Friday, May 21, 2010

New Directions (once again) in Greek American Studies (the end)

Identity: Politics and Poetics

It is impossible to write about ethnicity and neglect its political dimension. At the moment one claims an ethnic identity–a marked position of otherness vis-à-vis the nation–one enters heated debates about the range and modes of its expression, let alone the possibility of its very enunciation. Ethnicity is political not only because official policies grant or withheld rights on its name; neither merely because its tolerance or persecution have been famously and infamously attached to nation-states formation. Its political dimension also operates at the micro-level level of identity making, affecting lives in a multitude of everyday contexts. Think of slurs, pride, let alone hate crimes associated with ethnicity. Individuals are immersed in social webs that may denigrate, threaten, tolerate, or promote ethnicity.

The political dimension of ethnicity explains the circulation of ethnic stereotypes (positive or negative), anti-discrimination committees, and ethnic interest societies. It also explains the central place of cultural politics in the history of Greek America. In its most visible forms, this identity politics aims to protect the group, call for heritage preservation, make a case for the inclusion of ethnic material in educational curricula, or advance the aspirations of specific social classes, including political elites.

Yet there is a profoundly disquieting component in all this. Stories generated for this purpose tend to erase the complexities and internal heterogeneities of ethnicity. In the name of projecting a positive image or promoting preservation, these narratives construe identity in terms of cultural (and often biological) unity. In positing an authentic essence they exclude those who fall outside an already circumscribed domain. In fostering pride in the Self they may belittle the Other. All in all, their aim to assert cultural distinctiveness tends to package textured difference into deadening uniformity.

Totalizing representations of Greek identity cancel the vast heterogeneity of Greek peoples globally. They ignore the complexities of how identity is actually experienced, the meanings, ambivalences, and contradictions that interlace individual lives. Because the scattering of peoples across state borders entails cross-cultural encounters, negotiation of diverse cultures and histories, and a variety of national contexts (the United States, Australia, South Africa, Germany), they foster multiplicity not singularity; partial, not full identification with a nation; contextual fluidity not essential fixity; a tension between local, regional, transnational, and national identities, not necessarily the privileging of one over another.

Moreover, the ways individuals experience ethnicity varies, depending on class, gender, sexuality, and biographical contingencies; degrees of affiliation with ethnic communities, and cultural distance from the ancestral homeland also play a part. Global Greek worlds point to a complex nexus of cultural affiliations that cannot possibly fit into tidy taxonomies. They neither yield readily into neat categories, nor slip comfortably into singular formations.

Engaged research illuminates the richness of Greek worlds. It sets out to carefully navigate the terrains where these worlds are actualized, insisting to probe historically silenced areas. Though attentive to identity politics (the interests ethnicity serves) it invests to identity poetics (how ethnicity is practiced). This latter focus lies on identity as a performance (on the “how” in addition to the “what” of ethnicity); as an experience that encompasses multiple cultural traditions; as a social performance that is fluid (yet not necessarily thin or superfluous); as a constellation of feelings. In other words it seeks to understand identity as the lived-in production of meaning.

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