Saturday, March 20, 2010

On the Question of "Race"

I was planning to take a couple of days off from writing during Spring Break, when a discussion in the Modern Greek Studies Association list-serve (see under the thread “2010 Census”) landed me firmly back to my chair. The exchange developed along two directions: a) The politics of racial and ethnic identity in the U.S. census; and b) the racialization of Greek Americans. Below is my contribution to the latter.

Writing about the early 1900s classification of southeastern European immigrants as "inbetween peoples," historian David Roediger insists on the messiness (his word) of the racial landscape at the time. Roediger emphasizes the need to take into account the vast complexity of the ways in which racial identities were experienced and spoken about, throwing the gauntlet to the academics: "Scholars are no friends of such messiness," he writes.

Similarly, one of the most sophisticated anthropologists currently writing about the construction of white racial identities, John Hartigan Jr., calls scholars of whiteness to move beyond neat models and convenient generalizations to probe instead the ways in which identities are racialized contextually; to pay attention to their fluidity, ambivalence, and situational politics without losing sight of larger social discourses; to examine how cultural factors and regions (even neighborhoods) shape the way we talk and experience race.

Finely tuned ethnography appears to be one of the best tools we have at our disposal to chart this complexity.

I cannot frankly see how we can have a meaningful discussion on the racialization of Greek Americans without taking into account the racialization of European immigrants and their descendants in the U.S.; without, that is, examining the history of the politics of ethnicity and race in American society. And we cannot advance this discussion without knowledge of the latest developments in whiteness studies.

Risking oversimplification, but for the sake of establishing an explicit framework, here is the premises guiding my engagement with the question of "race":

1) I side with the constructivists who view race as a social construction, to only add what is commonly accepted these days: although races are social constructions, they may carry real-and sometimes devastating-effects on individual lives and groups (think of Jim Crow, the Chinese exclusion act, affirmative action, etc). To further complicate things, many individuals experience their identities as real. 

2) We live in a racially hierarchical society where approximations to a racial and cultural national ideal carry a number of privileges (lack of discrimination, high potential to marry within the dominant group, inclusion into "true" national belonging, etc).

3) We need to make a firm distinction between dominant racial categories (the ethnoracial order) and the ways in which individuals negotiate their place in that order. In other words we can speak of racial location as a) a widely shared social fact/construction (identities for example are racially ascribed in the U.S., the offspring of a WASP and an African American is most likely to be classified as "black") and b) a subjective experience of identity. 

In the situation where individuals challenge official racial categories is useful to remember that personal identity can be profoundly political. How individuals view their identities vis-a-vis their assignment into dominant racial classifications varies, of course, requiring ethnographic research to untangle this question in all its complexity. Conversely, how and why the dominant society assigns an ethnoracial location to a specific group may vary along a number of variables, needing careful contextualization. There are too many examples in American history about the whitening of the immigrant working class to convince me that class does not necessarily determine racial status, though class may factor-in in ethnoracial assignments, including the prospect of being included in whiteness (see Fairchild).

4) White ethnics (including Greek Americans) have been elevated as the poster ethnics of multiculturalism by conservative commentators and academics (among others); their narrative of bootstrap mobility (what Sylvia R. Lazos calls "the white ethnic immigrant narrative"), in particular, is utilized for all sorts of explicit and implicit undermining of racial minorities, particularly African Americans (think of who is prefacing William Spanos's story of becoming a multimillionaire; think of constructions of "good immigrant families" vs. "pathological black families"). 

I have an interest in whiteness because it represents an ideology (re)producing racial hierarchies. As such I maintain that it must be relentlessly critiqued; hence I insist on the analytical utility of examining racialization. 

I am not interested on framing the question as "who is" or "who is not–white," a question that invariably leads to reductive positions, dangerous biologisms, etc. I prefer to examine how whiteness is constructed, who does the defining, why, and for what purpose (though the privileges associated with appearing white is an important issue). It is of outmost importance to me to examine how individuals or groups reproduce or challenge whiteness. And I am also vested in the question of what kind of cultural and political work do claims to a white status or disavowal from it accomplish.

