Response to Athens Dialogues: Identity and Difference


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Response to Athens Dialogues: Identity and Difference

Κυρίες και Κύριοι, Καλησπέρα . Good Evening. It is an honor to participate in the first Athens Dialogues conference that inaugurates the impressive Onassis Cultural Center.

In my presentation, I shall begin with a brief consideration of the views expressed in the pre-published papers of social and political Greek theorist Konstantinos Tsoukalas and British psychologist Martyn Barrett. I shall then try to relate some of the issues raised to examples of literary and visual representations of the cultural and ethnic self and “Other” in Greece.

Prof. Tsoukalas begins his learned account of historically situated notions of identity with the Heraclitean doctrine of perpetual flux, Πάντα ῥεῖ , implicitly introducing from the start the theme of the fluidity and unpredictability of history that permeates his ensuing analysis.

Tsoukalas offers a critique of the ideologies that globalization fosters and sustains. He echoes the Frankfurt School when he exposes the “pretense of individualism” in the global capitalist order. He notes that in postmodern times, the individuation of human beings is ideological. The individual is now reproduced as “self-governed”, free to choose her own cultural codes, and social practices. In recurrent definitions of selfhood in our times, he observes a certain “fetishism of difference.”

Tsoukalas alerts us to the limitations of the capitalist doctrine of the “freedom of choice,” which benefits those with the most cultural and financial capital in the production process, who thrive in the security of a “neutral” free market that the state-as-arbitrator aims to provide, whereas the under-privileged are lagging behind unable to participate in the “zero-sum games” of a competitive, transnational, and integrated capitalist market economy.

From the sociopolitical construction of identity and difference and the shared belief that each individual is the product of its historical time, and conversely, each historical civilization gives its own signification to its individual and collective self, with Professor Barrett we were given a psychological reading of the “individual variability in patterns of social identification” and in perceptions of difference. Barrett’s cross-national projects with Eurasian children aim at assisting the development of “effective interventions for reducing prejudice towards national and ethnic ‘others’” (abstract). His focus on “identity threat” to collective groups and individuals, and the construction of national, ethnic, racial or religious stereotypes to denigrate the out-group, honor the in-group and maintain individual and collective self-esteem, is an area I would like to linger on a little further.

Greek antiquity is ridden with examples of representations of the other in literature, historiography, philosophy and art. In the geometric period of frenetic overseas colonization across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (900-700 BC), differences between the ethnic and linguistic Greek subgroups (Ionian, Dorian, Aiolian) were salient, employed to assert primacy in invented foundation myths of city-states, or in kinship diplomatic relations between mother-cities on the Greek mainland and coastal colonies. Greek cultural self-consciousness developed in the eighth century BC with the pan-Hellenic institution of the Olympic games, and was consolidated by the time of the Greco-Persian wars (492-449 BC), when a homogeneous image of the Greeks emerged, urging for collective action against a common enemy. We have here an example of adjustments due to “identity threat” that Professor Barrett identified, where “the social group …is under threat … [is presented as exhibiting] greater internal cohesion and homogeneity...” At the same time a well-crafted representation of the barbaric other was constructed exhibiting “strong outgroup denigration”: effeminacy, cowardice, and servility were the salient features affixed to the barbaric Persian enemy in Greek visual, literary and historiographical sources.

“Reading” and “writing” culture are highly politicized actions, as Said showed in his 1979 Orientalism . Herodotus was Said’s first villain. His report of the battle at Thermopylae in 480 BC between the Spartans and the Persians, has recently been adapted on screen in Zach Snyder’s 2007 block-buster “ 300 ”. The film is imbued in orientalist stereotypes validating U.S. President George W. Bush invasion of Iraq, At the end of the film, “Leonidas … lies below [the dead Spartans] with arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross, his body penetrated by arrows like that of Saint Sebastian.”

I will quickly move to film representations of Greek cultural and ethnic identity and difference. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century Greece was seen as the ancestral homeland, cradle of the western civilization and goal of pilgrimage for the traveling members of the intellectual élite of western Europe, but by the early 1960s Greece was turned into a sensual vacation spot offering respite from civilization.

Greece enters Europe unlike any other Balkan state as the tenth member in 1981, due to the constitutive role its culture played in the formation of the western European self-image. In the post cold-war era, Greece is viewed as part of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The influx of immigrants from poorer countries to Greece since 1989, now forming ten percent of its population, along with the investment of Greek capital in the region, mark a historical reversal. Greece is developing into a multicultural society. Each Greek is now rehearsing a number of her multiple cultural identities: Greek, European, Balkan, Mediterranean, etc., which, as Barrett remarks, “are never all activated simultaneously” (p. 5). In a concerted re-imagining of South Eastern Europe, Greece looms as an influential leader of the pack, which she also sees as an expression of resistance to western hegemony.

