City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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état de siege: public space user manual (2 of 3)

The use of such a hygienic discourse by the state officials in question is far from coincidental. Utilising the legacy of at times popular theories of degeneration [1] and relying upon the promotion of a stricter dogma of security –– in face of the risk of social deregulation caused by the economic crisis [2] –– they attempt to rejuvenate the mechanisms of national meaning-assignment on the basis of an abstract public security threat while they utilise, at the same time, the concrete characteristics and dynamics of familiar, stereotypical approaches. The historical importance of the hygienic discourse is, after all, unquestionable: both for the purpose of self-cognition and representation of the “inseparable and healthy” national body and for the legitimisation of policies of control and technologies of security [3]. It is in this cognitive environment that one ought to seek some basic interpretations of the explosion of the racist phenomenon, which has been observed on a national level, primarily during 2012. The hygienic metaphors and the introduction of nosology in the sphere of the production of politics comprise the penultimate field for the legalisation of violence, as Susan Sontag explains in the context of the military metaphors of cancer [4] –– regardless of whether the axis for the articulation of such violence is developed vertically (see: the state) or horizontally (see: the society). They have the unique capacity to act parallel, at two different levels: first at the physical-material level, which is where the illness appears and inhabits, where one can observe its materialities and its transmissibilities, and where the material results of the historically tried and tested techniques of exclusion and control are inscribed. Second, and at the same time, at a symbolic-political level –– at the heart of which one can rightfully introduce its weighty “truth”; utilising the unquestionable evidence that the clinical perception of the illness carries with it and assigning essentialist content to the forms of politics, therefore articulating them through the well-known catastrophic syntax of emergency.

The legitimisation in question and the collectivisation of racist violence, which was up until that point expressed primarily through the endless institutional and molecular practices of exploitation and exclusion of the Other –– yet largely individualised, “guilt-ridden” and implicit, is just one of the outcomes of the martial hue that the managers of public opinion chose to assign to that pre-electoral race. The conditions were therefore ripe for this very particular coming out –– and a large part of the Greek population crouched together toward a single target: to devalue further even the already devalued lives of migrants, assigning them responsibilities and dimensions of a crisis that was endangering their own, previously more or less prosperous everyday –– and declaring a literal war against them [5]. Such a crouching together, however, appears to comprise a mere sub-product of this martial management. This is because the actual field formed by this meticulous and systematic production of the aforementioned meanings is located within the operations through which the state attempts to impose its new dogma concerning public order. In this, the operation coded “Xenios Zeus” comprises its apogee and perhaps even the largest operation in the history of Greek police [6].

“The country is vanishing. Since the Dorian Invasion, 4.000 years ago, the country has never again faced an invasion of such magnitude [...] This is a bomb in the foundations of society and the state” [7]. This is the, not at all random, statement chosen by the current Minister of Citizen Protection, Nikos Dendias, to announce the commencing of the operation in question –– attempting to assign a historical dimension to his reading of the present condition (unfortunately so, but this shall not be analysed further [8]) in order to give prestige to his choices and to legalise the operation itself through the use of evidently martial terms. The extreme tone characterising his statement allows for little doubt: “solving the migration issue is a challenge of a national scale. We stand one step before collapse. Should we not form a complete network of management of illegal migration, we will collapse”, stressed out the Minister in that press conference, adding: “we are faced with a complete alteration of society; the migration problem might very well be larger than the financial one, even”[9]. In this way, Dendias is handed the discourse constructions prior, adding yet another episode –– producing perhaps the most fertile discursive soil upon which an operation of this type appears almost self-evident.

This is an ideological victory for the state in what is a rather difficult conjuncture; a victory that allows it to channel the dynamics of the crisis in directions that will allow it to emerge  strengthened and galvanised at the end of this required and difficult “healing” route. Ironically, this ideological manoeuvring utilises, in some exceptional manner, the capacities of what Michel Foucault had termed problematization. According to the French philosopher,“[Problematization]...develops the conditions in which possible responses can be given; it defines the elements that will constitute what the different solutions will attempt to produce a response...” [10]. As he argues, this comprises the particular tool of thought [11]. If there is something at stake in this process, it therefore becomes clear, it is how physical characteristics, fields of action and behavioural sums enter the field of thought –– therefore acquiring meaning, giving birth to a new object of thought. What would at first seem to be a paradoxical inversion hereby takes place, wherein the construction of the object itself precedes, upon which solutions then ought to be proposed and tested. The martial cries in question were in this sense patiently (re)constructing such an object of thought already from early 2011. And the way in which it was constructed made violence, banning and exclusion appear self-evident in the end. In other words, the problem was constructed, step-by-step, along with its solution.