In this context it is worth keeping in mind that whiteness is continuously morphing into something else; it is modified in response to political and social developments, even through a language that lacks explicit references to race (hence its particular power). 

Matthew Frye Jacobson identifies, for instance, cases where disavowals of a white identity among European ethnics in the U.S. ("I am not a white," "I am an ethnic") may be far from innocent. When ethnics who are perceived as white by the wider population disassociate themselves from their white racial location they implicitly deny the privileges associated with this racial classification. In this manner, they render all these structures that perpetuate the (hierarchical) racial order invisible with all the political implications that this position implies.

Color-blindness is a lauded ideal, but the difficult question is how to bring about racial justice in a society already structured around racial hierarchies.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

New Directions (once again) in Greek American Studies (II)

Global Greek Worlds, Immigrant/Ethnic labor, and the Workplace

The experience of the immigrant working class represents a terrain clustered with strain. Literary, ethnographic, and autobiographical portrayals of wage laborers offer accounts of bodies abused, scarred by fatigue; minds numbed, paralyzed by excessive physical labor; senses neutralized, succumbed to survival demands; selves alienated, their labor undervalued; lives sunk in desperation, subjected to exploitation; but also sacrifices translated into mobility; and a constellation of feelings (pride, fulfillment, exhaustion) associated with one’s labor.

Though common among the working–and low middle-class–such experiences are rarely included in elite ethnic narratives, unless to assert the vitality of ideologies such as the American dream. There is a reason that the political and the social establishment skirts away from such narratives of toil. Resentment unleashes virulent critique, directing its wrath to the state and the dominant classes. Just listen to the voices of disgruntled gastarbeiter shaping visceral anger into a vocabulary of accusation and protest [see the documentary «Ελληνική Κοινότητα Χαϊδελβέργης» (1976), by Λευτέρης Ξανθόπουλος,].

The recent academic refocus to class represents a long due corrective to the excessive scholarly attention accorded to culture and identity, as they were played out in relation to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and race. Critical examination of inequality, workplace injustices, and workers’ subjectivities inevitably engages with globalization, a process shown to often widen the gap between the wealthy and the working poor. While city governments, multinational corporations, professional nomads, cosmopolitan artists as well as star athletes may triumphantly welcome the opening of global markets, globalization may intensify the marginalization, exclusion, impoverishment, and violence directed against vulnerable populations, particularly the poor. If sex trafficking increases in density, sweat shops proliferate, labor is squeezed, people risk their lives to cross borders illegally, and impoverished immigrants become the world’s dishwashers, garbage collectors, janitors and nannies, it is partly because the poor are relentlessly assaulted by the abusive practices of global capital.

We know little about Greek America in relation to workplace, a site that subjects individuals to all kinds of discipline and rewards. We have invested limited attention to the issues that plague the working class today, and the ways in which labor intensification and corporate philosophies shape middle-class lives. Consequently we know little when it comes to the question of how ethnicity articulates with class. Addressing these issues in a worldwide framework presents itself as an obvious research agenda that requires conversation across multiple area and ethnic studies (modern Greek, Greek American, European Greek, Australian Greek, etc.). It is possible to imagine, for instance, a comparative study of Greek immigrant wage laborers in Germany, the United States, and Australia–among other national economies–and further juxtapose these experiences with those of the immigrants in Greece. This research could contribute to activist agendas set to improve working-class lives.

Of course, bitterness and physical exhaustion do not solely apply to the working poor. Aggressive corporate practices work in tandem with financial crises to continue producing an overworked class of professionals, whose measure of mobility is dwarfed by skyrocketing employer profits and the excesses of the market. In metropolises such as New York City, San Francisco, and elsewhere, it is now more difficult for the offspring of immigrants to afford a home than it were for their parents’ generation. The experience of middle-class professional can be also examined through a transnational trajectory, in specific sites: the multinational corporation, the University, and the independent enterprise, among others.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New Directions (once again) in Greek American Studies (I): Response to a Critique

A colleague privately raised several questions in response to my recent posting “New Directions (once again) in Greek American Studies (I).” He pointed out that Greek American studies (GAS) but also modern Greek studies (MGS) scholars have a significant intellectual presence in U.S. academic journals, literary magazines as well as in the media. He requested, furthermore, that I clarify whether U.S. modern Greek programs currently support GAS. An explanation, therefore, is in order.

