Angela Dimitrakaki (1968) is a fiction writer whose work has been shortlisted for several prizes in Greece. She has published the novels Antarktiki (1997, revised edition 2006), Antisea (2002), The Manifesto of Defeat (2006), Inside A Girl like You (2009) and AEROPLAST (2015) as well as the collection of short stories Nosebleed (1999). Her novella Four Testimonies about the Exhumation of the River Errinyos has appeared in contemporary Greek fiction anthologies in France and Germany. Educated in Greece and Britain, she is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Edinburgh. She lives in Edinburgh and Athens.
Angela Dimitrakaki spoke to Reading Greece* about the Athens apartment culture and the ‘twisted democracy underpinning contemporary capitalist societies’, literature as ‘a carefully crafted relationship to the contemporary’ and her own preoccupation with ‘participating in the creation of a political aesthetics for our times’. She also comments on the importance of the present historical moment and how ‘a catastrophic economy translates into catastrophic politics’ undermining democracy, the way the ‘blame the crisis!’ discourse, though misleading, is the one that ‘determines people’s choice of rule in contemporary democratic societies’, the role of art in contemporary societies, the way Greece relates to modernity and what modernity has come to mean in, and for, Europe today.
In your Letters from Greece essay titled “Apartment Culture: The Athens Brand”, you write about the distinctive apartment culture of Athens, depicting the atmosphere of life in this city. How does living in an Athenian apartment feel like? How has the Athenian lifestyle changed due to the crisis?
What I called the Athens apartment culture in 2015 has been my Athens reality from early on in my adult life. In hindsight, it was the subject of my first novel, Antarktiki (1997), which described the return of its young female protagonist to such an apartment from her travels abroad. This return was a homecoming. Life in the Athens apartment where her friends lived was the only context she recognised as ‘home’, the implication being that she, as much as the other apartment inhabitants and frequent visitors, felt alienated anywhere else. A reviewer had commented at the time that the group’s mentality was indicative of the disenchantment experienced in the ‘swamp of democracy’ [στοχυλότηςδημοκρατίας], and he was spot on. This implicit critique of the twisted democracy underpinning contemporary capitalist societies was the novel’s subject, and we see that in the intervening twenty years things have only become worse. The apartment friends were proven right in their distrust. We (those the novel spoke for and to) were proven right, and funnily enough, the anger generated as a result keeps us going, it keeps us spirited well into our 40s.
It’s impossible to summarise developments here, but in 2016 more and more people are left with a broken social contract, daily affirmed. Capitalist globalisation, with its racialised and gender divides, has proven to be a project of engineered scarcity and precarity. As a result projects of self-isolation, of breaking from rather than joining in, abound. The EU is an obvious, sad example. In Athens, a city that has been hit hard by the austerity-and-debt extraction practices of contemporary capital, a sense of embattled togetherness has been a priority, it has been necessary for survival. Such togetherness is not a general prerogative of the urban population, some are in position to experience it more than others. I can’t imagine what life would be like if the genuine, friendship-based networks of apartment culture did not exist – for those of us lucky enough to have them. In my essay for Letters from Greece I explain the importance of these networks: they evolved naturally from what was already in place in the 1990s and are based on friendship rather than has been called social solidarity. The apartments are not squats or communes, but rather an extention of the Mediterranean hospitaliy principle combined with the spirit of an alternative youth culture. They offer the same sense of belonging as in 1990s but in changed, more desperate, conditions. The Athenian apartment of that sort is the symbolic and material hub of networks of love. And this is, I guess, what life ‘feels like’ in these apartments. They are places where friends share jokes, food, and mostly bad news, places essential not for pretending that nothing has changed but for confronting what has changed without wanting to kill yourself from despair.
To sum it up, the Athens apartment is where one does not feel humiliated as a result of being unable to pay the heating or telephone bill. It is where one does not feel a personal failure because he is currently unemployed but used to earn good money fifteen years back. It is where we feel like individuals rather than ‘parents’ when we bring our children along. Politics is now discussed all the time, obsessively. Fights break out more about the economy and less about the quality of the literature we read. But we still talk about literature, we still share music. We don’t lose sight of the possibility of living – that’s what prevails, even while ‘all that is solid melts into air’ in Athens and the continent at large.
You have said that you detest the idea of a “lonely writer”. Instead you write on the move, while commuting, at stations and airports. Where do you draw your inspiration from? Which are the main themes that your novels delve into?
I must admit that I increasingly find the idea of the aloof writer an insult to our complicated social reality, to our accelerated moment in history. Literature is of course an industry, the products of which must fill the shelves, which is why we have so much irrelevant, bad fiction and the still dominant image of a writer ‘looking for a subject’. I don’t look for subjects, and I hope some other colleagues don’t either. I belong to the category of writers who are hit by a subject on the head, so to speak. The subject chooses me, and my job is to articulate it. What I mean by this is the famous ‘how’. How can you write about the subject that hits you on the head without sounding patronising or didactic or even predictable and trivial? Or, how can you bring what is merely sensed into full recognition? Ultimately, how can you share rather than merely dispatch? It is not easy to share; on the contrary, it is hard work.
