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From Academia to the Media: the problem of Greece’s Modernity and European Identity

In tune with my initial proposal (25 May 2013) to the research project Framing Financial Crisis, stimulated by the discussions (Media Narrative and the Crisis) in the Cyprus Workshop (18-20 March) and inspired by London Workshop’s (30 July–1 August 2015) interest in financial crisis and cultural identity, this short comment is suggested as a tour guide to the field of modern Greek studies and offers an occasion to consider the challenges the crisis poses for the paradigm of modernization theory.


In 2011, while the causes of Greek crisis started becoming the subject of public controversy, a documentary series aired on Skai channel vowing to challenge national myths and populist accounts of the 1821 Revolution. “1821” operated as a metaphor for contemporary Greece.

Taking as its object Skai channel’s historical documentary on the 1821 revolution, this paper attempts to reflect on the ways Greece’s modernization and cultural identity are approached, interpreted and contested in the old media and the new extended public sphere during the era of the crisis. The eight hours TV series on the birth of Greek nation attempted to popularize and disseminate the dominant, in the academic field, perspective of modernization theory and make it available to a wider audience. Notwithstanding the differences in form and content, Skai’s intervention in public history was congruent with intellectual and political anxieties -mainly, the concern for history’s present relevance - that during the last decade forged a strong relationship between historians and program-makers in many other countries of Europe.

“1821” provided a framework of interpretation grounded on the opposition between a benign modernity and a malign tradition.

In “1821” the focus of attention was the so called Greek peculiarity, the traumatic encounter of tradition and modernity· or otherwise, a narrative about the never-ending and always postponed modernity due to the burden of the country’s Oriental, Ottoman and Byzantine, past that makes convergence with Europe an aspiration unfulfilled.

The documentary’s message that Greek independence was not the achievement of a heroic democratic people or the accomplishment of a glorious ancient nation but chiefly the outcome of the European power’s intervention, was met by strong reactions expressed mostly via the new media, blogs and websites. Using the new media, the critics of the documentary entered the discussion arguing against an elite-driven historical rupture and in favor of national continuity. They did so either by essentializing (and thus de-historicizing) the class struggles of the Greek people against the powerful, foreign or indigenous elites (a quasi Marxist perspective); or by nationalizing (and thus de-historicizing) the social history of the people who, from the classical period and onwards, had inhabited the geographic regions incorporated within the territorial boundaries of the Greek ‘nation-state’ – (a nationalist perspective).  In both cases, history becomes national rather than social.

The interest in the effects of the popularization of modernization theory is due to a number of reasons: a. since the 80’s modernization theory has been the most influential paradigm in Greek scholarship and its main assumptions remain largely unchallenged· notwithstanding its contestation by previous, Marxist and nationalist, paradigms that, reinvigorated, inspired and stirred the reactions to Skai’s documentary, modernization theory’s heuristic, descriptive utility as well as its normative premises have not been virtually questioned or deconstructed; b. during the crisis era the popularization of modernization theory and its concomitant ideals gained extra momentum; with the onset of financial crisis, the references to Greek modernization’s Other evoked and homogenized multiple and various attitudes that, in Xenakis’s terms, “have been resistant towards neoliberal and other planks of Western-inspired modernization projects” (2013, p. 173); and c. during the last years there is a growing tendency within the field of modern Greek studies towards questioning the essentializing perceptions of tradition, modernity, Europe or the Balkans (Triandafyllidou, Gropas & Kouki, 2013; Bogiatzis, 2009; Miliori 2002; Liakos, 2000).

The need to rethink the binary opposition between a benign, progressive modernity versus a backward, traditional, “underdog” mentality can lead to contemplate on the Janus face of modernization in general, as well as the ambivalences of Greece’s modernization project from the early 19th century till the present day, in particular.

