The agonistic politics of eris, stasis, polemos

Questions of contest, strife, division, and war have been central to my autonomist politics.*  These questions have been circulating in my research explicitly since the 1980s. Here is a representative passage from my paper “The Rule of Justice” (1993):

We are now in a position to see polemos not as organized aggression or random violence but as the explosive, creative, political manifestation and operation of the governing order which turns chaos into cosmos. Through the agons of politics, through the exercise of government, through the political apportioning (as opposed to any custom or culture), people assemble and participate in this process by designing, deliberating their own rules of authority, their own laws, and defending them … This way of putting together a polis is best expressed by the verb “to institute” whose double meaning corresponds to that of its cognate “stasis”: “to set up” and “to start”, “to place” and “to introduce”, “to create” and “to initiate”. To institute is not to erect but to set in regulated motion, to organize a state/stasis [emphasis added] to change a society with the balance and dynamism of stasis. Instituting a polis is the indicated way/dike, the way which explicitly recognizes the institutive character of dike eris. It is based on the operations of the political principle, making authority and freedom, law and order, a matter of conscious, intense, agonistic scrutiny/scopesis (Thesis Eleven 40, p.19).

From this standpoint of my interest in state/stasis I have been following with admiration the evolution of philosopher Dimitris Vardoulakis during this decade, since his Doppelgänger study, and read with great interest his new book, which consolidates with stylistic urgency his reflections on sovereignty and stasis. In it, he argues that “the concept of agonistic democracy insists … on the inherent fragility of democracy because it is related to the contested site of violence — on how violence is justified and dejustified. … Differently put, agonistic democracy is forever vigilant on the inherent disunity that is possible and that is never effaced by the seeming stability of institutions of power, which are supposed to effectuate the unity of the state. Or, epigrammatically put, before the state comes stasis” (2018: 109).

The relatively narrow scope of this book’s references illustrates how Vardoulakis has been positioning himself in a very particular way within the post-Marxist Spinozist camp of political theory. Thus, in addition to my own studies (including one on Solon), he omits major thinkers of democratic agonism from Cornelius Castoriadis and William Connolly to Chantal Mouffe and Miguel Abensour. Nevertheless, this is a substantive manifesto of political theory that deserves energetic attention. It would be interesting to have it discussed by a panel of Greek political theorists of agonism (scholars like Athina Athanasiou, Emilios Christodoulidis, Stathis Gourgouris, Andreas Kalyvas, Nathalie Karagiannis, and Alexandros Kioupkiolis) who can mobilize the original terminology of the democratic state/stasis.

*Books missing from the above photo include Giorgio Agamben’s Stasis (2001), Andrew Schaap’s Law and Agonistic Politics (2009), Alexandros Kioupkiolis’ Freedom after the Critique of Foundations (2012), and Athena Athanasiou’s Agonistic Mourning (2017).

October 6, 2017

Posted in Autonomy, Crisis | Tagged ,

Collaborative listening

The major Modernist auditory regime was Adorno’s “structural hearing” where the expert listener “understands what he perceives as necessary” (Introduction to the Sociology of Music [1976], 4-5) while the great work is listening to its fallen singularity. Composers, performers, and scholars have been opposing to this aristocratic regime various democratic practices of listening, such as Pauline Oliveros’ “deep listening” (2005), Peter Szendy’s “plastic listening” (Listen [2008], 139), Michel Chion’s “acousmatic listening” (Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise [1998]), Janne Vanhanen’s “expanded listening” (Musical Encounters with Deleuze and Guattari, 2017, 171), and Eric Ball’s “stranded listening” (2017).*  All of them treat compositions as processes that happen in “musicking” situations, not works that exist independently. To these practices, which promote a rhizomatic proliferation of meaning, I would add what I call “collaborative listening,” which consists in two friends listening to each other’s listening, as I will illustrate with the gorgeous second movement of Brahms’s string sextet No. 1 (1860), op. 18:

When I am listening to music together with another person, I may be doing one of three things. I may be listening by myself, sharing my listening with them, or listening to their listening. Let’s take as an example the theme and five variations of Brahms’s andante ma moderato. When listening on my own, I tend to follow the variations, making sure that I distinguish one from the other, and relate them to the theme. In this mode, the piece sounds like the solo piano transcription (1860) of the second movement that Brahms dedicated to Clara Schumann:

When I am sharing my listening with another person, more than following the variations, I also follow mentally the way that person follows the variations, hoping that the two of us are, as it were, on the same page of the score. In this mode, the piece sounds like its piano trio version arranged by Brahms’s friend, Theodor Kirchner:

But when I am sharing the experience with collaborative pianist Pantelis Polychronidis by listening to his listening, I am not listening to the five variations but I figure out the variations internal to each variation, that is, the contrapuntal immanence of each variation. For example, I listen to the 4th variation and I am transposed by its two repeats, which are both varied: Part 1 of the variation (here 5:06) is followed by a varied repeat (5:26), and then Part 2 (5:46) is also followed by a varied repeat (6:08-6:29). In the first repeat, the expressive melody of the variation is taken by the first violin an octave higher while the first viola stays at the same level; in the second repeat, a more urgent phrase is intensified when both violins, joined by the first viola, play the melody an octave higher. The entire 4th variation lasts a mere 1:23 in this recording yet its internal variations (that is, varied repeats) gradually intensify its expressiveness.

This capacity, through collaborative listening, to assemble, rather than follow, a work represents the musical immanence of our friendship, and it materializes regardless of whether we are physically or mentally together. Listening to my other self listening is a contrapuntal part of my listening self (or an internal condition of my very listening) and constitutes our “sonic intimacy” (Dominic Pettman 2017, 79). It also runs parallel to another exercise of our friendship, collaborative teaching.

From the start, this has been a blog about friendship as a rigorous exercise in listening — not to works or even to each other but about listening to the other (self) listening. As I wrote in the very first post, “Listening to music with a friend“: “In the friend’s resonating presence I am not an interpreter of the internal necessity of an artistic structure.” I listen to the music that we make together by listening to each other listening to music. This collaborative listening, this attunement/Stimmung to one another and to the music enveloping us, composes our friendship.


* Eric Ball, an exceptional theoretician and practitioner of music making, developed the notion of “stranded listening” in his consistently fascinating blog, Night-rhyming. Focusing on “listening with place,” the notion theorizes the occasion of being stranded conceptually and physically with small-town folk in a makeshift seat to help bring back to life an old and abandoned theater, the Strand, as a “re-habilitated,” re-territorialized space that can again assemble people together.

September 29, 2017

Posted in Collaboration, Friends, Listening | Tagged

The Friend and his Beloved

When a close friend talks to me about love in their lives, the world is suspended, and for a while nothing else matters.

Pantelis often talks to me with melodic tenderness about the woman of his dreams. He describes her walk, her clothes, her eyes, and above all her transparent skin. She is probably not the woman with whom he is in love right now but the one who is coming to meet him, his “soul mate” – unless, of course, they are one and the same person! After describing her, he asks me: “She is still coming, isn’t she?”

There is an addictive Greek song, “Morning or evening serenade” (1982), that always makes me think of the ethereal Beloved that Pantelis, my “other self,” is contemplating. Its narrator is addressing himself to such a woman, wishing that, instead of being “rain,” “fire,” and “life,” all of them in “incessant flow,” she would be something he can catch and make his own, a stable part of his life.

What I find irresistible in this song is how the tension of its lyrics is reinforced, without being duplicated, by its dual musical structure: As the original recording (and live performances by its singer) make clear, this is a waltz that aspires to become a gavotte, without ever succeeding or failing in its effort. It hovers between Baroque stylization and Romantic expression. Let’s say that it is a waltz with many light neo-baroque features, from its harmony to the timbre of the instrumentation (defined by that harmologic harpsichord!), which invoke a gavotte.

It is unfortunate that subsequent performances of the song (with the obvious blessing of the composer who is often at the piano) resolve the tension between the two constitutive forms by giving in to a thoroughly sentimental approach that abandons the tempo of the courtly dance

for a slow, emotional chanson:

The song ends up sounding only like a Manos Hadjidakis waltz rather than a Bach gavotte.

The original recording reminds me of Pantelis Polychronidis walking next to me, looking at the stars, and asking me about his girlfriend: “What if she is the one?” I can’t help but love these moonstruck moments though next time I may cite to him the mood of a very different gavotte, the famous aria from Massenet’s Manon (1884), “Obeissons quand leur voix appelle“, where the heroine admonishes (here at 3:45): “Obey when their voices are /calling, beckoning us to tender / loves, always, always, always; / as long as you are beautiful, / use up your days without  / counting them, all of your days!”  I believe that Pantelis will gladly obey.