For me, literature is a carefully crafted relationship to the contemporary – ultimately, even if you write historical novels or science fiction. But when you write about the contemporary without pretending you’re writing about something else, things get complicated. The contemporary tends to be far more elusive than the past or the future. And the contemporary has a harsh, unforgiving audience: your contemporaries who can verify your articulation or reject it. People have opinions about the contemporary, whereas they like to be ‘educated’ about the past and ‘offered depictions’ of the future. So, the main subjects of my novels and short stories tend to be drawn from a deepening sense of exile, of displacement, even the kind experienced in one’s homeland or familial context. In all my life I have been witnessing an expanding pool of subjectivities that I could describe as exilic – mostly shaped through the struggle to end this traumatic condition of exile. Globalisation has created so many economic exiles, in addition to all the other kinds. I think contemporary patriarchal capitalism, which is the matrix of my subject matter, has generated so much antagonism as to have eliminated the possibility of ‘feeling at home’. Rather, it has brought forth the need, or desire, to flee the ‘here and now’, to chase after some imaginary safe haven, to ‘take back your country’, to see futuristic technology as refuge, to re-enact the past as refuge.
I draw inspiration from anything that is not escapism, let me put it this way. I am stunned by humanity’s perseverance and low-key struggles, but also by humanity’s ‘big projects’ (as put by a friend who ended up inspiring a protagonist in one of my novels) that exceed a human being’s life span. I count on the people I know and mostly write about them, and for them. That said, I know a lot of people because my job as an academic in the humanities requires constant travelling. Sometimes I try to imagine how nice it’d be to travel like the bourgeoisie in earlier times, simply because you wanted to, not because you had to. I have no idea what relaxing while travelling is about. I sit in crowded airports working on papers about social reproduction while I eavesdrop on a conversation where a child asks “Mama, what is candy corn?” and the mother hesitantly replies “Candy porn? I don’t know much about it, I’m afraid”, and I try not to laugh but actually give the exchange some thought. What does this exchange mean? Or I can eavesdrop on a conversation where a man asks a couple at a departure gate: “Is this your first time in Edinburgh?” And they reply, casually, “yes, we found a job together in a hotel and said why not”. And I turn around to check whether the couple feels sorry about what they leave behind, and they don’t seem to, and they look like your typical, trendy eighteen years olds. They seem to be in love, and rather than setting off to see the world they feel comfortable in becoming immigrant labour. I almost want to intervene and tell them to think twice, but I don’t. My frustration at not doing so will one day generate the urge to write, that much I know. So, I feel I am in a permanent state of learning. I don’t mean that I become accepting of everything, far from it. Rather, I am forced to develop ways of comparing and evaluating. You cut through the shit faster this way, you feel compelled to reject, to take a stance, to reach a point.
In broader terms, I am preoccupied with participating in the creation of a political aesthetics for our times. In that regard, and as I am also an art historian, I am very attentive to debates in the visual arts, and in the fiction I write I often draw on discussions in this field. It is a very socially engaged field, but with a lot of dead ends, which I do find strangely inspiring. But if you ask my readers, very few are able to detect this connection, and to me this counts for a kind of a success: to have achieved a transversal connection, to have taken certain concerns into another territory, expose them to the social imaginary.
As Christos Kythreotis wrote about Aeroplast – your latest book – your “characters are seamlessly tied to the time they live in: the era when the illusions of globalisation are being dispelled … the time when the question of ‘what is to be done’ is being replaced by ‘is it ever possible to do something’”. How important is the present historical moment “here” in Europe and “now” in the 21st century? Is there a flicker of hope amid the widespread precarity?
Aeroplast is the material in which we wrap fragile objects, believing that we can transport them safely where we want them to be. So, the title of the book is an expression of hope. The content however is where this hope is tested. The five protagonists, all from Europe, come from different directions to this test. None of them has any illusions about the times they live in, and two of them go as far as to identity with Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, suspecting their love will also be defeated by the very historical conditions that made it possible. Aeroplast is, in many ways, a story about how Europe treats its intellectuals, though above all it is a story about a contemporary woman’s search for the prospect of revolt. She questions every step but she carries on, with all the self-irony and ruthlessness this could entail. She does not convince everyone about her cause, but she convinces those she meets about the need to defend her subjectivity as a ‘possibility’. I was envious of her when writing the novel and was asking myself: which subjectivity would I be prepared to defend? Which person among all I know is absolutely indispensible for hope to be maintained?
