Coordinating Events

The inward-facing circle of the EU council summit in Brussels, February 21st, 2020, the last in-person summit before these meetings were moved online. Photo: AFP. Click to open a larger version.
Online EU summit, March 10th, 2020. Note the development of new communicative habits, such as the muting of microphones to avoid background noise. Photo: European Council. Click to open a larger version.

Diplomacy at the highest level is best conducted simply by getting diplomats or politicians together in a physical space. EU council summits, where heads of state from the various EU countries gather to achieve cooperation between coun­tries, are a good example. During the COVID-19 pandemic, new modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion had to be found even at this level, with meetings to discuss lockdown policies and economic crises being moved online. That meeting online instead of in real life hindered the diplomatic process, is clear: the heads of state decided to meet again in person already in July 2020, even though many countries still maintained strict lockdown policies. Five online summits had not been able to yield a breakthrough in discussions on the financing of the 750-billion-euro coronavirus re­co­very fund, nor on the regular seven-year budget.

Michael Chwe’s book on common knowledge. Click to open a larger version.

Indeed, as anyone who has been in an online meeting is likely to attest, meeting in person is important for coordinating shared action in a group. The political scientist Michael Suk-Young Chwe (2001) has argued that this is because such events are key to creating a specific type of common knowledge. This kind of common knowledge, a concept drawn from game theory, goes beyond simple shared ideas. Rather, it relies on the awareness that all members of a group have the same information (I know that you know that I know…), which is necessary for collaboration. For instance, mutual awareness of a common idea or goal, as well as of the individual interests that compete with it, allows individual members to attune their actions in a cooperative effort. Social gatherings often contain ritual and design elements that contribute to this awareness.

Chwe mentions for instance the physical arrangement of participants in an inward-facing circle, the public presentation of information in its centre, and the repetition of that information. An inward-facing setting allows participants to take in the information that is being presented – but even more important, it allows participants to look one another in the eye. This promotes a mutual awareness of this consumption of the same information among participants. The EU summits depicted above are good examples: it is not possible to look one another in the eye in an online meeting.

This structure in Priene is identified as a bouleutērion, a place for the city council to gather. Its members would sit on the stepped inward-facing seats, around the central altar used for sacrifices. Photo: author. Click to open a larger version.

But of course, inward-facing set­tings were used for meetings all over the ancient Greek world as well: not just for political meetings of council and assembly, but also for instance in theatres and odeia. Within such settings, the information imparted is furthermore often of a repetitive nature, which serves to make sure that no one misses a thing. Others have pointed to the role of the emotional impact of ritual events. An emo­tionally impressive event is more easily remembered than an everyday oc­cur­rence, and emotion helps us feel connected to others.

Such meetings do not just help to make us aware of common norms, values, rules and plans of action – they allow us to trust that others are aware of them as well. What is more, they allow us to trust that those others will also trust us to be aware of them, and so on. This, according to Chwe, is the most important characteristic of common knowledge. Importantly, this means that besides coordination, these events also promote togetherness.

This is why Greek assembly meetings, EU summits and (arguably) academic department meetings are not just effective tools to get things done, but also create a sense of community between participants. But how does this actually work on an interregional scale? In the ancient Greek world, the time, effort, and expenses of long-distance travel were prohibitive to the organisation of frequent meetings between official polis representatives. And even then, the majority of people would never actually get to meet the citizens of another polis that their city had a relationship with. The publication of inscriptions containing connectivity language in cosmopolitan spaces, as I have shown in the previous chapters, is part of the strategy that Hellenistic cities developed to overcome these challenges.

In this final part of the research, I investigate the common-knowledge creating power of supraregional and local events in Hellenistic cities. I show how such events were strategically employed to support the function of inscribed media in developing an imagined cosmopolitan community. In this way, I aim to lay bare how the strategic use of connectivity language, cosmopolitan spaces and coordinating events converged to  firmly embed inter-city relationships, recorded in inscribed decrees, in Hellenistic polis society.

Selected literature:

Chaniotis, Angelos. 2006. “Rituals between Norms and Emotions: Rituals as Shared Experience and Memory.” In Ritual and Communication in the Graeco-Roman World, edited by Eftychia Stavrianopoulou, 211-238. Liège: Centre International d’Étude de la Religion Grecque Antique.

Chaniotis, Angelos. 2011. “Emotional Community through Ritual. Initiates, Citizens, and Pilgrims as Emotional Communities in the Greek World.” In Ritual Dynamics in the Ancient Mediterranean: Agency, Emotion, Gender, Reception, edited by Angelos Chaniotis, 264-290. Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag.

Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. 2001. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

van Nijf, Onno M. 2013. “Ceremonies, Athletics and the City: Some Remarks on the Social Imaginary of the Greek City of the Hellenistic Period.” In Shifting Social Imaginaries in the Hellenistic Period. Narrations, Practices, and Images, edited by Eftychia Stavrianopoulou, 311-338. Leiden: Brill.

Ober, Josiah. 2008. Democracy and Knowledge. Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Williamson, Christina G. 2013. “As God is my Witness. Civic Oaths in Ritual Space as a Means towards Rational Cooperation in the Hellenistic Polis.” In Cults, Creeds and Identities in the Greek City after the Classical Age, edited by Richard Alston, Onno M. van Nijf and Christina G. Williamson, 119-174. Leuven: Peeters.