Nektarios Tavernarakis is the Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas (FORTH), Research Director at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (IMBB), and Professor of Molecular Systems Biology at the Medical School of the University of Crete. He is also an elected member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council (ERC). For his scientific accomplishments, Nektarios Tavernarakis has received several notable scientific prizes, including an innovation-supporting ERC Proof of Concept Grant and two ERC Advanced Investigator Grants. In July 2017, he received the prestigious Helmholtz International Fellow Award.
FORTH, established in 1983 in Heraklion, Crete, is one of the largest research centers in Greece with well organized facilities, highly qualified personnel and a reputation as a top-level research foundation worldwide. It includes six Research Institutes in different parts of the country.
Professor Tavernarakis spoke to Greek News Agenda* about the present situation of research in Greece and the country’s great capacity in that field. He notes a change in the national research policy, welcomes the increase in public spending for research and suggests ways in order to turn Greece’s “brain drain” into “brain gain”. He underlines FORTH's strategic planning as well as its aim to expand into emerging and exciting research fields.
FORTH and you personally have received numerous international awards and recognition for your work. Where does Greece currently stand internationally as far as research is concerned and what are its perspectives for the future?
There is definitely capacity to perform high level research in Greece. This is exemplified by the numerous publications of Greek researchers working in Greece, in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals. In fact, with regard to publications in top tier scientific periodicals, Greece is doing quite well, and in a recent Nature survey it came on top of countries that are traditionally considered highly productive in terms of research output, such as Canada, France, Italy and others. This suggests that we have, in Greek Research Institutions and Universities, what is sometimes called as “Pockets of Excellence”. If anything, these examples indicate that there is no inherent inability to carry out internationally competitive research in Greece. Another indicator that points in the same direction is the success of Greek Researchers and Institutions in attracting external competitive research funding. FORTH has ranked 15th in the list of the top 50 most competitive European Institutions in terms of securing funding from the previous 7th Framework Programme of the European Commission, and has actually improved its position, now number 10, in the current Horizon 2020 Framework Programme. Several other Greek Institutions are also performing well in this respect. The above being said, however, Greece is still well below the European average in the overall scientific output. I think it is important that Greece manages to realize its full research potential. There is still a long way ahead before this goal can be achieved. It will require the coordinated efforts of both the National Government but also the Scientific Community in Greece and the scientists of the Greek diaspora.
According to data, R&D spending in Greece has been growing steadily in recent years. But there is also the belief that underfunding, among other problems, prevents Greek R&D from reaching its potential. What is your opinion? What is the role of the State? Can you detect a change in policy?
Indeed, notwithstanding the current financial challenges and the crisis in Greece, there has been an increase in public spending for Research, both percentage wise but also in absolute terms. This is of course a very welcome development, but there is still a long way ahead of us before long-term regularity and sustainability of research funding is achieved. Funding also needs to increase further if we are to approach the current European average. Nevertheless, I believe that there are clear signs of a change in national policy with regard to Research. Greece’s research portfolio is now handled at a Ministerial level instead of at the level of a General Secretariat, which used to be the situation until recently. This, to me, indicates that the Greek Government recognizes the value of Science and Research as a key pillar of socio-economic development, and an essential tool towards overcoming the crisis. Recent measures and the legislation that was passed for Research are steps in the right direction but there is still a lot to be done. Looming problems that need to be addressed in the short-term, are the extremely complicated bureaucratic system for handling and dispensing research funds, as well as, limitations imposed on hiring new researchers and university professors. I hope that the current momentum does not dissipate, and these initial steps are followed up by the implementation of an even more research-friendly policy.
For years, Greece has been suffering from “brain drain”. Recently, PM Alexis Tsipras said that “brain gain” is a national goal for the next 5 years. Under what circumstances can this be possible?
The phenomenon of young scientists and researchers moving abroad after finishing their Bachelors or PhD studies in Greece is not something new. People have been doing this exercise almost forever and it is not necessarily bad for the country. If anything, this could even be beneficial for Greece; under the condition that at least some of the people also come back. Such a reciprocal movement has the obvious advantage of enriching the Greek Scientific Community with state-of-the-art knowledge and expertise. The detrimental trend that has been transpiring in recent years is not that people are leaving – this, as I said, has always been the case – but that very few, if any, come back. This is where we are losing the game. I believe that if we are to also have “brain gain” and not just “brain drain” we should establish an environment in Greece, a research ecosystem, if you will, that would be favorable for people who want to come back. We should be able to provide the means (facilities, infrastructure, legislative framework etc.) for these people to carry out their research programme, essentially as they would outside Greece. I am confident that if this is done, we will see a lot of brilliant scientists coming back. In fact, in a recent call for researcher positions at FORTH we witnessed an extremely high interest by people abroad, with more than 70 applicants for each position and many of them outstanding scientists who could easily be hired in top US and European universities.
What is/should be the relation between FORTH and the private sector? Are there any examples of successful cooperation?
FORTH has always fostered close relations with the industry and the private sector. Over the more than 30 years of its existence, FORTH has been the cradle of many successful spin-off companies, and productive partnerships with the private sector. FORTHNET, the company that literally brought the internet to Greece, is a prominent example; there are numerous others. In addition, FORTH has demonstrated its determination towards further strengthening relationships with the private sector and the industry by creating the PRAXI Network, which is a highly experienced and well-stuffed technology transfer unit. Through the efforts of the PRAXI Network, many productive partnerships between research teams from all Institutes of FORTH and companies in Greece and abroad have been established. FORTH also operates in its premises the Science and Technology Park of Crete, an incubator of start-up companies that seek to maintain close ties with the academia and research groups at FORTH. This symbiosis provides ample opportunity for fruitful interactions. Finally, I would also note the example of Crete University Press, a high quality publishing house established and operated by FORTH, which provides excellent scientific and other literature editions to university students and the Greek general public.
Tell us a few things about FORTH’s next projects.
We have several strategic plans for the future. We want to see FORTH maintain and enhance its excellence, as well as, expand into emerging and exciting research fields. We follow closely contemporary developments in various areas of research, relevant to the activities of all FORTH Institutes, and we aim to initiate related research activities. As an example, we intend to establish a new Center for Personalized Medicine and Genomics, which will provide state-of-the-art services to patients from all over Greece, but also nurture research collaborations between clinicians and basic scientists. Genomics technologies that will become available in the framework of this center will also be useful in the Agro-Food and Culture Sectors, which are of vital economic importance for Greece. I should note that FORTH (the Institute of Biology and Biotechnology) has already created the first ArchaeoGenomics (Ancient DNA) Lab in Greece. This is one example of how modern technologies can contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of our rich cultural heritage. Furthermore, we plan to complement this center with a state-of-the-art Biomedical Imaging Hub that will incorporate a PET/CT imaging system. This capacity is not currently available in Crete, and will be a highly valuable asset, even at the national level. An additional initiative that we have already undertaken at FORTH is the creation of the first Institute of Astrophysics in Greece. The infrastructure is already in place; as you many know, FORTH together with the University of Crete are operating the Skinakas Observatory, which is equipped with the latest observation and analysis instruments for Astrophysical studies. In addition, a group of highly talented and motivated Researchers is already active in this area of research, at the Institute of Electronic Structure and Laser of FORTH. Thus, we hope that the Institute of Astrophysics will soon become FORTH’s 7th Institute.
*Interview by Yanna Kakalidi
Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas | Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology: Tavernarakis Lab
Steffen Lehndorff is an economist and research fellow at the Institut Arbeit und Qualifikation (Institute for Work, Skills and Qualification) at the University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany. His research focuses on employment relations and working time at organisational, national and international levels and includes comparative research into European employment models and industrial relations systems. Steffen Lehndorff was a keynote speaker at the 23rd Conference on Alternative Economic Policy in Europe, dedicated to the question: "Can the EU still be saved? The implications of a multi-speed Europe", held in Athens, 28-30 September 2017.
In an interview* with Tassos Tsakiroglou, political editor of the Athens daily "Journalists' Journal" (Η Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών), he estimates that Angela Merkel will be pressured from within to move right, while pointing out that EU-level alliances are needed to achieve progressive changes:
How do you see Germany's post-election political landscape and what can it mark for Europe?
It’s terrible, but in a way we are getting closer to what has become normal in numerous other EU countries. By German standards the situation is somewhere between complex and chaotic. It will take long before we have a new government. In the meantime, one may think that a weaker German government makes it easier for others, for example the French, to overcome the «democratic scandal» (as Moscovici put it) in the Eurozone. But on the other hand one should realise that there will be strong pressures on Merkel within her own party to shift more to the right. So honestly, I don’t know.
E.U, as you’ ve mentioned, has fallen into the trap of an “austeritarian regime”, from which it seems almost impossible to escape. What’s the future for the european peoples and what’s the task of the left and progressive forces?
Bottom-up pressure for progressive reforms at EU level must be rooted in stronger pressure for reforms at national levels, in particular in Germany but also in other EU countries. In the bigger countries we must be aware of the simple fact that we won’t achieve at EU level what we can’t achieve in our respective countries. Unfortunately there is still a long way to go because Social Democracy has weakened itself substantially in some politically and economically important EU countries like France, Germany, Italy or Spain, while large parts of left-wing parties can’t decide whether they want to focus on protest, propaganda, or change. The latter would require much greater efforts on real policy alternatives which would make it easier to form broader political and social alliances for democratic, social and ecological growth models in their own countries, which could become a basis for progressive changes at EU level, too.
Lately we have seen a multitude of "visions" for Europe, such as Jean-Claude Juncker’s or Emmanuel Macron’s, the common feature of which is that they express the political plans of the elites. We do not, however, see political plans or visions from the bottom-up. What’s your explanation?
For most people it’s too far away from their daily life and problems. In German we say, “my shirt is closer than my jacket”. You know this is something typical not only for Germany. As I have just mentioned we so far have not found a left-wing solution for that. Large parts of the left, as I see it, focus either on the EU level or on the national level, but even if they suggest reasonable progressive reforms they fail to link these two levels. Of course this is very difficult. But to give just one example: Even in Germany it would be necessary for progressive changes to form alliances at EU level for joint profit and wealth taxation standards. It is this link between the levels of conflict that will count in the future, I think. Let me add a short remark on the ‘visions’ for Europe you mentioned. The current debates reflect a deep insecurity as well as enormous fissures and cracks amongst the political elites. In his own country Macron has a neoliberal agenda, but at EU level he wants to escape from the iron austerity cage. We should not hesitate to take advantage of the smallest window of opportunity when we want to change the course of action in the EU.
Although the economic effects of the neo-liberal doctrine have increased inequality and poverty internationally, we are faced with “its strange non-death” (Colin Crouch). What about this contradiction?
Public debt which soared in the course of the financial crisis was used as a lifebelt by neoliberals. Before the crisis the rationale behind neoliberal policies was the “free market”, now it is the alleged need to reduce public debt. The justification has changed, but the policies and their outcomes have not.
Τwo years have passed since SYRIZA was defeated and capitulated to the lenders in 2015. What is your own assessment of the so far governance of Alexis Tsipras and how does it influence the developments in Europe?