And this was because Aeroplast, unlike my previous novels, relies on actually existing individuals. What dictated this approach was that when I wrote the novel the situation in Europe was becoming exacerbated and apparent. One of the protagonists, the Spanish guy, says at some point that the way things are, if the Left came to power, it would no longer be the Left. This was written months before we witnessed the coup against the Greek government in the summer of 2015. I mean one could already see the brutality of the system, the ways in which it would defend the status quo, and guess what would happen. You could see, from years back, that fascism was making a comeback. I wrote about it in another novel, of 2006, called The Manifesto of Defeat. And here we are in 2016, in a Europe with politicians like Farage and Orban, with murderers like Breivik and Mair. So, the issue is not just precarity. The issue is that a catastrophic economy translates into catastrophic politics. It is now a platitude to say that democracy is undermined. I am not just saying this about Schauble’s infamous ‘elections change nothing’. I am also saying it about the British working class, which got caught into a Brexit campaign based to a great extent on the open promotion of racism and its corrosive violence. Farage had the right to quit, but the damage his party leaderhip did to British society, what he helped nourish in that context, will live on.
And yet of course it is possible to do something. In Europe, today, it certainly is. At least as long as we have open borders and can build grassroots networks. But networks are also claimed by the Right, they don’t just belong to the Left, which is failing (so far) to form effective transnational institutions. And no matter what Schauble says, we do have our vote. The EU is shaped by the politics of national governments. The alleged disappearance of the nation-state in globalisation is a myth that puts democracy at risk. If the Germans, the Hungarians, the Finns and so on continue to elect governments that are the functionaries of capital, that manipulate the ‘imagined community’ of the nation always standing against other ‘nations’, we will have the EU with its current face. It is as simple as that. Many Spanish people just voted for Rajoy, and so here we are in our European Groundhog Day. The myth of ‘national interest’, covering the reality of class divided societies (and there exist other divisions too), is a central tool of manipulation across the continent. It is aggressively preserved for a reason, and it must be exposed for what it is. The Left is also to blame for participating in preserving this myth, its politicians never daring to drop the idea of ‘national interest’.
You have stated that “it is not the crisis but rather the normality of capitalism that makes our times momentous” adding that “the ‘Blame the crisis!’ discourse is profoundly misleading, and yet it is the one that determines people’s choice of rule in contemporary democratic societies”. Could you elaborate on that?
All historians of globalisation are aware that precarity, for instance, did not arrive in 2008. Nor did the subversion of democracy begin in the inaugural ‘crisis’ year. Contrary to popular belief, democracy is not the bourgeoisie’s gift to the world, but rather something that had/has to be claimed against the interests of capital. There is a long bibliography about both. Precarity is structural to capitalism, which cannot exist without its armies of surplus labour. The welfare state, for which the working class exchanged the prospect of revolution, was a short period in the history of capitalism (with regional variations). I really recommend Michael Denning’s ‘Wageless Life’ (New Left Review 66, 2010) on this. Globalisation is a stage in the development of capitalism where precarity is exacerbated, but precarity as such is underpinning capitalism overall. When the crisis narrative appeared, it functioned as an excuse for governments to ask for ‘sacrifices’ from their citizens. The sacrifices were necessary to save capitalism, not to end it. The narrative of crisis implied, for most European people, a possible return to a prior state of affairs where things were ‘better’ or ‘normal’, after the sacrifices would have paid off. If the history of capitalism were taught at schools, it wouldn’t have been easy to keep going with this lie.
To begin with, things were never ‘better’ for most people in the world, to the point that we had theories about places ‘where capitalism works’ and other places where it doesn’t. And the world was told to learn to live with that… Secondly, it’s ridiculous to suggest that an economy based on fierce competition and which tends, structurally, towards monopoly will ever be one that works for all, or even for most. Thirdly, the so called ‘crisis’ is the process of capitalism re-structuring production on a global level. It is a violent process. It gives us our accelerated historical moment, where a lot of things happen – not least because capital does not operate in an empty terrain, there exist struggles against it. Yet so far the Left does the struggle while capital, in its hegemony as the Right, does the winning.
To sum it up, we just exited a century that ended with the defeat of the working class, but we have a new century ahead. And it is important for the working class to understand that there is no return to what was. Greece will not return to the 1990s, nor Britain will return to the times before Thatcher’s destruction of the miners. And we will not return to interwar fascism either: fascism will be new, the kind that expresses the contradictions of capitalism today.
In an era that practically everything is registered and approached in economic terms, what is the role that art is called to play? How difficult will it be to overcome the aesthetics of violence, fear and racism? Can art history actually give rise to a new critical paradigm?
