The Legacy of Ancient Greek Ideals at Times of Environmental Crisis: Heritage, Democracy and Art in Southern Italy and Greece

Manuela Pellegrino

Citation with persistent identifier: Pellegrino, Manuela. “The Legacy of Ancient Greek Ideals at Times of Environmental Crisis: Heritage, Democracy and Art in Southern Italy and Greece.” CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020).

In October 2018, I applied to the Center for Hellenic Studies with a project with the provisional title, “The Legacy of Ancient Greek Ideals at Times of Environmental Crisis: Heritage, Democracy and Art in Southern Italy and Greece.” This fellowship allows a comparative approach which investigates locals’ reactions to environmental crises in Southern Italy and Northern Greece. By conceptualizing the environment as heritage to be protected, this project expands upon my previous research which investigated diachronically the cultural heritage of Hellenism through the lens of language (Griko) and its socio-cultural manifestations. Most of my research for the last 15 years has indeed been dedicated to Griko, a variety of modern Greek used in Salento (Apulia, Southern Italy); this study highlighted the transformative effects of the interplay of language ideologies and policies promoted by the EU, Italy, and Greece to protect it.

What initially prompted my application for the CHS fellowship was an interesting turn of events which occurred in July 2018, when activists from Salento traveled to the region of Kavala (Northern Greece) to show their support and to oppose the establishment of a Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) building operation. I was therefore interested in investigating how responses to environmental issues may reinforce cultural ties between contemporary Italy and Greece, and thus connect communities across national borders. Since the pursuit of knowledge, the arts and civic responsibility are among the ideals associated with ancient Greek democracy, equally of interest is assessing their legacy on the management of the current environmental crises.

As a fellow of the CHS for the academic year 2019-2020, I had the opportunity to focus on my new project and prepare the foundations for my current fieldwork in Northern Greece. The Center proved indeed to be the ideal environment for this academic challenge– quiet and vibrant at the same time. The efficiency and availability of the administrative and overall CHS team members further facilitated the process; Lanah Koelle, in particular, was a constant reference throughout my stay. I am also thankful to the fellows with whom I shared similar interests and approaches for the fruitful conversations; in particular to Evi Margaritis who provided me with initial contacts of archeologists working in Northern Greece on the route of the TransAdriaticPipeline and to Aileen Das, with whom I exchanged views and approaches on the relevance of the notion of multitemporality as evidenced in our respective researches. While at the CHS I could benefit from frequent conversations with Gregory Nagy; I will always be indebted to him for offering me the opportunity to explore and stir my own humanistic/artistic interests and their added value to my research. In other words, I could fully experience the well-known definition of anthropology provided by Alfred Kroeber, as “the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” I also thank Zoie Lafis, for lending an attentive and intrigued ear to the topic of Griko and its current revival.

Attending the weekly seminars and overall events at the CHS allowed me to enrich my knowledge of diachronic Hellenism and, to contribute to the topics discussed with insights coming from anthropology. I also could benefit from feedback offered after the talk on “Anthropological writing as activism” – which I shared with Micheal Herzfeld in October 2019.  Considering my previous and current research on Griko, I was particularly happy to meet Mark Janse at the CHS and discuss his work on Cappadocian Greek. I was likewise inspired by meeting Richard Martin and Laura Slaktin and by discussing with them crucial aspects of my past and current research, namely the role of poetry for the maintenance of Griko, and the centrality of women in protest movements against environmental crises (with particular reference to the movement “Mamme No Tap” – No Tap mothers, who are very active in Salento).

During my residency at the CHS I could also focus on the revision and conclusion of my book on Griko, Greek Language, Italian Landscape. Griko and the Re-storying of a Linguistic Minority. At CHS I could likewise dedicate time to the writing of my proposal for the Italian Academy Fellowship for Advanced studies, Columbia University. The time I spent at CHS (mid October – mid December 2019) was therefore very productive in multiple ways.

In what follows I offer a brief overview of the status of my research before starting my fellowship at the CHS and I report on the progress I made during the two months of my residence at the CHS by highlighting the main themes that have emerged.

“Resist to exist”: Southern Italian environmental crises, endangered heritage and resistance

Salento, in the Southern Italian region of Apulia, has recently been affected by several environmental transformations. Since 2013, Apulian olive trees have become victims of the so-called CODIRO complex, which is causing them to dry out progressively. After the Xylella bacterium was identified as the main cause, the EU and national authorities sanctioned the eradication of infected trees. That same year, Italy signed an intergovernmental agreement on the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) to bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe through Salento. The pipeline is planned to surface in San Foca, in the province of Lecce, exiting only 3 km from the archaeological site of Roca, home to numerous Minoan and Minoanizing artifacts. Before reaching Southern Italy, the pipeline cuts through Turkey, Greece and Albania – the so-called “Southern Gas Corridor.”