Since the early 1990s, Greek identity is dialogized in a negotiation of a new self-image. As people cross boundaries, insularity and homogeneity cannot any longer sustain national myths equating a culture and a space. If we move beyond a nation-centric understanding of identity, we can open up a discursive space which will enable us to ask a different question, namely, what kinds of lessons can we draw from the Greek engagement with difference.

I will close with an excerpt from Tassos’ Boulmetis’ Touch of Spice , literally translated as ‘Cuisine of Constantinople’ ( Politiki Kouzina , 2003), a story about a young Greek boy growing up in Istanbul and learning the secrets of mouth-watering delicacies by his grandfather, a culinary guru and philosopher, owner of a grocery store in the central market place in Istanbul. At seven years of age, he leaves for Athens, and 35 years later, he travels back to his birthplace. His nostalgic journey assists his realization that in his western life-style he has neglected adding enough oriental spices in his life.

The film is a critique not only of identity as understood by nationalism, but also in terms of its cultural work to shift understandings of culture beyond identity. With respect to national identity and regionalism, the memorable phrase in the film, “the Turks chased us away as Greeks and the Greeks received us as Turks” is used to refer to people with a sense of ethnic identity but also strong connections of belonging to the place of dwelling. In other words, their affiliation with a non-national space and the simultaneous articulation of a national/ethnic/Greek identity — a syncretism of sorts — is cancelled, neutralized by the nationalist inscription of identity. Nationalist discourse does not, in fact cannot, recognize multiplicities, ambiguities, and dual cultural connections. As a result people are uprooted, and subjected to the political violence that nationalism sustains. In highlighting the grandfather’s attachment to non-national place, the director in a sense revisits the issue of regionalism, the old counterpoint to nationalism in the pre-nation Balkans. Touch of Spice is a statement that cultural connectivity does not have to be associated with national soil. This has important implications for perceiving a multicultural Balkans where one can be an ethnic Greek in Istanbul, Turkey, feel connected with his city/place/Turkish culture, but also sustain a Greek identity, in short, behaving as a bi-national. We are moving towards a segmented model where one is attached to specific locales (in different nations) not an exclusive national culture/space.

Touch of Spice brings attention to practices and the performance of practices, and thus stretches beyond identity. If identity names practices and answers the question what is a particular cultural practice (eating hot dog is quintessential American) the film focuses on how people behave — how they embody/perform cultural practices. Thus, it is not so much what people eat (Greek, Turkish) but how they cook it, with whom, and how they eat. Similarly, the film brings attention to issues of pedagogy, how you teach a child about life — through the metaphor of food. We have here an emphasis on an ethos (how does one live a life — life must have salt) rather than a list of identity traits. Here the implications are important too. If the western model of Hellenism forces a particular performativity of Greek culture for the western gaze (the traveler, the diplomat, the tourist), the film unearths the performativity of everyday practices, which define the ethos of a people. If we take this as our starting analytical point — how Greeks are in terms of an ever-changing ethos (“ anthropia ”, humane feeling/modes of pedagogy/approach to food) and how they imagine themselves to be — we bypass to a large extent western interpellations of the Hellenic. We also move beyond stereotypes and the often-told narrative of Greek corruption/cunningness/etc., and a discursive space opens to define Balkans as particular and intersecting ethne that imagine life heteroglosically vis-à-vis the West.

We now reach beyond the metaphor of culinary syncretism to the concept of “polycentric multiculturalism.” [1] This is a type of dialogical multiculturalism between permeable entities and communities. “Each act of cultural interlocution leaves both interlocutors changed,” and there are multiple “dynamic cultural locations” without privileging any particular single vantage point, dealing not with ethical universals (as in liberal pluralism) but “seeing cultural history in relation to social power.” Hence, in theory we may envisage the possibility of replacing the discourse of margins, and minoritarian communities with a multiplicity of centers and a plurality of voices in a dialogue between “generative participants at the very core of a shared, conflictual history.” The transition in practice is more difficult: People still do perceive themselves and other factions as marginal and minoritarian; when there is power, there are hierarchies and asymmetries. As Prof. Tsoukalas cautions, “multiculturalism cannot ever be perceived or function as a pan-culture.” (ch. 5, p. 57).[2] Still, as engaged intellectuals, we may continue to uncover hidden discursive structures of identity and difference, and hope and work with Prof. Barrett to improve individual “cognitive flexibility” (Barrett p. 16).[3] and strike down some of the antagonisms that threaten to unravel at the hem the intricate tapestry of our global world.


On which Shohat and Stam, drawing on Bakhtinian theory, insist in their book entitled Unthinking Eurocentrism (1994: 46-49).

«όσο ακραία ανοικτός και αν εμφανίζεται, ο «πολυπολιτισμός» δεν θα ήταν ποτέ δυνατόν να νοηθεί και να λειτουργήσει ως κατά κυριολεξίαν «πανπολιτισμός» (ch. 5, p. 57).