On The Classical Debt

Like 98% of the Classicists (or at least Hellenists) in the world right now, I’ve just finished reading Johana Hanink’s The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Age of Austerity (2017). It’s a remarkable book that traces the history of the concept of “Greek debt” from conversations about the West’s historical debt to Greek democracy, philosophy, and science to the recent economic crisis in Greece largely triggered by Greece’s economic debt to various Western European institutions. Hanink shows how these two concepts of debt are deeply entangled with the former working as an Enlightenment fueled spark that ignited Greek nationalism in the 17th and 19th centuries and the latter shackling the resulting Greek nation to the political and economic interests of Western European powers.

(Read my friend Dimitri Nakassis’s post on the book here.)

Hanink’s account begins in Classical antiquity where she argued that Athenian propaganda provided a foundation for later accounts of the “Greek miracle” which produced the flourishing art, architecture, philosophical life, and, of course, democracy. She located this propaganda within a critical context of the Classical period demonstrating that even in the 5th- and 4th-century Athens, dissenting views existed. In the end, the more heroic and triumphant narrative of Athenian and ultimately Greek exceptionalism came to dominate the canonical view of the Classical age owing in no small part to the Roman, Byzantine, and even Arab, Ottoman, and Medieval interlocutors who celebrated the monuments and literature of Pericles’ city.

Hanink largely overlooks the gap between the ancient and modern world and relegates a millennium of engagement with the Classical past to the status of passive “filters” that distilled the narrative of Athenian and Greek exceptionalism down to an almost irrefutable essence. This leap makes sense for the larger goals of her work which really begins with the potent re-imaginings of the European and Greek Philhellenes whose late 18th and 19th century work formed the basis for locating the Classical spirit in the landscapes, monuments, and people at the periphery of the shaky Ottoman Empire (with a brief, but significant passage through Evliya Celebi’s accounts of late-17th-century Ottoman Athens). In many ways, the paradoxes of this initial engagement of Europeans with the town of Athens culminated in Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles and their bumpy journey back the England and into the British Museum (if not in the wayward Venetian shell that began the task of purging the Acropolis of later accretions). The desire to transform the physical place of modern Greece into a European home for democracy, philosophy, art, and literature came in the aftermath of the Battle Navarino in 1827, when the opportunity to construct a modern nation-state on the physical territory of the Classical past became clear. With inspiration from Byron and Koraïs, the European debt to Greek antiquity became politically manifest in the new Greek state and its reconstructed capital crowned by the Acropolis and the ageless Parthenon.

Hanink’s description of the modern debt crisis in Greece is among the best that I’ve read in that it both maintains the utter incomprehensibility of contemporary global finance while also driving home causes and consequences ranging from the 2004 Athens Olympics to the collapse of the Greek public sector and social safety net. (On a personal note, the trajectory of the Greek economic miracle of the late-1990s and early 2000s parallels my own discovery of Greece and two lengthy stints in Athens. Hanink doesn’t quite capture the pride that Athens felt being welcomed into the club of Europe (despite being part of the EU (and its predecessor the EEC since 1981) by adopting the Euro and ultimately hosting the Olympics.) The scorn that Greece attracted with the collapse of the Greek economy and the painful and humiliating bailout conditions appeared in the jeering cartoons published in multiple media outlets that framed the Greeks as unworthy heirs of their Classical legacy. Whatever debt Europe owned to Ancient Greece became a burden borne by the nation as it alternately reminded Europe of its intellectual and political history and endured the economic consequences of its modern legacy.

The book concludes with an epilogue the offers a way to engage with the narrative of Western Civilization that recognizes both ancient Athenian discourse and its influence on the modern construction of our own views of antiquity. At the same time, she urges teachers to consider alternate narratives that offer the potential to free ourselves from our debt to the ancient world (and Greece, in particular) enabling us, like modern Greece, to find a new way forward and to image new, less encumbered, futures.