Those who follow my published writings would know that I will be the first to agree about the key importance of our public intellectuals. I have repeatedly written about Dan Georgakas’s revisionist historiography, Yiorgos Kalogeras’s critique of Greek American canonical texts, Artemis Leontis’s case for cultural activism, and Helen Papanikolas’s vision of interracial solidarity, among others. In fact, my forthcoming article in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies specifically identifies the contributions of pioneer researchers in GAS; it recognizes the historical importance of the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora in supporting young scholars, featuring critical diaspora scholarship, and disseminating academic knowledge to the lay public; it acknowledges the burgeoning interest in Greek America among both GAS and MGS scholars; and it demonstrates the immense relevance of GAS in an era when transnational and diaspora studies are becoming academic trends.

My article also underlines the support GAS is currently receiving by MGS programs and institutions. It is now a well-known fact that MGS programs in the U.S. regularly offer courses on Greek America, maintain oral history projects, support research, and host lectures on this subject. Thus for the sake of absolute clarity, the question I posed in my original post should be, “Why have modern Greek studies historically speaking neglected Greek America?” We will have to wait for the publication of this article to revisit this productive dialogue.

Immersed as I have been in this knowledge, I took all these developments for granted. I should stress therefore that the entry was written as an afterword, as a restless call for more critical scholarship, more daring research, more probing projects, more engagement with difficult and controversial issues, more rigorous presence in the public sphere. It must be read in this spirit, as an invitation to move beyond our gains and intensify our effort to cover the lost ground, compensate for missed opportunities, and chart new research frontiers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New Directions (οnce again) in Greek American Studies (I)

I took the opportunity of my sabbatical last year to reflect on the tumultuous relationship between modern Greek studies and Greek American studies.

Why have modern Greek studies neglected Greek America? I asked.

Why have Greek Americanists insisted on autonomy from modern Greek studies?

And what are the implications of this separation?

I discussed these questions in an article entitled “Where does ‘Diaspora’ Belong? The View from Greek American Studies,” forthcoming in the spring issue of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies( Still, a number of issues urgently confront scholars and intellectuals who care about the cultural direction of Greek America.

I remain troubled by the scholarly neglect of Greek America. I do not merely worry about the dearth of critical scholarship; I am also concerned about the slim presence of academics engaging the lay public beyond the classroom. In general, we have remained silent bystanders in debates over bootstrap mobility, interracial relations, and immigrant poverty. With a few notable exceptions, we have not entered the fray over ethnic identity in the era of multiculturalism. Didn’t we have anything to say about what and how do we teach Greek America and Greece? In our reticence we have conceded too much space to cultural producers flooding the public with hastily assembled research, historically irresponsible accounts, and narrowly ideological stories.

If there is a moment to intervene, it is now. Scholars have been increasingly taking up the study of Greek America, producing valuable work. This is the time to advance Greek American studies (GAS), and find ways to responsibly popularize this new knowledge.

At least two research routes present themselves for advancing GAS. For those who view scholarship as the mere production and accumulation of new knowledge the obvious direction is to identify neglected research areas, roll up our sleeves, and set out to rigorously produce high quality work. The dearth of the archive motivates and justifies such a plan, which in the past has been the staple of programmatic essays on the direction of GAS (see, It is lamentable that decade-old calls for further research have elicited only the slimmest of responses–and occasionally the weakest of intellectual investments–a missed opportunity that explains the field’s tardy growth.

