Issue 15, July 2010
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The Athens Dialogues
By Niki Tsironi,
Byzantinologist and researcher at the Institute of Byzantine Research, Academic coordinator of The Athens Dialogues conference.

The Athens Dialogues conference, marking the inauguration of the new House of Arts and Letters of the Onassis Foundation, adopts an interdisciplinary and diachronic approach to Greek culture. The organization of the conference coincides with a time of severe crisis at a global and national level. The economic crisis, the crisis in the Humanities and the crisis in Hellenic Studies, in particular, are conjunctions which were unforeseeable at the time the conference was being planned. They do, however, add a contemporary aspect which many have judged favourably.

The conference agenda embarks on the challenges faced by modern man and how Greek culture can prove helpful in facing these challenges. Although, an obvious risk accompanying such a broad approach could be the chaotic structuring and ambiguous result, the conference is based on thematic axes which ensure a clear destination and robust structure.

The conference’s thematic sessions - Identity and Difference, Stories and Histories, Logos and Art, Democracy and Politeia, Science and Ethics, Quality of Life - touch upon vital facets of modern history. The session titles have been shaped around notional dipoles which ultimately pose a challenge and raise equivocal interpretations.

Identity and Difference
Chairing the session is Mrs. Dame Averil Cameron, Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine History, Keble College, Oxford, and member of the conference Organizing Committee, who deems the theme of Identity and Difference as “one of the most urgent and critical discussions in today’s world” adding that “debate has focused on the question of whether identity is inherent or constructed, and if the latter, through what influences and mechanisms». The argument ranges widely, for identity may be personal, social, ethnic or political, and of these the last two in particular involve issues that are of burning concern in today’s global world. It can be argued that it was in classical Greece that the sense of individual consciousness first emerged, together with a strong and proud sense of what it meant to be “Greek”. We are still debating what this means, and these issues of definition and consciousness underlie many of the major issues that we are wrestling with today.

The main theme of this session ranges over many disciplines, from psychology and neuroscience to history and political science. In order to understand the notion of society, we need to comprehend the springs of human behaviour, and in order to understand religious difference, we need an awareness of the evolutionary origins of belief. The relation between the individual and community put sharply into focus in the classical Greek city-state is at the very heart both of modern self-identification, whether in terms of ethnic group, culture or religion, and of the legal and social frameworks that seek to define communities.

The participants in this and the other sessions come from different disciplines and will explore the subject matter from various perspectives. Amongst other, the following will be explored; the religious schism as an identity transformation, the ancient remissness as the origins of modern psyche, the role of ethnicity in post-Roman West, the Byzantium and the early world of Islam, the East-West dipole, through the example of Athenians and Persians at the Classical Era, etc.

Stories and Histories
Chairing this session is Professor Hans-Joachim Gehrke, President of the German Archaeological Institute, and Professor Johannes Koder, Director of the Institute for Byzantine and Neohellenic Studies, University of Vienna, Member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

The session will focus on the Greek culture’s impact on historiography and storytelling or, more generally speaking, on the relationship between history and the manifold ways of dealing with it. Part of this session is about narrative concepts as a means of bridging the gap between history and storytelling, between the world of historical facts and the realm of mythical events. This may also help to bring together professional historians and literary scholars or authors. It will discuss how the ways of memorizing, thinking and understanding the past can contribute to the making (or even construction) of different collective or individual identities and vice versa. Thus, we shall get more information on how peoples, and in this case the Greeks, shaped their past. We can even integrate into our study other ancient concepts of history, e.g. from Near Eastern civilizations, and their contrasting views of the Greeks and their behaviour. Our aim is to study this impact of ancient models and to modify it, so to speak, by putting it back into its historical context showing, thus, that we do not have to deal with metaphysical or religious features, but with phenomena of specific reception and interpretation. Particularly at this point, we shall have the opportunity to discuss the different aspects of these narratives and their perceptions with authors and journalists.

Participants in this session are personalities from the fields of History and Archaeology from various European and Asian countries, who will delve into issues concerning diverse approaches to history and early narratives in each tradition, the ability to approach and and reconstruct the past based on its physical remnants, the perceptions of life and death in antiquity and today, etc.

Logos and Art
Chairing this session are Professor Gregory Nagy, Head of Classical Greek Literature, Harvard University, and Professor Richard Martin, Professor of Classics, Stanford University.

The session shall focus on the question: “What lies behind the remarkable strength and continuity of Hellenic culture?” In the closely linked fields of Literature and visual arts, there are recurrent elements traceable over nearly three millennia in which one can locate both the vigour of expression and deep capacity for tradition-based innovation so characteristic of Greek civilization.

