Vapour, smoke and mirrors

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It is now one year since Yiayia first voiced her concerns on the alarming dimensions of the tobacco epidemic in Greece, and the Sunday edition of Kathimerini thoughtfully reported on the latest figures on smoking and “vaping” (“άτμισμα”, “atmisma”, i.e., electronic smoking) in Greece. This report was also well-timed, because the present Minister of Health, Andreas Xanthou has recently announced the planned introduction of legislation to forbid the use of electronic cigarettes in public places. Meanwhile, his Deputy Minister, Pavlos Polakis, a surgeon by profession, openly flouts the smoking ban in work places by lighting up in the canteen in Parliament and at press conferences in the Ministry – part of a lovingly cultivated “Cretan mountain man” persona which also includes composing threatening verse in the traditional mantináda style directed at his adversaries, and Berlusconi-style rants alleging corruption in the judiciary.

The debate over electronic cigarettes continues, with evidence to show that their use as a source of nicotine helps smokers to quit, and other evidence to suggest that new users will get addicted to nicotine and then graduate to smoking “the real thing”. Nicotine itself is harmful to the blood vessels and other elastic tissues, so “vapes” themselves are not entirely harmless to the user. Regardless of the debate, “vaping” has caught on in Greece, and the sales of electronic cigarette products is one of the few domains that has flourished during the crisis, with 300 registered specialty stores and over 1,000 sales points now operating throughout Greece. Kathemerini quotes current estimates of 200,000 systematic “vapers” among the Greek population.

Yiayia, being suspicious of what she reads in the newspapers (ever since being misquoted by the local rag at the tender age of 10), resorted to the primary source, in this case the Hellenic Statistical Authority ELSTAT, which publishes information on all aspects of life and death in Greece (no wisecracks about “Greek statistics” please; no doubt there is the inevitable conspiracy angle here too if you go looking for it, but in my professional experience I always found them reliable, professional and cooperative where population and health data were concerned). Every 5 years a Health Interview Survey (HIS) is conducted, and the findings of the most recent survey in 2014 were published this year (in English). The report shows that the percentage of regular smokers in Greece has fallen from 32% in 2009 to 27.3% in 2014, continuing a welcome trend that we noted in an earlier post. Is it possible that the Ministry of Health warnings on cigarette packets, the health education activities, the anti-smoking campaigns and the restriction on smoking in public places are actually producing results? Perhaps it is also the decreased spending power of smokers in the crisis. Although these findings are encouraging, the idea that more than one quarter of the population are still putting themselves, and the rest of us, at risk, is still alarming and is rightfully described as one of the biggest public health problems facing Greece today.

The rationale for restricting vaping is not clear. Second hand vape may be annoying to those at the next table, in the way that taking selfies or dowsing oneself in Poison are, but at least it is not loaded with the carcinogens of exhaled cigarette smoke. And arguably the government’s efforts would be better directed at enforcing existing laws, starting in their own back yard, rather than issuing new edicts. Although the existing smoking ban is largely observed in public offices and banks, it is acknowledged that its enforcement in bars, coffee shops and eating places has met with spectacular failure. This failure is confirmed by the report cited above, whose figures show that of the people who chose to eat or drink out, nine in ten had recently experienced passive smoking in coffee shops/bars, and eight in ten in restaurants/tavernas. If these numbers are anything to go by, the “vapers” have no more to fear than the traditional Greek smokers from the introduction of legislation to restrict their habit…

Image via kathimerini.gr

Vapour, smoke and mirrors

Monumental evidence of wealth-destroying “tournaments of value” in the Middle Anthropocene

Abstract

This paper puts forward a new interpretation for the monumental earthworks recorded across the continental masses of the planet Earth, dating to the Middle Anthropocene period. This study seeks to refute previous interpretations in favour of a new theory, namely that these monumental structures represent the material remains of symbolically charged ritual events which can be seen as an expression of societal stress in a period of rapid transitions and environmental decline.

canoekayak
A well-preserved earthwork of the early 3rd millennium AD, with elaborate ditch-and-bank features, usage unknown (Athens).

