The Construction of Southern Ruins, or Instructions for Dealing with Debt

Dorothee Burr Thompson, Athenean Agora, Athens (1937), black-and-white photograph


In Greek, the word κείμενο (keímeno) has a double meaning. As an adjective, keímeno describes something that has fallen or toppled over, but the ancient adjective is also the Modern Greek noun for “text,” for words put down in writing. Hidden in the ground of Athens are many strata of foundations from the area’s different epochs: ancient Greek, Roman, Hellenistic, Byzantine, Ottoman. Indeed, in Athens, an accumulation of disparate foundations form diverging extant texts in the ground (decipherable by multiple archaeologies). The modern city can also be conceived as such reading material. When it was inaugurated in its modern version as the capital of Greece, the city was proposed as a single reading of this palimpsest of texts; nevertheless, the palimpsest offers more readings than just this one. Thus does Athens provide ample material for a rough history of ideas: the theory of Western hegemony, the rejection of idealism, the end of logocentrism, and deconstruction. More recently, however, we have encountered from this old material the newest Athenian narrative—that of the post-democratic construction of the hegemonic, with its crude acceptance of the subaltern as the “normal” or “unavoidable” human condition.

The crudeness of this contemporary construction draws its rigidity from a rejection of European antiquity. The elimination of the intermediary, nonexistent world that was ancient Greece—a previously stable and untouchable point of reference—has made the image of the present inescapable and the ability to form transformable views of a different future untenable. If the Athenian present was installed as a reference to the lost past, the so-called immediacy of today is marked by the deletion of the reference to the idealized Greek remains. Today the post-democratic imaginary is built as the impossibility of a return to the European state; in it, ancient Greece might have been an uninteresting idealization but it also formed the fire of instability and a promising negation of the present.

When we wander through contemporary Athens, we experience its collapsed materiality as barely legible, encoded subject matter. We read it as a prophecy that announces the cataclysmic, but nevertheless heroic, collapse of Europe. The modern city of Athens refers immediately to a European project, of course; its constitution as “ancient” is itself a European idea. Thus does the collapsed material that constitutes the city in its current form crystallize the long-pronounced decline of the West. Lacking any other suitable decryption code, Athens continues to speak with an emphatic voice about its European past while also pointing to an insecure future. And, as in the past, the city speaks today not with a single voice but as a congregation. In this sense, Athens—a city whose name is plural—does not simply follow in the tradition of a great many other metropolises but also condenses many contemporary aspects of the subaltern, those lands and populations figured as “outside” the hegemony. As the city once again dresses itself in the garments of the subaltern, and—in the imagination of the hegemonic West, at least—abandons its primary leading role, the city loses its sovereignty as well as its meaning, insofar as the West increasingly refuses to recognize ancient Greece as its exceptional ancestor. Simultaneously, however, the city’s decline has become emblematic, its questions global.

The disappointing encounter of Europe with Greece, or, one might say, the hasty and imprudent Western satisfaction with the construct of a half-mythical modern Greece, describe together, with both dissatisfaction and fulfillment, the same structure: that the performance of modern Athens is based on the notion of a “correspondence.” Europe and modern Greece had to correspond to a representation of the past. With respect to the expectations and the actual outcomes of a formerly heroic encounter, Athens was constructed as an experience of disappointment, not least because the modern city was planned with dizzying ambition. For Europe, encountering the city in modern times, Athens appears to have been orchestrated as an exercise in dissatisfaction. Its structure was determined and led by the infinite work of going back to, or getting back, what is lost. Today nothing hints at the grandeur that might once again elevate Athens’s global standing. The promise of a revival of ancient Greece has not been fulfilled, and not only because modern Greece has failed to respond to its ancient inheritance; this project was sabotaged as soon as it was introduced. Furthermore, the city does not convey the same meaning for the global North as it once did for the European West. In order to inspect the present Athens as a very specific stage, then, we cast the direction of our gaze downward, toward the earth, and to the ground that can offer a double reading for the Greek capital.

Athens was invented as a modern agglomeration, but it did not develop as a mere urban phenomenon; it was inaugurated as the phantom of an invisible place. The establishment of the modern city and the new Hellenic capital by the Bavarian King Otto and his team of architects, Kleanthis and Schaubert, in the early nineteenth century demanded the promotion of antiquities that led to a series of destructions. What was considered to be the center of the old provincial Turkish town—on the top of the hill, around the monuments we see now, where more than forty houses stood, and also on the northern slope of the Acropolis hill—had to be demolished so that the ruins might show the glorious epoch to which they belonged. Moreover, new archaeological research needed to be undertaken under the very surface of the small Ottoman town. The “construction” of new archaeological sites and the “production” of new finds were the obvious tasks of this operation. This installation of the past was put into motion as soon as the Bavarian Royal family declared Athens to be the new capital, with the proposal of Kleanthis and Schaubert giving the new city a Neoclassical pan. Related to an archaeological investigation, the installation of the capital seems to have been principally concerned with the shaping of “new ruins” out of the visible or invisible Athenian remains. A framing of ruins within urban voids was the result. The Athens archaeological parks in which we observe some ruins today are a result of this cleaning operation that was seeking desperately for more ruins; the modern capital would never have come into being without this definition of its landscape as a field of possible finds.

