Ergativity as alternative subjectivity in times of crisis:

The case of Vasilis Kekatos’ As you sleep the world empties

10 January 2022

Georgios Podaropoulos Leiden University

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Situations of declared crisis and the narratives that frame them co-shape the ways in which subjects in crisis understand themselves and their relations with others, as well as the ways they experience the world in the present, in relation to the past and the future. Studying the grammars that undergird crisis rhetoric can help us understand how subjectivity, agency, and temporality are (re)cast in crisis narratives and ponder the conceptual and experiential implications of such (re)castings. But it can also reveal alternative understandings of the self, others, and time in crisis times. ‘Grammars of crisis’ has recently been proposed as an approach to the study of the narrativisation of crisis. According to this approach, the notion of grammars of crisis differs from that of vocabularies of crisis in that it captures the relationality among words;[1] for instance, instead of analysing the jargon around the ongoing pandemic, drawing attention to ‘grammars of crisis’ can be useful in mapping out the relations that are being developed among various terms in the rhetoric of this crisis.

Within the ecosystem of relations that mark narratives of crisis, causality is pivotal, as that is the overarching concept under which agency and patiency are to be situated. Whether the subject in crisis is an agent or a patient depends on the structure of the verb in terms of grammar: the subject of a transitive verb is normally an agent (e.g. the doctor’ in the sentence ‘a doctor heals a patient’) and the object of a transitive verb is normally a patient (e.g. the ‘patient’ in the aforementioned sentence). Yet there are constructions that blur those limits: ‘one heals’, for example, can refer to a subject-agent who provides healing as well as to a subject-patient who is healed.

Vasilis Kekatosshort film As you sleep the world empties (2020) tests precisely the boundaries between agency and patiency during an epidemic, thus responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Introducing us to a world in which a sleep epidemic has hit humankind, the narrative moves between the world of the patients (that is, those asleep) and the world that is awake. The two main characters come from these two worlds: the narrator is awake, while his girlfriend, who is the narratee, has contracted the virus and has fallen asleep. Until she wakes up, the narrator’s main preoccupation is remembering:

Until then I will simply remember. (9:44-9:48)

He recalls what they were doing when his girlfriend was still awake: how they met, their flirt, their jokes, their discussions (8:40-10:32).

Out of fear that the virus may weaken memory, he soon broadens the intransitive state of remembering and decides to capture the present and the past on video so that his girlfriend can watch it as soon as she wakes up and retrieve her memories:

…some scientists claimed that even if people wake up after months or years, many things won’t be the same. Their memory will be weak... If you wake up however, and you don’t remember things, I want you to see this video and remember. (8:05-8:37)

The narrator elaborates on the motive for his act: he makes the film to remind his girlfriend of their story. Within the general non-agential context of the sleep epidemic, he channels his state of remembering into an act of reminding. In this way, his film itself assumes a remarkable agency: the narrative he constructs through his video amounts to an utterance that performs that very act of reminding as a speech act.[2]

How can one mark out the narrator’s agential modality? Is he active in that he attempts to store and thereby to re-store the recollections of his girlfriend? Is he passive in that he has been separated from his beloved one and experiences the ‘emptying’ of his world? Is he a non-agent in that he has fallen into a state of remembering his pre-epidemic agency? None or all of the above? This seems to be a rather complicated matter. So let us focus on the title as a starting point to untangle the kind of agency the film negotiates for the subject in the time of the film’s epidemic.


The world as ergative subject/object

The narrator’s world empties. That ‘emptying’ implies a certain patiency: the narrator’s world undergoes ‘emptying’. Simultaneously, his girlfriend is sleeping. The temporal relationship of synchrony enables a causal implication: his girlfriend’s sleep may have emptied his world. Zooming in on the grammatical construction of the title is helpful for categorising the agency construed:

(i) As you sleep the world empties.

If we look for an agent in this sentence, this could be alternatively formulated as:

(ii) Your sleeping empties the world.

