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Thursday, August 15, 2002


Modern Greek Studies in the United States: A Case of Arrested Development? - Part 2

Greek No More

To put it another way, the University is no longer Humboldt’s, and that means it is no longer The University. The Germans not only founded a University and gave it a mission; they also made the University into the decisive instance of intellectual activity. All of this is in the process of changing: intellectual activity and the culture it revived are being replaced by the pursuit of excellence and performance indicators.
– Bill Readings, The University in Ruins, p. 55.

One might reasonably argue that there seems to be a consensus that modern Greek studies in the United States in all the different areas of study – literary, linguistic, historical, political, philosophical, economic, and sociological – are in a state of serious crisis. In the first part of this essay, I attempted to frame this crisis not in terms of shifting critical perspectives and methodologies, but rather as part of the field’s lack of academicization and professionalization. If, as I suggested, the problems plaguing the field are not a matter only of redirection and of adapting a different, interdisciplinary approach, but are embedded in its inability to develop into an academic discipline, what can be done, if anything, to confront them?

The current arguments for a shift in methods and theories of teaching and research are motivated by the desire to redefine modern Greek studies to fit within the framework of cultural studies and a multicultural agenda, both of which have become prominent on the American academic landscape. Despite such efforts, however, a close look at programs of modern Greek studies throughout the country, and at the activities of the Modern Language Association, suggests that modern Greek has not achieved the recognition and respect it has sought by attempting to secure a place in the disciplinary space of cultural studies. Quite the opposite, its presence is to a great extent ignored. The field remains largely esoteric, and isolated, stuck in a perpetual dialogue with itself. Has anyone attended a meeting of the Modern Greek Studies Association lately?

Looking into reasons why modern Greek studies have remained outside the popular academic practices defined as cultural studies, I would agree with those who argue that one of the main ones is that modern Greek shares the same cultural space with classical Greek – that is to say, with Dead White European Males – and, as such, is perceived to be central to the traditional European canon. Sara R. Horowitz also recognizes canonicity and the association of Jewish studies with traditional texts as one of the main reasons for the exclusion of Jewish studies from the “multicultural agenda” (“The Paradox of Jewish Studies in the New Academy,” Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism).

One would have thought that the emphasis on the continuity between classical and modern Greek culture would have led departments of classics to embrace programs of modern Greek language and literature (the major areas of study in modern Greek studies). However, despite assertions of the classicists’ embrace and acceptance of such coexistence, the reality suggests that they remain indifferent and in many cases hostile toward modern Greek. A large number of classicists today attributes a parasitic role to modern Greek in its relation to antiquity and view the “discipline” as a “poor relative,” imposed upon them by university administrators in their neverending search for funding. The three-day conference at UCLA that inspired this essay, for example, was organized by the department of classics, but its faculty – with the exception of co-organizer Sarah Morris – was absent from the proceedings. To give another example, while the chair of modern Greek language and literature at New York University was appointed through the department of classics, collaboration between the two fields was kept at a minimum.

In The University in Ruins, Bill Readings argues that the university is an institution in the midst of profound transition. During this process, it is shedding its social role as a center for the production of knowledge and intellectual activity, and has started to assume the role of a corporation.

The three functions that are still invoked in the contemporary University are research, teaching, and administration. The last of these is, of course, the most rapidly expanding field in terms of the allocation of resources, and, as I have argued, its expansion is symptomatic of the breakdown of the German Idealist contract between research and teaching. Indeed, I would be inclined to argue that the University of Excellence is one in which a general principle of administration replaces the dialectic of teaching and research, so that teaching and research, as aspects of professional life, are subsumed under administration. (p. 125)

Readings is essentially pointing to the fact that the contemporary university has a different set of criteria for determining the value of teaching, research, and various academic programs. Evaluation at the administrative level is much more rigorous than ever before. The lack of academic legitimacy is the kiss of death when it comes to creating new faculty positions, sustaining old ones, and funding resources for teaching and research. The apparent difficulties of modern Greek studies in establishing a solid place within programs of both cultural studies and classics are because they do not fit the standards of a university administration. It is very difficult to think of a single program of modern Greek studies in the United States that has been created solely by a university without extra-university financial support. Furthermore, even if administrations were willing in the past to accept community money to create programs of modern Greek studies, there have been a number of instances lately in which they have refused to accept outside funding for such programs. The truth remains that modern Greek studies lack the academic legitimacy required for a university to justify their creation.