This is a very good book. My only real critique of Haninck is that her work contributes relatively little upon which to form an alternative narrative of Greek debt. In fact, the book’s binocular vision of Classical antiquity and the modern world reduces the crucial two millennium between the peak of Pericles’ Athens and Renaissance to the passive status of filter. By doing this, she largely overlooks the contribution of the Roman second sophistic, the complicating burden of Christianity, the trauma of the Crusades, the Frankokratia, and Ottoman conquests, as well as the complicated and sometimes contradictory narrative present in contemporary Greek nationalism. Her reasons for overlooking these centuries are, of course, understandable considering the book’s accessible approach and, more importantly, her focus on a particularly influential strand in the current political discourse. At the same time, I suspect that understanding and even rehabilitating the filtering history of these two millennia offer the best hope of creating a new foundation for our own Western identity and freeing Greece from the pressures that Hanink rightly views as overwhelming and overwriting any autonomous and potentially liberating counter-narrative.

My point isn’t to undermine or question the motives of Hanink’s work, but to push it just a bit by suggesting that her own work does little to complicate the 18th and early-19th prefiguration of a “Greek” nationalism that emerged from the Classical discourse. For example, Evliya Celebi’s description of the light-filled mosque of the Parthenon is almost certainly an echo of the Byzantine tradition which celebrated the miraculous the light associated with the Parthenon as the cathedral of Athens. Anthony Kaldellis has argued that this  Medieval “filter” magnified this building’s renown during the Frankish period and ensured that the Parthenon would hold pride of place among Classical monuments in Greece. Elsewhere, she slips and says that the Greeks were never really colonized, but, of course, that overlooks the history of the Ionian Islands and the Dodecanese, whose identities and connection with Western Europe emerged in a kind of colonial continuity that extended from the Fourth Crusade to French Revolution (and beyond), as well as the unique political history of Crete. These places with their colonial histories provided modern Greece with many of its influential political leaders from Capodistrias to Venezelos. Finally, the Megali Idea, that fueled so much Greek nationalism of the first half of the 20th century, owed as much to ideas cultivated in a kind of post-Byzantine millenarianism that regularly witnessed a hope for liberation in religious images of the empty imperial throne in Constantinople.

The point of this isn’t to find a niggling examples with which to undermine her argument, but perhaps complicate it in a productive way. Her binocular attention to Classical antiquity and the modern world set in a kind of relief the two-millennium-long filtering process between various groups who made often-rival claims to the Classical past, inhabited its ruins, and negotiated a dense web of economic, religious, and intellectual debts. I suspect that these tangled, dynamic, and obscure millennia offer a key to a productive reconsideration of Greek debt, both in terms of our persistent interest in a shared (but diverse) narrative of Western culture and in the real consequences of the growing economic inequality between creditor and debtor nations that preserve the historical legacy of the  “Classical” Mediterranean.

The University of North Dakota Writers Conference

As winter struggles to give way to spring here on the Northern Plains, it means that it is time for the annual University of North Dakota Writers Conference. Started in 1970 as a gathering called the Southern Writers Conference of the Arts, the annual gathering of writers and readers has now gained nationally renown and is the clear highlight of the late winter in North Dakota.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Citizen” and it brings together a particularly diverse group of authors from across the United States to offer readings, to screen films, to conversate at lunchtime panels dedicated to topics of “refuge,” “community,” and “voices,” and to reflect on the use of “hydrogels for hands on learning.

Check out the featured authors here and the schedule as well.

The Writers Conference is sponsored, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the North Dakota Humanities Council (which receives its funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities). In light of this week’s announcement that these two programs are set to be cut from the 2018 federal budget, I suspect that this year’s conference will have some added intensity as the gathered writers and readers reflect on the topic of the citizen in a potential world without publicly funded arts and humanities.

Please do plan to attend!

And, if you can’t, do check out the growing digital archive of past conferences

Crisis, History, and Graduate Historiography

For the last couple of years I’ve been teaching our required graduate courses here in the history department at the University of North Dakota. I’ve post my graduate historiography reading list to the blog fairly regularly and written a bit about what I do in the introduction to historical methods class, which is less of a methods course and more of a sweeping survey of graduate education and a chance to introduce the new graduate students to my colleagues in the department. 

