Dimitris Papanikolaou is Associate Professor in Modern Greek and Fellow of St. Cross College, Oxford University, UK. Papanikolaou’s research focuses on the ways Modern Greek literature opens a dialogue with other cultural forms (especially Greek popular culture) as well as other literatures and cultures; the other important strand of his research focuses on queer theory and Greek queer cultures.
Professor Papanikolaou’s book on C.P. Cavafy’s homosexuality and the poetics of sexuality (Made just like me: The homosexual Cavafy and the poetics of sexuality, Published in Greek: Σαν κι εμένα καμωμένοι. Ο ομοφυλόφιλος Καβάφης και η ποιητική της σεξουαλικότητας, 2014) has been widely discussed in Greece by literaly critics and Cavafy scholars, while his latest monograph (There is something about the family: Nation, desire and kinship at a time of crisis, Published in Greek: Κάτι τρέχει με την οικογένεια: Έθνος, πόθος και συγγένεια την εποχή της κρίσης, 2018) is largely an extended comment on the increased production of cultural texts on the dysfunctionality of the Greek family.
His next big projects include: a book titled Greek Weird Wave: A Cinema of Biopolitics; and a longer project provisionally titled Queering Hellas: Movement, sexuality and the place of Greece between the wars, which looks into expressions of queer desire by writers who moved in and/or out of Greece in the 1920s and 1930s.
Dimitris Papanikolaou spoke to Rethinking Greece* about his work on C.P. Cavafy, the idea of ‘Greek exceptionalism’, the narrative power of the ‘Holy Greek Family’, art in times of Greek crisis and how to create conditions for a real resurgence of wider Modern Greek Studies and “a radical reappraisal of what it means to be Greek in a globalised, glocalised, overmediated, contingent, inconsistent, precarious and simmering world”:
Your work engages with ‘Cavafy and the discourses of sexuality’. Can you tell us a few words about the importance of sexuality in Cavafy’s work and its contemporary relevance?
Many years ago I decided to address what I had felt as a lacuna in Modern Greek Studies, indeed, its most obvious lacuna: to tackle the word of C.P. Cavafy, a well-known poet of the early 20th century who wrote about homoeroticism and homosexuality in ways that were groundbreaking for his times, from the perspective of queer theory and the history of sexuality. In the years that it took for this project to take concrete shape, I realised that it had two separate, important, facets.
One was the new perspectives it could give to the actual poems, as well as the comparative dimensions it was opening them up to. Our slowness in addressing the queer dimension in the work of one of the major figures of Modern Greek letters, had also meant an unease in bringing him closer to authors such as Proust, Whitman, Colette, Gide, Rachilde, but also John Addington Symonds, Edward Carpenter, the Uranians and so on. It had also meant a certain unease in synchronising our readings of Cavafy with debates and developments about writing and sexuality, queer modernity and the autobiographical expression of non-normative sexuality. Yet they were all there: the importance of Cavafy’s work for modern queer cultures; its links to other archi-texts of that tradition; its potential dialogue with more subcultural texts and contexts (such as the Roman d’un inverti, the turn-of-century sexological writing, or the photography of Von Gloeden); last, but not least, its spectacular ability to anticipate newer debates about closeting, sexual citizenship, queer time, cultural dissidence and its impact on sexual identity and desire.
The second element related to a potential queer reading of Cavafy, had to do with the specific politics, within Greek academia and institutional criticism, that had precluded such a reading, or had tried to preempt it as narrow and unworthy. My work alongside that of other scholars stood against this tradition and tried to critically unmask it as a suppressive genealogy, fully recognising that this was not only a critical, but also a political project. Apart from the enthusiastic reviews (of which there were plenty), I received, of course, also virulent, vituperative comments and attacks, unfortunately not all of them impervious to the homophobia that they were always fast in announcing that they had denounced.
Exceptionalism seems to have been the dominant narrative not only for Modern Greek Studies but also for Greek political science, history and more recently, political economy. Should we question its academic/political agenda and rethink Greece beyond its discourse?
More than a decade ago (I think it must have been 2006 or so) two colleagues from Princeton (Constanze Guthenke and Effie Rentzou) and I, all in the early stages of our careers, started a project under the self-evident title ‘Questioning Greek Exceptionalism’. For us the target was obvious: we had been trained by humanist and national(ist) education in thinking that Greece (ancient and modern) was somehow exceptional; yet when we searched for the tools to undermine that type of cultural exceptionalism, we were also faced with theories and analyses that, again, treated Greece as an exceptional case (even in its “belatedness” or “anti-modenity” and ethnonational fixation). We should have known better; it is one thing to critique traditionalists for exceptionalism, and quite another to wag one’s finger at everyone (including oneself). The project, even though discussed at the time, failed to gain traction.
I was reminded of that experience when more recently Greece was, on the one hand singled out in a global financial crisis as the eye of the storm (and Greek society was singled out as the sole reason for its own financial woes), and on the other, Greek political science and sociology joined the discussion arguing that there is something exceptionally different in the case of Greece (a strategy shared by commentators on both sides of the political spectrum).
Having said that, and based on my experience as a cultural critic, I have also reached the conclusion that there is a level of analysis, let’s call it minimal or strategic exceptionalism (echoing Gayatri Spivak’s concept ‘strategic essentialism’), that can be useful and, indeed, a necessary weapon in putting forth one’s argument in the global arena. Exceptionalism, even though always problematic when it becomes dominant ideology, could perhaps, in its minor and strategic versions, also turn into a tool for cultural resistance and speaking out, a creative force for marginalised voices and disavowed cultural archives.
