Rethinking Greece: Stathis Gourgouris on democratic autonomy

Rethinking Greece

Professor Gourgouris spoke to Rethinking Greece* about Europe, 'the punishment of Philhellenism', the SYRIZA government tasks, aesthetic creativity and democratic autonomy:


In your seminal work “Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece” (1996) you note that “Greece stands in the heart of the European Community as an indelible reminder of the impossibility of Europe's Enlightenment fantasy". You also conclude that “Greece - as a social-imaginary institution - has never located itself outside the sphere of Europe”. How are relations between Greece and Europe twenty years later?
Much of what I argued 20 years ago still stands: an asymmetrical relation (politically and economically); a cultural disjunction, going back to the 19th century and before, that creates a trust deficit on both sides; and an internal ambiguity among Greeks that makes Europe the mark of both xenophobia and xenophilia simultaneously.
What has changed significantly is the 'Europeans' are no longer invested in things Greek – via their obsession with the ancient Greek ideal – as they were then. Or, perhaps, more accurately, the other side of their Philhellenism – the fact that modern Greeks are unworthy of their ancestors, that they are in the end Orientals – is no longer a counter-weight, it has taken over. What we now see is the full play of what in Dream Nation I had called 'the punishment of Philhellenism'. Greeks are paying for their ancestors by being held in debt by the Europeans, who claim to be the only real inheritors of the ancients.
You have argued that a Greek government of the Left has the responsibility to "save the most valuable principle of modern European culture: democratic autonomy." Is this still the case following the bailout deal reached on July 13?
Of course it is still true. Europe sure needs some heavy doses of democratic autonomy. The question is whether it is possible. One thing I can say, by some sort of negative logic, is that the Greek government, as a sort of troublemaker entity within the EU, has brought out in the open for the world to see the endemic democracy deficit in today’s EU institutions. But the balance of power is extraordinarily unequal. It will require people in other countries of Europe to bring their own democratic desires to the forefront as well.
As it has become, the EU structure has eroded the parameters of national sovereignty. The brutal ways it dealt with Greece is a case in point. The Greek government of the Left provides a unique opportunity to address the EU’s democratic deficit, precisely because it is not linked to the elite clientelist networks that are not just local – they are linked to their counteparts in Europe.
Several scholars have said that what happened in Greece largely involved corrupt local politicians in tandem with a ruthless international financial elite. Is this a diagnosis to build on?
It is a correct diagnosis on the whole, even if there are other factors involved. The most important task of a SYRIZA government – which is why it was elected by an electorate that exceeds its ranks – is precisely to reverse this course and put a stop to it.A Herculean task, no doubt, but only SYRIZA is the political force to make this happen. SYRIZA’s broad popular base is grounded on two things: it’s the only party based on a social movement – a very activist one, especially in the solidarity networks that grew in response to the crisis; its lack of clientelist connections gives people, for the first time, the hope that some real change can happen in Greek society.Contrary to what is believed, most Greeks actually resent clientelism; they desire some sort of honesty and meritocracy, especially in the public sector.
Is there any special role writers and literature have during this crisis?
Literature speaks precisely in the ways that politics cannot speak – it outmaneuvers the codes of power. But it is also a mode of action that takes much longer to develop; it is not dependent on the turn of events. Nonetheless, if there is one positive thing we have seen from the crisis is an explosion in aesthetic creativity, in all the arts, not just writing, and this because much of the youth, in the face of a rather bleak reality, turns with full force to the experimentalism of the imagination, to creating inventive fictions of reality cause reality is abhorrent.
Are there some ways in which we can 'rethink' Greece and Europe now?
I can easily imagine that Greece has a lot of lessons to teach Europe right now, except that Europe has locked its heels like a mule and refuses to learn!


*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis (Interview taken in early August 2015).


The Opening Remarks from the Rethinking the Human Sciences conference, held March 30, 2012 at Columbia University in the City of New York. Nicholas Dirks, Executive Vice President of Arts and Sciences (Columbia University) and Stathis Gourgouris, Director, of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (Columbia University) present: