objects of concern in the heritage debate – most importantly, the Olympic Games. She places the Acropolis within the context of Greece’s position of being both ancestral and marginal to Europe’s imagination of itself. Antiquities, she shows us, are unique in their power to fuse the natural and the cultural: by virtue of their age, they are, while humanly made, sufficiently remote to occupy the superhuman status of natural and divine objects. To some extent, our wonder at antiquities is the product of our own implicit evolutionist thinking: miraculous children at the dawn of history proved prodigiously talented, putting us, who ought to be their superiors, to shame.

Yalouri begins by setting her subject in the context of twenty-first-century debates about globalization. Here, she is refreshingly clear. The commodification of national heritage has, like globalization itself, two seemingly contradictory aspects: architectural heritage is cast on the one hand as a universal commodity, protected by transnational organizations such as UNESCO, and on the other hand is claimed as the exclusive property of particular states and ethnicities in the marketplace of national identities. It is this tension between global and local claims that concerns Yalouri. In fact, of course, global and local values are mutually dependent. It is precisely because monuments are valued as global property that they are useful assets in the competition of particularistic identities: if nobody else wanted the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles, they would be far less useful to Greece itself.

Yalouri explores both the ideas that Greeks have about themselves and the ideas that foreigners hold about them, and it will be clear to the reader that these are deeply interconnected. Yalouri observes that outsiders either romanticize Athens – the “white” city illuminated by the Parthenon – or revile it in its modern “black” aspect as polluted and architecturally brutal. There is a second “blackness” implied here, that of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, which links Athens to the global south and Middle East and intrudes into discussions of the “competence” of Greece as a caretaker of its own classical heritage. But this book is not really about Athens; unlike James Faubion’s Modern Greek Lessons (which readers of Yalouri’s book might also find worth reading), The Acropolis is not an ethnographic study of the city and its identity but an analysis of the public discussion of a particular symbol.

There are three main components in Yalouri’s methodology. She relies significantly on textual sources for her analysis – especially the popular press, periodicals of the intelligentsia, and other official and non-official publications by parties to the debates about the management and significance of Greece’s classical heritage. Secondly, she conducted inquiries – by interview and directed essays – into the ideas that primary- and secondary-school students hold about the meaning of the Acropolis. Finally, she interviewed archeologists who, as professionals in the matters at hand, are especially articulate about the uses and abuses of antiquities.

This is not a study based on holistic participant-observation of the usual anthropological kind, in which a researcher immerses herself in the day-to-day life of a community. It would be difficult to imagine precisely what such an approach to the Acropolis as a subject might look like, but it might be worth thinking about. Anthropology in the twenty-first century faces the challenge of adopting new ethnographic strategies while retaining the strengths of its more traditional repertoire. Yalouri herself alludes to some unexplored possibilities that might have yielded a more richly textured observational or “practice” dimension. The discussion of the school for guides established in the 1950s (p.128) and of a strike of the antiquities guards (pp. 166-172) provides some suggestive material on the problem of servility embedded in Greece’s “global services” via tourism and archeological “stewardship”; but Yalouri “did not talk to any guards” (p. 171). A discussion of local topographical interpretations of the monuments is short-circuited by lack of ethnographic data (“Although I only talked to a few people who live in the vicinity of the Acropolis…,” p. 156). Yalouri refers to Caftanzoglou’s research on the inhabitants of the Anafiotika, the small settlement on the slopes of the Acropolis hill (p. 154), which might have prompted her to a discussion with and observation of those inhabitants and others in the vicinity – or indeed a discussion with Caftanzoglou; and controversies about the Hilton Hotel in its relation to the Acropolis and to the city could have been further developed ethnographically (p. 154). More surprising perhaps is the lack of observational work at the site of the Acropolis itself. The advantage of such strategies of research is that they might introduce surprises – as Yalouri herself notes (p. 24) – into the more predictable discourses of the press and interested agents such as archeologists. I could imagine, too, a more diversified set of textual sources, especially a richer discussion of the genre of the (modern Greek) “legend” in which classical fragments and persons act in the context of semi-historical events.