Speaking of Greek exceptionalism, is there something exceptional about the Greek family? In your latest work, the monograph ‘There is Something about the (Greek) Family’, you talk about the increased production of cultural texts on the dysfunctionality of the Greek family, especially since the eruption of the crisis. Why do you believe Greek artists have turned to the family, and have done so in such a way?
Early in my new book, I felt the need to address this issue, the ‘exceptionality of the Greek family’, or its opposite, the possibility that, in the final analysis, the Greek family might not be exceptional at all. I was confronted with two discourses, both solid and culturally significant. On the one hand, a long tradition that insists that the Greek family (in the mainland, in the diaspora, in the real conditions of people’s lives as well as in their fantasies about them) is indeed exceptional; too patriarchal but also with a very strong role for the Greek mother (who often is the one fighting to safeguard the rigid traditions of the family, including its masculinist bias); too firmly based on extended kinship networks of help and support, but also extremely oppressive; an institution of excellence and national pride, but also the hotbed of nationalism and national intransigence. At the same time, on the other hand, there were those who claimed that all these characteristics are to be found also in other family traditions too, and most of them, perhaps, all over the world.
I address those two opposing narratives in my work, and see both their insights and their limits. There are, obviously, specificities in the Greek family (including historical specificities for the role played by extended kinship networks in Greek cultural, public and political spheres, as well as internal differences in what we sometimes too easily conceptualise as ‘the Greek family’). And there are also similarities with the kinship structures elsewhere in the world, starting from the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean basin.
However, an axiom I have followed in my work is that, even when we realise that some of the characteristics of the Greek family are, in the final analysis, not so exceptional at all, it is still analytically productive to track them and discuss how much cultural work they have been doing as exceptional. What I mean by this is that even the widely held narrative about the exceptionality of the Greek family (what in Greece in popular discourse is often referred to as ‘the Holy Greek family’ – η Αγία Ελληνική Οικογένεια) can be powerful and productive as a narrative, in that it frames institutional analysis and policies, deeply held beliefs and ideologies, political positions and practices.
It is also for this reason that I have found recent Greek cinema so fascinating. In many of the films of the Greek Weird Wave, you see the effort of directors to speak about the wider issue of family oppression and violence, sometimes in an obviously allegorical tone that is trying not to be limited by any Greek specificity. Yet, the reception of these films, still, in Greece and abroad, happened in the context of the ‘exceptional Greek family’. The families in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Alps, or in Athina Tsangari’s Attenberg and Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence, are not specifically Greek (and they try not to be specifically Greek, the setting of these films deliberately not recalling recognisable Greek settings). Yet these directors were called upon time and again, by Greek and international commentators, to discuss their films as a commentary on the Greek family specifically; and, what is important, more often than not, they all decided to play ball.
What is the future of Modern Greek Studies outside Greece? In what terms do you think scholars and students (re)approach the Greek path to modernity after the crisis, in the UK and internationally?
Since I was a graduate student, the major complaint in our field was the ‘imminent death of Modern Greek Studies’. All of us, scholars of CompLit and ModGreek Studies, have at some point in our careers written articles with titles such as ‘the need to reinvent Modern Greek Studies’, ‘the crisis of Modern Greek Studies’, ‘save Modern Greek Studies’, ‘Modern Greek Studies at a crossroads’ and so on. And it is true that some of the old and traditionally acclaimed departments of
Modern Greek Studies outside Greece have closed down in recent years, or have had a difficult time remaining open.
However, at the very same time, our professional organisations grow; academics writing and teaching on Greek subjects take illustrious chairs all over the world; new academic journals (such as the Journal of Greek Media and Culture) become the platform for publishing new interdisciplinary work and the older and established journals in the field are read more than ever; and never before was there such an interest in Modern Greece by publishers, academic fora and interdisciplinary research bodies. To keep complaining about the ‘decline of Modern Greek’ would just mean that we focus on a part and keep failing to see the whole picture.
Let it be clear: What is under threat today is the existence of specialised departments of Greek language and Literature, and these are precisely the departments and centres that need institutional and financial help. The reason is simple: it is precisely because Modern Greek Studies as a whole is in such a dynamic state at the moment, that it is also in the best interest of everyone to support these few more specialised departments of Greek language, literature and history, since they act as the necessary hubs for the field at large. They can nurture new talent, become the centres of publishing and academic debate on Greece, and create important ports of contact for academics working in Greece. If we focus on supporting these few centres for Greek language and literature around the world, then we can be free to celebrate what is also happening recently: the real resurgence of the wider Modern Greek Studies, a genuine reinvigoration of analytical debate on Greece and its diverse paths to modernities, as well as, for the first time, a radical reappraisal of what it means to be Greek in a globalised, glocalised, overmediated, contingent, inconsistent, precarious and simmering world.
* Rethinking Greece is a series of interviews of public intellectuals, regularly posted on Greek News Agenda, an online English language platform launched by Secretariat General of Information and Communication of the Hellenic Republic. The platform offers news, analysis and interviews that showcase political, economic, business, social and cultural developments in Greece. For the full text of this interview, go to greeknewsagenda.gr/index.php/interviews/rethinking-greece/6827-dimitris-papanikolaou