Notes from the Balkans: Locating Marginality and Ambiguity on the Greek-Albanian Borderby Sarah F. Green, Peter Brown (Editor), Dimitri H. Gondicas (Editor)
Maps and borders notwithstanding, some places are best described as "gaps"places with repeatedly contested boundaries that are wedged in between other places that have clear boundaries. This book explores an iconic example of this in the contemporary Western imagination: the Balkans. Drawing on richly detailed ethnographic research around the
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Maps and borders notwithstanding, some places are best described as "gaps"places with repeatedly contested boundaries that are wedged in between other places that have clear boundaries. This book explores an iconic example of this in the contemporary Western imagination: the Balkans. Drawing on richly detailed ethnographic research around the Greek-Albanian border, Sarah Green focuses her groundbreaking analysis on the ambiguities of never quite resolving where or what places are. One consequence for some Greek peoples in this border area is a seeming lack of distinctionbut in a distinctly "Balkan" way. In gaps (which are never empty), marginality is, in contrast with conventional understandings, not a matter of difference and separationit is a lack thereof.
Notes from the Balkans represents the first ethnographic approach to exploring "the Balkans" as an ideological concept. Green argues that, rather than representing a tension between "West" and "East," the Balkans makes such oppositions ambiguous. This kind of marginality means that such places and peoples can hardly engage with "multiculturalism." Moreover, the region's ambiguity threatens clear, modernist distinctions. The violence so closely associated with the region can therefore be seen as part of continual attempts to resolve the ambiguities by imposing fixed separations. And every time this fails, the region is once again defined as a place that will continually proliferate such dangerous ambiguity, and could spread it somewhere else.
Winner of the 2007 Honor Book Award, New Jersey Council for the Humanities
"Notes from the Balkans is a penetrating and richly textured account of marginality in the Epirus area of north-western Greece. . . . Sarah Green's text. . . . provides a subtle and persuasive tool for thinking about the contextual specificity of social identities . . . that will be pertinent far beyond the Balkans."Madeleine Reeves, Cambridge Anthropology
"Sarah Green's wide-ranging discussion of 'Balkan' history, emphasizing circuits of movement, is engaging and enlightening. The book's theoretical discussions are dense . . . but not turgid; Green has a light, direct, and unpretentious style of writing. Notes from the Balkans gives readers a visceral sense of the 'ordinary' and, I think, a better idea about marginality. It is a delightful book to read."Laurie Kain Hart, American Ethnologist
"The book's principal contributions are twofold: First, it adds magnificent new ethnographic information about an area that has not been systematically studied by a foreign anthropologist since the pioneering work of John Campbell. Second, it applies a brilliant theoretical discussion of marginality, identity, and ambiguity to a setting in which concepts and categories, or affiliations and labels, have been under constant change. This is a well-researched, masterfully written, and theoretically sophisticated study that is unique in both conception and analysis. . . . This is a quality study that should reach out to a wider audience of area specialists, not only to anthropologists."Anastasia Karakasidou, American Anthropologist
Laurie Kain Hart
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Notes from the BalkansLocating Marginality and Ambiguity on the Greek-Albanian Border
Chapter OneMARGINAL MARGINS
THIS IS A STORY ABOUT the marginality of both place and people, and how their marginality is continually reconstructed while somehow also staying the same. The place is in and around Epirus, a region in northwestern Greece (map 1); the story mostly concerns an area known as Pogoni, which, depending on how you look at it, either runs along or straddles the Greek-Albanian border (maps 2 and 3). And the people are those who live in, pass through, or come and go around this place, most particularly around the Kasidiaris mountain, a relatively small and not much noted landmark in the southern part of the Pogoni area. It is difficult to give any more specific details about either the place or the people just yet, precisely because of their marginality: they both are and are not something, somewhere, and someone in particular.
"Marginality" is a tricky word, a kind of poor relation to "otherness" and "difference"; it explicitly evokes a sense of unequal location as well as unequal relations: being where you are and being from somewhere always matters, even if it does not mean you stay in one place, either physically or perceptually, for any length oftime (Gupta and Ferguson 1999b: 3-17; Clifford 1997: 2-3). That is one of the problems with the condition of being marginal: it is not necessarily clear exactly where you are or where you are from, and that can make you only partially visible, only partially connected. Ironically, during this period of emphasis on transnationalism, transmigration, and multiculturalism, being marginal can negatively affect your ability to have a name that could be used to challenge whatever center happens to be significant at the moment. As James Boon put it in describing himself as marginal, this kind of marginality sometimes involves being "interpretively homeless, devoid of passport, alienated from certainties and edges as well; even the borderlands refuse me shelter" (Boon 1999: 198).