One of the themes throughout both courses is the “crisis in the humanities.” On the one hand, I have tried to demonstrate that discourse of crisis in the humanities is well over a century old and may, in fact, reflect certain basic incompatibilities between the structure of higher education and most (generally older) traditions of humanistic practices. In particular, the fragmented industrial design of the “modern” university runs counter to certain tendencies in the humanities toward synthesis, integration, and totalizing approaches to our world. The emphasis on skills at the modern university is challenging for humanists who tend to be ratter more agnostic toward any particular skill set and averse to methodology more broadly. The desire for universities to produce economically useful individuals finds little traction among scholars and students of the humanities who look beyond the economy for meaning. In other words, the persistent sense of crisis among humanists is baked into the poor fit in the university itself.

As a result, we should always acknowledge it, but avoid allowing the sense of crisis to undermine what it is that we do as scholars and students of the humanities. I tend to see our place within the university as an opportunity to offer sustained dissent and to resist pressures to take extraordinary actions that might undermine the basic integrity of the humanities project. For example, I don’t mind if students learn particular skills in my classes, but I refuse to articulate what I do as a skill-based discipline. Likewise, I don’t mind if my class or research has a massive impact on students or my field (it seems unlikely to happen though), but my goal is to grind away at small problems in a deliberate incremental way.

This is all well and good, on the one hand.

On the other hand, we learned last week that our graduate program almost certainly will be defunded for the foreseeable future. This is a bummer on many levels. It hurts existing students in our program the most, of course, but it also damages the university’s reputation as offering a strong base in the liberal arts. It worries me and my colleagues because it speaks to a lack of commitment to the humanities on campus, and a shift from a funded and supported graduate program to one based on unpaid overloads. 

It also undermines my claim that the humanities have always been in crisis because it makes the crisis real and personal to our students. 

So I played along and told them that I was willing to trash the current syllabus and revise the class to accommodate their (and our shared) sense of crisis, but they had to propose an alternative. After floating quite a few ideas – almost all of them intriguing – two major ideas came to the top. First, they clearly wanted more of a grounding in “classical” historiography. That is, they wanted to read some Herodotus, Thucydides, and other ancient authors, rather than spending so much time considering the historiography of the 20th and 21st centuries. Considering the entire class was American historians (more or less), I found this both heartwarming and a bit troubling. Was this a retreat from scholarship that was immediately relevant to our discipline today and a retreat to the comfortable and conservative confines of familiar faces? This is not to suggest that we can’t learn a tremendous amount from reading Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus carefully, but what specifically do they hope to take away? Do they hope to find a context for the suddenly very real 21st century crisis in the humanities?

The second, response was that in the place of an individual paper at the end of the semester, they’d prefer to write a kind of manifesto that articulates the value of graduate education in History at UND. I’m going to suggest that they do this in a public way and solicit comments from folks in our program and outside the program. So, stay tuned.   

 

Happy New Year

I think we can all agree that 2016 was a pretty crappy year. In fact, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012… heck… most of the years that I can remember have been pretty crappy. Lots of people have died, there were political events that caused me and people I care about pain, the world nudged closer to the complete dissolution of civilization, and we were all glad to see them go. In fact, the never-ending run of crappy years is exactly why we invented the New Year to begin with (or at least so I’ve been told).

To celebrate the New Year and to wish yet another year a bumpy ride in the crapwagon of our memories, I present two happy dogs in oil:

IMG 0333

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

It’s a holiday weekend and the start of what I like to call “the winter writing season.” These are the frantic weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years when we share with our students an overwhelming sense of urgency to get work done.

Of course we all have other stuff going on. This weekend alone we have The Game, the first round of FCS playoffs (Go Spiders!), the heart of the NFL season, the season finale of Formula 1, and Australia’s desperate effort not to lose their sixth test match in a row. And that’s not mentioning college basketballing, Christmas shopping, or the NBA. No wonder professional hockey went under in the US. There’s simply no time for it.

But there is always time for writing and reading, so please enjoy these quick hits and varia:

IMG 0029

Teaching Wednesday

I know that “Teaching Wednesday” isn’t a thing, but I realized that I hadn’t blogged about teaching for a while here, and left my night class yesterday thinking about teaching at the end of the semester. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been teaching History 101 in the University of North Dakota’s fancy Scale-Up classroom. The Scale-Up room consisted of 20, 9-student tables designed to facilitated group learning.

