City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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The somnolent serenity of the passenger in the raging city

1. The utter violence of the unuttered.
What is it that I may find so difficult to articulate from my visits to the Athenian metro? What kind of untold force makes it so hard, at times, to even face up to the realities beneath? Life down there, after all—just like the life above, at the street level—goes on, at least on the face of it. Just like before, the train carriage finds itself acting as the same crucible containing and swirlingly transferring faces old, new, tired or exhilarated, asserted or puzzled. Just like before, the passenger will ever so often attempt to erect for herself a momentary curtain of anonymity in the middle of spaces public; a sideways gaze, an amassing of words barely reaching beyond the empty, the mundane; a self-inflicted passivity. But something is different—and this difference is, I think, as ground-breaking as inconspicuous it may at first appear to be. There is silence in the metro, words that make a presence through their absence. And if this was an absence that existed before, in the context of crisis it takes on an entirely unprecedented form: amidst the barrage of words, statements and discourses that have for so long attempted to grapple with the crisis, the most devastating of conditions have become those that remain unarticulated, unuttered.
    As an adjective, the utter is the absolute, the total, the complete; as a verb, it signifies the act of articulating, of emitting those sounds that will eventually put one’s thoughts into solid words. To utter is to mediate between our thought and our word, through language. Sharing a root [-ut] with out, the verb to utter (to extract one’s thoughts out of her body, her mouth) is therefore paralleled to the absolute: voice (this articulation of meaning through language) is paralleled, if not equated altogether, with meaning itself.

a. Public space and public realm
    In this sense, the silence of the metro carriage (a silence hereby understood, for the sake of argument, as the absence of words—and that alone) would signal a nothingness of meaning—if there is no word uttered, there is nothing to be reflected upon. In other words (better even: in no words): what might a social scientist be doing in spaces where people have stopped talking to one another, what could possibly remain for them to explore in this negative space, the space of the absence of words? This question, the question of communication between us (or, in the recent Athenian case, in the absence thereof) leads us straight into the question of the public, in its purest of forms. Public space is the space of plurality, the space where singularities convergence. For Arendt (1998) this plurality is twofold, on the one hand signaling equality and on the other hand distinction. We all belong to the same species, hence we are similar enough to understand one another. Even so, each of us remains unique, and it is only thanks to the plurality formed by this individual uniqueness that we can enjoy meaningful interaction between us—and it is Word, this uttering of our thoughts through language, that allows us to meaningfully communicate our action to one another. Action, then, entails speech. Yet this entailment in itself presupposes, by definition, a chronological sequence—and our only-too-often encountered confusion lies in that sequence is overridden: action is assumed to equate speech. In its negative, its opposite reading, this is an an assumption that, holding a thought without expressing is an action left incomplete, if even conducted at all. The action of thinking is utter, it reaches a completion only at that miraculous moment when it is articulated, right when and only (at) once it is uttered.

b. The miracle of crisis
    A “miracle” is far from a coincidental parallel drawn to the moment when speech is born, that moment of acting through uttering a thought. Think of Badiou’s Event, that fleeting moment of rupture when “truth” becomes discernible. This miracle-like “process from which something new emerges” (Bensaïd 2004), this conceptualisation of the shift in a predicament permeates, of course, much of the contemporary crisis discourse. The crisis is presented to be miracle-like—appearing out of nowhere, a moment of judgment (the twin Christian parallel is worth holding in mind) wherein the past is wiped out, superseded, annihilated under the force of the crisis-event. Even more important, perhaps, is the assumption that the ‘moment’ of  crisis will become past, as swiftly as it was thrust into the present: this is an understanding of history as a series of—for the largest part—disjointed chronological strips torn apart by miracle-events: inexplicable, unpredictable and unstoppable.

c. The actor and her fearsome stage
    How does life feel like in this history-burdened setting? How does it feel to move around, to act in a space boiling, from afar, from the seething force of the event, the future-to-be that lands into the present? How is one expected not to resist or react, but to merely go about their routine, having internalized as fact that they play a role, a second role in the historical Event unfolding not before, but right under them?
    In Peter Handke’s The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty, Joseph Bloch is an ex-goalkeeper, spending a whole long day, the day when he is fired from his subsequent job (as a construction worker) aimlessly wandering around the streets of his unnamed city. Bloch is not even sure if he was affirmatively laid off; the insinuation lied, he believed, in the distancing of his (former?) peers on the day that he showed up for work. The rest of the day comprises of an ever-increasing distancing of Bloch from his environ. At a split-second in-between his endless perambulations, he chokes a lover. We are told of this almost in passing, but Bloch has, nevertheless of course, killed a person. The killing is no culmination, it is not a special event; it is described with the passivity and the distance that permeates the rest of the book. Nothing more, nothing less. Page after page, the breakdown in communication between Handke’s character (more like: between Bloch and everyone else) is gradual, but assertive. Page after page, his intermittent conversations become even more so, then awkward, then futile. At a point, words are eliminated altogether, replaced by drawings and symbols...
    At the face of it, in terms of their coming together as a visual inlay, as a whole, Handke’s characters continue uninterrupted: they congregate, they interact, they drink, they eat, they have sex [one of them gets murdered], they if awkwardly still talk, they part ways: they faithfully, rigidly, blindly follow the soothingly familiar mundane circles of the everyday. Before they know it, they have extracted themselves from their own environ—present in body, absent in mind: “he was so far away from what happened around him that he himself no longer appeared in what he saw and heard. ‘Like aerial photographs’, he thought [...]”. Soon enough, Handke’s insinuation is clear. For Bloch, the attempt to pretend that life goes on, just like before, is the question of utmost importance—not only is he trying to push away his fall from grace, goalie to construction worker, famous athlete to laid off laborer: in the mundaneness of his bore-some repetitions, in the withdrawal of the articulation of any act, his negation of speech, he seems to hope, he might be able to hide his hideous act itself: “If he kept up his guard, it could go on like this, one thing after another”.
    If he kept up his guard, it could go on like this. Ever-more so, in the absence of any collective thread to catch those individuals falling from grace at our moment of crisis, this pretense, the “keeping up of the guard”, becomes the ultimate—and needless to say, futile—line of defense. In this hammering of the social entity, the social whole, the individual response can be no more than to pretend that it is not something actually happening; or better even, to somehow hope that hiding into this “keeping up of their guard” will at the very least ensure they will not be the ones picked in the crisis-moment, they they will survive it, more or less unscratched...


    Agamben, Giorgio (2006)[1982] Language and Death: The Place of Negativity. Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press

    Arendt, Hannah (1998)[1958] The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

     Bensaïd, Daniel (2004) “Alain Badiou and the Miracle of the Event”, in Hallward, P. (ed, 2004) Think Again, Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy, London/New York: Continuum

    Handke, Peter (2007)[1970] The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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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...