Accordingly, the modern city of Athens appears to have been designed for the alien gaze of a visitor. Athens has always owed its existence to elsewhere. It did not grow out of an “inner” need, but was consciously and artificially proposed as the relation to a specific location. We encounter the city, then, not as a concrete and autonomous urban congregation, but as both a narrative gap and the system that might fill that gap: a system of words, phrases, fragments of propositions, conceptualizations, catalogues, indexes, palimpsestic narratives, and mythologies. Through a complex inventory of lexemes, Athens is constituted as a reading system of disparate texts. Even if the city has today acquired its specific scent of idiosyncratic decay, it nevertheless keeps suggesting a still-unformed promise, or an ominous accident that would mark the coming history of civility.


The following excursion into Athens should not be considered as a translation of the specific to the general. Instead, one might imagine the materiality of the city as an articulate distillate, and this text as a critical remark on a global situation first undertaken on and under Athenian ground. The present commentary concerns itself with some structures and mechanisms of forgetting, then, and their relationship to the hegemonies of modernity. The observation of the exact case of Athens and, in particular, its excavations and infrastructural development, describe a twofold allusion to an occupation of the ground. Already at the time when Athens was being rediscovered by Otto and his architects, the installation of a continually expandable infrastructure was becoming fundamental to the construction of their new city. Athens had to correspond to the typical technologies of the infrastructure elaborated below ground in Western cities during the time that follows the mid-nineteenth century. With the connection of households to a system of networks, urban daily life was and is defined as a system of repetitions. The notion of the everyday could be understood as a construct of the very same infrastructure that prioritizes the modern city’s underground space as the major field of its expansion.

The architect Dimitris Pikionis’s 1954 essay Γαίας ατίμωσις (Earth Disgraced)1 describes the collision between modern construction and Athens’s historic finds in its grounds as an unfortunate accidental operation that could perhaps have been avoided through careful planning. He does not take into account, however, the systemic character of a conflict that would necessarily explode in the city after the decision by the Bavarian king to glorify the underground past in the process of creating a new modern city. Once Athens was made the modern capital of Greece, it had to necessarily confront the question of the transformation of its idiosyncratic ground to a neutral bearer of modern city infrastructure. Yet, in its function as a constantly extendable subterranean system, the infrastructure of the modern city exhibits parallels to archaeological work sites: both form infinite endeavors not to be satisfied by completion. Urban infrastructure, in particular, will never quite encompass all the needs demanded of it by its users. It will continually and repetitively prove imperfect. Technical upgrades and the integration of new areas and functions in its realm define the motor for its expansion and the rationale for its endless maintenance. In the same sense that infrastructure can be regarded as an infinite process, the excavations and elaboration of finds in archaeology are characterized by an analogous loss of temporal control. In the case of archaeology, the infinite works of representation manifest themselves as the attempt to organize a presentation of the lost. With archaeology an impossible past is targeted. With infrastructure, the same infinite time structure is projected toward a technical future, which remains the inaccessible aim. The inhabitation of the abstract infrastructural space—along with a definition of its user—organizes this more common but also impossible target. While archaeology and infrastructure guaranteed a future and a past of the modern city of Athens, they also formed its field of conflict.

The adaption of all areas of city life to parameters set down by its infrastructure leads to a situation in which the everyday becomes a direct experience of its systems. Accordingly, if the West emerged from a specific relationship to an idea of its past, the inception of the global North occurs in the form of a surrender to infrastructure. Athens forms the node at which these two implausible temporal structures collide, and the Athenian ground below is testimony to the difficult coexistence of these different unreachable and idealized temporalities. The experience of infinite time is followed by a strong concept of unfulfillment that shapes both temporalities of the always unfinished and problematic archaeological excavation, as well as of the multiple expansions of infrastructure. This can be described as a three-stage process stemming directly from the damage inflicted upon the ground. The city loses the promised world it was looking for; it cannot invest in any possible, predictable future; and, finally, the impotence to correspond to the twofold temporal structure of its underground describes the city as the opportunity for an alternative present. In other words, the city overcomes the dilemma of the underground with its living surface. In Athens, a systematically deterritorialized system of data flow redefines the local characteristics of an updated infrastructure, while the dramatic war ceases between the excavating mechanism and the proposed installations of its underground networks.

Indeed, the Athens of today can be understood as a global accident of infrastructure, which creates its new locality. Athens no longer operates as an investment of its underground space. Archaeological research projects are no longer generously funded—they enjoy less support even in the imaginary institution of the public—and the city’s infrastructure shows signs of the hegemonic strategies of today, which transform the civic character of sharing to a neoliberal rent rationale; the infrastructure itself becomes a capitalistic machine. Once tasked only with the flow of water and electricity, Athens’ infrastucture is now conditioned by the infrastructure of information as well, including the flow of capital. When money becomes transmissible information, the blocking of this flow can form an internal punishment procedure performed by the infrastructure. The regulation of such flows is the new power of the global North, allowing it to exclude the subaltern city from privileges of infrastructure or even punishing the city at the margins of its mechanisms.

Against the backdrop of contemporary concerns, then, any consideration of the founding story of Athens as the capital of a newly formed state appears simultaneously to describe both the concretization of a Western hegemonic scheme and an early definition of the global North. Yet Greece always inhabited the demarcation line between the oppositional poles that the hegemonic narrative organized. It is never totally excluded by the hegemonic side, nor does it ever belong absolutely to the subaltern one; it did not once belong to the East, neither is it the example par excellence of a currently excluded South. Yet Athens was long the city by which the West defined itself—emblematically, at least—as an opposite of the East, despite the fact that the city continued to perform as part of that very East. Within the bipolarity between North and South, Greece situates itself at a point where the threads of the global net tear apart so that a new geographical order might form. And it is within this order that Athens’s position remains to be defined, as a regulation of its relation to a global infrastructure, in which a new type of modernization and colonization appeared.

If we seek the locality of this Athenian investigation in our observation of its very ground, this ground proves much more abstract and generic than our local interest. Likewise, if keímeno is the word indicating both a fallen remnant and a lying trace, then walking through Athens corresponds to a certain reading, imposed on the observant pedestrian. A text is an owing mechanism; it always establishes a liquid reference to an always unstable meaning exterior to it. Thus will the observant pedestrian notice: the ground carries debts. But what kind of debts could these be? What does an Athens pavement owe? Athens carries specific debts to its remains from the time of its inauguration as the capital of modern Greece. By prematurely draping a ground of ruins in the robes of urbanity, the pavements and asphalt streets of Athens owe more than just the act of uncovering a number of finds. If one reads the ground as the field par excellence for the realization of contemporary Athenian life, another reference comes to mind: Jacques Derrida’s repeated refrain in his book on the city, Demeure Athènes (1996; Athens, Still Remains, 2010), “We owe ourselves to death.” 2 (One might call his discourse on photography and meditation on the city a performance of the ruins as well.) But an act that has taken place under the ground of Athens describes not only the idiosyncratic moment of a present that negates both the past and the future; it also describes a visible surface and the moment for it, a different tradition of the find, and offers another consideration of a diverse kind of infrastructure, all of which are the global questions of the local ground.

For it is obvious that the infrastructure of Athens detests the idealization of its ruins. The ruins obstruct its paths and hinder its growth. A few meters below the street surface a system of different acts concerning the ground reveal an invisible war that might schematize an internal conflict of modern culture. The ruin and the infrastructure determine two systems that differently describe modernity. The Athenian ground was the bearer of this discrepancy; it is now the name of a question about the city’s surface. Athenian archaeology organized a methodical viewing that can now be addressed to any object: anything might be understood as a find under inspection, any element of the banal city might form a field of investigation. We might lose archaeology, but Athens gets it back as a system of catalogues and archives, matrixes and entries. Failed archaeology is an experience of pure art—if anything like pure art could be possible.

The first to write negatively about archaeology in Greece were Greek intellectuals, whose texts cannot be described as supportive of the lost Orient side of the nation or conservative Orthodox Christianity. Quite the opposite seems evident, in fact: their thinking has been strongly influenced by the Western European tradition. The poet Nicolas Calas, born in 1907 in Lausanne, was one of the first to propose the actual destruction of the Parthenon, in his 1933 poem “Akropolis.” Yorgos Makris, an idiosyncratic poet and intellectual, published a manifesto demanding the detonation of Athenian monuments and statues: “Our aim is the destruction of the Parthenon, because we want nothing less than to deliver it into eternity, which is an unconscious standardisee [sic] flow, which creates matter in multifarious ways, which we unjustly describe as chaos.” Their point of view reflects another function of Western modernity related to Georg Lukács’s idea of transcendental homelessness, in which he critiqued the German Romanticists’ and the modern novelist’s attempt to inhabit the text in order to regain a lost sense of home or a “paradise lost.” Calas and Makris’s proposition espoused a kind of aesthetics of never accepting what is given as a value, or as a tendency to reject whatever belongs to a homely understanding of the self.