Research projects could bring into view historical as well as contemporary exchanges linking Greek worlds transnationally. One could readily identify numerous topics for this kind of charting: early 20th century capitalism, Greek laborers in industrial America, and the exportation of American material culture in rural Greece (a newly fledged archaeology of Greek America has already taken steps toward this direction; see, The performance of Greek folk spectacles in the U.S., Greek American folk dance troupes touring Greece, and performances and the preservation of folk dancing in Greece; Greek film festivals in Los Angeles, Hollywood in Greek cinema, tourism, and My Life in Ruins; the translation, distribution, and consumption of Greek literature in the United States and of Greek American texts in Greece; Greek rural development, cultural encounters between Greek Americans and the locals in ancestral place of origins, and regional associations in the diaspora; the creation of “third spaces” by Greek Americans both in Greece and the United States; representations of Greece in the United States and of the United States in Greece, etc. It remains to be seen whether a critical mass of researchers will pursue such an orientation. Given the prospects of these projects one may only puzzle why modern Greek studies scholars have stayed away from a transnational framework for as long as they have.

An alternative research path also presents itself, one that approaches scholarship as a reflexive critical project. I refer here to a tradition in cultural studies where research equals engaged scholarship. This position considers culture as a field of power relations crisscrossed with hierarchies and exclusions in addition to creativities and achievements. Subsequently, it views scholarship as an empirically-based enterprise (building on ethnography, archival work, close reading of texts), which criticizes or celebrates specific cultural forms, while making sure to spell out the reasons for doing so. If poverty humiliates human lives, this kind of scholarship sees itself as a venue to expose its sources and critique its reproduction; if dominant narratives marginalize, scholarship creates venues for the voices of those excluded; if a text empowers a generation, engaged research seeks to understand why and how. Culture in this formulation is a contested terrain. One group’s source of pride may function as another group’s source of oppression. The bootstrap explanation of success may generate cultural pride among European ethnics, but may trigger resentment among racial minorities. The struggles for its truth cannot be disassociated from the distribution of material and symbolic resource. Our research, therefore, does not take place in a vacuum, but in the backdrop of politicized debates about ethnicity, race, immigration, and diaspora. Our writings carry social and political implications, as they participate, regardless of authorial intentions, in wider discourses on national belonging, race-based poverty, dual citizenship, or interracial relations. In other words, scholarship not only interprets the social world, it is also implicated in its making.

In advocating this cultural studies agenda I wish to outline three research projects as holding great promise: 1) Greek cultural worlds, ethnic/immigrant labor, and the workplace; 2) new kinds of transnational networks and communities; and 3) identity and post-identity politics, all of which present the prospect of engaged scholarship and of furthering cross-fertilization between Greek American and modern Greek studies.

I will elaborate on each research project in three consecutive postings this month.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Quotation – Κάτι σαν ετερόκλητο κολάζ

«Στο Δημοτικό, επίσης, έφτασε στα χέρια μου ένα βιβλίο που τα είχε όλα· ποιήματα, σκετς, μικρά πεζά, ζωγραφιές. Κάτι σαν εξωσχολικό αναγνωστικό.

Εξ αυτού του βιβλίου σκέφτομαι πόσο πιο μεγάλη ελευθερία θα είχαν οι συγγραφείς αν δεν είχε κατατμηθεί το σώμα της λογοτεχνίας σε είδη.»

Σωτήρης Δημητρίου, «Περιπέτεια: Αναγνώσματα που με Διαμόρφωσαν» (The Athens Review of books, τεύχος 2, Δεκέμβριος 2009: 46)

«Aν δεν είχε κατατμηθεί το σώμα του λόγου σε είδη,» θα παρέφραζα. Το παραπάνω χωρίο έμμεσα, πλην μερικώς, ονομάζει την κινητήρια δύναμη αυτής της ιστοσελίδας: να φτάνουν στα μάτια του κοινού κείμενα που να τα περιέχουν «όλα»· ποιήματα, σκετς, μικρά πεζά, φωτογραφίες. Αλλά και ακαδημαϊκές αναλύσεις, βιβλιοκριτικές, κριτικά σχόλια, παρεμβάσεις, παραβάσεις, και … quotations.

