"Sotiris, Now What’s Going to Happen to Us Without Bills?"

The Elevator, the Debt, and the Rejection of Cruel Optimism

10 January 2022

Maria Boletsi University of Amsterdam & Leiden University

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Since 2009, Greece has been at the epicenter of intersecting crises: the economic crisis and the social and humanitarian crises it gave rise to, the declared refugee crisis, and, since 2020, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Despite the narratives of economic recovery, reconstruction, and return to normality that were starting to dominate political rhetoric soon after the country’s exit from the memoranda in 2018, the experience of crisis as a chronic state or as the ‘new normal’ is persisting, making the distinction between ‘crisis’ (as a deviation from an assumed normal state) and ‘normality’ anything but straightforward.[1]

In ancient Greek, the word crisis (κρίσις) was used in the domains of politics, law, medicine, and (later) theology, and signified “choices between stark alternatives” (Koselleck 2006, 358). The word denoted either an “objective crisis” (understood as a decisive point “that would tip the scales,” specifically in politics) or “subjective critique”: a judgment in the sense of “criticism” but also in the juridical meaning of “trial” and “legal decision” (359). As a medical term, crisis referred to the illness or disease itself, but also to the “judgment (judicium) about the course of the illness,” i.e., the doctor's diagnosis (360). Crisis, then, can signify choice, decision, the power to distinguish or separate, judgment, critique or diagnosis; it can signal a turning point in history or a moment of truth for a society, but also a chronic condition without a clear prospect of resolution.

The double meaning of crisis as an objective condition and subjective crisis/diagnosis allows us to better understand how recent mobilizations of the term crisis function – not only in Greece but also in transnational contexts. These two meanings of crisis are regularly conflated in public discourse: the declaration of a situation as a ‘crisis’ is not presented as a subjective krisis (diagnosis), but as the description of an objective situation. The diagnosis of a situation is thus presented as a self-evident reality that cannot be questioned. This facilitates neoliberal governmentality, in which ‘crisis’ is often mobilized as a pretext for legitimizing repressive measures or states of emergency, suspending human or citizens’ rights, curtailing democratic freedoms (especially for precarious groups), intensifying biopolitical control, or imposing austerity measures (Athanasiou and Tsimouris 2013, 10). As a result, crisis rhetoric today often runs contrary to the original meaning of crisis as choice. “Today crisis,” according to Giorgio Agamben, “has become an instrument of rule” that “legitimize[s] political and economic decisions that in fact dispossess citizens and deprive them of any possibility of decision” (2013, n.pag.). As Athena Athanasiou aptly puts it, “‘Crisis’ becomes a perennial state of exception that turns into a rule and common sense and thus renders critical thinking and acting redundant, irrational, and ultimately unpatriotic” (2013, 149). The instrumentalization of crisis in the context of neoliberal politics thus often shrinks the space of critique, acting in the service of the TINA doctrine (There Is No Alternative).[2]

The experience of crisis as a ‘new normal,’ intensified even more during the COVID-19 pandemic, is tied to a broader understanding of the global neoliberal order as a condition that narrows the space of political choice and the imagination of alternative futures, reinforcing what Mark Fisher has famously called “capitalist realism”: an anti-utopian outlook that spread mainly after the universalization of neoliberal capitalism in the 1990s and was marked by “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Fisher 2009, 2).

In our post-revolutionary times, how can one think the “otherwise” or turn the lived experience of crisis into an agonistic space of critique of the present? What possibilities of resistance to neoliberal modes of subject-constitution emerge in the framework of a chronic crisis that is deemed to harbor no alternatives? How can foreign, precarious or “supernumerary bodies of the national and transnational neoliberal order” (Athanasiou and Tsimouris 2013, 5; my translation) exist as subjects if they reject or disavow this framework as the only option for social existence? Which alternative imaginaries and narratives for Greece are articulated by subjects who refuse to conform to dominant versions of citizenship and national constitution?

Figure 2: The notice on the elevator: still from Elina Psykou’s Neighborhood Greece.

Figure 2: The notice on the elevator: still from Elina Psykou’s Neighborhood Greece.

Elina Psykou's short video Neighborhood Greece (2021), to which I turn here, works like a small prism that encompasses and refracts these questions.[3] This 2-minute film was created by Elina Psykou (and edited by Afroditi Nikolaidou) in response to the invitation we extended to her to participate in the online event “What Greece...?” which took place on April 21, 2021, as part of the series of events we organized through Greek Studies Now on the occasion of the bicentennial of 1821. For this event, we asked various artists living in Greece and abroad – literary authors, filmmakers, cartoonists – to send a 2- or 3-minute video in which they reflected in their own ways on the word, idea and geopolitical and imaginary space of Greece today. Psykou's film was one of the 19 videos we received. The aim of these videos was not to articulate a new unified narrative about Greece and Hellenism, but to create a polyphonic mosaic of various and conflicting perspectives and approaches in a concise and often fragmentary form (see figure 1).[4]

In the first half of the video, we find ourselves inside the elevator of an apartment building, which is going up and down. A female figure holds a handheld camera (possibly a mobile phone) pointed at the mirror of the elevator, but her face and the camera are hidden by a notice on a piece of paper stuck to the mirror (see figure 2):


In a voice-over, we hear the voice of a narrator, who gives three ‘definitions’ of Greece:

(1) Greece is Sotiris from Albania who lives on the ground floor, door on the right, in a block of flats in Patisia and throws the bills in the bin.
(2) Greece is the Greek or the Albanian who lives on one of the floors of a block of flats in Patisia and rats out Sotiris who lives on the ground floor for throwing the bills in the bin, and spells ‘floor’ as ‘flore.’
(3) Greece is the bills. Those that Sotiris has thrown away and those that he didn't throw away because they passed him by...

The central position of the elevator signals the symbolism of the bipoles high/low and vertical/horizontal in the film. If Sotiris’ apartment is on the ground floor, we can assume that Sotiris does not use the elevator. Thus, the misspelled notice of his transgression works as a public exposure of Sotiris in a moving machine reserved for other tenants, from which Sotiris is excluded. While the elevator can move freely (albeit only in linear, vertical fashion), Sotiris, we may assume, cannot: living on the ground floor, he occupies, literally and metaphorically, the bottom of a social hierarchy, making the elevator, as a metaphor for upward mobility, irrelevant to him. If the misspelled “ground floor” (ισόγειο) as “ground flore” (εισόγειο) in the notice alludes to the word “entrance” (είσοδος), Sotiris’ entrance into this machine of upward mobility is blocked. What restricts his movement is precisely the kind of indebted subjectivity that the unpaid bills suggest.

In The Making of the Indebted Man,6 Maurizio Lazzarato draws on, and updates theories of debt by Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, and others, arguing that in today’s neoliberal economy, “the creditor-debtor relationship,” which is premised on an “asymmetry of power” (2011, 43), has led to the production of “a particular form of homo economicus, the ‘indebted man’” (26). For Lazzarato, debt as a generalized condition and technique of government in today’s capitalism becomes a means of managing the behavior of indebted citizens and thus also of controlling the future: “debt obligations allow one to foresee, calculate, measure, and establish equivalences between current and future behavior’ (2011, 45-46). The indebted subject has to fulfill a promise – to repay the debt – which minimizes the space of political choice and binds the subject to a limited set of predictable actions in the future aimed at living up to this promise. The way austerity politics was presented in Western European political rhetoric as a one-way-street for overcoming the Eurozone crisis is a case in point. In other words, debt robs the future of its transformative potential by obstructing an outlook on the future as radically different from the present. For indebted subjects, Lazzarato argues, the future “seem[s] to be frozen”: “For debt simply neutralizes time, time as the creation of new possibilities, that is to say, the raw material of all political, social, or esthetic change” (2011, 49).

Sotiris, however, throws the bills, and the debt they connote, into the waste bin. In the second (and final) minute of the film, the light in the elevator goes out and the camera zooms in on an old wooden desk at the entrance of the apartment building, next to the elevator, on which we can see a pile of tenants’ bills. The narrator now turns to Sotiris:

Sotiris, why do you throw our bills in the bin?
With the bills we have something to expect. Waiting for electricity, water, telephone, gas, the bank, the internet, the taxes. And then, the obligation to pay for them. Let alone that they have our name printed on them, that they are proof of our existence.
Sotiris, now that you've thrown the bills away, Sotiris, now what’s going to happen to us without bills?

So why does Sotiris throw out the bills?

Sotiris rejects the logic of debt (the promise of its repayment), not only for himself but also for others, since he seems to throw out the bills of other residents too besides his own. By throwing out the bills, he disengages himself from the affective structure that Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”: the unwavering, continuing attachment to “conventional good-life fantasies” and the prospect of “upward mobility” or “job security” that proliferated in Western politics after World War II, even though such prospects have been severely weakened today after three decades of neoliberal policies (2011, 2). In the precarious Greek public sphere during the financial crisis, but also in the present, under the regime of crisis-management of the pandemic, such attachments to good-life fantasies have become, to use Berlant’s words, “more fantasmatic with less and less relation to how people live” (11). Cruel optimism concerns the expectation of a good life and social mobility provided one is a good and responsible citizen – an expectation that cannot be realized in today's precarious conditions and thereby ends up becoming cruel. Sotiris’ performative gesture sets a process of dis-identification in motion: Sotiris refuses to be interpellated, judged, subjectivized through the bills and thus through debt. By rejecting debt, he also rejects the subjectivity of the indebted man that obstructs the horizon of future possibilities, as well as the cruel optimism that often accompanies this subjectivity.