Art has a history as well as a present. No matter what the history has been, what we can learn from it, we can only struggle in the here and now. And although I wouldn’t have said it a few years back, now I do: once you have encountered the possibilities opened by art (in terms of critical interrogation and imagining) it is impossible to go on without it. Art is such an intense site of experimentation, even as it is also caught in the economy of exchange. But it is false to consider art as an antidote to the banality of the economy. First of all, art participates in this banality. And secondly, art can be a practice where the economy is interpreted and dissected. The most interesting art of our times addresses the economy in some way: the economy becomes art’s subject and form. I don’t mean just capitalism but rather the economy as the fundamental level of social life. Yet, although we have now a revival of the avant garde, we cannot be so naïve as to think that art can lead us to a place ‘outside’. The avant garde can expose and disaffirm but it cannot overcome the times in which it exists. No one can. It can make suggestions but does not have the power to implement its radical ideas as social reality. So, art history can help the avant garde remain an avant garde in terms of the new, militant understandings it elaborates. But to have a new critical paradigm as something more than a theoretical investigation or a separatism requires a level of mobilisation that exceeds the capacities of any singular discipline or experiment.
How does Greece relate to modernity? Does Greece constitute a ‘singularity’ in this context?
Absolutely not. Greece does not constitute a singularity, and I don’t know any country that does, though many countries have made similar claims. One funny thing about the European cultural space is that many countries will claim the identity of a peculiar ‘periphery’ or ‘semi-periphery’, some kind of exceptional fate that diverges from the path of ‘canonical’ modernism, and by implication, modernity. This peaked when postmodernism was the new black, in the 1980s, and for some belated contestants, in the 1990s. Suddenly, you had many countries, including Greece, claiming they had been ‘postmodern’ all along, avant la lettre, because they never had ‘modernism proper’. But of course modernism proper has tended to be a canonising narrative put forward by powerful institutions in intimate relations with the market.
I remember growing up in Greece with this idea of the ‘exception’, which was used to justify all sorts of contemporary ills. Of course, each country, including Greece, has its historical trajectory, but in Greece there was a thin line between serious historical analysis and the tendency to blame the past. And Greece has branded itself as a country with a very long past, which apparently improved the further it was from the contemporary moment. It took me a while to realise that it wasn’t just Greece that got shaped in the 19th century, that it wasn’t unique in that respect.
Greece is a modern society, with the complications this term indicates, with the divisions and hierarchies that structure any such society, and it should shed its weird inferiority-cum-superiority complex. It’s got some good things going for it. It has not recently been an empire, like France, Britain, Holland, Spain, Portugal. It is not burdened with a Nazi past like Germany. And it did not share the failed experiment imposed on Eastern Europe (which, I stress, had got nothing to do with communism). It is also free from royalty. Imperialism, Nazism, Stalinism, monarchy: what a legacy. A legacy interwoven with realised ‘modernity’, whether we like it or not. There is a tendency in Greece to speak about modernity in terms of the Enlightenment, as if the latter had been somehow uniformly positive and ‘successful’. The political contradictions of that era and its legacy are buried. We never had a secular Europe as part of the Enlightenment legacy, we have mainstream political parties called ‘Christian Democrats’, and this alone tells you everything you need to know about where the continent is in terms of its ‘modernity’. The modernity I appreciate is feminism and Greece had a feminist movement since the 19th century, just like other countries. It goes without saying that Greece has many things to feel bad about, but not more than others. We were not the only country with dictatorships and their horrors. We are not the only country in Europe that keeps the ancient myth of a non-human entity called God alive, preserving the power of organised religion. Because, of course, religion is a biopolitical tool much like the capitalist state, and they walk hand-in-hand. Religion controls large segments of the population and has made a formidable comeback, for reasons that should be obvious. So, when we talk about modernity we must qualify it.
As regards Greece, I have to say that although all the things that irritated me twenty years ago are still present, there are also some good things. In 2016 we don’t seem to be among the most racist and inhumane societies in Europe, and I can’t imagine how a positively inflected modernity, modernity in its idealisation as ‘progressive’, can be associated with racism and misanthropy. So I am not sure where this spirit of modernity currently exists in the continent. Is it in Switzerland where refugees are asked to offer their assets as ‘guarantee’? Is it in an economy of austerity that breaches human rights? We are told that every few months and nothing happens: breaching human rights is being normalised. At best, a country is divided over its xenophobia, much like Britain, a former empire on the verge of a velvet civil war as I write these lines. I can’t side with workers who want to close the borders to other workers and I can’t march under a placard that says “I love EU” either, because both positions are politically naïve as regards the roots and causes of the exploitation most suffer. But this is the era of easy listening and easy thinking, the era where democracy has disintegrated to angry anonymous commentary on newspaper websites. The humanities are not under attack for nothing, nor are the poor kept away from education for nothing. Historically, modernity appears to be a history of concessions to misery as much as the intention of emancipation. So, the question is not how Greece relates to modernity but rather what modernity has come to mean in, and for, Europe today.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou