Modern Greek Studies and Greek Diasporas
By Yiorgos Anagnostou
Given the scope and goals of Modern Greek studies programs—to investigate Greek worlds everywhere—two ongoing processes make it timely to reflect on the place of the diaspora in our educational mission.
One has to do with the making and circulating of knowledge about Greek diasporas. This cultural production and representation is dominated, at least in the United States, but also increasingly globally, by popular—and often reductive—cultural mythologies. The extensive scale of this phenomenon should be a cause of concern to those who view historical thinking as a vital component of citizenship.
How to account for the popularization of this kind of narration? In the United States, the cultural logic of reducing ethnic cultures into a core of defining attributes follows the imperative of popular versions of multiculturalism. Difference is accepted insofar it aligns with those boundaries of difference that the nation scripts. Difference is valorized insofar it conforms to normative expectations of difference. Nonconformity produces stigma. As such, ethnic groups often seek affirmation, acceptance, positive reputation, and intergenerational reproduction via highly idealized self-representations whose cultural scripts—family morality, philanthropy, and hard work, for instance—resonate with national ideals.
Yet another development drives the expansion of reductive cultural representations: the place of the nation within the context of global capitalism.
Globalization promotes the use of the category “diaspora” to name ethnic populations outside their historical homelands. States, regions, industries, and communities are “discovering” these populations to harness their socioeconomic and political power for the purposes of national development projects. Regulating the conduct, beliefs, values, and flows of these populations in alignment with a set of political and economic calculations is an inherent part of this process.
A vital component of this governmentality is the positive representation of the nation, a practice embraced by governments and nonstate agents—such as diaspora elites—as the best practice to empower the economic and cultural competitiveness of the nation globally. Managing the image of a national culture takes place through branding, the representation of the nation through techniques of corporate management. This process unfolds via partnerships between public and private interests. It relies on soft techniques—cultural narratives, for instance—that aim to attach distinction to national culture and contribute to human and capital flows toward that country. Branding aligns with the logic of nationalism, reducing national culture into a cultural, and often biological, essence. The branding of Greek culture is widespread, as witnessed in the pervasive circulation of the philotimo branding, a narrative that aims for the cultural restoration of national reputation, a reputation seriously compromised internationally during the Greek debt crisis.
In view of this development, it is not an accident that we are witnessing diaspora media outlets devoted exclusively to the dissemination of positive news about Greece. The operation of cultural mythologies should certainly come as no surprise—they privilege idealized self-representations serving the interests of certain diaspora circles. The making of knowledge, we know, requires a politics of knowledge.
In the past, Greek American nonacademic institutions encouraged public debates about diaspora identity. Authors, public intellectuals, and academics were among the participants. They still are. But given the explosion of cultural mythologies blanketing the public sphere, the space for the circulation of scholarly knowledge is receding. Popular narratives celebrating the diaspora and ethnicity routinely ignore inconvenient academic findings.
Overlooked is also a cohort of artists—fiction writers, poets, essayists, and filmmakers—who make non-nation-centric art and craft complex messages or foreground excluded points of view. Born outside Greece or having migrated well before the 2010 debt crisis, this cohort is cosmopolitan in orientation and recognized broadly beyond Greek publics, including by the academic and artistic circles of their homelands. They often go unnoticed by leading diaspora groups, their marginalization being proportionate to the degree they depart from normative representations of identity.
Modern Greek studies programs contribute of course to diaspora self-understanding. In fact, they have recently ventured into large-scale projects such as virtual museums, books, and journals devoted to the topic. Still, diaspora’s place across the entire gamut of Modern Greek studies programs is not fully explored. It is not clear, for instance, the extent to which Modern Greek studies programs integrate diaspora into their curricula. And there is the fact of gasping gaps in the research coverage of the topic.
The second unfolding process is associated with the making of the new diaspora, a highly educated population who has emigrated because of the debt crisis—a phenomenon more generally referred to as brain drain. This new cohort has the potential to contribute to our understanding of diaspora’s complexity. It includes authors, poets, filmmakers, journalists, and photographers who are positioned to contribute to the cultural making of the diaspora. This cohort of new diaspora is also cosmopolitan and interested in engaging with broad publics. Some of those culture-makers are making a name for themselves by exploring non-Greek themes. Are they interested in bringing diaspora representation into international circulation? Should they be?
There is also the related question of the next generation, the youth springing up from this diaspora. Its potential as cultural capital. The education of this generation about the histories and cultures of the various Greek diasporas invites reflection if we wish for future, historically responsible cultural work emanating from this space.
The university—and Modern Greek studies programs within it—is arguably one of the few remaining institutions materially supporting nuanced understandings of the diaspora. There is a crisis of course in the humanities, and resources are scarce, becoming scarcer by the day. The academic landscape is fluid, and the future morphing of the institutional site I am addressing here—Modern Greek studies programs—is difficult to predict. My position may prove provisional.
But there are still endowed chairs and highly reputable programs.
And diaspora, not only as an actual socioeconomic phenomenon but also as a category of governmentality, will be, at least for the foreseeable future, at the forefront of discussions about globalization, cultural identity, citizenship, and economic development.
In the interest of understanding the ongoing process of diaspora expansion, sharing the knowledge with the public, and contributing to the mission of the university, it’s imperative that academic projects engage various publics and educate the next generation. Equally important is their cultivation of a present and future space for the historical understanding of this phenomenon, beyond cultural mythologies.
The engagement of the brain drain cohort with the question of the diaspora presupposes that diaspora captures this cohort’s creative imagination and political interests. And it requires the availability of material resources to materialize cultural projects. In addition, a fruitful cultural conversation could result from this new diaspora’s interfacing with the already-established diaspora artists who have contributed significantly toward diaspora self-understanding.
Modern Greek studies programs can enter into a conversation and collaboration with diaspora artists and other nonacademic cultural producers through at least the following two initiatives: (1) offering seminars and public events that make the case for the complexity of the diaspora beyond conventional, nation-centric perspectives; a dialogue among academics, authors, artists, and journalists could serve as a major venue to reimagine the diaspora in, well, imaginative ways; and (2) creating partnerships—through scholarships and fellowships with deserving writers and artists—to further cultivate this space of dialogue, while opening it up to broader publics beyond Greek circles.
Modern Greek studies without histories of diaspora focus could also consider expanding their curricula to include a diaspora course or two. Such classes can be designed around questions that could resonate among humanities and social science students in general. Several titles come to mind: Leadership in the Diaspora; Public Humanities and Diasporas; Cultural and Political Issues of the Diaspora; Diaspora and Global Citizenship; Diaspora and Memory; Crossing Borders: Literary and Filmic Representations of the Diaspora. Or, alternatively, if available resources limit the creation of new courses, programs could incorporate materials on the Greek diaspora into existing courses.
We possess the creative imagination to design exciting curricula in connection to each program’s particular strengths and available resources. But we may wish to pause for a long moment and pose this question: do we think that engaging future makers of diaspora culture—the space within which we, many of our friends, and families live—should be a necessary component of our mission? Can we afford not to contribute to this future?
From the Editor’s Desk