In those terms, marginality implies a difficult and ambivalent relevance to the heart of things. Perhaps for that reason, there has been a fascination with marginality in Euro-American anthropology, a sense that shining a spotlight on the discarded, ignored, shifting, semivisible, and perhaps transgressive nooks and crannies, where many anthropologists find themselves anyway in the course of their exploration of otherness, might help to make the implicit explicit, might draw out the hidden cogs, wheels, or (cob)webs of what we know to be central, and might provide an antidote to master narratives (Seremetakis 1991: 1-7). Marginality, too, can become part of the heart of things, precisely because of its asserted marginalization in relation to the heart of things.
Beyond anthropology, marginality has also become increasingly noted and remarked upon in recent years, partly as a result of numerous studies of what goes into making people and places marginal in the first place, in terms of both how it occurs and what the consequences of marginality might be. In one particularly pertinent example for my purposes, Misha Glenny suggests that the continual interventions of the "Great Powers" into the Balkan region's conflicts-most recently in those involving former Yugoslavia and Kosovo-generated the Balkans as a very particular kind of place, as the margin of Europe, and also made the place a key center of attention (Glenny 1999: xxiii-xxv). After quoting John Gunther's assertion that "these wretched and unhappy little countries in the Balkan peninsula can, and do, have quarrels that cause world wars" (ibid.: xxiii), Glenny argues that this kind of perspective "reflects a solid body of Western popular opinion that regarded and still regards the Balkans as a toxin threatening the health of Europe" (ibid.: xxiv). One could hardly be more simultaneously marginal and central than that.
Marginality has, of course, also taken a central place in the ethnography of Greece, though this is not often directly related to Greece as part of the Balkans. Michael Herzfeld's work focuses on Greece as being "in the Margins of Europe" (Herzfeld 1987), somewhere at the crossroads between East and West (Herzfeld 1997: 97). He explores the diverse ways (disemic, in Herzfeld's terms) in which Greeks imagine being Greek, and how this became entangled in the creation of a sense of national homogeneity in Greece out of a tense combination of Western (Hellenic) and Eastern (Byzantine) concepts. In the course of this, Herzfeld discusses, and critiques, how contemporary Greece has been marginalized both in Europe and in anthropology, partly as a result of a perceived ambivalence about how to locate Greece in modern binary divisions between East and West. He repeatedly points out that Greece is the only country in Europe which has the word "modern" placed before its name, implying that (to the modern mind), the classical version was much more at the heart of things, or perhaps even at the root of things.
Herzfeld is by no means alone in his reliance on the concept of marginality in analyzing Greek ethnography. For example, Seremetakis describes the Inner Mani, located at the southern extreme of mainland Greece, as "a detached fragment of a global modernity" in which she "explores the internal margins that organize the relation of Inner Mani to that modernity" (Seremetakis 1991: 1). Seremetakis insists that the kind of marginality she is describing (a "fragment") is not necessarily dependent upon any center: "To stand in the margin is to look through it at other margins and at the so-called center itself" (ibid.). And the significance of that, for Seremetakis, is that the women of Inner Mani whom she focuses upon constitute another example of the ability to identify "strategies of resistance that emerge and subsist in the margins" (ibid.).
A third approach can be seen in the work of Evthymios Papataxiarchis, who analyzes gambling among men in coffeehouses in a village in northern Lesbos as an aspect of "counter-hegemonic space that was historically established in conditions of the prolonged political and economic marginalization of the island" (Papataxiarchis 1999: 158). He treats gambling as a form of "constructive resistance" (ibid.: 159). Here, the marginalization in question is considered in terms of political economy: the men who gamble are "denied access to state-controlled political and economic resources" (ibid.: 160), and they come to equate money with the hierarchies and dependence generated by the state. In this, gambling "seems to be a major symbolic gesture of emancipation from economic debt, of defiance of the institutional producers of money; it is an important response to economic dependence, social displacement, and class marginalization. In this capacity, it can become an extreme demonstration of autonomy" (ibid.: 172).
