Subversive Archaism: Troubling Traditionalists and the Politics of National Heritage

Eftychia Mylona

In Subversive Archaism, Michael Herzfeld explores the concept of polity and what could challenge state’s sovereignty through the stories of two communities: (1) Zoniana in Crete, Greece, and (2) Pom Mahakan in Bangkok, Thailand. Herzfeld’s main argument is that alternative polities can exist outside of the strict confines of the bureaucratic and ethnonational state. Through his extensive fieldwork on these two countries, he eloquently shows how the Greek and Thai states have tried to monopolize antiquity to legitimize their existence. By providing fascinating accounts of Zoniana and Pom Mahakan, he confidently analyzes how alternative forms of heritage that claim deeper historical roots than those of the state threaten the state’s legitimacy and expose its fragility, as they reveal the newness of the state’s bureaucratic structures.

The book consists of eight chapters. Chapter 1 explores how a national discourse defined by state powers determines what is culture to a people and a place. In this chapter, the author demonstrates that several institutions, like the media, have to participate in order to form the state’s narrative on culture and heritage. This is the case with Zoniana’s cultivation of cannabis and Pom Mahakan’s ‘slum tourism,’ both of which have been objectified and sensationalized by the media and state officials. In addition, Herzfeld clarifies in this chapter who could be a subversive archaist. Firstly, let’s clarify who is not. Subversive archaists are not revolutionary movements nor anarchists. Moreover, subversive archaism is far from the ways, for example, neo-Nazi groups of Europe ‘talk’ to power. To the opposite, archaists seek a national identity within the confines of the nation-state, as they expose loyalty and “exceed the traditionalism of the state” (p. 5).

Chapter 2 provides an analysis of the symbols and images archaists use to claim legitimacy and roots. Herzfeld here stresses that both the state, through its educational bureaucracy, and the archaists preserve nationalist narratives. The key in understanding the relation between the new nation-states and the archaist communities is the lineages of colonialism, or crypto-colonialism, in the case of Thailand and Greece. The concept of crypto-colonialism has been discussed at length by the author in previous works. Here, he masterfully uses this concept to highlight how state officials often maintain colonial legacies, reminding the local communities of their foreign oppressors. Thus, by doing so, they do not tolerate communities’ traditional cultural expressions. Archaists resist the mechanism of the modernist nation-state, which stemmed from crypto-colonial legacies and foreign influence, by appealing to an earliest past, using certain symbols and images. Zoniani put an emphasis on the continuity of the community with their own ancient Hellenic culture and, specifically, on links with the Minoan kingdom, using as a proof their dialect. Meanwhile, the Chao Pom align with the Siamese vision of the empire, showing loyalty to this older polity.

In Chapter 3, Herzfeld deals with the concepts of remoteness, distance, and belonging by asking the key question of who has the right to define belonging. He investigates how Pom Mahakan and Zoniana have been deliberately marginalized, treated as remote places, and viewed as outsiders by hostile bureaucracies. This is due to the cultural diversity of the first and to the rebellious attitude of the second. Since they are not a convenient issue for the state and do not fit into its narrative, they are omitted from nation-building projects. They disturb the state’s homogeneous nature.

Chapter 4 provides the social framework of those communities’ subversive archaism, showing which alternative cosmologies they deploy to challenge and resist state hegemony. Herzfeld elaborates in detail how Chao Pom legitimized their existence through the cosmology of the archaic royal moeang, which had been suppressed in the past by modernization and replaced by the European model of the nation-state. Concerning the Zoniani, their cosmology is shaped along segmentary terms and through the patrilineal clan structure. Through this structure, Zoniani claim that their antiquity, and not the antiquity of the state, is the real one.

What I find fascinating in this chapter is how Herzfeld analyzes the mechanisms of crypto-colonialism and patronage between Western Europe and Greece, through the detailed examination of patron-client relations at the local level, specifically through the microcosmos of Zoniana. Therefore, the question that arises is if we can examine the mechanisms of crypto-colonialism and patronage on both the local and a more global level, as Herzfeld skillfully has done throughout his book, could we also examine the concept of subversive archaism beyond the borders of the nation-state, or is the nation-state the only conceptual framework for such analysis? We might, for example, take Greece during the 2008 economic crisis: it was treated by its European partners as the cradle of European heritage, while, at the same time, it received accusations of corruption that the EU encouraged (see here the Siemens scandal). Which aspects of subversive archaism have been deployed, if they were deployed, to resist the EU’s oppression in this case?

Chapters 5-7 further elaborate on the alternative cosmologies suggested by these two communities. Herzfeld writes that even though older expressions of patrilineal structures existed in Europe during medieval times, the state does not want to perceive them as heritage. These alternative polities have a long past, as much as the polity that the nation-state claims today. However, when they become tangible, they threaten the state. Consequently, the state expresses a deep cultural racism by questioning the identity and belonging of those communities in order to attack the legitimacy of their alternative polity. Both the Thai and Greek states used stereotypical accusations and calumny to attack these two communities (accusations of violence towards the Zoniani and of criminality and drug use towards the Chao Pom). In addition, the author examines the concepts of civility and polity through one more case, that of the Orgolesi in Italy, which he compares with Zoniana and Pom Mahakan. One of the greatest strengths of Subversive Archaism is that it uses examples of different spaces and times, without limiting the analysis of subversive archaism to Greece and Thailand. Therefore, Herzfeld’s deep understanding of cultural anthropology transcends the disciplinary, geographical, and temporal boundaries of traditional area studies.

In his analysis, Herzfeld also exposes some of the ‘other voices’ within those communities that look at the community more critically, but without questioning their solidarity. For example, he refers to the daïdhes, the younger village men in Zoniana, whose machismo is perceived as disgraceful by the more ‘cosmopolitan’ Zoniani. The hierarchies and power dynamics that are underlined here is a thought-provoking point that deserves a deeper discussion in this context. Are there any tangible ruptures emerging within these communities? If yes, how do they impact expressions of subversive archaism?

In his last chapter, Herzfeld demonstrates that the state’s destruction of such communities – moral or physical, as manifested in these two cases – does not come by force. To the contrary, the state performs campaigns of vilification to appeal to the general public, having often the support of the press. In short, the case of the Zoniani can be considered as a more successful type of subversive archaism, compared to the Pom Mahakan community that no longer exists. The two communities presented in this book did not want to take over the state’s power, and this is a point Herzfeld clearly makes throughout his book. Instead, subversive archaists wanted their polity to be accommodated by the state’s polity; they wanted to be treated and respected as equals.

Herzfeld’s Subversive Archaism is a masterly comparative study that will define scholarship on Greece and Thailand for many years to come. Scholars and graduate students of Greek and Thai studies, anthropology, political science, and sociology will benefit greatly from his deep knowledge of cultural anthropology and the richness of his fieldwork studies.