My fieldwork in Salento analyzed locals’ understandings and reactions to such environmental crises – among which fall the activities of protest movements, such as the “People of the Olive Trees” and “No TAP movement.” To achieve this I interviewed locals, activists and artists; I conducted participant observation as well as archival/online research. The analysis of the very discourses of locals/local activists has highlighted how notions of endangerment have led locals to resort to temporizing practices linking the present with collective memories of the past (Knight and Stewart 2016); they denounce the current environmental crises as a “suspension of democracy” and have introduced meta-narratives of resistance. My research has indeed revealed how local claims intermingle with a wider matrix of power, through which fears of exploitation and colonization by multinational corporations are evoked (cf. Argenti and Knight 2015).

Aiming to provide an “archaeological ethnography” (Hamilakis & Anagnostopoulos 2009), my project also includes ethnographic site-tours among visitors to the archaeological sites close to the TAP operation and interviews with archaeological teams. Locals indeed not only mobilize the symbolism of the sea and olive trees, but also of archaeological sites in the defense of the environment. Crucially, my research in Italy has highlighted the ever-growing artistic dimension of local activism; this includes paintings, songs, performances, as well as murals, poems, and fairy tales for children. Such artistic creations and performative contributions produce material culture that fills both the environment of the senses, and recursively reshapes it. Building on Morphy’s definition of art as a “way of acting in the world” (2009), I consider such artistic practices a means through which locals can re-act to the changing environment and express their discontent. This is an aspect which I intend to explore in Greece as well.

Environment as heritage and art as activism in Southern Italy and Greece

Interestingly, in July 2018, activists from Salento traveled to the region of Kavala in Northern Greece to show their support and to oppose the establishment of a TAP building operation. This event prompted me to apply for the CHS fellowship in order to investigate how responses to environmental issues may reinforce cultural ties between contemporary Italy and Greece, and thus connect communities across national borders. Through my CHS fellowship,  beginning in February 2020 I have been conducting fieldwork in Greece to further this line of inquiry. Likewise, expanding on the research I carried out in Salento I will investigate also in Greece, whether and how locals blur the boundaries between nature and art. In this respect, in Salento, ancient olive trees are defined as “monumental trees” as well as living creatures (nature as art), while the archaeological sites intersected by the TAP operation are themselves considered by locals to be part of the natural/physical environment (art as nature).

While at the CHS, in preparation for fieldwork, I carried out online research on existing protest movements against environmental issues as well as the TAP in Greece – among them the Facebook page Οχι Στον Αγωγο “Tap” (No to the pipeline TAP) and blogs such as Βρυσούλες. These proved to be fruitful loci through which I could locate dominant discourses and identify social actors involved in the protest – whom I am now in the process of interviewing. Crucially, I succeeded in narrowing down the topic of my research and I decided two main areas on which to focus – namely the socio-cultural relevance and meaning of “the environment as heritage,” and the notion of “art as activism”.

The e-resources offered by Harvard Library’s are fundamental in allowing me to conduct bibliographic research on the existing scholarship investigating infrastructure works and social protests in Greece more broadly. Lastly, one of the goals I intended to achieve while at the CHS was to investigate major contributions of classical studies and philosophy toward the use of art to pursue democracy in addition to pursuing the links between environmental sustainability and social/legal justice. To this end, I also found particularly enlightening the work of former CHS fellow, Georgia Tsouni’s and her analysis of Aristotle and democratic participation, as well as Mark Usher’s work on sustainability in ancient life and thought.

My investigation is timely, as it provides a situated exploration of the ways in which people engage with the transforming natural environment – in a moment when the environment is challenged by drastic changes worldwide. It therefore contributes to studies in the Anthropocene by dealing with the relationship between humans and the non-human world (Moore 2016), while my focus on art-ivism contributes to the investigation of the agency of art and material culture (Gell 1998, see also Ingold 2013, Yalouri 2014).

Select Bibliography

Argenti, N., and D. Knight. 2015. “Sun, wind, and the rebirth of extractive economies: renewable energy investment and metanarratives of crisis in Greece.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21:781-802.

Gell, A. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford.

Hamilakis, Y., and A. Anagnostopoulos. 2009. “What is Archaeological Ethnography?” Public Archaeology 8:2-3, 65-87.

Ingold, T. 2013. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. London; New York.

Moore, J., ed. 2016. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, history and the crisis of capitalism. Oakland.

Morphy, H. 2009. “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency.” Journal of Material Culture 12(1):5-27.

Yalouri, E. 2016. “‘The Metaphysics of the Greek Crisis’: Visual Art and Anthropology at the Crossroads.” Visual Anthropology Review 32(1).

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