- Capricious Borders: Minority, Population, and Counter-conduct between Greece and Turkey by Olga Demetriou
In Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, the study of the “minority condition” has followed a twofold direction. Traditionally associated with the political economy of governing nation-states, it has reemerged in the past decade or so as a vehicle for the study of globalization and neoliberal governmentalities. This is done through the examination of forces that reconstitute rather than challenge nationalism, together with its material or institutional notions of belonging. Foucauldian scholarship has occupied a central but somewhat dubious position in this context, producing and simultaneously blocking nuanced approaches to the study of minorities. On account of an inherent analytical strength at times incapable of escaping its own dogmatisms, Foucault’s examination of population politics from a governmental perspective has given birth to a school of minority studies that includes everything from creative reinterpretation to sterile repetition. His “birth of biopolitics,” at the same time—less highlighted both in his own work and among his followers—offers an opportunity to shift the gaze from the architecture of governing structures to govermentality “as lived experience” (Foucault, 1997). In this sense, the analysis of biopolitics has met ethnography by refocusing debates from the institutional to the material perspective, thus revealing subjectivities inhabited by people in the everyday.
Olga Demetriou declares this to be the main methodological premise of her work right from the introduction and, indeed, develops it masterfully in the rest of the book. She builds on as well as successfully escapes the limitations of Foucauldian biopolitics through her innovative conceptualization of “capricious borders.” Her discussion focuses on a case study, namely, the Muslim minority in the Greek region of Western Thrace, specifically in the town of Komotini, located near the tripartite border with Turkey and Bulgaria. As such, the book touches upon borders that appear to be seemingly straightforward—whether territorial, political, socioeconomic, or cultural. For, the community in question offers a well-known and, in the past decade, relatively well-researched example of how nation-states can use religion and language as markers of Otherness; a strategy that legitimizes the subjected population’s institutional minoritization and socioeconomic marginalization.
Yet, rather than succumbing to the above largely applicable and therefore analytically facile realization, Demetriou’s discussion of the border morphs into a meticulous examination of its ambiguity by reference to individual experiences, actions, and perceptions. Taking into consideration national, regional, and international contingencies, Demetriou addresses the minority’s construction by touching on two themes that, although autonomous, remain interrelated: first, govermentality and state politics towards the community; and second, the latter’s inner ramifications, divisions, and contradictions. Then, she moves on to the uncharted territory of counter-conduct, individual or collective, explained not as a monolithic act of conscious resistance but as a nuanced (if confused) search for agency within borders that remain unpredictable, negotiated, and often contradictory—hence capricious. In her words, “capriciousness is a quality ascribed to the border through an agency that is limited, confined, frustrated, shifting and quavering, but nevertheless there” (11). [End Page 191]
Indeed, her protagonists not only manifest awareness of the border but also consciously use it in numerous reinterpretations, at times to perform and at times to negate their communal or individual positions. In a word, capricious borders form both the framework for and a mark of the minority’s existence, altered by every subjective action, feeling, and thought of belonging or nonbelonging. It is precisely this aspect of the book that establishes its ethnographic rigor and interdisciplinary value. Far exceeding the geographic and chronological limits of her research, Demetriou’s “borders” describe a pattern that is, to a large extent, universal. At the same time, they help identify the particularities of Western Thrace, stemming from the region’s specific location and temporality.
In essence, the book’s analytical rigor relies on the author’s excellent knowledge of the region and meticulous historiographical, ethnographic, and archival research. Right from the outset, in chapters 1 and...