Macedonicity as an art of not being governed

by Akis Gavriilidis


Having lived in Thessaloniki around 1990, I personally witnessed the «our-name-is-our-soul» frenzy that emerged out of the blue in that city and its surroundings and became the starting point for the series of tragicomic events we all know. As most people, I was surprised by this eruption of heated interest for history, geopolitics, ethnology, and a number of other disciplines, for which I was totally unprepared. Listening to all these people who, with the air and the conviction of a specialist, repeated incessantly a set of newly discovered «scientific truths,» I felt uneasy, but also puzzled, because these «truths» concerned a period and a topic I had no deep knowledge about. Instinctively, I felt there was something wrong with these discourses, but was not quite sure what a valid counter-argument would be.

At that time of confusion, when Greek newspapers were sweepingly stormed by a repetitive wave of “experts” providing “evidence” that “the name Macedonia was never used to describe a language and a people before 1944, this use is arbitrary and artificial,” one day, in a small leftist newspaper, Epokhì, an article appeared which contained some other type of evidence. It was an excerpt from the 1924 novel I zôì en tàfô [The life in the grave] by Stratìs Myrivìlis. The book was probably written some years earlier, as it recounts the story of the 1st World War seen through the lens of a Greek soldier as a narrator/ protagonist. The narration is based largely on Myrivìlis’s own personal experience.

At one point, the narrator is positioned at a small village near Monastiri/ Bitola, and he describes his interaction with its inhabitants in the following words:


These villagers, whose language is perfectly understood by the Bulgarians and the Serbs, dislike the former because they took their children for the Army. They hate the latter because they abuse them as being Bulgarians. And look with a sympathetic curiosity us Greeks [in the original: Romioì] because we are the genuine spiritual subjects of the Patrik, that is “the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople”. (…) Nevertheless, they don’t want to be neither “Bulgàr”, nor “Srrp”, nor “Grrch”, only “Makedòn ortodòx” [in the original, the words as pronounced by the villagers are approximatively written in Greek scribe].


This article was for me a beam of light, a great encouragement and a helpful hint which lead me to further searching and reading. In the years that followed I often admired retrospectively the courage and honesty of its author, the philologist Mìmis Souliôtis, who served as a director of the public library at Lerin/ Flôrina and was not of Macedonian ethnic origin as far as I know.

But this is not my main point here. Apart from the role these lines played at the time, I think they can be helpful for us also in 2016, in a new way.

Reading again this description after so many years, I think in it we can find a perfect definition of nationless.

Macedonicity is here presented as a belonging/ non belonging, as a name chosen primarily to denote a willingness not to be part of any of the existing at the time national projects (with a particular mention to the willingness not to be part of the army).

Nevertheless, it is a very clear means of denoting a shared subjectivity. What Myrivìlis is talking about here is not an “archaic survival,” a “pre-modern residue” or an “Ottoman nostalgia;” nor is it an “atomization of isolated consumers brought about by modern capitalism.” It is a positive being in common –while at the same time keeping states at a distance.


Ιn this light, I think we could reinterpret today this description and find in it an additional layer of meaning, a new value beyond its use for contradicting the hate speech of Greek nationalists. Indeed, it could even shed new light to this hate speech itself, especially if combined with a reading of the book where the formulation “keeping the state at a distance” –and the title of this presentation- was inspired from: James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed.[1]

Let us take as a first example the following passage.


Stateless peoples are typically stigmatized by neighboring cultures as “peoples without history,” as lacking the fundamental characteristic of civilization, namely historicity. The charges are wrong on two counts. First, the stigmatization presupposes that only written history counts as a narrative of identity and a common past. Second, and more important, how much history a people have, far from indicating their low stage of evolution, is always an active choice, one that positions them vis-à-vis their powerful text-based neighbors (p. 237).


To these “two counts” we could add a third one: that “history” is not something that belongs to “peoples” as its owners. Unless we follow a naïve, Eurocentric 19th-century conception of history as the development of national essences, as the solitary course of each Volk towards the accomplishment of its destiny. More generally, history is not a thing possessed by anybody, be it a “people” or any other human community. History is a relationship, and is frequently produced in between, when people with diverse origins and identity meet, exchange, interact, even in a conflictual way, beyond the enclosures of national borders and of private property.

