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Michael Herzfeld


Michael Herzfeld is Ernest E. Monrad Research Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University, IIAS Visiting Professor of Critical Heritage Studies Emeritus, Leiden University; Senior Advisor, Critical Heritage Studies Initiative, International Institute of Asian Studies, Leiden; a member of the doctoral program in Beni Culturali, Formazione e Territorio, University of Rome “Tor Vergata”; and Chang Jiang Scholar, Shanghai International Studies University. Author of twelve books (most recently Subversive Archaism: Troubling Traditionalists and the Politics of National Heritage, 2022) and numerous articles and reviews, and producer of two ethnographic films, he has served as editor of American Ethnologist (1995-98), is currently editor-at-large (responsible for “Polyglot Perspectives”) at Anthropological Quarterly, and is co-editor of “Asian Heritages” (Amsterdam University Press) and “New Anthropologies of Europe” (Berghahn). His research (primarily in Greece, Italy, and Thailand) has most recently addressed the social and political impact of historic conservation and gentrification, the dynamics of nationalism and bureaucracy, spectral polities and modernist politics, crypto-colonialism, and the ethnography of knowledge among artisans and intellectuals.


Spectrality: Past Polities in Urban Landscapes

Cities often contain the remains of past eras; some, like Rome, constitute veritable palimpsests or stratigraphies of cultural and social change. Less obvious are the traces in social life of earlier forms of polity. Utilizing examples from southeast Asia and southern Europe, we will see how models of political and social space – often of cosmological origin – are subtly incorporated in habits of movement and interaction in the present. Some of these traces also take the form of ghostly sightings. Primary examples will be the polis in Greece, the insula in Rome, and the moeang (müang) in the Tai-speaking world of continental Asia.


1. Herzfeld, “Paradoxes of Order in Thai Community Politics.” In Felicity Aulino, Miriam Goheen, and Stanley J. Tambiah, eds., Radical Egalitarianism: Local Realities, Global Relations (New York: Fordham University Press), pp. 146-157.
2. Tambiah, “Galactic Polity”
3. Mariella Bacigalupo, “Mapuche Struggles”
4. Michael Di Giovine, “Galactic Shrines”
5. O’Connor, Richard. 2000. “A Regional Explanation of the Tai Muang as a City-State.”In A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures: An Investigation, edited by Mogen Herman Hansen, 431–43. Copenhagen: Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab.

Visibilizing the Vernacular in Capital Cities

Drawing primarily on the work of Eleana Yalouri and Roxane Caftanzoglou in Athens, and on the lecturer’s own research in Rome and Bangkok, we will explore the multiple ways in which the surreptitious life of everyday social interaction, much of it in violation of official norms, leaves material traces for us to read from the urban fabric. We will see that such traces, never intended as monumental, often attach to famous monuments, or appear to be expressions of public piety. We will explore what they represent in terms of actually experienced social interactions and pragmatic values (“everyday ethics”) for the people who lived in those places, and for those who continue to live there.


1. Herzfeld, “Practical Piety”
2. Herzfeld, “Subversive Archaism”
3. Caftanzoglou, Roxane, Roxane Caftanzoglou, “The Shadow of the Sacred Rock: Contrasting Discourses of Place under the Acropolis,” in Contested Landscapes: Movement, Exile and Place, ed. Barbara Bender and Margot Winer (Oxford: Berg, 2001), 21–35.
4. Alison Brody, The Cleaners You Aren’t Meant to See
5. Marc Askew, The Rise of “Moradok” and the Decline of the “Yarn”


Selective Accumulation: Cultural Intimacy in the City

This presentation is based on the speaker’s participation in the film Builders and Housewives (Onassis Center, directed by Tassos Langis and Yannis Gaitinidis), itself based on the book of the same title by Ioanna Theocharopoulou. It consists of a personal reflection on how being asked to comment on the film as an active participant in its final edition allowed the speaker to rethink his understanding of how cultural intimacy – a key concept in his theoretical vocabulary – shapes and protects the social history of the Athenian cityscape. While models of understanding through walking around a city have been popularized by Michel de Certeau, this type of reflexive experience adds resonance to the immediate and the ephemeral. It thereby suggests new ways of deepening the ethnography of large cities, which are notoriously recalcitrant to the inquisitive eye and ear of the ethnographic observer. Most relevant of all to this workshop, it recovers forms of materiality that have been deliberated ignored, erased, distorted, and (literally) buried. The presentation thus expands the image of materiality usually associated with conservation and archaeology. Indeed, the approach may help to track the passage of archaeologists themselves through urban landscapes that they have themselves contributed to shaping.


“An Informal Seminar on Academic Pedagogy”: We will take the concept of “Socratic debate” as a starting-point, to understand how knowledge grows when “the obvious” is put into contention. We will explore the best ways to place ourselves under critical pressure, thus restoring to university life the tradition of productive contention that modern bureaucracy and authoritarian politics have done so much to undermine, and will discuss ways of incorporating that tradition in our own teaching and learning. We will also see how it may be revived in such academic practices as the reviewing of scholarly work. The instructor is an experienced university teacher who has also had an active editorial role and sees these two activities as necessarily and profoundly interlinked – a connection that is often overlooked, but that, properly used, can reduce the fear of ridicule that haunts academia at every level.