In terms of grammar, the two alternative wordings constitute an ‘ergative pair’. Ergativity is the attribute of verbs that can be either transitive or intransitive.[3] The verb ‘to empty’ is such a verb in Greek (αδειάζω), in which the original script is written, as well as in English, in which the title is delivered. A palpable example of an ergative construction is the verb ‘to open’:

(iii) The door opens.

(iv) One opens the door.

In the latter constructions (ii and iv), transitivity is clearly designed: one empties the world much like one opens the door or heals a patient (cf. introduction). However, Kekatos’ title is different as it consists only of the intransitive part of the ergative pair: it clouds any transitivity, and it constructs a non-agential modality, in which a world empties much like a door that opens or a patient that heals (i and iii). Being subject of an intransitive verb, ‘the world’ does not explicitly possess any defined form of agency or patiency; it rather signifies an intransitive process of ‘emptying’ in which it is situated.

Notably, the subject of the intransitive ergative verb can be the object of the same verb when that is transitive:[4]

           Subject           Ergative verb
(i)        The world       empties.

           Subject           Ergative verb           Object
(ii)       Her sleeping    empties                   the world.

The verb ‘to empty’ can be parsed with ‘the world’ being its subject when it is intransitive as well as its object when it is transitive.

If we reflect on the broader theoretical and conceptual implications of grammar, ergativity emerges as a pattern with deconstructing potential; it enables and conveys the transitive potential of the intransitive state, and vice versa, as well as the potential of the subject to become an object, and vice versa. Therefore, the world of the narrator appears to be an ‘ergative’ world: it is construed as the non-agential subject of the intransitive modality of ‘emptying’, but the verb’s ergativity also enables the construction of a transitive modality in which ‘the world’ is the object of ‘emptying’.



The narrator as ergative subject: patiency and agency

Having outlined the ergative verb, which is transitive and intransitive, and the subject of the ergative verb, which can become the object of the same verb, we may shift from the world that empties to the narrator whose world empties. How does he respond to the ergative ‘emptying’ of his world?

A closer examination of his attempt to restore the memories of his girlfriend might uncover the agential chain that he articulates:

Premise 1: As she sleeps, her memory empties.

Premise 2: As she sleeps, his world empties.

Inference: Hence, her memory will be crucial to fill his world when she wakes up.

Premise 3 = Inference: Her memory will be crucial to fill his world when she wakes up.

Premise 4: His film may fill her memory.

Conclusion: Hence, his film may fill his world.

In short, by making a film for the world that empties, the narrator tries to fill the world. By attempting to store the pre-epidemic reality of his relationship, the narrator actually tries to make sure that his girlfriend will retrieve her memory in full when she is ‘back’, and that his world, now emptied due to her sleep, will fill again. I repeat using parsing:

           Subject           Ergative verb           Object
(v)       The narrator    fills                         the world.

The narrator turns into the subject of an ergative alignment: he passes from patiency, from having his world emptied, to agency, as he tries to fill his world. Kekatos’ construction of (a) a world that empties and of (b) a film that fills memory allows us to imagine such an alternative of (c) a film that fills the world. The intransitive half of an ergative pair, namely ‘the world empties’, tempts one to imagine the transitive half of the opposite ergative pair, namely to seek an answer to the question: who can fill that world?


The narrator as ergative subject: in/transitivity

Interestingly, even though the narrator is active in that he is making a film to achieve his goal (to fill the world), the filling of his own world is made dependent not only on his own actions but also on an other: his girlfriend and the retrieval of her memories. His effort will come to nothing without one precondition: that his girlfriend wakes up so that she will be able to watch the film and refill her memories from pre-epidemic times as well as from the epidemic present that she is missing while sleeping – and ominously ‘[n]o one has woken up’ (8:22). The narrator cannot wake her up - another ergative verb -, yet this limit of his agency does not stop him from imagining:

I would really like to go on a walk together (10:47-50).

