The Ifs of Language: the Poetry and the Proofs

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The following is the poetry, the voice-over script by Peter Lyssiotis, to the short film The Ifs of Language. The images above are from the proofs of the book of the same name. 

——–

maybe it’s the words we forget, maybe it’s the sentences we can’t finish that save us

day after day the words they use decay softly, this makes them wise, its makes want to talk again

sometimes over coffee in the kitchen, or while stirring fish soup over a humming gas jet, they begin to accustom themselves to that feeling of tenderness again

language opens up the same wounds as love

everyday all the good words are burnt in a clearing the size of my heart

our joys and our misfortunes are made of the same words

is it silent where the future is? how do you get back those moments words have lost for you? (with words still moist from that other world)

so much depends upon a fresh thought in the middle a frosty red plum

instead of god or the word, the splendour of black

even telephones have lost their voices

words cows words cows words cows words cows words cows words cows

ah, the pleasure of being a word, with other words, in an elegant sentence

why do expect these dry syllable to frame our shapeless worlds?

if we are not the words, can there be a story?

two words, three lies

and always the terrible machinery waits in place

words always arrange themselves to tell the same story, things will change, but words are heretics, and later in the fire, they will deny it all

these words send me aching towards another mistake

beware when an obedient language parts, we can only descend into an empty heaven

a long sentence slouches against the door like an axe with nothing to do

each words a trojan horse

which one of us will be bled to death tonight?

time now for the crying of statues

a man fell in love with the word, but the word didn’t care about him

the man looked for it in a dictionary, a thesaurus, the encyclopaedia, the newspapers, on signs, but the word couldn’t be found anywhere

the man recalled the word meant bird, meant sky, no, it meant homeland, perhaps it meant all these things at once, maybe it came from nowhere and meant nothing

the man can’t remember the word and it won’t let him rest

my father said that when he was young he saw a Greek word leap from the sea heart to the clouds and carry his village with it, but that was when fish were fish, and the the Mediterranean was still a myth

the last word my mother spoke left a small black hole in the air outside her kitchen window, just above the lemon tree…it’s still there

so here I am, a thief, stealing from thieves

——

Peter notes: “William Carlos Williams writes about ‘…the ifs of language…’, which I take to mean the possibilities or the potentials of language, that are beyond dictionary meaning. It’s what’s outside the frame, what is absent that interests Williams.”

Peter also notes this by Antonin Artaud: “This is all that language is good for from now on, a means of going mad, eliminating thought, rupturing; a labyrinth of foolishness, not a dictionary into which certain pedants from the environs of the Seine may channel their spiritual awareness.”

Peter: ‘It is the duty of the reader to take the writer to safety.”

—-

I provided the music and sound design to the film. That music can be heard as part of my album Manoeuvres 1995 – 2005. Liner notes to that album can be read here.

If thought needs words, then they both need proof. This is what language is, a neurosis for reality. And maybe thought needs further proof; in the sound of language, in its music. Music then becomes the sound of thought, its proof.

…the proofs of language.

Chance at Sculptural Freedom

Although it appears to be going from bad to worse, that is, that the British Museum (BM) is in apparent negotiations with other institutions to loan them their captive Parthenon Sculptures, I suggest that this can be seen as a positive move for the campaign to reunify the sculptures in Athens.

Letting the sculptures out for the world to see might be just the catalyst for other peoples and other countries to connect with their plight. It affords a wonderful opportunity for people to ask questions about their history and their current bondage. They might start to question the legitimacy of the BM’s continued possession. They might start to raise their voices and add them to the ever-growing global campaign for unification in Athens. These peoples might see into the agalma and hear an inner voice. They will engage in their own aisthesis and connect with, not only a general aesthetics, but with the politics of aesthetics and the poetry of emancipation that is spoken through the sculptures.

What’s the alternative, that the Parthenon Sculptures remain incarcerated in the BM, kept like a dirty secret in their mausoleum, or as Nikos Kazantzakis noted in his otherwise anglophile travelogue of 1939, “In her sooty vials, London stores these marble monuments of the gods, just as some unsmiling Puritan might store in the depths of his memory some past erotic moment, blissful and ecstatic sin.” What’s the alternative, that we say to the BM, no, keep them interred in gallery 18? That we acquiesce to their peonage, forever working under their master’s whip?

To be clear, I do not advocate for the legitimacy of lending the Parthenon Sculptures in some permanent to and fro. Nor that these proposed loans be an example that the Acropolis Museum should ever welcome. Nor either to the acceptance of any claim for the sculptures to remain in, or beholden to, the BM. Quite the opposite. I advocate for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to the Acropolis Museum now, and in full. I am aware of the fragility of the sculptures and the risk of damage involved in any travel. The question of whether potential damage is a limit to any travel, or a necessary risk for emancipation, is one that needs further attention. Yet the BM has decided that it’s time for touring; for a regime of loans and its accompanying narrative. There is really only one journey the sculptures need to make.

The point is that I expect that any loans regime will be, of itself, short lived – that it will bring about a change in the attitude for those that, a) learn of these proposals today, b) come into direct contact with the sculptures, c) can rehabilitate the BM’s position, and, d) see that this loans regime is likely to never get off the ground at all, given the challenges it faces. I suggest that we exploit the opening, this crack in the edifice, that the loans propose. I imagine that the loans regime will have a short life and a natural end, and that the approach to this limit will escalate the reunification to Athens.

