The day after the rescue

Greek Democracy in Crisis or Stasis

Vassilis Lambropoulos
The decade of the Greek 2010s may be understood in two very different ways, both of them based on Leftist views of the explosive December of 2008: Either in terms of a biopolitical crisis whose victims need the government΄s pastoral care or in terms of stasis whose actors contest self-rule agonistically.
 I will argue that stasis, understood as internal contestation of power, provides an alternative model of institution to the dominant model of crisis according to which Greeks continue to be governed.  Since I am a scholar of culture, not politics or history, I will base my discussion on a comparison of the manners in which fiction and poetry have been rendering the crisis and the stasis respectively legible to Leftists and others.  Given the limits of space here, I will omit all literary examples and also acknowledge that there are, of course, exceptions to my broad description of the two genres.  What interests me is not the "content" of particular works but their production and circulation within discursive struggles.

              During the 1990s, when Greek culture reached a certain stalemate, the novel and the lyric contributed to it in their distinct ways.  Following a populist turn, fiction was producing best-selling fat volumes of Orientalist pulp as multicultural romance and saga, while poetry, following a parallel existential turn, was tending toalienated desires of the metrosexual subjectivity.  Novelists appealed to the national audience of TV talk shows and basked in their commercial success while poets reached only their closest friends and sulked in their cultural eclipse.  In both cases, the rampant stylistic recycling let to a clear sense that both popularity and soliloquy had reached a dead end.

              At that point, the two genres charted very different, and in many respects opposite, courses.  Fiction undertook to regulate the traditional dilemmas (such as individual vs. society, nation vs. other, nature vs. culture) that the metropolitan self kept negotiating in order to resist the post-modern, post-communist re-coding of Greek life. A new generation of poets, on the other hand, began to take risks with multiple selves and codes by performing them in alternative spaces.  Throwing caution to the wind, it turned resolutely away from the official poetic canon, and especially the pursuit of the national poem, seeking foreign interlocutors in the English language and often in literary idioms other than the confessional lyric.

              The poetic initiative was particularly interesting because of its institutional expansion into "a thousand plateaus" (Deleuze/Guattari).  In addition to seeking stylistic innovation and semiotic experimentation, poets launched numerous autonomist, localized cultural projects -- bars, bookstores, centers, festivals, readings, performances, publishing houses, magazines, web pages, and many more.  Most of these physical and virtual sites have been operating as collective exercises in self-institution and self-governance, managing cultural commons and devising discontinuous canons.  Working with structures reminiscent of council democracypoetry has been operating since the early 2000s in anarchistic modalities.
              The significance of this poets' initiative, which has been emerging in several cities, becomes striking when it is contrasted to the absence of anything remotely comparable in the domain of fiction, where there have been almost no institutional innovations of any kind.  Taking the preferences of their readership for granted, prose writers have not reflected on the norms and rules affecting the circulation of their work.  Instead, they have been providing therapy to the literary taste for psychological anguish.  To put it schematically, if poetry has been actively involved in the politics of its institutional distribution, fiction has been taking care of the morals of its personal "distribution" (Jacques Rancière), specifically, the insecure interiority of its readers.

              The striking difference in the function of the two genres became clear in their reaction to the December 2008 revolt, whenfor two weeks thousands of people who did not feel represented took their protest to the streets of many cities, attempting  to reconfigure themselves in alternative civic ways. Protest and theatricality, politics and art, merged in an unprecedented performance of rebellion, with citizens demanding a place in the theater of democratic politics and rehearsing the chorus.Until recently, Greeks could be represented only by an indigenous chorus of national origin and resistance (as, for example, in the theater of Yiorgos Theotokas, Iakovos Kambanellis, and Yiorgos Skourtis). But what kind of chorus is possible when traditional forms of collective agency, such as the national community,disintegrate?How can a political community constitute itself by acting together?Under what conditions canpeople living in a multicultural, decentered cityassemble in public?

