The question of inclusivity through language: Non-equivalencies across boundaries of language and discourse
JULIA: The work you do at FAC Research is very much concerned with pushing against borders and boundaries. You run an annual Feminist No Borders summer school, you strategically challenge the boundaries between practice and theory, the boundaries between different disciplines, and borders as a colonial, nationalist, heteropatriarchal concept. How have boundaries of language played out in the context of the work you do here, and how do you generally negotiate those issues and make them part of the reflexive conversations you are having?
PENNY: Well, on the one hand, we are in Greece and we speak Greek, but, at the same time, we try to reach a wider number of people for whom Greek is not the first language, either immigrants or people who come from abroad. So we are now kind of bilingual. Our website [https://feministresearch.org/] is in English, but we plan, in the very near future, to translate parts of the website into Greek and to work with both languages. This is also an issue with respect to how we deal with the idea of language and the terms that we use, how these are discussed and described between the two languages, and how we position ourselves in the context of Athens, a city that is changing dramatically and very fast. Language plays a major role here: How do you communicate across and around the city? And there is criticism from various points of view. Some people argue that you have to have everything in Greek, because this is the main language here, but that brings up the question of inclusivity through language. And, of course, translation fits within this discussion as well: How do you go across and around those two languages? This is something we reflect on and try to deal with, and we are very open to suggestions and to criticism, to see how we can best work through language issues, making whatever we do accessible. It is also a matter of to whom we address what we do, which adds another layer of translation. How do you bring a certain kind of language from the academic to the activist? It has been a big effort to bridge this distance.
AILA: I think we also had this idea to add translation as a point of entry into research. But we’re also aware that recently, because of the so-called refugee crisis and the economy it has generated, there is an appropriation of this idea of mediation and translation, creating bridges between newcomers and people already here, capitalizing on the quite precarious labor of already established migrant populations that are here. So I think it’s also important to speak with people and try to understand what is going on there.
ANNA: Yes, as if there were fixed and already constituted groups with different cultures that have to be mediated by some kind of intermediary that has a foot in each.
AILA: Yes, and it is exactly about keeping them separate, not uniting them, at the level of discourse.
MYRTO: I think another issue of translation, precisely because we are in Greece and some of us have been educated and trained in hegemonic institutions, is: To what kind of knowledge do we have access? It is, for example, very important to have access to the feminism that has been produced in Turkey, or by the Kurdish movement, but that hasn’t necessarily been translated into English. One of the things that FAC Research wants to do is to engage with translators that could give us access to this kind of knowledge. Not to mention issues of daily translation: Greek is a gendered language, so how do you go around being gender neutral? This is a great challenge, and sometimes we fail epically, but other times we find ways.
PENNY: We invent new words and new word-endings.
MYRTO: It’s a daily struggle.
PENNY: It is an important point you are making. We are obviously positioned within Europe, but, at the same time, we challenge this hierarchical way of seeing and producing feminisms, so we’re looking as well from a decolonizing view, thinking what else can we see from the periphery.
JULIA: Does that also include for you a decentering of English, and of US- and Eurocentric forms of knowledge, from the center of feminist theory?
MYRTO: There’s a keyword that Penny uses all the time: We need to “unlearn.”
PENNY: Yes. It’s a question, because one thing that happens, especially when you talk about theory, is that most of these texts come from English-speaking scholars, and then: How do you translate them into Greek? Quite often I find it really impossible to understand the Greek translations, they don’t speak to me, because maybe I don’t get how certain terms get translated into a possible Greek equivalent word.
JULIA: Continuing to talk about translation, both in the conceptual and literal sense, of feminist modes of inquiry and practice: I know that a lot of work done at FAC Research is invested in “intersectionality,” which has also been a prominent issue in broader academic and activist conversations in Athens. Could you speak a little more about how the term intersectionality has circulated and taken on meaning in the Greek context, and how you have approached its translation, in both a linguistic and in a conceptual sense?