In the vast and then empty nineteenth-century Athenian landscape, three emblematic points formed the triangle of the modern city plan by Kleanthis and Schaubert. The triangle’s particularity could be explained by the way that this geometric scheme related to the Acropolis and organized one’s gaze toward it. On its points sit the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos and the palace of the Bavarian king (now the Greek Parliament), who had a direct line of sight to viewing the Acropolis. Thus the geometry traced an immediate relationship between the newly planned capital and the ancient Greek ruins, with the triangle casting the city as a regulation of a reference to the remains of ancient Greece, a material performance of a Greek and European origin. The emblematic source of European civilization would then unify modern Greek citizens with their European kings.

A confrontation between the hegemonic and the subaltern is established when the foreigner’s view is projected onto this landscape, where the alien gaze functions as a surgical tool of potential uncovering. This gaze plans the symbolic reconstruction of the urban fabric, as an installation of itself. The operation is carried out as a hypothetical disassembly of the powerless and the installation of the powerful: in this particular case through the replacement of Ottoman symbolism in favor of Euro-Hellenic counterparts. In Athens specifically, though, we are dealing with much more than a familiar dissolution of power. Here, the “real” is sacrificed in favor of the “ideal,” the material for the immaterial, the visible for the invisible, and this pattern has been implemented long enough for all differences to be clearly marked out. Idealism was one of the most powerful means for establishing Athens as the Greek capital under a Bavarian king, and Athens was situated in a German context more easily than in a local one. Friedrich Schiller’s lines from On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry (first published in the literary journal of German Romanticism Die Horen in 1795) go: “All peoples, who have a history, have a paradise, a state of innocence, a golden age.” And, he notes, “All reality, we know, remains behind the ideal.”3 In Athens, likewise, the construction of antiquity takes place simultaneously with the birth of the modern city.

If the dominance of the North over the South is determined by the rift between the powerful and the weak, this fault line signifies the material and geographic dimension of a dominant relationship. In the case of Greece, the rift between spheres doesn’t represent an actual border, as with Tijuana, for example, where a physical border marks the transition between the United States and Mexico. The rift through Athens resembles an abstract, Freudian duo, as in the relationship between father and son. For Athens, the father figure does not appear as a reference to a natural person who imposes a certain point of view on the self. The father is not the figure who names, creates law, stabilizes the present world; on the contrary, he becomes a given name from a different order. The referral back to the father figure would represent a fundamental requirement for the process of identification, but this is not possible in the Athenian syndrome described here. Observe that these patriarchal relationships can be found in Rome under Mussolini, for example. In Athens, though, any attempt to create a consistent foundation from the ancestor is carried out in a completely different manner. The relationship to the ancestor, which is a foreign construct, can be understood as an idiosyncratic memory transplant. In Athens, we observe the invitation to the autochthonous to slip into the costume worn by the absent European father, who adopted the fabricated appearance of an ancient Greek “ancestor.” Involuntarily, the indigenous inhabitant is compared with this strange, transvestite father figure in the artificial robes of the ancient Greek, who thereby amounts to nothing less than a multiply absent patriarch.

The Athenian project, then, and its construction of an adoptable narrative as one of one’s own, may be called “The Deterritorialization of the Autochthonous.” It might have been an interesting proposition had it meant a refusal to acknowledge a kinship to the aforementioned father figure. We can interpret this perverted gaze at the “same” past in positive terms: The autochthonous Athenians learn to regard their place of birth with the eyes of a stranger, and to attach the same value to their natural environment as those favored by the alien. The project, however, takes an unexpected turn. One should regard this separation from the experience of familiar space as the first age of disappointment for the native Athenian. And this disappointment might be understood, perhaps, as a transference of Hyperion’s infamous experiences into a motionless voyage back to one’s own homeland. Yet a voyage that does not require movement (and is, therefore, experienced as profound disappointment) etches itself upon the consciousness as an error, as a deterritorialization of the self.

This constitutes the dramatic performance of disappointment with contemporary Greece, which has become a projection screen for Europe. It describes an uprooting from familiar ground, and yet from a completely different kind of nature than described by Oswald Spengler at the beginning of the twentieth century. While Spengler regarded the rejection of tradition as a cause for the uprooting of the Western hero, the uprooting of the modern Greek lies in the fact that their country was introduced to modernity in the form of an amateurish reenactment of antique tradition; this reenactment denies existing local traditions and aims at replacing them with a single ancient European tradition.

