Dogtooth, “Blindfolded / The Most successful years in a man’ s and a woman’ s life ”Extract from the film. 29.35’ – 31.15’, 55.00’ –55.35’.
by PLATON ISSAIAS ⋅ DECEMBER 3, 2015
published at http://thecityasaproject.org/2015/12/war-within-four-walls-familiar-horror-and-domestic-architecture-in-athens/
This essay is the first installment of a two-part investigation on the history of the Greek city and its distinct domestic architecture. They are part of Platon’s PhD dissertation titled Beyond the Informal City: Athens and the possibility of an Urban Common (TU Delft, 2014). The two essays aims to a critique of the popular category of ‘informal urbanism’ by interrogating the underlining relation between urban management and architectural form. What is at stake is to establish and theorize the strategic link between domestic space, production, conflict and debt. How forms of domestic ethos, habits and practices of domestic life could be related with administrative and managerial projects? How this way of thinking about the city could be used to confront the distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’? What makes a diagram of space and social relations, such as the Greek apartment building, a successful territorial, biopolitical machine?
In 2003, the Greek-Cypriot director Yannis Economides (he was born in Limassol, Cyprus, in 1967 and studied film in Athens). He has directed several short films and documentaries. He directed his début feature film “Matchbox” back in 2003. “Soul Kicking”, his second feature, celebrated its world premiere at the renowned official section of the Cannes International Film Festival 2006, “The International Critics’ Week” (“Semaine de la Critique du Festival de Cannes”) and was selected for competitive screening at various film festivals throughout the world. His third feature, “Knifer”, had its world premiere in Pusan International Film Festival 2010. At the Hellenic Film Academy Awards “Knifer” excelled and received seven awards (Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Sound) and it was also awarded with the Greek Association of Film Critics Award as the Best Greek Film of the Year 2010. (source: www. Imdb.com, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1029210/bio) presented his début feature film “Matchbox” (Spirtokouto, «Σπιρτόκουτο» in Greek), which was immediately embraced by the underground movie scene and progressive youth collectives and radicals around the country. Economides’ project became an emblem of the early 2000s struggles in Greece, when the country and the city of Athens was undergoing a rapid spatial and political transformation.
The poster of the film, divided horizontally in two parts, illustrates the theme and the context of the story. In the upper part, a trace of a generic apartment building of the Greek city is vaguely distinguished in the dusk, while a slogan appears: “A movie, as tough and inexorable as the reality”. In the bottom half, a cartoon of an aggressive dog warns: “Attention: War within Four Walls”.
The story covers a single, extremely hot, summer day of a petit bourgeois family from Koridallos – a dense, poor neighborhood at the north of Peiraias, Athens’ historic commercial harbor. However, the action is never explicitly placed within this particular district, as the viewer never sees the actual city and barely has a reference to the exterior space. The action takes place only within the interior of a typical apartment, a space that could be found in any Greek city or neighborhood of the like. Other settings, spaces, or toponyms are just described or declared by the protagonists – even the fact that are actually located in Koridallos – while they are constantly enclosed “within the four walls” of their typical house.
The actual configuration of the plan and the spatial arrangement resembles domestic units of the kind, scattered in working class and petit bourgeois districts, within family-owned, medium-height, small apartment buildings. The front door opens to a two-by-two meters reception space, which is connected to a narrow corridor that leads to the bedrooms and a bathroom in the one direction. A small, circular staircase is located at the opposite end, which leads to the kitchen and a terrace at the upper floor. The living room, divided typically in two adjacent spaces of equal size, unfolds along the main corridor and refers to an elongated balcony that overlooks the street.
The story develops around Dimitris, a man in his 50s. Currently owner of a cafeteria in Korydallos, he declares his intention to start a new business in the neighborhood – “a posh restaurant that would attract high-end customers from all over Athens”. At the movie’s final scene, he eventually declares his will to abandon the project, after he has been criticized, mocked and humiliated by other family members for this “unthinkable and silly business plan.” As his brother-in-law put it, “we only know about coffee, what business do we have with steaks?” Other sub-stories of the plot are similarly evolving around him, where his reaction on various issues makes the others to attack him, both verbally and physically.