From the perspective of a rather optimistic approach within the field of public history and new media studies, the controversy over Greece’s history and European identity could be seen as a sign of the democratization of the public domain in the digital age. Instead of lamenting the absence of consensus, the cyber-optimists, who address the extended public field as the promise of a democratic utopia, would rather welcome the debates over Greece’s modernity as a sign of increasing political participation, pluralism and active citizenship. On the other side of the fence, the cultural pessimists would question the belief in the democratic potentialities of the digital age (Papacharissi, 2002, p. 10; Rozenzweig, 2011, pp. xix, 178) by focusing on “flaming”, that is, the fragmented, polemical and heated nature of public debate.

The stance adopted here, limited within the contours of the debate which is the object of analysis, neither share the optimism of the first group of scholars, nor do it embrace the pessimism of the second group. My argument is that the use of media for the dissemination of academic history in the public domain and for its contestation not only reactivates older ideological conflicts and fosters new strifes associated with identity politics, but also tends to undermine the quest for the validity of historical interpretations giving priority to their political effectiveness (relevant with this is my brief comment Intellectuals in crisis).

Instead of a historiographical pluralism which could secure the critical dialogue between multiple and various perspectives on the past and the present, the debate over history is prone to fostering polarization, shaping conflictual identities and forging divisive collective memories. However, the controversy over 1821 generated by Skai’s documentary could offer an occasion for self reflection. Turning the debate into an object of study rather than rushing to take sides in it, it creates the opportunity to reflect on the normative/descriptive complex of rival historical narratives -not only those of national and Marxist history but those of modernization theory as well. Due to the very modality of media, new and old alike, the normative foundations and backward assumptions (Gouldner, 1971, pp. 31, 32) of competing narratives, that are nowadays called upon to explain Greece’s past, the origins of the present crisis and the ways out of it, are made focal and explicit, and thus, come to the fore.

By extending the participation of a multiplicity of actors in the public debate, the media offer a panoramic view of contending claims to truth, an all-encompassing view of exchange of arguments and counter-arguments and, thus, make possible a wide-ranging outlook on the battles between various narratives which exhibit totalizing ambitions with regard to the meaning of history. Instead of adopting a positivist perspective that distinguishes the competing explanations of Greek modernity in accordance with a true/false dichotomy, the paper suggests a critical approach linked with the commitment not only to “reveal the error in half truth, but also to discover the truth in half wrong” (Lekkas, 2012, p. 263). Studying the media spectacle and focusing on how academic controversies go media and gain publicity while engaging a wider audience in the debate over historical truth, contemporary historical inquiry could exercise itself in perspectival seeing and self-reflexivity; that is, “in ‘accumulating different eyes’, i.e. of multiplying various knowledge interests and sentiments about a subject without the prospect of final totalization” (Pels, 2000, p. xix).

The focus of attention here is on the relationship between what is selected as usable in the controversy and what is silenced and marginalized by the participants in the conflict.  In this regard, the scholar who takes as an object of study the conflict of historical interpretations in the media appears as a tramp –a la Michael De Certeau (Weymans, 2004). A tramp who looks for the remnants, for what is useless and ineffective for the war of positions; who wanders seeking for the leftovers of historical experience· who is interested in those aspects of the past and the present which remain untapped and lie in the margins of media discourses and academic culture wars because they cannot be accommodated in the rival storylines without disturbing their certainties, coherence and ordered plots.

From the perspective described above then, the dualistic opposition between tradition and modernity might be reconsidered. Unlike Skai’s documentary, it could be argued that in the early 19th century tradition was not an obstacle to Greece’s entrance to modernity. On the contrary, tradition, as lived experience, functioned as a lever for modernization; it made possible for abstract democratic ideals to be put into practice, for political rights and civil liberties to be incorporated in the actual practices of the people who revolted against the Ottoman Empire. Thus, instead of adopting the key opposition between an indigenous, stagnant tradition and an imported from the West modernity, this perspective addresses the autochthonous customs, the traditional values and the municipal institutions of the Greeks under the Ottoman Empire as resources rather than impediments to the project of modernization.