Of course the BM has contradicted itself regarding objects that are ‘never to be loaned.’ Why the change? Of course there is hubris in the BM dispensing favours with things that belong elsewhere. Will the sculptures forever travel in clandestine security operations, as Ilissos did to the State Hermitage? (Imagine the sculptures in hyper-security vans…then imagine them in the light, space and dialogue of Athens…) Of course the power-narrative of the BM becomes more illegitimate with time. Of course these proposed loans might be dangled in front of the Acropolis Museum as a temptation to submit to such a regime. Of course there is the risk that such a global travelling parade becomes the norm; the sculptures as stateless but yoked. There might also be the inevitable apology to the world for a just a little damage in their cartage. Of course the BM will perceive this flaunting of the sculptures as a legitimacy for their claim. Of course the BM can do as it likes, despite its mandate to the public. Of course we will hear tales of neo-enlightenment, ‘of the world for the world’. Yet, and here is the central thread – might the BM have noticed its umbilicus? The BM has for some time now been decrying its inseparability to the sculptures – is it time to cut the cord, as every cord must? I would commend the BM for what looks like an attempt to understand its addiction to these sculptures. I suggest that these loans hint at a possible subconscious urge by the BM to free the sculptures. I think we can encourage this maturation.

Let the sculptures out to see the sky, to hear other voices, to smell other lands – let them dream of liberation and of their home. For though they will be freed only temporarily from their incarceration, they will be wiser for their journey, as will we. And if the chorus of wise voices rises? If Ilissos swells it into a turbulence? Then there is the chance for a break. A chance for a new global engagement, a chance for a new story. It is risky for all, but risk is itself a chance at freedom.

 

Transfusion: Video, Topology, Sisyphus

Still from the video clip to the TJ Eckleberg remix of the Tom Kazas song, Transfusion.

Still from the video clip to the TJ Eckleberg remix of the Tom Kazas song, Transfusion.

Q: ??

A: Interesting you should say that, because working on the video clip to Transfusion -TJ Eckleberg remix brought back some of my curiosity about the links between topology and psychoanalysis. It reminded me that the lyrics to Transfusion are from the time I was making my cinema poem (short-film) the Topologist, that in many ways was trying to explore these connections. In simple terms, topology is study of the folding of space, the preservation of properties of space under transformations. This subject matter can also be imagined as the terrain of unconscious drives and desires; where separated histories and urges can come into connection, or where accepted associations become disconnected, where shape does not have to correspond to content, and where visually, (in a somewhat literal rendering for the Transfusion video clip), a multi-surface multi-angled scene represents such psychoanalytic structure and tension, or torsion, if you will. Loss, not only of present fixed co-ordinates, but of nostalgic co-ordinates and future co-ordinates, requires (and required of me in the making of the Topologist), a new way of seeing the world.

Some of these ideas were expressed via the narrative (or more appropriately the anti-narrative) of my film the Topologist; with its unidentified polyvocal voice-overs, its episodic sequences, and its representation of no ‘real-world’ terrain, that tries to question metaphor. With the video clip to TJ’s remix, all this was able to come together in a new way with the inclusion of the 3D image manipulations I created of a still from the Topologist. These image transformations (as seen in the image above) depict this multi-dimensionality and contrasting orientations, with that tiny figure of the topologist himself present in some of these Escher-like and Dora Maar-like scenes.

I was thrilled that TJ’s remix focussed on the lyrics: “I stepped out of the water, walked in from the weather”, because this couplet condenses the idea of transition from one terrain to another, of transformation from one shape to another that struggles for coherence. It poses an escape from a dense bounded space (in the lyric: a bathtub) to a somewhere-else, from a site of elemental turmoil (in the lyric: the weather) to a new space, that in many ways become equally challenging for the topologist. You see, as experimental as I tried to make the Topologist, that is, with its non-narrative features, the lyrics to the song Transfusion are certainly narrative in form. Namely, they describe a journey over time, where this movement can be plotted and its parts related, intentionally problematic as they made be. Elements of the ‘absurd’ now enter, especially with the sense of the absurd that Camus wrote about in his treatment of the myth of Sisyphus. That book became inextricably linked to my lyrics, that found some form in: “I revel in the burden that’s rolling up and down the hill.” But Camus’ book, the Myth of Sisyphus, deals with so much more. For example, how suicide as a response to the absurd is not an acceptable option; not a somatic suicide, not a psychological suicide, not an abandonment or apathy. But it precisely identifies the need for struggle, for a freedom that only becomes intelligible in the face of the absurd. One begins to see the political in this story.

What became interesting to me were the deeper layers to the character of Sisyphus. Sure, he was given an absurd punishment, but Sisyphus is not simply a criminal, nor a simple criminal. He can be understood as a hero. The Greeks certainly rendered him as such. He was a hero that challenged and disobeyed authority, the Law. He was equated with that other great hero who disobeyed authority, Prometheus. Prometheus was also given an ‘eternal’ punishment, but we celebrate his crime because it becomes the very beginning of humanity; we understand this act as a gift. However, this gift is not just that of fire, (the arts of civilisation), but one of the ‘act of disobedience’ itself. Eric Fromm identifies that civilisation can be understood to have been founded with acts of disobedience. It was this Promethean disobedience that brought civilisation to humanity. In the biblical myth, it was Eve who disobeyed and precipitated the Fall, that allowed humanity to begin. These Western creation myths embody, at their very heart, acts of disobedience. It is not a stretch to see that for society to evolve, at many levels, we need to acknowledge this deeper sense of the role of disobedience. (Fromm is clear to differentiate between the right and wrong kinds of disobedience.) Authority, whether political, economic, patriarchal, theological, cultural, etc, needs to be challenged by humanity for society to exist. For me, this is a crucial insight. Sisyphus, in the hands of Camus, becomes a character that disobeys, rebelling against the absurd of his situation. It is in this act that a deeper sense of emancipation is created; a rupture in the repetition. As Camus writes, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy,” and happiest in this situation. So that if freedom means anything, it means a predicament that necessitates struggle, and so this becomes the definition of happiness. These ideas were irresistible to me, so I had to title my ep, (the one that contains my mix of the song Transfusion), ‘Sisyphus Happy‘.