A representative, patriarchal figure of a previous stage of the Greek society, Dimitris is gradually transformed to the victim of the various problems and conditions that emerge throughout the story and within his family. This very fact constitutes the first occasion of a reverse typicality, a condition where something ordinary and expected (a patriarchal, oppressive male) is depicted through its opposite, eventually making Dimitris a sufferer of his reality. The function of the story as a political critique is based precisely on this exposure of ordinary and typical conditions as highly intolerable. The typicality and the generic nature of setting and characters are highlighted by various means throughout the story. Faces, clothes, furniture, domestic equipment, professions, habits and social practices, gender and racial stereotypes, and foremost, the spatial organization of the apartment are depicted as familiar and ordinarily Greek petit bourgeois as possible.
Still,polemoMatchbox, “We have War, do you understand? Dead bodies are everywhere.” Extract from the film. 49.44’ – 52.20’. a particular characteristic makes Matchbox’s viewing almost unbearable, a fact that significantly contributed to the film’s cultish reputation. This is the verbal articulation and the content of the dialogues between the various characters of the story. The eight characters use very short, repetitive sentences, constantly shout, extensively swear and curse one another, while verbally abusing each other during the film’s eighty minutes. This idiomatic genre, the result of a very exhaustive, month-long process of constant rehearsals and improvisations within the actual setting, constitutes the main characteristic of Economides’ cinema. The director sets the basic rules of confrontation and the content of the discussion between the characters, and subsequently, the actors are improvising upon the given structure, without knowing which version of the shot, or which scene, will be used in the final editing of the film. This is repeated countless times, creating further tension in the movie set.
In terms of cinematic form and language, Economides refers to the French Nouvelle Vagueof 1950s and 1960s, a movement significantly influential to his work. Apart from the absurdness and apathy expressed by the characters, the political engagement of the author with its subjects, the open narrative and the lack of a precise conclusion, he specifically deploys Nouvelle Vague’s strategies of editing and formal hierarchy in the various shots the film. He follows a technique in the timing and editing of the movie, by which he eliminates pauses and breaks within the different scenes. Economides uses stable, mono-focused cameras and long, uninterrupted takes for each scene. Then, with fragmented editing and concentrated interruptions of the narrative, compiles the material in one body, with the movie eventually jumping for the one scene to the other, without an obvious sequence or continuation of the action. All of the above are operating in complement with these vulgar and violent dialogues, eventually establishing variations in the psychological intensity of the story. The concentrated breaks act as the necessary pauses – from the one scene to the other – and the form of each shot intensifies the psychological condition and distress expressed by the characters and felt by viewers.
Following these strategies, the paradoxical behaviour and language manage to estrange and to de-familiarize not only the theme and the various sub-stories of the script, but primarily the depiction of this typicality of the setting, of the family and of its members’ relations and social interaction. Throughout the film, the space of the ordinary is presented as and gradually transformed to an intolerable environment. The element that constructs this unbearable space is precisely the petit bourgeois apartment of a dense neighborhood of Athens, which,
probably for the first time in the Greek cinema,2. In 2005, the documentary-essay “In exchange for five apartments and one shop” presented the architectural and social evolution of Athens since the first fiction films appeared in Greece in the early 1920s. In this, the viewer could have a very elaborated observation of how the local film artists depicted the city and its socio-spatial development. In Exchange for Five Apartments and One Shop, 2005, director: Giannis Skopeteas, writers: Giannis Skopeteas, Dimitris Philippides, Production: Benaki Museum, Studio Pixel.