My course leads students through the process of writing a history textbook with each table being responsible for a part of a chapter on Greek, Roman, and Medieval history. Over the course of the semester, the students start by writing 500-700 word, individual, analysis papers which introduce them to using primary sources, compiling specific historical evidence (e.g. names, dates, et c.), and constructing arguments. These papers begin as group work, with each table working on an outline, compiling evidence, and discussing their approaches to the topic. Then, each student turns in an individual paper.

The skills developed in these exercises are then applied them to the larger task of writing 3, 3000-word sections of chapters for a textbook written collectively. For each section, each 9-person table prepares an outline, writes a draft, reviews other table’s drafts, and revises their draft into a polished, final product over a three week stretch. Thus, the final 9 weeks of the semester are dedicated to each group writing a section on three different topics. 

Each class is a bit different, but generally, I provide different levels of feedback over the course of the 9 weeks. The first section each table writes often focuses on process. For example, students become so eager to figure out a thesis for their chapter that they often try to come up with an argument before they have compiled evidence (each table has a variety of textbooks and web resources for their research). The second 3-week section tends to focus on issues of organization and making sure that a 3000-word paper written by 9 students coheres and supports a single argument. The final 3-week section tends to focus on more writerly issues, but it also offers the students an opportunity to approach the task of writing a 3000-word paper with a sense of confidence both in my expectations and in understand group dynamics and how the process works. 

The biggest challenge for me as we head toward the end of the semester is what to do during class time. This week, for example, was the second week in the final 3-week module. This class period usually involves addressing feedback they’ve been given on their outline, refining their supporting arguments and thesis, and hopefully beginning to write. Last night, I stood there, bored, and watched the class work. I thought: “Everyone is just writing. It’s like they don’t NEED me any more.”

Then I realized that everyone is working, and while I can always push them to improve, to some extent, the class has reached its goals. Everyone in the class was just writing. 

That was a pretty good feeling.

Fragments: History, Politics, and Empathy

Last week was a bit trying here in North Dakotaland. It wasn’t as much because of the political events at a national level – although those were a bit shocking (and I’ve been told that they were shocking to both parties) – but on the local level many people who had worked hard to promote the welfare of the state and its citizens (on both sides of the aisle) found themselves out of office or that their candidates had come up short.

I do not generally follow politics in part because I find the issues either hopeless complex or so cut and dried as to not really reward my consideration. But as people struggle to grasp the events that transpired last week, I’ve discovered that my experience and training as a historian of both Late Antiquity and the modern world has helped. 

From Late Antiquity, I’ve encountered more than my share of deeply committed radicals of various sorts. From saints who withdrew from their communities and society and made homes atop pillars at the edge of the desert to charismatic firebrands who incited violence and deeply pious bishops who tended carefully to their flocks and communities during trying times. Maybe my familiarity with these individuals has made me comfortable (perhaps too comfortable?) with a particular strand of discourse (outrage?) that has become so prevalent in American political culture. The vigorous protests, the outlandish proclamations, and the boorishness of Late Antiquity feels distinctly modern. I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way. In fact, it may account for two recent biographies of St. Epiphanius of Cyprus who made his career by inveighing against all sort of heresies real and imagined.

My recent research in the Bakken has also exposed me to differing perspectives. In 2013, when we were still figuring out the lay of the land, not a few oil patch workers assured us – with genuine fears for their livelihood – that present Obama would shut down the Bakken and ban fracking. Whatever the origins of these fears, they were real, and these were hard working folks who both respected our interest in their world and felt profoundly disconnected from the centers of power that controlled their economic (and in a basic way social) destiny.

As one guy told us: 

CY: I think the election year’s going to be a really rough year for the Bakken.
AB: Okay, yeah
CY: I mean when I was in Wyoming
AB: You mean like a statewide election?
CY: No, I’m talking the whole country.
AB: Okay the whole nation, yeah
CY: I’m talking the whole country, because when I was in Wyoming, that was when Obama got elected.
AB: Yeah?
CY: And when Obama got elected, I lost my job.
AB: Okay?
CY: The oil elds dried up.
AB: Just like that?
CY: Yep everybody was invested in McCain.
AB: Okay
CY: And I lost my job out there because Obama got elected. I don’t know what’s going to happen this year.

