City at a Time of Crisis

 

 

Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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06
Jan2014

The somnolent tranquility of the passenger in the raging city, part 2

d. The Event and (its) Language.

 

“Thought is the suspension of the voice in language”

(Agamben 2006: 107)

 

In the opening words of Language and Death, Giorgio Agamben quotes Martin Heidegger in what he had in turn considered to be the vital human quality: for Heidegger, mortals “sind jene, die den Tod als Tod erfahren koennen”; mortals are those who can experience death as death. Animals, Heidegger claims, can neither experience death nor can they speak—an apparent distinguishing characteristic that Agamben takes on during his book’s remainder. This elevation and equation of the understanding of death on the one hand, and of the ability to communicate this same understanding on the other may of course conceal a major fallacy: the fallacy of equating an inborn condition with its eliciting through its verbal articulation. A fallacy, in other words, of equating what was a previously unarticulated cause with its subsequently articulated effect.

How may our conceptualisation of something as ostensibly distant as death can ever be linked to something as close to our everyday as language, or to the ways that we interact through it? To conceptualise death means to conceptualise the ultimate, it means to comprehend the moment from which there is no return—that very moment of leaping from something into nothing. The uttering of language represents, in its event-like reading, a reverse process: it represents that split-second elevation of being from nothing into something.

The beauty in Handke’s writing lies in his ability to overcome this something/nothing dichotomy. In fiction, just like in life, two foundational possibilities exist which are mutually exclusive while simultaneously excluding any third possibility when combined. Possibility (A) is that something will happen. Possibility (B) is that nothing will happen. Handke circumvents the need for his narrative to fall under either option (A) or (B). What does/not happen is not what is at stake. As Joseph Bloch wanders around the unnamed city that Handke has built around him, entering and exiting spaces interior (houses, hotel rooms, cinemas and the like), drifting into and out of streets, things do constantly happen—but in essence, nothing does. What could have been major events defining the narrative become mere parentheses, backdrops. There is no head-turner throughout the novel. Quite the opposite. Bloch used to be famous, a well-known football goalkeeper. He is now firmly in the time of his fall from grace, introduced to us as a construction worker at the precise moment, even, when he loses that job. A glorious past, an indifferent and slumping present. He is Bloch by name and block by the state that he is in—waiting while knowing there isn’t really anything to wait for. Athens would have been an ideal host city for Bloch. At the exact same time when everything changes, this storm of activity is masked under the banal, concealed within the action-less everyday.

In the absence of action, nothing happens. In the absence of language, nothing is said. As the city slumps into its time of austerity, its dwellers become ever-so more unnerved: it is as if bodies strive to imitate, in their docility, the uneventfulness of the place in which they reside. A serenity of inaction carrying the scent of fear and resignation.

I ask myself, once again: what makes it so hard to come to peace with this ostensible serenity of the dweller, of the commuter, of the passenger? What, after all, can be so disconcerting in the mundane small-talk, what kind of feelings may the long silences really conceal or instill?

The politics of austerity have pushed for, and eventually succeeded in bringing about the breakdown of a social bond. They have pushed for for the sweeping atomization of the individual. Right at this moment, a full four years into the process, each stands not with, but against all; every single entity is faced up against the whole. And nowhere may this be more evident than in this space of forced conviviality, the metro. Here in the metro carriage, day in, day out, the expectancy for the unexpected to occur gives way to the certainty that nothing will happen: perhaps better even, that no matter what happens, no matter how gruesome or shocking, nothing will be forceful enough to disturb the passenger’s somnolent tranquility. And even: action in extremis can and will only force more inaction. Within a state of exception (this abnormal state, this escape from normality where everything morphs into an exception), what was previously normal becomes an exception in return—a new state of normality that is anything but. What to do, how to act within this new environment? A gruesome dilemma. To remain inactive in face of devastating change means to render oneself docile—irrelevant, if not complacent. But to act, to try break out and away from the generalised exception can only stand as an exception in itself—an exception within the exception that confirms the rule; a double negation that logically equals its very own elimination.

In the final lines of the novel, Bloch watches a amateur division football game from its sidelines, a mere spectator to the spectacle of which he was previously a protagonist. As he watches he is joined, or perhaps he joins another spectator. Suddenly, a penalty kick is awarded to one of the two teams. A decisive moment, potentially interrupting and capable of determining the entire time-flow of the football game. How Bloch and his co-spectator have found each other, or who this second character actually is are both equally and entirely unimportant. What matters (and here’s a spoiler warning...) is the line of reasoning Bloch puts across to his fellow spectator at the sight of the penalty kick. He unveils all the mental dilemmas, the internal dialogue that he believes to occur in the goalkeeper’s mind at [beim] the penalty kick. The essence of this dilemma lies at this single world: beim. Most often translated into the English language as at, bei/m originally shares a root with by—both in their essence describing chronological as much as spatial proximity. This agony at is an agony the novel grapples throughout and faces at its culmination—an agony lasting a split-second moment, to be sure; an agony encapsulated in this near-magical elevation, the condensation and the amalgamation of time into distance. What gives Heindke’s character the shivers is the elfmeter, the word describing both the act of executing a penalty kick but also the distance—eleven meters—between the spot of the execution spot and the goalkeeper. It is in this sense that the elfmeter is time articulated through distance, it is the distance between the person (the goalkeeper) and the football (the kick spot) which denotes the moment for the act itself (the penalty kick).

Through the novel, Bloch expresses his agony over inaction; even committing the most gruesome of murders cannot help him escape the sense that nothing truly happens. No matter what he does, there will be no event. Anything that actually happens is swiftly relegated to a mere description, a sole linguistic articulation, the uttering of something into nothing. Anything that he says, vanishes.

And so, what Bloch expresses is the agony for the untold, for the unuttered: voice is if not the prime means of human interaction, our so-called natural way of communicating with one another. Its suspension leaves us with anxiety over what is supposed to be there, but is not. The moment when we utter language, just like the moment when we have to make a decision, lies at the very end of our thought predicament. The decision itself may not even involve action: a goalkeeper faced with a penalty kick can be equally effective when choosing to stay put, or move in either direction—it is the whole process building up to the decision that comes to determine the result. For Bloch, for the goalkeeper he now watches, as for the striker opposite him, the penalty’s outcome is all but entirely decided upon even just before the ball is touched, before it gets fired toward the goal posts. It is decided upon the prior knowledge of each others’ style and habits, the outcome is down to the twitching of a muscle, the jiggle of a hand, the nervous positioning of a limb revealing intention to move in either direction.

To believe that a decision is made in a moment, to understand history through its articulation through an event, to understand language entirely and exclusively through the uttering of words is a fallacy—an abrupt simplification stripping one and all of the element of process, the state prior to the state of being: the state of verging toward...

 

 

 

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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...