I won’t go into it here, unless you ask me a question on this, but the other major theme on that ep is the tension between presenting different remodellings of one song on the same ep. (There is yet another version of Transfusion, on this ep, called Revel in the Burden). The ep problematizes ideas of the original versus the copy, of cause and result, and of discovering alternate meaning by juxtaposing these remodelled versions. It comes full circle by trying to equate these songwriting ideas with the Sisyphean moments between ascent and descent.

Trying to make sense of all of this can be seen as an act of transfusion; of absorbing this absurd predicament as a life generating act, even as a therapeutic act. My lyric, “I read words for transfusion” not only references that act of reading Camus’ book, but also that words and language, with their structures (and poststructuralist implications), are a way to allow/restrict movement inside this topological terrain. I have never written many narrative song lyrics, and when I do, they generally start off as word poems, with the poetry of the music arriving much later.

Q: ??

A: …

Parthenon Sculptures: Narratives of Possibility

Peplos Frieze scene bw

Tom Kazas  13 December 2013.  

This paper is a more detailed expression of a talk I gave on Saturday 16th November 2013 in Sydney, for the International Colloquy, ‘Parthenon: Icon of Global Citizenship’.

I am very happy to be here, and honoured to participate in the campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures. I’d like to thank Dennis Tritaris for his work in organizing this International Colloquy, and Emanuel Comino for maintaining the charge.

I will say it often and clearly: in full and in place. The Parthenon Sculptures must be in full, as much as is now historically-physically possible, and in place, at the Acropolis Museum in Athens. A Latin expression captures this imperative, and is wonderful for its brevity and clarity: in toto in situ. The Greek translation speaks to the poetry of this plea: ensomatomena ekei pou oloklironontai.

In simple terms, what ‘in toto in situ’ really refers to is the Aesthetic Imperative.[1] This imperative is the argument that the Parthenon Sculptures must be returned to Athens, to be reunited with their severed ‘counter-parts’. For only in this state can we attempt a fuller understanding of the aesthetic qualities these sculptures embody. These qualities are not only those of visual form, but those of narrative itself; the work of literature that the Frieze of the Panathenaic procession is, or the drama that the Metopes and Pediments express, especially in their physical relationship to the dimensional qualities of the Parthenon. The Aesthetic Imperative states that the original intention of the sculptors, as far as possible, must be respected. For in this way we respect ourselves. However, we should be in no doubt that as a campaign for reunification, we are at a standstill. We languish in a kind of post-Mercouri hypnosis. For even though all arguments for retention have been refuted, what is painfully clear is that our desired outcome still eludes us. Clearly much more is needed in the campaign to reunify the Parthenon Sculptures.

I would also make the point that the British institutions, that is, the British Government (BG) and the British Museum (BM), are themselves are stuck. They are a victim of their own history, ambitions, legal system and the contingency of events. Clearly we should not accept the divisions that these British institutions have cleverly created in a 1963 parliamentary Act, between the BG and the BM, that keeps these sculptures in a convenient legal circularity of (ir)responsibility. Former British politician, Andrew Dismore has aptly described this legal operation as “pass the parcel.”[2] So rather than the BM being the only responsible party, it is more correct to refer to the responsible parties as the ‘British Institutions’, in contrast to the British people. The BG are complicit in this refusalism. They not only purchased of the Parthenon Sculptures from Thomas Bruce after stating they were ‘fairly and properly acquired(!), fit for purchase for 35k pounds’,[3] but created a legal structure to obfuscate responsibility for their retention. This complicity, however, does not exclude the argument that the British are themselves stranded. Might this all come down to how they can ‘save face’ upon the return of the Sculptures to Athens? As public opinion in Britain increasingly favours the reunion of the Parthenon Sculptures, seen in recent public debates there,[4] I believe the British want to find a way out but cannot, because their contemporary urges remain eclipsed by the long shadow of their imperial history. Part of our task is to find a way to help the British liberate themselves, to emancipate them from their own condition of aesthetic, legal and indeed moral imprisonment.

Our campaign must therefore be framed as a project of emancipation, it precisely becomes an operation of politics. We should not be proud of the boast that says that our campaign is ‘a-political’, that somehow it is only a cultural property issue, or a justice issue, or even an aesthetic issue. No, for to do so misses the point that we must confront the source of our grievances. We should redefine this task as precisely one of politics; of confronting illegitimate authority. One could say that until we understand this as a political problem, the resolution will elude us.

It is in this way that I read the plea by Emanuel Comino that “there are no more excuses.”[5] Indeed there are not. We must be brave enough to accept this political dimension; how each party has contributed to it, and how we can break out of this loop in which we are caught. So how do we interrupt this procedure, how do we create an emancipatory crack?

What I want to do in this talk is to investigate one very powerful way of breaking out. My talk is now titled: ‘Parthenon Sculptures: Narratives of Possibility’. ‘Narrative’ is many things, and I don’t want to get caught in the different meanings this word has. What I want to do here is restrict its meaning to ‘the stories we tell about the Parthenon Sculptures’. I will show that we have a tremendous power at our disposal, and this is the power of narrative.

One Word: Sculptures

How often are we struck by the power of one word. Either by the way it restricts and evades, or by the way it expands and liberates. But usually, before we can act, that word has moved on and been replaced by another, and then another, until the possibilities of this word have vanished. I say we must halt and focus on one such word, and that word is ‘Sculptures’. For it is impossible to deny the power of language in shaping reality: words shape our thoughts, thoughts shape our actions, and actions shape our reality. So if we want to create the reality of the Parthenon Sculptures returned to Athens, then our task is obvious, we must choose our words carefully.

