Exiting Greece

Forty years-ago this month, in September 1979, I left my native Greece determined to spend the rest of my life in self-exile.  This was my refusal of nativist normativity, my Non serviam/I will not serve.

I was just three years older than the disillusioned Stephen Daedalus who at 22, in the closing pages of Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), made a famous commitment: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.”

In the late 1970s, soon after the fall of the military dictatorship (1967-74) and the restoration of democracy, I grew extremely disappointed that my country had little interest in learning from its recent mistakes and disasters, and I feared that sooner or later it was bound to repeat them.  The oligarchic socio-political forces that had ruled Greece since the end of World War II came back to power while the progressive academic-artistic forces were denouncing post-Marxist critique to safeguard their cultural monopoly.  Self-congratulatory national euphoria actively discouraged all expressions of skepticism.

I saw the crisis of the 2010s looming in the distant yet menacing horizon, and did not want to live through it.  As soon as I submitted my PhD thesis, I took the first post-doc I could, left Athens for Birmingham, then applied for academic jobs, and two years later joined The Ohio State University as an Assistant Professor of Modern Greek.  I rejoiced, feeling free both to reinvent myself and to reconfigure Hellenism.  I now had a position and a role that would allow me to integrate my willful exile into my cultural work.

On this fortieth anniversary of my flight/fuit from the Greek territorialized assemblage (Deleuze/Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus), I have been considering my conscious withdrawal as a deliberate exit in the framework of an inspiring study in political theory, The Virtues of Exit:  On Resistance and Quitting Politics (2017) by Jennet Kirkpatrick.  The author knows well that exit seems to play no political role: “Exit’s core characteristics – detachment, disassociation, and estrangement – are often viewed as oppositional to political participation” (p. 5).  Yet some forms of exit are acts of political withdrawal, she argues, and she defends exit as a political concept.

A personal withdrawal (from country, society, group, institution etc.) may be a self-centered opting out, one of several “individual quests for greater personal autonomy or solitary escapes from political domination” (70).  Another withdrawal, however, an “exodus from sovereignty” (Multitude, Negri/Hardt), may be a “productive” one when “it creates a different kind of citizen” (Kirkpatrick 54).  “Leaving can be transformative of politics, and it can create possibilities for political growth and development that were not apparent before” (117).  Thus, Kirkpatrick distinguishes between a “negative conception of exit – that is, exit as furnishing freedom from constraint” (77) and a “positive conception of exit 1) illuminating the communal suffering of those left behind, and 2) engendering critical thought about shared political ideals and the communal failures of living up to them” (78).

Political leaving is fueled by a sense of indignation.  “Leaving begins with feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, anger, or even outrage at a political organization that has committed a grave injustice or a series of offences. … Alarm, discontent, or vexation reaches a political boiling point, which, once past, turns to thoughts of separation” (110).  Such thoughts generate a major dilemma: “a politically engaged figure is torn between moral and political commitments to her or his homeland and the opportunities (including life) afforded by leaving” (23).  I faced such a dilemma in my mid-20s, when I was writing my Ph.D. thesis and I was wondering whether I should pursue my radical democratic interests by being involved in life in Greece or Greek heterotopia.

At that time, those of us who refused to join political parties were branded “chaotics,” because thinking outside parties and their youth organizations was considered nihilistic.  That, together with the Marxist attacks on “critical theory,” made me feel I did not fit.  Yet, the country was trying to rebuild its democratic institutions, restore civil rights, and expand the public sphere.  This was a time to return to Greece, not leave.  Indeed, academics, artists, intellectuals, and activists who had emigrated during the junta were coming back in large numbers to contribute to this promising rejuvenation.  But the rush to national self-glorification, the revival of traditional party politics, the lack of critical constructivist reflection, and the expedient moral compromises of former radicals alarmed me.  After much agonizing, I decided to protest by exiting for good and by exploring alternative Hellenisms.  Furthermore, I ventured where no self-respecting Greek humanist would go, and headed for the American campus, where post-structuralist theory had started flourishing.

Drawing on Thoreau’s “expressive exit” of his native Concord for Walden Pond, Kirkpatrick argues that “we can see the genesis of exit as something other than an abdication of political commitments.  Indeed, Thoreau is bold enough to suggest that leaving can be a way of honoring political commitments and that exiting in protest can reveal great political integrity. … For Thoreau … exit fortifies one’s identity.  And, most important, leaving is not the end of politics or the cessation of political struggle; it is a continuation of both by other means” (51).  Self-reflexive, critical exit is an expression of loyalty, not abdication.  With his “absent presence” (16), James Baldwin offers another example.  “Baldwin’s self-exile suggests an alternative way to leave, one that emphasizes attachment, engagement, and participation alongside absence and rejection” (16).  What Kirkpatrick calls, following Jack Turner, “public performance of conscience” (67), including both writings and actions, may be motivated by the pursuit of both personal integrity and political alliances.  For the last forty years I have been giving to my “desertion” (Tiqqun) such a public dimension.

Kirkpatrick distinguishes among different types of exit, with a special emphasis on “noisy” (17, 105), “expressive” (18), and “resistant” ones (20, 49).  The last type, “the idea of walking away as a protest” (90), involves maintaining attachment to the exited homeland, creating solidarity with communities of resistance, and causing disruption by making the exit oppositional (96).  It aspires to change both the self and the political world (95).  This is what I have been doing as a Professor of Modern Greek in my civic life in self-exile.

Through teaching, advising, program building, outreach, research, collaboration, solidarity, and much more I have been involved in negotiations and redefinitions of Greek civic ideas, cultural practices, and ethical values.  I have maintained attachment to collaborators and allies in Greece, built solidarity with American and international networks, and caused enough disruptions to the dominant national narrative to be personally attacked, marginalized, and excluded for four decades.  To this day, no Greek university will invite me, no Greek publishing house will translate me, no Greek foundation will consult me, and no Greek institution will recognize me – but that is a small (and not uncommon) price to pay for practicing the political “virtues of exit.”  Kirkpatrick’s wonderful book by this title is full of stories like mine.  I am happy when wonderful individuals with anarchist interests in thought, scholarship, literature, activism, and media honor me with their attention to my work.

Even when she discusses fugitive slaves, conscientious objectors, exiled dissidents, and self-sacrificial departures, Kirkpatrick’s point is not to offer models of heroism and martyrdom but to outline the political function of a public conduct that, instead of direct participation, involves productive disengagement.  Her fascinating study captures my diasporic role in Greek educational and cultural politics by showing how refusing to play along and escaping from a rigid segmentarity (Deleuze/Guattari) can be a revisionary, creative exercise in ethical work (Foucault) and civic presence (Arendt).

1 September 2019

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