All of us who fought in solidarity initiatives in Germany and elsewhere were also defeated two years ago. But to say the truth, at least in Germany many of us were disappointed but not surprised. We knew our government, and from the beginning we fully aware of the imbalance of powers in the EU. Of course we had hoped that social movements across Europe can outweigh to some extent this imbalance, but altogether we were simply too weak and none of our governments could be forced to be more flexible regarding the demands of the Syriza government. The Memoranda reflect the current political leeway of an isolated left-wing government in a small and economically weak EU country. I understand the turn of the Greek government in the summer of 2015 as an attempt to avoid the worst, and my impression is that they are trying very hard to find and use the smallest loopholes for moderations of the unevitable. I imagine how painful it is to suffer from the outcomes of these bad «compromises» in the MoU. But I have no doubt that the suffering would have been even worse, much worse, when ND or Pasok had still been in office. Even if it hurts, we should not forget who caused this terrible situation before 2015 — in Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere, but also in Athens.
* Η Μέρκελ θα δεχτεί πιέσεις εκ των έσω να μετατοπιστεί δεξιότερα / Angela Merkel will be pressured from within to move right (29.9.2017)
Novel Encounters, a festival celebrating Greek and Irish fiction, will take place from October 18 to 20. Organised by the Durrell Library of Corfu and the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting of the Ionian University, Novel Encounters aims to create a forum for Greek and Irish writers to discuss the issue of ‘Writing and Identity’. The festival will present four Irish novelists – Katy Hayes, Deirdre Madden, Mia Gallagher and Paraic O’ Donnell – and four Greek novelist, namely Christos Chrissopoulos, Panos Karnezis, Sophia Nikolaidiou and Ersi Sotiropoulos. The festival will also showcase translations relating to two Corfiot writers, Konstantinos Theotokis (1872-1923) and Theodore Stephanides (1896-1983) and translation will be discussed as a means of communication between cultures.
Reading Greece* spoke to Richard Pine, Director of the Durrell Library of Corfu (formerly the Durrell School), which he founded in 2002. Richard Pine was born in London, and educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Dublin. He worked as an administrator and editor in Radio Telefís Éireann (the Irish national broadcasting service) until his early retirement in 1999, in addition to pursuing his interests in music education, theatre history and media studies. He has presented and appeared in over 100 radio and television broadcasts for Radio Telefis Éireann and the BBC. He was for many years a trustee of the Royal Irish Academy of Music (of which he is an honorary Fellow), and deputy music critic for The Irish Times. He is also an obituarist for the Guardian newspaper.
His twelve books include The Diviner: the art of Brian Friel (1990, 2nd edition 1999), The Thief of Reason: Oscar Wilde and Modern Ireland (1995), The Disappointed Bridge: Ireland and the Post-Colonial World (2014) and Greece Through Irish Eyes (2015). He lives in Corfu and writes a regular column on Greek affairs for The Irish Times; he was also a frequent contributor to the Anglo-Hellenic Review until it ceased publication in 2015.
Novel Encounters, a festival celebrating Greek and Irish writing, will focus on writing and identity. Tell us a few things about the scope of the festival.
The central theme is “encounter”: for the first time, four Irish novelists and four Greek novelists will meet and share their ideas about their writing and their place in their respective societies.
Each novelist will make a statement on the theme “Writing and Identity”. They will then read from some of their latest work. For the past few months, students at the Ionian University (Dept of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting) have been working on translating these pages and this is a central part of my philosophy – to involve Corfiot people in anything that we organise in the Durrell Library. Also, to reflect on Corfiot culture; in this festival, we have a special focus on translations of, and by, two Corfiot writers, Konstantinos Theotokis (1872-1923) and Theodore Stephanides (1896-1983).
The Irish participation is made possible by funds from the Irish Embassy but unfortunately no Greek funding body could give anything to pay for the Greek writers, so their expenses are paid by the Rothschild Foundation. It seems that at a time of austerity this kind of cultural funding is reduced or even disappears and this is entirely misguided: at a time of austerity, cultural funding should be increased, in order to make people more aware that there is a life beyond economics.
You have stated that Greece Through Irish Eyes was “the result of an urgent need to explain this country to Irish readers”. Greece and Ireland: Where do the two cultures converge and what are the main points of divergence? And, in turn, what are the main misconceptions about Greece in Ireland and in Anglo-Saxon countries in general? How has the narrative about Greece changed over the years?
I think from my long (50 years) experience of Ireland and my new (15 years) of experience of Greece, that the central issue in common for both countries is: where do we, and our distinctive cultures, belong? Joining the EEC (now the EU) was a major step for both cultures and their economies. When Karamanlis stated “Greece belongs to the West” he really started a great debate about the character and destiny of Greece. Is Greece really “western” in the implied sense of being “modern” - or is it irrevocably a Balkan country (arguably the focal point of the Balkans) with a very unWestern mindset that is not necessarily “eastern” either? Much “East-West” tension is misguided: east and west can live together and understand one another, but Greece is both east and west and should not be forced to choose between.
In the same way, Ireland is in many ways different from the mainland of Europe. It's on the west, of course, but the “Celtic fringe” of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, even Brittany and the Basque country, has a celtic heritage that is quite different from the dominant culture of central Europe and the “great” powers that have dominated history and continue to dominate politics today. This distinctiveness should be maintained and celebrated.
Irish people probably thought very little about Greece except as a holiday destination until the economic crises made both countries very aware of each other. I don't mean just the way Irish and Greek people experienced financial loss and insecurity. I mean something much deeper – the growing awareness that here are two peoples, on the peripheries of Europe and the EU, which they have never really been able to understand. They each have a huge mythology from prehistoric times, a strong relationship with the sea, a very significant diaspora, due largely to emigration during previous periods of crisis (such as famine), the experience of foreign domination and a war of independence, a civil war, and the transition from a rural way of life to urbanisation and a money economy. There is a very fertile imagination that makes their storytelling very vital, very persuasive, very resonant in the minds of all people who come from marginal cultures which are nevertheless deeply meaningful in terms of spirituality, chthonic presences and the relation of the individual to society.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney became aware of the writings of George Seferis and understood this deeper level of appreciation of “topos” - of “where you are defines you”. And they both won the Nobel Prize to acknowledge this unique gift of conveying depth of meaning into the lives of ordinary people. I found the same characteristics in the writings of Alexandros Papadiamandis and Liam O'Flaherty (from the Aran Islands on the west of Ireland) – the same attention to small personal details, the same worship of the local, the same understanding of small things, so I drew them together in a chapter of my book The Disappointed Bridge: Ireland and the Post-Colonial World.
I continue to write a monthly column for The Irish Times on Greek affairs – and when he launched my book Greece Through Irish Eyes in Athens in 2015 the Irish Ambassador at the time, Noel Kilkenny, said that I was the main source of information about Greece for Irish readers. Some Irish readers criticise me because they think I am blind to Greek faults (which I am not!) and because they think Greeks have brought their troubles on their own heads and don't require sympathy. But my answer is that I “love and mourn Greece” - that is, I celebrate what is great and beautiful about Greece and the Greeks, and I criticise where it is necessary, especially the burden of bureaucracy, the lack of planning in areas like tourism, and the failure to support cultural initiatives except with lip-service that doesn't work.
In 2001 you founded the Durrell School of Corfu that, for thirteen years, hosted seminars on literature and the protection of the environment in the name of the brothers Gerald and Lawrence Durrell who had lived in Corfu in 1930s. How did you embark on such a venture? What about your experience after more than 15 years in Corfu?
I knew Lawrence Durrell quite well, and I wrote a book, which is the only comprehensive study of his work – including the unpublished work and his notebooks (Lawrence Durrell: the Mindscape, 1994, second edition 2005). I knew that I wanted to set up a “Durrell School” to explore the work of both brothers, Lawrence and Gerald, through the medium of international seminars and publications, and this succeeded for 13 years – about 25 seminars and seven books, including Theodore Stephanides' Corfu Memoirs and a volume of essays on The Ionian Islands: their history and culture. These were important because I had the same philosophy right from the start: to involve Corfiots in our discussions and to reflect on the Corfiot heritage. This continues today in the “Gerald Durrell Week” in May each year, exploring the flora and fauna, which he celebrated in My Family and Other Animals. - this is supervised by Lee Durrell, Gerald's widow, at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey.
I decided that Corfu was the most appropriate place because they had both lived here in the 1930s, each of them had, at that time, decided on the direction of their life's work, which they owed to their experience in Corfu, and also because Corfu is such a cultural centre with such a fascinating history. I love this island and its people, and I'm going to die here and be buried here. I love the parts of the island interior that have not yet been spoiled by tourist development or the get-rich-quick boys showing off their new-found wealth, and especially I love Corfu city, a cosmopolitan centre of literature, music, painting, culpture for many centuries.
This festival is a new initiative of the Durrell Library, but I hope we will get the funding to follow it next year with a “Music Encounters” event bringing together Irish and Greek musicians and composers in association with the music department at the Ionian University - one of the best music departments in the whole of Greece. The new Irish Ambassador, Orla O'Hanrahan, has already identified cultural relations between Ireland and Greece as a key priority in her agenda, and we hope to work with her and her team in supporting this priority.
And then in 2019 I will be involved in a major new idea: creating a Chamber Orchestra of Irish and Greek music students. This is envisaged as a pilot project leading to the creation of an international training centre for the very specialised type of chamber orchestra playing, based in Corfu and run by the Royal Irish Academy of Music and the Ionian University, and involving students throughout Europe, but especially from Albania and southern Italy (with which Corfu has strong ties) as well as Ireland and Greece. But for this we have to find a major sponsor!
“Many of the problems that have arisen in the country’s dealings with its European partners over the last few years stem from the inability of non-Greeks to understand what Greekness is”. In your opinion, what are the constituent elements of Greekness?
In brief: first, the sense of a topos – of “being here”. Second, a commitment to family. Third, the deep sense of honour (filotimía) and dignity, and relationships outside the family, especially when they involve obligations such as debt - ipochréosi. Fourth, a sense of the past and a distrust in the future for themselves, but a sense of hope for their children.
I am an atheist, but, at the risk of sounding “old-fashioned”, these to me are “spiritual qualities” that are, as you say, “constituents” of Greekness, but let's go further and say that they are the “heart” of Greekness. Even in today's world of globalisation, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, it's not shameful to acknowledge a sense of place, a set of cultural and ethical values and a way of living one's life by those values. And I think Greeks demonstrate this more easily than most people.
“One of the items in my wish list is for more Greek writers to get translated into English”. Would you say that the Greek crisis has ignited the interest of foreign readers in Greek literature? And, in turn, does Greek literature have the potential to attract a foreign audience?
YES YES YES!!!! Not only do non-Greeks want to read the “great” or “classic” novels that they already know about (Kazantzakis, in particular) but they are now discovering what a huge wealth of literature exists. And if you look for example at the novels of Konstantinos Theotokis (recently translated by my friend Mark Davies, including Slaves in their Chains) or the stories of Alexandros Papadiamandis, you realise that although they were written a century ago they are still vibrant indicators of modern Greece and of all societies emerging from the mysteries of the past into the mysteries of tomorrow.
Because I can't read Greek very well, I have to rely on translations. I once asked a friend why there are so many novels about war and misery – why not girls, and chocolate, and sunshine? His answer? There are of course these books in Greek but they don't get translated because good news doesn't travel so well as war and misery. And now? Due to austerity the funding for translation has disappeared! This is yet another example of the wrong-headed policy of retrenchment. There should be a multiple of the funding to create as much awareness as possible of the literary greatness of modern Greece among readers throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
And I don't mean only “literary” work. I mean the thrillers by writers like Petros Markaris with Inspector Charitos, and someone I discovered the other day, Leo Kanaris's Codename Xenophon – not only a good thriller but a sceptical view of the current crisis.
But in answering your question, let me say that, in bringing together the Irish novelists and the Greek novelists, there could be almost no end to the Greeks we could have invited: I personally am fascinated by works like Fotini Tsalikoglou's The Secret Sister and the novels of Ioanna Karystianni and Yiorgi Yatromanolakis, and luckily these are available in translation. But there are so many more and the Greek authorities are not doing enough to make us aware of them!
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Read more: Reading Greece: Ersi Sotiropoulos on the Correlation between Art and Life and Literature as a Way to the Non-Existent and the Inevitably Potential; Reading Greece: Sophia Nikolaidou on the Representation of Greece’s Political Past in Contemporary Literature, the Prospects of the Greek Educational System and Literature as a Human Learning Experience; Reading Greece: Christos Chryssopoulos, Writer at Home, Photographer at Large
The draft law on legal recognition of gender identity passed in the Greek Parliament this Tuesday 10/10/17 with 171 MPs supporting the bill in principle and 114 voting against. Article 3, for the right of persons to change their legal gender at the age of 15, was passed with 148 votes in favour out of a total of 285 MPs present. Ruling coalition leader SYRIZA and the Potami party voted in favour of the bill in principle, as well as the individual articles. Main opposition New Democracy, Far-right Golden Dawn, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and the Centrists Union voted against the bill in its entirety while the Democratic Alliance voted in favour for everything except article 3, where it abstained.
Maria Yannakaki, Secretary General for Transparency and Human Rights at the Ministry of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights that intoduced the bill, spoke to Greek News Agenda*, about transgender rights as humans rights, the most important changes introduced by the new law, the problems trans people face in Greece and finally, the importance of bringing "taboo" discussions into public debate in order to challenge misconceptions and move society foward.
The legal recognition of gender identity has been a long standing claim of the LGBTQI+ community. Can you tell us why this is a human rights issue?
Social justice only stands when all citizens are treated equally and are protected as citizens; even though they may belong to groups with characteristics that differentiate them from the social majority. Such a group is our LGBTQI+ fellow citizens. There were numerous occasions where these citizens were a target of racist behaviour - be that verbal, psychological or physical abuse. Additionally, and deeper into societal justice issue: Due to the social stigma they faced if they came out, these people often suppressed their own true selves and tried to live under an identity that wasn’t their own, in order to achieve what all other citizens are entitled to, such as get a home to live in, get a job, get equal treatment in any public aspect of their lives. The core purpose of the gender recognition as law is exactly that: to abolish the administrative reasons underlying the unfair treatment of these citizens and to allow them to live their life as the person they feel they are. Respect towards human values, without any exceptions and exclusions, is the foundation of our democratic culture and it does not come a la carte, but as a duty of our State. Not a moral one, but a constitutional one. And the constitutional confirmation and protection of Human Rights is at the core of our political identity as a government.
What does the bill include? Which are the most important changes it introduces?
The most important change this bill introduces is the fact that a person who would like to legally proceed to a gender transition is no longer obliged to go through a surgical operation or get medical approval to do so. The way the person experiences their gender identity, the person’s own free will, is the only factor taken into account to legally proceed with gender transition and the procedure is the same one that applies to any other case in which a citizen of this country wants to change a part of identity information, such as their name. This bill, in a few words, gives the chance to anyone who wishes to correct their “official” gender information without them having to go through an undesired sterilization or surgical process. Furthermore, the bill also includes the right of persons between the age of 15 to 17 to proceed with the correction, provided they have their parents’ or legal guardians’ consent and the approval of a medical board.
The LGBTQI+ community has expressed concerns about certain elements of the bill, such as the maintenance of the judicial procedure -rather than a simpler administrative act- and the exclusion of married people from the process. How do you comment?
Is Greek society conservative? What do you think of the level of public debate and the reactions of opposition parties and church to the bill?
I will be absolutely honest in answering this: Greek society is quite conservative, in its majority and one can easily realise that, we all live in the same country and know what we are talking about here. Our society, behind the façade of traditionalism -which helps to uphold family values and this is undoubtedly important- has also kept social groups in the dark, in closets, or simply in roles that were constraining for the persons themselves. Take for example the difficulties faced by women, in the job market, in high ranking positions etc. Greek society is not only conservative towards the LGBTQI+ people, it remains conservative in other aspects as well, despite the progress we have made along decades, after difficult battles fought by activists. And there have been tough clashes for stuff we now take for granted. Such is the case of LGBTQI+ rights as human rights.
Public debate always serves a purpose, it is very important in itself, regardless of the outcome. In our case, it was mainly characterized by loud voices raising moral issues, on the grounds of ethnic traditionalism rather than constitutional equality. But the debate itself shows how far we have come, although there remains double and triple the distance to cover. Issues that were taboo in Greek households, have now reached the parliament and are discussed in the streets. This is the biggest essential victory, because every time such a so called moral issue becomes part of the public debate, the next time it is going to be discussed, the starting discussion point will always be more progressive, people will be used to the idea of discussing such things.
As for the opposition parties in the parliamentary discussion of the bill: All I have to say is that the moment of truth is when it comes down to a vote and hands will be raised or will stay down. When a political party claims to be pro-European, progressive, an ardent defender of human rights and this is claimed to be a core of its political identity, there is no room for cheap oppositional tactics. Human rights are protected globally and universally and cannot be measured in terms of political games.
As for the church, I personally had no illusions or great expectations for it to remain silent or even moderate, although I acknowledge the fact that not all clergy is the same. But I certainly do not see any reason why the church would be an official stakeholder in this. Faith and its practice is a personal issue, it is not to be brought up every time we try to settle civic issues. But this leads us again to what I said earlier about traditionalism and its interference in social justice issues.
What are the most important problems trans people face in Greek society? What are the most common misconceptions about gender identity?
It is truly horrifying for someone to realise the everyday issues trans people have to deal with, things that every other citizen takes for granted, things that are otherwise so trivial and simple technicalities, that most of us don’t even bother to think about. Transgender people face problems with simple procedures such as getting a driver’s license issued, obtaining their travel documents etc. I cannot even begin to imagine how stressful my life and everyone else’s would be if we had to face such issues every day. We are talking about people, citizens, who want to live their day to day routine like the rest of us, in the same terms the majority does. We were not letting them do even that without having to put their personal dignity aside and pretend to be someone they are not, forcing them to even dress and look like someone they are not, in order to be able to proceed with trivial issues of everyday life. Never mind the racist behaviour they occasionally faced, precisely because not even the State itself recognized till now their right to live with dignity.
As for society, unfortunately there is a very large part of it that still has not grasped the fact that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. The most common misconception is definitely this. There just isn’t enough information available to the people, so that they get to learn these differences, and I understand that this is partially our fault, as a State, but also a result of what I was saying before about taboo discussion issues in Greek society.
A large section of society is not deeply negative and “morally” opposed to the gender recognition law. If someone provides them with detailed information on what this bill includes and how these are civic matters, they will understand that this is about equality. Hypocrisy and fear of those different from us, the ones outside society norms will always be there. Unfortunately, there are still too many people who just don’t have the appropriate education and information about these things and we are on that, trying to make these issues visible and provide the right information to those who want to listen. I believe that a whole new starting point was set after the extension of civil partnership to same sex couples in 2015. Since then, the public debate has moved forward, even though some voices, or rather shouts, still remain the same.
How do you evaluate the government's work in the field of human rights? What challenges lie ahead?
This government is very proud to have taken legislative steps in the last 2,5 years in the field of human rights, that -otherwise unfortunately- had not been taken earlier for decades. More specifically, we expanded the application of civil partnership to same sex couples as well, enforced antiracist legislation and legislation against any form of discrimination, and formed a National Council against Racism and Intolerance to compile a national strategy for tackling and preventing these issues, in cooperation with civil society and state authorities.
Also, with Law 4443/2016 for equal treatment, we brought important changes to legislation, as the law applied to a broader frame of cases, the Ombudsman’s responsibilities increased and private sector cases could now be examined by it. We proceeded to the designation of Special Prosecutors responsible for cases of racial violence, in the cities of Athens, Piraeus, Thessaloniki, Patras and Irakleion, and to the abolishment of article 347 of the Penal Code. We took measures to make the life of prisoners better, respecting their rights as humans as well.
Last but not least, the Legal Gender Recognition bill is a Greek State law as of last Tuesday. The fight for human rights is a constant one. I’d like to say, that, as long as there is humanity, this will be a never ending fight. Are the aforementioned taken steps enough for the protection and promotion human rights? The answer is definitely “no”. But we are making progress; we are taking measures in the right direction that should have been taken a long, long time ago. When only 3 years ago Greece was the black sheep in these issues, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe Muiznieks remarked last summer that Greece is the friendliest country regarding human rights. We intend to remain that kind of country.
“When we were watching these movies we were looking for something we hadn’t seen before. We unanimously agree that one film challenged us to see in a new way, and we were seduced by the surprising humanity of its difficult characters. The direction was assured, its tone unique, and we look forward to seeing Elina Psykou’s next work” said the Tribeca Film Festival International Narrative Feature Competition Jury President Willem Dafoe, awarding the Best International Narrative Feature Award to “Son of Sofia / Ο Γιός της Σοφίας”.
Born in Greece in 1977, film director and producer Elina Psykou studied filmmaking and sociology in Athens and continued her studies in cultural history in Paris. Her first feature, "The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas", won the Works in Progress Award at the Karlovy Vary IFF in 2012 and premiered at the Berlinale Forum in 2013. Her second feature, "Son of Sofia", has won so far the Works in Progress Award at the Les Arcs EFF in 2015, the Special Jury award at the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, the CICAE - Art Cinema award at the Sarajevo Film Festival and the Grand Prix of the International Film Festival “Eurasian Bridge” in Yalta.
Victor Khomut, "Son of Sofia" (2017)
Influenced by Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Austrian contemporaries Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl as well as Sofia Coppola, Elina Psykou sets a scenery of magical realism in her “Son of Sofia”, a coming of age film about 11-year-old Misha who arrives from Russia in Athens, during the 2004 summer Olympic Games, to live with his mother, Sofia to find out that there is a father waiting for him there. While Greece is living the Olympic dream, Misha will get violently catapulted into the adult world, riding on the dark side of his favourite fairy tales.