Among the ruins on the island of Makronisos, where Greek political dissidents were banished during the dictatorship in the second half of the twentieth century (and which was named the “New Parthenon” by the Generals, in the argot of the army officials and military programs of political “rehabilitation” of the Themistoklis Sofoulis government in the late 1940s), there is a former police headquarters where the words “Η ΤΑΝ Η ΕΠΙ ΤΑΣ” are written—“Either as Victor or Dead.” For Greece, the ancient ancestors represent more than mere role models—they personify lineages to be defended until death. It would, however, be fatal to ignore the fact that this exaggerated national pride has its roots in fundamental European ideas. It is the attempt to assign a global cultural tradition to a specific place, and to transform it into a local one. This makes it impossible to observe the place in question with any certainty. If “Greece” is the name designated to the concept of a Europe comprising texts and ruins, it is necessary to investigate the contrast between the immaterial presence of these keímena, and the ubiquitous material presence of Athens’s “ruins,” which, in various states of disarray, negate any ideal configuration of what ancient Greece might have been. The European zeal to construct a place devoid of local characteristics organized finally another type of conservative regionalism: the envisaged universal character of ancient Greece became in Greece a claim for a typical local glorification of its ancestors.

Eduard Schaubert and Leo von Klenze, Plan for the New Town of Athens (1833), pen drawing, 46.9 × 61 cm. Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich

The referential relationship between modernity and antiquity was, of course, primarily established by archaeology, a discipline that has mastered the art of establishing idealizations through its ability to form entire worlds from a scattering of marble fragments. The fact that the Greeks not only accept the idea of an exceptional antiquity, but actively lay claim to it, might not at first be cause for astonishment, since the idea is compatible with internationally recognized points of reference with which states seek their (mythical) legitimacy. It is, however, from precisely this unusual appropriation of a constructed European father that the anguish of the modern Greek derives. If it is indeed the Greeks who from now on claim the fragments of an antique culture for themselves, then we are dealing with a complete reversal of the inherent European refusal to attach significance to a familial relationship or the artificial adoption of a paternal figure: the absolute affirmation of kinship, and the embrace of a father figure, and a family who has already paid doting homage to the father, long before he has encountered his alleged child.

The transition from a hegemony of the West to a hegemony of the North is accompanied by grief or a humiliated suppression of everything that once justified the European logos. It rejects any relationship to tradition, as the imaginary of the West is based on the concept of homelessness. The loss of a home as a stable place of return, and the feeling of powerlessness that goes with it, form the essential experiences of the West. The awareness of being just a small part of an unstable, temperamental planet, armed with little more than logos, is experienced as a sense of underlying directionlessness. Only through referral back to a distant and unreachable place, widely recognized as a point of origin, can this sensation be pacified: thus Greece. In order to exist, Europe needed a loss of the original guaranteed by an instituted distance, but in Greece this originality was found and this distance abolished, and this could be why it fails to be European. Indeed, it was not Hesperia that desperately called for a Greek past, in order to close the gap in their own origin story. It needed the image and the material existence of distant ruins to establish in Western thought the gap of origin as such.

In referencing the Hesperian poet Friedrich Hölderlin, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe formulates a clear stance toward this idea. Höderlein didn’t just question the image of ancient Greece, he was also the first to consider the search for antiquity as a denial of an urban space under formation. While the West strived for the repetition of a lost ideal and despised everyday life, the North draws its power from everyday life by imposing its infrastructure upon it. In making the organization of daily life primary, the global North becomes a synonym for infrastructure itself. We might think that such infrastructure is merely a system that simplifies an urban life—a complex network regulating the water supply or providing electricity. We might also superficially imagine that regular maintenance is the only requirement guaranteeing its full and functional efficiency. Nevertheless, at the same time we might observe how the infrastructure, through its affiliation with the North, and therefore to the hegemonic order, organizes a governing role. We experience too how many regions, by subjecting themselves to the interactive platforms of the infrastructure, to the network flows and logistics of the ever-moving commerce, become increasingly subsumed by the global North.


Both the opposing doctrines we read below the ground of modern Athens demanded that an unassuming Ottoman settlement transform itself into a modern city. In this, they were also both asking for two different deterritorializations. In the logic of the first doctrine, archaeological excavations would bring lost objects and buildings to the surface, driven by the wish for an impossible performance of the lost past. We have not given enough thought to the absurd character of this Western ritual; an idiosyncratic negation of the visible was always integral to it, however. In order for the vanished things to surface, the visible was destroyed in many different ways: whole houses, shops, even entire streets were bulldozed so that a handful of lifeless fragments could once again see the light of day. The act of destruction materialized the inability of the visible to measure up to the expectations of the foreign gaze. The mania for a glorification of the lost, which archaeology realizes as a ritual to homelessness, happened in Athens as a literal act of demolishing. The power of the hidden ruin to support an imaginary world alienates the visible earth. The secret completion of found fragments did not present the absent world but it did abolish the “real.” By dismissing the existing, by rejecting the living, and by giving precedence to the uninhabited ruins, archaeology became a subversive power able to distort extant values.

