An Anthropology of Time and the Unforeseen (in Contemporary Greece)
12 October 2021
Daniel M. Knight University of St Andrews
Have you ever felt like time was standing still, that you were trapped in a spin-cycle on repeat? Perhaps you were suddenly acutely aware of your presence in the present; peering down on yourself from the corner of the room, just another set of eyes watching the drama unfold in the theatre of life. You have been clinging by your fingernails to something that is being swept away by the forces of nature. A heart-wrenching lost cause in the face of unexpected change. There might have been times when you have been trapped in the ricochets of rapidly onrushing pasts, the inescapable present and the cliff-edge of failing futures, experiencing confusion as to where and when you belong. Time becomes elastic, the world is spinning, there is an apparent shift in temporal rhythms, and material objects, sights and sounds become uncanny. There might be the sense, the feeling or atmosphere of epochal change, nothing will ever be the same … Out with the old and in with the something else.
For me, it was December 2000 as I approached the front door of my family home on a suburban estate in southern England. The next three hours would irreparably puncture my world, the texture of time hauntingly engrained in my very existence for a lifetime. In those three hours I would await news of what would ultimately be announced as my brother’s death. Aged 12. Brain haemorrhage. The uncanny smells, the eerie sounds. The second-guessing of memories of our last morning together. The house was spiralling, and I was the central point of inertia for its centrifugal force. Those hours seemed like days; I was suspended outside of the normal trajectory of historical continuity. The old world order had ended but the new had not yet emerged.
And so Vertiginous Life begins with my own personal narrative as the first hinge on a scalar project to chart how people experience temporal disorientation in periods of crisis – what I term ‘vertigo’. Located in the emerging field of temporal studies in the social sciences and humanities, the book grew from the dissatisfaction I felt with how I ‘populated’ the Time of Crisis epoch in The Anthropology of the Future (Bryant and Knight 2019). In The Anthropology of the Future, my co-author and I discussed how the future is lived in the present through orientations – anticipation, expectation, hope, potentiality, destiny, speculation – and, further, we suggested that each timespace is constituted by numerous vernaculars and affects. We addressed such orientations as the perpetual anticipation of conflict in an uneasy Time of Peace in the Middle East and the apocalyptic speculation of the Remain voter in a Time of Brexit, as well as the hopes and potentialities pinned on a Time of Oil in West Africa. Our aim was to bring attention to the future as a valuable domain for social enquiry; the future is being lived, and thus effecting activity, in the present. I did not believe that I had done justice to the messy temporal topologies of crisis experience in the short sections that dealt with Greece.
But the pathway to writing Vertiginous Life actually has its roots as far back as a commentary on drafts of my first monograph History, Time, and Economic Crisis in Central Greece (Knight 2015) when my friend and, I like to say, mentor, Charles Stewart remarked on the ‘temporal vertigo’ experienced by my interlocutors as they commandeered disparate events of the past to explain their tumultuous lives as economic crisis began to ravish Greece. As people bounced around through the past – Ottoman landlords, the Great Famine of 1941, occupation and dictatorship, stock market crash – Charles observed that this was like a spin-cycle of time which must leave people feeling nauseous. The full details of how Vertiginous Life came into being – and the numerous colleagues who provoked my thinking – is documented in the Preface to the new book, which, I am now convinced, should include the subtitle “In Contemporary Greece”!
The book scales individual experiences of a global phenomenon, and brings theories of temporality to the level of everyday lived experience. With the aim to better understand the affects of crisis when a sudden rupture becomes a chronic condition, the book follows the lives of five people through the long decade of the Greek economic crisis (c. 2009-2019). As indicated by the opening auto-ethnographic vignette, the primary concern is not with the duration or scale of crisis. It may be individual, shared, societal, or even global. It may last seconds, days, years – indeed, it may remain immeasurable partly or wholly in duration. Time maps are not my primary interest. Rather, my contention is that in episodes of crisis things feel different, lives take on strange and unexpected trajectories, folds and loops, and there is often the sense of stuckedness or hyperconsciousness that trigger a form of vertigo. Nausea, dizziness, the sense of falling, the unknowingness of former Self, déjà vu, breathlessness. Crisis muddles trajectories that would have once been undisputed, and leaves people spinning, as I was waiting at home for news of my brother’s death.
We encounter crisis and vertigo in the Introduction as scaled from the level of individual experience to an epochal collective event; the resonant something framed within the works of Ernesto de Martino (anguish and presence), Søren Kierkegaard (dizziness and anxiety), Marcel Proust (giddiness), Eelco Runia (vertiginous leaps), Jean-Paul Sartre (nausea), and Michel Serres (audacity), among others. In much philosophical prose, the debate pivots on the affects of standing on the edge – usually of a high cliff – feeling the urge to create new history by throwing oneself into the whirlpool (ilinx, pacing Roger Caillois) of the abyss below. But at the same time, there is the desire to cling to the rocks of the familiar, the comfort of futures-past, the images and feelings of the knowable Self. Each scholar has a different perspective on the vertiginous desire to jump from the cliff edge. Is it freedom of choice that triggers the vertigo – the possibility of possibility? Perhaps there is an obligation toward the collective to create novel history? Can one be educated to navigate the sensory paradoxes of vertigo? Maybe on the edge of a new era, essence and existence get torn apart as in the event horizon of a supermassive black hole? Will the whirlpool at the bottom of the cliff provide release or entrapment? The philosophical ponderings are necessary in explicating the aesthetics of vertigo as central to the all-consuming atmosphere of crisis, as orientations to the future change and the textures and trajectories of time are reconstituted. Yet, these abstractions are coupled with elicitations from popular culture to better explain the vertigo effect/affect: Steve McQueen’s crash scene from the movie Le Mans, the dolly zoom effect of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the opening credits to the original series of Hawaii 5-0, the literary style of W.G. Sebald. Together, the sources tell the parallel tale of occasions when the world is turned upside-down, temporal rhythms mingle and distort, and disorientation reigns supreme.
Each chapter is concerned with the life of a single individual over the course of an approximate decade, detailing how they grapple with social change and the feeling of being held captive in the whirlpool of crisis. High-flying Athenian businesswoman Mairi encounters the nausea of unknowingness, feeling detached from her former Self. She scrambles to hold on to the past as she loses business, family, her very essence. Dimitris moves from Thessaloniki to his deserted ancestral village in Western Macedonia to set-up life among the rubble of the past. History scorches through him as he leans against the hand-chiselled stone of lives once abandoned. Spatial and temporal displacement of pasts and futures, of material environment. On the plains of western Thessaly, Antonis is a mechanic who holds down multiple jobs, installing hi-tech, futuristic, European Union-funded renewable energy technology that harbour promises of sustainability and ultra-modernity. He also builds wood-burning open fires and thermostat systems that he and his friends use to keep warm in winter, transporting them ‘back in time’ to days of pre-dictatorship village-life, ‘peasantry’, and the old world. Antonis does not know when he resides on the previously unquestioned timeline of linear progress. Fleeing a dead-end life in Larisa, Alexia ran head-on into Brexit. Her relocation to Scotland was supposed to be her escape route but, not formally employed, she is now left suspended, stuck between two futures foreclosed. Alexia discusses the emptiness of existing in a collapsed world order from where she has yet to emerge, ricocheting in a permanent vacuum between the tick of one crisis and the tock of the next. On the streets of the Monday market in Trikala, Aphrodite explains the uncomfortable comfort with the thick atmosphere of chronic crisis, having become accustomed to its rhythms. No longer a rupture expected to blow-over, the long-term state of affairs is likened to Stockholm Syndrome, a nation bound in a relationship of captivity, where futural horizons evoke more fear than hope, and maintenance might be the desired orientation.
In the narratives of crisis, vertigo crosses and weaves through domains of life to become one of the foremost ways through which people experience the “axiomatic violences” of the early part of the twenty-first century (Pipyrou and Sorge 2021). Vertigo is sometimes easy to pin down linguistically and through local vernaculars. People talk about ‘feelings’ and describe the textures of vertigo (‘it is like …’). Particularly striking are the innumerable occasions when people describe nausea and dizziness when being hit by the often-unforeseen microruptures to everyday life constitutive in the small-print of crisis – when discovering that the pension pot is running low, when an employer announces pending redundancies, or when political decisions, such as those regarding citizens’ rights or capital controls, scupper the most carefully made plans. These utterances feed directly from a more generic atmosphere of anxiety about the curtailing of personal freedoms at the hands of an Other beyond accountability. As such, vertigo transcends easily identifiable words and phrases, experienced as an atmosphere, “an aesthetic that contains inescapable affective and emotional resonances”, a timespace “with a certain tone of feeling” (Böhme 2017:12). Vertigo is that “something in the air”, a cluster of “free floating” intense affects, identifiable through association with a repetitive narrative trend (Lepselter 2016:2). Vertigo is the expressive modality of seeing and making sense of a world in crisis and it is the themes that echo and multiply within this modality that make up this book.
Vertiginous Life is a highly personal piece of writing and a compassionate text that tries to stay true to those who have loved, lost, fought, and conquered the tumultuous decade. Ultimately, I hope that the reader can relate to some aspects of vertiginous life presented on the pages. Deaths, earthquakes, broken relationships, pandemics. Material objects, alien technologies, disjointed and uncanny sights and sounds. The scale and duration of a Time of Crisis is likely to differ, but many of the vertiginous affects and narrative keywords will resonate. There might be the sense, the feeling, or atmosphere of epochal change – nothing will ever be the same. Destruction, transition, being knocked off-balance. Out with the old and in with the something else. Vertigo awaits.
Böhme, G. 2017. The Aesthetics of Atmospheres. Abingdon: Routledge.
Bryant, R. and D.M. Knight. 2019. The Anthropology of the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Knight, D.M. 2015. History, Time, and Economic Crisis in Central Greece. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lepselter, S. 2016. The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Pipyrou, S. and A. Sorge. 2021. Emergent Axioms of Violence: Toward an Anthropology of Post-Liberal Modernity. Anthropological Forum. 31(2).
Daniel M. Knight is Reader in the Department of Social Anthropology and Director of the Centre for Cosmopolitan Studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He works closely with the British School at Athens and has previously held posts at Durham University and in the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Daniel has conducted research in Greece since 2003 and is author of History, Time, and Economic Crisis in Central Greece (2015), Vertigo: On Temporality and the Unforeseen (2021), and co-author of The Anthropology of the Future (2019). He has edited the collections Ethnographies of Austerity: Temporality, Crisis and Affect in Southern Europe (2016), Alternatives to Austerity (2017), Orientations to the Future (2019), and Emptiness (2020). Daniel is also co-editor of History and Anthropology journal and co-founder of the Association of Social Anthropologists Anthropology of Time Network. His research has been funded by the ESRC, EPSRC, Leverhulme Trust, British Academy, and the National Bank of Greece.