3. Details on this observation will be discussed on the next paragraph of the paper. Briefly, the reference is the various projects, exhibitions, articles and conferences organized that period, regarding the spatial development of Athens and the emergence of the architectural archetype of the polykatoikia. Among many, the most important are the multi-projects Landscapes of Modernization: Greek Architecture 1960s and 1990s, organized by Yannis Aesopos and Yorgos Simeoforidis, and the 20th Century Architecture in Greece, edited by Savas Condaratos and Wilfried Wang. For additional information, refer to: 20th Century Architecture in Greece, eds. Savas Condaratos, Wilfried Wang (Frankfurt: Deutsches Architektur Museum, Prestel Publishers, 1999) and Aesopos, Yorgos Simeoforidis, Landscapes of Modernization: Greek Architecture 1960s and 1990s (Athens, Greece: Metapolis Press, 1999). is presented not as a desirable shelter, but as a nightmarish setting of everyday life. Furthermore, the director neither promotes the city of the early 2000s, nor celebrates this particular mode of spatial development and domestic environment as it was precisely the case of the various institutional representations of the city during the same period.
On the contrary, he develops a story where he is reversing the common interpretation of this urban space, eventually establishing a highly politicized opposition to it. The title of the film refers precisely to the archetype of domestic life and space in Greece: the matchbox is the typical apartment, which is simultaneously the container, the instigator of the social conflict and the destructor of any positive social relation. As the poster of the movie suggests, the story is as tough and vicious as the reality of contemporary working class and petit bourgeois Greeks, whose seemingly regular, typical and predictable life disguise a society in the verge of total collapse. In the film, Economides managed to expose the reality of these social subjects with a latent sensitivity, primarily insisting on the particular conditions that destroy their social and personal dignity. This is specifically apparent in the case of the movie’s central figure, Dimitris, but is also exhibited in the treatment of others in the story, as for example Vangelis, Dimitris’ employee and a low-income worker. This strategy unveils Economides’ political engagement and empathy with his subjects, allowing him to project the necessity of social struggle. In his next movie, “Soul Kicking” of 2006 (Psihi sto Stoma, «Ψυχή στο στόμα» in Greek), working with – more or less – the same team of collaborators, he further exposed the exploitation of the Greek working class and the travesty of Athens’ metropolitan imaginary. “Soul Kicking” evolves around Takis,4. Interestingly, the role is played by the same actor that plays Dimitris in “Matchbox”, Errikos Litsis, who is a close collaborator and friend of Economides. Litsis is credited for Soul Kicking’s script, which is again characterized by extreme, vulgar language and violent verbal and physical confrontations.
5. Woyzeck is Georg Büchner’s unfinished theatre play, which evolves around Franz Woyzeck, a German soldier stationed in a provincial town. He is the subject of various humiliations, degradations and social discriminations, constantly exploited by characters that represent superior social subjects (the Doctor, the Captain, his wife’s lover, a Drum Major). Woyzeck gradually broke down, his mental health is disintegrating and eventually kills Marie, hi wife and her lover. The play, although fragmented and unfinished by the author, constitutes a fierce critique on the contemporary social condition and could be read as a “working class tragedy”.
6. “Es ist das Wasser, es ruft: Schon lang ist niemand ertrunken”, in German, as it appears it the Buchner’s theatre play. a worker in a lamp manufacture, who is constantly humiliated by his employer, his friends, his wife and others, eventually loosing any sort of personal dignity. The movie ends by an extremely violent yet beautiful scene, when Takis, after slaughtering his boss in his car,
observes the sunrise in Athens.
The story is a metaphor of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck in contemporary Athens. The narrative follows a structure that presents corresponding patterns of social exploitation and similar archetypes of class differentiation and social behavior, while offering an analogous to Woyzeck’s exodus and dissolution of the story. In order to highlight these intentions, a line from Woyzeck’s 24th Scene appears in the movie’s first frame: “It’s the water that it’s calling. It’s a long time since anyone drowned here”.
This line is taken from Buchner’s original text, and it is part of a dialogue that two men are having while hearing Marie being killed by Woyzeck at “a pond by the edge of the woods”. One of the two men insists that these are sounds of “a person dying”, while the other considers them instances of “uncanny”. Although the line refers to the movie’s and the play’s similar hypotheses, it also performs as a metaphor for the social conditions depicted in both projects, introducing platforms and formalizing possibilities of class struggle. This highly symbolic quote summarizes Economides’ and his team’s efforts to proceed with a political project, capable to unveil these instances of violence, of horror and absurdness that were covered intentionally within the contemporary metropolitan landscape of Athens, eventually erupting from December 2008 onwards.
In the spring of 2009,00_DOGTOOTH_POSTER
7. Yorgos Lanthimos was born in Athens, Greece in 1973. He studied directing for Film and Television in the private Stavrakos Film School, where he graduated in 1995. Throughout the 1990s and since then, he has directed series of videos for Greek dance-theatre companies, a number of TV commercials, music videos and theatre plays. His was also a member of the creative team which designed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. His first feature film “Kinetta” (2006) played at Toronto and Berlin festival to critical acclaim. His second feature film “Dogtooth” (2009) won the Un Certain Regard Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, followed by numerous awards at festivals worldwide. The film was nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011. Recently, his last film “Alps” (2011) premiered in the 68th Venice International Film Festival, where it was awarded the Osella Prize for Best Screenplay. (source: http://www.lanthimos.com/, http://www.kino.com/dogtooth/, http://www.dogtooth.gr/cvsEn.html)
8. Originally, the film premièred in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Prix Un Certain Regard and the Prix de la Jeunesse. Numerous prizes followed in various occasions throughout the world, among others in the Sarajevo, Montreal, Stockholm and Dublin Film Festivals. The movie premièred in Athens in November 2009 and immediately attracted large audiences and extensive media coverage. The film was screened in Athens while violent demonstrations were taken place, commemorating the first year after the assassination of Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008. Eventually, the film was considered to be an allegorical and abstract depiction of a society in a severe social and political crisis. Nevertheless, its international success, especially the film’s nomination for an Oscar for a Best Foreign Language Film in 2011, was celebrated extensively by the mainstream media. while the December 2008 revolt was being tamed and the country was entering a period of further political turmoil, another film surfaced, eventually premièring in movie theatres later that fall. Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” (Kinodontas, «Κυνόδοντας», in Greek) received instantly international success and critical acclaim, interestingly instigating a combination of skepticism, shock and admiration by the Greek society, the media and the political establishment. Strangely, “Dogtooth” operated simultaneously in two very opposite ways. No matter how big and celebrated were the movie’s accomplishments, these could not overshadow and diminish the public’s disapproval for the ruthless representation of a decayed society.
The film displays an allegorical, symbolic and abstract poetic view on the condition of the Greek middle class, pointing eventually at the pathogeneses of its social imaginary. Furthermore, the theme of the story performed as a broader, general allegory for the Greek society, which, despite its recent economic improvement of the 1990s-2000s, was defined by cultural isolation, social introversion, various discriminations and prejudices. Lanthimos, departing from a less militant political position than of Economides’, depicted the savage side of this social normality, by exaggerating on its various bigotries and behavioral stereotypes.
A married couple with three adult children (two daughters and a son) lives in an isolated compound in the outskirts of the city. The landscape resembles the one of Attica’s rural periphery, whereas the only exterior space depicted in the film is an industrial complex, where the father works as a manager. The action takes place
again during the summer, while the actual historic period remains significantly enigmatic. Although it seems to be contemporary, various element of their life, like the lack of modern communication and electronic equipment, the dress code, the out-dated car, etc., construct a very peculiar present. The father is the only one that travels outside the villa. The siblings are permanently confined in the estate and they have never been on
the outside, constantly unaware of and disconnected from any social relation and “regular” human interaction. Apart from the five family members, the only person allowed to enter the villa is Christina, a young, working class woman, who works as a security guard in the factory. She is the single person that the children interact, although within a violent and problematic social scheme. The father employs Christina to have regular sexual intercourse with the son, within a predefined and orchestrated pattern. Christina eventually develops a close relation with the older daughter. Reversing her exploitation by the family, she then asks the daughter for sexual favors, in exchange of various gifts. In the development of the story, this close relation between the two women would become catastrophic for the life within the family, eventually provoking the daughter’s escape from the compound and the murder of Christina by the father.
According to their parents, the children will be allowed to venture beyond the limits of the house once she/he loses hers/his dogtooth. Until that moment comes, they are obliged to follow an extremely oppressive every-day-life pattern within the interior of the property and the large garden that surrounds the villa.
As in the case of “Matchbox”, the space of the compound is depicted as typical and ordinary as possible. A two-storey, large house is surrounded by a generous, paradoxically tidy garden. A small swimming pool, in close relation with the ground floor portico and the living room, constitutes the centre of the kids’ everyday activities. A tall fence encloses the estate, isolating the house from the surrounding rural landscape. This
particular notion of enclosure is strengthened by a cinematographic technique that runs throughout the movie. Lanthimos takes advantage of the very bright light of Attica’s sky – especially strong in the summer months during which the film intentionally takes place. Most scenes are filmed on the exterior space of the villa, during daytime, with the use of natural light. The ones filmed within interior spaces – in rooms where the white colour characteristically prevails – are also naturally lighted through the windows and other openings of the house. Even when artificial lighting is necessary and therefore added, this is of similar brightness and colour tone than the one naturally illuminating.
The treatment of light in the photography of the film creates a condition where space is widened in all the shots and, therefore, is significantly enlarged and depicted somehow limitless. This creates a very distinct antithesis with the actual story and central theme of the movie, which is precisely the children’s constant physical restriction behind the tall fence of the villa. In the movie, enclosure is depicted as a condition of the suburban life style and imaginary. The film acts as a parody of this concept of protected and controllable living, one that lacks any social interaction and engagement. Furthermore, it is portrayed as a condition of conscious departure from the social and political life of the city, exactly in the quest of this alternative existing in seclusion. This is highlighted with a symbolic way in the movie’s second scene, where the father, accompanied by Christina, drives back from work. Blindfolded, in order not to be able to identify the exact location of the villa, she is driven through a generic suburban environment of Attica’s rural periphery – a background vaguely, yet recognisably, depicted by the camera. With this shot, the viewer is taken from the actual social reality of the city, or even to the space of production and subjective formalization, to the isolated enclave of the family, which, instead of a “shelter of harmony”, as the middle class imaginary describes it, has been alienated to the extent of becoming a container of outmost horror.
The film is thalassa characterized by extreme violent content, where a combination of social isolation, physical torture and controlled sexual behavior, psychological distress and misery is mixed with surreal dialogues and symbolic representations of everyday life. Yet, as in the case of “Matchbox”, the device that further estranges the generic reality of the protagonists is a verbal/linguistic one. The children are educated by their parents with the use of homemade audio tapes – played in portable audio devices –, which teach them basic vocabulary and provides them with screened and manipulated information and knowledge. In these tapes, the items of their
environment are re-named and the content of words and meanings is extensively distorted. In their twisted language, “sea” is the armchair, “highway” is the strong wind, “excursion” is the resistant material of the floor, “shotgun” is the white beautiful bird, “zombies” are the yellow flowers, “telephone” is the saltshaker, “pussy” is the large lamp in the dinning table.
Instead of understanding this as a playful parodiable interpretation of home-schooling, the narrative of the film forces us to classify it as a crucial, conceptual and political operation. Within this, the reality of the family, and especially the categorization of social experience, everyday practices and objects, becomes meaningless, heavily unreadable, eventually re-enforcing the barrier, the fence that separates their lives with the actuality of the exterior, social space. This strategy, promoted by the parents, is even more apparent in two cases – stray cats and airplanes – that, throughout the movie, constitute the representative “creatures” of the external environment. Planes are constantly present in the film, as they are flying closely over the house. The aircrafts become symbolic representations of the outside world. The planes are considered “toys” for the children, who are continuously wish for them to fall from the sky. This is because their parents hide small model planes in the garden, which are supposed to be the one overflying the estate. These are the kids’ most desirable toys. On the contrary, “cats” are “the most dangerous animals of the world”, “carnivores that have a preference for kids’ flesh”.9. From Dogtooth’s original script. In the movie’s most violent scene, the son discovers and slaughters a stray cat. The parents invent the story of the dissolute brother, who, after escaping the compound, was killed by a cat. The cats are symbols of a non-disciplinary life, with a behavior that is not controllable or restrained, as is the one of the kids.
