Workshop Review by Yannis Stamos
(published in Journal of Greek Media & Culture, vol. 1, no 2, 2015, pp. 359-363)
Greece in Crisis: Culture and Politics of Austerity
(University of Birmingham, 23 May 2015)
On 23 May 2015 a workshop was organized at the University of Birmingham entitled ‘Greece in Crisis: Culture and the Politics of Austerity’. The event was part of a networking project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and coordinated by Dimitris Tziovas of the University of Birmingham (Primary Investigator) and Dimitris Papanikolaou of the University of Oxford (Co-Investigator). The two-year project (September 2014-August 2016), whose overarching title is The Cultural Politics of the Greek crisis, consists primarily of three workshops that have taken or are bound to take place in London, Birmingham and Oxford. The first workshop, organized at the Hellenic Centre in London in September 2014, provided a general academic framework to the Greek crisis, whilst the event reviewed here focused on particular cultural responses to it. The May workshop consisted of four sessions and thirteen presentations and, like the whole project, was markedly interdisciplinary, hosting acknowledged and rising scholars alike, from various academic fields, and even an artist.
Although the first workshop’s title (‘From Junta to Crisis’) might hint at the Colonels’ dictatorship and the Metapolitefsi as the cradle of the crisis, the first talk of this workshop pointed to what is perhaps a more appropriate starting point. Roderick Beaton’s ‘Foreshadowing the crisis: Lord Byron and the cultural and economic politics of Greece in 1824’ served as a reminder of the fact that, from the very beginning, the history of Modern Greece is one of foreign dependence. The central question that Beaton tried to address in his presentation was both whimsical and indicative of the multifaceted and complex ways in which past and present are connected, especially at times of crisis: ‘Was Byron pro-memorandum?’ Beaton answered in the affirmative, his analysis focusing on the division between ‘statists’ and ‘warlords’, ‘modernizers’ and exponents of ‘autarchy’ (in both senses of the word perhaps, as autarky and autocracy).
The following presentations, however, tried to outline the impact of the Greek crisis in other facets of culture, such as archaeology, religion, literature, street art, cinema and theatre. Thus, archaeologist Dimitris Plantzos of the University of Athens made a presentation on the most-discussed archaeological excavation of recent times in Greece, exposing its political implications that have been touched upon by other experts in the past, such as the director of the Canadian Institute in Greece, David Rupp (2014). Plantzos’s analysis relied markedly on Foucault, as already indicated by the title’s ‘governmentality’: ‘Amphipolitics: archaeological performance and governmentality in Greece under the crisis’. Plantzos claimed that archaeology is deployed to support notions of Greek continuity and exceptionalism, while he exposed not just the biopolitics, but also the ‘thanatopolitics’ of Amphipolis: ‘Τhis sort of archaeology is being employed in Greece not only in order to organize the way its citizens live, but also as a means to effect the death of others’. Amphipolis has served as the foundation both for a ‘reverse archaeology’ and a ‘racist apparatus’. Based on Plantzos’s analysis, one could argue that a temporality cross-contamination has been effected in the case of Amphipolis in the most palpable way. The past does not merely serve to write the ‘history of the present’. Since historiography presupposes a canonization, a choice of inclusion and exclusion, a selection of what is to be narrated and what is not, the gist of ‘Amphipolitics’ – to paraphrase the title of a previous presentation by Dimitris Plantzos alongside John Karavas – could also be that digging up the past can be a way to cover up the present.
On the other hand, Lina Molokotos-Liederman discussed the Church’s welfare infrastructure and actions since the outbreak of the crisis. In her presentation, entitled ‘The Orthodox Church of Greece and the Economic Crisis: A Moment of Challenge and Opportunity’, Liederman had a generally positive approach to the Church that was lacking in analytical depth. It provided the audience with a lot of interesting information regarding the Church’s activities in the years of the crisis, but largely failed to engage with the topic critically. An example of a certain interpretational naïveté in Molokotos-Liederman’s presentation was her explanation of the fact that the percentage of people applying to become priests in the crisis years has tripled. Increasing spiritual proximity due to the Church’s welfare activity or the desire to support the Church in its social work cannot be but a part of the equation. Such an interpretation totally disregards the economic factor, which is at the core of the crisis itself after all: In a time of professional uncertainty and economic deprivation, becoming a priest is one of the few outlets for people wanting to secure a steady income.
The second session of the workshop started with two presentations showcasing the complex and multifaceted interrelation of literature and crisis. Patricia Felisa Barbeito presented a paper on the ‘writer of the crisis’, Petros Markaris, and analyzed literature as being not merely a representation of the crisis, but also a form of resistance. Perhaps in keeping with Markaris’s own resistance to norms, Barbeito began her presentation with the fourth and last novel of Markaris’s ‘trilogy’ (Titloi Telous: O Epilogos/Closing credits: The Epilogue ). Markaris’s last novel starts with the pursuit of Golden Dawn members responsible for incidents of violence in Athens, but it focuses on other cases associated with pathologies running much deeper in Greek society. After all, one could argue – although Barbeito did not explicitly make this connection – that the rise of the Golden Dawn is to be attributed to the exposure of many such pathologies in all their nakedness in the years of the crisis. This might be the reason that the upsurge of the Far Right does not constitute the primary concern of narratives which may explicitly thematize subjective violence but also confront the reader with the systemic violence that sustains it or is its implicit underside.
The presentation by Lambrini Kouzeli on ‘creative writing workshops’ provided insights into how a new ‘post-2010’ readership is formed and most importantly into how a part of a new, promising ‘generation’ of Greek writers is shaped. Since the crisis tends to percolate all matters with cost-effectiveness considerations, Kouzeli rightly directed her attention to what makes people invest money in creative writing courses. It is not just entertainment, but a ‘new form of socializing’, as well as the need of crisis-affected individuals to express themselves. The increase in traumatic experiences that need to be narrativized and the short story form opted for in these workshops have resulted in a short story proliferation in Greece. What is interesting about this ‘growing trend’ discussed by Kouzeli is perhaps that it gives rise to something new while at the same time being a part of a return to the past.
The remaining two presentations of the session were indicative of the gathering interest of scholars in Greek street art and wall-writings. This is perhaps symptomatic of the proliferation of popular art of good quality that might at times challenge the very boundaries between ‘popular’ and ‘high’ culture. Julia Tulke’s anthropological presentation about Athenian street art was coupled with the one by Professor Maria Boletsi on Greek murals from the point of view of linguistics and critical theory.
The presentation given by the youngest participant, Julia Tulke, was definitely one of the most interesting. As a visual anthropologist, Tulke approached street art dialectically, taking into consideration both the ‘visual artefact’ and the ‘performativity embedded’ therein. The German anthropologist, who has carried out fieldwork in Athens for her Master’s dissertation, gave a fascinating account of ‘one of the most upcoming’ street art scenes in Europe. She claimed that the crisis has affected street art in a threefold way: it has changed urban space thus forming the canvas and context of the artists’ work; it has ‘fuelled creativity’; and, lastly, it has had an enormous impact on the very content of the artefacts. Tulke additionally touched upon a ‘temporality displacement’ manifested in some of the artworks, which again points to the conclusion that the crisis has triggered increased reflection on and activity revolved around not just conventional politics, but also politics of time.
As the chairman of the second session, Alexander Kazamias, observed, some sort of Hegelian dialectic seemed to run across the session. Literature and street art from the first three presentations merge in this last one which started with a discussion of Sotiris Dimitriou’s novella Konta stin koilia/Close to the belly (2014) to move on to and concentrate on the now widespread and well-known mural vasanizome. Boletsi focused on the emancipatory potentials encapsulated in the mode of the middle voice and in the specific slogan. Like Barbeito before her, who had talked about failed and emerging collectivities, Boletsi discussed issues related to new modes of community building and solidarity, against the backdrop of collective identities, notions of subjectivity and agency, conceptual frameworks and grammars being reshaped under the crisis. She rightly proposed the overcoming of binary frameworks of analysis, like the ones found in ‘the popular rhetoric of the “agitators” during the crisis’.
Most of the presentations of the second session, as well as others that followed (like the one by Philip Hager in the final session), demonstrated how austerity might have debilitated the economic capacity of Greek citizens, but has unleashed their expressive and creative capacities. With the country’s economy shrunk drastically, employment and productivity diminished, it seems that more labour power is being invested towards the increase of artistic productivity.
The first two talks of the third session dealt with cinema and both speakers approached their topics employing terms indicating the impact of the crisis even on the terminology used to reflect on it. From the very title of these presentations one can discern how the crisis itself and the discursive nexus that formed around it after 2010 engenders the way scholars speak of the ‘post-crisis’  cultural phenomena, for instance in economic terms (even if in a wittingly superficial or whimsical manner). Lydia Papadimitriou made a presentation entitled ‘The economy and ecology of post-crisis Greek cinema: Between production, circulation and reception’, whilst Vangelis Calotychos discussed ‘the film economies of Yannis Economides’. The first presentation explored the transformation of financial and labour conditions in Greek cinema, as well as the changes in the production and consumption of Greek films under the crisis. On the other hand, the second presentation was content-oriented and discussed the discourses articulated in Economides’s films which set up ‘a network of interrelations so extensive’ that nothing like it has been seen in Greek cinema ‘since Angelopoulos’.
The third session’s last presentation could have easily been moulded together with the first in the following session, as they both dealt with performing art festivals. Dr Katerina Levidou explored changes in the funding and organization practices of ‘festivals of western art music in Greece during the crisis’. She focused on the ‘Nafplio Festival of Classical Music’ in order to demonstrate the paradoxical thriving of such events in crisis-ridden Greece. Levidou explored the blooming or survival of these festivals in relation to the place and the community that hosts them, as well as to the artistic networks, organizational and financing structures that support them. Eleftheria Ioannidou and Natascha Siouzouli investigated the ‘recent history of the Hellenic Festival’. Starting their account from before the crisis broke out, the speakers discussed the regeneration of the festival following 2006, with the commencement of the ‘Loukos era’, and the rupture of this revitalizing endeavour that coincided with the socio-economic rupture of the crisis. Discussing the ‘Hellenic Festival’ against the backdrop formed by the interrelation and interaction of space, text, and sociopolitical milieu, Ioannidou and Siouzouli concentrated on the multifaceted concept of performance. Performance was associated with politics of time throughout the presentation, but the concluding sentence laid further emphasis on this connection of present performances both with the past and the future: ‘Performance should be understood no longer as a repetition, which reinforces identities and communities, but as the precarious act of the body whose future is not easy to pin down, let alone prescribe’.
The last two talks of the workshop by Philip Hager and Alexandros Efklidis could also be grouped together and analyzed as a distinct category, since they both presented performed cultural products. Hager focused on Nova Melancholia’s performance entitled Walter Benjamin: Theseis yia ti filosofia tis istorias/Theses on the philosophy of history (2009) and showed ways in which history is renegotiated, performed and narrativized during the crisis. Like other speakers on the day, Hager also examined the emergence of new forms of engagement with the past and resistance to the present status quo. Greek director Alexandros Efklidis on the other hand, presented an opera of his own, a German-Greek ‘radical adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida’ within the context of the crisis, entitled Yasou Aida! (2012). Amongst the threads that connect this last presentation with other parts of the workshop were not just the renegotiation of the past (as evinced through the remaking of Aida in a contemporary setting), but also the revival of the political in post-crisis art.
Some of the presentations and most notably the introductory one by Beaton conversed with the two leading (and opposing) narratives attempting to nail down the roots of the crisis in Greece: The ‘pro-memorandum’ strand goes that the crisis is a self-inflicted harm and the Greeks have to find their way towards modernity with the help and patronage of Europe. The hardcore ‘anti-memorandum’ story goes that the crisis was not something the Greeks brought upon themselves, but rather something ‘invading’ Greece from without. The narratives mentioned above are disseminated by opposing political camps in order to serve conflicting political objectives. It seems that finger-pointing and scapegoating is the easy, populist solution, featured in both of them. The first narrative is a masochist one, where citizens are agitated into self-contempt and the leading figures (be them party or group leaders, or prominent intellectuals) lead the chorus of a ritualistically legitimizing self-blaming. The other is a narcissist narrative, where citizens are agitated into shedding off responsibility and the leading figures lead the struggle against those who bear responsibility for the crisis. Those responsible are not the citizens themselves. In this second narrative the alleged perpetrators are being presented as having violated some divine law and committed the sacrilege. Perhaps what is needed is to escape from such Manichean and schematic divisions, from quasi-religious frameworks of analysis that are distorting rather than revealing the broader picture. If scholars engage with this kind of schemas not just as discursive constructs propagated by certain power centres, but as analytical categories, they run the risk of rewriting history by omission.