Despite all this, however, financial support of modern Greek studies is still considered the universal remedy for the field’s troubles. The popular perception in the Greek American community – as well as in the Greek government – is that the infusion of more money into programs of modern Greek studies will help push the field into academic legitimacy. The random use of funds to create isolated programs in various areas of the United States for reasons of ethnic and national pride, however, simply – and obviously – does not work.

At this stage, a radical approach in dealing with the current crisis is to take the term “Greek” away from modern Greek studies. What I mean by this is that in a field with no academic legitimacy, academic positions should not be sought exclusively in terms of ethnic, cultural, or linguistic specificity. If one agrees with Readings’s analysis, and I do, that national identity does not guarantee an administration’s attention anymore, a position in modern Greek history, for example, should not be created and sought as such, but rather as a position in European history, focusing on Greek and Balkan history, respectively – or, even better, as just another academic appointment, since the new university “is where thought takes place beside thought, where thinking is a shared process without identity or unity” (The University in Ruins, p.192).

A more “traditional” way to legitimize the field would require the consensus of academics and non-academics alike. Instead of supporting the creation of individual chairs of modern Greek studies throughout the country, which require significant funding, the emphasis should fall upon the study of the modern Greek language. The same amount of money invested in the creation of a single academic position can be used more effectively to fund the teaching of modern Greek language courses in numerous universities. Language classes are usually the first contact a student has with the study of a different culture, and they constitute the most functional and effective cultural incubator available. Academics should insist upon, and the community should support, the translations of texts beyond the standard ones, which are essential not only for classroom use, but for cultural dissemination and familiarity outside an academic context.

The notion of the decline of classical civilization’s appeal to modern society resulting in negative perceptions of modern Greek culture as well is based on a faulty assumption. The assertion that classical civilization’s appeal is diminishing does not reflect today’s reality in any case. The large number of critically acclaimed and successful productions of ancient drama, the popularity of translations of Herodotus and Thucydides, and record attendance at the renovated Greek, Cypriot, and Byzantine galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, are all evidence of the public’s rekindled interest in classical antiquity. This trend continues at a blistering pace and the study of modern Greek can only benefit from its development.

Finally, the canonization of literary works in, and outside, academia is essential for the legitimation of modern Greek studies in the United States. While creating a canon seems to be anathema to critical theorists, taking steps in that direction is very important in creating a discipline. Michael Berube (Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon) defines canonization as the consumption and reproduction of a text. He proceeds to argue that “contrary to certain beliefs, literary canonization is not a final form of consumption; canonization is not what happens when the struggle for representation is over and the institutionalized writer is locked safely in his or her cell. Quite the contrary: canons are at once the location, the index, and the record of the struggle for cultural representation; like any other hegemonic formation, they must be continually reproduced anew and are continually contested” (p. 126).

In The New York Times recently, correspondent Stephen Kinzer discussed Mexico’s policy of “forcing” Americans to identify with the country and its culture by saturating American cultural institutions and the public with an enormous wave of Mexican art, literature, music, cinema, dance, and theater in both their traditional and modern expressions. It is only through a similar effort that the legitimation of modern Greek culture – and, consequently, modern Greek studies – can occur in the United States. Canonization, a fundamental step toward cultural legitimation, and the continual contention that is so essential in maintaining a legitimate presence in the cultural and academic landscape, require such effort and nothing less.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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