Another said:

M: No, although I do feel if Obama gets in the house again, he’s going to put an end to this up here.
BW: Ah-ha
Mike: That’s just my opinion
BW: You’re not the only one, again, there’s a lot of people that feel that the EPA
Mike: Yeah the EPA is…
BW: Come in and shut things down?
Mike: Yeah they’re bad enough already, which I can see their point in one way. In another, I can’t. I think they’re overstepping their bounds really.

And another:

JP: Oh that’s what I was going to tell you. If Obama stays in office, I believe he’s going to send the EPA up here to…
BW: Shut it down huh?
JP: Clean house. Hand out some serious fines.

Needless to say, this didn’t happen. There were no serious fines, no shutting down of the Bakken, but plenty of anxiety and uncertainty. I feel like encountering this anxiety (and teaching in a deeply red state, like North Dakota) has given me a chance to a distinct perspective in the events of last week. 

This week, as a kind of therapy, I unfriended a bunch of people on Facebook. They were making me anxious and the echoes of their posts made me feel like I was in a terrible house of mirrors that offered no escape. I also said down with Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016). The book’s premise is pretty basic: empathy matters and even more so during our politically fractured times. (Her thesis is more complex.)

“The English language doesn’t give us many words to describe the feeling of reaching out to someone from another world, and of having that interest welcomed. Something of its own kind, mutual, is created. What a gift. Gratitude, awe, appreciation; for me, all those words apply and I don’t know which to use. But I think we need a special word, and should hold a place of honor for it, so as to restore what might be a missing key on the English- speaking world’s cultural piano. Our polarization, and the increasing reality that we simply don’t know each other, makes it too easy to settle for dislike and contempt.” (p. xi).

Her book is the story of anxiety. Real anxiety. Hochschild’s book documents the history and experiences of a group of Tea Party advocates in Louisiana. Living the shadow of toxic waste spewing plants, enduring economic stagnation, and witnessing the growing condescension toward they way of life, white southerners in Louisiana found strength in shared political commitments and a kind of dogged persistence and self reliance that offered a kind of personal redemption. This personal redemption embedded in community and faith offered a kind of strength and direction when conventional institutions of political authority have failed.

I’m loath to give advice or make sweeping cultural statements, but it strikes me that both sides of the political spectrum have a deep need for empathy grounded in history and experience. This means a refusal to trivialize the experience of people not like us and an openness to the real anxieties felt across the country. Empathy is bulwark against hatred.

More on Adjusted Margin

Readers of this blog can probably tell that I’m enamored with Kate Eichhorn’s Adjusted Margin (MIT 2016). The book traces the history and use of xerography and argues that it offered a medium for folks at the margins to find a voice. I’ve blogged a bit on her argument that copy shops and photocopying in general serving as a third space, for today, I’d like to think a bit about how xerography served as an archaeological predecessor for digital practices.

9780262033961 2

Eichhorn looks at the role the xerography played in the ACT UP movement to raise the awareness of the ravages of the AIDS epidemic especially, but not exclusively among gays in the 1980s. She examines how photocopies allowed this group to produce and distribute posters, to create graphically interesting media  designed to generate awareness (like the printed money that they rained down on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange when they occupied that building in 1989), and to distribute information to people suffering from AIDS, their supporters, and the medical community. Eichhorn described the weekly newsletters prepared by ACT UP organizers that summarized the media stories, promoted events, and generated a sense of community. She also discussed the stacks of photocopied articles, fliers, and other media arranged on tables at ACT UP meetings and quickly circulated among the attending activists. Many activists credited the rapid and expansive distribution of ACT UP media to their access to photocopiers either in the ACT UP office or in their places of work (often in the publishing world). In other words, production of photocopied media was at least partly decentralized. 

