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, part 3

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 now become those that remain unarticulated, unuttered.


a. The (public) space between words

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 soon enough put one’s thoughts into words. To utter is then to mediate, through language, between our thought and our word. Sharing a root [-ut] with out, the verb to utter (to extract one’s thoughts out of her body, her mouth) is in this way paralleled to the absolute; voice (this articulation of meaning through language) is paralleled, if not altogether equated, with meaning itself.

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, of its ceasing) leads us directly into the matter of the public, in its purest of forms. In its most fundamental of definitions public space is the space of plurality, the space where singularities convergence. For Arendt (1958) this plurality is twofold—on the one hand signaling equality and on the other, distinction. We all belong to the same species hence we are similar enough to understand one another; and yet even so, each of us remains unique enough: it is only thanks to this individual uniqueness forming a plurality that we can enjoy meaningful interaction between us—and it is word, this uttering of our thought through language, that allows us to meaningfully communicate our action to one another, in return. Think, for a second, of the following, quite ironic image: a commuter in whichever western metropolis today, in early 2014, that would be reading Arendt’s The Human Condition, written over six decades ago. Scrolling  down a reading device, they would soon come across this passage:

“If men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood. Signs and sounds to communicate immediate, identical needs and wants would be enough” [1998 (1958): 174-175].

Now think the commuter right next to her reading the same passage. “If men were not distinct”. And the next one. And the next one. An entire carriage, a train, a whole underground network packed with commuters reading in (not reading out: remember, no voice is to be uttered here) the exact same, indistinguishable passage concerning the importance of distinction in forming the need for speech and for action. And think now of the simple enough fact that in terms of their action, what they actually do in urban space, contemporary urbanites are becoming less and less distinguishable from one another. To inhabit, to dwell, to pass through spaces in common does not in itself create the interaction necessary to make them public: to co-inhabit these spaces while at the same time confining ourselves to the standard, to the acceptable activity of minimum interaction kills off whatever trace of public, only to resurrect it in the form of representation; the public now becomes a spectacular parody of its own self.

b. The miracle of speech

But when, exactly, is this “now”? When do we reach, let alone surpass this magical threshold moment that divides, say, the existence of a ‘real’ public space from its subsequent, cheapskate ‘replica’, its spectacular representation? The question, to be sure, long exceeds the ontological qualms any metro carriage can possibly carry along with it. Take first the example of the act of thought and its uttering, as above. This action does of course entail speech. Yet this entailment in itself presupposes a chronological sequence. First we think, then we express this thought. An only-too-often encountered confusion lies in that very tendency to override and suppress chronological sequence: action is in this way wrongly assumed to equate speech. In its negative, opposite reading, this leads us to the assumption that holding a thought without expressing it is an action left incomplete— if even conducted at all. The action of thinking is utter, it reaches a completion only at that precise miraculous moment when it is articulated, right when and only (at) once it is uttered.

It is by no means a coincidence that ‘uttering’ something has colloquially come to signify not just any articulation of meaning through words, but that very specific, crucial moment when we begin this very articulation: “he hardly had any time to utter a word”, we will say, referring to that split-second moment between the realization that we are faced with an imminent, catastrophic event, and its occurrence. A moment stripped of any continuity, any endurance, any length. A moment that lands into our existence as abruptly and suddenly as it departs, leaving no time to comprehend, let alone explain it. As with all things unexplainable, anything lying beyond reason, a religious metaphor comes in handy to safely wrap the unexplainable inside the ‘holy’, that which is best left alone: enter the world of the miracle. Drawing a parallel between the moment when speech is born, that moment of acting through uttering a thought, and a “miracle”, is far from a coincidental choice.

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 into 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, once again) wherein the past is wiped out, superseded, annihilated under the sheer force of the crisis-event. Even more important, perhaps, is the assumption that the ‘moment’ of crisis will become past; that another moment will come that will eradicate the crisis as swiftly as this had thrust itself into the present. This understanding of history is one of a series of—for the largest part—disjointed chronological strips torn apart by miracle-events: inexplicable, unpredictable and unstoppable.

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?

c. The actor and her fearsome stage

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, or not?) peers on the day that he showed up for work. The remainder of his 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. Of this murder, we are told of almost in passing; nevertheless of course, Bloch has 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 novel: nothing more, nothing less. Both before and after the killing, page after page, the breakdown in communication between Bloch and everyone else is gradual but assertive. Page after page, Bloch’s 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—even 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 becomes lucidly clear. For Bloch, the attempt to pretend that life goes on, just like it did before, is an aim 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.  He seems to hope that he might be able to hide his hideous act in the mundaneness of his bore-some repetitions, in the withdrawal of the articulation of any act, in his negation of speech: “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.

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), he ignores it: 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), 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 an 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 trusts 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. In this meanwhile, this toward moment, stands a formidable quality, even if — and precisely because — it is unuttered. It is this very quality that is never said, the event that does not happen, that epitomizes the sheer violence the seemingly tranquil commuter is faced with in Athens today: this utter violence of the unuttered._


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...