Heath Cabot: Hubris and humility in academic activism

GCAS Conference, Athens, 16-19.2015. Photo by Manos Cížek (from his f/b profile) GCAS Conference, Athens, 16-19.2015. Photo by Manos Cížek (from his f/b profile)

A reflection on the GCAS Democracy Rising conference 
Heath Cabot
Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in the Democracy Rising Conference organized in partnership with  held in Theoretical Sciences building of the Athens Law School, itself famous as a bastion of the left in Greece since the 1973 student uprising against the Junta. I don’t think I have ever been made to think so actively at a conference-like event. I say “conference-like” because this was much more than a conference. The typical Anglo-Saxon conference rules did not apply much of the time: there were indignant and raised voices (even something akin to nascent physical struggle) in more than one panel; some participants arrived late because they seemed to have other kinds of work to do (activism, politics); some people canceled at the last minute and gate-crashed at other moments. The dominant “professional uniform” was not so much a suit but t-shirts, shorts, and hipster beards. Even the schedule of the conference was a rolling and shifting chimerical thing, as the organizers sought to accommodate the presence of actual and rumored additional speakers (Varoufakis?). Many of the contributors were not just brilliant scholars but skilled orators. Moreover, the Global Centre for Advanced Studies – as far as I can tell – has an impressive set of aspirations, seeking to democratize education through working to offer degrees that are debt free. And in the meantime, GCAS (and its founder, the seemingly tireless Creston Davis) embraces the difficult project of unabashedly and openly bringing political activism and academic work together. This conference attested to the generative and unpredictable nature of such a project and to how a particular historical and political moment (in this case in Greece) can shape and inspire engaged intellectual discourse. And – perhaps?? – vice versa.
The conference took place in Athens in part as an acknowledgement of Greece’s relatively recent emergence as a European and even global epicenter for struggles over the role of the left in politics: a marginalized and deeply exploited country where a “radical left” party actually won in January. One colleague commented to me that the conference website looked more like a tribute to the party than an “academic” website. More recently, however, the euphoric victory of Syriza in January (for the Greek and international left[s]) gave way to drawn out and painful negotiations with Germany, Brussels, and the “Eurozone;” humiliating and shameless coverage in the international and domestic media that propagated not just misinformation but also racialized stereotypes of Greeks; and this past week, a clear and painful cleavage within the Syriza party (and more broadly, within the Greek left) regarding how the government should have acted – and now, should act -- after the Όχι vote on July 5. As a non-Greek academic with an 11 year engagement in Greece as a anthropologist, and with many Greek academic friends and colleagues who are actively involved in “the party,” I suddenly found myself surrounded not only by the palpable fear, frustration, and uncertainty that everyone in Greece is trying to manage but also by party politics: and thus, conversations that were often overdetermined by political positions that were sometimes at odds with open, generous intellectual debate.
A key moment in the conference, for me at least as a participant and observer, was when Kostas Lapavitsas, an economist with a clear and deeply politicized “pro-Grexit” plan, “gate-crashed” a plenary session. Things remained polite for awhile, even through Costas Douzinas’ ambitious and certainly lengthy speech, until (I will name names since people know what happened anyway) Stathis Gourgouris, a literature professor from Columbia University in New York, took the stage. Gourgouris attempted to give account of the difficult position of the current government and some of the lasting significances of the referendum – not a very popular position for this particular crowd. Knowing Gourgouris to be a thoughtful and humble scholar, I was shocked when people started heckling him to get off the stage as his timeframe began to run out (and as the audience anticipated the unplanned contribution of Lapavitsas). I was even more troubled when I realized that some of the hecklers were not Greek but foreign conference attendees. Then Lapavitsas took the microphone, positioning himself carefully in front of the camera for a speech that would later be youtubed and covered by various alternative media sources. As he spoke for well over his allotted time, the vast majority of the audience (again, a huge number of foreign participants) clapped again and again at his plan for a Grexit.
This event left me with some very troubling questions and concerns regarding the role of a so-called international left and the possibilities and limits of “solidarity” with countries (and persons) who are facing very particular challenges, inflected by specific historical, political, and cultural aspects that people visiting for a conference – or the zillions of bloggers and opinion writers who seem to have things to say about Greece – have no nuanced knowledge about.
A few words about my own position are relevant here. I am an Anglo-American anthropologist who began doing research in Greece as a graduate student in 2004, and I continue my research in Greece now, having become also very tied up in a country that I love, with friends and colleagues here whom I value deeply. I also work on very politically sensitive issues related to questions of social justice: my first book (Penn Press 2014) was about asylum and immigration in Greece, and my current project focuses on grassroots responses to the current healthcare crisis. I thus find myself frequently contributing analyses on topics that are of deep social and political significance to those who live in Greece (not just Greek citizens but persons who also live here as active members of society though they may not have the privileges of legal citizenship). I too sometimes participate in politics, contributing to discussions on asylum and immigration, and I too took part – euphorically I might add – in the ‘Οχι protests, together with my Italian husband and our dachshund who, though of German descent, was decked out in an ‘Οχι T-Shirt. But as an outsider with some insider experience and knowledge of Greece, and a strong knowledge of the language (after years of work), this is a very fine line to walk. I try to take the ethics of my research and any political participation I undertake here very seriously.
More often, however, the methods that I use – long-term ethnographic fieldwork – force me into a practice of humility, even at moments when I might rather indulge in forms of hubris. Anthropologists frequently invoke their own authority through things like “I speak the language,” “I have spent years here,” “I talk to people” – and I am guilty of all of these tactics, particularly in conversations with non-Greek scholars. But if I speak honestly, the experience of doing ethnographic research in Greece reminds me persistently how very little I really know. A bit of serious time talking to a diversity of people reminds me constantly how complicated, fraught, and impenetrable even the most seemingly banal everyday experience can be; how I can never have access to the lived experiences of poverty and social exclusion in Greece no matter how many people I talk to; and how, whether or not I am deeply entangled in Greece, I am not Greek. I thus believe that I DO NOT have the legitimate right to offer opinions about certain things, though I certainly discuss and mull and worry, in productive and often heated conversation with others. Moreover, who am I to speak with certainty when some of my dear Greek friends emphasize that even they don’t know what is going on and what will happen? If many Greeks themselves can confront the present and the future with such humility, I certainly can’t imagine that international scholars like me have the capacity or right to “clarify” things.
I am now approaching a very difficult dilemma that scholars of Greece certainly will recognize very well: how do we do the work of drawing connections to wider global phenomena and problems like social justice, historical trends, regimes of exploitation, and political projects without missing the particularities of certain histories and cultural configurations? And conversely, how do we recognize the specificities of certain social contexts without exceptionalizing or reifying the country, people, or “culture” in question? I believe this to be a productive and perhaps irresolvable dilemma that demands persistent engagement from persons seeking to do responsible activism and scholarship. Even as I myself insist that I do not have the right to offer clear opinions on certain matters, many of my friends here in Greece will tell me that I do – and will even ask for my opinion; or as a neighbor told me today, it helps to have someone from “outside” clarify some things, since when you are “inside” you cannot see. We must thus constantly tack between the poles of humility and hubris and practice ongoing, sincere self-critique.
This conference, for its many virtues, by in large highlighted the possibilities of solidarity and an “international” left over and against the specificities of this particular historical moment for Greece and Greeks. And so, as the majority in the room clapped for Lapavitsas’ Grexit plan after some booed Gourgouris off the stage, I wanted to ask: why do visitors or “revolutionary tourists” so to speak (for that is what we are…) feel they have the right to weigh in on issues that those of us from elsewhere – for all of our wished-for “solidarity” – cannot begin to understand with subtlety.
I thus want to offer counter-points that I found a bit too absent during this conference. And in the meantime do not forget that this comes from a deeply privileged American woman who frequently lives out her fantasy of feeling “involved” and relevant in Greece but tries hard not to give into this too often.  
It’s very easy to clap at a Grexit plan when you do not personally have to live with the direct consequences of such a plan.