Along with the importance of problematization, there is another Foucauldian notion that can help us understand the methodological framework within which the new dogma of public security is constructed. Speaking specifically about the emergence of mechanisms of security during the second half of the 18th century, Foucault makes use of the term milieu, outlining in this way an environment –– etymologically speaking –– that comprises of natural and artificial elements, of a series of events and therefore of the possibility of such events, and within which causes and results circulate. According to Foucault, a key aim of the mechanisms of security in this fairly abstract schema is the management of this causal relationship, the ultimate aim being to control the phenomena that constitute the environment in question. What interests us here, therefore, is that the notion of milieu opens up, first and foremost, a field for intervention; as such, it ought to be reflected upon from the upstart. Foucault writes:

“Finally the milieu appears as a field of intervention in which…one tries to affect, precisely, a population. I mean a multiplicity of individuals who are and fundamentally and essentially only exist biologically bound to the materiality within which they live” [12]. Should we momentarily divert and extend the meaning of this vital interweaving away from the literal biological dimension as meant by Foucault, we could argue that the police operations in question, essentially operations-against-public-space, question the very social existence of migrants –– intervening precisely in the materiality through which the latter acquires its full meaning, that is, in public space. It is only in this way that we can wholly conceive the conditions of the undeclared curfew imposed by operation “Xenios Zeus” to undocumented migrants.

In ending this terminological intervention it is therefore worth keeping in mind that operations of this kind cannot be conceived separately from the delirious meaning processes that precede them –– and which have been only schematically adduced above. The more meticulous these processes, the more totalitarian and simultaneously legitimised will their material results be. The “Xenios Zeus” operation commenced on August 4th, 2012 (and continues to the present date), focusing on mass detentions and arrests of migrants –– particularly in parts of the centre of Athens –– and on the intensification of patrols along the border line that separates Greece from its neighbouring Turkey; patrols jointly conducted with units of FRONTEX [13]. Along the everyday, personal attacks and the sporadic pogroms breaking out in neighbourhoods with numerous migrant populations, the Xenios Zeus operation now comes to finalise the changes playing out today concerning the uses of public space, in the most explicit of ways: the curfew conditions essentially imposed to the migrant subject by these xenophobic policies by this point comprise a structural component in the production of new public space. 80.073 detentions of migrants, 4.538 arrests of individuals who did not meet the legal conditions for residence in the country, 528 house searches in dwellings of migrants in the presence of public attorneys –– these are only some of the results of this huge police operation in central neighbourhoods of Athens [14]. Essentially, this comprises a methodical operation of population displacement on the basis of racial criteria and with evident class characteristics.


by Christos Filippidis


[1]     See the chapter Thanatopolitics (The Cycle of Genos), in Esposito Roberto, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans. Campbell Timothy, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis-London 2008, pp. 110-145 and the chapter ‘Politics, or Giving Life to the Form of a People’ in Agamben, Homo Sacer, pp. 84-88 (back to text)

[2]     As Paul Gilroy argues in relation to the intersection of policies of public order, racist uses and conditions of crisis: “The rule of law and maintenance of public order have appeared in forms which involve a racist appeal to the ‘British Nation’ and have become integral to maintaining popular support for the government in crisis conditions”. see Gilroy Paul, The Myth of Black Criminality, in M. Eve and D. Musson (eds.), The Socialist Register, Vol.19, 1982, pp.47 (back to text)

[3]     See for example Bashford Alison, Global biopolitics and the history of world health, History of the human sciences, SAGE Publications, Vol.19, No.1, London 2006, and the introduction titled Lines of hygiene, boundaries of rule, in Bashford Alison, Imperial Hygiene: a Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health, Palgrave, London 2004, pp.1-13 (back to text)

[4]     Sontag Susan, Illness as Metaphor,  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1978, pp.84 (back to text)

[5]     See for example the report by the Human Rights Watch titled Hate on the Streets – Xenophobic Violence in Greece, concerning racist violence in Greece and available at (back to text)

[6]     There is already much that has been written about the irony in the naming of this operation. Xenios Zeus was the god of hospitality in ancient Greece –– and the choice of this particular naming can only be characterised as unfortunate and provocative. It is in the exact same context of terminological counterfeiting that the term hospitality centres is used to describe the concentration camps for refugees and undocumented migrants. (back to text)

[7]     Newspaper To Vima, Monday August 6th, 2012, (in Greek) (back to text)

[8]     See for example the article by Klearhos Tsaousidis Nikos Dendias’ Inhospitality and Cluelessness of History, Newspaper I Augi, August 9th, 2012 (in Greek) (back to text)

[10]    Foucault Michel, Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations: An Interview, with Michel Foucault, in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, Pantheon Books, New York 1984, pp.389 (back to text)

[11]    Ibid. (back to text)

[12]    Foucault Michel, Security, Territory, Population – Lectures at the College de France 1977-78, transl. Graham Burchell, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2007, pp.21 (back to text)

[13]    Regarding the outcomes of the intensified border controls, see the press release by the Greek police dated February 6th, 2013 –– concerning the assessment of the operation from the day of its commencing, available at (in Greek) (back to text)

[14]    See the press release by the Greek police dated February 15th, 2013 (back to text)




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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...