ANNA: It’s interesting how this relates to the previous question. We might say that intersectionality is a concept that emerges from black feminist movements in the United States, and none of the foundational texts that elaborate it have been translated into Greek. So when we’re talking about “hegemonic knowledges” and “US-centric knowledges,” it’s significant to notice that there are multiple levels of hegemony and counter-hegemony functioning, even within the national scale of the US. You have a kind of counter-hegemonic knowledge—intersectionality—which then becomes absorbed within hegemonic institutions and becomes itself a kind of currency, at least within the field of Gender Studies, and becomes detached from black feminist politics to a great extent, although there’s then a wave to reclaim and reposition it within that history and political genealogy. But none of these debates have been translated in Greece, precisely because the work that has been translated is that of white feminism. One thing that I think is important to consider, in thinking about what kinds of constructions of intersectionality have circulated here, is that, from my perspective, it’s not primarily through academic translation that intersectionality has traveled to Greece; it’s through NGOs and, to a lesser extent, through more diffuse movement-based knowledges, primarily through the LGBTQI+ movement. In fact, I’m not aware of any publication in Greek that discusses intersectionality as a concept, even though there might be some that reference multiple oppressions or multiple discriminations in legal theory. And this, in itself, is a problem. One of the first things that we did, even before we got the space, was to teach a community course on intersectionality, with the aim of producing a corpus of writing in Greek that discusses the concept, after having engaged certain foundational texts in that concept’s articulation in English. That, in itself, was an act of translation, and not in the merely linguistic sense, but in the richer sense that you were mentioning: asking, how can this concept have meaning in the context of its articulation here? In this sense, I think there are a lot of misuses and displacements happening through the appeal to this concept. I think the way in which this concept gets operationalized is to refer to multiple discrete oppressions that then become embodied in a super-unfortunate group that experiences them all simultaneously. This, of course, is one meaning of intersectionality, but it is a pretty superficial approach to this literature that has developed around the concept; and—certainly with respect to the anti-subordination and emancipatory origins of the term—it’s pretty toothless. So what is perhaps needed is a deeper engagement that is grounded in the particular realities of interlocking systems here and, which is also something that we discussed a lot, how these realities get obfuscated through an assumption that discourses on race, on gender, on nation even, can just simply be transferred across contexts. To give a more concrete example: the idea that the notion of whiteness can just be translated on a one-to-one level from how it plays out in the US context, and in the Anglo-American and Western European contexts more generally, and that this can just be transplanted onto the reality in Greece. This is a huge discussion, and one that came up a lot in the context of this community course, and in the context of writing texts about intersectionality that derive from the particular histories of colonial nationalist racial formation in the Eastern Mediterranean and in what is called “Greece” in particular.
MYRTO: To add something small, I think the term “intersectionality” had a similar trajectory as the term “queer” in Greece. These were things that were really valid outside, originating in specific movements, which then became academic concepts and traveled as academic theory. For me, it was interesting to see what would happen if we tried, through the community course, to ask: Can we actually ground this? Can we use it? Is there another word we can use? Is it meaningful? Looking back at that community course, that was the powerful element of what happened. And I couldn’t stop thinking, what would have happened if, in 2004, there would have been a community course or a different kind of model to introduce people to the term queer and to queer theory.
ANNA: The translation that has prevailed for the English word “intersectionality” translates back into Greek as “interissue-ality” [διαθεματικότητα], so: “the intersection of issues.” This is promising, but also problematic. Promising in the sense that one of the things that a lot of people have criticized about the mainstreaming and the travel of the concept of intersectionality is precisely the way it has become depoliticized into this more general framework for identities and for how identity categories converge in different embodied experiences—a multi-axial theory of oppression, basically. And the term “interissue-ality” has the potential of saying that the problem is not identity categories but political struggles, and showing how political struggles have in fact created these normative, identitarian subjects who marginalize, even as they nominally include, groups that face multiple political struggles at once but are kept separated into different silos. On the other hand, in Greece, there is the frequent use of what in English has thankfully become a really antiquated and even offensive turn of speech: the idea of “the woman question,” or “the Jewish question”—I even cringe as I repeat it—which comes out of nineteenth-century thinking about how so-called “other questions” get involved in the central political struggle. In Greek, however, you still have this turn of phrase, and it’s used constantly. People speak about “the refugee issue,” “the gender issue,” “the woman issue” to some extent. In this context, the issue-ality focus of this transliterated word is problematic, because it reproduces this idea that these are distinct issues which then have to be melded together. In the course, we talked a lot about alternative translations that come out of our various diverse lived experiences, and one particularly evocative proposal was to look at Omonoia Square, which is a traffic circle in the center of Athens, and to think of intersectionality as the interweaving of various roads that meet in a kind of circle [διακομβικότητα]. So, even the translation of the term is a huge question, concerning what kind of practical embodied meaning it might have in this context.
“If you ever bury me, bury me in glitter”: Activism, aesthetics, and the reclaiming of urban space
JULIA: To consider more practice-based modes of translation, recently the feminist performance “El violador eres tú,” also known as “Un violador en tu camino,” devised by Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis, has been adapted in Athens. Can you talk more about how this choreography was adapted into the Greek context?
