And It All Began with the Greek
27 June, 2011
This week on the reading rest I have an anthology:
Dimitrios Jordanoglou & Johannes Siapkas: G(l)ömda historier: Klassiska normer och antik kritik (Hidden/(Forgotten) histories: Classical norms and antique criticism). Crossroads to knowledge 18, Skrifter från Centrum för genusvetenskap Uppsala universitet 2011.
And I read a chapter by one of the editors: Johannes Siapkas:
Nakna greker—från ädel enkelhet till svettiga spartaner (Naked Greeks—from noble simplicity to sweating Spartans)
Being indigenous comes with a price: the majority must consider you a pitiful minority – mistreated and thus worthy of some kind of support and acceptance.
Some years ago people in a small village about to be run through by a motorway protested. They argued that the road should be moved because it would destroy their century old community.
Unfortunately they lacked the support of an endangered species, i.e. something indigenous, which the majority would per chance define as a pitiful minority. In the eyes of the majority therefore, referring to a meaningful past, they trotted out a special interest that nobody wanted to buy. Instead of indigenous they were categorized as cantankerous engaged in writing letters to the editor and contacting their MP – i.e. Losers.
Their village was duly excavated and investigations showed them to be wrong about it. They had been living there continuously for 3.000 years or more! Not just a couple of hundred years. They should be proud and happy, the living roots of our dynamic society forever raised above indigenousness. None the less, we are all indigenous inasmuch as we were born the endpoint of one of the never interrupted chains of reproduction occurring naturally in our environment.
And it all began with the Greek.
Johannes Siapkas’ (JS) chapter belongs in a vast tradition of wondrous texts, the ones that inform and reward while teaching you – their own novel ideas and our own, i.e. the ones we deduce from what we read. This blog has already touched upon such authorship.
Alcuin (Vikings in Latin Poetry, Jun 13), although rather dull after 1200 years, still has the odd point, e.g., when he’s letter-schooling King Ethelred in the autumn of 793 CE telling him that as long as the English upper classes continue to follow the fashion of pagan Danes, in ostentatious non-Christian dress and beards, terror such as befell Lindisfarne will continue. His has a point, albeit a small one, and well-placed Biblical references too if you care for them.
Willian Paton Ker’s teaching text about the literary history of the Dark Ages is much more of a paragon of inspiring instruction: overview, introduction, explanation and synthesis again and again summing up a vast debate of critique in a few pages — everything structured by a few cardinal points. Ker teaches and prompts the reader to think in new ways. Having done so successfully, his texts fell into oblivion when he died, but today a 100 odd years after the publication of the ‘Darks Ages’ the book is a splendid example of a 100 year old text gaining ground.
Choosing the naked Greek, JS makes a didactic point matching the perspective of the anthology. It gives him a tool first to sketch a history of Classical Studies, the academic discipline, where the aesthetic idealised Greece/Athens, which dawned in the middle of the 18th century, gives way to the anthropological view upon Mediterranean/Greek culture introduced in end of the 19th century.
JS shows that the discipline founded by Winkelmann, 18th century, saw Athenian nakedness as bodily perfection crowned by the head expressing the unifying mind, in order eventually, inspired by Taylor, 19th century, to view Spartan nakedness as bodily perfection corrupted by the head expressing an immature discrepancy in the mind. The Athenian is a paragon, the eternal aesthetic ideal. The Spartan is an anthropological icon, a primitive and bygone otherness. As JS points out, people took an interest in the classical antiquity long before Winkelmann, but we gather that this interest is a pre-disciplinary one – antiquity as a toolbox.
JS’s argument doesn’t seek to establish a three-step additive typology: toolbox → universal ideal → cultural stage – adding up to ‘Us in history’ and JS is thus not interested in building a Polanyian typology: reciprocity → redistribution → market – adding up to ‘Us in economy’. Instead he turns around and tells us that the strength of his analysis is in the mind of his more or less educated (West European) reader who has been trained to think in dichotomies and polarization when it comes to analysis – also of history.
In the last section therefore JS turns to the concept of ‘blending’ – Äkta blandningar—(True blends) and argues that the new understanding of culture is dynamic, deliberately blending the seemingly well-defined and static aesthetic and anthropological categories. Concepts such as ‘nakedness’, and ‘body’, once con(s)t(r)ained in two well-defined categories, blend and become the sign of dynamism in culture, and dynamics thus an integral part of culture. The actual physical body, denoted by the word ‘body’, blends with the connotations of its own contextuality, i.e. the wider meaning of the word, and thus the body changes because we must perceive it differently.
Makes a reader think!
By and large, or vaguely, modern majority cultures are aware of the pattern sketched by JS, but nevertheless the toolbox is often used naïvely, the aesthetic ideals die hard, and most likely we evolve. Today, oddly enough, this predicament in majority cultures come to the fore in a didactic conviction which stipulates that those cultures which the majority finds it appropriate to point out as indigenous and thus threatened, must still use some of the tools in the original box, adhere to their ancient aesthetic ideals and follow in the footsteps of the majority when evolving.
If an indigenous people do not understand this, i.e. if it doesn’t understand itself in history, then its members may become like the Greeks in the 18th century, who didn’t understand because they were uprooted by the Orthodox Church and Turkocracy. The Greek had lost their original heritage, but we gave it back to them because it happened to be ours too. Something we understood to be the case when, by means of enlightenment, we started to liberate ourselves in the 18th century. As soon as the majority culture had defined the Greek as indigenous we could help them.
The Greek were our first indigenous people – defined by the majority as a pitiful European minority.