I am constantly struck by the indecision and fractured nature of how these Pheidian works are referred to. It appears that many people cannot decide whether they are ‘marbles’ or ‘sculptures’. These words are not synonymous, and to fall into the trap that they are reveals either: a lack of attention, an urge for cheap jokes, or an acceptance of a dangerous ideology. This blurring and uncertainty then becomes planted into the reader. It’s like we are hedging our bets; ‘marbles’ as some simple and direct, ‘matter of fact’ term, or ‘sculptures’, when wanting to emphasize the aesthetic qualities. It is precisely the neglect inherent in this lexical interchangeability, this inability to accurately define these Pheidian works that weakens the position of the reunification campaign. These two words have completely different sets of conceptual contents, and by conflating the two, we do the campaign harm. But, this of course this plays right into the hands of the British institutional propagandists.

Just two weeks ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, the title of an article sympathetic to the return of the sculptures, (referring to the UNESCO change in policy), had the title: “Rule changes could end Britain’s game of playing with marbles.”[6] At a recent meeting in Melbourne, attended by supporters of reunification, I heard a similar joke about “losing our marbles”.  I claim that such expressions do harm to our cause, they trivialize and distract from the crucial issues. I say that the reunification campaign is at fault for not insisting on the exclusive definition of the Pheidian works as ‘sculptures’. We are at fault for leaving it to others to mark the territory, and by falling into the trap that ‘marbles’ and ‘sculptures’ are synonymous, and therefore interchangeable. The campaign must claim this definitional space and focus attention on what these objects really are; they are sculptures. So it is in this way that the Comino statement of ‘enough is enough’ is a political plea, a plea to action that must begin with one word. It will be this word, whose use will take root and allow us, or better still the sculptures themselves, to tell their story.

My central point is this, that if we want the return of the Pheidian works from Britain, then we must insist on the exclusive use of the obviously correct term: ‘Parthenon Sculptures’. We must replace the word ‘marbles’ with ‘sculptures’ in our discourse; in our casual conversations, in our formal literature, in the text-space of social media, in our committee names – in our thinking. We should pull people up when they slip and use the word ‘marbles’ and ask them to refer to the these items as ‘sculptures’. For sculptures is what they are.

Sculptures not Marbles

I have yet to find a definition that refutes the claim that the Pheidian works are, first and foremost, ‘sculptures’. All references confirm that a sculpture is a piece of art made by shaping processes.[7] Even at this most basic level, and one that I think is inherently understood, the Pheidian works are absolutely ‘sculptures’. Do we really need to challenge this? I think not. However, my point is much less about an insistence on absolute definition, and much more about what the word ‘sculpture’ brings with it, and what we can leave behind with the word ‘marbles’. This is the pivotal operation.

By changing just one word, from ‘marbles’ to ‘sculptures’, a whole domain of education and activism opens up for the reunification campaign. Firstly, this change allows us to restart the discourse. It allows us to initiate conversation on the nature of sculpture, and its centrality to the Greek Project. In simple terms, we have something important to re-define and to re-broadcast; we take up an offensive. A change of any key word in any discourse would have a similar effect, yet, it is precisely this effect we seek; a way to break out of the predicament in which we are caught. This insistence on ‘sculptures’ allows a redefinition of the terrain and affords an opportunity to re-engage with supporters, yet also those who are indifferent to, the campaign. We would have new issues to explain, such as, why this word was changed, why we think it is better, and what the problem with the old phrase was. This shift allows us to invigorate public attention by raising the status of these Pheidian works to that of their obvious existence as sculptures.

Secondly, this change allows us to reaffirm the Aesthetic Imperative, which I claim is the main argument for reunification. Again, this is the imperative that the Parthenon Sculptures must be in full and in place: in toto in situ. In Full means repatriating the Parthenon Sculptures from London back to Athens so that they can become, once again, an aesthetic whole. The contemporary reality of In Place means in the Acropolis Museum; with its dimensional Parthenaic reconstruction, its direct visual dialogue with the Acropolis hill and the Parthenon itself, bathed in Athenian light that vivifies the pentellic marble, and in context with the physicality of Athens, and wider still, Greece. By making this change from ‘marbles’ to ‘sculptures’ clear and obvious, we make a direct incision into the discourse on Classical Athens.

Thirdly, this change also allows us to subvert the ideology of retention. It allows us to disrupt the narratives invented by the BM that are inextricably bound up in the word ‘marbles’. Not only would we invest the campaign with a positive message, with a reality-check, but we would identify the colonial ideology of appropriation, and begin to remove the conceptual obstacles inherent in the term ‘marbles’.

So why must ‘marbles’ to be abandoned? Firstly, it shares a long association with the term ‘Elgin’, and even for this reason alone it should abandoned. Most of us have dropped this term, but it still influences wider thinking and mainstream journalism,[8] especially for those unfamiliar with this issue. This ‘ownership by association’ with ‘Elgin’ must be broken. The media in general still like to refer to them as the ‘so-called Elgin Marbles’, because we have not effectively challenged this usage. The word ‘Elgin’ adds the advantage of scandal and complexity, it keeps the possibility alive that there is some kind of case to be made by the British, that there is in fact some contention, like that over the supposed ‘firman’, that is in reality only a ‘letter’ by a subordinate, translated and purposefully misconstrued to achieve a ‘permission to plunder’. There is no contention here, but only an art that remains fractured and separated. So while we are distracted by such a scandal, the British quietly continue their possession. ‘Elgin’ is obviously an incorrect term, because it also hides the idea that the sculptures only exist by virtue of the privileged grace of a British lord, that the elite position of Thomas Bruce adds some kind of weight of authority to the claim of possession. One can see the ideological operation here. I claim that we need to permanently break this link with ‘Elgin’ and the British possession it entails. We should abandon the term ‘marbles’, and in doing so, we can start to achieve this.

Secondly, the term ‘marbles’ reduces the Parthenon Sculptures to ‘property’. It is a reduction that signals their status as ‘only’ marbles, namely, that they are a loose collection of fragmented individual ‘pieces’, and as such can happily continue in their current disjunction. Furthermore, it strives to absolve the crimes of theft and vandalism, that these acts are less severe because they are only marbles. The term ‘marbles’ helps to disguise the real nature of these works, that they are sculptures that belong to a whole, and in doing so it demeans them and supports the ideology of retention.

