In Conversation with...Panagiotis Roilos

Interview by Kristin Caulfield and Megan Margulies

Image of Panagiotis RoilosFrom a very young age, as early as elementary school, Panagiotis Roilos decided that he would study cultural history and literature. He never vacillated from this intellectual trajectory, and Roilos considers himself extremely lucky to have been able to pursue his early childhood dreams. He received his bachelor of arts (Ptychion) in classics, Byzantine, and modern Greek literature at the University of Athens and then earned his PhD from Harvard University. Now the George Seferis Professor of Modern Greek Studies and professor of comparative literature, Roilos is continuing his research by focusing on cultural politics, cognitive and historical anthropology, postclassical Greek literature and culture, comparative poetics, reception studies, and critical theory. His current projects include Abducting Athena: The Nazis and the Greeks and Byzantine Imaginaries: A Cognitive Anthropology of Medieval Greek “Phantasia.”

The Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate and founder and chair of the Cultural Politics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives and Graduate-Student Papers on Cultural Politics seminars talked with Kristin Caulfield and Megan Margulies about his current research, his relationship with the Center, and the importance of integrating the humanities with international relations.

KC: Tell us about your current projects focusing on cultural politics.

PR: There are two projects that I’m working on right now that are most relevant to the field of cultural politics. The first focuses on the Middle Ages, especially the Greek Middle Ages. I explore the cultural and political appropriation of ancient Greek literature and culture in the Byzantine era, with an emphasis on rhetoric and cultural hermeneutics. In this project I have developed a methodological approach to premodern cultures that I call “cognitive historical anthropology.” In other words, I am interested in the ways in which deep conceptual patterns and filters function in premodern societies—in particular cultural and historical contexts. Even apparently familiar or easily definable concepts such as “reality” and “real,” “imagination,” “fictional,” “truthful,” et cetera, were invested with different connotations in premodern societies. Despite its apparent truism, this fact and the need for systematic reconstructions of the particular cultural values of such categories in past societies are often neglected in scholarship.

The second project focuses on the Nazis’ appropriation of classical antiquity—how the Nazis manipulated the ancient Greek past in order to articulate their own cultural propaganda. I think this project will shed some new light on the ways antiquity’s cultural capital was reinvented, and of course, manipulated at a very critical moment of European history. This is an important case that illustrates the very complex, multilayered, and even detrimental ways in which the past—especially distorted aspects of the past—can inform the present.

KC: In 2004, I worked on a book about the Olympic Games for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that was for their exhibition Games for the Gods. The photographer Leni Riefenstahl was featured in the book.

PR: Yes, she was a German actress, photographer, and filmmaker who did propaganda films for the Nazi government. She visited several archeological sites in Greece and was assisted by a Greek photographer, Elli Seraidari, known as Nelly’s. Riefenstahl’s work is a telling example of how the Nazi aestheticization of Greek antiquity—and especially of what they, under the influence of German neoclassicists and idealists, among others, considered to be ideal Greek beauty—was reenacted in extremely unsettling and distorted ways, to say the least, in order to forward their propaganda.

MM: Your research generally focuses on using past cultural patterns to put other historical events into context. How do current events tie into your research?

PR: Current political, social, and cultural developments have a great impact on how I think about history. I have published articles on current cultural developments, especially in the field of cultural politics, literature, and postmodernism. There are parallels between historical and current events. Unfortunately right now these parallels lead me to be quite pessimistic—similar things in history being repeated again and again in the present. But in general I think my ethical and moral mission as a scholar and thinker is to try my very best—in the context in which I move—to contribute to the elimination of these more negative similarities between the past and the present. I try to follow current developments in politics, for example the financial crisis in Europe and other issues of global importance.

KC: I enjoyed reading the Phantasia article. Can you elaborate on this new project?

PR: One idea that I am currently developing is what I call “neo-medieval metacapitalism.” The current emphasis on virtual reality, resulting from an inflated valorization of technology at the expense of the study of the human condition, focuses on distancing individuals from their surroundings, from their world, and from nature itself, while also developing a sense of an essentially non-transcendental reality which, paradoxically, transcends individual perceptual abilities and purviews—hence its quasi-metaphysical character. This promotion of a quasimetaphysical or transcendental virtual and humanly constructed reality, or iconolatry that transcends the limits of what, until recently, was generally understood to be the human condition, is of great interest to me. This idea may sound too theoretical, but it will be supported by very specific examples. Why neo-medieval? Whereas in the Middle Ages the icon functioned as a kind of vehicle for communication with the metaphysical other (God, saints, et cetera), now it’s the icon that paradoxically functions as the transcendental “other” (i.e., an “entity” that defies the immediately perceptible limits of individual human experience) from which the subject is considerably separated. New myths are emerging in our society, which means that despite the Enlightenment and other historical movements, there are some very deep mythological structures of perceiving and constructing new realities.

