Questioning Greek Exceptionalism


Constanze Güthenke


Dimitris Papanikolaou


Is Modern Greece an exception? And, if yes, an exception to what? Does it constitute an exceptional case? And how productive is such a statement for Modern Greek Studies?

'Exceptionalism' is a term widely used in the area of social and political sciences, where it most often refers to a belief that a country or national culture has developed politically, economically or socially along unusual lines, and needs therefore to be evaluated and interpreted within categories that are different from or even incompatible with a generally accepted 'model' (cf. ‘American Exceptionalism’; ‘Asian Exceptionalism’ and so on). Even though still used widely in analytical bibliography and in public discourse, especially in cases such as ‘American Exceptionalism’ or ‘the French exception’, it is also a term radically criticized both in its ‘popular’ and its academic uses. As Mary Nolan concludes in a position paper entitled ‘Against Exceptionalisms’ ‘exceptionalist arguments produce inadequate history, limited self-understanding, and arrogant politics’.[1]

‘Greek exceptionalism’ has been discussed in various instances. From the pages of JMGS, for instance, Peter Bien alerted us in 2005 that Greek exceptionalism ‘is a position that really should be mistrusted’ and Tom Gallant critiqued the exceptionalism of Modern Greek historical studies, calling for the opening of historical inquiry to comparative perspectives.[2] Other critics have insisted that exceptionalism can be seen as a positive feature of Modern Greek Studies, since it is grounded ‘in concrete geo-political and geo-economic realities.[3]

This project aims to investigate further the position, uses and limits of Greek exceptionalism. Our aim is to identify exceptionalism as a discursive strategy that operates widely and circulates in Modern Greek Studies as much as in Modern Greek society. We will try to identify, historically, patterns of arguing about Greek culture, society and national building processes that somehow claim some of their aspects as unique. We see it as a strength of our project that we do not establish a dividing line between reflective discourses (academic analysis and discussion) and discourses that circulate in the Greek public sphere. If possible, we will try to follow the way the two have entered a dialogic relationship in the past, and how this informs current beliefs and ideas, as well as theoretical debates. We do not, therefore, necessarily distinguish between an ‘internal’ and an ‘external’ (or a primary and a reflective// a ‘lay’ and an ‘analytical’) type of exceptionalism – even though we accept that such a distinction may at times be necessary. At any rate, the way exeptionalist discourses migrate from the reflective to the performative remains at the centre of our inquiry.

The faces of Greek exceptionalism vary – and can characterize traditionalist and progressive viewpoints alike. They can be “positive” – for instance, the various theses on Hellenic continuity, which emphasize Modern Greece’s unique position in world history and culture because of its relationship to classical and Byzantine Greek civilization. Or they can be “negative” – such as recent readings of Modern Greek literature that determine a lack, gap, or belatedness with respect to other cultures, marking Greece as the exception to a general rule, or as exceptional because of its marginal position. Starting from the latter position, productive and subtle work has in the best cases been done that analyses what is particular to Greece (e.g. in terms of recognizable movements such as the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism, the historical Avant-Garde), yet this is perhaps the moment to consider new possible comparative framings that would underline the particularity of the Greek case, while also exploring points of similarity and contact with other national cases with a history of being considered ‘particular’.

We do not want to underestimate the analytical force of exceptionalism (defined by the OED as “the belief that something is exceptional in relation to others of the same kind”). The exceptional is a category of interpretation with heuristic value, working on the assumption that what is particular has explanatory force, especially when put into the context of or comparison with what is considered a 'model'. It is necessary, therefore, to underline the importance of all the work that has analyzed Greek culture, literature, nation and identity formation as an exception to the rule. Yet we also want to understand when and how exceptionalism has worked as a shaping discursive force in Greek culture and society, and how influential its discourses have been on the models of critical writing on Greece.

