Vangelis Calotychos: The Balkan Prospect. Identity, Culture and Politics in Greece after 1989

 

Augusta Dimou

 

Vangelis Calotychos’s new book is a study of the negotiations and metamorphoses of images of the Self and the Other in the changing post-1989 contexts of Europe and the Balkans. Read against the background of Greece’s position in the immediate Balkan vicinity as well as within the broader European project, Calotychos analyses how semantics of sameness and difference and their corresponding “gazes” of recognition and distance were generated in Greek society in the late 1980s propelled as much by the shifting contours of the regional and geopolitical contexts as well as by the inflow of mass immigration from neighboring countries. The book’s analytical standpoint is rooted in the tradition of postcolonial studies dealing with the colonization of the imaginary and a strand of research inquiring into the historical contingencies against which the colonization of the mind took place. Taking the year 1989 as a watershed, Calotychos’ central argument claims that the fundamental negotiations in Greek society concerning issues such as modernization and Europeanization were made through and by reference to Balkan themes and contexts of signification, a point that is convincingly argued throughout the whole book. Indebted to cultural studies, Calotychos’ includes in his analysis political and popular discourses, literature and film. His take demonstrates an interdisciplinary engagement and includes next to cultural theory and comparative literature, the social sciences and anthropology, history, politics and psychoanalysis.

 

It is Calotychos’s contention that from the late 1980s a series of events (fall of the wall, wars of Yugoslav succession, military interventions in the Balkans), ideologies (multiculturalism, neoliberalism, nationalism etc.) and processes (migration, European consolidation, monetary union etc.) converged into a dynamic admixture that made renegotiations of Greek identity in the cultural sphere mandatory. Due to its liminal position (being part of the Balkans but considered as pertaining to Western Europe and economically more advanced than the rest of the region) it was considered that Greece could perform the double role of raw model and host, while from an analytical point of view –so Calotychos– precisely this liminal situation predisposes Greece ideally for a study in postcolonial criticism, especially with a view to the issue of western intervention in the region as exemplified in the case of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. As part of the European project, Greece, had on the one hand to reconfigure the terms of its own Greek identity in ways reflective of large, foreign agendas such as the one of multiculturalism current in the EU. On the other, within the above mentioned context and faced with new challenges such as mass migration from the Balkans, it had to renegotiate for itself indices of Greek identity such as difference and citizenship but also identity markers such as ethnicity, gender and race. The analysis thus takes a perspective on the Balkans from Greece’s liminal position and the labile nature of their identification and disidentification. At the same time, Calotychos argues that allusions to the Balkans draw upon imagined cultural affinities and propose positive social and political potentialities, constituting thus, what he terms the “Balkan good,” (p. 9) a possibility to resist external prescriptions and strive towards a productive self-consciousness that allows the emergence of a more theoretical critical practice. The book focuses on the way culture participates in and determines the larger social, political and geopolitical transformations that mark this period. 

 

In six chapters, Calotychos makes his case concerning the resignification of the late 1980s, while he occasionally makes analytical and descriptive excursions into deeper historical time in order to demonstrate aspects of the longue durée and contextualize changes in narrative constructions.

Chapter 1. (This is the Balkans, This is no Fun and Games) Calotychos explicates his theoretical approach both with respect to Modern Greek and Balkan Studies as with respect to the theoretical works on “balkanism” produced in the 1990s. Arguing against Maria Todorova’s plaidoyer to not leave the concreteness of the Balkans unconsidered, Calotychos asserts the unstable referentiality of the Balkans, “their insideness and outsideness, their proximity in distance and distance in proximity,” which flies in the face of their concreteness (p. 29).