This dialectic relation between the exterior social space of the city and the internal, introverted space of the family unit is the central theme in both features films. Despite the absence of actual cityscapes, the description of spatial conditions and architectural configurations of the two archetypes of the Greek city, managed to promote a meta-critical view that expands beyond the limits of these two singularities, to the city as a whole. This particular, analogical function of the two settings has to be understood as an element that comes in correspondence with the development of the Greek, urban environment, which is built and organized accordingly by these privately-owned domestic monads. In that sense, a successful cinematic operation could depict the totality of this urban landscape by insisting on the details of its singular elements, the apartment of a generic polykatoikia and the suburban, self-built family house. Constantly present in both films, typical and ordinary micro-elements of space and of everyday life establish a recognizable reality. Yet, these are eventually being
heavily distorted – not just as such, but as features of intolerable situations that are progressing in the development of the story. Various cinematic and cinematographic techniques (editing/photography/shot forms, etc.) are deployed in order to achieve the de-familiarization and the estrangement of the ordinary.
III. Familiar Horror
In order to highlight the importance of these two movies, as well as to describe a possible politically operative strategy, a process to rethink architecture and formalization, it is necessary to refer to Paolo Virno’s concept of familiar horror. In his short article with the same title,10. Paolo Virno, “Familiar Horror”, trans. Alessia Ricciardi, in Grey Room, No. 21 (Fall, 2005) MIT Press, 13-16.
11. Sigmund Freud, “Das Unheimliche” [The Uncanny], in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, vol. 17, 1917-1919, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 217-256.
12. Virno, 13. Paolo Virno discusses Sigmund Freud’s famous essay “The Uncanny”, within which Freud elaborated on the dialectical appearance of habitual-familiar/unfamiliar-terrifying conditions in the human, social experience. Within the latter, “the familiar trespasses on the uncanny; the protection also threatens; the sough-after reveals a sinister nature.”
Based upon Virno’s remarks, we could argue that this conceptual pair appears as a fundamental condition and quality of the metropolitan space, not only the present, but also the one historically developed since the
mid-19th century, i.e. the city initially of industrial and today post-fordist capitalism. The question that mainly arises has to do with the potential of an architectural project, especially in regards of housing and the ruthless interiority of the domestic life in the capitalist city. The two movies, even if specific for Greece and the city of Athens, unveil the terminal crisis of middle class dwelling, the limits of a formalization process of a middle mode of living and its respective spaces. If the previous consist the foundation of the modern ethos, how could we envision another way of life, based on forms of production – and of formalization of the architectural project – together with the production of multiple subjectivities? I am proposing here a potential way of thinking and reclaiming habitualness, the habitus of everyday life, as a fundamentally architectural, “technological” and even ecological endeavor.
By exceeding this dual paradigm (familiar/unfamiliar), we could therefore argue that a sense of collectivity within the contemporary city could be re-established, based upon this third category, habit, which refers to the common practice and the shareable knowledge produced and re-appropriated by productive labour and the class of producers. Similarly, an operative reading of the architectural and urban space, could allow establishing a sort of spatial ethos, i.e. a habitual practice of space. As Virno argues, this pairing of
experience should be placed at the centre of the contemporary discussion on habitual patterns, primarily because “the predominant passion of capitalist modernity has been to pull out all the roots one by one”.13. Ibid., 13. Especially in the postmodern metropolis, “heimlich tends to disappear”, while nobody anymore has a direct reference of any familiar, traditional orders and things, making any supporter of a romantic resistance to modernization to seem irrelevant and mistaken. Furthermore, the constant exposure of distorted familiar objects or conditions, especially the ones promoted within the “heimlich of the mass-media pogrom”, creates a condition where the dialectic is regularly present; “the mixture of the familiar and the frightening is by now systematic; we are still able to recognize the first only when we encounter the second”.14. Ibid., 14.