PENNY: When the Chilean feminist performance “El violador eres tú” went viral on social media, I was intrigued by its powerful words and choreography. I spoke with a Chilean friend who lives in Athens and wanted to find other women to organize a similar performance here. I told her to contact feminist groups such as Καμιά Ανοχή [No Tolerance] and our center to find out whether there was an interest in doing the performance in Athens. During that time, I was in Edinburgh teaching, so I couldn’t participate in the rehearsals and meetings about the organization of the performance. Interestingly enough, during the meetings it appeared that there were some different opinions about the translation of the lyrics into Greek. In the end, two different versions (translations) of the lyrics came up, and thus two different performances were organized on December 15 and 22, if I remember correctly. I participated in the second one. It was one of the most powerful things I have ever done, in a collective and public manner. Being there, in front of the Greek parliament, together with friends, comrades, and sisters, singing and dancing hand-in-hand was extremely moving. I felt the lyrics deep in my skin. We sung “El violador eres tú” in both Spanish and Greek. Then, holding hands, we shouted the names of recent victims of femicide in Greece. It was moving. I felt connected with all these other women there. It was almost like creating an affective space of sisterhood.
JULIA: As you know, I’ve approached this conversation through my own research on the emergence of feminist and queer graffiti and street art in Athens throughout the past five years, which I understand as part of a broader project of appearance, a carving out of space for feminist and queer demands, lives, thought, imaginaries, forms of visibility. In the context of this ongoing project of appearance, where do you see the state of feminist and queer politics in Greece now: What are the concerns, what are the contradictions moving it forward, where are things going, and where do you hope to see things going?
[Church bell rings.]
ANNA: I think the question of appearance, and visibility itself, cannot be presumed to be the register of political action. The fact that we might diagnose, that we might identify what you describe as a spatial claim, or as a political claim, is itself historically and sociopolitically contingent. I am struck by what we were talking about earlier in terms of visibility, in terms of registers of language or vocabularies of identity. We’re supposedly living in a post-crisis moment, although this is constantly being refuted on an everyday level. And, for a long time in the context of crisis, the questions that were being raised by LGBTQI+ and feminist movements were seen as secondary and of less significance, certainly not of the kind of life-and-death significance that supposedly economic questions were raising. And the issues that LGBTQI+ movements, and to a lesser extent women’s movements, were bringing forth were being constructed as having to do with the category of human rights and therefore as non-economic in nature, as not having anything to do with the national problem that was the Greek sovereign debt crisis. I think that discourse has shifted. From my perspective, the main emphasis of feminist movements and queer activism has to do with gendered violence in all its manifestations, and how that violence is endemic, systemic, institutional, and interpersonal. There are a number of collectives and groups that focus on tracking the eruptions of violence that happen in terms of femicides, in terms of transphobic and homophobic attacks, and there’s also a discussion concerning the question of justice in relation to such eruptions of violence, given the institutional underpinnings of violence as an atmospheric condition in this society and globally as well. As we see the rise of the far right, as we see an attempt to repress social movements through militarization and through legal means as well—with the recent revision of the penal code, which expanded police powers and juridical powers in relation to terrorism charges—what I think is opening up as a space of contestation is the question of justice and what it means to ask for justice, in the context of such violence, from the very institutions that frame, perpetuate, and empower it, distributing the exercise of violence to socially empowered citizens while also monopolizing it in state institutions. That’s one area that we’re very interested in promoting.
MYRTO: Going back to the graffiti and street art, and what’s projected out there in relation to movements: Athens is a saturated city, and it’s one of those global meccas where artists come and add their work. And there’s also a rich tradition of tactics of resistance, but this was mainly based in the anarchist and the leftist movements, and those two movements were very macho. They still are, but there are some improvements. In a way, the tactics were macho as well: There’s the idea of this heroic figure that goes to the streets and fights cops and is such a good and powerful man. And, similarly, this was happening on the walls, too: Who is going to go higher, who is going to go bigger, who is going to go everywhere? Recently, in the last decade, there were some huge efforts to change that and to find other tactics of resistance, which was difficult. Let’s say some queer feminists were making a poster, adding a little bit of pink; people responded, saying: Here, we’re black and red. And this has shifted a lot, and for me a key moment was a moment of translation. In Greek slang, βυζί [vizì] means breast. And there was a moment where you could find a lot of posters all over Exarcheia [a neighborhood in Athens], so you would find many different breasts on the walls and the tag “-bility” underneath—βυζί-bility [vizì-bility]. It lasted for three days. And Exarcheia is an area where many pieces of street art remain for several years.
ANNA: You mean the posters were destroyed, or removed, or covered up?
