Thinking through the Math

IMG_4187 My grandmother would always tell me never to leave change, or any money, where the bread was put. I might have put some change on the table where we ate.

Two of my colleagues were fired today. They were told, as I was told, that this wasn’t the administration’s choice but that there was no choice. This is the kind of doublespeak that’s become part of austerity’s rhetoric. Cutting down on the payroll to get lenders to lend us funds to save a body makes no sense when the method cannibalizes that body. Tsipras is saying all this to the euro group who are getting tired of the Greek tragedy. The lenders, institutions that they are, are thinking of their own meals.

I told myself I would stop blogging about Greece. At least stop writing directly about it, my imagination is in danger of being cannibalized by the austerity of repetitions — teetering, falling, slipping — the gifted ae tells her workshop to try to keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum, maybe there is too much passivity in adjectives & adverbs when work needs to be done.

The treacherous ride we’re on means we find ourselves holding our breath more often than not. Holding your breath, or forgetting to breathe, is an act of violence the yoga teacher tells us. Gandhi brought down an empire by wearing a loincloth and breathing.

Like the discussions in the euro group it’s a question of what bodies are considered important enough to be saved. You might end up sacrificing the wrong body, or cutting into a column that will bring down the building.

There was an almost-agreement (there have been several of those since the Eurozone meetings in Latvia and Brussels); the VAT tax was going to come down to 7% on medicine and books. But while tentatively agreeing to this the euro group turned around and wanted a 23% tax on electricity.

Stoves, refrigerators, heaters, washing machines will eat up the quality of life: don’t wash your clothes too often so you can afford to buy medicine. Keep cooking to a minimum. No one uses dryers anyway.

One of my colleagues will not get compensation because we were asked to sign on to freelance contracts though we have full time responsibilities. She was asked to sign a monthly contract since it’s the end of the teaching period. She also pays rent and has no money saved.

Standards of living are relative to what people are used to. China burns coal and considers itself an emerging market, economically growing but the first world is concerned about the pollution. The first world keeps borrowing from China so that its most privileged members can maintain a lifestyle that makes me think of Catherine the Great’s all-amber rooms and the small palace built for her shoes. It would be interesting to know what would change in people if some of the first world’s baroque indulgences were harder to come by; if the women in Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue were suddenly unable to fund their excesses.

I watch a couple pile up the planters someone in the building has put out on the road. Then I see a Pakistani guy pull up in a three-wheeler and look for metal in the recycling bin.

I’m at the gas station with 20 euros, which is usually what I give for half a tank, but I say “10 euros” and apologize. The woman at the pump who I know as Natasha, says “10, then 10”; “If it’s 5, then 5 – whatever you can give is what you give.” She dismisses my apology.

When Venizelos was the finance minister he took money from the health sector and education to pay the PSI, which was the bond swap that allowed for the second bailout package installment. We have been waiting for a loan tranche that has been withheld because agreements haven’t been reached yet; see John Psaropoulos’ update.

One consequence of all that’s happening is that priorities have been unmasked. When Yanis Yaroufakis brings up the fact of Greece’s humanitarian crisis, a euro zone minister notes that there are countries poorer than Greece, economies that emerged from the Soviet bloc are still struggling; the comparison is really not worth my going into it. I’ve already broken my promise about blogging.

The other disagreements on #s beyond the VAT have to do with pensions & minimum wage; already low pensions of 488 euros would be reduced to 200 euros. In terms of the math again, how does a person pay a 23% VAT tax on electricity with 200 euros a month?

This is all beside the point. For the euro zone it’s about balancing the #s, but it’s more skewed, they don’t want to forgive any of the debt — which is fine, but they don’t want, either, to make it possible for the economy to rebuild itself so it might grow out of the “austerity-for-aide” ditch. It’s more like “infinite servitude-for-food” but people are still starving.

I was never good at math, maybe because there was nothing particularly interesting to me in numbers in and of themselves. #s are cold & factually objective though they have their contexts too. On plasma TVs in different metro stops – the Patissia metro station, the Monasteraki station – there are black & white images of the German occupation, there are #s too. Zoe Konstantopoulou heads the debt truth committee but also the committee investigating the German war reparations controversy.