KC: Your work is firmly planted in the humanities. How do you respond to criticism that the humanities aren’t a practical field of study?

PR: In my research and publications, I try to construct intellectual and scholarly bridges between the social sciences (mainly anthropology and history) and the humanities. You’re absolutely right, the humanities has been going through a difficult phase for a number of years—a kind of crisis. But of course, I entirely disagree with the perception that studying the humanities is impractical. The humanities is one of those few fields that, among other things, teaches ways of original critical thinking. This skill is extremely important so that each one of us is able to receive, perceive, and evaluate a number of political and cultural messages from a critical perspective and point of view. The humanities, along with the social sciences, provide the most effective perceptual and conceptual tools and strategies for critical thinking— the humanities is not an abstracted approach to life but just the opposite. At the same time, one should be alerted to any kind of unsubstantiated, uncritical, “romantic” idealization and manipulation of “humanistic” values. Cultural history (distant or more recent) can teach us a lot in that respect.

KC: Tell us how and why the humanities should play an important role in the Center’s mission and in international relations in general.

PR: I am interested in how politics affects the production, dissemination, transmission, and consumption of cultural products and vice versa, especially today in an era of marked globalization. In other words, my approach to the whole issue is that cultural products (art, literature, music, et cetera) and politics are not separate fields of human creation— they are closely interconnected.

About seven years ago, I began a collaboration with Beth Simmons and Steve Bloomfield to establish the Cultural Politics Seminar. My main goal was to bring together the humanities and the social sciences in order to address some of the miscommunications between these two fields. The seminar is highly interdisciplinary and cross-cultural. We have hosted seminars on legal theory, political science, anthropology, history, medieval studies, critical theory, philosophy, and art—so many different areas. All of these seminar topics stress the interconnections between cultural production and politics as well as the actual or potential interaction of the various methodologies used by different disciplines.

I think the dialogue that takes place in the Cultural Politics Seminar is important, and it is extremely evident, and encouraging, in the papers that the graduate students deliver in the seminar. Students are eager to present research to the broadest possible audience rather than just their peers in a specific department. This kind of interdisciplinary study is at the heart of the seminar, at the heart of the Center, and of course my own research interests.

To the best of my knowledge, these are the only two seminars at the Center that function as intellectual and scholarly bridges between the humanities and the social sciences. I must say that the Center has been extremely hospitable and very supportive, and I look forward to my collaboration with Michèle Lamont as the new Center Director.

KC: Has your research transformed as a result of your relationship with the Center?

PR: My research has developed along with my methodologies. I began focusing on cross-disciplinary methodological approaches to my own research field before I joined the Center, but my interactions here have helped immensely in further developing these methodologies. Dialogue with a number of colleagues here at the Center and the graduate students has taught me a lot. My interactions have exposed me to a number of intellectual debates with which I was not familiar before I became an affiliate. This is another major advantage that the Center offers to those who are not political scientists. For example, the State of the Field events and the different seminars are extremely intellectually informative and stimulating for all of us. The Center is exceedingly open to new initiatives, and it allows them to be open-ended. This is one of the most beautiful and encouraging things about the Center, and I am very glad to be part of this community.

MM: Tell us something about yourself that people outside of academia wouldn’t generally know.

PR: I used to write poetry and in fact I published a collection of poetry in my sophomore year at the University. I still write some poetry, in Greek, of course. I like the cinema quite a lot, especially older cinema. One of my distant relatives, my grandfather’s uncle, was a famous Greek painter. His name was Georgios Roilos and he was one of the early mentors of Giorgio de Chirico. But unfortunately, I cannot paint.

Panagiotis Roilos is a Faculty Associate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the George Seferis Professor of Modern Greek Studies, and professor of comparative literature in the Departments of the Classics and of Comparative Literature, Harvard University.

Photo credit: Megan Margulies