Recap: Michael Herzfeld on hierarchy

Continuities and Comparisons

The Role of Hierarchy in Modern Democracies and their Lein on Ancient Pasts–Greece and Thailand in Transgressive Practice

Written by Alba Curry

The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the first meeting of the Comparatism Seminar. We would also like to thank Professor Michael Herzfeld for his talk on the importance of being transgressive when doing comparative work. Herzfeld praised the value of comparisons that violate expectations, in part because such transgressions expose just how slippery and unstable so many of our comparative categories and objects are (e.g., the use of the swastika in different times and places, or how “democracy” means such different things to different people).

Herzfeld’s own transgression in this talk was to compare Greek and Thai nationalisms. Both countries, Herzfeld argued, have had similar experiences with nationalism in certain key respects such that, surprisingly, Greece compares more smoothly with Thailand on this topic than with other Meditarranean countries like Italy. Herzfeld highlighted the following comparable features of what he called a kind of methodological nationalism.

First, Greece and Thailand are examples of subversive archaisms in which one group in a nation-state claims to understand the place’s traditions better than the ruling bureaucrats. Second, the concepts of polity and civility work together in both cultures: polity arises from shared civility—that is, political structures arise across disparate groups which nonetheless claim a shared civilizational inheritance. Third, Greece and Thailand both feature crypto-colonialism and ethnonationalism as both were never formally colonized but were forced to rely on colonial powers. Fourth, Herzfeld compared the two countries with regards to the tension between hierarchy and egalitarianism. In Thailand, democracy and monarchy are widely seen as compatible, with relatively egalitarian language used between, for example, the kind and protesting subjects. (The current protests in Thailand over Law 112 are because that law is perceived as inconsistent with the notion of Thammarat or “virtuous king.”) In Greece, on the other hand, monarchy and democracy have always been incompatible, with the former seen as a foreign-imposed institution. Fifth, Greece and Thailand both engage in historical airbrushing to simplify or elide inner tensions throughout their history (e.g., ethnic complexity). Sixth, both cultures feature what Herzfeld calls a violent predestination. In Thailand, karma is regularly used to support a certain class struggle and social arrangement (though with plenty of pushback), while in Greece the idea of moira (“fate”) is used retroactively to explain unequal outcomes.

For further reading see Michael Herzfeld’s upcoming book Subversive Archaisms: Troubling Traditionalists and the Politics of National Heritage, Duke University. While you wait, read: “What is a polity? 2018 Lewis H. Morgan Lecture.” 2019. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory Vol.9, 1.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside for her work as organizer of this semester’s Comparatism Seminar Series. Comparatism has become a key issue in Classical Studies, both within the ancient Mediterranean and more broadly. This one-semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, epic, gender, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to and visit the series event page for more details about the series schedule.