Για να το σπρώξουμε και παραπέρα, αν βαστάν τα κότσια μας: να υπάρχει και μια μείξη γλωσσών και ειδών. Κάτι σαν ένα blurring of genres του Geertz· μια (☺) ετερογλωσσία του Bakhtin. Κάτι σαν ετερόκλητο κολάζ.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Περί Νεοελληνικών Σπουδών

Με αφορμή την κρίση που μαστίζει το τμήμα Νεοελληνικών και Βυζαντινών Σπουδών του King’s College στο πανεπιστήμιο του Λονδίνου, αλλά και τον χώρο των νεοελληνικών σπουδών στο εξωτερικό γενικότερα, ο συνάδελφος Δημήτρης Παπανικολάου σε μια πρόσφατη τοποθέτησή του στην εφημερίδα ΤΑ ΝΕΑ ( εντόπισε έναν από τους λόγους του προβλήματος καθώς και τους όρους για την επίλυσή του:

Είναι μάλλον τώρα η στιγμή που χρειάζεται να συζητηθεί σοβαρά η πολιτική και του ελληνικού κράτους σε αυτό το θέμα, αλλά και, κυρίως, της ιδιωτικής πρωτοβουλίας: ελληνικά ιδρύματα και ιδιώτες είναι από τους πιο σημαντικούς δωρητές μεγάλων ξένων πανεπιστημίων. Οι προσφορές τους (που σωστά κατευθύνονται σε ένα ευρύ φάσμα δραστηριοτήτων) πρέπει πλέον να γίνονται συγκροτημένα, με πρόβλεψη στρατηγική και διαπραγματευτική διάθεση. Και ο νοών νοείτω.

Πολύ σωστά. Και δεν θα μπορούσε να το θέσει κανείς πιο διπλωματικότερα. Δεν διανοείται υποστήριξη χωρίς αντίστοιχη παραγωγή ποιοτικού έργου. Να το πω και λαϊκά, καλοσωρίζοντας αυτό το απαραίτητο συμβόλαιο, το τζαμπατζέ τελείωσε.

Προκύπτει όμως ένα μεγαλύτερο θέμα. Πρέπει να περιορίζεται αυτή η (πραγματικά αναγκαία)  διαπραγμάτευση μόνο στο πλαίσιο των «μεγάλων ξένων πανεπιστημίων»; Για να σταθούμε στην περίπτωση της Αμερικής, μπορεί να αποδειχθεί άνετα ότι υπάρχουν νεοελληνικά προγράμματα πέρα από το Ivy League τα οποία αποτελούν υποδείγματα ερευνητικής απόδοσης. Με την ποιοτική τους παραγωγικότητα και θεωρητική εμβέλεια κοιτάζουν στα ίσια τα προνομιακά ιδρύματα (τα οποία όμως απολαμβάνουν τη μερίδα του λέοντος και σε μαμούθ κληροδοτήματα, και σε γενναιόδωρες δωρεές, και σε δημόσια προβολή). Είναι επομένως και αυτά σε θέση να διεκδικήσουν υποστήριξη, νόμιμα και με αξιώσεις. Ας μην ξεχνάμε ότι η δημιουργική πρωτοπορία και καινοτομία στα νεοελληνικά έχουν ακονιστεί με ιδιαίτερη επιδεξιότητα σε χώρους της περιφέρειας. Ας αφουγκραστούμε δε και τις περιπτώσεις προγραμμάτων με περιορισμένους πόρους, όπου τα διοικητικά καθήκοντα, η επένδυση σε διδασκαλία ποιότητας, ο αγώνας για ερευνητική παρουσία, και η συνεχής αναζήτηση χρηματοδότησης πνίγουν κυριολεκτικά το (περιορισμένο σε αριθμό) προσωπικό. Θα ισχυριζόταν κανείς ότι αυτού του είδους τα έγκυρα προγράμματα απαιτείται να βοηθηθούν πρωτίστως την εποχή της λιτότητας και των περικοπών. Χωρίς την πολυτέλεια κληροδοτημάτων, είναι αυτά τα κέντρα σπουδών που αισθάνονται την πίεση ασφυκτικά, βιώνοντας την έλλειψη διαπραγματευτικού κεφαλαίου. Πως να συνεχίσει απρόσκοπτα την έρευνα κανείς όταν τα νεοελληνικά είναι πολιορκούμενο είδος, και οι απαιτήσεις από τα πανεπιστήμια ολοένα και συρρικνώνουν τις ερευνητικές άδειες; Η ταξική διάσταση του θέματος είναι πασιφανής. Ο νοών νοείτω.