Experts from a wide variety of disciplines will be called upon to examine, in the context of the “Logos and Art” session, the abiding, vital forces that continue to propel a precious cultural heritage.

We expect this particular session to focus on contributions on the attractive performances produced by competing Greek artists, of all sorts and in a number of eras, even during the 21st century. Our wish is to highlight as much as possible the ongoing, unique features of Greek art and discourse, and thereby offer for debate and analysis their real and potential connections with contemporary civilization.

The speakers of this panel will address, amongst other, the issue of written and oral communication throughout different historical eras, the reception of ancient texts in modern times, various ways of expressing human emotion over the centuries, and the essence of artistic nature.

Democracy and Politeia
This session is chaired by two prominent Greeks: Professor Constantinos Svolopoulos, President of the Academy of Athens, and Professor Anastasios-Ioannis Metaxas, Professor Emeritus of Political Communication at the University of Athens.

The theoretic context of the theme of this session includes the acknowledgement of the important status of Athens, of the city hosting The Athens Dialogues. Athens, more than any other city-state of ancient Greece made an acknowledged contribution to the notions of democratic governance. This was both idealistic and realistic, emphasizing the importance not only of individuality but of the collectivity as well. The notion of human dignity was repeatedly stressed as was that of equality, even though the latter was also severely circumscribed by the different social attitudes of the ancient world towards slavery, women and the rights of semi-citizens or immigrants. The understanding of justice and what purpose it should serve also received nuanced and sophisticated treatment that still informs legal thinking. Similarly pioneering was the realization that, in democracy, citizens have duties as well as rights towards the state but also towards eternal laws, touching the sensitive issue of the permissible limits of civil disobedience.

These ideas evolved in the forum and in the gymnasium, during private social gatherings, and through the medium of essays or theatrical dramas or even comedies. The different media used to give them birth became themselves sources of inspiration and imitation, as other panels will examine. The concepts of good and poor governance were thus to figure prominently in the arts of Renaissance, amongst others. In short, the notions of the ancient world spread and touched not only lawyers and politicians but also thinkers and creators from all disciplines.

The speakers of this panel will spark through their papers a debate on Socrates’s democratic ideals, on equality issues, the variations of democracy and any illusions often arising from this high ideal both in antiquity and in more recent times, the relationship between democracy and dignity, etc.

Science and Ethics
Chairing this session are Professor Athanassios S. Fokas, member of the Athens Academy and Chair in Nonlinear Mathematical Science at the University of Cambridge, and Professor Jacques Jouanna, member of Institut de France, Académie internationale d’Histoire des Sciences.

This session will attempt to highlight some of the recent scientific breakthroughs, emphasizing that it is absolutely vital to enhance and facilitate the public engagement with science. The enormous achievements of science and technology provide both huge promise and highly dangerous threats. Ethical questions have moved from the realm of philosophy to the practicalities of medical treatment. For example, stem cells could be used in the future for the treatment of debilitating degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. On the other hand, genetic manipulation at the level of human reproduction could have a dramatic impact on our existence. At a more subtle level, the emergence of new technologies, including nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology could have an unprecedented effect on the brains of future generations. The relevant threats and opportunities open to our children and grandchildren, as the 21st century unfolds, require serious exploration.

On a more optimistic note, the recent developments in science in general and neuroscience in particular bring us closer to addressing perhaps the most profound pending question of human endeavour: Is it possible for the human brain to understand itself, or as the ancient Greeks would say “to know thyself”?

The speakers of this panel will address issues such as the simplicity and complexity in science based on Plato and Aristotle’s theories, the future of the brain, and issues regarding ethics and technology.

Quality of Life
Chairing this session are, Professor Robert Harriss, President of the Houston Advanced Research Center (H.A.R.C.), and Professor Dimitris Nanopoulos, Mitchell/Heap Chair in High Energy Physics at the University of Texas and Manager of the H.A.R.C. A&M Center.

This session will explore the diachronic sense of Greek heritage that has informed scholarly understanding of the quality of life and universal principles of sustainability in the past, present and future. One of the great challenges for the 21st century is the integration of disciplinary knowledge into usable and universal principles for creative transitions to a higher quality of life in the diverse and growing humanity. Universal principles of sustainability are required in order to build the foundation for a quality-of-life theory and indicators which will, in turn, guide and inform citizens and their governing bodies.

The intellectual pathway from Aristotelian “universals” to our contemporary focus on delving deeply into disciplinary knowledge on “bits, atoms, neurons, and genes” has enormously enriched sciences and, at the same time, diminished a field of knowledge reaching beyond disciplines. A robust understanding of quality of life must acknowledge the elusiveness of truth in a fragmented view of the world and the complexity of desire for an overarching unity of knowledge. The session on quality of life will explore the economic, philosophical and scientific basis for the reasons why certain types and specific works of art are highly preferred over others for long periods of human history.

