Over the weekend, I read the special section in the most recent Journal of Modern Greek Studies dedicated to the Greek village. It consisted of five articles with an introduction drawn from a conference on the Greek Village convened by Sharon Gerstel at UCLA last year.
The article were good and offered views of the Greek village that drew upon perspectives developed in art history, archaeology, anthropology, and history. In the background, as Gerstel points out in her introduction, is the changing meaning of the Greek village in light of the recent economic crisis in Greece which has pushed people to return to villages for a range of economic and social reasons.
It is also hard not to read these articles against Greece’s extraordinary response to the COVID-19 crisis as well. To paraphrase Michael Herzfeld’s title, did the ability of Greeks to “see like a village” shape their response to the coronavirus? Of course, as Gerstel, Foxhall, Herzfeld, Kourelis, and others make clear, the concept of the village (and of the villager) is not a neatly localized phenomena.
Villagers in antiquity drew upon a range of strategies which included dispersed landholdings to diversify their economic opportunities and to insulate themselves from environmental vagaries present in the Mediterranean basin. Foxhall’s work to extend the village from the nucleated settlement to its surrounding countryside echoes the strategies articulated by Thom Gallant, Horden and Purcell, and similar work on rural life in ancient Italy.
Sharon Gerstell, in some ways, inverts this paradigm by focusing on how contemporary villagers read, understand, and contribute to the inscribed record of a Byzantine church in the Mani. The ability of a community to connect their material past to their own situation ensured that monuments like the Byzantine church in the village of Vamvaka in the Mani develop a significance that goes beyond their place in the history of Byzantine architecture and settlement. Instead, the regular interaction with this monument and its inscriptions connects current residents with their predecessors on a personal (and, in the case of inscriptions naming clergy ecclesiastical) past.
Michael Herzfeld’s “Seeing like a Village” offers a perspective on the tensions between village and national political and social culture in Greece. By returning to the site of his long-time ethnographic interest, the village of Zoniana on Crete, he explores the ways in which the less formal structures of village life instruct how villagers engage with the more rigid bureaucracy of the modern Greek state. The functioning of patronage, violence, and strong kinship ties at the village level refract in different and generative ways when they interact with the state. Herzeld’s piece was perhaps the most thought provoking when it comes to understanding Greece’s success in dealing with the COVID pandemic. How did village political and social culture with its intergenerational ties, strong kin relations, and distinct forms of authority complement and reinforce the restrictions promoted by the Greek state. This would seem to echo Herzfeld’s assertions that seeing like a village did not necessarily imply a kind of parochialism or narrowness, but could produce responses to government policies through networks of relations otherwise inaccessible to institutions that could only “see like a state.”
Konstantinos Kalantzis considered the way in which villages are mediated in popular culture, for tourists, and in architectural conventions through a case study of a highland Greek village in Crete. By considering such everyday tourist objects like postcards, Kalantzis explores how the depictions of village life shape the expectations of visitors and villagers alike. The more dispersed settlement style of Cretan highland villages, for example, often disappoints tourists expecting the denser arrangement of lowland villages. The reproduction of village public spaces in highland villages likewise served to conformant to the expectation of visitors and as a backdrop to Cretan hospitality. The way in which architecture, space, and media shape experiences and expectations provides an insight into how Greek national and regional identities are performed on the most local level.
Finally, Kostis Kourelis, offers a view of the Greek village through the lens of three women named Eleni. These women provide a perspective onto the transnational experience of Greek immigrants. Kourelis’s stories offer a contemporary take on Foxhall’s observation that villages are far more than their nucleated cores, and often extend into the countryside. Kourelis demonstrates that villages in the modern period often represent communities that exist on a global scale.