Infrastructures of governmentality

22 March 2021

Neni Panourgia Columbia University

Neni Panourgia
Leros. The Grammar of Confinement. Athens: Nefeli Publishers, 2020 (in Greek, forthcoming in English) maps, hyperlinks, QR codes, parerga, biblio, 182 pp.


‘Why a book on Leros now?’ people ask, a question to which there are two answers. The first one is because a comprehensive book on the many forms of confinement on Leros has never been written until now. An easy answer. The second one is a more difficult answer: because Paul B. Preciado asked me to write one; not “write a book on the psychiatric hospital on Leros” or any other moment of confinement, but “a book on Leros”, both tying and loosening my hands this way, asking me to apply a laser focus on Leros while telling me to do whatever I wanted with it. And what I wanted to do with this book is, by utilizing ethnographic material that I had on Leros that goes back to almost twenty years, to think on the question of confinement, a question that stitches all my work together from the beginning, going from the molar to the molecular, as Deleuze and Guattari have put it. To think about the concept of confinement writ large, in all of its Benthamian dimensions, but also on its most granular micro-level; to think of the sovereign power that actualizes this confinement, but also to think of the micro-contexts that make its socio-ecologies possible. To look at the decrees, the plans, the architects, but also to give the necessary space to the utterances of the actors of the everyday to breathe. To create a text that brings the sensory, the political, the social onto the same plane of meaning, and look for their complicities and their antagonisms. But the sensory, conceptual, and socio-political experience of Leros (as a reality and as a paradigm) is encased in a constellation of intersecting contexts that exist on a number of degrees of separation. The sensory and the experiential are often brutally intersected by the strategic socio-political in ways that cry for immediate (re)presentation.

The book is an experiment in publishing in that it recognizes reading as a multisensorial endeavour and acknowledges that books, as tactile objects, constitute only one part of the reading experience in its planetary context, now that access to books is again being curtailed and surveilled or financially burdensome, and that vast numbers of readers only read on electronic devices. Attempting to include as much as to transcend the printed page, this book transverses the medium of printing so as to connect and enflesh the multiple contingents that constitute the experience of being on an island in the eastern Aegean at this point, through QR codes and accessible links, such as this one, recorded performances, such as this one, photographic archives, ethnographic videos, and documents, like this one.

The question of confinement is begotten by the question that has defined the thought of modernity: Why has the image of continuity and discontinuity captured nationalist imaginations and their critics since the first articulations of the concept in the late 18th century? Why does a nation need to claim a mythical past? Εven when the citizens who comprise the nation don’t all subscribe to the same ideologies, the nation itself—whether invoked in the Bildung “Funeral Oration” of Thucydides, in Konstantine Paparigopoulos’s prescriptive history of the Greek nation, or in Ernest Renan’s and Benedict Anderson’s analyses—does. The nation, in its self-presentation—mediated, through its intellectuals or unmediated, through its bureaucracies—claims uninterrupted and contiguous connections with an often-mythical past invoking medical metaphors of blood. Nothing wrong with thinking in metaphors. Thought would be insufferable without them. But there are metaphors, and then there are metaphors. Blood is the metaphor that encases its object in the essentialism of primal matter, inescapable and uninterruptable. Even a small interruption in blood circulation causes death, hence the blood metaphor of the nation already prefigures, proleptically, its uninterrupted continuity. But let’s not think about the nation; let’s think about the state.

Continuity and discontinuity are invoked as processes of identity formation of the nation but not, necessarily, as the mechanics of the numinous infrastructure of the state. Although the importance of large infrastructural projects as statements of the state is visible in its symbolic imposition, be that the case of the Third Reich, the Third Greek Republic, the British Empire, or the French Republic, the small, unassuming and insignificant buildings that might be called the bureaucracy of material infrastructure carry the labour and weight of the state’s infrastructural apparatus without claiming an overt continuity of meaning and signification. What if blood as a metaphor is not the most apt metaphor for continuity? What if, leaving blood as the paradigmatic metaphor for the continuity of the nation, one trains one’s eye to the nervous system, to the nodes of Ranvier, as the metaphor for the state. The nodes of Ranvier show us that the interruptions of the protective myelin on the length of the neurons intensify the action potential thus constituting a discontinuity that rather than impeding communication and connectivity accelerates them, thereby enabling the rapid travel of the action. If we transfer this metaphor onto the realm of the state it becomes apparent that this action potential comprises the actions of the state that constitute its modalities of governance on the micro-level of the individual citizen. I am looking at buildings that have stood for over a century as places of confinement and exclusion even if the specifics of the confinement are not diachronically the same or contiguous, as I connect spatially disparate spaces: Leros, Makronisos and Yaros (in Greece), the island of Goli Otok in (now) Croatia, and the death camp of Dachau in Germany.

On Leros, the same buildings have been used by successive and different states as barracks, rehabilitation schools, psychiatric hospital, exile camp for political prisoners, and migrant and refugee hotspot; on the island of Goli Otok, off the Dalmatian coast, the same buildings have been used as labor camp for Stalinists, exile camp for royalists, and prison camp for criminal offenders; the death camp of Dachau was originally a state-controlled munitions factory, a labor camp for unionists and communists, a concentration and extermination camp for Jewish and non-Jewish undesirables, and temporary housing for refugees from East Germany after partition.

But my main focus now is Leros, “the island of abjection, the death island that nobody ever visits”. Leros went from Ottoman occupation to being part of the Italian Empire in 1923 and was united with Greece in 1948. The barracks were established in 1927, and they were used as POW camp for Italians by the Germans in 1943 and for Germans by the British in 1944. In 1949, towards the end of the Greek Civil War, the barracks housed the Royal Trade Schools for captured young communists. From 1950 until 1964, the schools were the place for socialization of (primarily right wing) indigent adolescents from the Greek provinces, while, starting in 1957, in some of the buildings the state established a psychiatric hospital. In 1967 the Greek junta opened up the buildings again as a camp for political prisoners that closed in 1970. In 2016, under the agreement of Fortress Europe, a refugee hot-spot was planted on the grounds of the barracks.

My ethnographic fieldwork on the island shows that locals understand the infrastructural legacy of the Italian Empire as the equivalent of a bureaucracy, as part of what constitutes the insolvent glue that keeps the power of the state intact. They further recognize that the stringing together of these interventions by the state constitute infrastructures of governmentality that have not only exercised their power onto the subjects housed in the buildings but have also created an entirely compliant local work force of civil servants.

Part of this power of the state is located precisely on the modalities in which such power is being understood and experienced at the local level, by people who are being called to carry out the quotidian affairs of such power. Even though the content of such infrastructure might not be the same - thus naval officers and submarine sailors are different than guerrilla orphans, psychiatric patients, political prisoners, or stateless and homeless refugees - the local population employed in such places understands itself as part of the civil service. Therefore, the differences that appear in the utilization of such spaces intensify the presence of the state, and make the experience understood faster and more intently than if the utilization was the same and the execution of power uninterrupted. As one of my local interlocutors said to me “to work at the trade schools we needed no training; we had already been trained by the Italians”. The state, in these cases, becomes the primary arbiter of the existence of the person, tying its subject in an intractable node that disallows for the process of self-ascription. Hence, the subjects of the state, whether they are conscripts of an empire who live in the barracks, the orphans of a political adversary, the psychiatric patient, or the political prisoner become objects whose existence is not only depended upon but also tightly regulated by the power of the state. Hence, Leros becomes the grammar of confinement and delineates the terms, the rules, and the exceptions, the verbs and the nouns, the subjects and the objects, the simple past of the indicative and the present continuous of the imperative of the state.

As Michael Foucault has already noted, the violence of institutions is not located in a performed brutality, but, rather, in the dispersal of their technologies and methodologies, in the recognition of the genealogy that strings them together across a broad spectrum of social forms. He thus produces what (I call) his epistemological string theory through a curious methodology—he refuses to succumb to the enumerative projects of historians and ethicists and resists any genealogical linearity (i.e., K does not come between J and L), producing instead, through what Ann Stoler has called “unfinished abutments and anticipatory strings of dots”, an analytical frame that engages a contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous. This disjuncture of contemporaneity, the fact that linearity in time is not necessary in the violent production of the subject, explains the how and the why of the a-synchronicity of usage of the architecturally minor buildings where this process takes place and it is perfectly illustrated metaphorically by the node of Ranvier. The case of Leros is paradigmatic in this sense.

Leros. The Grammar of Confinement. 2020. Athens: Nefeli Publishers (in Greek, forthcoming in English) maps, hyperlinks, QR codes, parerga, biblio, 182 pp.


Neni Panourgiá is an anthropologist, Associate Professor at the Prison Education Program, Psychology Department, and Academic Adviser at the Justice in Education Initiative at Columbia University. She is the incoming editor (with Katrina Thompson) of Anthropology and Humanism. Her essays on anthropology, ethnography, critical theory, art and architecture, critical medical studies, and politics can be found in Mousse, Documenta, American Ethnologist, Ethos, Anthropological Quarterly, angelaki, and many edited volumes. Her book publications include Fragments of Death, Fables of Identity. An Athenian Anthropography; Ethnographica Moralia (co-edited with George Marcus); Dangerous Citizens. The Greek Left and the Terror of the State, and a new edition of Paul Radin’s Primitive Man as Philosopher. Her new book Λέρος: Η γραμματική του εγκλεισμού (Εκδόσεις Νεφέλη) was published in April 2020 and is forthcoming in English under the title Leros: Neural genealogies and the saltatory conductivity of space.

Visit the book's website (+Photo Archive) here