The speakers of this panel will approach the subject matter from broader perspectives and will address issues of quality of life; sustainability, genetic planning, global unequalities, biotechnology, art, the environment.

Organizational structure of the conference
The organizational structure of the conference concerns partly the choices and the roles of the participants (main speakers, co-speakers, audience) and partly the formulation of the programme.

The choice of speakers has been a rather time-consuming but also exciting procedure. The numerous members of the organizing committee of the conference and a number of people from the global field of arts and letters, already in collaboration with the Onassis Foundation, have submitted their suggestions which include in general highly esteemed figures in the academic and scientific field, people who have left their mark in their respective fields and have been acknowledged for their contribution to letters, arts and sciences.

The first short-listing was a task for the special committee of the Onassis Foundation, but the final choice of suggested speakers fell to the chairs of each thematic session, who are also responsible for the coordination of their respective session. The objective was to achieve an interdisciplinary, cross-thematic and diachronic examination of the sub-themes, and gather numerous views on the issues set forth during the Athens Dialogues that would trigger fruitful and constructive dialogue.

Amongst the invited speakers, there are prominent figures such as Robert Badinter, renowned for his struggle for human rights; Angelos Chaniotis, prominent Greek figure of Classical Studies worldwide; Sir Michael Francis Atiyah, distinguished scientist in the field of Mathematics; Jean Clair [Gιrard Rιgnier], Director of the Museé National Picasso, Paris, for many years; Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan of Diokleia; Edith Hall, Professor of Classics and Drama at the University of London; Margaret Μullett, Director of Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, USA; Alan Shapiro, prominent researcher at the Johns Hopkins University; Edhem Eldem, Chair of the Department of History, Bogazici University in Turkey - to mention but a few of the sixty personalities who will be participating in the conference.

In light of the Athens Dialogues conference, scientists, intellectuals and prominent figures in the realm of arts and letters from almost every continent of the world will gather here. All having dealings, each in their own field, with Greek civilization either as a primary axis of their research or as a measure of comparison in research focusing on other cultures.

The role of the co-speakers, successfully tested at other similar events, was adopted for the actual realization of the Athens Dialogues. The co-speakers, who are all equally acclaimed in terms of high academic level and reputation, are to be called upon during the conference to provide critical accounts of the essays that will have already been published in the online magazine, which is part of the Athens Dialogues website. At the same time, they are also expected to trigger debate by putting forth themes and perspectives that may have been overlooked and link academic thought with current reality. In addition, they are responsible for satisfying the organizing committee’s intent to actively integrate all age groups into the conference and, in particular the middle-aged, namely those who, even if not yet acclaimed authorities in their field of work, to constitute agents of creative thinking and lead the way in intellectual quest.

In its attempt to include all age groups and, primarily, not to exclude the younger generation, the Organizing Committee held, jointly with E.U.N.I.C. (European Union National Institutes of Culture), a European competition entitled “Culture Past, Culture Future”. The competition was intended to integrate the young into the Athens Dialogues inviting them to participate by submitting a paper or an essay on any one of the conference’s six thematic sessions. The organization of the competition was assigned to the British Council in Athens, as it is the presiding body of the E.U.N.I.C. branch in Greece and will be represented by Richard Walker, Director of the British Council Greece. In charge of the running of the competition are: Mrs Penka Tsvetkova, representing the British Council and Mrs. Elena Tsartsanidou, representing the Onassis Foundation,.

Aiming to attract as many young people as possible from a wide geographical background, this competition was not limited to participants from European member-states but invited the young from the broader European field, including countries of the European Economic Area (Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway), countries awaiting to be included in the European Union (Croatia, Turkey, FYROM), as well as Albania, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan.

The competition was widely communicated via the British Council network and its numerous branches throughout Europe, with the help of the institutions participating in the E.U.N.I.C. network (Institut Français d’ Athènes, Goethe-Institut Athen, Instituto Cervantes de Atenas, Danish Institute at Athens, Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Atene, Swedish Institute at Athens, House of Cyprus), as well as the broader E.U.N.I.C. network and the co-organizers of the Athens Dialogues conference.

The response of young people from the aforementioned countries was enthusiastic and papers and essays were received on all the thematic sessions of the conference. They are currently at the stage of evaluation and assessment which is being conducted by a special scientific committee. The winners will have their papers published on the conference webpage and will be invited to attend the conference gratis.

In anticipation of the competition results, we deem the participation of the young in these efforts of paramount importance for a number of reasons. The fresh perspective of youth must be blended with that of the older generation of scientists and intellectuals so that the debate can be enriched with new questions and related to society in a more direct way. After all, it is ultimately the young who will benefit from these efforts given that the central axis of the dialogue instigated by the conference touches upon the present and the future of our civilization.