The lack of communication between the world that is awake and the sleeping world does not prevent the narrator from articulating his wish/request, and thus envisioning an alternative reality, in which his girlfriend is also awake, they go for a walk together, and the world fills. Nevertheless, such a request de facto has the ring of a subtle tragic irony, for both the narrator and the reader have to acknowledge that the sleeping addressee of the request will remain silent, at least for the film’s duration: she cannot hear it, let alone go for a walk. The narrator’s message is emphatically intransitive because the addressee is not a receiver – this is a highly ergative moment of the transitive act of the request that remains in that sense ‘intransitive’. At the very moment when he utters his wish to go for a walk, he highlights that they cannot go for a walk – yet.


All in all, the narrator of As you sleep the world empties sets off as a subject-patient who has his world emptied, evolves into a nostalgic non-agent who looks back on his pre-epidemic agency and ends up transubstantiating that state of remembering into an act of reminding and imagining, without forgetting the limited agential potential of his imagination as well as the relational character of his subjectivity and agency: that is, the dependence on the other and her response. This straddling of the line between non-agency and agency construes a narrative subject that is both intransitive and transitive: a subject I identify as ergative.

By using ergativity to unravel the way the film casts the subject and negotiates agency in this situation of crisis, the category of ergativity departs from grammar, turning into a working concept in cultural analysis. Even though in this short essay I have only focused on the grammar of the film’s language rather than its visual aspects or sound, this focus on grammar is, I believe warranted: Kekatos’ filmic narrative can be seen as a search for a grammar that could give expression to the complex subject positions shaped in the context of an epidemic, as well as the possibilities for broadening a terrain of agency that appears limited. His narrative is based upon the ‘ergative’ mobility between agency and patiency, and my analysis of the ‘grammar of crisis’ in his film had a twofold focus: on the one hand, I analysed the narrative in terms of ergative alignment, on the other hand, I drew from the narrative the analytical concept of ergativity as a heuristic tool that escapes the binary oppositions between:

i. subjectivity or objectivity, as the subject of the ergative verb (e.g. ‘the world empties’) can become its object (e.g. ‘one empties the world’), and vice versa,

ii. agency or patiency, as in cases in which the patient of an ergative modality (e.g. of ‘emptying’) is also the agent of the opposite ergative modality (e.g. of ‘filling’), and vice versa, and

iii. transitivity or intransitivity, for ergativity accommodates both (e.g. the in/transitive act of request when the addressee cannot receive it).

Thus, ergativity can be a precious tool in rethinking how subjects can be construed differently within contemporary ‘grammars of crisis’: it can challenge the exclusive disjunctions of subjectivity, agency, and transitivity and turn them into conjunctions. Uncovering ergative structures in narrativisations of crisis and integrating them into our analytical apparatus of causality help us nuance and ‘dynamicise’ the role of the patient-subject and discern a potential of agency where there seems to be little or none – a potential flexible enough to fill one’s world, whether that looks possible or not – yet.


1 Boletsi, Maria, et al. “Grammars of Crisis.” (Un)timely Crises: Chronotopes and Critique, edited by Maria Boletsi, et al., Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, pp. 23-49.

2 Culler, Jonathan. “Philosophy and Literature: The Fortunes of the Performative.” Poetics Today, vol. 21, no. 3, 2000, pp. 504-515.

3 Keyser, Samuel J., and Thomas Roeper. “On the Middle and Ergative Constructions in English.” Linguistic Inquiry, vol. 15, no. 3, 1984, pp. 381-382.

4 Dixon, Robert M. W. Ergativity. Cambridge UP, 1994, p. 1.

Vasilis Kekatos’ As you sleep the world empties was created in the context of the ENTER project, an initiative of the Onassis Foundation. During the COVID-19 pandemic period, Onassis Stegi and Onassis USA gave artists from all around the world 120 hours to create from home a series of new original artworks.


Georgios Podaropoulos is a Research Master’s student in Literary Studies at Leiden University, holding a scholarship from the Onassis Foundation. Previously, he studied Philology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (BA) and at the Université libre de Bruxelles (Erasmus+). He has been a Pre-doctoral Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in collaboration with the International Olympic Academy.