The second doctrine—of the ever-extendable infrastructure—also establishes the earth as its point of departure, but the work necessitated by its establishment defines a different ground and initiates the process of a different alienation. Even the installation of a relatively simple water management system can be seen to have an effect on a city; the source, or the well, loses its original social performative character within the urban environment. Many households are now supplied with water simultaneously. The infrastructure’s aim is to serve communal use, but in doing so it destroys the communal functions that needed some meeting points for the city’s everyday social structure.

The twofold anthropogenic influence exerted upon subterranean Athens results in a modified relationship to evidence, facts, and archives. It is difficult to imagine another discipline that pays as much revered homage to evidence as archaeology does. Criminology would be an analogue case par excellence, since this discipline has also developed a broad repertoire of “rituals and ceremonies” for the celebration of visual proof, with its recording, archiving, and the combined methodologies regarding it. The subject of criminology can then be seen as an archaeological approach to the criminal act, while archaeology concentrates on the criminology of the bygone. Both disciplines explore clues and traces and operate with similar methodologies.

Likewise, the history of Athens is documented in two kinds of archives, each filled with records of specific entries. On the one hand we find records of projects that include diaries of excavation, with photographs and drawings that document the archaeological procedure. On the other hand we encounter detailed records documenting the subterranean urban network, which deal with its maintenance and expansion, or with the characteristics of the technical oeuvre that functions necessarily through a memory of itself. These two archival versions of Athens, created under the same ground, mirror the schizophrenic perception of the modern and invisible underground place that has been thoroughly and doubly measured and documented. Lists and indexes created in order to structure a particular past or to measure and design a new technology—alien to the ground—are preserved so that this city’s urban life may be continuously shaped. These two archiving operations of the Athenian underground represent the mania of bringing back a desired world and the different utopia of arranging an increasingly complicated distribution system, respectively. Reflected in these differences are the imaginary configurations of two forms of logic, and their traces. Thus the differences between the West and the global North were already established by the middle of the nineteenth century, in the depths of the Athenian earth.

These two archives form independent productions of an undefined literature. Their documents drive toward very different targets. While archaeology indulges even the smallest traces of the past with keen attention in order to produce monuments out of what was formerly the waste of the land, infrastructure understands the ground as an indifferent field of unimportant waste where networks can be deployed. Indeed, even if the archives of the infrastructure are formed by meticulous and accurate representations of the technical state of its networks, they depend on the most recent evidence. The infrastructure’s archive can, of course, include works that have been done in the past, parts of the network that have been replaced or updated. But the functioning part of the infrastructure archive is constructed as an operation of the network. The level of water in a node of the water network or the amount of electricity that is asked by the system in a specific area are the important data that automatically—immediately when archived—control the function of the infrastructure only for that moment. When these measurements become different, an alternative regulation of the infrastructure is performed. Momentary measurements, the transfer of messages, automated reactions to respective functions which the transfer itself triggered: The technical concerns of the infrastructure become increasingly immaterial since the dark and neutral Athenian ground receiving them in the modern past is substituted now by a much more distant space, the sky, which uses satellites for the functions of data flow. Today, the sky has replaced the Athenian ground of infrastructure in the deterritorialization of urban life, which is still evolving. And its flow of information circulates as an utterly illegible text that is discarded as soon as it is created. This new text of the infrastructure is coded, then, and is performed as an immaterial construction articulated under the same motif of the modernized Athens ground. An invisible support is performed in an invisible way while the technologies of valves and siphons are replaced by high-sequence radiation and satellite performances.

Within a city’s infrastructure, all evidence becomes part of a larger, ongoing process that is erased as soon as its services are delivered. In Athens, this removal of evidence contrasts with the tasks of the aim of the other ground works, namely archaeology. In order to keep infrastructure functioning, by contrast, the removal of evidence is necessary to ensure its existence as a system. It must constantly renew itself while remaining the same. The very time of the infrastructure is read as a regulated input and treatment of data flow while its protocols keep performing. Indeed, the metropolitan is linked with an image of infrastructure to the same degree that urban life is staged as the complex performance of a destruction of evidence. The everyday is understood as a field structured by a repetitive tempo, neatly cleaned by any remembered feature. Thus infrastructure is structured as the need of erasure that follows the repetitions of a city. The way in which regulations are created in order for a network to operate in certain conditions offers the possibility of a clear function where the remembered does not have the value of an event. This same classification guarantees operations in different circumstances, when the same grid could be filled by other micro facts replaceable by others, and thus, in a sense, forgettable. In other terms, a different concept of function is created when removing all traces constitutes the process of the operation itself.

