The Absence Presence: Discourses of Crypto-Colonialism
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The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.4 (2002) 899-926



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The Absent Presence:
Discourses of Crypto-Colonialism

Michael Herzfeld


The disciplines of social and cultural anthropology emerged from the ferment of West European world domination as instrument and expression of the colonial project. Although it subsequently turned against the practices and ideology of colonialism, it remains strongly marked by that historical entailment. Among the many effects of colonialism on anthropology, one in particular stands out: the fact that much of the discipline's theoretical capital is palpably derived from ethnographic research done in the colonial dominions.

The Discourse of Humanity:
Echoes from the Crypto-Colonies

While anthropology lays claim to global relevance, cultural groups that were never directly controlled by those colonial powers from which anthropology itself emanated (including countries, such as the United States, that practiced an internal form of imperial dominion) often seem suggestively marginal to the predominant forms of scholarly discourse.

Within this broad spectrum of exclusion, [End Page 899] anthropology displays two major, closely intertwined absences—one conspicuous, the other furtive—from its theoretical canon. The conspicuous absence is that of modern Greece, the reasons rooted in the special kind of political marginality that has marked Greece's relations with the West throughout most of its history as a nominally independent though practically tributary nation-state. While it is true that the extensive production of ethnographic monographs about present-day Greece has done much to rectify the situation in recent years, it is only rarely that one encounters the country in, for example, introductory social and cultural anthropology textbooks—those photo-negative images of Western civilization introductory primers.

The furtive absence is that of the classical Greek culture. It is furtive because it shelters behind the multifarious signs of a presence, which melts into insignificance as soon as we attempt to grasp and identify it. Much is made of the roots of anthropology in Herodotean curiosity and in Attic philosophy, but it is of a prohibitively generic character. There seems to be surprisingly little that one could say with any confidence about the practical significance of ancient Greece in the intellectual genealogy of anthropological thought, despite a plethora of both casual allusions to, and specialized invocations of, a hypostatized classical past.

These twin absences spring from a common source in the construction of a discursive and geographical space called Greece. Greece tout court is almost always automatically assumed to be ancient Greece; the modern country, even in its own travel brochures, yields to the commanding presence of a high antiquity created in the crucible of late-eighteenth-century Aryanism—that same tradition of cultural eugenics that bred the Nazis' "race science" and, at least in one controversial but persuasive historiographic reading, occluded both Semitic and Egyptian ("African") contributions to European culture. 1

Although the German philologists and art historians who generated the neoclassical model of Greek (and more generally European) culture were not themselves military colonizers, they were doing the ideological work of the project of European world hegemony. While much recent literature has been devoted to the analysis of that project in the form of colonialism, I want here to initiate discussion of a rather specific variety—or perhaps it is an offshoot—of that phenomenon. I shall call it crypto-colonialism and define it as the curious alchemy whereby certain countries, buffer zones between the colonized lands and those as yet untamed, were compelled to acquire their [End Page 900] political independence at the expense of massive economic dependence, this relationship being articulated in the iconic guise of aggressively national culture fashioned to suit foreign models. Such countries were and are living paradoxes: they are nominally independent, but that independence comes at the price of a sometimes humiliating form of effective dependence.

Two such countries are Greece and Thailand. There are many more, and the variety among them—where, for example, should we place such diverse entities as the former Yugoslavia, Japan, or Mexico?—and further exploration is likely to undercut the category of crypto-colonies, producing still finer discriminations. Nevertheless, these two cases, while geographically...