Let us not forget that Greece has a long experience of neo-colonial involvement by scholars of whatever political persuasion who seem to have been inspired by Greece. Germans; Anglos; Americans; French. Just read a little bit about the history of katharevoussa and the Greek language and the making of the Greek nation state – I recommend Gourgouris’ excellent book, Dream Nation.

Hanging out in Parko Navarinou and going to Steki Metanaston can be fun and make you feel like you are “really there.” But I’d also suggest checking out social centers like Lampidona in Vyronas, or other neighborhood squats, social centers, and kafeneia where older people, kids, and non-academics also pass their time, and who do not always talk about “politics” but may nonetheless be doing very important political work. (Also … I can’t help but feel nostalgia for the time when Steki Metanaston was more clearly a safe gathering place for newly arrived migrants; it seems instead to be becoming a playground for an international “intelligentsia” who now find Greece interesting.)

Talking to activists and academics in Greece does not mean that you are talking to “the people.”
If you don’t speak Greek well you miss a whole lot. We all know that knowing a language matters, but it is easy to forget this when so many Greeks speak such excellent English (and French and Italian and German). But the very people with whom we would like to be in solidarity – the marginalized, the poor, the less educated – most likely do not speak English. So in short, you may talk to academics and some activists, but you will likely miss the most important venues for conversation. As is the case everywhere….

Older Marxist-type men need a basic education in Feminist theory (and practice). But I knew that before the conference …

These days I frequently indulge in a sense of superiority that Greece and topics like migration and marginalization in Europe are now of interest to the world, especially since the primary question I was asked when planning my graduate work was “why Greece?” My own sense of superiority aside, the point stands: why Greece, now and not then? And conversely – why not Greece, now and then? 

So, I am left with the excitement of the conference and the conversations it generated. But I am also irate and indignant at the hubris of academic-activists (myself included) who persistently feel the impulse and even the license to participate in bandwagon-politics. Even as a foreign activist intelligentsia may find Greece meaningful and interesting now, many of my friends here would love to “go back” to the neoliberal years of 2004 when the future looked rosy (and even possible). The last thing residents of Greece need right now, from anyone, is to be told what to do. Especially in the name of solidarity. 

Heath Cabot is professor of anthropology at the College of the Atlantic, an interdisciplinary liberal arts college in Maine, USA focused on social and environmental justice and undergraduate education. She is currently a visiting researcher at Panteion University for Social and Political Sciences in Athens, and is a fellow with the Fulbright Foundation in Greece. She is the author of On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece (Penn Press 2014) and is currently conducting research on solidarity clinics and how notions of somatic and social health are reconfigured under austerity. Her research has been funded by the Fulbright, the US National Science Foundation, the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

  • Translated by: N/A
  • The original text was first published on: Written for AnalyzeGreece!