Cinema and architecture share a number of crucial similarities, which allow us to expand further Virno’s remarks. These are the use of archetypical objects and conditions, as well as the analogical performance of both genres to the reality both are trying to depict and project. Contrary to a widespread rhetoric in both disciplines, we could argue that cinematic and architectural structures never just describe, interpret or document an existing present, but mainly distort it, precisely by introducing new forms and ethos of representation. Athens, as a case study for this hypothesis, allows us to reflect on the performativity and the reasoning of archetypical conditions in an explicit manner, in cinema and architecture respectively. The urban development of the city is based almost exclusively in two complementary architectural objects and techniques – the urban, speculative polykatoikia type and the “self-building” practices of the peripheral neighborhoods. This creates a condition where the whole city could be depicted and analyzed as an urban formation based on singular archetypes, which not only function as such, but unveil specific, complementary societal and behavioural strategies of spatial occupation.
The particular phenomenon of human experience, where something habitual is gradually transformed to its exact opposite, and the function of this pairing in narrative structures, is the main theme of Freud’s “The Uncanny”. Freud started his text on the concept of uncanny with a linguistic observation in his mother tongue. In German, the word “heimlich”, literarily meaning “belonging to the house”, deployed originally to describe intimate and familiar conditions, takes gradually an ambivalent semantic direction, “until eventually coincides with its opposite, unheimlich”.15. Sigmund Freud, 222, 226. Typical example of that sort is the terror developed while
confronting unfamiliar objects or conditions in myths and fairytales, like for example ghosts. In there, the uncanny is ultimately a traumatic reaction to the previously familiar, “that, unexpectedly, returns [to us] in disguise”.16. Virno, 13.
As Virno successfully underlined, the idyll of the fairytale and the ancient familiarity of things, objects and narratives has been transformed to the nightmare of our present horror. What is left to us, by taking this pairing of opposite experiences and dialectic conditions for granted, is to reclaim a social space of habits, of activities beyond any traditional and familiar order of things. This double-sided experiential scheme should be placed at the centre of the contemporary discussion on habitual and repetitive patterns, especially because these constitute a fundamental characteristic of contemporary production and a quality of our life in the metropolitan space. Life in the modern city is constantly being defined by the simultaneous, parallel presence of experiences, each one as a reflection to the other, each one within the other. Similar to Freud’s, Virno’s position reflects primarily on a linguistic observation on the origin of habit from the word ethos. In ancient Greek, the noun ἦθος (ethos) literally means habit, tradition,
idiosyncrasy of a person/or a group of individuals, essentially carries all the characteristics of a way of thought, of a position in life of an individual or/and a group of individuals, beyond any sort of values or predetermined rules. Ethos is therefore the essence of life appropriated by habits and shareable knowledge among a community of individuals. To reclaim the ethos of a place should be therefore primarily understood as a political act, one that insists on the re-appropriation of habits, activity and knowledge by the ones that produced it in the first place.
This condition of horrific familiarity, of constant absurdness and anguish is not an “accidental” aftermath of capitalist modernity, but the pattern of subjectification within this mode of production. Within this, alienation of subjects is primarily achieved through a permanent structure of dissolution and destruction
of any familiar, intimate or ordinary patterns. Habitualness, ethos to be more accurate, has been replaced by repetition, a social compulsion towards another paradoxical condition, within which the whole of our social experience is known and predictable, but also extraneous and unforeseen.
