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.

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