              For the literary generation of 2000, the 2008 revolt represented an "Event."According to Alain Badiou, "Events" are unpredictable and singular outbreaks of freedom, equality, and love: irruptions that interrupt linear history and redefine it as intermittency. They are not revolutions but short-lived revolts such as Athens in 508 BC, Paris in 1789, Haiti in 1791, Berlin in 1919, Kronstadt in 1921, Barcelona in 1936, Budapest in 1956, and Cairo in 2011. In occurences like these, the ecstasy of the event is quickly succeeded by grief over the death or failure of the revolt, loss of faith, and decline into, at worst, passivity and inertia and, at best, resistance to the fallacy of positivity by the melancholy of negativity.Commenting on Badiou, literary scholar Andrew Gibson, in his Intermittency: The Concept of Historical Reason in Recent French Philosophy(2102), calls the “intermittency” of the epochal Event “the reason of history:” unpredictable revolts suspend historical time but the scarcity of such ecstatic revolts induces melancholy. In response, philosophy deals with the interruptive Event (the date of reason with history) while literature deals with the subsequent melancholy (the remainder of that date), which in our time is caught between pessimistic revolutionary messianism and affirmative neoliberal consensus.

              Greek intellectuals and writers responded to December 2008 in comparable ways.Philosophy (specificaly, theorists of the social and human sciences)has been presenting the rise of the Left following the revolt in positive terms while literature (primarily poets) in negative ones.  Theorists played a major role in channeling the Event into a social movementwhile in their turn politicians transformed the movement into the party that came to power in 2015.  In their complementary ways, novelists and politicians invented for the first time in Greece what Hannah Arendt calls "the social" (which replaced the "national") by turning an explosive Event into a movement of empathy for the destitute that ushered into powera government of biopolitical care for the "population" (which replaced "the people").

              By 2015, ethnic sovereignty (by Greeks for the Greeks) had been succeeded by therapeutic governance.While the sovereign rules by commanding the people, the government governs by disciplining"the population" (Michel Foucault).  While the former invokes the reason of state, the latter promotes the rationality of conduct that develops self-discipline, for example, living under conditions of austerity.  An exemplary technique securing the disciplined behavior of the collective has been the normalization of resistance, the availability of the morality of resistance to the entire population that acquiesces so long as it can claim to do it heroically.  In general, the government has been taking pastoral care of the newly established bioneeds unique to the regime of the population, such as those related to health, gender, education, and immigration. These are needs for subsistence pertaining to "the social," where matters of private necessity become social priorities and take over the political realm.

            Yet Leftist supporters of the government are haunted by a pervasive sense of betrayal of principles and promises.  Commenting on the Greek “hopelessness,” Slavoj Žižek has written succinctly on the failure of the victorious Left: “The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive, half-democratic regime, … it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans that one cannot but characterise as crowd-pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, etc. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realise that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) goes on in a new guise. … In such a predicament, we have to admit that there was a flaw in our goal itself … In short, we have to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realise a noble principle (of democratic freedom) is a failure inherent in this principle itself. To learn this move from the distortion of a notion, its incomplete realisation, to the distortion immanent to this notion is the big step of political pedagogy” (New Statesman, July 20, 2015).  In light of Adrian Little’s provocative view of the “constitutive failure” (Political Studies, December 2010, p. 975) of radical politics, the history of the Left is not a succession of defeats but a tradition of failures.

              Leftist supporters of the current government are suffering from "cruel optimism" following major affective adjustments to the dissolution of radical hope.  Literary scholar Lauren Berlant studies “what happens to fantasies of the good life when the ordinary becomes a landfill for overwhelming and impending crises of life-building and expectation […]. Each chapter tells a story about the dissolution of optimistic objects/scenarios that had once held the space open for the good-life fantasy, and tracks dramas of adjustment to the transformation of what had seemed foundational into those binding kinds of optimistic relation we call ‘cruel’” (Cruel Optimism, 2011, p. 3).  Berlant explains that “the affective structure of an optimistic attachment involves a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way. But, again, optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving."

              Theview of affective attachments under conditions of cruel optimism applies to the current state of Leftist hope in Greece.This optimism is cruel because the scene that ignited hopeful anticipation of change now serves as a reminder of the impossibility to attain the socio-political transformation in which people invested so heavily. The fervent expectation of a “first-time Left" was a noble dream of the good life nullified by intensifying structural pressures.  Despite the affective adjustments to the dissolution of optimistic expectation, old attachments still function as foundations for optimism, thus becoming impediments to personal and collective change. The dim hope that the party or the social movement may achieve what the government cannot compensates for the loss of conviction while keeping Left self-criticism at bay. This cruel optimism of the government's supporters is a survival mechanism in a damaged world where impasse has become ordinary.