Zines provided an opportunity to explore how xerography promoted the rise of decentralized distribution networks. While most Zines had a place of origin – usually on the East or West Coast – they circulated widely and often co-promoted other Zines by including the mailing address of other Zines in their pages. This allowed for the formation of dendritic networks where Zines led to Zines. Anyone who was interested in music in era before the internet understood the importance of these kinds of informal associations for discovering new bands and understanding the culture associated with, say, punk rock music.

I got thinking of these decentralized networks of distribution because, on the one hand, they anticipated the the hyperlinked networks of associations that came to dominate the distribution of digital media through the internet. In fact, xerography allowed for the development in paper form of such common internet structures as links, blogs, and memes. As someone with a growing interest in publishing, I’ve thought about how Zine culture – with all its imperfections and irregular distribution – provided a model for publishing on the web and in digital media. As Eichhorn states throughout her book, with xerography, there is no need for an original and, as such, no need for a definitive point of origin. This likewise seems to anticipate open-access, digital publishing which depends upon a community and an ecosystem for media to circulate, but does not depend as heavily on the originating point of the publisher. Without a center there are no margins or, more properly, the influence of the center diminishes rapidly as it becomes less vital to the circulation of a work.

Nothing to See Here

It’s mid-October, I have deadlines for internal grants, for external grants, and for a stack of reviews. I have papers to grade, books to read, and students to advise. I have a lot going on right now.

Since I can’t offer you any brilliant blog content, I’m going to point you in the direction of folks who can!

First, check out Kostis Kourelis’s blog. He’s on sabbatical right now, and his blog has come alive with some amazing content lately.

Then check out Shawn Graham’s stuff over at Electric Archaeologists, particularly his most recent distant reading of the soon-to-be-released Mobilizing the Past volume from The Digital Press.

Look at what we’ve been doing over at the North Dakota Quarterly webpage. We’re running a little series on the 50th anniversary of Elwyn B. Robinson’s monumental History of North Dakota with contributions from me, Jim Mochoruk, Michael Lansing, and Kim Porter

This week, the University of North Dakota inaugurated its 12th president, Mark Kennedy. This is what I wrote 8 years ago having watched the inauguration of Robert O. Kelley. I think much of what I said still stands.

Thanks for understanding that I needed a day off from the old blog! And thanks to my colleagues for keeping the interwebs interesting. More tomorrow! I promise! 

Failed Conclusions

I’ve been slogging my way through a very short article on the possible role of the North Dakota Man Camp Project in contributing to recent interest the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration.

I set up the problem as one of impermanence and abundance. Undocumented and forced migrants often move from one impermanent camp to the next at the margins of more settled communities which are committed to preventing these contingent populations from leaving a lasting trace in the landscape. Workforce housing in western North Dakota follows this practice exactly as the established tows in the region worked to curtail the establishment of crew camps and other forms of housing for temporary workers. They did this for reasons ranging from xenophobia to a desire to expand the local tax base, encourage the settlement of families, and limit the long-term impact of the boomtown growth. From an archaeological perspective, these short-term character of these settlements and the attitude surrounding their creation will obscure their archaeological impact on the landscape. The undocumented migrants that these sites housed will likely remain rather invisible in an archaeological record that privileges long-term, iterative, settlement practices which slowly create archaeological deposits.

Figure_10b.jpg

At the same time, our modern world enjoys an unprecedented abundance of stuff. The mass production and distribution of objects has created a modern landscape that is densely arrayed with discarded objects. The residents of workforce housing sites demonstrate both a remarkable ingenuity in modifying their spaces, often RVs, to adapt to the North Dakota climate, the needs of year-round occupation, and the desire to project some individuality in the relative uniformity of the RV park. Objects abound from wood shipping pallets to outdoor furniture, appliances, equipment, vehicles, and grills, fire pits and weight sets.

In other words, workforce housing sites in the Bakken manifest this tension between abundance and impermanence. Somehow I need to conclude a paper that establishes this tension and make reference to ideas like “an archaeology of care,” the potential of tourism to serve as a lens for critiquing the modern landscape, and our responsibility for creating an persistent archive to both document and memorialize these events even after the archaeological record slips from view.

Wish me luck.