Herzfeld's, Seremetakis's, and Papataxiarchis's studies are just three examples of the search for resistance, forms of empowerment, forms of critique, in and around margins and marginality-a common theme, not only in the anthropology of Greece, but in much of the rest of anthropology as well. Sometimes, such studies can draw out how marginality itself can be strategically emphasized or even generated by people who are marginalized, such that marginality is turned against the center. As Anna Tsing has noted for the Meratus Dayaks of South Kilamantan in Indonesia, some "marginal" people can make their own marginality central: "The cultural difference of the margins is a sign of exclusion from the center; it is also a tool for destabilizing central authority" (Tsing 1993: 27). The value of Tsing's comment is to make the point that marginality is not so much imposed as negotiated, and that it is not necessary to forget the imbalances of power involved-the power to exclude places and people, for example-to recognize this point.
These kinds of studies often constitute challenges to (Euro-American) modernity in its self-satisfied mode: they take a poke at the certainty of modernity's omniscience and superiority, both morally and intellectually. At other times, marginality is used to explore (Euro-American) modernity in its self-pitying mode: the sense of having lost something through being modern, usually something involving authenticity, and wanting to have it back. Here, anthropologists have analyzed the search for redemption in margins. For example, Kathleen Stewart suggests that marginality within the United States generates spaces or gaps in which it is imagined a lost "authenticity" might still exist, an imagining that renders such places central because of their marginality: "There is a dream that somewhere out there-in the space of marginalia and ex-centricity-there are 'places' still caught in the ongoing density of sociality and desire. Places to which 'we' might return-in mind, if not in body-in search of redemption and renewal" (Stewart 1996: 5).
Whatever aspect of marginality is focused upon, these examples are enough to show that marginality has been repeatedly regarded as geographically, politically, socially, culturally, and/or temporally significant, and has become more so in recent decades, partly as a result of changing transnational relations (Danforth 1995), and international and supranational agencies involved in recognizing and supporting human rights, especially for those peoples defined as minorities (Cowan, Dembour, and Wilson 2001). Boon goes so far as to suggest that attacking the center (whichever center that may be) through focusing on any number of marginalities is now standard practice, both in the academy and outside of it, and has resulted in a plethora of "isms" and identities. However, for Boon, these "isms" and identities do not constitute the essence of marginality. For him, what makes something truly marginal is its inability to become an "ism" or to be "identitied," as he puts it (Boon 1999: 208). He uses the example of Tantric practices: "usages customarily designated Tantric, whether Hindu or Buddhist, do not necessarily mark off any corporate identity or 'ism' (even underground). They include a gamut of transgressions-a polymorphous reservoir of ex-centric ritual possibilities" (ibid.: 207). For Boon, then, to be marginal (both for himself and for "ex-centric" ritual practices) is to be in between rather than on the peripheries: it is to be neither one thing nor another, or possibly too much both one thing and another.
This more recent fascination with ambiguous marginality, a focus on its fluidity, its lack of boundaries, and the inability to pin it down, marked a turn toward an interest in the postmodern, either as a condition in the world (postmodernity; Harvey 1990) or as an intellectual approach to challenge modernity (postmodernism): having done away with the self-satisfied and self-pitying certainties of modernity, the postmodern dwells in uncertainty and a refusal of borders. Some saw considerable potential for escape from the hegemonic in that. However, rather than resistance, this approach emphasizes inventiveness, the possibility of making something new out of making things uncertain. Terence Turner, for example, in his analysis of the rise of the explicit use of culture in politics, advocates "critical multiculturalism" as a means to avoid essentialist notions of culture embedded within what he calls "difference multiculturalism" (and what many others have referred to as "identity politics"). In this, Turner approvingly quotes Stam and Shohat (n.d.): critical multiculturalism, they say, "rejects a unified, essentialist concept of identity ... Rather, it sees the self as polycentric, multiple, unstable, historically situated, the product of ongoing differentiation and polymorphous identifications" (Turner 1993: 418).
Such a focus on the way modernity tried to hide its own lack of fixity, its underlying fluidity and instability, is not limited to anthropology or to more recent postmodernist theory, of course. Aside from Bruno Latour and other actor network theorists, as well as Judith Butler and other queer theorists, there are also those who have focused on the places and spaces of marginality. Walter Benjamin, for one, became fascinated by the Parisian arcades, which were derelict and abandoned when he passed through them, but had been built in the mid-nineteenth century by people who were at the heart of things, and who had believed that the arcades would shape Paris forever (Benjamin 1999; Day 2001: 110). Or Michel de Certeau, for another, who wandered around the "waste products" of cities, arguing that cities inevitably generate marginal places because city planners keep executing plans about how cities should be, thus axiomatically creating anomalies and gaps: places and people that do not fit the plan (de Certeau 1988: 94).
