City at a Time of Crisis

 

 

Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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23
Mar2013

Metronome – part 2 of 3

Tick.  “I never thought it would come to this. But I probably have to go, I have to get out of this place. And soon, you know it, so will you”.

Tock.  The middle-aged man has one of the most shy but frenzied gazes that I have seen in a long while. The combination is a peculiar one, and it gets me thinking. In the metro, in the bus or in the tram, our utmost struggle is to rest our gaze somewhere; better even, to allow it a private thoroughfare, a trajectory to reach beyond the point where we stand. In a space of intense togetherness, every single other sense of ours is exposed naked: we may overhear conversations, we may smell and we may touch our fellow passengers. Taste aside, the only sense acting as line of defence against this cramped and forced conviviality is sight.

The old man’s gaze appears to be lost and yet it may be anything but. The swivelling movement of his eyes, an ever-constant attempt to negotiate momentary grace. As our gaze extends away from our bodies toward the closest visible obstacle (whether in the way of a fellow passenger or merely an intermediate surface) “resting” it somewhere may very well be an attempt to claim back some of the privacy that has been taken away from us: the frenzied moving around of the old man’s eyes brings to mind nothing less of a motionless duck-and-cover. Take the words of John Berger: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (1972)... and yet here, in the Athenian Metro, the gendered oppression lines up next to the oppression of a forced conviviality; a fast and furious coming-together-apart at the exact moment when the city comes apart altogether. Over the ground lies a society reduced to a spectator of its own destruction –– and what a perplexing spectacle its underground reflection makes for. Here, Athenians do not watch their city being destroyed, they watch themselves being looked at. To place our gaze outside the trajectory of one another becomes a near-instant attempt to reflect away from and to compensate for our overground inertia.

Tick.  I never thought it would come to this. I never thought that I myself would be here, overhearing this young couple (are they twenty-early-something? At most). Day in, day out at the Metro it is difficult to avoid all the clichés in my notes about a society that is at war with itself, about the people that I encounter here that are traumatised almost as much, it feels, as being caught in a physical war. I encounter people who had simply not expected to be in this position, ever, in their lives. I never thought it would come to this. And, as tremendously devastating as it may be, an actual, physical war at the very least carries with it some tangible warning signs: there may be some precursory acts –– and even if not, the sheer force of physical destruction would at the very least allow everyone a concrete realisation of where they now stand, of what they have been caught into. But here? What happens to a city engulfed into the metaphysical transcendence of the crisis? The combination of abstract cause and absolutely concrete effect is mesmerising; nothing short of a catastrophe, similar only to the vast humanitarian disasters left behind by the likes of hurricanes and earthquakes, the crisis is nevertheless never fully (not even partially, almost) explained, rationalised; it just is. Austerity –– supposedly coming in response to this very crisis –– has emerged as the new carte blanche, Andy Merrifield tells us: “a veritable 9/11 in Europe: a watchword, in other words, for neoliberal governments to quieten any dissenting voice” (2013). An invisible threat that rams through our lives, coming from seemingly nowhere and therefore, potentially, anywhere: an invisible threat that sends our gaze into a restless search for a cause.

 

“I believe in reflection, not reflex”. (Paul Virilio, 2005)

 

Tock.  Perhaps, more than any else, the word that epitomises our present condition is soon. The same soon that the young man worded to his lover, a definition of when she, too, would follow his swifter-than-ever-expected migration. Soon. Somehow, now, the ever-restless eyes of the old man makes sense. In the metro carriage swivelling along the tracks, just like in a society caught into the turbulence of the crisis, there is next to no time to reflect. A primordial reflex, perhaps one of the most so, replaces reflection in the form of taking the gaze away from where danger may potentially lie: anywhere. A jump to exit, even if by sight alone, the ever-faster moving scene that surrounds us.

 

REFERENCES

Berger, John (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books.

Dufresne, David (2005) Cyberesistance Fighter - An Interview with Paul Virilio. Après-Coup, available online at http://www.apres-coup.org/mt/archives/title/2005/01/cyberesistance.html (last accessed 22.03.2013).

Merrifield, Andy (2013) Urban Jacobinism? Cities@Manchester, available online at http://citiesmcr.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/urban-jacobinism/ (last accessed 22.03.2013).

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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...