They’ve come up with the staggering figure of 350 billion owed in reparations. Many think this belongs to the past. The contexts are certainly different. As the country sinks into further despair because of these impossible choices, i.e. “austerity-for-aide” vs “infinite servitude-for-food,” people are still starving.

We could do with less “punitive” drives. 300 million euros was due last Friday to the IMF and Greece skipped the payment. Not because they won’t, or don’t want to, pay, but they are simply doing exactly what was done on the part of the euro zone who (still) have not given the debt relief installment that was due in early June; they’re still hoping to negotiate the terms.

Unlike George Papandreou who buckled under the pressure to come to a decision with the IMF in April 2010 — told he had to make the decision before the Japanese markets opened, and had 10 minutes left to decide — this government is refusing to buckle.

It’s a Saturday night and I get together with a handful of friends from the neighborhood. I call them the Saturday night anarchists. We eat and drink too much but we also talk a lot. Sometimes the conversation goes on into the next morning. Lefki says “No one can do the math anymore. It’s just too much. All of it.” Kostas is not happy with Syriza’s defiant stand. Lefki says that the govt is going through the infamous Lagarde list of names, & giving them ultimatums to pay up on their taxes. One “wife of a former prime minister” owed 400 thousand euros in taxes. Lefki says, “I guess some people never get tired of eating.”

The math doesn’t add up because it’s not meant to. Monsanto sells seeds to villages in India so they will become dependent on GM seeds, and Monsanto, who will make a profit by selling them. It is a rape of what is indigenous. The same is true of Nestlé’s bottling fresh water in places where it is (or was) free to drink; but according to Nestlé’s CEO water isn’t a human right but a commodity.

Some of the things that move me in Athens are very small moments. In the midst of so much visible pain these are reminders that we are not commodities. I had to have a foot X-ray & went early to a clinic, paid 10 euros and was told to come back in the evening for the results. An hour or so later a call from the clinic asked if I was close enough to come back because the doctor wanted a second X-ray to properly diagnose what was wrong, I was quickly told it wouldn’t cost me anything; he just wanted a second look to make sure of the diagnosis.

My grandmother never wanted us to leave money where she put bread because what fed us was very different from the cost of managing it, costs being by definition vulgar, the baser value to nurture. Math is not about generosity. Sometimes it’s convenient to ignore the context.

If Germany wasn’t shown some generosity in 1946, if it had only been about the math they may never have achieved the kind of economic recovery they did.

Varoufakis points out: “By 1946, the Allies had reduced Germany’s steel output to 75% of its pre-war level. Car production plummeted to around 10% of pre-war output. By the end of the decade, 706 industrial plants were destroyed. Byrnes’ speech signaled to the German people a reversal of that punitive de-industrialization drive. Of course, Germany owes its post-war recovery and wealth to its people and their hard work, innovation, and devotion to a united, democratic Europe. But Germans could not have staged their magnificent post-war renaissance without the support signified by the ‘Speech of Hope.'”

I’m doing some translations of Kiki Dimoula’s poems, and a prose piece of the poet Katerina Iliopoulou’s; here are some lines Katerina has after the verb “Meet” in a piece called “Collect”:

“If you cannot construct it, you cannot devise it, in some way, somehow, you cannot enter it. Of course the procedure goes both ways.

The place also constructs you and gives you its characteristics. The meeting highlights the possibilities of my being here, or of becoming something else.”

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& the blossoms?