Whether marginality is depicted as a kind of periphery containing distinct people or places that have been ignored and/or oppressed, and/or misrepresented by the center, or as the ambiguous flotsam and jetsam of life that has been discarded or hidden in the process by which things are made to seem clear, bounded, and fixed, there is often a warm hope implied in these studies of marginality, even an assertion at times, that focusing on it will show marginality to be truly central, at the heart of the matter (Stewart 1996; Herzfeld 1987); and that it will demonstrate the incoherence of what we think we are sure about (Steedly 1993; Tsing 1993), and therefore that it will highlight the ultimate pointlessness of trying to pin things down, showing that master narratives never have the last word (Seremetakis 1991), and that this goes as much for anthropological narratives as for any others (Riles 2000; Herzfeld 1987). Even Boon's perspective, which describes marginality as something that cannot cohere into an identity or "ism," as a condition that generates an inability to engage in the "self-other," "center-periphery," "identity politics," and "cultural fundamentalism" (Stolcke 1995; 1999) projects that are generated in the current version of modernity (or postmodernity, call it what you will)-even Boon is hopeful that there might be ways to challenge the normative through marginality:
Not quite invisible, opaque polymorphoses refract forces of regimental surveillance, evade bureaucratic stratification, and dodge centralized control. Some "Tantric practices" may be better at "deviating" from enforced conformity than are sectualities or sexualities when "identitied", incorporated, or made into a dogmatic cause. (Boon 1999: 208, emphasis original)
Initially, I shared that hope when I began fieldwork in northwestern Greece. As I became familiar with the peoples and the place (Pogoni), I also became increasingly aware that they were being regularly described as not only marginal but marginal within the marginal. I had evidently chosen to be in a place and among people that few thought were worth paying attention to, which appeared to have something to do with their lack of distinction. While both people and place were identifiable in some senses, by the same folkloric markers as identified others in the region (people could point to Pogoni traditional dress, easily identify Pogoni music, and know more or less where Pogoni is), they also seemed somehow nondescript or relatively undistinguished, compared to other places and peoples in Epirus. This comparison included a hierarchy of distinctiveness of geomorphology and vistas. For example, the Zagori, made famous in anthropology by John Campbell's study of the Sarakatsani (Campbell 1964), has also come to prominence more generally in recent years as the main tourist attraction of the region, containing as it does the biggest national park of the area, one of the more starkly attractive and climbable mountains (the Gamilla/Timfi; map 3), deep forests, fast-flowing, clear-water rivers, mountain gorges and valleys, and villages that have been "conserved" through regulations preventing the use of anything except local and "traditional" building materials, and by various reconstructions of "traditional settlements." All of this contrasted starkly with the predominantly fairly low, shrubby, and scrubby landscape that characterized Pogoni, the absence of a national park there, and little in the way of conservation or preservation of villages. And a distinctly uncomfortable issue-that is, an issue whose implications were usually avoided-was that "traditional" Pogoni, the Pogoni used to evoke folklore and cultural heritage, stretched beyond the Greek state boundary into southern Albania, a region known in Greece as Northern Epirus. This had been a repeatedly contested border, one that often involved states other than Greece and Albania (particularly Russia, Britain, Italy, and Germany in the years before the Cold War, the former USSR and China during the Cold War, and the European Union and NATO thereafter). The location of the border-which, despite the battles over the years, has shifted only slightly from the location designated when it was initially established as a state border in 1913 following the end of the Ottoman era-formally divided the peoples associated with the Pogoni area between two states. It remains contested, at least in map form: there is a continual drawing and redrawing of borders across maps of this area, both in accounts about the history of the region and in more polemical texts about where the borders should be located-a habit that is shared with Macedonia, the region to the east of Epirus (Cowan and Brown 2000: 8).
Excerpted from Notes from the Balkans by Sarah F. Green Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
James Faubion, Rice University, author of "Rethinking the Subject"
Michael Herzfeld, Harvard University, author of "The Body Impolitic"
Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge, author of "Property, Substance and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things"
Meet the Author
Sarah F. Green is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester, and has spent over ten years researching the Greek-Albanian border area in Epirus, northwestern Greece. She is the author of "Urban Amazons" (Macmillan).
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