As Marx had argued, this condition identified as estrangement (Entfremdung) is the core foundation of the capitalist mode of production, expressed in different aspects of life, at the core within which lies estranged
labour.17. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”, in Early Writings, int. by Lucio Colleti, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin Classics in association with New Left Review, 1975), 279-400. The concept of Estranged Labour, 322-334. However, within the totality of the post-fordist metropolis, is not anymore the alienation, the estrangement of the worker towards the product of its labour, or towards production itself, or even the detachment of man from its species-being that it’s dominating, but the destruction of a communal ethos, of any relation based on familiar and habitual patterns that ultimately estrange the community and the individuals themselves. The constant exposure to the dialectic of familiar/unfamiliar is the aftermath of the sophistication of estranged labour achieved within the post-fordist mode of production. The constant exposure of distorted familiar objects or conditions, especially the ones promoted within post-fordist capitalism creates the condition of a permanently present dialectic of familiar/unfamiliar conditions. As stated by Virno and underlined previously in the paper, it is exactly the constant mixture of this dialectic experience that today is systematically established. Our distorted view on social life allows us to identify the familiar only when we are confronted with its exact opposite, the frightening and absurd.
The two movies managed to proceed with a reading on the supposing familiar conditions as significantly intolerable and horrific realities of the metropolitan subjects of Athens. The directors deployed the technique that Virno described in his article, where the familiar is only readable on the encounter of its terrifying other, and thus annulled and dismissed. The success of both projects is mainly based on their ability to reverse the very ingredients of the metropolitan space of Athens, i.e. the two archetypical housing units – the polykatoikia apartment and the single-family unit – from desirable shelters to enclaves of total horror.
In order to expose his conceptual observations, Virno discusses the story of Jean Améry,18. The story that Paolo Virno refers to can be found in: Jean Améry, Jenseit von Schuld und Sühne: Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigen (Munich: Szczesny, 1966). Published in English as:
Jean Améry, At the Mind of Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities, trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980). Other references on Améry’s story in: Jean Améry, Über das Altern: Revolte und Resignation (Stuttgart: E. Klett, 1968). Published in English as: On Origin: Revolt and Resignation, trans. John D. Barlow (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).
19. Virno, 15. The Améry’s story culminated when, while hiding with other members of the resistance movement in Belgium, he came face to face with an SS German soldier from his hometown.
20. Ibid. 15.
22. Ibid. pseudonym of Hans Mayer, an Austrian Jew who fled to Belgium in order to escape the Holocaust. In his state of exile in Belgium, Améry suffers from an individual decline, a condition of “incurable instability”, which makes him unable to comprehend anymore its surrounding environment and gradually to lose his instincts of survival, the ones based on our constant ability to adapt to the new. Virno relates this feeling with the ordinary metropolitan experience, which constitutes an “extraneous environment”, an unfamiliar territory of regular terror and absurdness. In an unexpected turn of Améry’s story, the author realizes that his quest for familiar essence was meant to fail, as this precise feeling of familiarity is indeed repugnant. He understands that the place of familiar has never actually existed; to mourn the absence of roots or of any home-ness is a self-destructive deception. As Virno continues, “it is futile, and in the long run dangerous, to rid oneself with a shrug of need for a familiar place”. For Améry, but also for the ones that today inhabit the post-fordist metropolitan machine, “it is better to stick to the ethical and sensory poverty implicit in exile […] rather than cherishing images of a “familiarity” charged with disquieting images”.
Yet, the exodus proposed in this short article is one that takes us back to the essence of social experience, the shareable knowledge, the comfort and the power to adapt to the actuality of any living environment. This way, the possibility for an alternative project could be exposed, one that could establish a different urban and social practice based on habit, “which is to say ethos, what is at the antipodes of roots (or familiarity) and can be glimpsed only when their every trace has disappeared”. 23. Ibid., 16. This pursuit for another degree of habitualness takes us back and connects us to the “ever-deferred actuality” of communism, as Paolo Virno underlined in the end of his short piece. The political challenge implied is the one that will direct us back to the essence of our present life within the post-fordist city, one that will allow us to reclaim the very ingredients of our existence, our subjectivities and the things we produce.