Introduction

Monumental constructions and earthworks have been documented on the outskirts of a number of large conurbations dating to the Middle Anthropocene period (late 2nd/early 3rd millennium AD) in widely separated parts of continental Earth. The mystery surrounding these structures has been enhanced by the paucity of the contemporary documentary record due to the Great Solar Storms of the mid-3rd millennium AD, which erased most of the predominantly digital records of the period, leaving only fragmentary texts from which to reconstruct the contemporary literary, political and economic milieu.

The monuments have in common a massive scale but show a variety of shapes and functional forms. Some are simply banks of spectator seating arranged amphitheatrically around flat areas and circuits of varying shapes and dimensions; others contain trenches and water-filled lustral basins of unknown purpose; the most puzzling ones include elaborate curvilinear ditch-and-bank earthworks, combined with mysterious mounds (see above). They were often located on the margins of existing habitations, after the land was extensively cleared, perhaps in a ritual purging, removing all traces of previous activity.

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Abandoned lustral basin, usage unknown. It is believed that the chair is a later intrusion. (Athens).

Stylistically, the structures are defined by a collection of common traits which has come to be known as the “International Startchitect Koiné”: exaggerated monumentality, the use of rare materials and elaborate construction techniques, the labour-intensity of the construction, the dominance of form over function are all features of this universal style, which becomes more elaborate as the period progresses. The structures could accommodate several thousand people and are believed to have taken years to construct using imported labour that may have been drawn from lower castes, forced or indentured, and there is some evidence to suggest that the grizzly custom of human foundation sacrifice was practiced to secure the buildings’ foundations. Mysteriously, most of the structures appear to have been put to very limited use, as attested by the unusually light wear patterns in their furnishings.

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Artist’s impression of a ritual structure in the “International Starchitect Style”, housing several lustral basins of unknown usage (London).

The function of the monuments has puzzled archaeologists and the fascinated the general public for generations. Earlier scholars posited that such structures were the remnants of extra-terrestrial civilisations, so alien did they appear within the human landscape. However, through recently published cross-cultural studies with our extra-terrestrial colleagues we are now able to discount these rather fanciful theories. The argument that the monuments are “visible from outer space” is in our view an ex post fact rationalisation reflecting an Earth-centric bias in the scholarship of the time. Another interpretation suggested that they were defensive structures; however, evidence of damage by artillery fire and mass burials has been shown to post-date the initial phase of their use. We use the fragmentary documentary evidence in conjunction with the archaeological remains to propose a radically different interpretation that does not require the presence of alien visitors, but rather explains the extraordinary structures in the context of complex ideations and value systems of contemporary societies, as they sought to respond to increased global interaction, social pressures and rapid climatic change.

Towards an alternative interpretation

Previous scholarly attempts to explain the purpose of these structures have tended to focus on functionalist interpretations, for example that they were defensive in nature, or that they were initiated with the aim of mobilising labour for productive purposes, on the model of Amish barn-raisings. We have found very little evidence to support such theories. Instead, we would argue that the immense mobilisation of labour and resources for ephemeral or even single-use purposes have more in common with the types of practices that anthropologists refer to as “total prestations” or “tournaments of value”, systems of gift-giving with political, religious, kinship and economic implications. These are are marked by the competitive exchange of gifts, in which gift-givers seek to out-give their competitors so as to capture important political, kinship and religious roles. Examples of this include the “potlatches” of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada, during which chieftains competed to distribute gifts such as blankets, animal skins and ritual instruments, and enhanced their social standing by ritually destroying them in large bonfires. In contrast with western industrial economies, status in these societies was achieved in such events not by accumulating wealth, but by giving it away or destroying it in a conspicuous manner.

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Artist’s impression of Middle Anthropocene ritual. The female priestess (?) is thought to be lighting a torch to be used for the conspicuous destruction of wealth through incineration (a ritual known as “The Burning of the the Money”).