The common denominator of several presentations in the workshop was the mixing of temporalities brought about by the crisis. Anthropologists have already delved into the crisis-engendered cross-contamination of temporalities. Since the crisis was neither an accident nor something external to the economic, political or social arrangements that had prevailed in Greece, Europe or the world at large before 2008-2010, but a symptom of this system of arrangements itself, it is also logical that some sort of paradigm shift has started to emerge amongst several scholars from different fields. As the workshop reviewed here illustrated, many scholars now focus their attention on the structure of the established order or on the events and processes that led to the formation of a flawed system whose symptom was the crisis. Some of them did not fail to provide the audience with an analysis of certain ways in which this defective and unsound apparatus has struggled to reproduce itself after the outbreak of the crisis and either dismiss or conceal the latter’s symptomatic nature. In other cases, such an analysis remained a desideratum, something which may be attributed to time limitations. At any rate, this review aimed not at merely presenting the 23 May workshop that took place in Birmingham, but also at pointing out some of the areas which could be further researched or analyzed in order to create a more coherent, comprehensive and concrete understanding of the matters at hand and of the cultural politics of the Greek crisis in general.
Rupp, D. (2014), ‘A multipolar economic world in 19th-century Greece; more amphipolitics’, 21 November, http://www.cig-icg.gr/node/317. Accessed 10 June 2015.
- 1 A website has been set up where one can find information about the project, audio-visual material from the workshops organized, and short essays and other texts related to the Greek crisis. In addition, the website hosts a survey which seeks to trace the establishment of Greek communities in the UK following the outbreak of the crisis and the particularities and possible differences of such a ‘new diaspora’ to previous Greek diasporic communities in Britain. The links to the website and the survey are https://culpolgreekcrisis.com/ and https://culpolgreekcrisis.com/2015/04/02/survey-a-new-disapora/ respectively. Accessed 10 June 2015.
- 3 The meaning of Kostas Katsoularis’s phrase, quoted by Kouzeli, could in fact be extended, so that the socializing does not refrain itself to the coming-together with the other attendees or the tutors of the course, but it moreover encompasses the publication of works following the participation in creative writing workshops. A striking example of this perception of writing as a means for socializing is the very title of Kostas Frangias’s monologue edited by Michel Fais in 2001 (Ena vivlio eine ena aplomeno cheri pros cheretismo/A book is a hand stretched out to greet).
- 4 As Kouzeli herself said during the Q&A session following her presentation, Greece has traditionally been considered the country of the short story writers. There was an explosion in novel publications from the 1990s onwards. Based on these observations, one could ask: if the cultural and literary landscape of Greece changed after the ‘populist decade’, could a reason for the proliferation of short stories be some sort of return to the past (or a ‘return to the basics’, as some exponents of popular art put it) engendered by the crisis? After all, the crisis is not just limited to the economy or to public finances; it is also, and perhaps more crucially, a cultural and an identity crisis. It is arguably not unusual for an identity redefinition process to entail a renegotiation of the past.
- 5 Tulke noted that most street artists she met were well-educated and had studied fine arts, design or something relevant that provided them with the background for a more refined street art. I would argue that the same applies to other manifestations of popular art too, like hip hop music. Many hip hop artists that gained popularity during the crisis years are well-read and infuse their lyrics with references to history, literature, cinema, politics, and the crisis itself (disproportionately more than mainstream singers or songwriters).
- 6 As Boletsi herself pointed out, it is difficult to provide an adequate translation in English, but perhaps the most sufficient one would be ‘I am in torment’.
- 7 I employ the term ‘post-crisis’ in the way it was used by Lydia Papadimitriou as well: ‘not in order to suggest that the crisis is over’, but to ‘cover the period since its explosion’.
- 8 For example, Nicolas Argenti from Brunel University London is writing a book on the ‘contemporaneity of the past’ in crisis-stricken Chios (The Greek Crisis of Memory: The Contemporaneity of the Past in the Eastern Aegean, Indiana University Press).