“Surely spring has been returned to me, this time not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.”     Louise Glück IMG_4390IMG_3909 It’s been a bleak winter, not without its splashes of light. The spring’s longer days feel a little like unexpected coins in a mud puddle. Wishful thinking. In Athens the scent of lemon and orange blossoms perfumes the air, and sometimes so powerfully that I find myself pausing to take deep breaths. A radio channel aired George Papandreou’s voice two days ago, the fifth anniversary of the signing of the IMF agreement. He promised all the good things this was going to do for Greece: recovery and economic possibilities. Instead it’s been a pretty steady downhill slide in terms of recovery though there have been some signs of life. There are always signs of life. Like the scent of blossoms from the trees, but what’s unclear is how any this is going to begin the steady if gradual building toward a more hopeful future. From a layperson’s point of view, it seems like all the wrong turns were taken at the wrong times. What the Syriza government is doing, calling the bluff so to speak on the policies of austerity — the slashing of already dwindled pensions, hiked taxes on property, among other cuts/increases – should have been negotiated from the beginning. Personally, the G. Papandreou govt., and the K. Karamalis govt. before him really took the responsibility (or didn’t) for how we reached this low point. G.P., for example had ministers who have admitted to not having read the IMF documents before signing them. Anyway, it’s water under the bridge, and the bridge is about to be pulled under in the tide. Now the Tsipras government was elected because the previous governments 1) did nothing to bring culpability to the individuals or groups who siphoned off EU loans for personal &/or self-interested purposes bringing the country to its debt-gutted present 2) took the country further down the path of zero-growth since none of the stimulus packages stimulated what they were supposed to. I don’t think the Tsipras government is managing very well either because 1) the discourse being used is at odds with other Eurozone members who are stolid neoliberals holding on, tooth & nail, to the neoliberal dream, even if it’s a nightmare for some, and 2) they suffer from age-old hubris – I mean no matter how righteous the cause, why would people with power and all the reins in their hands simply hand over a rein or two to newly elected politicians who keep telling them that everything they’ve done, historically and otherwise, is wrong. I was talking to a friend and she said, “If someone was negotiating with a party of a completely different ideology would you waste your time telling them they weren’t being democratic if that wasn’t a priority to begin with.” There are at least two kinds of languages, let alone ideologies, that this government has to navigate, a kind of Eurozone-speak that emphasizes unity, and the Greece-can’t-take-anymore-austerity view. For the Eurozone these are mutually exclusive discourses, or so it seems. Within the government itself there are, crudely, three groups, hardcore Stalinists who hark back to the hauntings of a post Civil War period, old PASOK members who want the old unions and are worried about being implicated in EU loan dealings, and center-left Europeanists who want reform, and growth, but not at any cost. The radical left-wingers want out of the IMF/Troika no matter the cost, the majority though, including Tsipras, want to stay in the Eurozone with its currency, but are unwilling to continue in the “business-as-usual” manner of the previous governments. The ironies are many. One of the critical outcomes of a globalized economy has been how capital gain is prioritized over the sovereignty of nation states. The Greek crisis has dramatized the near-impossibility of equal consideration for all parties involved in the EU federation, despite the rhetoric that suggests otherwise. The question that this impasse has foregrounded is whether that will lead to a further leveling of democratic processes and their implied assumption that we keep ourselves in dialogue with our differences for the good of all. While Mr. Dijsselbloem, as chair of the Eurogroup now in session in Riga says to Mr. Varoufakis, “Yanis, you don’t tell us what we want to hear.” Maybe more should be said about what needs to be heard all around so our bridges don’t go entirely under. Recent articles of note: Mark Weisbrot, “European officials may be pushing regime change in Greece”  Nikos Konstandaras, “Greece’s Eerie Calm”  Paul Krugman, “Greece on the Brink” Robin Emmott and Ingrid Melander, “Isolated in debt talks…”

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“We are born with the sensibility of a given period of civilization. And that counts for more than all we can learn about a period.”                                                                               Henri Matisse

Korina Gougouli

Korina Gougouli

It’s generally not a good idea to write out of anger. But Wolfgang Schäuble probably doesn’t deserve any subtle allusions. As my dear friend Christina says he is someone who insults our aesthetics. While the German press seems to think we are not particularly delicate in our references to Mr. Schäuble and his government, perhaps, for once, they might consider their own faux pas. Tonight there is an airing of a satire in Germany, it was referred to on the Greek news tonight (check out zdf_neo) for a show. One interesting reaction is that half the media says it satirizes the Germans, and the other half says it’s really savaging the Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, I think that means it’s speaking to the moment.

Meanwhile back at home, we found out that Mr. Venizelos and all his entourage bought some very expensive cars during the crisis and no receipts have been found for these purchases  which, after Syriza’s election, were estimated at 750 thousand euros, that was the price for Venizelos’ (the previous finance minister) security car, and this at the time that Venizelos and his group were telling us about the importance of getting receipts to fight the black market and show loyalty to the Greek state. What to say, we are used to these kinds of stories as we live in the land of Polyphemos, the Cyclops who tried to sink Odysseus’ escaping ship. This makes it all the more refreshing that Yanis Varoufakis gets around on a motorcycle.

Nevertheless, it isn’t particularly amusing to be told by Mr. Schäuble that we aren’t keeping our word when the newly elected government lets him and the Eurogroup know that we are not willing to live the inglorious death by debt that the previous Samaras government to say nothing of the Papandreou government were more than willing to finance. Something that didn’t go that badly for the German economy. 

The austerity measures have been about saving the banks and not the Greek state. Slavoj Žižek says it best. Talking to Christina tonight who was reading me Žižek’s piece, we were saying what really irks Mr. Schäuble and Ms. Merkel is the fact that Alexis Tsipras’s government and Yanis Varoufakis as his finance minister, is refusing the play the victim-game. What George Papandreou and Mr. Samaras had in common (besides the rumor that they were roommates in college with its suggestion of Absalom Absalom!), was their willingness to plead helpless and needy. You can’t make up these scenarios — Mr. P falling against Ms. M’s bossom in footage taken from 2010 as he spoke of his country’s corruption (hey, you want to say, you’re the PM.. why are you running to Germany to solve your internal problems? Clean your own dirty laundry.), and Mr. S blogging after he lost the election to Syriza that the Greeks should listen to Ms. M if they really cared for their country.

Since Mr. Schäuble is so determined to teach a lesson, let me say that what really riled him was was that Yanis Varoufakis brought up the touchy subject of Michalis Christoforakos and his role as the CEO of Simens Hellas.

A huge chunk of money was involved. Since money is the subject of discussion as is tax evasion and corruption. Because Christoforakos had German citizenship as well as Greek, he dodged the Greek authorities when he was called to court. The German authorities decided not to hand him over to be tried in Greek courts for the Simens scandal. Apparently this was one of the reasons the conversation went south. Maybe it didn’t help that Varoufakis was not wearing a tie. In general, the feeling seems to be one of relief that someone is actually talking directly to the issue at hand, which is that this debt is not sustainable and never was.

Mr. Papandreou (who signed on the Troika) and Mr. Samaras (who out-troikaed the Troika) were not willing to address the root of the economic crisis, which was the fact that the country was run by a select group who were themselves implicated in the tax evasion, corruption, and compromised roles of their positions of power. Maybe it is one of the reasons that Mr. Schäuble was upset by Varoufakis’ questioning of the fact that Mr. Christoforakos was never turned over to the Greek authorities. Speaking truth to power generally doesn’t go very well. Look at Edward Snowden, and what happened to him.

Alicia has a lovely piece in the TLS today about the general mood since the elections. Most of the conversations I hear on the streets, and on the metro are about money. Today was the last installment for last year’s EN.Φ.Ι.Α. taxes for property. There was also a solidarity tax and one other, whose name I forget. It has all been quite overwhelming. I was lucky enough to get a second job. Other people I know have had to sell what they had. And others didn’t have anything to sell, and some of those people are on the streets. Here’s what the Greek poet Kiki Dimoula has to say in her new collection, ΔΗΜΟΣΙΟΣ ΚΑΙΡΟΣ (PUBLIC TIMES) – her poem “ΔΡΑΚΟΝΤΕΙΑ ΜΕΤΡΑ” (DRACONDIAN MEASURES) suggests where the austerity measures have brought us, the translation is mine:

I have three mothers.

One lives in a dark truth

the other in a black and white photograph

and the third opposite me reflects

the imprisoned glassy

eye of my mirror.

Even if the mirror cracks

and the photograph is lost

still that one will remain

the one who lives in a dark truth.



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“Είμαστε όλοι ανάπηροι” (We are all cripples)