Our objective is therefore to pause here and to examine how notions of the exceptional have functioned historically, externally and internally, producing knowledge and doing cultural work. We want to understand, analyze and critique the discursive strategies that support exceptionalism and at times elevate it into a paradigm. In that sense, we see ourselves pushing in two (hopefully compatible) directions: to a large extent, and in the first instance, we are presenting a historical project, dismantling and historicizing the tropes of exceptionalism over time and at specific junctures. We have felt a "productive unease" with paradigms of the exceptional as creating knowledge, both within a culture, and in its study, i.e. in historical description and critical reflection of that culture; in consequence, we think of the 'questions' we put to exceptionalism as "What is excpetionalism good for, or not so good for?" In other words, what does it enable, and what does it hinder? What do we gain and what do we loose, operating with such models (which, admittedly, can be 'exceptionalist' to varying degrees)? How do exceptionalist discourses operate on the level of the everyday? How do they affect the fabric of everyday life? How are they promoted by state ideology? What is their impact on common understandings of the nation, national specificity and identity?

In a first one-day colloquium, held earlier this year with participants mainly from literature, cultural studies, history and anthropology, we aimed to identify some areas where exceptionalism has been a strong discursive currency, historically speaking. Areas discussed were the thesis proclaiming the “inherent orality” of Modern Greek culture; theories about the role of kinship and community in Greek society; Greek gender performances; discourses asserting the uniqueness of Greek migrations; canonical discussions about the exceptional character of the Greek version of literary currents such as Romanticism, Modernism, or the historical avant-garde; the argument about Greece’s “belatedness” and its impact on aesthetic culture; discussions about the exceptional impact of Greek nationalism on the discourses of “Hellenism” and “Greekness”; the ‘banal exceptionalisms’ that support the internal taxonomization of Greek popular culture, and their impact on cultural studies on Greece; the exceptionalism of traditional historiography on the Greek Civil War and the new arguments offered by comparative perspectives, such as the discussion of civil strife in post-War Europe. We hope to explore some further fields in a series of small workshops in the future; in particular, we would welcome discussions about new models of comparison regarding Greek literature, history, and culture; and work on themes where we think exceptionalist discourse has had currency, such as the uniqueness of the Greek language; Greek modernities; the ‘Greek soul’; popular images of Greek culture and their impact on theorizing about Greece; Greek diasporic identities; Greece’s exceptional position vis a vis Europe and/or the West and the East.

One of our greatest challenges is not to conflate the exceptional with the particular, but instead to try and arrive at a fruitful distinction between the two. For sure, and on the one hand, we want to sign-post the limitations that can arise from taking the particular and peculiar as the most relevant in analysis, running the risk of overlooking meaningful comparison. On the other hand, we suggest taking the particular serious. Particularity can create theory -- in this way Modern Greek literature and culture as a field of inquiry could engage directly with other “national” areas in which similar preoccupations have been expressed – for instance Latin America, India or Israel – on a new basis.

A tentative conclusion we have reached so far is that exceptionalism is a discursive structure that has acted and still acts as a mediating agent for modernity and modernization, national identity and the nation – even if in our analysis we specifically resist conflation of the discourses of exceptionalism and nationalism.

We are therefore asking contributors to focus on current debates, scholarly, literary, and popular, framed by exceptionalist discourses, and to move from there to a genealogical tracing of the background of these ‘exceptionalisms’. We are interested in pointing at the areas where a certain exceptionalist rhetoric is still visible, and analyze its historical evolution, as well as the interplay of ‘lay’ and ‘analytical’ exceptionalism in this genealogy.

[1] Mary Nolan, 'Against Exceptionalisms', The American Historical Review 102/3 (June 1997), 769-774.

[2] Peter Bien, 'Inventing Greece', Journal of Modern Greek Studies 23/2 (2005), 217-243; Tom Gallant, 'Greek Exceptionalism and Contemporary Historiography: New Pitfalls and Old Debates', Journal of Modern Greek Studies 15/2 (1997), 209-216.

[3] Franklin Hess, ‘Close Encounters of the Common Kind: The Theoretical and Practical Implications of Popular Culture for Modern Greek Studies’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies 21/1 (2003), 37-67.


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