No Escape

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, right, speaks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during a round table meeting of eurozone countries at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, March 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

“The new words of the day are: sea, highway, road tripand shotgun. A sea is a leather chair with wooden armrests, like the one in the living room. Example: ‘Don’t stay standing, sit down in the sea to have a chat. A highway is a very strong wind.’ A roadtripis a highly durable material used for building floors. Example: ‘The chandelier fell and smashed on the floor, but the floor wasn’t damaged because it was made of 100% roadtrip.’ A shotgun is a very beautiful white bird.”

-Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth (2010), Opening Scene

It might be in the nature of culture, and especially of cinema, to function as a kind of seismograph that records deeper waves shaking societies before they become perceptible on the surface, especially when those waves foretell major historic events. Is there a better indicator of the tendencies that led to the advent of Nazism than Weimar Cinema, the most paradigmatic example being probably Fritz Lang’s films? Didn’t the French ‘ nouvelle vague’, of the 1960s, best represented by the films of Jean-Luc Godard, foresee more clearly than any theory, the mounting contestation that led to the explosion of May ’68?

Shortly before the Greek crisis broke out, Yorgos Lanthimos’ film Dogtooth offered an allegorical depiction of dystopian social conditions fundamentally characterized not merely by a sense of entrapment but by the literal absence of an ‘outside’—of an external world that would allow the possibility of escape from the tyrannical power exercised by the patriarch over the imprisoned members of his own family. It is obvious that the factory of which he is the boss and which, by extension, represents social reality as a repressive totality, is simply the other, entirely complementary, aspect of the power that rules every aspect of the lives of those living within the walls of the family villa.

This power rests on two pillars, the manipulation of desire and of language. It is supplemented, when necessary, by the exercise of violence. However, if bodily control—whether individual or societal— is to be complete, it must be complemented by enforcement at a symbolic level, the level of language. Perversion of desire is accompanied by an overturning of meanings; by the elaboration of a ‘new language’ constructed according to the demands (and fantasies) of power. Before Lanthimos, there was Orwell’s classical account of Oceania’s “newspeak”, in 1984) and Victor Klemperer’s Lingua Tertii Imperii (Language of the Third Reich), a monumental study of the Nazi idiolect written by a German Jew who miraculously escaped the genocide by hiding in Dresden.

In the opening frames of Dogtooth, a recorded voice, as disembodied as the power that ‘speaks’ through it—power of which the father is a simple agent —announces the “words of the day.” The first three evoke nature and mobility (sea, highway, roadtrip); the last refer to firearms, but in each case the given definition completely overturns the word’s meaning. Every means of escape, whether peaceful or violent, becomes so inconceivable that it cannot even be named; so inconceivable that even the words which, in another universe (supposedly that of the viewer) could signify it, take on a completely different meaning that reframes them radically in a pure display of the self-referentiality of the language of power.

The ‘exit from the bailout programs’ that the Tsipras government now calls upon us to ‘celebrate’ exemplifies the agenda of the faceless, authoritarian power that Lanthimos so prophetically depicted. “Exiting the bailout programs”, the current slogan endlessly repeated by the Greek government and by the domestic and international media, comes then to mean, that we are “exiting” only after having fully implemented them. On top of that, we have said in every manner “it couldn’t have happened otherwise,” meaning, with a barely-concealed cynicism, that everything that came before, everything that brought Syriza, a party which until then scored five percent of the vote, to government, was either the wishful thinking by irresponsible dreamers (but if this so, why do they insist on staying in these positions?) or yet another example of typical promise-made by power-thirsty politicians. .

If this holds true, and indeed this looks to be the case, then the whole endeavor is a matter of plain and simple deception, which cancels out, or rather would like to cancel out, everything that happened prior to July 13, 2015, the fateful day of Tsipras’s capitulation to the Troika. ‘Everything’ means the 30 or so days of general strikes, the demonstrations, the heavy police repression, the occupied squares in spring 2011, the near-insurrectionary day of October 28, 2011, the fall of two governments (Papandreou and Papademos), and, ultimately, the very possibility opened up by the elections of May and June of 2012, which put Syriza in a position of government-in-waiting. In other words, everything that sent a shockwave—whether of fear or of hope, depending on the case—throughout Europe and beyond.

Amid all this, certain words, now incorporated into Syriza’s own “newspeak”, have now become impossible to use. Words such as ‘Left’, ‘social rights’ ‘fight ‘the moral advantage of the Left’ and so many others. Now, an exhausted and betrayed society is asked, if not exactly to ‘celebrate’—that looks rather difficult after the tragedy of this summer’s devastating fires —at least to accept its final defeat once and for all, and to reconcile itself with this outcome.

In contrast, though, with Lanthimos’ ahistorical universe—and this is the limit of the film’s allegory—our own inverted Greek world has a definite beginning. Its cornerstone, the source of all the in- and per-versions that followed, was the transformation in less than a week of the ‘No’ of the Greek people’s in the July 5, 2015 referendum to a ‘Yes’ in the hands of none other than those who had called on the people to make that decision. Like all rulers who know how to manipulate the mechanisms of representation to their own advantage, Tsipras and his folks think that the outcome of the September 2015 elections erased the referendum from the people’s memory. They think they can continue performing their “task”, which consists solely in keeping their grip to an empty position of ‘power’. Empty, because it is obvious that they are merely executors of decisions taken elsewhere, obvious even to themselves, so much so that the sole argument they use for justifying their deeds is their own ‘powerlessness.’ The sense of suffocation and impasse caused by their cynical shift does not, however, mean that Greek society ever believed the various ‘narratives’ served up by its rulers.

Deprived of the words that might have given some shape to their attitude, the characters in Dogtooth have no other means of expressing their refusal than seeking refuge in their own bodies, the very site where oppression is exerted. They move around manically, deflecting the rite of the family ritual (the now-famous dance scene); they turn the violence they suffer back on themselves; they commit self-injury; and by recovering, even in that way, a ‘true’ bodily sensation they are able to venture an ‘escape’. Will Greek society be able to avoid just such a path?

Are there words, or can there be words restored with meaning, that are capable of moving bodies and impelling them to new actions? The question is not merely a rhetorical one, inasmuch as it functions as a call to overcome the trauma, to deny complacency with defeat, to opt for the finite task of mourning—which requires the hard work of self-reflection, and not for endless melancholia .

To conclude with a return to the initial words taken from Dogtooth, the point might be indeed about ‘reversing the reversal’, and of learning to handle the ‘shotgun’ like a ‘beautiful white bird’—and vice versa.

Stathis Kouvelakis teaches political theory at King’s College London. He formerly served on the central committee of Syriza. Read more of his work here.