The end of meaning-making as we know It?

May 21, 2014 — Leave a comment

The New Significance Interviews Antonis Vradis on Crisis, Revolt, and Making Meaning in Greece

TNS: Hi Antonis and thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Before we begin, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the projects you’re currently involved in?

Thank you for this opportunity! Sure—I am a member of Occupied London, a collective that had been covering the events in Greece during and following the revolt of 2008, and which has gone on a temporary lull, at frustration with the fact that everyone confuses us with Occupy London. Only kidding, but the reality is that we are taking some soul-searching time to understand what kind of meanings are lost and what new ones need to be discovered by the antagonist movement, and whatever small ways there might be for us to help in this direction. This unnecessarily cryptic phrasing is to say that we are about to finish this first cycle of our project, and to open up a new one.

I am also member of crisis-scape.net, a collective research project that has been exploring the transformations of public spaces in Athens, Greece. This project is now a few days from ending, too—so it definitely feels like the end of a double, and therefore formidable cycle.

TNS: In your chapter for The End of the World As We Know It? Crisis, Resistance, and the Age of Austerity, you root your analysis of the situation in Greece in an uncertainty—a Greek word called “erimin.” Can you explain what this word means and why it is useful in describing post-crisis Greece?

I would be delighted to—first of all, the word is primarily used in Western Greece and the port city of Patras, where I happened to grow up. Even though there are no strong dialects in that part of the country, there exist some intriguing word variations, and for me erimin had always stood out, so when the opportunity arose to write about it in the present context, I jumped on it.

The word literally translates into “in the absence of”: someone may be tried erimin, i.e. in absentia. But colloquially, erimin is used in all situations where we see the element of logic missing—anything widely unexpected or straight-up irrational. I thought the word could make for a good guide into (and hopefully: out of, see the next question!) the current situation in the country, and how so many have watched this unfold in bewilderment.

TNS: Your work recently has taken on a somber tone, a structure of feeling—if I can use the phrase popularized by Raymond Williams—that seems to verge on hopelessness. Is there anything in the contemporary period that does bring you hope? And if not, have we exhausted the possibilities of social antagonism? What comes next?

I have thought for quite a few days on how I could possibly answer this question—not least because I was caught off guard, in all honesty, by understanding that what I wrote in The End of the World As We Know It? might be read to be pessimistic. I guess it’s funny, isn’t it—because one might read the text, they might think, “right, these people have no clue what it is that has hit them, let alone find any way to fight back against it”, and you will, of course, think this is a pessimistic reading of the situation.

But I’m not quite so, and if this is what is reflected in the text, then of course that is a defect: I am only pessimistic about the future of a social antagonist movement that insists upon limiting its horizon within the framework of the order it is supposed to be fighting against. And in this, luckily, I am far from alone: in the discussions with comrades near and far, in our plans for the future, an urgent need keeps resurfacing—the need for us to think of a way of understanding the world that will transcend the confines of a crumbling system; the need to find new meanings, beyond what we are meant to!

TNS: The title of this publication—The New Significance—is a project of signification, or meaning-making. It’s an attempt to recover meaning in a historical moment where social meaning is often either trivial and banal or notably absent. You note a loss of meaning in Greece recently, but I’m curious if there are any practices or social forms that you find new significations in, novel ways of breaking the anomie that surrounds us.

That is absolutely great—and in this sense, it would be projects like The New Significance that would give me ample hope. Now, you say social meaning nowadays can be either “trivial and banal”, or “notably absent”. By distinguishing the two, I think you absolutely nail the two main issues in the lacking of imagination in the antagonist movement today—which, as we discussed earlier on, I consider to be, unfortunately, either trivial or lacking in its imagination, just like the order it is supposed to be fighting against; lagging behind it, even.

Take crisis and austerity, and the effective erasing of whatever traces of the welfare state there were left, at least in some of the most hardly-hit national territories—the Greek one included. What was the response of the wider antagonist movement to this transformation? First there was bewilderment, then there was defence, at least primarily: an urge for us “not to lose” what had been fought for in the past. But being only defensive is a sure recipe for defeat and, if anything, stays very firmly within “trivial and banal” territory. And then, talk of “notably absent” social meaning: in the past few months, and in the run-up to this week’s municipal and European elections, what have now become the two main parties in the country—the straight-up conservative New Democracy and the oddly inspirational for many, it would seem, left-wing Syriza—both tried to claim “New Greece” as their main pre-election slogan.

I think this is a wonderfully illustrative example of where the problem lies. A slogan stretches from the—established—Left to the very right; it stretches so wide that it becomes devoid of meaning, a common denominator that you might as well detract altogether: what could possibly be more vague and abstract than “new”, and what could be more parochial than still thinking in terms of the national territories in which we happen to reside as some supposed subject of and for change, for the new to come about? The hope, and of that luckily there is plenty, lies in this strangely globalised consciousness that seems to be forming up between so many of us, that the system is one and that—simply enough!—we need to destroy it before it destroys us. It would be a great mistake, I think, to underestimate what is going on in the two eternal camps, the one fighting to impose order and authority and the other, struggling for social emancipation. Sure enough, power has gone through even more vile transformations before: it is not the first time that it reveals an even harsher face in response to its own crisis. But what might very well be a global and historical first, is the formation of this truly global movement against, united both in its form (riots, physical defiance to authority) and what it is meant to fight against. That is inspiring. But what lies ahead of us is now the tallest order of all: we need to find ways to transmute what can often-times be too locally specific struggles, confined in the imaginary of the existent and through them, to find new meaning—transcending capitalism’s erimin-meaning.