Note:  I am grateful to John Moraitis, a master of the harpsichord and its repertoire, for his valuable advice.

September 16, 2017

Posted in Friends, Music

Renouncing politics

As the funeral march for the revolution continues to intone the exhaustion of the emancipatory project, and left melancholy sets the mood of post-revolutionary critique, claims for radical negativity acquire a special appeal in the Trump era. What if not just ideals of liberation but all politics of modernity is bankrupt?

Such negative positions include Cacciari’s groundless “unpolitics,” Esposito’s conflictual “impolitics,” Dubreuil’s refusatory “apolitics,” and Culp’s “cataclysmic politics.” Apart from some limited overlap, these refusonist positions are quite different from recusatory (Bartleby), exodic (Negri), anarchist (May), or accelerationist (Srnicek) ones in that they are based on a total repudiation of everything that stands for politics, declaring, as their terminology indicates, an indignant, implacable, unconditional rejection of all existing political options. The decline of left politics, they argue, is not something to be melancholic about; it’s something to mourn, overcome, and move beyond.

Since the time when renunciatory views emerged in the global “movement of the squares,” Pantelis Polychronidis (a strong supporter) and I have been debating the social efficacy and ethical validity of their stance. Yet it seems that, especially in light of its decline, the left is largely avoiding any engagement with these views which might herald its withdrawal. Thus a defiant resistance discourse continues to prevail, occasionally interrupted by arguments for disengagement. Few activists/thinkers are willing to face defeat, choosing instead to treat the current demoralizing predicament as a temporary setback.

Still, a renunciatory, quasi-apocalyptic thinking which seeks not a counter-politics (such as culture) or an anti-politics (such as morality) but a politics beyond all foundations may reinforse a central question of the squares: If the assembly denounces both the early modern politics of sovereignty and modern biopolitics, and determines to pursue self-rule, how would an immanent governance work?  What politics can keep the multitude gathered and autonomous?  Can the movement govern?

May 20, 2017

Posted in Disengagement, Left, Resistance

Are there any Greeks in this book? (2)

This year the contemporary art exhibition Documenta 14 has been taking place not only in the German city of Kassel, as had been the case every five years since 1955, but also in Athens. Its title, Learning from Athens, cites Robert Venturi’s legendary book Learning from Las Vegas (1972) in the most banal way but at least gestures in the direction of the South (as does the title of its magazine, South as a State of Mind). The major published document of this double exhibition, the 710-page volume The Documenta 14 Reader (2017), which came out too late for the Greek part of the project, offers a comprehensive textual and visual survey of its concerns.

However, it has a glaring omission: Athens and its people. It includes only two (excellent) essays by Greek scholars (both reprints by non-Athenian academic expatriates) as well as three short reprinted poems by a Kurdish-Greek writer who used to live in Athens. In its own self-refuting way, the Reader on “Learning from Athens” does not have a single Athenian writing from Athens.

Furthermore, there is no claim anywhere in this massive volume about a single thing that somebody learned from their sojourn in the city since work on the exhibition began there in 2013 – proof that Documenta’s Athens might be placed anywhere since the organizers can provide and rehearse its citizens. For example, we are told that in Athens there was a “Parliament of Bodies” (35) but, instead of hearing from those bodies assembled there, we read about a singly body, that of Paul Preciado, the Curator of Public Programs of the exhibition. We are told that there was a self-organized “Apatride Society” but are offered to read Diagne on Négritude, and another also self-organized  “Society for the End of Necropolitics” but, instead of hearing from their members, we are offered to read Du Bois on the Warsaw Ghetto. Under the grandiose title “When, and where, do German-Greek relations begin?” there is a short folio of twenty-four artworks, only two of which (by Pia Davou) are located in Greece. As we are told in the penultimate page, even the indigo ribbon page marker of the volume, though prepared at a workshop of the Benaki Museum in Athens, was made by an indigo dyer from Mali featured in the exhibition.

In short, readers are reminded on every page that “Learning from Athens” requires the ostracism of all Athenians – citizens, refugees, immigrants, resident aliens, guests, all of them.  As my other self, Pantelis Polychronidis, would say about his city of residence, would it ever be possible to call a project “Learning from Vienna” and obliterate all the Viennese from it?