This can be illustrated in the case of the former Ottoman Empire as much as anywhere else, as the excerpt from the novel reminds us. Human subjectivities are also informed by, and manifested through, deviating from the course towards the formation of a nation-state –as much as in pursuing it. They are not defined solely by the exclusive inclusion in, and identification with, a predetermined community separated from other national communities by walls; but also by lesser or greater degrees of commonality or separateness, ranging from «sympathetic curiosity» to hostility and distributed unequally to groups or persons belonging both to one’s «own» and to «foreign» populations.

Αlthough I am not a specialist in history, as I already noted, I have the impression that the Macedonian nation presents this characteristic probably in a higher degree than any other in the Balkans. In both its attempts to achieve an independent existence, the failed one in the beginning of the 20th century and the (more or less) successful one towards its end, this dimension was present: Macedonians tried to constitute themselves as a standalone state only after they had realized that it was impossible for them to continue living within a broader structure where they belonged up to then, because everybody else around them were pursuing their respective projects of state building –and, occasionally, trying to absorb also Macedonians in these projects.

Especially the Ilinden uprising, (which is never taught at schools and hardly ever written about in the public space in Greece, unless in order to say that “it was a trick devised by the Bulgarians who wanted to penetrate into Greek Macedonia”), was marked by a non-ethnic definition of the nation it aspired to found, even by proto-socialist and anarchist ideas, however simplistic or confused one would be tempted to consider them, more than any other national movement in the former Ottoman space.

Of course, this creates a paradox, or at least poses complex and difficult challenges, especially if such a move towards nation building succeeds. This paradox could be –paradoxically- paralleled to what Scott, speaking about Southeast Asia (and more precisely about the zone that he, following others, calls «Zomia»), describes as “antistate nationalism.”


Ethnic and ’tribal’ identity, in the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, has been associated with nationalism and the aspiration, often thwarted, to statehood. And today, the utter institutional hegemony of the nation-state as a political unit has encouraged many ethnic groups in Zomia to aspire to their own nation-statehood. But what is novel and noteworthy for most of this long history in the hills is that ethnic and tribal identities have been put to the service not merely of autonomy but of statelessness. The paradox of ’antistate nationalism,’ if it might be called that, is typically overlooked. But it must have been a very common, perhaps the most common, basis for identity until, say, the nineteenth century, when, for the first time, a life outside the state came to seem hopelessly utopian. E. J. Hobsbawm, in his perceptive study of nationalism, took note of these important exceptions: ‘One might even argue that the peoples with the most powerful and lasting sense of what might be called ‘tribal’ ethnicity not merely resisted the imposition of the modern state, national or otherwise, but very commonly any state: as witness the Pushtun-speakers in and around Afghanistan, the pre-1745 Scots highlanders, the Atlas Berbers, and others who will come readily to mind’ (Scott 2009:244).


Among these unnamed “others,” I think it would be theoretically and politically tempting to examine if we can enlist certain tribes and ethnic groups in Southeast Europe as well, not only Asia.

In spite of these aporias, which sometimes can end up to awkward, if not plainly ridiculous solutions (such as the “antiquisation” urbanistic project for the city of Skopje), I think that the tension between the adjective and the noun, between the tendency for desertion, for non-identity, for escaping the state, and the centripetal tendency towards more state and a hard ethno-national identity, could, and should, be maintained, indeed used as a source of inspiration for us today. And also, as a reminder that, pace Scott, in the 21st century it is still possible to invent, maybe not a life outside the state, but at least lines of flight from it, even when its grasp seems total and absorbing, or rendering “hopelessly utopian” any such aspiration.

The Ilinden slogan “Macedonia to the Macedonians” can be read in (at least) two ways: one essentialist, according to which “Macedonicity” is a pre-existing essence pertaining to an already given set of people as opposed to others; whoever possesses it, is accepted as a legitimate owner and participant in the national project. But it can also be read in another way, probably more conform to the meaning the revolutionaries themselves were conceiving it: these “Macedonians” are an open assemblage of persons who happen to live in a given geographical space and are willing to live according to a set of declared and commonly adhered to principles. Greek nationalists sought in the past for signs of the first kind of belonging, and, as they were unable –also unwilling, of course- to find any, declared that “no Macedonian nation exists or has ever existed.” But the second idea is clearly present in the Ilinden texts, where we find a recognition of multiplicity. Indeed, “Macedonians” there can be read as the name of a lack, a residue. Greek nationalists –or possibly even Macedonian, or any other kind of nationalists- may see that as a weakness; but we can see it as a positive value.


But in the light of Scott’s analysis, I think we can also revisit these very accusations formulated by Greek nationalists against the “Skopjean [pseudo]nation.” Indeed, all of these “accusations” are to be found in the list of techniques for not being governed in Scott’s book. Mainstream «science» in Greece, whether in its scholarly or its lay form, rejects the idea of the existence of a Macedonian people on the basis that we cannot find a «hard core» or even a forerunner of such a people in archives, in Ottoman censuses, in written sources relaying a millenary existence and a worldwide mission for it, or epics recounting heroic accomplishments and genealogies, as opposed to Greeks (formerly known as Rum/ Romioì).

In a previous attempt,[2] I had put forward an interpretation of these accusations as being a projection, through which the Greek society tries to get rid of unpleasant memories from its own past. I think this interpretation still stands, but now we can add a complement to it, which indeed was already implied in the first part: we only need to remember the well-known psychoanalytic principle, according to which we cannot stand in the other what we hate in ourselves, but we also cannot stand the other in so far as we imagine s/he is stealing our enjoyment. Greek intolerance about the idea of a Macedonian people can convey two tendencies at the same time: contempt/ rejection, but also admiration/ envy. If the premise of this intolerant discourse could be formulated as:

you are not a real nation, you have no history and no built or written monuments,

its conclusion, its latent content could be restituted and translated in both of the following ways:

– while we do have, so we are superior to you, that’s why we are entitled to be a real state and proud about it, but you aren’t.

But also,

– while we do have, so we are condemned to become (or to pretend we have become) a ’normal’ nation-state, which we are not particularly happy about.


Indeed: from many different and convergent indices the past years, I have been convinced that the construction of the modern Greek nation state on the basis of the «glorious culture and history» of antiquity constitutes, at times, an unbearable burden to its citizens. In everyday conversations about the most varied topics (never in connection to the Macedonian issue, though), members of the Greek society end up exclaiming: «Oh well, let’s give up; ours is not a proper state and it will never become one.» This phrase is second only to «What a nice weather today» in producing universal consensus. I am not certain if all of the participants would agree to this too, but I am convinced that an implied meaning/ follow-up to this exclamation is: «But who cares? Fortunately so! Who wants to be a proper state anyway?»

I don’t know if this makes things simpler or it complicates them, but it seems that the constantly reiterated performance of hate speech against the Macedonian nation is fueled from two different, indeed antithetical, sources: from a feeling of superiority against nationless peoples as much as from jealousy for them.

If this is so, I think it shows that the nationless idea is not a utopia for the future, but, as Marx used to say about communism, a material tendency already present in the existing order of things. Furthermore, it makes one think that it would be interesting, theoretically and politically, to try and work on this subtext, bring it to the fore and remove the shame and self-censorship which accompanies it. Macedonians may be a nation/ non nation, but that is true about everybody else among us; let us admit, assume and enjoy it.


[1] The Art of Not Being Governed. An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale University Press, New Haven & London 2009.

[2] «Name Trouble: the «so-called people» and the communism of language». This text had been published, with a slightly different form (and title), in: Mircela Dzuvalekovska Casule (ed), The name issue revisited, Macedonian Information Centre, Skopje 2014, pp. 313-343.


Τhis  paper was presented at a meeting of «Nationless», a collaborative initiative involving artists and scholars from Skopje, Belgrade and Thessaloniki. The other the interventions can be found at the site of the whole project


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