The colonial work of the Hellenic ideal

What is the most productive way to define the coloniality of modern Greeks?  Are they colonial, neo-colonial, post-colonial, anti-colonial, surrogate-colonial, crypto-colonial, self-colonial, or debt-colonial, as they have been called?  And which Greeks are we talking about – those of the 18th-century Balkans; 19th-century Peloponnese, Macedonia, or Ionian Islands; 20th-century Smyrna, Alexandria, or London; or 21st-century Athens or Nicosia?  These questions have been raised with increasing frequency over the last forty years in Modern Greek Studies.  Decolonize Hellas, a new international academic initiative, has begun to take them further by examining the role of “Hellas” in the European colonial project.

In a description of its thinking, the collective of the initiative distinguishes between the ideal of Hellas and the nation-state of Ellada

By “Hellas, we denote an assemblage of ideologies (various Hellenisms) and institutions, materialities and imageries, policies and technologies, bodies and populations, identities and affects, within and beyond the timelines and borders of the Greek nation-state (Ellada).

Next, the collective emphasizes the uses of the Hellenic ideal to justify Western superiority and conquest:

“Hellas” as the West’s construction of an idealized image of Ancient Greece has been central to shaping European modernity — as well as to legitimating the existence of a “Modern Greece.” Classicism’s values, aesthetics and evolutionary hierarchies have been used to justify Western superiority and rationalize European conquest and enslavement around the world. “Hellas,” though, also encompasses the Christian and religious underpinnings of supposedly “secular” Western traditions and the diachronic use of Greece as a buffer zone, cultural frontier and bulwark between Christianity and Islam, East and West, capitalism and communism, “civilization” and “barbarism.” 

I explored many of these issues in my book The Rise of Eurocentrism where I discussed the uses of Hellenism and Hebraism in European modernity.  Given the classicizing and civilizing work of Hellas, what does it mean to decolonize the colonizing Hellenic ideal?

To Decolonize Hellas thus means to expose the colonial genealogies fueling the orientalism, balkanism, xenophobia, racism, homophobia and sexism articulated in its name. Βy attending to the active reshaping of “Hellas” through emergent, emancipatory and creative forms of belonging, though, we also hope to inspire the activation and documentation of experiences and practices, memories and movements, genealogies and relations often marginalized, trivialized and rendered unnarratable in dominant memorial and interpretive frameworks, thus opening pathways to more inhabitable and inclusive futures.

In proposing to study modern Greek history from the former colonies rather than the European metropolis, the collective offers an example that would question this year’s dominant historical approach to the bicentennial of 1821: 

Why does the intellectual and material connection of Greek rebels to other revolutionaries outside Europe, such as the Haitian ones, who defeated their French masters and abolished slavery forever in 1804, appear as a footnote in Greek national histories? Rather than interpret the Greek Revolution as a derivative of the European Enlightenment, assumed to be the mainspring of emancipation, could we use the “unthinkable” Greece-Haiti link to flip the script and open a potential path toward provincializing Europe and decolonizing Hellas?

The path-breaking project Decolonize Hellas is in dialogue with major postcolonial directions of inquiry, such as Subaltern Studies, Global South, Black Atlantic, and Transnational Mediterranean.  It is also actively interested in alternative Hellenisms, indigenous governmentalities, epistemologies of activism, and practices of solidarity.  I look forward to participating in it and I thank the collective for inviting me to join the Advisory Board.

24 June 2021

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