              As noted above, Andrew Gibson, writing on Badiou's political theory, argues that philosophy grapples with the positivity of the explosive Event while literature expresses the negativity of the subsequent melancholy. Greek poets and activists to whom "all the world's a stage" and who had years of experience with theatrical spaces and dramatic occasions of protest have been acting since December 2008 as a chorus of citizens expressing the negativity of melancholy.In itself, melancholy is neither pessimistic nor optimistic since skeptical awareness of the disenchantment of the revolution and the loss of the messianic under conditions of defeat and dispersion may lead to a recasting of the theory-praxis dialectic in the institution of commons.  As cultural theorist Bejamin Noys argues in The Persistence of the Negative(2010), melancholy is a practice of negativity as immanent critique informed by a historicism of difference and deterritorialization.The Generation of the 2000s has been composing, distributing, and repurposing a poetry of the melancholic history of intermittent insurgency, a revolt which functions irregularly as it starts, stops, and starts again. 

              “The trauma of the revolution”(Jean-Philippe Mathy, Melancholy Politics, 2011, p. 1) has been haunting much of the late modern world. The current Greek project of negative poetics converses with similarautonomist projects, such as the British quarterly Salvage, launched in 2015, which "is edited and written by and for the desolated Left, by and for those committed to radical change, sick of capitalism and its sadisms, and sick too of the Left’s bad faith and bullshit."The Greek melancholic turn is a very interesting part of the global melancholic turn of Left thought and culture in the 21st century to a post-revolutionary/post-messianic worldview and an immanent, immediate, intransitive, intramural, and inventive standpoint.  What has sustained and nurtured the Greek autonomist poets is their friendships.

              For Greek Left radicalism, friendship among comrades is the purest form of civic virtue. One is radical out of the ethical consistency she owes to her friends.   The comrade/σύντροφος [not a gender-specific word, both noun and adjective represent the female and male comrade] feels accountable not to a collectivity, a constituency, or a canon but to the principles of her friends; she strives to remain loyal not to society, faith, or country but to the values of her fellow comrades.To join any formal group (say, an association, a party, or a movement) would be to betray one’s friends’ trust and launch a career, to renounce civic virtue for political morality.Today the comrade/σύντροφος combines elements of the pre-revolutionary identities of the rebel and his friend, thus retaining the integrity of the revolutionary fraternité in a post-revolutionary world. 

              Literary scholar Laurent Dubreuil embraces this affective intoxication, advocating eloquently a “passionate, maximalist, unlimited, unreasonable friendship” (“Friends of War,” Oxford Literary Review, Dec. 2009, p. 175).  Friendship cannot be controlled by collective interests and strategic formations. The law binding great leftist friends should be stronger than any law “above them” binding their friendship to the left.He insists that friends should not be absorbed into allies. Yet this is what has been happening during expansive mobilizations: “In the struggle a camaraderie resurges that often ends up superimposing itself on friendship or taking its place rather than enriching it. The great movements of the twentieth century, the revolutions, have left friends with little choice. It was often the worst. I recognise it under its revolutionary garb; it intones the funeral chant of sacrificed friendships” (182).This chant has been heard again during the 2010s as Greek leftists of the new social movement, invoking another revolutionary covenant, have been demanding military loyalty from their leftist friends, testing them, and often failing them in the name of group purity and moral superiority if they did not choose the party over their friends. 

              Poets who refuse to put their friendships in the service of the movement and the government have devoted some of their best energies to a poets’ common, a collective project of creating, sustaining, and participating in a shared world of cultural practices and registers. As sociologist Andrea Mubi Brighenti’s puts it, “the common is a de-essentialized version of the community. It reveals that what matters most is not the fact of community but the issue of community” (“The Public and the Common: Some Approximations of Their Contemporary Articulation,” Critical Inquiry, Winter 2016, p. 318).  Rather than existing as a given, the common must be constructed “in the form of an invocation, an appeal, or a summoning of people and forces” (317). But if it is a matter of becoming, not being, then the question becomes, “how do we compose a common?” (322) To whom does it appeal and what forces does it summon? “For it to exist, the common must be a composition of differences that remain different” (324). Such compositions resound out of the public readings that Greek poets use regularly as invocations, which function as polyphonic and intermedial performances of the common. Their atmosphere pulsates with the rhythm of a Deleuzian “difference” which returns while resisting repetition as performers rehearse a citizens' chorus.

              Most importantly, these aggregations do not just assemble people who enjoy making poetry together – writers, lovers, critics, painters, listeners, musicians, physicians etc. They gather the refugees from the multitude, those displaced from, and disaffected with, Dionysian insurgencies.They assemble the common of the melancholics who do not entirely fit in the barricades of the aganaktismenoi/indignados, the demands of the demonstrations, the occupations of the squares, the celebrations of the OXI referendum, the affirmations of the Gay Pride parades, and the provocations of avant-garde events.  Those who believe that the current hegemony is honest and creative, and things are slowly but steadily getting better, remain committed to reason, put together panels, participate in conferences, and attend roundtable discussions – all of them important and laudable activities. On the other hand, the Greek poetry of the 2000s assembles those who feel betrayed by the party, let down by the movement, marginalized by the group, abandoned by the comrades, and yet refuse to give up on the Left. 
Since poetry is no longer engagé or militant, it now confronts dynamically the challenges of defeat (not despair), melancholy (not mourning), and revolt (not revolution). Writers of this political and poetical disposition are deeply and explicitly melancholic because they have been all along pessimistic about a Left rule yet they refuse to mourn it and overcome it, and instead remain faithful to its ethical and philosophical principles.

              The on-going self-institution of the poetry common in autopoetic plateaus within the Greek literary milieu has been generating works of remarkable quantity, quality, urgency, and traction, including large-scale compositions (narratives, sequences, cycles etc.) that had been unthinkable for more than half a century.  The genre that these complex, polyphonic, often structurally musical works recall is the cantata, which allows for a variety of styles as well as chamber, orchestral, choral and soloist forces.  Its singers often resemble a pre-classical chorus in a proto-play without actors and action. I am thinking in particular of Austro-Germanic works from early to late Modernism (Mahler, Schönberg, Hindemith, Krenek, Henze), and especially compositions based on Brecht by Weill, Eisler, and Dessau. Even though they are not set to music, I would use the term “cantata” to identify the structure and scope of important thoroughly composed Greek poetry booksthat resonate with the literary and civic choral conditions that made them possible.

              In the aftermath of the Event of the 2008 revolt the most active insurgents forged two paths.  The optimists built a social movement that soon led to electoral victory and hegemony.  The self-understanding of the movement, and later its party, was a narrative of crisis documented by economists and elaborated by novelists.  The melancholics instituted commons that sprang all over the country without coalescing into something larger, and developed a network of co-operating assemblages. The self-understanding of the network was a drama of stasis curated by cultural activists and performed by poets (who have not beeninterested in "the crisis"). These two post-2008 Left formations may be abstracted into a series of distinctions based on the different civic functions of fiction and poetry in Greece during this century, such as the social vs. the political, populism vs. autonomism, population vs. the common, movement (alliance of enemies) v. camaraderie (solidarity of friends), identity vs. chorus, discipline vs. power, and crisis of the 2010s vs. stasis of 2008.

              The semantic shift of the ancient stasis/στάσις from «sharing a standpoint with others» to the group itself of citizens who take a shared stance on some major issue (Hansen: «Stasis as an Essential Aspect of the Polis» in Hansen & Nielsen, eds.: An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis, 2005, pp. 126-7) and its use in political theory in the sense ofintrinsic conflict help clarify thelast opposition.  To the hegemonic Left, the Greek population is in biopolitical crisis requiring therapeutic care (a narrative told by contemporary fiction), hence the focus on social issues, conditions of the population, complexities of identity, disciplines of austerity, and the economy of the crisis.  To the autonomist Left,the Greek citizenship is in governmental stasisinviting agonistic contestation (a drama enacted by contemporary poetry), hence the focus onthe politics of autonomism, the performances of civic friendship, the power of solidarity, and the tactics of stasis.The non-governmental Left represents the excluded and marginal forces that do not fit the crisis narrative, the Left of the everydayautopoetic action and practice, the Left of the councils and the commons, the world-making political and cultural anarchistic activism, the tremendous self-instituting potential of the Event arrested first by the social movement, later by the party, and now by the government.
              * Vassilis Lambropoulos is the C. P. Cavafy Professor Emeritus of Classical            Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.  As the         embedded links indicate, this piece draws in part on his blog where he has been    commenting at length on these and related issues.
2018-08-16 20:04:07
Previews: Maybe we weren’t all Greeks after all
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