Interviewed by Greek News Agenda* Elina Psykou talks about the ever present protagonists of her films, location and television, stressing that she is intrigued by the interaction of her characters with space, which brings forth feelings of loneliness and alienation. At the same time, Psykou explains how space in “Son of Sofia” excites her young protagonist’s fantasy which has a catalytic role in his formation of identity. Psykou also emphasizes that she believes in the power of emotions as it is the only weapon we have against the hostile environment of the crisis. Asked about the term weird wave used by critics to describe the new generation of Greek filmmakers, she says that exploring weirdness is one of the main elements that prompt her to make films, but it does not constitute a canon among her peers.
Victor Khomut, "Son of Sofia" (2017)
How does the enclosure of the heroes in a dark apartment work in the “Son of Sofia” plot and its balance between magical realism and social criticism?
The main location in both my movies works like an additional character. In my first one, it is an out of action empty hotel somewhere in the countryside and in this movie it is a big old apartment in the centre of Athens. It is like the fourth character next to the three main protagonists. As locations are so important for me, the selection of them is one of my main priorities during the pre-production and it is a procedure that usually lasts a lot of months. But also during the shootings, I am interested a lot in the way that characters interact with space. So, the exact position of each one character inside a room and finally inside the frame plays a great dramaturgic role. In this way, the enclosure of heroes into immense places adds to the dramaturgy. Moreover, isolation and loneliness are the emotions which dominate all my movie characters and these emotions become more intense via their interaction with the locations. Fantasy can be there explored. Long corridors, locked doors, empty rooms can create a magical realistic set, which can excite feelings and the imagination. Finally, all these huge and often dark spaces carry a past luxury, a splendour that doesn’t exist any longer, something that works like a metaphor for the past glory of our society and country. So, in “Son of Sofia” magical realism meets social observation (not criticism) in a dark old apartment.
Victor Khomut, "Son of Sofia" (2017)
Issues of identity are in focus in both your films “Son of Sofia” and “The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas”. How does fantasy affect the process of identity formation in “Son of Sofia”?
Misha, the protagonist of “Son of Sofia”, is an 11 years old boy. He is at this sensitive age, that he is no longer a kid, but not yet an adolescent. In this age, his identity is still under construction. At the same time, as all of the same age, Misha has a great fantasy. He uses his fantasy to escape from reality, to confront his fears, to find solutions and answers to his questions. At all crucial moments of the narration, at all turning points for Misha, his imagination is there to give him courage to continue, to show him the path, to make him stronger. After the end of each magical moment, Misha makes some more steps towards adolescence; he approaches adult life a bit more. His fantasy’s sequences form his identity, they work like transitions. At the end of the film, Misha will not be a kid any more, and the ages of innocence would have been passed for ever.
Thanasis Papageorgiou, Valery Tcheplanowa and Victor Khomut, "Son of Sofia" (2017)
As you have said in an interview“, for me, TV is like a personal obsession. I like to use it in most of my works”. How does it affect the protagonists of your films?
You can say that TV, like locations, is also a character in both my movies. Some of my heroes work or used to work on TV as journalists, show presenters, even as extras in TV series. My heroes also watch a lot of TV, which is their way to be informed, to be amused, to be educated. It is their job, their everyday life and company, but also their illusion. In all ways, it is a constant presence in their whole lives.
You keep your distance from your heroes, allowing the spectator become the creator of meaning. Are human beings capable of building deep emotional ties in the hostile environment of the crisis?
It is true that I keep an emotional distance from my heroes - because I don’t want to criticize their actions - but in the end I believe my movies explore and provoke emotions and have something deeply human.
The era we live in is strange. The more people struggle to cover their basic needs, the more it becomes difficult for communication and expression of feelings. Every one of us becomes more and more introvert, sinking in our own problems and anxieties. Moreover, the antagonism between people becomes more evident. Nevertheless, I believe in the power of emotions, and that the only weapon we have against this hostile environment is our feelings.
Valery Tcheplanowa and Victor Khomut, "Son of Sofia" (2017)
Contemporary Greek cinema has gained momentum and critics talk of the New Greek Weird Wave. Nevertheless, none of the Greek directors seems enthusiastic about the term Weird. What do you think about that?
Personally, I don’t believe in labels like these. This kind of classification helps journalists and film critics to categorize movies, making their job easier. There are many talented Greek directors, with no common characteristics, with different styles in terms of narration and aesthetics. There is no common philosophy between them, like there was in Danish dogma for example. As far as I am concerned, of course I am part of this new generation of Greek filmmakers, but this doesn’t compose a school or a wave.
As to the term “weird”, for me, it is not a taboo, I like weirdness and weird characters, there are a lot of them among us, and in a way, this is one of the main reasons I make movies: To explore weirdness and darkness in the common people’s everyday life. As weirdness was in my mind before journalists discovered and named it, for me it is a lot more than a term, it is my code for understanding life, communicating, laughing and crying. Finally, you can also find weirdness in some old Greek movies and not only in last years’ productions; there is weirdness in world cinema too, not only in Greek.
What are your future plans?
I am working on my first documentary Europe, Oh Europe which is already supported by Creative Europe and Eave. It is about five Europeans, who, due to legal restrictions in their countries, seek to cross European borders to accomplish their dreams of gay marriage or fertility treatment and find solutions to their life struggles through abortion, euthanasia and cremation. I’m also writing the script for my third feature.
Read also: Elina Psykou’s Interview with Cineuropa: “It is a game of metaphors and symbols”, “Son of Sofia” Synopsis and cast, film review by Cineuropa, Little White Lies: 25 new films by female directors you need to see, Variety film review, Let the movies move me film review, and Psykou’s interview with Marvin Brown.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
The number of Greek agri-food businesses represented at the Greek national pavilion of the upcoming Anuga 2017 exhibition, the world's largest and most important trade fair for food and beverages, is set to increase by 30%.
The Greek pavilion, organized by thestate trade and investment agency, Enterprise Greece, and covering an area of roughly 2,800 square meters, will host 160 businesses showcasing a wide range of Greek food products. The fair, held once every two years, is set to take place Oct. 7-11 in Cologne, Germany and is visited by around 160,000 visitors who discover the latest and most innovative products of over 7,400 exhibitors.
Under the slogan “Invest in Taste”, the Greek presentation will convey the message that choosing Greek products is an investment in taste, quality and well-being. At the same time, it is an open invitation to foreign investors to invest in the promising and dynamic agri-food sector of Greece, one of the fastest growing business sectors in the Greek economy.
In addition, Enterprise Greece, will outfit an especially designed “Greece Gourmet” room. The venue will provide visitors with the opportunity to enjoy Greek cuisine, conduct business meetings, learn about the competitive advantages of Greek food producers, and get to know the Greek exhibitors.
Greek News Agenda* interviewed Christos Staikos, Chairman of Enterprise Greece on the reasons of the rise and the expectations from the Greek Participation in this year’s Anuga World Food Fair.
The main reason is on account of the increase in Greek exports. According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, exports increased in the first six months of 2017 approximately 6% in value terms compared with the same period in 2016 (excluding petroleum products), and reached 11 billion euros. The significance of that increase needs to be viewed in the context of Greece's circumstances these past few years. We regard that as an achievement and Greek exporters should be congratulated for their efforts.
During the period 2009-2016, food exports increased from 3 billion euros to 4 billion euros showing a remarkable resilience. For the last two years (2015-2016), exports in food and wine have increased approximately 15%, a very positive development for the Greek agro food sector and the Greek economy in general. The German market is the second largest market for Greek food products in value terms after Italy, totaling 720 million euros in 2016. In retail sales terms, the German market may even be the biggest market for Greek food products given that a large portion of the exports to Italy are of unbranded agricultural products [wholesale agricultural products].
Because of that, along with the fact that ANUGA is the biggest commercial event in the world, those are the main reasons why Greek participation has steadily risen in the last few years.
Moreover, in 2015, Greece was the honoured country at the exhibition, which helped in particular with promoting Greek food products. As a result, many exporters are hoping for a big turnout at the national pavilion and for further increase in their exports around the world.
Naturally, the excellent work done by our agency in organizing the Greek participation is yet another incentive for exporters to take part in ANUGA.
What are the expectations arising from Greece's participation in Anuga?
First of all, we would like to see an overall strong national presence that would demonstrate how our country has something to offer at a global event like ANUGA. The presence of almost all our traditional exporters, as well as many start-up companies makes us optimistic that our exports will continue on their upward path in the years ahead.
At the same time, it is a very good opportunity to promote Greek gastronomy through the promotional activities we plan at the GREECE Gourmet space, where Greek exhibitors and their foreign partners will be able to sample Greek dishes made with love from the finest Greek ingredients.
What are Greece’s competitive advantages in the agro - food sector?
What we have been saying for years now: the quality. The progress that has been made in the last few years in branding Greek food products will help them succeed even in the most difficult markets in the world. The spread of the Mediterranean diet is the best advertisement. With the slogan ‘Invest in Taste’, we invite consumers from around the world to buy Greek products and recognize that it is worth investing in their incomparable quality and high nutritional value.
Enterprise Greece is the official agency of the Greek State, under the supervision of the Ministry of Economy & Development, to showcase Greece as an attractive destination for investment and to promote the highly competitive products and services produced in Greece for export. The establishment of Enterprise Greece is the result of the enlargement of Invest in Greece S.A., incorporating, among others, the mandate of the Hellenic Foreign Trade Board. Enterprise Greece assists foreign investors and enterprises to do business with Greece, troubleshoots issues related to public administration, provides key information about Greece as an investment destination and promotes the investment sectors in which Greece excels. In addition, it promotes Greek products and services to the global marketplace, helps Greek businesses reach new markets, find new business partners, and become more competitive and attractive.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Read also: Greek Food and agriculture sector, Chairman of Enterprise Greece: "Greece today is ready to turn the corner", Enterprise Greece 650 investment opportunities presented in Greece, “Three-generation” Greek Golden Visa programme for real estate investors in Greece
Costas Douzinas is Syriza MP for the Pireus A’ constituency and Chair of the Standing Committee of Defence and Foreign Affairs. He is Professor of Law and Philosophy, Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London and member of the Greek Commission on Human Rights. Douzinas was the founder of the Birkbeck School of Law, the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and the School of Law of the University of Cyprus. He is the editor of the journal Law and Critique and managing editor of Birkbeck Law Press.
Professor Douzinas has written on legal and political philosophy, human rights, aesthetics and literature. His many books, translated in twelve languages, include (2013) Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe, (2007) Human Rights and Empire: The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism, (2005) Critical Jurisprudence: The Political Philosophy of Justice (with Adam Gearey), (2000) The End of Human Rights: Critical Legal Through at the Fin-de-Siecle, (1998) Law and the Emotions: Prolegomeana for a Psychoanalytic Approach to Legal Study, (1995) Justice Miscarried: Aesthetics and the Law, (1991) Postmodern Jurisprudence, (1986) Between Utopia and Apologetics: Constitutionalism and Critical Theory. His latest book and the first he wrote while being an MP, is entitled (2017) Syriza in Power. He is frequent contributor to the Guardian and openDemocracy and writes a fortnightly column entitled Philosophical and Political Current in the Athens daily Efimerida ton Syntakton.