Chapter 2. (Names, Differences) deals with the Macedonian crisis and the way it affected identity and self-representation. The Macedonian dispute is placed in the turbulent and polyvalent context of the 1990s, characterized through an international climate propagandizing a multiculturalist ethos, the armed conflict in Yugoslavia, a post-1989 reconfiguration of the relationships between West and the East as exemplified in works such as Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” and finally the revival of old stereotypes concerning the Balkans in the course of the Yugoslav wars. The chapter offers a cultural reading of the social and historical developments (collapse of the notions of Left and Right, mass migrations, the rise of nationalism, the enhanced role of the church etc.) that marked a crisis of Greek identity and how this in turn influenced Greece’s positioning vis-à-vis a multicultural and supranational Europe.

Chapter 3. (Repetition, Agency) deliberates on three emblematic films of the 1990s, Theo Angelopoulos’s “Ulysses’ Gaze,” Emir Kusturica’s “Underground” and Milcho Manchevski’s “Before the Rain” and suggests a reading against the grain of the recurrent trope of repetition and films’ cyclical structure. The chapter discusses how each film locates itself differently in the context of historical trauma. As opposed to readings (D. Iordanova) that consider the films to reproduce stereotypes and fatalism, Calotychos argues that each film addresses in a different way the issue of agency and the responsibility of the individual to intervene in the present.

Chapter 4. (Bridges, Metaphors) Revisits the topos of “the bridge” in order to talk about the relationship between insiders and outsiders. The analysis follows the deployment of the bridge metaphor in the Balkan folklore tradition and in the Balkan modernist and postmodernist novel (Andrić, Kadare, Fakinos) and film (Angelopoulos) and ascertains instead of the connecting bridge, the “bridge of separation,” (p. 96), referring to the fact that the deployment of the metaphor in the Balkans has gone “hand in hand with the notion of foreign intervention or importation that seeks to reorder thinking, speaking and acting” (p. 118).

Chapter 5. (Limits, Coexistence) Discusses the relationship between Greeks and Turks and the way the poetics of coexistence have been redefined through the return of the historical novel in Greece. Though Greek novels (and films) of the 1990s seemingly strive for more refined and complex presentations of the Ottoman past, they remain nevertheless entrenched in specific taboos. Typologies of religious conversion, fears of sexual contamination and capitulation persist as models of Greek-Turkish coexistence. In fact, Calotychos identifies in all these narratives a tendency to avoid difference at the precise moment when coexistence is closest to being realized and the conditions for setting aside differences are most imminent.

Chapter 6. (Migrations, Prospects) discusses the Balkan dimensions of immigration into Greece by analyzing Greek films (Sotiris Goritsas, Constantine Giannaris, Thanos Anastopoulos, Philippos Tsitos) and literature (Menis Koumandareas, Sotiris Dimitriou, Aris Fakinos) of the 1990s dealing by and large with the issue of Albanian migration and the capacities and prospects of integration and/or abuse. The chapter explores through the frames of gender, class and ethnicity, how bodies are inserted into the new economy of exchange.

Chapter 7. (Epilogue, Back to the Balkans) closes the narrative cycle by pondering upon Greek fears of returning to the “Balkans,” this time due to the current economic crisis. As the old generations of Balkan immigration are superseded by new immigration waves from Asia and Africa, Calotychos reflects on the missed chance of the “Balkan prospect” of the 1990s to establish legal, social and conceptual frameworks in order to deal with immigration into Greece. While the crisis seems to have “returned Greece to the Balkans”, it has evoked an even stronger discursive geography that has placed Greece along with the whole of the European South into the no man’s land of the European delinquent periphery. The prospect now presents itself as a “global challenge,” that is “the ability to develop and organize resistance into mobilizing political forms” (p. 209).

The book’s strength lies in the variety of themes and issues discussed but also in the ability to offer a different and fresh reading of social, political and cultural processes through the combined lenses of interdisciplinary readings and postcolonial theory. Calotychos’s book lives up to its pledge to deliver a complex, sophisticated and intriguing narrative on Greece’s positionality within and without the Balkans. It does so though a restless search for the cultural forms and texts through which difference is manifested and/or processed.

 

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  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 04 (08.2013)