Thirdly, they are not unmediated geological objects. They are not random pieces of irregular shaped rock, nor are they ‘found objects’ in any sense. One must not confuse the material these works are made from with the objects they become after transformation. It is embarrassing to state that they are a product of the ‘plastic arts’. They are not the little glass balls that children play with, nor are they the slabs that are often used as kitchen bench-tops. If we want to avoid such trivializations and obfuscations then we must abandon ‘marbles’ in favour of ‘sculptures’, for that is what they are. It becomes an operation of truth.

One of the problems this shift poses is the question of what happens to the names of a number of campaigning committees that use ‘marbles’ in their titles. The Australian and British committees use ‘marbles’, yet the American committee uses ‘sculptures’.[9] Why is there a difference? What does this disparity tell the world? In the twitter handles of many, including the Australian committee, the term is again used, as with @MarblesUnite. I claim that if we want to take a leap further down the path of reunification, then this naming problem has to be addressed. You might see how opportunities like this rarely present themselves, especially in a case that is 200 years old. So I make a strong plea to the committees to embrace these opportunities and replace the word marbles with sculptures. Now is the time.

The combined acts resulting from the exclusive use of ‘sculptures’ would signal a new solidarity in our cause, in itself is a desirable outcome, and play no small part in the equations of education and activism. It signals a new motivation, and allows us to make the point ever sharper and stronger. So I say most emphatically, this is not a trivial operation, and it becomes a vital precursor to subsequent action.  When ‘Parthenon’ and ‘Sculptures’ are joined we have the full and proper nomination. We have the full narrative in front of us: where they belong and why they are important: in toto in situ. This is the power of narrative, to let the sculptures tell their story.

Parthenon as Singularity: Local not Global

More speculatively, I would like us to consider how arguments of ‘global citizenship’, as stated by the title of this conference, have serious and problematic implications. If one is a citizen of the globe, does this not then negate the need for a singular residence? Does this not then undermine the claim for the importance of the singular site of the Acropolis? This leads onto ideas of ‘universal heritage’ and ‘world culture’, that are not only ill-defined and contentious, but converge dangerously close to the very same arguments the BM use to justify their retention. The BM emphatically advocates for the ‘universal museum’, that is supposed to be an institution ‘of the world for the world’, that somehow can “transcend political boundaries.”[10] Are not these curatorial narratives a construction of a particular point of view that supports the claims, and spoils of, empire? One can begin to see the proximity between ‘global citizen’ and ‘universal institution’, and it is this association, that I claim, emerges as problematic.

By attempting to trump the adversary’s claim to ‘global universality’, are we not conflating two quite separate things? Namely, that there exists a specific physical location whose aesthetics has been vandalized and whose integrity we are trying to restore, with, the idea that a ‘world culture’ allows the fragmentation of artworks because it somehow tells a more ‘important’ global story. Is this latter account anything other than a ‘curation story’, that supports retention by framing their possession in a British colonial story? It seems important to clarify that these types of stories are only ever inventions, contingent and never free from bias. If we are to neutralize these operations we might focus on the problem from the other end.

Can we make the argument that Ancient Athens was a ‘local’ culture, as opposed to a ‘global’ culture? Can we say that this culture was in fact a ‘singularity’? That the Parthenon itself is a singularity? A ‘singularity’ speaks of a specific location in space and time. It speaks of meaning as being embodied in that location in space and time, created by the unity and continuity of these sculptures being ‘in full and in place’. This conception does not deny the impact on world civilization of Classical Athens, nor does it exclude the reinterpretation necessary by subsequent societies. What it does say is that the local situation in Athens, and in particular the Parthenon, is that of a singularity. That this local embodied singularity precedes all later retro-active interpretations and selective cultural appropriations. In this way, the claim for unification is precisely the claim that the local context is paramount, and not the reverse, that of some diffuse global condition. The conception of ‘local singularity’ is more akin to the somewhat forgotten phrase of ‘think globally, act locally’. It is from this local context that the proliferation of meaning follows, from this singularity that cultural iterations begin. This is to say that the Parthenon Sculptures do not, at all, have the same meaning outside their reunified embodiment.

You see, the British institutional narrative attempts to subvert this idea of ‘local’ phenomena. They would have it that the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens are only part of a ‘local history’ that should be subsumed to the importance of a ‘global history’, and that this is only possible by their retention in London. This is the rendering of a binary opposition that privileges ‘global’ over ‘local’, that is a justification for retention. This leaves us with the patently absurd proposition that to understand Classical Athens we must fetishize it from afar; that by being fractured the Parthenon Sculptures can tell a superior story, and that only in an ‘encyclopedic-universal-museum-story’ can their global significance be understood. This is not only an error, but a deception.

I want to highlight the work of Tom Flynn in critiquing this concept of the Universal ‘encyclopedic’ Museum,[11] by discussing as he does, not only the history of these institutions from the 17th century ‘cabinets of curiosity’, their Enlightenment compulsion for taxonomy, but the imperial ideologies of acquisition and possession that support the mythologies of empire. These above speculations of mine, on ‘location’ and ‘singularity’, trace part of their genesis to this work by Tom Flynn, and I encourage you all to become familiar it.

What I am saying is this, that if one wants to understand these works of art, the narrative whole of the Parthenon Frieze, the embodied meaning of the Metopes and Pediments, the dimensional physicality of the Parthenon, the effects of Athenian light on the pentellic marble, the elevation and dialogue between the Acropolis Museum and the Acropolis hill, the context of the physicality of Greece, the history of ‘place’, the singularity that was the culture of Classical Athens – then this is best achieved in Athens at the Acropolis Museum.