Interviewed by Greek News Agenda* and commenting on the German electoral result, professor Douzinas points out that the rise of the far right in the recent German elections is an expression of the crisis of the traditional political establishments globally and that it will drive Germany to push towards further securitization of the EU’ s immigration policy. He does not expect significant changes as far as the Greek debt issue is concerned, foreseeing that austerity will remain the gist of German policy. He also underlines that Europe is going through a phase of decline as democracy and social justice subside, while capitalism gallops and Nationalism reemerges. Brexit, he comments, adds another piece to Europe’s existential crisis puzzle, but offers at the same time an opportunity for Europe to reconsider its priorities. In this context, he argues, it is the duty of the Left to try to cure the democratic deficit in the EU by proposing institutional reforms and democratic changes that could unite the European peoples.
For many European leaders, Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France seemed to indicate a significant change as far as the rise of the far right was concerned. In an atmosphere of complacency, they saw the German elections as a window of opportunity that would allow EU authorities to focus on starting the process of the most ambitious negotiations of eurozone reforms since the Maastricht treaty. The result of the German elections, however proved how delusional this complacency was. The elections were another expression of the crisis the traditional political establishments across the world is going through, with the rise of the far right being—at least for now—its most characteristic expression. And the end of this rise does not seem to be very close. My prediction—and I truly hope I am mistaken—is that we will witness similar developments in the upcoming elections in Austria, Denmark, etc. Yet, the case of Germany is probably the most alarming. The reason is quite obvious. As historians and other public commentators have shown, ever since the ‘Historikerstreit’, postwar collective memory in Germany was shaped by the traumatic experience of WWII, and a collective guilt which usually remained silent. Politically, this guilt was expressed by recognizing the historic responsibility of Germany to stand against fascism and any form of aggressive nationalism.
The rise of AfD in a way has turned this upside down. Its leaders have said that Germans should not feel guilty of their past, that they should be proud of it. But here we need to be careful. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the rise of the AfD did not come out of the blue; nor is it just the sudden comeback of oppressed beliefs and emotions. It is in fact the end result of a politics of ‘talking’ about the past that became a sort of official policy after German unification. This politics of ‘negative nationalism’ was expressed by repeatedly speaking about the guilt in public, by condemning antisemitism, and of course the Holocaust. This ‘talking’ came through various means: official discourses, history courses, making of museums, exhibitions, films etc. So, talking about the elephant in the room (the Nazi past) was in fact promoted and facilitated by political power. What is new with the AfD is that it says unashamedly that it does not care about the elephant in the room.
So, to come back to your question, it seems to me that Merkel and the coalition she will form (even if the Greens are a part of it) will continue her previous policies, but with a significant right-wing touch in immigration policy. Merkel will be looking towards the AfD, even if publicly condemning it, because this is where her voters turned to. This will further the securitization of EU immigration/refugee policy. And this is not good news for Greece and, more generally, Europe. As far as the Greek debt issue is concerned, I do not think that we will see significant changes (at least coming straight from the German side). The liberals of the FDP are in favour of supporting financially Greece, so Grexit is off the table (especially now that Schaeuble is leaving the Finance ministry). But that also means that austerity will remain the gist of German policy, even if the FDP pushes for tax reductions. Yet, on this, we should also wait and see how the negotiations on the eurozone reforms will unfold and the extent to which these talks will take austerity and the current economic orthodoxy in the EU for granted.
As you have mentioned in an interview, the EU will not be the same next year. Would you like to elaborate?
We had the German elections with the results and the possible changes in German policy we talked about. Think of what comes next. Elections in Denmark, Austria, where I think the turn towards the far-right will continue and of course Brexit. I think it does not take a wise man to say that the EU will not be the same next year. But I think the change goes beyond the EU, the institutions that we Europeans have made. Europe as an entity and an identity will not be the same next year. Let me bring Freud into the discussion. In his essay ‘Mourning and melancholy’ he argued that mourning is a reaction to losing beloved persons or ideals. From today’s perspective, what Freud is telling us is that what we have experienced here in Greece during these last years – the abandoned lives of the refugees and the EU coup against Greece—are connected.
In what ways are they connected? They are both symptoms of Europe’s decline. A decline that concludes a long historical process and stands as the climax of three historic cycles that saw Europe move from triumph to marginalization. The first cycle opened in the 15th century with the Renaissance, and the discoveries of the new world. During its course, Europe became the centre, head and capital of the world. It exported capital and political forms (the nation state) to other parts of the world, including its colonies; it informed the liberating movements in the Americas, in Asia, and in Africa; it provided in short, an intellectual geography. And the Mediterranean was in fact at the heart of this geography. For Hegel, it was the centre of global history, for Braudel the light of Europe, its workshop of trade and culture. Today this light is lost in Lampedusa. The Mediterranean has become a graveyard, a place where lives and dreams of a better life are lost. The light of Europe fades away. Where does this leave Europe? To use Dipesh Chakrabarty’s words, Europe has been provincialized, it has become a province of Asia, it is being led by its ex colonies.
The second cycle was the European civil war of the short twentieth century. What characterized this phase was, on the one hand, the European world wars, and on the other, the deadly competition between capitalism and communism. This phase ended with the defeats of Germany and of communism. But the dialectic of history transformed the triumph into self-destruction. The biggest loser was the welfare state, one of the major outcomes of the civil war and of the working-class movement. The other loser was the colonial world. Without ever thinking about the sustainability of states after liberation, the developing world was condemned to wars, underdevelopment, and migration.
The third cycle started in 1989. It was the cycle of the ‘new global order’ and the ‘end of history’. Neoliberalism as the higher stage of history. But dialectic took again its revenge. The triumph of capitalism and the destruction of its adversary made the elites audacious and led to the steady disconnection between capitalism and democracy. Their audacity did not just hurt, if not destroyed the welfare state but also the idea of Europe. In our own days, the ‘markets’ are more important than the people, elections are seen as unimportant details and social justice is being mocked as a relic of the past. Nationalism is back, the North blames the South for laziness, class differences are translated again into national tensions and conflicts. Fortress Europe builds walls and is responsible for making the mare nostrum into a graveyard of the unwanted who come from outside in order to ‘protect’ those privileged within. In the Mediterranean and in Brussels the third cycle is coming to an end. In March 1938 Freud wrote in his notebook ‘Finis Austriae’. I hate to be bleak, but if Europe does not change fast, then the ‘Finis Europae’ is closer than we think.
Brexit is an ongoing saga with many plot twists and no foreseeable ending for the time being. Nevertheless, what do you think its impact on European Integration has been so far?
Brexit clearly adds another piece to the EU’s great existential crisis. As to its impact, we are still watching in a way. Although I hate to see Britain go, I do think that Brexit presented and presents a kind of chance for Europe. For the time being, this chance is being highjacked by the security and defense hawks. When EU leaders speak about fuller integration, they do so when they discuss security issues, and defense strategies, such as a fully-fledged European defense union or the establishment of a European cybersecurity agency. In the best of their moments they talk about integration when they refer to the rule of law. But even there they are rather selective. One can only look at the ways in which governments in Poland or Hungary always manage to somehow get away with rights violations. What I am saying is that European integration will be enhanced, but the crucial question is what kind of integration this is going to be. An economic and political integration without a proper economic union, without shared policies and values on welfare and justice, fiscal transfers, and a banking union will only add insult to the already injured political body of Europe. The point is to stop the process of decline I already talked to you about. The worst thing that can happen will be to move towards a three-geared EU: one with Germany and other northern countries at its head, the post-communist states as satellites of the head and the Mediterranean countries as third-class participants.
This is why we need initiatives that will question how the debate on Europe is being formed, that will question the priorities posed by EU leaders. It is our job as professors and parliamentarians to facilitate such initiatives. A good place to start is of course the parliament – which for many years has remained either oblivious to such debates or, as my experience has taught me, rather inward looking when it comes to such issues. This could also run counter to what has been an international trend, the downgrading of the parliament. Indeed during the last 30-40 years the parliament’s role has lessened while the power, capacity and competencies of the executive have increased. This has to be addressed. The parliaments have to be reenergized. In my capacity as chairman of the Committee of national defense and foreign affairs, we are arranging a series of joint-meetings with the Committee of EU affairs dedicated on Brexit. The reason is something that many people do not realise. Brexit will greatly impact Greece, our students, employees, shipowners, property owners, businessmen, the tourism industry, etc. When the Brexit “divorce” is settled, Greece’s relations with Britain will be different. To understand, and analyze this process and resolve problems that will potentially arise, we need special knowledge; and it is important that the Parliament participates in this process as its role is to hold the state mechanism accountable but also to provide assistance so that there is full knowledge of what is happening.
My personal opinion is that there is great potential, even if the circumstances are not ideal. Note for example what the Left is doing in Portugal, here in Greece, and even in Britain where Labour is hitting back. The same goes in other parts of the world. So, the question is what the Left is to do. The first thing, we leftists have to do is evade the dilemma ‘Yes or No to Europe’ and say ‘Yes to another kind of Europe’. In order to do that, we need to learn from our mistakes and start all over. What mistakes you may ask? The first was our failure to create a European people, a demos. We failed to create the consciousness that we belong to the same cultural, political and economic space. The second is related to what we euphemistically call democratic deficit, which is a mild way to talk about the total lack of any sort of democracy at the EU level; something which in fact neoliberal forces seek to constitutionalise. The word ‘referendum’ is an evil word in Brussels since whenever the European peoples have been called to vote in a referendum, they have rejected decisively the ‘European position’.
The delegitimization of the European plan has created an historic chance for greater deliberation that would put the emphasis on the deepening of democracy, on the recognition of cultural diversity and of indigeneity. The hegemonic social elites do not care about these things. The responsibility thus falls on the European left—with its institutional naïveté, its youth, its necessary ‘rudeness’—to propose institutional reforms and democratic changes that could unite the European peoples. Its major characteristic should be the re-politicisation of our societies, the direct participation of European citizens in the decision making at the local, national and European level. This would have to be combined with a new European contract for labour and the recognition of cultural diversity. If EU initiatives lead to a better way of life of European citizens, then the interest of the people to participate will be enhanced.
Are such initiatives possible in such a hostile environment? This is difficult to implement of course. It is necessary to form somehow a new constituent assembly of citizens, movements and parties that go beyond existing institutions. Without a radical change now, the future of Europe seems, as I already pointed out, bleak. But we do need to try, and we do need to do so right away. As a song used to say, ‘what better place than here? What better time than now?’.
Visit also Open Athens. Politics, Theory, Culture ed. by Costas Douzinas
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Special thanks to Michalis Sotiropoulos for his significant contribution to making this interview possible.