IMG_4171 Each day for the past week, and today too, I come across moments that speak of what this year has meant for so many. What make them “Greek.” That they are taking place during the holiday season in a city and country that has seen and continues to battle its economic ravage, that there is a tenor to the overlay of the poignant, heroic, and absurd that recalls the George Seferis poem “The Container of the Uncontainable” which in Greek is “H XΩΡΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΧΩΡΗΤΟΥ” – for some reason Keeley & Sherrard have translated “Xωρα” as “Container” — it is also Greek for “country”. The first line of the poem from the Keeley/Sherrard translation that kept resonating: “Bells like coins falling sound today all over the city/between each peal a new space opens/” The week before Christmas I’d gone to see The Depression Era exhibit in Gazi at the Benaki museum, and also Rosi Braidotti had come to give a lecture on the occasion of the Greek translation of her Nomadic Subjects. Both Braidotti’s talk and the Benaki exhibit were cartograhies of new spaces as much as they expressed the uncontainable aspects of people and their worlds within topographies of advanced capitalism. This next to a photo titled «Burnout» at the start of the exhibit: IMG_4148 These are statistics. What elides their chilling factuality? At the Athens Bakery next to work where I go to get lunch (the bakery now has economical cooked meals along with its breads and pasteries). There was chickpea soup for 4.80 euros that day. At the cashier I stare at a pastry of feta and tomatoes and consider getting this too; Alexandros who works at the bakery is at the register. «How much are these?» I say, and he puts it into the bag with my soup. «4.80» he says, and repeats when I ask again, since I realize he hasn’t added the feta and tomato pastry, «4.80» he says again. Athens, after 5 years, is still at the center of the Euro-crisis, though it is also very much its own space, as I am with others in line at the post office. People are tabulating the year’s gains and losses. Mostly people talk of ways the government could have made things better. I am waiting for my turn to send Christmas cards. There’s a lot going on in the streets, and there seems to be more grandparents pushing children in strollers than usual. More cars jumping the pavements to park where there is no parking space; the space in front of the post office is reserved for pick-ups and drop-offs. I see a woman get out of a car and remove the No-parking sign as a small blue car drives up. She speaks with an accent when someone asks what she’s doing. She is making room for a coiffed 70ish year old motioning us to move out of the way so she can park. I see the sticker on her windshield for the handicapped. The woman helping her is from Romania, and brings out her two crutches from the backseat. A heavyset woman gets on her two crutches rather gingerly and makes her way into the crowded post office as another car drives up right next to hers. The guy’s on his cell phone and barely looks the way of the grandmother pushing a stroller who is now yelling that he’s blocked the pavement completely. He backs up into the traffic, still on the cell, then drives back up on the pavement as another stroller is about to negotiate the pavement. At that point he rolls his eyes, still on the phone. I say, “not only are you parking where you aren’t allowed but you have an attitude.” Someone nods next to me, and continues the conversation with the man who is saying he too is handicapped. But he has no sticker on his car, and seems to move fluently into the crowded post office after he gets out of his car. The man who spoke to him says, “We’ll never learn. It’s why we’re in this situation.” A younger guy next to me says, “we’re all handicapped at this point.” The woman who had gone in on her two crutches, now comes out looking pleased to have accomplished her task. Meanwhile the post office director is outside and sees the cars have parked in the no parking space and grabs the battered sign with a look of complete frustration. “They’re handicapped,” someone calls out, and he shrugs as the Romanian woman motions to people to move so her charge can back out again. But as she gets into her car and gives her her crutches she says, “I had to send those 20 euros, my children need it.” The man next to me hears it too and shakes his head, “She can barely walk and here she is driving.” I take this as a euphemism for his admiration of her purposefulness. “Some women are petty dynamic,” he goes on and I smile. The time it takes to make the effort to help out, what can slow us down, somehow our humanity feels implicit in this. Like the body. Like the brokenness of our streets and sidewalks, the coming up short in our calculus of empathies. Near work an elderly and decently dressed man was yelling at the top of his lungs, “This is the country for the low life!” Drug addicts were shooting up on some benches. A woman yelled back, “Say it like it is father!” I don’t agree, I think what we see is the wound and woundings that have brought us to another place, and another way of understanding time. Time is not so much money as it is the exchange of what money can’t buy, cliché as that expression is. At the cash register yesterday a woman ahead of me didn’t have enough to pay for all her groceries. The overworked and clearly exhausted cashier started to subtract what she wasn’t going to pay for: a book, a shaker of salt, a box of cornflakes, two pairs of socks. The cashier was doing the math to see at what point she could stop subtracting as the young woman who was with her perhaps 10 or 12 year old son was counting out change. “I have some more in the car,” she said, and the woman at the register said, “It’s okay, 53 euros right?” “52.80 cents” she said, and the cashier took it, and wished her a happy new year. The Seferis poem is short: “Bells like coins falling sound today all over the city/between each peal a new space opens/like a drop of water on the earth: the moment has come, raise me up.//” IMG_4180

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To Fill Absence

“The more comfortable you feel in the world, the blunter the instruments with which you approach it. Because everything has become so evident, you’ve stopped seeing anything. Exile gives you a chance to break free.”

Costica Bradatan, “The Wisdom of Exile”



The spaces of dream and desire open and imbue what is not with what might be as we travel — I did a lot of traveling last month & sometimes the reality felt more dreamlike than real. Dimitra says we are increasingly “in between spaces” – our internet lives connecting us virtually (and not quite) with what might be understood as a third space – in that triton genos or third ‘genre’ of Plato’s ancient Timeaus, a contiguity of interfaces, we are receptacles shaped by what enters and reshapes. Never fixed, I was never exactly in one place, traveling and talking about the essays in Ruin. But unfixed one can also come undone. What I saw, where I was, could feel flattened into a kind of Baudrillardian simulacra of the real except for when I was with people I knew. The headlines as I passed newsstands or picked up a paper were as surreal as ever, yet in those train stations, airports, subways, they became signifiers of worlds never physically close enough to change anything. I kept moving on, past a prostrate Sierra Leone woman with her devastated expression “Reaching toward her Sister” who is dead, and Olivia Newton John, just below her image, who says “Live Happy.” My subject sense was abject in its porousness as I wept when a metro card machine wouldn’t take cash and I couldn’t remember the zip code of my parents’ address (asked by the machine to verify the address where my VISA had been issued). I was talking of ruin as a dialectic, not a fait accompli of past, or in H.D.’s words from her Trilogy

“there, as here, ruin opens

the tomb, the temple; enter”

Finding entrances in the torn is a way to read and understand being in the world. Ruin as fragment and remains is also ruin as temple. The poet and critic Susan Stewart notes “the inherent violence of all representation, which reifies or fixes its object,” from “The Ruins Lesson.” There were chilling realizations as I traveled through highly digitalized spaces controlled by zip codes, pin #s, passwords & paid time allotments, feeling like a statistical blip in ways that sanitized brokenness and erased connections to the human. In the name of efficiency and safety we couldn’t get out of a parking space because “you’re only given 10 minutes to leave.” We had used up the allotment after paying; we had opened the trunk to rummage for something. After paying for some envelopes in STAPLES I’m intrigued by the ream of paper that is my receipt telling me at the end of various subtractions and additions and online log-ins that I can get a $2 rebate; time is of the essence but time is lost in the minutiae of detached moments.

How we see as travelers and how we’re seen in those worlds that remove the personal (or can’t afford it in the way a surgeon might focus on the medical task at hand, a doctor trying to save lives, not any one particular life), made intimacy precious for its surprise. Besides the surveillanced efficiencies there was the clean chill of the Tacoma hills, the palpable heaviness of noise in NYC, the goodness of seeing friends, pieces of conversation from anonymous passengers … “That’s so cool,” I hear repeated by a woman siting next to someone on the flight to Seattle. I gather he is a musician, I hear him saying “… I’m a single guy… I never dreamed of going to Seattle.” I am suspicious (and perversely envious) of those who travel in complete self-possession. David and I speak of the existentialist nature of the traveler, the resonance of departures as one leaves the known for the open-ended place of the as yet to be named. The psychoanalyst-writer Adam Phillips says there are moments of identification that “collect” one – the gaze that recognizes and empathizes? the kinship in the ‘kin(d)ship’? Susan Stewart spoke of what can’t be ruined as we spoke of states of ruin, that it is in language itself, and poetry in particular. Ποíησις, “to make” in Greek, a verb before it became a noun, the essence of the transformative (and transgressive) quality of language.

Traveling brought on crisis. Again in Greek κρíσις (krisis), means judgment, that the word is used liberally to speak of “the Greek crisis” is ironic based on its etymology – a noun for critical understanding and perception. In one of the talks on my trip a Greek sociologist discussed her shock at coming across the term, “disambiguation” a word apparently used regularly in EU documents. “You might as well get rid of language,” she said. Disambiguity is what one might yearn for in the uncertainties of travel, in moments of krisis, when borders unsettle and the given is given up, probably as true for hedge funders and Wall Street loan sharks as for someone madly in love. Poetry finds its own tongue.