The global North defines itself by the unmeasured but systematic expansion of its infrastructure, an empire that unifies and divides human time in prestructured ways. In this way it becomes increasingly powerful, commensurate with the increasing difficulty of the nonspecialist eye to inspect or control any part of the deployment of its systemic function. At the same time, boundaries begin to dissolve between different areas of life that are played out within a city’s infrastructure. Many areas of life—those islands scripted mostly within the web as responses to interactive protocols—can already be described as permanent residencies within the infrastructure itself. Once the boundaries between inside and outside a house are eradicated by always updated shared facilities, urban life tends to be described as an infrastructural repetition. The surrender of urban structures in the face of their infrastructure reveals a powerful performance of the North, which could be easily the name of an “absent” controlling authority or the spirit of its automatisms.

In the Internet-based city of today, one’s place within infrastructural systems radically changes the nature of the human inhabitant. The inhabitants of infrastructure can be described as transparent users who exist as simple responders to the protocols of the system. Caught within overlapping protocols, the inhabitants of infrastructure keep a remarkable relation to memory. And this relationship is opposed to the memory on which the Athenian excavations were driving. Instead, these users of this new domain are becoming a sustainable fragment within a disintegrating system. They follow different narrative paths, change position and perspective, and deny any stable reference point. The self-regulating mechanisms of data flows, which leave less and less evidence behind them, create a zero-degree memory paradigm, one where all memory can be abolished and all used platforms of the Internet analog to those beside it. A grandiose inability to exercise control over the infrastructure captures the condition of the new urban life and the transformation of citizens to users.

One would think that if the North determines the condition of participation within one’s infrastructure, the concept of the South would be related to an exclusion of it. This does not describe the case of Athens, however. North and South operate as the two faces of the same mechanism in the programmed worldwide flows. Acting in the darkness as in the Athenian past, and speaking in an incomprehensible technical language, the new Northern infrastructure is testing its possibilities to function as a discrimination machine. Even if sharing is its starting point and its raison d’être, our infrastructure is increasingly an ordered system of impasses and code-controlled doors. Invisibly it undertakes to form the continuation of the history of urbanity. Identity, labor, and one’s relation to the city are programmed to be mediated by the users’ relation to a centralized and networked system of flows. The time spent in its platforms will form the renting cultures of tomorrow. South is the name of a region in the infrastructure. A different colonization is tested within its realm.

This situation makes Athens an uncomfortable place at the moment. A construction of debt is a form mandated by the infrastructure into current Greek governance. It is its infrastructure that determines the economic situation in Greece today. The war via economic means it is experiencing is perpetuated in its infrastructure, of which the impossible bankruptcy in a common currency that does not form a coincidental frame. The globalization of the economy creates a system in which no bankruptcy would save any economy. Debt has to be homogeneous, perpetual, and circulated. Greece not only suffers the consequences of an attack from its infrastructure, its financial peripeties cannot conclude in the representation of a military defeat even if the numbers show that its financial disaster is analogous to such a destruction. Yet the economic war in which Greece has found itself was not invented to ever conclude. Debt is no longer (if it ever was) a simple narrative in which the debtor and the creditor play their roles. We do not wait for this debt to be paid; instead, we become spectators to and participants in this new invisible war, enabled by the infrastructure as an endless debt attack. This is the source of the current Athenian pessimism. The infrastructure possesses the ways to punish the formations that increasingly become dependent on it (such as countries or banks) without producing recordable aggressions other than coded interventions into abstract flows. What is tested in Athens is this new discrimination system that can happen as a function of its infrastructure. Governed as a fluid part of an always moving capital in the infrastructure, the North is no longer the representation of a concrete geographical order, nor does it possess any concrete form. North and the modernized South, then, both have already an inseparable place in this institutionalized flow of debt.

Contemporary Athens comes to claim now the Hesperian legacy for the South. It is a legacy that the new North not only finds abhorrent but also flatly rejects within its infrastructural functions. One finds parallels here in the fact that the very act of digging in order to implement its infrastructure in the underground of Athens was untranslatable and estranged from the Athenian earth of ruins. The North-South situation, then, defines a field of politics of flow which became today the politics of debt. The distortions of the established set of procedures—sometimes described as technical improvements of the infrastructure—form the attacks on the city; decisive deviations from the infrastructure’s automatic routines or “invisible infrastructure events” (a contradictio in terminis) transcend the already problematic “management of infrastructure” and can operate as mere aggressions. The technical matrix of the system—the one that is invoked as an independent instrument of automation only maintainable by specialists—can indeed be regulated arbitrarily by outside entities. The project of infrastructure, to create a set of simplified services that serve the community life, has developed into a different one. Indeed, it shares some characteristics with its modern ancestor: it is still invisible, it continues to structure the normalities of the everyday. On a macro scale, however, it can develop into a unified mode of invisible remote governance, while on the micro scale it becomes a self-serving system; facing the infrastructure all users are alone, their communities schematic subscriptions to rigid protocols.

