By Solange Manche, PhD Candidate in French at the University of Cambridge
I arrived at the NIA in September 2016. I’d been awarded a development grant enabling aspiring academics to carry out a three-week research project. This summer, I was very honoured to see a chapter based on my findings in Athens published in an open access volume edited by Barnita Bagchi, Urban Utopias: Memory, Rights, and Speculation. As I am rereading my application for my stay at the NIA, I realise how much my initial project and thinking about the subject changed. Academic research can be a long, and sometimes frustrating, process. From grant to book chapter, my experience at the NIA and the publication that followed taught me how research evolves, takes shape, and above all that it needs the time it does.
My undergraduate studies had been punctuated by budget cuts in the arts and higher education, followed by protests, occupations, and various other acts of resistance. It was within the context of the Dutch student movement against the general marketisation of the university—the New University—that I got interested in political activism and people’s ambitions, current and past, to actively defend their social gains and to build a better future. As a student of the Humanities Honours Programme at Utrecht University, I was part of a research collective interested in the question of Utopia, as a literary, cultural, and political phenomenon.
Exploring the philosophical debates surrounding utopianism, the history of the term as a means to discredit political opponents, and its recent comeback in popular discourse, I stumbled upon a documentary by Yannis Youlantas Ne vivons plus comme des esclaves (2013)(Let’s not live like slaves). Showing how people in Greece were resisting austerity by self-organising and creating new networks of solidarity, the film equally follows many of Exarcheia’s inhabitants, an anarchist neighbourhood historically associated with the Polytechnic Uprising against the military Junta in 1973. I’d been following other communal projects before, such as Rojava, (Kurdistan) Free and Real, (Greece) and the communist municipality of Marinaleda (Spain), among others. But what distinguishes Exarcheia from other autonomous communities is its placement within the heart of a capital city.
Although ideologically clearly anti-capitalist, what I wanted to find out is to what extent Exarcheia could in fact detach itself from the capital that runs the capital. The question of the possibility of building parallel subsistence economies was my main focus. I think that this inquiry remains an important one today, as unemployment, underemployment, and precarity are not simply caused by austerity policies or economic crises but also by the fact that, on a global scale, an increasing number of people became exclusively dependent on wages. Based at the NIA, I quickly found out that Exarcheia was by far able to be self-sufficient, the problem starting with rent. Telling from the interviews I conducted, there was also no reliable and consistent provision of food. Apart from the barter of clothing, books, and other durables, there was no way out of wage labour or the ultimate reliance upon someone’s, or some form, of earnings. The structural inability to completely retreat from capitalism should not be a reason to discredit the tremendous efforts of the inhabitants of Exarcheia to create another way of living, to oppose social injustice, and anti-immigration policies. But there was another form of political strength that I noticed and that was located somewhere else, in what I consider to be its Utopian quality.
In the book chapter, I explore this comparison by re-considering Utopia as a literary genre in spatial and temporal terms. Building on the example of Thomas More’s Utopia, (1516) I focus on how the narrative captures the telling of a story, technically called a framed narrative, about a place visited by the narrator’s (named Thomas More) interlocutor Hythloday. The account of Utopia is thus never a direct account. It has travelled from a society that radically distinguishes itself from the world in which its account is being presented. This same movement between the discovery of an unknown place and its mediated dissemination in the larger world is mirrored within the reading process itself. The reader, once having finished the book, finds themselves in the same position as that of the narrator: they’ve just been transmitted the story of a place that is profoundly different from their own day-to-day experience.
In the last part of Utopia, More recounts the discussion about Utopia that follows from Hythloday’s tale and finishes with the enigmatic closing lines: “while I can hardly agree with everything he said […], yet I freely confess that in the Utopian commonwealth there are very many features that in our own societies I would wish rather than expect to see” (107). So, Utopias are perhaps not really about the feasibility to realise an ideal society, but rather function as a disruption of the everyday that triggers imagining a better future. This is what I recognised in Youlantas’ film, in Exarcheia itself, and how accounts of it travel and do not only nourish the imagination of the Left, but are equally fascinating to a much broader segment of the population who’s well-aware that there needs to be an alternative to austerity.
Reading Utopia can be a disenchanting experience, a cold and static description of the laws and customs in a (non)place. In comparison to Hythloday, who did not seem to have made many friends on the way, my research journey was more successful. I would like to thank my interviewees, all the people in Exarcheia who helped me find my way, and in particular Grigoris whose knowledge about the neighbourhood has been invaluable. I am very grateful to the NIA for their interest in my project and having welcomed me at the institute. The ultimate publication of my findings wouldn’t have been possible without the superb publishing competences of Jadavpur University. I am very happy that the book is an Open Access publication and can be freely accessed on their website. It couldn’t have been more appropriate to write about Exarcheia than as part of this project that prizes Global North-South collaboration at its heart.
About Urban Utopias: Memory, Rights, and Speculation:
The social dreaming of Utopia is the object of both fantasy and quotidian reality in the world of today. The concept of utopia has travelled across boundaries of time and space, and manifests strongly in cities, which function as sites of hope and desire. With the rise of technocratic and neoliberal agendas across the world, global imaginations of the urban future have often excluded the more urgent questions of justice and human rights. This volume, the fruit of a first collaboration between Utrecht University and Jadavpur University, comprises ten essays by scholars based in, or with roots in, the Netherlands and India which foreground issues of rights, memory and justice in the speculative imaginaries of urban utopias in South and South-East Asia, and Europe. Embedded in literary and historical studies, this book enters into a lively engagement with questions such as: How do memory and utopia intersect in the urban? What debates and contestations emerge in the framing of the city as a place of hope, desire, and future-making? In sharp and studied contrast to speculations of the capitalist kind at the heart of urban real estate development and planning, this volume examines and uncovers new speculative insights on alternative imaginations of the city.
An interview with Abhijit Gupta about the collection will soon appear on the website of Jadavpur University Press. Abhijit Gupta is Professor in English at Jadavpur University and director of Jadavpur UP.
Solange Manche is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her work looks into the recent resurgence of the critique of political economy in contemporary French philosophy. Working on post-crash individuation, financialisation and new forms of labour, she focusses on the thought of Catherine Malabou, Frédéric Lordon, and Bernard Stiegler. Other aspects of her research include: social movements, French cinema activism, and the reception of Hegel and Marx in France.
 In the Netherlands, a documentary featuring Exarcheia was broadcasted on national television (Tegenlicht) and numerous accounts about the neighbourhood’s efforts to house and help refugees were published in the international press.