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Slowing Down Time: Tino Sehgal’s exhibit in Athens

“… a qualified life, a particular way of life… Aristotle can certainly speak of a zoē aristē kai aidios, a more noble and eternal life (Metaphysics, 1072b, 28), but only insofar as he means to underline the significant truth that even God is a living being…”                                                                              Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer


Tino Sehgal does not take airplanes apparently; he is ecologically aware, and more than sensitive about preserving the environment among other things; he is also keen on the possibilities of people falling in love during his pieces. Love like traveling on cargo ships will give life another perspective. Slow it down long enough to keep in the space of the beloved, the space of his or her scent for example. And like a beloved’s touch and conversation, such moments could change you and your own orientations to space and time. Sehgal’s “This Progress” is taking place in the Roman Agora in Athens through October. Four generations will walk a visitor to the site on a path symbolic of that age group’s timeline, beginning with a child that asks the visitor entering the Agora if he or she would like to follow as he or she opens the conversation about what progress might mean. This is a piece that was also done in New York in 2010 at the Guggenheim. What’s different is that Tino, and Asad Raza (who set up and directed the piece in Athens), chose the open-air agora of antiquity for the work.

One of us wants to know what to do if a visitor gets impatient, what to say if we are asked about where or how to follow. Tino says these are the interesting moments, something is happening when the visitor is disoriented by how to act, suddenly left to his or her own intuition with a complete stranger; we are too often pre-scripted in our roles with each other. Asad adds at another point, that these “interjections” are opportunities for saying things we might not say to anyone else, to test the dialectic in which neither person is in a predefined interaction. He’s right, too, that there are increasingly fewer spaces in our 21st century world for the spontaneity of an exchange with a stranger that might startle us into fresh thinking.

I was in the third age group of adults, before the older adult finished the walk with the visitor, and our role was to interrupt the conversation the visitor was having with the teenager; some out-of-the-blue kind of statement had to have some relation to the overheard conversation (but w/out referring to any of the key words…); – what was I going to say to the overheard word “… water”; or “… difficulty traveling”; I said, “I find my personality changes depending on the language I’m speaking.” The visitor happened to be a British schoolteacher now working in Egypt. She said she felt so much more “flirty” when she spoke in French.

I had to pick up a box of books from Greek customs a week or so ago and had been shocked by the amount I was supposed to pay; the customs fee seemed exorbitant. I explained this to the very tired looking man who chain smoked as I spoke to him. He listened and checked on what looked like a frequently thumbed bunch of curled pages, and then smiled rather shyly and repeated that he understood. Obviously I wasn’t the first person to be talking to him like this. I then went to several different people for several different stamps. But I realized too it wasn’t just about getting the signatures, there was conversation, if brief, with each person. “Books,” one of the women said, “you see, because it’s something good for us the customs man lowered the fee.” I smiled. It was a nice thought. The entire time I was going through the routine of getting the books each person was advising me how to manage it so I would pay less. I finally paid next to nothing though I spent a good part of my morning there. I would have spent the whole day there if I’d had to, but the strange thing was I left feeling as if I hadn’t wasted my time. People really didn’t have to help out if they didn’t want to; and when we started a conversation there was always a connection. It was the sort of thing I discovered during my couple of days as a participant in Tino Sehgal’s project. The ambition of his “constructed situations” is to allow for discoveries.

To take time out of the mechanized moment, walk in the midst of the ruin – which we were literally doing without any mention of the agora itself – to stumble on some of the pleasures of our exchanges with each other, means we slow down enough to engage with the conversations we’re having. There’s also the chance of falling in love.

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“Which is to say love enlarges; it annexes affectionately; at its utmost it dissolves all boundaries.”

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby


I’ve been living with my daughter’s kitten for the past three weeks while I’ve been apartment-bound after surgery; because of a metal pin in one of my toes I can’t go very far. It was one of those chance accidents that can remind us of the body, that is, how we need and live with it in space and time. My foot took on object status — a thin metal hook that juts out of my toe reminds me of this “thing” that is also a practical necessity for healing the bone. Suddenly my restricted ability to move, that is walk, created too an intimacy with my environment in ways that before were more abstract. For one I was physically dependent on people — my daughter’s patient willingness to pick up groceries for me, a friend who fit me into her schedule to drive me to the doctor twice for a change of dressing. I was also very grateful to those friends who made the trek over to keep me company. The protruding pin made me think of Frida and the horror of the freak accident on a tram which sent a rod through her back that fractured her spine and caused lifelong paralysis and grief. My accident was inconsequential in comparison but nevertheless there were consequences. I’m not used to being immobile let alone apartment-bound. My consciousness of time changed. My sense, too, of more visceral dependencies – how arrogant we can be in our assumptions of freedom.