Οι νέες συνθήκες αναντίρρητα επιβάλλουν αυστηρή αυτοκριτική. Οι προκλήσεις είναι πολλαπλές και η σχετική συζήτηση έχει αρχίσει να τις εντοπίζει. Θα υπάρξει, φαντάζομαι, και περαιτέρω διάλογος. Η συγκυρία απαιτεί όμως να ονομάσει κανείς ένα από τα φαντάσματα που πλανιούνται γύρω από τον ζητούμενο αυτοέλεγχο: την παρασιτική παρουσία ορισμένων ακαδημαϊκών στον χώρο των νεοελληνικών σπουδών.

Για να μην υπάρξει η παραμικρή παρεξήγηση: Δεν υπάρχει απολύτως ουδεμία αμφιβολλία ότι στις νεοελληνικές σπουδές στις Ηνωμένες Πολιτείες, το πεδίο το οποίο γνωρίζω από πρώτο χέρι, λειτουργούν σήμερα ακαδημαϊκοί οι οποίοι τα δίνουν όλα για την προώθηση του κλάδου μας. Η μάχη είναι σκληρή, συχνά άνιση, και διαδραματίζεται σε πολλαπλά επίπεδα. Για να διεκπεραιώσει κανείς με επιτυχία και την έρευνα, και την διδασκαλία, και τα διοικητικά φτύνει, χωρίς υπερβολή, αίμα (και το στρίμωγμα μόλις έχει αρχίσει…). Και πάρα πολλοί όχι απλώς επιτυγχάνουν, αλλά διακρίνονται κιόλας. Ένας ολόκληρος κόσμος νεοελληνιστών μοχθεί σκληρά, συχνά κάτω από αντίξοες συνθήκες, καθημερινά, και με τεράστιες θυσίες.

Αλλά ας μη κρυβόμαστε πίσω από το δάχτυλό μας, υπάρχει και η άλλη όψη του νομίσματος, αυτό που αποκαλώ «παρόντες απόντες». Αναφέρομαι σε κάποιους πανεπιστημιακούς που κάπως πως έχουν προσκολληθεί με διάφορες ιδιότητες σε προγράμματα νεοελληνικών και οι οποίοι είτε απέχουν εντελώς από το δημόσιο ερευνητικό διάλογο, είτε δημοσιεύουν αραιά και που, είτε ακόμα προσποιούνται συμμετοχή με άρπα κόλλα εργασίες και ανακοινώσεις. Με άλλα λόγια παραμένουν θεατές ή απλώς ζεσταίνουν τον πάγκο, αμέτοχοι αναπληρωματικοί στον αγώνα που διεξάγεται μπροστά στα μάτια τους. Το καταστροφικό επακόλουθο σε όλη αυτήν την ιστορία είναι ότι αυτοί οι παρόντες απόντες και πολύτιμους πόρους απομυζούν και σημαντικά ερευνητικά κονδύλια απορροφούν. Τρέφοντας την μεσοαστική ευδαιμονία τους παρασιτικά, σε βάρος των νεοελληνικών σπουδών, αποτελούν τον αδύναμο κρίκο στο ρόστερ της ομάδας. Το τζαμπατζέ λοιπόν πρέπει να αποκλειστεί και σε αυτόν το τομέα ώστε να αρχίσει η απαιτούμενη ανανέωση το γρηγορότερο. Δεν μπορεί να θέλει να νικήσει κάποιος στο Old Trafford και να συμπεριλάβει στην αποστολή του τους απροπόνητους, έστω και για εφεδρείες.

Τα πολλά λόγια είνα φτώχεια. Θα φύγουν τα καλύτερά μας χρόνια παράγοντας γνώση ή στα θερινά τα σινεμά; Δεν γράφονται σοβαρές εργασίες με το καλαμάκι του φραππέ ή το καλαμάρι της ταβέρνας.