- Greece and the Balkans: Identities, Perceptions and Cultural Encounters since the Enlightenment
This multidisciplinary volume draws from a conference entitled "Greece and the Balkans: Cultural Encounters since the Enlightenment," held at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom, on June 28–30, 2001. It explored cultural relationships between Greece and other Balkan countries in the areas of language, literature, history, dress, religion, translation, and music (but notably not film). Issues prioritized related to identity and perception among Balkan peoples since the Enlightenment at a time when the historical legacies of nationalism and Cold War communism have seen to it that these peoples look to Europe for a common future and (self)recognition and less so to each other. If, today, Greece sees itself (again) as a guide for its neighbors' European progress and modernization, such posturing seems imperious to recipients of such assistance. While for many Greeks, the desire to relate to the Balkans is seen as taking a step backwards to a prior stage in Greek development. Consequently, the Greek financial, cultural, and political demarche to the Balkans since the 1990s hardly captivates the Greek popular imagination. In a succinct introduction, the editor, Dimitris Tziovas, lays out the cultural, social, and political significance of the Balkans and the scholarly parameters for pursuing its analysis.
The book appears as the western frisson at the Balkans' wars of the 1990s having subsided and maps of the area having been folded and stored away until the next crisis. The fever of journalistic publication that accompanied those events has also cooled. In the volume's opening article, Paschalis Kitromilides deplores the character of much of this work because "those who know more and have a sense of the complexity of the history of the region tend to be more modest and circumspect in their judgments and pronouncements […] modesty and precision have never hurt anyone in the world of scholarship" (19). The immodesty and imprecision of such amateur balkanism is instructive in its way. [End Page 204] Western writers seem ready, willing and to able let their imaginations run rampant when it comes to the Balkans, secure in the knowledge that difference for them is never really at stake; that their observations, even if uninformed, can always be supported by the ever reproducible stock of stereotypes that is for them the "Balkans". For example, the immensely popular writer Simon Winchester hastily joined the dance with The Fracture Zone: My Return to the Balkans in 2000, and did so with none of the meticulous preparation of his books on the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps he did not feel it necessary for a road book, a quick read that served as antidote to the "terrible dullness and labyrinthine sobriety" of the Balkan genre, as he put it.
It may be this impression of scholarly stolidity that motivates Vassilis Lambropoulos in the book's last, pleasantly Braudelian chapter to playfully kick the collection in the rear and send it on its way. By bemoaning the region's inability to rise to meet the challenge of generating its own cultural and allegorical theoretical paradigms, Lambropoulos admonishes our field in much the same terms he once employed to criticize Modern Greek Studies. In the case at hand, he may be right that this volume's offerings do not make their findings easily exportable. Many pieces benefit, some vicariously, from debates about orientalism, eurocentrism, and postcolonialism, but do not engage them in a theoretical or comparative manner, much less formulate and export a new theoretical paradigm. Instead, several are marked by the manifest strain of scholars scouring ungiving and disorderly archives for material and presenting them to a heterogeneous audience. Yet, it is unfair for Lambropoulos to claim that the Balkans have been unable to abstract their region from its special history and place as have the Caribbean or Central Europe. That they have failed to find something "to say about the Balkans—that is, not about the local people and cultures but the Balkans as such," to quote Lambropoulos (265). Or...