This line of investigation equally challenges the counter-arguments of the opponents of Skai’s documentary who also propagated the same dualistic understanding of modernity and tradition. Embracing the other pole of dualism, the vehement critics of “1821” claimed that modernization intrinsically precludes tradition. From the perspective of Greek primordialists, tradition is also perceived as the modernization’s Other; as an authentic national culture to be celebrated and opposed to an imported Western modernity. For primordialists, tradition, understood as a fixed, timeless, changeless set of ideas and values abstracted from common life and concrete social practices, is essentialized, idealized and nationalized; by doing so, they “substitute an ideology, an abridgement of tradition, for tradition itself” (McIntyre, 2004, p. 56).

Clinging to the two poles of the conceptual opposition between modernity and tradition, both primordialists and modernists alike seem to exclude a third position beyond the dualism: that perhaps the revolution of 1821 could only be realized and achieved by grounding itself in some kind of continuity with the past, and that the project of modernization could only be sustainable by including tradition in the first place.

This third space-position perhaps enables a move beyond the either or logic of cultural dualism. It enables an understanding of the 1821, as the decisive moment for the Greek entrance to modernity, neither in terms of an imported from the West modernity [an elitist modernist narrative], nor in terms of a supposedly timeless Greek nation [the primordialist populist narrative].

The third space-position which is the perspective through which the story of the Greek revolution is being addressed here is the fruit of a dialogue between concrete empirical studies in the field of modern Greek studies, on the one hand, and contemporary literature on modernization, on the other hand. As such, this phenomenology-inspired perspective is an attempt to come to terms with history as process, with the open, not-predetermined, lived history of the 1821 revolution; with the poetics of historical experience rather than the totalizing schemes through which it has been neatly ordered by the grand narratives of national and Marxist history during the 20th century; with the “more practical first-order discursive practices” (Mouzelis, 2008, pp. 1, 29, 101) and the modes of reflexivity (Lekkas, 2012, pp. 5-9) through which it has been understood by its historical protagonists rather than the essentializing dualistic oppositions by which we try nowadays to understand our past, to take positions towards our present and to master the future that eludes us.


The “1821” event became the stage for dramatization of a paradigmatic struggle between the agents of Greece’s modernization and reactions against them; in more familiar terms, the struggle between the “reformist” and the “underdog” cultures.

In Skai’s documentary the 1821 revolution worked as a metaphor for contemporary Greece. While “1821” was screening the obstacles encountered by the Westernized state intellectuals and politicians of the 19th in their effort to modernize the Greeks who had been living for centuries under the Ottoman rule, off the screen a similar scene was taking place: the drama of contemporary reformers and the obstacles they encounter.

Taken as a whole Skai's event – the intervention to revise historical consciousness, the reactions towards it along with the responses to the reactions – had a symbolic power since it purported to be a performative confirmation of the Cultural dualism thesis; in other words, the clash between “reformist” and “underdog” culture that supports arguments about Greece’s failed modernization. This thesis finds its formal expression and theoretical articulation in historical studies written during the era of Metapolitefsi (post-1974, after the dictatorship’s fall). However, the key arguments of Cultural dualism, recycled, reshaped, decontextualized and often simplified, are disseminated in the public sphere. So, they constitute what we might call, following Giddens (2001, pp. 29-34), “lay knowledge” or, paraphrasing Billig’s banal nationalism (1995), we could speak about modernization theory’s arguments in its most banal, popular forms, as everyday, commonplace ideas. Τhus, the findings of modernization theories not only provide an explanation of its object, namely Greek modernity, but they also enter constitutively in the object they describe, that is, contemporary Greek society. In doing so, they set up a system of beliefs, convictions and practices that constitute a “habitus” which, functioning as a “structuring structure” (Bourdieu, 1990, pp. 96-98), guide the social actors to occupy a position and acquire a sense of identity in a polarized political field (“reformers” v:s “underdogs”, Pro-Europeanists v:s Anti-Europeanists, Cosmopolitans vs. Nationalists, Westernizers/Heterocthonous Greeks vs. Locals/Autochthonous Greeks).

Eleni Andriakaina, July 2015

* This comment is part of an extended paper (Public History, 1821 Revolution and Greek Identity) that is available, to whom it may concern, in my page.