I think what we need to be saying, in the campaign to reunify the Parthenon Sculptures, is that the Parthenon has a ‘citizenship of place’. This ‘citizenship’ and this ‘place’ reassert the idea that the Parthenon is an unparalleled edifice whose singularity must be respected, and though it exists in this particular place, it becomes a citizen of the world by being ‘invited in’ to the psyche of civilization. Citizenship of place does not become an end point, but a beginning.

The Day They Came Home

I’d like to conclude with a far simpler idea, and one that I believe can have a huge impact on the reunification campaign. Its inherent acts of imagination and creativity become another way of breaking the stalemate in our campaign. In this way, we have a movement from the narratives contained in ‘one word’ to the power in ‘one story’. This is the story of ‘The Day They Came Home’. It is a story that will tell of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens.

This story, in fact the manys stories, will be the imaginatively detailed and beautifully written accounts that will describe in detail the events of this day. It is vital to create these ‘future narratives’, because to imagine this day is to bring it closer to reality. This imagining will provide the maps required to navigate the Parthenon Sculptures back to their home.

Stop and imagine that day…

Will it be a Saturday?

What type of ceremony will there be; simple and solemn, a cultural spectacle,

a jubilant party?

Which composer shall we engage for the music?

Will there be dance?

Who might we ask to write a poem for that day?

How many poems will be written?

Will it become a public holiday for Greece?

What route will the precession take?

Will there be people lining the streets for a parade?

How will we, necessarily, acknowledge the British?

This last question is crucial. What stories will we now start to tell of the British? How will we affirm the integral role the British have played in the story of the Parthenon Sculptures? How will they be celebrated for their gesture? What might the British now say of themselves?

One begins to get lost in the possibilities of The Day They Came Home. It will be in these stories that we will explore the possibilities of return, and allow the world to test and rehearse the ideas and practicalities of reunifying the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens. Storytelling as a glimpse of the future.

The campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures requires an agitation that must wield many powers. But we must also harness the power of narrative; the politics of sculpture, the function of a singularity, and the poetry of return. It is these powers that will change thinking, that in turn will chage reality, which makes me believe that the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures is much closer than we think.

Thank You

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Notes

[1]  For a fuller treatment of the aesthetic imperative see Christopher Hitchens 2008, The Parthenon Marbles: the Case for Reunification, Verso, London.

[2]  From the video of a talk given by Andrew Dismore 2012, Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. A Legal Perspective. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wwIWg3kHU8>

[3]  ibid.

[4]  Such as the Intelligence Squared Debate in London on 11/6/12, with the motion ‘The Parthenon Marbles Should be Returned to Athens’ <http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/parthenon-marbles/> What is interesting is the swing in audience voting. Prior to the debate the audience voted thus; for the motion 196, against 202, undecided 158. After the debate the audience again voted; for the motion 385, against 125, undecided 24. A rather striking message.

[5]  This plea by Emanuel Comino, chairman of the IOC-A-RPM, was an introduction to the 2013 International Colloquy, Sydney 15/11/13, ‘Parthenon: Icon of Global Citizenship’. <http://www.parthenonmarblesaustralia.org.au/colloquy2013/index.php/emanuel-j-comino-am&gt;

[6]  From an article by David Hill in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8/11/13 <http://www.smh.com.au/comment/rule-changes-could-end-britains-game-of-playing-with-marbles-20131107-2x49r.html>

[7]  The Parthenon Sculptures are additionally many things, including architectural elements, but this additional context does not negate their status as ‘sculptures’. Perhaps ‘sculpture’ as defined by ‘The Shorter Oxford Dictionary, On Historical Principles, 6th Ed., Vol.2, N-Z, 2007, p.2718, cuts to the essence, “The art or process of creating (now usu. large) representational or abstract forms in the round, in relief, or (formerly) in intaglio, by chiseling stone, casting metal, modeling clay or some other plastic substance, carving wood, etc., or, now also, by assembling parts, the practice of this art.”

[8]  Such an example is the article ‘Top Ten Plundered Artifacts’ in Time magazine (online version, undated) <http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1883142_1883129_1883001,00.html> What is interesting in this article is that, apart from the erroneous term ‘Elgin Marbles’, the Parthenon Sculptures are the only ‘plundered artifacts’ that are not referred to by an original cultural name. Instead, they are referred to by the name of the plunderer.

[9]  The following three committees collaborate in the campaign for reunification of the sculptures, whose names are as follows: The International Organizing Committee – Australia – for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles’ (IOC-A-RPM) <http://www.parthenonmarblesaustralia.org.au/>,  The British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles’ (BCRPM) <http://www.parthenonuk.com&gt;, The American Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures’ (ACRPS),’ <http://www.parthenonmarblesusa.org/&gt;

[10]  The British Museum webpage on the Parthenon Sculptures, that introduces the self-appointed concept of itself as a “resource of the world.” <http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/statements/parthenon_sculptures.aspx> Both Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, and James Cuno, President of the Getty Trust advocate for the Universal Museum in their many books and talks. For a critique of the language and ideology of retention at the British Museum webpage on the Parthenon Sculptures see Tom Kazas 2012, Part 3, Parthenon Marble Cake: Having and Eating it Too’. <http://www.tomkazas.net/tom_kazas/Pentellics__The_Parthenon_Sculptures.html&gt;

[11]  See Tom Flynn 2004, ‘The Universal Museum: a valid model for the 21st century?’ <http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/tomflynn> See also <http://tom-flynn.blogspot.co.uk/p/the-universal-museum-valid-model-for.html> for a video of his talk on this subject at the Parthenon Marbles colloquy 2012. For a transcript of that talk see <http://www.elginism.com/similar-cases/the-structural-and-philosophical-problems-confronting-the-universal-museum-concept/20120717/4845/&gt;

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Invent then Abolish

image

Voltaire’s gave us his now famous aphorism: “if god did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Bakunin wrote instead that, “if god really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”

The former shows us how we create tyrannical structures for ourselves, while the latter shows us what we must do to those tyrannical structures.

The Heart of the People of Europe beat in Greece: Slavoj Zizek

greece

(originally published Friday, 15 June 2012)

Transcribed by Tom Kazas from a video of a public lecture in held in Athens on 3/6/12. The talk was presented to a mostly bilingual audience, as evidenced from their regular applause to statements made by Slavoj Zizek in English, yet there were many regular breaks in the English delivery to allow for the live translation into Greek. See the video at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWtn7iECkyY                  
 
“I am honoured to be here but am ashamed that I don’t speak your language.                   So let me begin.

Late in his life Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, asked the famous question, “what does a woman want?” Admitting his perplexity when faced with the enigma of feminine sexuality, a similar perplexity is aroused today, “what does Europe want?”

This is the question you, the Greek people, are addressing Europe. You know what you want, you want this guy (Tsipras) for Prime minister – Europe does not know what it wants.

The way the European states and media relate to what is going on now in Greece, is the best indicator of what kind of Europe they want. Is it the neo-liberal Europe, is it the Europe of isolationist nation states, or maybe something different?

Critics accuse Syriza of being a threat to Europe, but Syriza is, on the contrary, the only chance for Europe. Far from being a threat to Europe, you are giving a chance to Europe to break out of its inertia and find a new way.

In his ‘Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative poet T. S. Elliot remarked that, ‘there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief’. That is to say, that the only way to keep a belief or religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from the main corpse.

This is what happens today with Europe. Only a new heresy, represented at this moment by Syriza, can save what is worth saving in the European legacy – democracy, trust in people and egalitarian solidarity. The Europe that will win, if Syriza is out-manoeurvred is a Europe with ‘Asian Values’. Of course these ’Asian Values’ have nothing to do with Asia, but all to do with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism to suspend democracy.

Syriza is said to lack the proper experience to govern, yes, I agree, they greatly lack the experience of how to bankrupt a country by cheating and stealing – you don’t have this experience. This brings us to the absurdity of the politics of the European establishment, they preach the doxa of paying taxes, opposing Greek clientelism, and they put all their hopes on the coalition of the two Greek parties that brought this clientelism to Greece.

Christine Largarde recently said that she has more sympathy for the poor inhabitants of Nigeria, than for the Greeks, and advised the Greeks to help themselves by paying their taxes, which as I learned a couple of days ago, she doesn’t have to pay. As all liberal humanitarians, she likes the impotent poor who behave like victims, evoke our sympathy, and bring us to give charity. But the problem with you Greeks is that you do suffer, yes, but you are not passive victims, you resist, you fight, you do not want sympathy and charity, you want active solidarity, you want and you demand a mobilization, a support for your fight.

Syriza is accused of promoting leftist fictions. But it is the austerity plan imposed by Brussels which is clearly a work of fiction. Everybody knows that this plan is fictitious, that the Greek state can never repay the debt in this way. In a strange gesture of collective make-believe, everyone ignores the obvious nonsense of the financial projection on which these European plans are based. So why does Brussels impose these measures on you? The true aim of these rescue measures is not to save Greece, but of course to save European banks. These measures are not presented as decisions grounded in political choices, but as necessities imposed by a neutral economic logic, like, “if we want to stabilize our economy we simply have to swallow the bitter pill”, or by tautological platitudes, proverbs like, “you cannot spend more than you produce.” Well, the American banks and the US as such, are a big proof that, for decades, you can spend more than you produce.

To illustrate the mistake of austerity measures, Paul Krugman often compares them to the medieval practice of blood-letting; a nice metaphor, which I think should to be radicalized further. The European financial doctors, themselves not sure about how this medicine works, are using you as test rabbits; they are letting your blood, not the blood of their own countries. There is no blood-letting for the great German and French banks. On the contrary, they are getting big transfusions.

So is Syriza really a group of dangerous extremists? No, Syriza is here to bring pragmatic commonsense, to clear the mess created by others. It is those who impose austerity measures who are dangerous dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely the way they are, just with some cosmetic changes. You are not dreamers. You are the awakening for a dream that is turning into a nightmare. You are not destroying anything. You are reacting to how the system is gradually destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons, Tom and Jerry and so on, the cat reaches the precipice but it goes on walking ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet. Then it only starts to fall when it looks down and notices that there is nothing. This is all you are doing. You are telling those in power, “hey, look down”, and then they fall down.

The political map of Greece is clear and exemplary. In the centre there is, I hope you noticed it, one big party; one party with two wings, left and right, Pasok and New Democracy. It’s like cola which is Coke and Pepsi. The true name of this party, if you bring Pasok and New Democracy together, is something like ‘New Hellenic Movement Against Democracy.’ Of course this big party claims it is for democracy, but I claim they are for decaffeinated democracy; coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without sugar. They want a democracy where, instead of really making a choice, people just confirm what wise experts tell them to do. They want democratic dialogue, yes, but like Plato’s late dialogues, where one guy talks all the time and the other only says every ten minutes, “by Zeus, so it is.” And then there is the exception, you Syriza, the true miracle – a radical left movement which stepped out of the comfortable position of marginal resistance, and courageously signaled your readiness to take power, this why you have to be punished.

Here is what Bill Frezzer, a nobody, but an ideologically important nobody, recently wrote in the Forbes magazine an article with the title, ‘Give Greece what it deserves, Communism.” Here is a short quote: “What the world needs, lest we forget, is a contemporary example of communism in action. What better candidate than Greece. Just toss them out of the European Union, cut off the flow of euros, and hand them back the printing plates for their old drachmas. Then stand back for a generation and watch.” In other words, Greece should be exemplarily punished so that, once and for all, the temptation for a radical leftist solution of the crisis will be blocked.

