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Monday, July 15, 2002


Modern Greek Studies in the United States: A Case of Arrested Development? - Part 1

A version of this essay was initially presented two years ago at UCLA, as part of the conference, Contours of Hellenism: Classical Antiquity and Modern Greek Culture.

It seems that at this juncture Modern Greek can neither benefit more from its present ethnographic stage nor return to its old aesthetic one, with its outdated humanistic orientation…. We need a new paradigm, one that may be offered by what I would call simply constructive history, a history of positive and successful constructions in all disciplines. This would combine the skepticist focus on the constructedness of all representation and the ethnographic interest in embeddedness with an ethical respect for value. Given the current post-structuralist emphasis on the historicity of culture…, many disciplines (from literature to art and from political science to anthropology) might welcome a historical initiative. Such a reorientation would shift attention from mechanisms of oppression, exclusion, or exploitation to structures, orders, and arrangements that have worked well because they were creative, fair, egalitarian, harmonious, self-critical, and open to negotiation, adjudication, and revision. We do not need a history of victors (the triumphalist and nationalist glorification of the past) or their victims (the counter-political record of their discrimination). What we need right now is a history of heroes, of achievements, of virtues, of important works, of effective innovations of beautiful structures – a history of freedoms, equalities, values, and distinctions.

We can begin to study the treasures of women’s writing or of the diaspora press. We can look at Cypriot postcolonial intellectuals or at Marxist philosophers. We can examine the political theory of various Greek constitutions or the social activism of medical institutions. We can intensify the study of the fine arts or bring theater closer to literary study. We can explore the civic character of the philanthropic record or of public radio. We can trace the creative reception of Dostoyevsky or Max Weber. We can bring geography and memoirs or economy and folklore into an active dialogue. We can investigate the intersections of faith and politics or of culture and governance. This kind of affirmative research would remind us all that ethics is not limited to resistance, citizenship to identity, justice to rights, or literature to aesthetics.

– Vassilis Lambropoulos, “Modern Greek Studies in the Age of Ethnography,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 1997, 15.2, pp. 204-205

In 1997, the Journal of Modern Greek Studies asked a number of contributors to address the issue of the appeal generated by modern Greek culture in the English-speaking world today. The volume was entitled, Whither the Neohellenic?. Many articles approached the subject in relation to and from the perspective of modern Greek studies in American universities. In ruminating on the current state of the “discipline,” the contributors evoked a common perspective, that of a field in decline.

On March 17-19, 2000, the Greek ministry of culture invited a number of neohellenists from around the world to discuss the present and the future of modern Greek studies. I was not at the meeting, but, according to a number of participants, the discussion on the state of modern Greek studies in North America also led to the conclusion that interest in the field was diminishing. Some reasons were identified: students’ ever-decreasing interest in modern Greek studies at both the undergraduate and graduate level; the fact, contrary to the optimism of both academics and the community, of a depressed job market, which has created a very small number of academic positions in the last 10-15 years; and the emphasis on the continuity between classical and modern Greek culture, which attributes a parasitic role to the modern and continues to approach the present exclusively in the context of the past. There are three major consequences of this situation. First, the decline of the appeal of classical culture and civilization for modern society has also negatively affected the appeal of modern Greek culture. Second, a major shift in research methods and critical approaches within American universities requires new methodological approaches by scholars in modern Greek studies. Finally, there is a lack or diminishing scholarly interest in the works of eminent modern Greek writers – such as Kazantzakis, Cavafy, Elytis, and Seferis – whose study was initially identified with, and defined, the establishment of the field.

A number of different approaches were put forward, both in the articles in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies and at the meeting in Athens, which might initiate a change in the declining course of modern Greek studies in American universities. One argument (Lambropoulos, above) suggested that the time had come to shift away from a humanistic approach, and to respond to changing research methods and critical approaches in academic departments. Emphasis would be placed on diversified curricula, which would include anthropology, politics, sociology, and gender studies. This expansion would presumably appeal to and therefore attract a larger and more diversified body of students into the field.

Another perspective in Whither the Neohellenic? suggested that neohellenists should face the diminishing scholarly interest in the works of eminent modern Greek writers by turning their attention toward different genres such as short stories, biographies, historical narratives, anthropological essays, and the works of diaspora writers.

There are works that replace the sign of Hellenism with other signs to clear anew a topos of signification. This is no small matter, since a change in signs means a change in orientation. From Paparrigopoulos’s history to Pentzikis’s or Kalokyris’s elaborate catalogues, from the multiethnic counterpoint of Palamas’s The Dodecalogue of the Gypsy to the pure if imaginary orientation of Lorenzatos’s celebrated “to chameno kentro,” we follow a turn from Western Hellenism to the Orthodox traditions of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine world. Hellenism may also be joined to other adjectives or replaced by other prototypes. The Greek song lyric, one of the most powerful albeit overlooked forms of Greek literary expression, turns in more than one direction….

…There are also those works that would reinvent – take a new inventory of – the contents of Hellas. A multiple of forgotten or misplaced heterogeneous elements comes to the foreground in older as well as newer forms of literature. Following the prescient example of Babylonia by Demetris Vyzantios, some short stories, novels, documentary-style films, historical narratives, and anthropological essays are retelling Greek history to include the story of Arvanites, Jews, Muslims, Pamuks, Gypsies, as well as political exiles who made a life in forgotten outposts of human activity, from Makronisos or Leros to Poland or Tashkent.

– Artemis Leontis, “Beyond Hellenicity: Can We Find Another Topos,?” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 1997, 15.2, pp. 225-226

In discussing the meetings in Athens with a number of colleagues who were present, and in reading the articles in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies, I am left with the same impression. There seems to be a general consensus on the declining status of modern Greek studies in North America. Furthermore, academics seem to agree that modern Greek studies constitute an established discipline that needs to remake itself in relation to both the subject with which it chooses to engage and the way it engages it. I believe, however, that this is not simply an issue of shifting directions.

My disagreement with this particular critical assessment is not with the proposed treatment, but rather with the diagnosis, and consequently with how effective such changes of direction can be. I would like to suggest that modern Greek studies in North America are not just a discipline in decline, but rather a non-discipline. To begin with, the organization of modern Greek studies into a field or academic discipline has never really taken place. What we have in this instance is not an established field of literary studies or a discipline, but rather a group of individuals, in most cases teaching a large number of language and literature courses in other academic departments (classics, comparative literature) in which they may or may not be welcome, burdened with administrative responsibilities, and unable in most cases to dedicate sufficient time to research. Consequently, any attempt to better things based only on changes in methodology and critical perspectives are bound to fail, since it refuses to address the problem at its core.

In Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Gerald Graff points out that the professionalization and academicization of a field into a scholarly one, with curricula and a pedagogical basis, is a complicated and long process that on certain occasions can be completely detached from the existence of academic positions and appointments. In Whither the Neohellenic?, Vassilis Lambropoulos pointed out that the period between the end of the Sixties and the end of the Eighties represented the time during which modern Greek studies “established a solid cultural, scholarly, and professional record.” Lambropoulos is correct in recognizing the importance of this period, when the first steps were taken to introduce the study of modern Greek language and literature to American universities. Peter Bien, Edmund Keeley, Kimon Friar, Rae Dalven, Philip Sherrard, and others were instrumental in establishing the first language and literature courses, publishing the first scholarly studies on modern Greek literary works, translating the works of important modern Greek writers, and creating an academic environment for the critical approach and study of modern Greek language and literature.

However, one wonders to what extent modern Greek studies have progressed since that period of the field’s “establishment.” And if the attempt to institutionalize the field – or the degree to which it was institutionalized – was adequate for establishing a discipline. With very few exceptions, for example, the publication of the first critical studies on the work of important writers (Kazantzakis, Seferis, Elytis) never really led to more systematic research and publications, and then diminished, or never really moved beyond the point of a generalist approach. The number of definitive studies of Seferis, Cavafy, and Elytis was and remains very small. Critical studies meanwhile never really expanded to include the work of less-known writers, or to approach other literary genres such as the ethnographic novel. Literary biographies, an important tool in literary studies, are almost nonexistent in modern Greek studies. Major critical studies in Greek have never been translated into English. During a meeting of neohellenists in New York organized by the Onassis Center five years ago, there were no objections to Peter Bien’s comment that, after all these years, the field still lacked a good textbook for teaching modern Greek.

The translation of Kazantzakis, Elytis, Seferis, and Cavafy has never led to the systematic translation of other modern Greek writers and poets. Furthermore – despite the repeated arguments of some neohellenists – Cavafy, Elytis, Seferis, and Kazantzakis have never really become part of the literary canon. Their work is rarely taught outside a Greek context. What I mean by this is that their work is rarely taught as part of a non-Greek-related course, within an English or comparative-literature department. Such works have never really entered the educational landscape of an average student, or the average professor’s teaching list. Thus, despite the fact that there was an increase in modern Greek language and literature courses in academic institutions in the United States from the Sixties to the Eighties, this increase does not lead necessarily to the conclusion that the field went through the process of academicization.

Toward the end of the Eighties and the beginning of the Nineties, a monumental change of direction in methodology took place in the field. Following a trend that had been developing for awhile in the humanities in American universities, research and teaching methods in modern Greek studies shifted from a methodology that asked what texts mean to a methodology that placed all the emphasis on how texts mean. In other words, the field’s allegiance changed from a humanistic and esthetic approach to one that embraced critical theory and cultural studies. The transition was not smooth. It created a lot of tension, resentment, and feuds, since it was people’s jobs that ultimately were at stake. It resulted in a sharp division between neohellenists in the United States and Greece, and, worst of all in my opinion, hindered any chance the field might have had for progress.

Sara R. Horowitz, in The Paradox of Jewish Studies in the New Academy, argues that methodological, ideological, and critical transformations in the academy have created a sense of urgency to “utterly reshape fields and reinvent their texts to fit into a new academic climate.” The problem with such an approach is that, in the particular case of Jewish studies, “without its cultural specificity, the field fades into the ‘universal’ and out of existence” (pp. 128-129). As one of the participants in the UCLA conference pointed out during the discussion session, there is a certain kind of academic environment nowadays in which the term, “Greek,” can be substituted by the terms, “Russian,” “Italian,” “Chinese,” or “Australian,” without a text losing its relevance.

Despite a number of alarmist and often melodramatic responses to such methodological shifts, which lament the end of literary studies and point to a cultural and educational decline, such changes, when they occur within established and institutionalized departments and disciplines, constitute a part of normal development. As has been argued, the reaction against critical theory and cultural studies is the same as the reaction at an earlier time against the New Criticism. As Michael Berube states in The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs and the Future of Literary Studies, in universities, yesterday’s revolutionary innovation is today’s humanistic tradition. If “history turns true to form once more, then we can expect literary theory to be defused, not by being repressed but by being accepted and quietly assimilated or relegated to the margin where it ceases to be a bother. Once critical theory is covered in the department’s table of areas, it becomes yet another special field” (p. 125).

However, the result can be very different when such deep methodological transformations and divisions occur within non-established fields. When the important tasks of establishing texts, of promoting neglected texts, of creating critical biographies, or of interpreting texts, have not been done, completed, or advanced, the consequent antagonism results in lost opportunities. The decline in the number of students in modern Greek studies, together with the decline in scholarly publications, is the direct result of the division in the field before the field ever managed to establish and define itself.

One final point: modern Greek studies in American universities are, to a large extent, the result of the involvement and financial support of individuals and the Greek American community. What has motivated this support to a certain degree, however, is the rather distorted perception that the establishment of such programs is essential for the support of so-called “Greek national interests.” For years, both a large part of the academic community and the general public have looked upon the creation of programs of Turkish studies in the United States as an effective lobbying tool, and have therefore relentlessly advocated creating comparable programs of modern Greek studies as a balancing mechanism to the “invasion” of the academy by Turkish studies. The obvious problem with such an approach is that it lacks educational and intellectual motivation. The goal is merely the creation of a chair, with no concerns about its function, or its long-term perspectives and development.

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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