But what Yalouri does choose to do, she does well. Her discussion of the Acropolis as a “condensation site” of national identity is thorough and perceptive, and this book will be especially useful for undergraduate teaching. In the course of her discussion, she also introduces the reader to important ideas and debates on what is called “material culture” that link archeology, social anthropology, and cultural studies. She presents what are sometimes abstract and arcane academic issues with admirable simplicity and clarity. She is widely and well read in theories of material culture and symbolic anthropology, and summarizes the arguments of major theorists so that they are accessible to the general reader. I found the chapter on the history of the site informative: it is helpful to know that the Acropolis might be imagined as a political riposte to Persia’s plans for Persepolis, that, in the interests of establishing links between Byzantium and antiquity, Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos called the Parthenon and St. Sophia half-brothers, and that political prisoners at Makronisos were forced to build replicas of the Parthenon for purposes of political reeducation/“Hellenization” (p. 43). The decisions to enclose and charge admission to the site (in 1835) and to waive admission fees for Greeks (under PASOK in the 1980s) are both politically intriguing signs of their times. It would be helpful to know more, in depth, about some of these matters (for example, about the colonels’ dictatorship’s plans for a “megachurch “ on Tourkovounia to rival St. Sophia, p. 45). The breadth of Yalouri’s canvas restricts her to a survey of the historical material. It is possible that a comparative approach to monuments and nations might help to distinguish the striking elements in the case of the Acropolis; readers might be curious to know how Greece’s ambivalent relationship to its material heritage compares to that of France, Egypt, or Italy. The details of comparative policy with respect to preservation, tourism, and lending of objects would be useful here.

Naturally, the controversy over the return of the antiquities carried off by Lord Elgin occupies considerable space in Yalouri’s discussion. (While she explains why some people speak of the “Parthenon Marbles” rather than the “Elgin Marbles,” she curiously does not note that some Greeks also object to the term, “marbles,” in reference to statues and bas-reliefs.) I found her note (p. 69) on the way in which the discourse of “xenitia” (or, as she puts it, “the hardships of emigration”) informs sentiments about the expatriated “marbles” to be insightful. Her argument is that the “request for the restitution of Greek heritage [is] a way to claim that Hellenism belongs in the West, i.e. it is global, but it belongs to Greece” (p.85). In that sense, the sculptures are a gift to the world – but Greece’s gift. The uproar about the commercialization of the Parthenon as logo revolves around this question of the proper positions of host and guest, as well as around the question of the sacral nature of the site: in this sense, it is not difficult to imagine the connection between protecting the aura of the Acropolis and neo-Orthodoxy. Neo-Orthodoxy, too, claims that Greece’s originality lies in its structure of values and resistance to the hegemony of Western commercial internationalism.

Yalouri is concerned in her book to show how important material culture is in the ideological life of nations and their citizens, and she is convincing. I would argue that occasionally she goes too far in insisting on the autonomy of objects. She writes: “The Acropolis shows in the most explicit manner the extent to which material culture, being visible, tangible, and durable, can be more expressive than language. The Acropolis contains multiple, lengthy arguments without need of any narrative” (p. 73). In fact, this is not the case: everything in her book demonstrates that the Acropolis is dominated by narrative. We might, with art historians of a certain school, want to argue that the Acropolis all by itself is transcendentally beautiful, but we could not argue that, without language, it “expresses” the ideas contained in this book.

Similarly, Yalouri writes that her book “investigates the way Greeks and the Acropolis are engaged in a dialectic process of objectification, forming, transforming, or reproducing each other. Through the physical presence of the Acropolis, Greeks internalize perceptions of their national identity, and by interacting with and using it, they reproduce or transform the ways they understand and define themselves in an international context” (p.17). As an undergraduate carried away by the dialectical turns of writing of both structuralism and cybernetics (not to mention the ethical mysticism of ecology), I once wrote a paper in which I referred to the mutual actions or interactions of humans and the physical environment. My professor noted in the margin that, as far as he could see, the only action of which the physical environment was capable as an agent was a lethal one. I thought he’d missed the point and that his correction was literal-minded. But his sobriety had a point. It turned my attention toward the serious question of agency and what Alfred Gell, referring to art objects, calls the nexus: the complex of social relations refracted through the material world as though embedded in it and appearing to transform objects into agents. It has to be said that the Acropolis does not objectify Greeks. Rather, Greeks and others use the Acropolis in social and cultural operations. Eleana Yalouri’s book gracefully narrates the global and local refractions of those engagements.

Laurie Hart is associate professor and chair of the department of anthropology at Haverford College.
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