If Athens suddenly requires clarification it is because it is a testing field. The inexplicable aggression now upon it, which in the specific case of this city took the form of an invisible debt attack experienced in the frame of the real empirical life of the city, and the unprecedented mediated campaign that took place through the city’s infrastructure, has begun to spill out above into physical space. Governance in Greece, wielding a politics of debt, has shown us what potential the infrastructure has to inflict collective punishment. Even when the infrastructure appears to be a relatively autonomous, self-regulating system, its modus operandi is defined in such a manner as to depend on decisions that do not correlate to its technical functionality. The discrepancy between the technical functionality of the infrastructure and its unstable purpose is the question we read through this short investigation into the Athenian underground landscapes.

While Athens is experiencing a particularly global moment, we insist on the city’s most literal aspect of locality: its very ground. The city’s infrastructure forms an invisible power structure differently idealized in a place such as Athens, that modern city whose surface has always been less important than its imaginary underground landscapes; this unseen space we are now reading was the reason this city was reconceived in the nineteenth century. In the imaginary extension of the same invisible area we locate now an ending of this circle and a new question about the existing urban surface and its material. The suddenness with which the flow of money was recently reduced in Athens and the rest of Greece has revealed the brutal side of the faceless infrastructure of the global North. Thus has the city revealed that its infrastructure is not as neutral as is often claimed. The fact that a few outsiders have managed to transfer their worldview into the infrastructure itself shows that this supposedly neutral entity can be governed entirely from the outside.

We owe to the Athenian remains of ruins and infrastructure, to these keímena, different readings. Their literal existence is covered by a city that grew abundantly. The city now might refer to them as a part of its modern history, yes, but even if the remains are now speechless—an accumulation of indecipherable letters—new networks and the deterritorialization of the multiple data reservoirs, with their multiple settings of the city’s automatisms, make the everyday Athenian depend on unreadable codes and scripted hieroglyphics to run their lives. A lack of representation forms a huge idealization of the new grounds of urbanism. A text in this sense cannot be a keímenon, as a fallen schematized matter ready for interpretation; it will be an ever-changing weave, an always transformable texture. The most problematic fact in this new theology of the infrastructure is that it is installed as an unnamable priority for the future of any urban construction. Is the reading of this unreachable system an impossible task? Can it propose a new field of investigation? Can infrastructure—and with it the distribution of goods, the logistics of tomorrow, the banking system, the platforms and protocols it installs—form questions about politics and common decisions made by a different democracy? These are the questions that Athens poses today. In order to interpret the present moment we try the technique of pausing, freezing the seductive liquid flow (that is an always unfinished text) to a temporarily still image. And we reflect on the still while the infrastructure is organized as an unreadable element, as something that will keep moving, never forming a keímenon but an ever-transformable text.

In this sense, the contemporary Athenian infrastructure produces a new unreadable field, a new imaginary technical god, and a new analphabetism. We are expected to believe in it, yet we cannot read it, interpret it, or criticize it. Athens shows the public side of this already political, technical power. The subaltern part of this structure, meanwhile, the ever-provisory and not always geographically determined South, forms in Athens some new material that can be read as well. As much as the city’s normative functions tend to be understood as the construction of the infrastructure’s ruins, Athens is not yet to be found in the invisible codes or the inaccessible corridors of this ever-growing entity. The different keímena that are today’s buildings of Athens operate as the open questions and the gaps of this homogeneous field. Forming areas different from the idealized or demonized Athenian ground, and reinvented as a conscious civic perspective, the visible surface of the city is today announced as the enigmatic matter where a living resilience and a positive system of transformative acts might take place, in parallel or sometimes in disagreement with the Northern rationale.

Leo von Klenze, Idealized View of the Acropolis and the Areopagus in Athens (1846), oil on canvas, 102.8 × 147.7 cm. Neue Pinakothek, Munich

1 Dimitris Pikionis, Gaias Atimosis (Athens: MIET, 2000).

2 Jacques Derrida, Athens, Still Remains: The Photographs of Jean-François Bonhomme, tr. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).

3 Friedrich Schiller, “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” in Friedrich Schiller: Poet of Freedom, Book III, tr. William F. Wertz, Jr (Schiller Institute, 1991).