This obliteration is neither accidental nor symbolic. Cultural arbiters like Adam Szymczyk, the Artistic Director of Documenta 14, who profess to love “Learning and Living from Athens” (to quote the title of his introductory essay), make sure to have Athens to themselves, unadulterated by any Athenians, either by not visiting it (following the example of nearly all Romantic writers and artists) or by reducing its inhabitants to non-speaking roles (as do all foreign movies filmed in the city). That is because they are confident that they are the authentic Athenians who ultimately do not need even the physical place since they carry Athens as a “State of Mind” with them wherever they go. Regardless of their ethnic descent, these citizens of the Hellenic transcendent “aesthetic state” are the true masters of Bildung and gatekeepers of Kultur.  In an excellent Greek-language review of the Athenian part of the exhibition, Yorgos Tzirtzilakis, Architecture faculty at the University of Thessaly, identified didactic, moralistic, narcissistic, naturalistic, exoticist and other related elements in its heavily textual critique of identarian neoliberalism which ended up affirming the authority of Documenta as an institution.

As its “critical anthology” illustrates, Documenta 14 went to Athens looking for “others” but ended up othering the Athenians as its project of “decoloniality” colonized their city.

August 15, 2017

Posted in Bildung, Culture, Greeks, Hellenism, The "Greeks", The Arts | Tagged

Are there any Greeks in this book? (1)

Comparisons of Hebraism and Hellenism are often marked by an extraordinary void,
the absence of any modern Greeks. While such comparisons always refer to Jewish figures of modernity and cite Jewish writers, Greeks of the last three centuries are absent both from these surveys and their sources.

Most recently I was intrigued by the subtitle of a new book by Zahi Zalloua (Professor of French and Interdisciplinary Studies at Whitman College),” Beyond the Jew and the Greek”, and tried to find out who are some representative figures of the two archetypes in it.  This subtitle is explained in the “Epilogue: “The figure of the Palestinian, traced in this study, declines the phantasms of the Jew and the Greek: the Jew and the Greek conceived either as figures of exemplary wholeness or monolithic entities” (131).

Already the “Introduction” refers to Marx, Dreyfus, Adorno, Levinas, Derrida, and Oz
as well as non-Jewish writers on Jewish tradition from Bauer to Arnold and Sartre.
The entire book refers to these and many other thinkers and scholars who represent and/or reflect on the Jews of modernity.

There is a major problem, however. There are no Greeks in the book,
neither ancient nor modern, neither in the argument nor in the bibliography.
The only Greeks mentioned (briefly) are those generic ones attacked by supreme anti-Hellene Emmanuel Levinas (as well as myself on Levinas in a footnote).  If other comparisons between Hebraism and Hellenism eliminate modern Greeks, this one eliminates all Greeks indiscriminately.

The book claims justifiably to go “Beyond the Jew” as it discusses the “Jewish question,” “deconstructs Zionism,” and critiques “Israel’s autoimmunity.”  But it cannot claim to go “Beyond … the Greek” because it acknowledges no Greeks:  None is discussed in any manner.  To its author, the Greeks are worse than dead, they are non existent.

Why would a book that defends the rights of a people, the Palestinians, deny another people, the Greeks, their very existence?  Because, in order to give the “Palestinian question” equal legitimacy with the “Jewish question” it is necessary “to think of the Jew and the Palestinian contrapuntally” (129) – using here an adverb with Saidian echoes – which means that the Greeks must be eliminated from the traditional Hebraism-Hellenism counterpoint altogether.

“How can Palestinian lives matter (again)?” (131) One way, this book argues, is to take the place of the Greeks in all discussions of the Jews.

August 13, 2017

Posted in Culture, Hellenism, Philosophy, The "Greeks" | Tagged

“Η αριστερή μελαγχολία στην ελληνική ποιητική γενιά του 2000”

Below is the Greek translation of my paper “Left Melancholy in the Greek Poetry Generation of 2000s after the Crisis of Revolution and Representation” (2016), published in the literary magazine Thraka 8 (Summer 2017).

Επισυνάπτω μετάφραση περσινής αγγλόγλωσσης μελέτης μου που δημοσιεύεται στο 8ο τεύχος (καλοκαίρι 2017) του λογοτεχνικού περιοδικού Θράκα.  Ευχαριστώ θερμά την καθηγήτρια κ. Νένη Πανουργιά που μου ζήτησε την μελέτη, τον κ. Θάνο Γώγο που την φιλοξένησε στο περιοδικό και τον κ. Δ. Ι. Τσουμάνη που την μετέφρασε.


August 11, 2017

Posted in Crisis, General Culture, Greek Poetry, Left, Melancholy