MYRTO: Destroyed. Because that very liberal scene, that was very open towards political street art and graffiti, couldn’t come to terms with the fact that there were breasts all around the neighborhood. Also, in 2006 or 2007, there were DIY posters for the first queer party, of course at the στεκι [a social center] in Exarcheia, and the posters didn’t even last the night. They were completely removed. This says a lot about what was happening at the time in the movement, queer voices were removed. The turning point was Zak’s murder. This made it clear that they don’t like us in the city, we don’t exist in the city, we can be killed in broad daylight. So that brought many different people together, also people who were queer feminist, who were practicing wall writing or graffiti in different contexts. It’s quite recent, this uniting with such force. In that sense, it’s a good moment, queer voices are more and more visible in the streets. For me, the most powerful and omnipresent urban appropriation that I’ve seen in Athens is this: From the very night that we learned of Zak’s murder, until about six months on, Athens was a glitter city. Everywhere we went, there was glitter on the streets, there was glitter on the walls, everywhere in the city center. So this collective act, without one individual signing, drastically altered the aesthetics of the city. Even newspapers were writing about it: “We have glitter in our houses. We walk on the streets and we walk in our houses and it sticks everywhere.” There was this slogan—and obviously Zak loved glitter—it was one of his quotes as Zackie Oh!: “If you ever bury me, bury me in glitter.” That’s where it started. And there was not one protagonist, there were many people, united by, basically, anger. It gave me a weird sense of protection. When I saw people with glitter, wearing glitter on their clothes, I would think: “We exist in this city.”
Athens, Greece, March 2020
ANNA CARASTATHIS is a political theorist. She received her PhD in Philosophy from McGill University, her MSc in Gender Studies from the University of the Aegean, and her BA (Honors) in Philosophy from the University of Alberta. Anna has held research and teaching positions in various institutions in Canada, the United States, and Greece (Université de Montréal, California State University Los Angeles, University of British Columbia, Concordia University, McGill University, Panteion University of Political and Social Sciences). Anna is the author of Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), which was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title by the American Library Association, and Reproducing Refugees: Photographìa of a Crisis (co-authored with Myrto Tsilimpounidi, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2020). Anna is a yoga practitioner (since 1999) and teacher (since 2013, certified by the Los Angeles Center for Yoga) in community spaces. Pronouns: she/her.
AILA SPATHOPOULOU is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Goldsmiths University of London. She holds a PhD from the Department of Geography at King’s University of London, an MA in Cultural Studies from Sabanci University in Istanbul, and a BFA in Theater Studies from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her doctoral thesis focused on the migration hotspot regime in Greece and the various categories that it (re)produces. Her research interests include borders, mobility, and feminist research methodologies. Pronouns: she/her.
PENNY TRAVLOU is a lecturer in Cultural Geography & Theory in the Edinburgh School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture at the University of Edinburgh. She holds a PhD from the Department of Geography at Durham University. Her research focuses on social justice, the commons, collaborative practices, feminist technolog(ies), queer/feminist landscapes, and ethnography. She has been involved in international research projects funded by the EU and UK Research Councils. Since 2011, she has been doing ethnographic research on collaborative practices in emerging networks (e.g., digital art practitioners, collaborative economy initiatives, translocal migrants); her most recent research is on cultural commons in Colombia. Alongside her academic work, Penny is an activist on social and spatial justice and the commons. She was a member of OneLoveKitchen, the African collective kitchen, and the co-founder of Options FoodLab, a food-related project with/for refugees. Pronouns: she/her.
MYRTO TSILIMPOUNIDI is a social researcher and photographer. They received their PhD in Sociology from the University of Sussex, their MA in Critical Global Studies from the University of Exeter, and her BSc in Economics and Development Studies. Their research focuses on the interface between urbanism, culture, and innovative methodologies. They are the author of Sociology of Crisis: Visualising Urban Austerity (Routledge, 2017); co-author of Reproducing Refugees: Photographìa of a Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2020, with Anna Carastathis); and the co-editor of Remapping Crisis: A Guide to Athens (Zero Books, 2014) and Street Art & Graffiti: Reading, Writing & Representing the City (Routledge, 2017). Myrto is happy near the sea and dreams of a feminist kite-surf collective. Pronouns: she/them.
JULIA TULKE is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, NY, where she was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities from 2017 to 2019. Her research centers on the politics and poetics of space, with a particular focus on material landscapes of urban crisis as sites of cultural production and political intervention. She maintains a long-standing interest in political street art and graffiti as performative repertoires of protest. For her ongoing research project, Aesthetics of Crisis, Julia has documented and examined street art and graffiti in Athens since 2013. Pronouns: she/her.