I know that the task of Syriza is almost impossible. Syriza is not an extreme left madness. It is the voice of pragmatic reason counteracting the market ideology madness. Syriza will need the formidable combination of principled politics and ruthless pragmatism; of democratic commitment and readiness to act fast and brutally when needed. If you, Syriza, are to be given a minimal chance to succeed you will also need an old European solidarity. This is why I think you, here in Greece, should avoid cheap nationalism – all the talk about how Germany wants reoccupy you, destroy you, and so on. Your first task is to change things here. Syriza will have to do the job which the other guys should have done; the job of building a better, modern, effective state. A job to clear the state apparatus of clientelism. It’s a hard job, there is nothing enthusiastic in it. It’s a slow, hard, boring job.

Your pseudo-radical critics are telling you that the situation is not yet ripe for a true social change. That if you take power now, you will just help the system, making it more efficient. This is, if I understand it correctly, what the party KKE, which is basically the party of the people who are still alive because they forgot to die, are telling you. True, your political elite clearly demonstrated its inability to rule, but there will never be a moment when the situation will be fully ripe for the change. If you wait for the right moment, the right moment will never come. When you intervene, it is always premature. So you have a choice, either wait comfortably and look at how your society is disintegrating, as some other parties of the left suggest, or heroically intervene, fully aware of how difficult the situation is – and Syriza made the right choice.

Now I want to say something very serious. Your critics hate you, because I think, secretly they know that you have the courage to be free and to act as free people. When you are in the eyes of the public, those who observe you understand, at least for the flash of an instant, that you are offering them freedom. That you dare to do what they also dream about. For that instant they are free, they are one with you, but it is only for a moment. Fear returns and they hate you again because they are afraid of their own freedom.

So what is the choice you, the Greek people, are facing n June 17th? You should bear in mind the paradox which sustains the free vote in our democratic societies. You are free to choose on the condition that you make the right choice. Which is why, when the choice is the wrong one, for example, when Ireland voted against the European constitution, the wrong choice is treated as a mistake. Then, they want to repeat the vote to enlighten the people to make the right choice. And this is why the European establishment is in a panic. They see that maybe you don’t deserve your freedom because there is a danger that you will make the wrong choice. There is a wonderful joke in Ernst Lubitsch’s classical comedy ‘Ninotchka.’ The hero visits a cafeteria and orders a coffee without cream. The waiter replies “sorry, but we have run out of cream, we only have milk, so can I bring you coffee without milk.” In both cases you get coffee alone, but I think the joke is a correct one – negation also matters. The coffee without cream is not the same as coffee without milk. You are in the same predicament today. The situation is difficult. You will get some kind of austerity, but will you get the coffee of austerity without cream or without milk? It is here that the European establishment is cheating. It is acting as if you will get the coffee of austerity without cream, that is to say, the fruits of your hardship will not profit only European banks, but they are effectively offering you coffee without milk. It is you who will not profit from your own sacrifice and hardship.

In the very south of the Peloponnese, around Mani, I was there, I know it, they still have so-called ‘weepers,’ women who you hire to cry at funerals; they can do the spectacle for the relatives of the deceased. Now, there is nothing primitive about this. We, in our developed societies, are doing exactly the same. Think about this wonderful invention, I think maybe the greatest contribution of America to world culture, the so-called ‘canned laughter,’ laughter which is part of the soundtrack on TV. You know, you come home in the evening tired, you put on the TV, some stupid show like Cheers or Friends, and you just sit, as the TV laughs for you. Unfortunately it works. That’s how those in power, the European establishment, want to see, not only the Greek people, but all of us. Just staring at the screen, observing how the others are doing the dreaming, crying and laughing.

There is an apocryphal but wonderful anecdote about the exchange of telegrams between the German and Austrian army headquarters in the middle of WW1. The Germans send a message to the Austrians, “here on our part of the front, the situation is serious but not catastrophic.” The Austrians reply, “here the situation is catastrophic but not serious.” This is the difference between Syriza and others. For the others, the situation is catastrophic but not serious, things can go on as usual. While for Syriza, the situation is serious but not catastrophic, since courage and hope should replace fear.

What is ahead of you is, to quote the title of an old song of the Beatles, “the long and winding road.” When decades ago, the cold war threatened to explode into a hot one, John Lennon wrote a song, you’ll remember it if you are old enough, ‘all we are saying is give peace a chance.” Today, I want to hear a new song all around Europe, ‘all we are saying is give Greece a chance.”

Allow me to conclude with a reference to one of your greatest, maybe the greatest classical tragedy, ‘Antigone’ – ‘don’t fight battles which are not your battles.’ You know what would be my ideal Antigone? We have Antigone and Creon, if you ask me, they are just two sects of the ruling class. This is a little bit like Pasok and New Democracy. In my version of Antigone, while the two members of the royal family are fighting each other and threatening to ruin the state, I would like to see the Chorus, the voice of the people, stepping out of this stupid role of just wise comment, take over, constitute a kind of public committee of peoples power, arrest both Creon and Antigone, and establish the peoples power.

Just allow me now, really to finish with a personal note. I hate the traditional intellectual left which likes revolution, but a revolution which takes place somewhere far away, so that while your heart is beating for it, you can pursue your career in peace. This is why, when I was young, the further away it was all the better – Vietnam, Cuba, even today, Venezuela. But you are here, and that’s what I admire. You are not afraid to engage in a desperate situation, knowing how the odds are against, and this is what I admire.

You know, there is also a ‘principled opportunism;’ opportunism of principles. When you say that, ‘the situation is lost, we can’t do anything because we would betray our principles.’ This appears as a principled position, but it is really an extreme form of opportunism. Syriza is a unique event of how precisely that Left, you know, the usual extra-parliamentary Left, where they care more if some criminal’s human rights are violated than if thousands are dying, that that kind of Left does not have the courage to do something.

So I conclude now with the great honour of giving the word to your future Prime Minister.”