The kitten’s energy around the apartment was both energizing and maddening… her prancings and fleet movements gave dimension to the day, as did the breeze that quickened toward evening, and the late afternoon light on the balcony. Things I am less conscious of during my full workdays in town; I managed to understand something of proximities, too. The proximity of the body’s needs and how these connect us to things beyond ourselves; I was doing some reading. Finished Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby and Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda, a fabulous collection; this from her poem “Liquid Flesh”:

What is the point of other people,
Being so separate, if we can’t
Help a person get that pain

Will stick its shiv into anything,
Just to get rid of the weapon
And because it can? For if we share

Ourselves then they, too, must
Also be in so much pain.
I can hear it. Oh, my loves.

Yes, “my loves” were the lesson of these days, to come closer to them. But as Solnit writes: “Merging is dangerous, at least to the boundaries and definition of the self.” When those boundaries are edged, contested, pained.. how close does one get? The approach mined with various warnings of the self’s gradual loss of border and boundary. For Frida, her body’s pained shape, the catalyst for inimitable art. I was also reading blog posts and keeping up with the news. Learned that the vote to bring in the IMF/troika was less than what was, and still is, constitutionally mandated, some 50 votes short of what would have legally passed to have made this intervention a constitutionally upheld decision; another example of Papandreou’s negligence of the state’s body — his assumption, or presumption, of a freedom now crippled.

Solnit continues, of this meeting at the boundary of the self, a space of possibilities when there is empathy. Why do we have boundaries in the first place – to distance, keep some semblance of wholeness where wounds take us apart? But in our piecemeal state will we more readily recognize the other? Here’s Shaughnessy again, from “Mermaid’s Purse”: “The self is the self yet bigger than itself./Indebted. And subordinate// to its fragments,/” Indebted is what I felt continuously, but it is not a comfortable feeling. We’re raised in the west to be independent and self-sufficient. We shirk the idea of too much dependency as a sign of weakness, even cowardice. I am realizing though that the greater courage is to understand these self-sufficiencies are built out of a respect for the deeper common ground, a recognition of our insufficiency. Everything the tragedy of our leadership in these crisis years have failed to do, as they have othered, rather than embraced the common ground of the state’s crippled body, which is as true for how northern Europe has “Orientalized” the periphery and Greece in particular.

It was strange and enlightening to take myself out “crutching” one evening; that is I had had too much of cabin fever and decided that hobbling down the street with the crutches my daughter had brought me would give me some peace of mind. Life was a lot more mobile with the crutches, though no one really thought I’d go for a walk with them. I was sometimes amused as people looked my way. A stray cat seemed intrigued, and followed me for a while. A man coming out of an apartment paused for a few seconds without saying anything, and someone getting into his car seemed to consider asking me if I needed a ride though he never said anything. I’d not experienced this before and it was a lesson of how the less-than-whole body is viewed, how too I viewed myself in that state, which was impatiently and somewhat stunned that I probably wouldn’t do very well in solitary confinement. I thought though of that sense of proximity to our less-than-whole state, that Solnit also describes as “this amorous engagement with the unknown.” Unknown is also unfamiliar which is part of the challenge of proximities to what we can’t control. In the Faraway Nearby Solnit keeps coming back to the ways we distance what pains us, yet it is in that space that we also learn of what connects us. In Greece, for example, there is now a humanitarian crisis of medical resources. Food too, which was never an issue since the war years, has become scarce for many. There are collectives coming together in various neighborhoods of Nea Ioannia, Kato Patissia, Exharhia, among other areas in Athens. You can get a decent meal for 3 euros. Coffee for 50 cents. These initiatives have become necessities for survival. A German commissioner for hospitals and “patient issues” Wolfgang Zoeller called the results of the time frame imposed by the troika’s measures, “scandalous.” And “impossible to carry out.” Solnit has a long discussion of leprosy in her book and its numbing effect on its victims. They can’t feel the infected parts of the body because of the nerve damage: “The nerveless part of the body remains alive; but pain and sensation define the self; what you cannot feel is not you; what you cannot feel you do not readily take care of; your extremities become lost to you.” The pained body reminds us of our less-than-whole states, we should more readily unveil those shapes, teach ourselves to feel them.

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