Saturday, August 30, 2014

2014.08.60

Averil Cameron, Byzantine Matters. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv, 164. ISBN 9780691157634. $22.95.

Reviewed by George E. Demacopoulos, Fordham University (demacopoulos@fordham.edu)

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at BMCR home site

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Byzantine Matters is an assessment of the current state of Byzantine studies by a well-respected member of the field. Though a slender volume, its goals are ambitious—to understand the reasons for the marginalization of Byzantine studies in the Western academy and to offer a few
prescriptions for its correction. Following a brief introduction, the book progresses as a series of essays on particular themes, close to the author’s personal interest, that she has examined in public lectures in recent years.

Chapter One, aptly named “Absence,” examines why Byzantium is poorly presented in Western historiography. When it is not ignored altogether, she notes, Byzantium is portrayed in a negative light, as a society of decline, driven bmy aristocratic opulence, stifling bureaucracy, and intellectual
stagnation. In part, Byzantium’s negative assessment by Western scholars stems from the fact that key aspects of the Byzantine intellectual tradition (such as its concern for religious orthodoxy and its particular forms of rhetoric and education) have been wrongly interpreted to be lacking in
originality or sophistication. But Cameron’s criticism of Anglophone historiography goes further still by suggesting that it remains trapped in a twin discourse of cultural bias and exoticism that was introduced by colonial-era historians who first narrated the Byzantine world for their British
readers.

Chapter Two, “Empire,” explores the question of whether or not Byzantium should be considered an empire and how one’s answer to this question carries additional historiographical implications, particularly for those scholars writing for Eastern European or Balkan audiences. Indeed, the
question is more serious than one might first assume, and her examination of the matter carefully reveals the cultural, political, and theoretical assumptions that lie behind current positions. Recognizing that Byzantium’s multiple political reincarnations do not fit the normative standard for an
empire, Cameron nevertheless argues that the long history of Byzantium adheres to the general parameters of a “centralizing political entity,” which, for her, is sufficient for imperial designation. At the same time, however, she echoes the chorus of recent scholarship that seeks to correct
Obolensky’s thesis of a multi-national “Byzantium Commonwealth” throughout the Balkans in the middle ages.1

Chapter Three examines “Hellenism” in Byzantium as a historiographical category. Acknowledging that the subject is fraught on many levels, much of this chapter reads as a response to Anthony Kaldellis’ work on the same subject.2 Like Kaldellis, Cameron believes that the Byzantines
were not self-consciously multi-ethnic—a position that a previous generous of scholars simply took as a truism. And, like Kaldellis, she believes that cultural studies in general and postcolonial studies specifically have much to offer the question of Byzantine self-identity and the role of
Hellenism within it. But Cameron and Kaldellis remain at odds on some fundamental aspects of the role of Hellenism in Byzantium, including whether the category is stable enough for a narrative spanning the entire millennium and to what extent Christianity served as an overlapping or competing
cultural glue uniting Byzantine society.

Chapter Four addresses some of the reasons that art history is so important to current historiographical treatments of the Byzantine world. Cameron suggests that this, too, is a colonial-era legacy of exotic acquisition—an idealized sense of what Byzantium was, coupled with a desire to
possess its luxury. Nevertheless, she sees great value in supplementing traditional text-based historiography with the resources of art and architecture. Indeed, it is within the intersection of text and material culture, supplemented with the resources of critical theory that she finds access to
so much of the Byzantine mentality. And she resists the tendency among some historians to downplay the significance of iconoclasm. For Cameron, it is precisely because the Byzantines cared so deeply about the broader philosophical issues at stake in those debates that we should continue to pay
attention to the controversy.

Chapter Five is a daring attempt to come to terms with the theoretical and confessional landmines that surround the investigation of religion in Byzantine society. Cameron insists, against arguments to the contrary, that the discourse of orthodoxy was central to Byzantine society and that the
careful examiner of the sources can learn a great deal about the ways in which individuals simultaneously used the concern for orthodoxy to advance themselves but were at the same time bound by that same discourse. Borrowing from the theoretically-rich investigation of religion in late antiquity,
Cameron advocates for a multi-disciplinary approach that is sensitive to ambiguity and change, always keeping in mind the extent to which the leaders of particular theological positions were in a constant state of negotiation, both theologically and professionally.

Although addressed most directly in Chapter Three, the collective work of Anthony Kaldellis seems to lie behind a great part of Cameron’s reflection on the current debates within Byzantine studies. There are some areas in which I find myself largely siding with Cameron’s position (especially
concerning the role of orthodox Christianity as a central discursive element of Byzantine intellectual life). But I was also struck by the extent to which Cameron and Kaldellis appear to sound the same key, if only in a different register. For example, both are far more attuned than most
specialists to the advances in critical theory and to the extent to which scholars of Byzantium, whether from the West or from traditionally Orthodox societies, remain mired in a set of colonial and postcolonial assumptions that prevent balanced and self-critical scholarship.

In sum, Cameron offers us an important state-of-the-field assessment that very keenly identifies the core challenges facing contemporary scholars of Byzantium. Perhaps the real genius of this little volume, however, is the author’s ability to simultaneously stimulate the specialist and the
non-specialist alike. For in presenting these five thematic essays on current debates within Byzantine studies, Cameron provides us with a spirited and compelling narrative of why Byzantium should “matter” to everyone.




Notes:



1.   Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1971. Critiqued by Anthony Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

2.   Kaldellis, op. cit.

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