The conference has been organized as a closed working meeting, which means that, in order to ensure a high level of discourse, participation is only allowed on an individual invitation basis. Many of those invited will have contributed in one way or another to the preparation of the conference and the formulation of its objective, namely members of the Organizing Committee, participants in the dissemination meetings whose contribution to the shaping the final concept of the project was invaluable, older and more recent scholars from the Onassis Foundation, not to mention the large number of people from every corner of the globe who are expected to apply for attendance following the approval of the special committee. Further information on the application procedure for conference participation can be found at the conference website.

The conference scenario, namely the allocation of time per speaker and co-speaker, and the total duration of each session, has been the subject of long discussion and thorough examination. Based on the principle goal of the project, the emphasis is to be placed on dialogue itself, so that the conference can depart from the typical academic meeting where the participants present their papers to an expert audience. The range of the thematic sessions and the great diversity of attendants leave no margin for lengthy statements attempting to probe into one specific matter.

Based on the above and the initial decision regarding the online pre-publication of the complete essays, it has been decided that the speakers of each session will be given fifteen minutes to present their papers thus preparing the ground for dialogue to commence. Each main speaker will have the opportunity to take into consideration for their brief presentation the comments and observations published in the online magazine regarding their submitted essay. This limited time granted to every main speaker goes against the usual practice followed in scientific meetings; it does, however, serve the conference aim, which is to break new ground not only regarding content presented through a blend of statements but also through its organizational structure.

Every thematic session will have four co-speakers, relevant to the subject but chosen in accordance with the notion of interdisciplinary and cross-thematic approach. They will offer, as already mentioned, sound commentary on the speakers’ statements, having already read their pre-published speeches. Each thematic session shall be completed over one morning and one evening meeting.

At the end of the session, there will be dialogue amongst the participants. Attendants can submit their questions either in written form or online at the forum of the conference website through wireless connection available at the House of Arts and Letters. The House of Arts and Letters shall host a scientific secretariat supported by new scientists who will be in charge of collecting, processing, grouping and conveying the views expressed by the participants to every Chair, promoting in this way the meaningful dialogue between speakers and audience. The scientific secretariat will also be responsible for processing the questions submitted online at the conference forum.

The closing session will provide time for interdisciplinary debate, which will attempt to link any issues that will have arisen during each thematic session of the Dialogues and will precede the “conclusions” - called as such by convention as they will be primarily intended to set out all the issues that arose during the sessions and create thus the ground on which the Athens Dialogues will proceed - to be presented by the respective Chairs.

The conference aspires to pioneer an increased use of new technologies at all stages; preparation, implementation and future organization. The conference website serves obviously the basic provision of information regarding the conference, partner institutions, speakers and co-speakers. The wider public can use the website to submit a participation request and register in order to attend the dialogues, while for those coming from abroad, there is practical information regarding tickets and accommodation, social events, sights and so forth.

Through the network of partner institutions and including all those who have demonstrated avid and active interest in the Athens Dialogues, the website is displayed on the home pages of all co-organizing bodies and other research institutions. The wide promotion of the conference is amongst the objectives of such this influential programme, given its scale. It aims to attract an audience from every corner of the globe and then, in light of its realization, to extend to a series of activities and events focusing on the establishment of a network of scientific researchers, intellectuals and artists expressing active interest in Greek culture. Given the current state of affairs, at a time when Hellenic Studies and Humanities are in crisis, the Athens Dialogues conference can only be of major contribution. Through stimulating dialogue, commencing with such an ambitious programme, researchers from all over the globe will have the chance to meet, share experiences and create networks around research subjects, teaching methodologies, problem solving and structural difficulties.

A universal map indicating all current and former scholars of the Onassis Foundation will be posted on the conference website. The same map will also mark the Chairs and Departments of Hellenic Studies throughout the world which deal with Greek heritage from every different historical era, providing thus a reference point for all interested parties. In addition, efforts are being made to approach all intellectuals and artists having expressed interest in the conference with a view to including them in the Athens Dialogues network.

This fulfils a very important secondary goal of the conference, which serves as a means of communication and networking amongst the interested parties: the creation of a network of people with a real interest in matters of Hellenic cultural heritage, who will hopefully be able to use this network to promote issues of common interest, enriching the field and fostering revival.
The hope is that in the future it will develop into a portal with information and data about all important events worldwide related to Greek civilization.

The Athens Dialogues conference will acquire many new semantic fields over the course of time. Organizers hope the conference will sustain its present dynamic character and hence renounce the normal limited-scale conferences in favour of adopting this innovative, evolutionary approach.

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