Phoebe Giannisi, born in Athens, is the author of six books of poetry, including Homerica (Kedros, 2009) and Rhapsodia (Gutenberg, 2016). She also holds a PhD in Classics from Lyon ΙΙ-Lumière published as Récits des Voies. Chant et cheminement en Grèce archaïque (Grenoble: Editions Jérôme Millon, 2006). Her work focuses on the borders between poetry and performance, installation, theory and representation, and investigates the connections of poetics with body and place. A 2015–2016 Humanities Fellow of Columbia University, Giannisi is an Associate Professor at the University of Thessaly.
Selected group exhibitions include the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark (2011), Hungarian University of Fine Arts, Budapest (2010), the Lyon Biennale (2009), Guggenheim New York (2013), Bauhaus Dessau (2015). In 2010 she was co-curator for the Greek Pavilion of the 12th International Architecture Exhibition (La Biennale di Venezia). In 2012-13, her poetic video/sound installation about the Cicada, TETTIX, was exhibited at the Museum of National Art (EMST), Athens. In 2015 she exhibited her work project about Goats AIGAI_O at the Angeliki Chatzimichali Museum in Athens (with Iris Lycourioti). In October 2016, she presented her performance/lecture Nomos_The Land Song at Onassis Center, New York.
Phoebe Giannisi spoke to Reading Greece* about the way her poetry evolved over the years, noting that for her, “making poetry means admiring language; being moved by, meditating on, listening to, searching through language”. She comments that a crucial question posed in poetry is “in Socrates’ words, to know oneself, the poetic self, that speaking voice in a poem”, adding that “poetry is but a response to stimuli, which touch, permeate and agitate the body”. Asked about the meeting point between poetry and the natural world in her writings, she explains that that “the so-called ‘natural’ world is [her] window to poetry”, that “the bodily senses are mediated by their expressiveness through constructed language, which means poetry or philosophy, the first ax that dug this world”.
She concludes by commenting on the current literary and artistic production in Greece, noting that “nowadays art in Greece witnesses the advent of many significant and positive elements”, that “a new form of art is thus happening, claiming the “commons” in general, against discriminations, and connected to practices of care for the other and for the weak whether it is human or nonhuman”. “I firmly believe that poetry is a field of freedom that constantly redraws itself and its boundaries. Poetry is not just a subject but a way, poetry is a becoming […] Yes, poetry can be a revolutionary therapy since it is written with no usable value whatsoever”.
From Sea Urchins in 1995 to Rhapsody in 2016. Have there been any recurrent points of reference in your poetry? And, in turn, how has your poetry evolved over the years?
When I, or everybody, do attempt a flashback at my life or my work, I am conscious as everyone that such recast is different depending on the moment it takes place; for this reason it is false and true at the same time. So I can only say that I came up today (July-September 2017) with the following landmarks:
As a child I was an ardent reader of prose and mythology. But then, in my teenage years - my years of ephebeia - Elytis woke me up poetically arousing a physical excitement, and causing the experience of a kind of loss in poetic intoxication (to use Baudelaire’s words: “il faut toujours être ivre”). Nowadays many Greek poets despise Elytis exactly for the laudatory construction of Greece that is attributed to him, but the creative misinterpretation of the father, is a prerequisite for “ephebe” poets, if we take Harold Bloom’s theory. So I do not deny my initial love for him, given that the excitement and transformation in the teenage/erotic body during the summer has since become for me the emblematic condition of the poetic moment, the moment that throws straight into poetry. Elytis then has been interrelated with modern Greek prose writers along with Ritsos, Arthur Rimbaud, and Federico Garcia Lorca; that was a lyrical-epic era.
Later, and under the influence of E.X. Gonatas, that I was visiting in his small house in Kifissia, as Eva Stefani has filmed in her Episkepseis, I turned to poetic prose in small form, published in the literary journal Black Museum (issued by a group of friends, university students, during the 1980s). I started writing poetry anew early in the 1990s and published Sea Urchins (Black Museum, 1995) and Ramazan (Black Museum, 1997), echoing surrealism as imprinted in Greek poetry, mainly Engonopoulos, Empeirikos but also Andre Breton, as well as Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, with a flood of natural images and industrial ruins. Poetry was coming as a flow, and I think I owe much to the recordings of Embeirikos and Engonopoulos reading their own poetry that I was listening.
There followed Loops (Nefeli, 2005), written from 1999 onwards, with the consolidation of the erotic element, leading to other paths still attached to Andreas Embeirikos and Matsi Hatzilazarou which is a tremendous erotic female poet, and Miltos Sachtouris, whom I met at his late years, visiting him every week at his small house in Kypseli.
Since the early 1990s I have also been an ardent reader of Marina Tsvetaeva, which I literally love in her entirety; I cherish for Marina a kind of worship such as the one that is attributed to heroes, to rock stars. I buy her books in all the languages I can understand, and suck them. Tsvetaeva is a phenomenon that affects me always, the same way love and motherhood does, pulling me up and helping me realize and accept my feminine side as a kind of power.
In Homerica (Kedros, 2009, German Edition translated by Dirk Uwe Hansen), I started more consciously working on my poetics, using the first person of the poem as a mask, in order to multiply the voices, by inserting mythical figures of the Greek antiquity, while also elaborating the syntax along the lines. However, I mostly focused on rhythm, creating small waterfalls, since my poetry was mainly heading towards vocalization; poems were written in one breath and took their final form through resounding repetition. I read again Homer, Iliad, which opened up to me as a revelation after years of tackling with Odyssey, Ancient Greek Lyric poets such as Ibycus or Alcman or Anacreon, Pound, Eliot, Rilke, Hölderlin, Derek Walcott. My familiarization with the work of the major contemporary German poet Barbara Kohler opened me to understand modern poetry as a field of constant artistic research. At that time, the revelation of how important voice and sound are, reshaped therefore my personal poetics and led me to insert in the book a CD, The CD was composed by the series of in situ recitations made in a two-day solitary wandering in Pelion’s mythical places related to the poems content: I wanted to add to my verses the specific moments’ atmosphere transferred by its sound. That was my way to include the poetic haecceity, the perfect individuality of the moment as sensed through the place, to re-interpret the term introduced in Mille Plateaux by Deleuze-Guattari.
At that point, focusing on animated place, I turned to research on the poet/singer’s animal aspect, as we read it in ancient Greek poetry: cicadas, goats, birds, the nightingale are archetypal figures for poets. This turn led me to create poetic works researching in other fields such as philosophy, biology, ecology or ethnography and using multiple media.
For Tettix (Gavriilidis, 2012) I exhaustively read Plato’s Phaedrus, Archilochus, Hesiod, Sappho, Ann Carson, Jesper Svenbro, Bakhtin on polyphony and Mille plateaux by Deleuze and Gauttari. I was thinking that the cicada’s metamorphosis /ekdysis of its shed is an emblematic image for the multiplicity of a poet that starts singing. I tried to transform poetry first into an installation (Tettix, National Museum of Contemporary Art, 2012, curated by Stamatis Schizakis), and after into a book. I have then delved into the subjects of polyphony and reading, body and writing, along with lust, summer and the sound dimension of space. Τhe crafted element of handwritten composition was inserted to the project, and the book identity became hybrid with the inclusion, translation and editing of texts of other writers as well. For the installation I created a video poem and audio that took the form of sound “paths” with mixing of recordings, recitations and music. In Tettix, I tried to experiment with polyphony not only by the form of the installation, but also by the creation of a performance with several readers together trying to mimic the polyphonic sound of cicadas inside the landscape.
For my last published work, Rhapsody (Gutenberg, 2016) I returned to the simplest form of the book, binding different and various in form and content poetic projects together. I include miniscule poems, prose poems, songs, philosophical thinking, and a new genre I named “bodily philology” i.e. a poem/essay that can be performed as a lecture, commenting on other poems.
Within this flow, my latest project (Chimera, under publication) became even more complicate, more chimerically diverse, since for its elaboration I tried to come closer to the goat, the female, the mother, the sacrificed Other, the animal, the nomad, the continuously moving or the marginalized being, the one that lives “outside” a given community, and speak in sympathy with their unheard voice. For this project I followed a group of Vlach shepherds, that are still practicing transhumance with their goats, from Thessaly to Pindos Mountain, and I am deeply grateful to them for letting me in. This archaic kind of stock raising with its violent but also symbiotic part made me better understand life’s complicate aspects.
Chimera was thus a multilayered research on the poet’s identities, shifting between the bucolic, the tragic and the comic as genres. Inside the project we hear bucolic poets, travelers, ethnographs, folk songs, goats and shepherds talking to their animals, along with Papadiamantis, Krystallis, Christovassilis or Derrida. This project took also the form of an installation (AIGAI-Ω, together with Iris Lycourioti), with its video and audio sections. I also created AIGIS, another reading device, a map-dress made from handwritten goat skin. Chimera/Aigai-Ω has also served as a basis for several performances, each of them different from the other.
Brian Sneeden describes translating your poems as “a transformative experience,” noting that they “require a certain capacity for surrender – both in terms of how one experiences language and its perceived boundaries, but also in regards to the boundaries of English, which does not draw quite as easily as Greek from a vocabulary steeped in so ancient a history”. How would you comment on that?
If I understand well the question, Brian, who just finished the translation of Homerica (to be published in the USA in October) refers to the untranslatable, in a level that concerns the relationship of the Greek word to the depth of history.
The truth is that for me making poetry means admiring language; being moved by, meditating on, listening to, searching through language. Above all it is a very attentive effort to hear, being an eavesdropper and a thief, like the god Hermes. I am looking for the poem of the living oral word articulated by people who still know how to make it vibrate. And I try to remember it – but I always forget it. I gather the words like fruits and I devour them. I contemplate the word. I research its etymology. I search for the meanings in the dictionary, and I read the ancient quotes that have been found and contain it. The fragments of texts circle me. I try to rip the language of others, like a cicada that extracts the juice of a tree with its sucker, which is both an embolus and a tongue, and metabolizes it through the erotic desire into a song created by its own musical instrument. I guess the same goes for all languages; yet this is my own shore. I cannot really feel any other language even if I understand them, since I am born inside that specific one, and I am lucky since it draws from the Homeric and the Sapphic. My place is my language, and my language is my place.
However, when I write, my words are simple, far from being pretentiously poetic. Just the opposite; I believe that an intentionally poetic language that uses of specific words is fake and empty. It pretends to be poetry but it is not; and unfortunately in Greece this pretentiousness is traditionally identified with ‘Poetry’, with a capital P.
Instead, if language is poetry, then the unattainable limit would be the almost incomprehensible that can move the recipient, and here I quote Alkman that claimed: “οἶδα δ ̓ ὀρνίχων νόμως πάντων.” Which means, “I know all the songs/melodies of birds,” the songs of the greatest singers, those who live in the sky, between us and the gods, who are radically different from me and whose language I do not understand (or do I actually understand? Alkman does not make it clear), “the singers up there” who belong to a different species; yet given that they are the prototype singers, they can sing better than me, our difference may not be radical and maybe then no difference is radical. Poetry is a becoming. If one pushes the reasoning to the extreme, then the poem is only a song, a music, that you experience or feel through its charm even if you don’t understand it. This is of course an impossible work. But as the proverb says, “walker, there is no road, the road is made by walking”. We walk our language wherever it may take us.
Your work lies at the border between poetry, performance, theory, and installation, investigating the connections between language, voice, body, place and memory. What is the binding thread?
I cannot answer this question the same way as one of my readers. So I will speak in terms of my poetics, which I have been exploring theoretically, and which feed my practice. A crucial question posed in poetry as far as I am concerned, is, in Socrates’ words, to know oneself, the poetic self, that speaking voice in a poem, to which Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus answers offering two alternatives: I am either a simple being or a complex one, as Typhon or Chimera. Rather than answer with the identity of the one, I answer, as I cannot do otherwise, with the identity of the multiplicity, the Chimera. As it turns out, the complex being constitutes my poetics, a multiple body composed of various “μέλη”, parts, songs, kinds and media.
The living body is definitely in the center of this activity: poetry is but a response to stimuli which touch, permeate and agitate the body. I am referring to the simplest stimuli, the contact with other beings, with the earth and the place, with the everyday, with life, with memory, with others’ poetry, with what comes from the outside, triggering emotion. Inspiration is a kind of inhalation of the other, that is returned to the outside by a construction made with feeling and thinking. Every part and every species that compose the Chimera has its own autonomy, yet all function evenly as a network.
As I grow up, I have come to realize that for me poetry, writing and vocalization constitute also a form of therapy. As Eleni Stecopoulos aptly puts it in her book Visceral Poetics, poetry is a kind of healing practice, it has to do with illness, it is visceral, sympathetic, it is a form of care in order to be. For me, the practice of handwriting as well as writing itself is such an activity, just like oral recitation is a ritual of healing. More and more consciously, as I practice poetry, I invent a ritual that makes me forget. The cicada that metabolizes the juice is such a vain momentary effort that heals pain without curing.
“The dense minimal poems of Giannisi explore with arresting directness the relationship between language and the elements of the natural world with a language which is always subtle and inornate, skillfully bare,” as Haris Vlavianos aptly put it. What is the relationship between art and the urban landscape? Where does poetry meet the natural world in your writings?
Already from my early writings, one could easily discern a quest to utter the experience of a relationship, either enthusiastic or mournful, to the natural element. Is it a kind of return to the archaic? Is this a kind of celebration to beauty? Or is it rather a kind of grief, a desperate attempt to bring the being out of oblivion?
This “archaism” should not be dissociated from language and representation. The so-called ‘natural’ world (along with the questions this term poses in the 21st century in relation to the construction of the natural as part of the cultural) is my window to poetry. But the bodily senses are mediated by their expressiveness through constructed language, which means poetry or philosophy, the first ax that dug this world.
Svenbro writes about the first samples of writings, the inscriptions put in verse on ancient Greek statues, where the first person was used to refer to the object bearing the inscription: “Mr. Brugmann accepts the hypothesis that the Greek ‘ego’ is descended from an Indo-European noun, eg(h)om, meaning Hierheit, “hereness”.” (p. 73, Phrasikleia). I consider this etymology of the ‘I”, “ego”, as related to locality, to “hereness”, a very appealing interpretation, so suitable that it looks fake, for my work. If the “I” is nothing less than a ‘here’, then the voice in poetry expresses nothing but this ‘here’, yet through the multiplicity of subjects, those Others, that dwell ‘here’ at that very moment. Place and language together, language as a place.
If science answers a question that has been formulated, then art responds to questions that never arose, to a kind of a call. In poetry, this is the call of the Other. In the urban landscape, the Other, different but also similar, is related to the human and the social. The urban space renders the human multiplicity; an immense and living complex environment, with its own built typology, its patterns of repetition and ritual, its singular events. Urban space offers the vital perspective of meeting different subjectivities, carrying a polyphony of their own myths and voices.. That’s why situationalists reflect on the city as the primary place for the theater of life, where everyone can playfully participate. City wandering and oral dealings with people enrich experience in the most surprising and joyful way; they also reveal human pain, social inequalities and struggles. Last but not least, the urban space is also the area of publication, where the poet returns to the public what may have been created somewhere in the loneliness, outside.
How would you comment on current literary and artistic production in Greece? Could art offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
Nowadays art in Greece witnesses the advent of many significant and positive elements; first and foremost, the introduction of practices and activities which move beyond the scope of consumption, outside the usual institutions (museums or galleries), not losing nevertheless their visibility to the audience; and second, these practices are in direct communication and contact with international currents and tactics. Some of them are in a way mimetic. Others take place through the creation and implementation of platforms or groups that intensify the sense of belonging and through the existence of networks they help the development of new kind of symbioses. We all experience the emergence of social and earth issues following the onset of neoliberalism and frantic capitalism, often vis-à-vis vulnerable social groups, natural resources and groups of animal populations. A new form of art is thus happening, claiming the “commons” in general, against discriminations, and connected to practices of care for the other and for the weak whether it is human or nonhuman. I believe that all the aforementioned changes are for sure a reaction to a totally scaring social and environmental reality for the entire world, ruled only by the economy of profit. And these emerging art practices constitute a remarkable victory on the part of social imaginary.
At the same time, due to the spread of new media, questions arouse again about the role of art, about the medium itself, about art actors, about the importance of representation, production and reproduction. Fields and their respective boundary limits seem to be confused, as we definitely face a significant turn into the unknown, just like a wave amid the turbulence of winds blowing from all directions in the ocean, to use Homer’s words to describe Nestor’s turmoil.
Recently, we experience in Greece a kind of productive explosion, both cultural but also poetic. I will leave aside Documenta that has just closed its doors, a lot has already been said on the issue. But in case somebody follows social networks alone, here, he will be sure to witness a major boom: exhibitions, readings, editions, actions, festivities, most of them in public spaces. Yet, is this boom for real? It’s difficult to discern between what is real and what is media made, because the internet is a scene where we are all showing our narcissistic aspects and alternate as stars. In a way we haven’t been used to until now and for which the oldest ones as me feel a little intimidated, yet remain unable to abstain from using, we are shifting in between the roles of the actor and the commentator, the viewer, in order to become visible on the net. For many contemporary thinkers virtual reality of course has actually become THE reality, and one can no longer differentiate. But while the web universe constitutes a powerful and active part of our daily life, as well as an integral part of the public space, it co-exists with the other reality, that of being inside our bodies and the physical space of their co-existence.
As for poetry, In Greece, a lack of the bodily dimension has been the fact for several years, since it has been abolished from the lyrical/heroic era of Hadjidakis and Theodorakis,). This lack created a reaction, the urgent need to get the poetic speech out of the closet so that it is loudly articulated among people that are physically present. Amid the welter of the potential, arises the opposite need: to meet in person, to see, touch and hear each other, so that the speech, our thoughts and feelings are also physically dispensed and shared. Early in 2000 in Bar Dasein, the poetry now group, which was later transformed in [frmk], fervently initiated the institution of public poetry readings and discussions. I personally began to associate myself with the urban space presence, public practices and the questions they raised, during the 1990s and through my participation in the Urban Void collective of architects and artists; yet, the public poetry readings of 2000 enhanced the personal meetings in between poets themselves and their public. Although not so far back, such readings were then shocking the poetic status quo and received no publicity whatsoever from institutional critics. Nevertheless the initiative of these collective public readings that started at the period, led also to the creation of groups and collectivities, that also publish in their own magazines, and this changed the public image of poetry in Greece.
Younger poets, who came to the forefront after 2010, are very glad to discover this dimension, which arose directly from the previous enclosed use of poetry, and I think this is actually quite promising. We should of course realize that what is unfolding in Greece now or a from a decade ago, with a newcomer’s enthusiasm, constitutes common ground because it has been taking place for many years elsewhere, so that what is important is not just the fact that it is happening but how it is happening. In the US, for instance, there is a long and very sophisticated tradition. Last year I followed in New York some poetic events that amazed me such as, for example, a performance by Julie Ezelle Patton, that improvised on two poems combining voice, dialogic reading and jazz music; a breathtaking experience. I also attended poetry readings and discussions in bookstores of a very high quality and with a very strong participation from the audience that we couldn’t imagine here in Greece, for the moment at least. We should thus continue on this way of public space performative readings and discussions, by elaborating on the obvious as much as we can. To use Heraclitus’ words, this kykeon may exist as such as long as it remains restless. So let’s contribute to this end and blend and mix its ingredients by our constant contribution in order to savor it.
In recent years the interest of foreign readers in Greek poetry has been rekindled, with an increasing number of Greek anthologies being translated in English. What is it that makes a national poetry appealing to a foreign audience? And, in turn, to what extent do Greek poets incorporate foreign influences in their work?
Nowadays the interest in Greek poetry abroad has been renewed, and anthologies have crucially contributed to this end. It’s something that Greek poetry certainly needs, given that it is written in a language unfortunately read by very few on a global level, which, however constitutes its measure. Translations communicate the work to other languages and readers. In this framework, the anthologies that have been published play an important part in further publicizing the translation and spread of new Greek poetry, which has always tried to be kept updated, to be in touch with international trends, ever since the era of Papadiamantis.
Τoday, the internet allows for and incredibly facilitates the diffusion of the contemporary production in poetry; it’s much easier than in the past to single out poets in larger numbers and from a variety of origins. Often too much information is drowning our creativity, but, except that, nowadays there is this great chance, the chance for a poem to be re-transformed through new hands, through other people, through a different language. I personally feel extremely grateful to this incredibly generous stranger, the translator, who hosts me in his/her language and distributes my work anew to his/her audience. So Ι take here the opportunity to thank all my translators in other languages, and mostly Dirk Uwe Hansen who translated and published Homerika in German (Homerika, Reinecke & Voßm 2016), Brian Sneeden, who continues now in English, and all the editors of poetry anthologies, such as Karen Van Dyck, Thodoris Chiotis, and all other “ambassadors” (πρόξενοι, a beautiful word in Greek).
The above said I’m still afraid that the interest in Greek poetry may be exhausted on the basis of mere thematics, so that it can meet the criteria of broader consumption and easier readership. In other words, there is the risk of a new marginalization, an exoticism, through a logic of the type: “let’s see what those indigenous Greeks are doing now amid the crisis”. And this puts Greek poetry in the position of having to respond, just to fit the preconceptions regarding the specific question, respond to the bulimic and neocolonial request to represent through its poetic voice those others facing a social problem, but which is at the same time global. Have we become poets due to the crisis, and just for the crisis?
But to use Marina Tsvetaeva’s words, the relation of a poet with time is far from linear. Poets, she writes, are always inside time by no following it. There are poets that live AFTER their time, and others who live BEFORE, who transfer a thing or a way of the future or the past to their poetic present, not just in terms of thematics but of language as well. Τhe quest for the ephemeral, for the easily consumable, for what lives entirely WITHIN its time, resembles some newspaper readers, Tsvetaeva says, and has nothing to do with poetry and its aims.
I firmly believe that poetry is a field of freedom that constantly redraws itself and its boundaries. Poetry is not just a subject but a way, poetry is a becoming. Since an early age, I revolted against that unique poetic meaning that we had to learn and to search for in the texts of literature at school. My insistence on the plurality of meanings, my understanding of poetry as a becoming, has always been my motivation for new readings; the same goes for my writing. Yes, poetry can be a revolutionary therapy since it is written with no usable value whatsoever.
* Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Knut Fleckenstein is Member of the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands/ Social Democratic Party of Germany) and Foreign Affairs Coordinator of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. Fleckenstein spoke to Angeliki Spanou in an interview with Nea Selida newspaper about the impact of the German election on the EU and Greece, stressing that SPD concentrates on bringing back social justice to Europe, securing stable growth and overcome austerity driven policies.
The election in Germany will influence all of the Eurozone and the EU, isn’t that so?
Yes, the elections in Germany will have an impact on the Eurozone and the EU: in the case of a change of government, we would not concentrate on austerity policies but bring back social justice to Europe.
Is the result of your elections important for Greece? We are talking too much about the political landscape in your country...
There won’t be a revolution either way. However, a victory for Martin Schulz would mean a German chancellor who really aims to boost investment, e.g. in education, infrastructure and innovation. To promote jobs, secure stable growth and overcome austerity-driven policies is more important to us than it is to Merkel’s conservatives.
What is the secret of Angela Merkel? How does she still manage to persuade the majority of German society (according to polls)?
In turbulent and uncertain times, people tend to prefer what they already know. Germany has weathered the crises of recent years relatively well, albeit sometimes at the expense of third parties. It is not usually easy for citizens to realize and fully understand these complex relations.
Is there any possibility that Mr Schauble will not return as Minister for Finance in the next German government?
I assure you that I will do my best until Election Day.
In Greece we were talking about the "Schultz effect" some months ago. What went wrong with SPD?
It is difficult to answer this question before the German Election. But if the polls are correct, I can think of three reasons: First of all, generally speaking, people tend to prefer “what they already know”. Secondly, Angela Merkel systematically refuses a public debate with Martin Schulz. That makes it difficult for us to clearly present our position. In addition, and probably understandably so, the media still focuses on Merkel; she was the one who, for example, attended the G7 summit. In contrast, Schulz doesn’t have such a public and media-effective mandate. However, I think it is more important to analyse the result after the election - nothing is decided yet.
Will the SPD be part of the next government? Is this related to the percentage you will gain?
If Martin Schulz will be the next German chancellor, of course; if Angela Merkel remains chancellor, I seriously hope that she will build a government with the liberals. Our campaign shows how difficult it could be to win an election if you are part of the government. I believe that Germany absolutely needs a strong opposition.
Some analysts say that SYRIZA is ready to make a turn towards the social-democratic parties of Europe. Others maintain that it is stuck in the political contradictions of a party that used to identify itself as part of the "radical left” and yet has governed Greece by submitting to the demands of the country’s lenders. Where do you think SYRIZA belongs or should find itself in the future?
I do not want to and I should not interfere in SYRIZA’s internal discussions. They should figure out their positions and define where this will lead them in the future. However, I personally welcome a rapprochement with the social democrats.
Dimitris Christopoulos is Associate Professor of State and Legal Theory at Panteion University of Athens and the President of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH). Christopoulos was elected in this position on August 2016 by the 184 member organizations of FIDH during their 39th Congress in Johannesburg. He had chaired the board of the Hellenic League for Human Rights from 2003 until 2011 and served as the Legue's Vice President from 2011 to 2013.
FIDH is an international human rights NGO, founded in 1922 and federating 184 organizations from 112 countries with the aim to defend all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as they are set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his first speech as FIDH President, Christopoulos highlighted:"The issue at stake is the core of politics: the struggle against inequality, the struggle for altering the power structure in favour of the weak, in favour of the rule of law, in favour of our own vision for a just world."
Professor Christopoulos spoke to Rethinking Greece* about the emergence of a "post-fascist" style of governance in many countries; the importance of a total reconfiguration of EU political structures; the negative effect of the economic and refugee crisis on political and human rights in Greece and Europe and the need to persist on the project of relocation and resettlement of refugees within the EU -instead of creating buffer zones in the periphery. Finally, he stressed that we must remain vigilant and fight back for human rights, especially at a time when cynicism is disguised as realism and human rights are viewed as a luxury.
As FIDH president you have a global overview of the state of human rights. What would you consider the most important issues facing the world today?
This is a question I should have got used to answering but nonetheless, every time I face it, I do not have an easy answer. What I would say is that along with old fashioned authoritarianism, which makes the lives of citizens and human rights defenders unbearable, in our days we witness the emergence of a ‘new’ governance style that I could call post-fascist: it is not traditional fascism, yet it shares with it the basic premise of far-right ideology, which is a genuine disregard for universal human dignity. This is what unites completely different or even opponent political regimes.
So, you believe that this is not a localized trend but a universal one?
I argue that if we regard this drift as something relevant only to underdevelopment and retardation in a classic Orientalist stereotyping approach, things could get worse. A historical recipe for the success of such ideologies is that you think that “it can’t happen here”; and when it happens, it’s already too late. The damage is done and you need triple the amount of work to pick up the pieces. See what is happening in Turkey: we are talking about long lasting events that come to determine the nature of a regime, not conjectural changes.
Yes, but one could argue that Turkey was never a full democracy.
Indeed, but what would you say about Austria, where the extreme right candidate got 49% of the vote? How about Trump’s USA and Putin’s Russia? What about Poland? Of course, we are all relieved with the result of the Dutch and the French elections, but if the message we get is that “no worries, things are going well”, then I am afraid that our complacence is not far from stupidity. I wish I could be more optimistic, but what I see is, on the one hand, panic – after Brexit for example – and on the other hand, naive enthusiasm, like after Le Pen’s defeat in France. If we really want to move forward, panic and enthusiasm are not good advisors. We really need to see what makes people turn to these post-fascist solutions. We really need a total reconfiguration of political structures in the EU for example. Not simply “reform” them. The term “reform” today has been so extensively cannibalized that it is actually better to forget it.
Let’s talk about Greece then, which is really undergoing severe reforms. Has the economic crisis in Greece had a negative impact on human rights?
That the ‘crisis’ has contributed to the downgrading human rights standards in Greece is no novelty. The FIDH has already documented that in a report made jointly with the Greek League for Human Rights in 2014. If I might summarize it, I’d say that you can’t expect to shrink social rights without touching political rights and then, finally, violating individual ones. This is what happened in Greece. Cuts in education and health for example, lead to downplaying the role of the Parliament in decision making: laws passing with presidential decrees and emergency procedures have trivialized the role of the legislature in favour of the executive and the institutions of Greece’s creditors.
At the beginning of the crisis and up until 2013, social protests lead to abusesby the state: shutting down Greek Public television and radio in June 2013 has been the most illustrative example of this. Have things changed since then?
Yes and no. The main difference is that the fatigue of Greek society is such that people do not protest as they used to. “Crisis” is not seen as such anymore in Greece. It has become the new regime, the new normality governing our lives. What was once exceptional became the norm. At the beginning we regarded crisis as a V: you are up, you go down and then up again. Now, crisis is perceived as an L: you go down and then you continue down on this line. The generation of my students or my children does not view the current situation as a crisis: for them, that is life. Salaries of 480 Euros, unemployment at 20%, no prospect of a pension; these things are simply regarded as normal; harsh to admit, but true. Things will improve, but they will not be good.
You do not seem to be very optimistic...
I am a realist who hopes and works to change things acknowledging how hard this is. I stand for ‘Hope without optimism’, the title of Terry Eagleton’s last book. Hope is an existential position of fighting back for our rights. Hope is not naive voluntarism. It must be a vision and a strategy. Otherwise, we lose.
In 2015, in the turmoil of the financial crisis, Greece starts to deal with another crisis, that of the refugees. What has been its impact on human rights?
The impact differs according to the time period. In 2015, the Greek policy of letting people in was the only solution to face the humanitarian crisis. It would have been impossible for Greece to do otherwise without considerable casualties in terms of human lives and rights. Yet, now things have changed. After the closure of the Balkan corridor and the adoption of the “Common Statement” between the EU and Turkey on managing migrant flows, the islands in the Eastern Aegean have become a buffer zone, so that people won’t make it to the North of Europe. Unfortunately, the Greek government has accepted this.
You have strong views against the EU-Turkey statement on migrants and refugees.
I know that as long as Germany is convinced that the only solution is this “deal” with Turkey, Greece will have a hard time dealing with the issue. On the other hand, the situation is unbearable. Despite the enormous sums spent in Greece on the ‘refugee question’, the results are poor. On the one hand, the Greek administrative chaos has become a nightmare for all those working in the field. On the other, this chaos is in convenient complicity with the political objective of the EU, which is to stem the migrant flows. As FIDH President, I am convinced that such “deals” that externalize refugee and migration management to the EU periphery create very toxic precedents. The rich ask the poor to contain the poorest. And then the nightmare begins. See what is happening in Libya. We found a failed state with an absolute disrespect for human rights to do the dirty job of keeping African migrants and refugees out of Europe. How shameful...
What else could be done?
The dominant EU discourse wants to persuade us that there is no other viable solution. “We are not that proud of it, but what else can we do? If more refugees come, then right-wing extremism will rise”.
Yet, as I keep on saying, if we keep out refugees and migrants in order to avoid the rise of the far right, we ourselves become the beast we are fighting against. What could be done is what timidly started in the summer of 2015: relocation and resettlement within the EU so that all member-states carry a proportional responsibility. This is European solidarity. This is what solidarity to persecuted people means. This is what taking rights seriously means.
Nation-states can both uphold and undercut human rights, so a wider political order is needed to guarantee those rights. What is the role NGOs such as FIDH can play in that political order?
When Marx wrote that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” he did not mean that we should not interpret the world. He meant that only if we are able to interpret the world we might be able change it. The role that organizations like the FIDH have in this process is to provide tools for understanding and change. That is why I insist on both our vision and our strategy. It is not only about moral principles. Fighting for rights is an ongoing political project for human emancipation and peace. Otherwise, “no justice, no peace”: old motto...
After one year as FIDH president, do you believe that human rights overall are in retreat around the world? What do you perceive as the biggest threat against human rights today?
There once used to be a narrative: things would get better and better. According to this narrative, the world would always move forward, in the right direction. It is like a classic Hollywood scenario: some suspense, but at the end the good guy wins. This is the essence of liberal or communist determinism. Well, history is nothing like a happy end movie. History is by definition full of open questions that might turn into nightmares. And particularly in fluid times of transition such as the one we are living in.
Some would argue that we can learn from history, but I am afraid it is not so simple. If we could learn from history, we would have learned already, but this is not the case. The biggest threat against human rights today is the very idea that rights do not matter anymore, that what matters is effective governance that provides security. This is what unites Trump with Putin for example. This perception regards rights as an unreasonable luxury. Human rights defenders are treated as internal enemies or, at best, as Don Quixotes. The biggest threat and challenge to the global movement for human rights is this cynicism disguised as ‘realism’; fighting back for human rights, as we say in the FIDH, means deconstructing this narrative. We are neither Don Quixotes, nor victims. Human rights defenders are protagonists of history.
*Interview to: Ioulia Livaditi