Through this rejection, Sotiris withdraws from the process of claiming a certain identity – the ‘certificate of social existence’ of the (good, Greek) citizen – that one ‘purchases’ by paying one’s bills. As the narrator reminds us, our name on the bills serves as proof of our existence and, even more, of our subjectivation in a (hetero)normative social matrix: a subjectivation that is accompanied by the exclusion of others who have been discarded as alien, deviant bodies. Perhaps, then, there will be no upward movement for Sotiris (his entry into the elevator), but the gesture of rejection and disidentification he performs opens up the possibility of imagining alternative modes of resistance through different (non-vertical) vectors of movement in other, unexpected directions.

Adapting the well-known question C.P. Cavafy posed in his poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1898/1904), the narrator asks: “Sotiris, now what’s going to happen to us without bills?” What does Sotiris share with Cavafy's barbarians? If the barbarians’ presence would guarantee the superior identity of the civilized citizens in Cavafy’s poem, in Psykou’s film the bills guarantee the superior identity of the residents as good, socially integrated citizens. “Sotiris from Albania” does not partake in this identity. His implicit rejection of the identity of the integrated (Greek, indebted) citizen upsets the other residents because it disrupts their own process of subjectification, which is based on the production of other, non-normative subjects as inferior and marginalized. When these ‘inferior’ subjects no longer aspire to the same identity as the ‘good’ citizens, rejecting the cruel optimism involved in this aspiration as well as throwing the conditions of subjectification set by the dominant system in the waste bin, just as Sotiris does with the bills, which alternatives open up for purchasing one’s subjectivity beyond the conditions set by the neoliberal governmentality?

If the bills as a motif in the film allude to Greece’s (unpayable) sovereign debt, the film suggests that Greece is not just those bills that promise, if paid, to restore Greek citizens’ (national) identity and pride on predetermined terms. Neither is Greece only “the Greek or the Albanian” that rats out Sotiris for his transgression. The conflicting meanings of the signifier ‘Greece’ that the film’s narrator proposes by completing the phrase “Greece is...” in three different ways at the beginning of the film (see above), also include
an identification of Greece with “Sotiris the Albanian.” Of course, Sotiris, just like Cavafy's barbarians, remains a spectral presence in the film, perceived only through the condemning judgment of another resident on the elevator’s notice; a judgment whose false premise is suggested in the misspelling of “εισόγειο” (“ground flore”), which draws attention to language itself not as a mirror of reality but as an always catachrestic means of constructing judgments and distinctions that co-shape the reality they presumably diagnose. Greece is thus also defined through Sotiris who claims another space of social existence, another “kind of solution” to the one-way street of a normative process of subjectification. Such ‘grammars’ of stasis, rejection, and withdrawal are not compatible with the Western autonomous liberal subject, the linear temporality of Western modernity, and the temporality of debt, but open up spaces for alternative epistemologies and forms of expression.

In the film’s last shots, the voice-over stops and we see the close-up of a closed door (possibly of Sotiris’ apartment) followed by a shot of the elevator with its door open on the right and the staircase of the apartment building on the left (see figure 3). The juxtaposition of the elevator’s open door and the closed door of (what is probably) Sotiris’ apartment metaphorically seals Sotiris’ gesture of refusal: the discarding of the bills as a rejection of the invitation to participate in the structure of cruel optimism and its prospect of ascension that the elevator’s open door suggests.

The “ground flore” (εισόγειο) Sotiris occupies may not turn into his entrance” into the category of the good citizen, but the performative gesture of refusing this invitation of ideology, and the rejection of debt as a condition of social existence, contains the potentiality of another, non-hierarchical structure: a horizontal one rather than the vertical that is exemplified in the elevator’s movement. The correct spelling for “ground floor” in Greek, ισόγειο, encompasses the “ίσο” of “ισότητα” (equality) and takes us from the vertical axis of selection and replacement to the horizontal axis of metonymical proximity and inclusion in other collectives and in other horizontal “neighborhoods,” which are also part of the title’s “Neighborhood Greece.”[7]

Figure 3: The elevator and the stairs: still from Elina Psykou’s Neighborhood Greece.

Figure 3: The elevator and the stairs: still from Elina Psykou’s Neighborhood Greece.

Works Cited

Athanasiou, Athena and Giorgos Tsimouris. 2013. «Χαρτογραφώντας τη βιοπολιτική των συνόρων. Σώματα, τόποι, απεδαφοποιήσεις». Επιθεώρηση Κοινωνικών Ερευνών 140-141 B´– Γ´: 3-37.

Agamben, Giorgio. 2013. “The Endless Crisis As an Instrument of Power: In Conversation with Giorgio Agamben.” Verso Blog, 4 June. http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1318-the-endless-crisis-as-an-instrument-of-power-in-conversation-with-giorgio-agamben

Berlant Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham & Λονδίνο, Duke University Press.

Boletsi Maria, Janna Houwen & Liesbeth Minnaard. 2020. “Introduction: From Crisis to Critique.” In Maria Boletsi, Janna Houwen & Liesbeth Minnaard (eds.). Languages of Resistance, Transformation, and Futurity in Mediterranean Crisis-Scapes: From Crisis to Critique, 1-24. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Butler, Judith & Athena Athanasiou. 2013. Dispossession: The Political in the Performative. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press.

De Cauwer, Stijn (ed.). 2018. Critical Theory at a Crossroads: Conversations on Resistance in Times of Crisis. Νέα Υόρκη, Columbia University Press.

Deleuze Gilles. 1986. Nietzsche and Philosophy. New York and London: Continuum.

Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester and Washington: John Hunt Publishing.

Jakobson, Roman. 1956. “The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles.” Fundamentals of Language. Trans. Morris Halle. 'S Gravenhage. Mouton & Co. 76-82.

Kazamias, Αlexander. 2020. «Κρίση: H νέα μας κανονικότητα». Τα Νέα, 18 March.

Koselleck, Reinhart. 2006. “Crisis.” Trans. Michaela Richter. Journal of the History of Ideas 67 (2): 357-400.

Lazzarato Maurizio. 2012. The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition. Trans. Joshua David Jordan. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Ttoouli, George. 2021. What Greece…?’ A Pluralist Antidote to Nationalist Fervour. Greek Studies Now Blog, 13 May. https://gc.fairead.net/what-greece-a-pluralist-antidote

Papanikolaou, Dimitris. 2019. «Πόσο μετωνυμική είσαι; Σημειώσεις για τον βιοπολιτικό ρεαλισμό»/ “Ηow Metonymical Are You? Notes on Biopolitical Realism.” In Οrestis Andreadakis and Geli Mademli (eds.). Α Κατάλογος / Non Catalog, 21st Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, 104-125.



1 On a protracted crisis as the “new normal” in Greece after the pronounced exit from the financial crisis in 2018, see Kazamias 2020.

2 For a discussion of the concept of crisis in contemporary contexts, see Boletsi et al 2020: 2-3; 2021; De Cauwer 2018 e.a.

3 Neighborhood Greece was first screened on 21 April 2021 during the above-mentioned event. This video, just as all other videos that were created for this event and the discussion that followed, can be found on the GSN website. Neighborhood Greece is the 6th video and starts at 13.45’.

4 For an overview and critical discussion of this event, see Ttoouli 2021 on the GSN blog.

5 I follow the translation given in the official subtitles of the film, with minor modifications when deemed necessary.

6 First published in Italian as "La fabbrica dell'uomo indebitato. Saggio sulla condizione neoliberista".

7 In my use of the horizontal and vertical axes here I draw on Roman Jakobson’s well-known distinction between the vertical axis of selection (parataxis) and the horizontal axis of combination in syntax, which he associates with metaphor and metonymy, respectively (1956). For a discussion of the functions of metonymy in the contemporary context of “biopolitical realism,” see Papanikolaou 2019.

Figure 1: Poster of “What Greece…?” (Greek Studies Now online event, 21 April 2021)
Figure 1: Poster of “What Greece…?” (Greek Studies Now online event, 21 April 2021)


[This essay was originally published in Greek in Χάρτης 32 (August 2021). The present essay is a free English translation of the original, with small additions and modifications.]


Maria Boletsi is Endowed Professor of Modern Greek Studies at the University of Amsterdam (Marilena Laskaridis Chair) and assistant professor in Film and Comparative Literature at Leiden University. She works in comparative literature, literary and cultural theory, Modern Greek literature and culture, conceptual history, and cultural analysis. She is the author of Barbarism and Its Discontents (Stanford UP 2013) and co-author of Barbarian: Explorations of a Western Concept in Theory, Literature and the Art, vol. 1 (Metzler 2018). She recently co-edited the books (Un)timely Crises: Chronotopes and Critique (Palgrave 2021), Languages of Resistance, Transformation, and Futurity in Mediterranean Crisis-Scapes: From Crisis to Critique (Palgrave 2020), Subjects Barbarian, Monstrous, and Wild (Brill 2018), and Barbarism Revisited (Brill 2015). She has published on various topics, including the concept of barbarism, C.P. Cavafy, functions of the “middle voice” in the context of crisis in Greece and beyond, and fictionality in protest and public art in relation to populism and post-truth.