It may be seen as a paradox that such “primitive” practices could be found in “advanced” human societies. It is useful to bring to bear here the documentary record, which, though fragmentary, offers glimpses into a sophisticated ideational construct surrounding these mysterious material remains. Studies have shown that the official religion of the Middle Anthropocene centred on the dogma of “economic rationality”, which at the height of the construction of these buildings had entered the phase known as “late capitalism”. Within this value system, the driving force was the individual’s (or group’s) maximisation of material wealth by the most efficient means. This appears to be borne out by meticulous administrative documentation relating to the preparation and building of the structures. In these documents, the priestly castes frequently invoke religious terms such as “cost/benefit” and “economic impact analysis” in order to present the projects in an “economically sound” light.

At the same time, a seemingly contradictory body of evidence associates the very same projects with metaphysical concepts such as “regeneration”, “sustainability” and “legacy” – a clear nod to the mystical Dionysiac concept of death and rebirth. It is clear from the literature that this belief system viewed the structures as part of a cosmogonic ritual aimed at summoning up “world peace”. An apocryphal text known as the “Olympic Spirit” exhorts participants “to build a peaceful and better world […] to promote tolerance and understanding in these increasingly troubled times in which we live, to make our world a more peaceful place”.

Despite being mutually contradictory and internally inconsistent, these belief systems seem to have coexisted in tandem for over a century, and were surprisingly resilient to critique. We have, for example, ample contemporary evidence of criticism that the structures and the rituals associated with them did not in fact deliver the promised economic salvation but instead guaranteed balance sheet damnation, while others pointed out that there was no correlation between the rituals and world peace, or that the events resulted in debt, displacement, and militarisation of public space” and some accused the elders entrusted with organising them of corruption. It is thought that such criticism was regarded as heretical and its exponents punished severely, but the fate of the critics is not recorded.

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Wenlock and Mandeville, the Cyclopean guardians of London.

 

Little is known about what actually took place within the monumental structures. From the associated waste dumps it is clear that ritual feasting played a great part in the activities. With time, the paraphernalia associated with consumption became increasingly formalised, and ritual vessels more often than not bear the mysterious “Golden Arches of Consecration”. It is also known that those attending the rituals partook of a beverage served in a distinctive steatopygous glass vessel, whose recipe was closely guarded in a temple vault – perhaps an aphrodisiac or a fertility elixir. Each ritual site seems to have been presided over by a distinct monstrous deity or anthropomorphic animal spirit (above), clearly intended to induce a holy terror in the participants. Some claim to have found evidence of athletic contests, however we believe that such evidence is too scant to merit consideration here.

A car driven by a student of a driving school slowly moves around the carpark in front of the deserted 2008 Beijing Olympics venue for the cycling competition in central Beijing
A “sacred ruin”, venerated by later generations; note the preservation of empty space around the monument (Beijing).

The resilience of the belief system that fuelled these “tournaments of value” is further evidenced by the respect with which the monuments were often treated after their initial construction. Although subsequent generations appear to have forgotten the original purpose of the structures, they often venerated them as sacred ruins by preserving them intact and allowing the land around them to lie fallow. It is likely that only the more prosperous hosts that were able to do this, while others were forced to adapt and reuse the structures as their circumstances dictated. Occasionally, the structures were put to temporary use, as is evidenced in Phase VIIb of the Hellenikon Rhomboid Structure which appears to have been repurposed as a temporary habitation site during the “great migration” of the early 21st century AD (below).

 

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Artist’s rendering of Phase VIIb of the Hellenikon Rhomboid Structure, showing densely packed temporary habitation structures.

An ancient precedent?

Recently, scholars have suggested that the structures and and the rituals associated with them find a direct antecedent in religious festivals dating two and a half millennia earlier, and have adopted the term “Olympic” to describe them, alluding to the largest of these earlier festivals. However, despite sharing many features with these earlier practices, the long hiatus between the two sets of events leads us to posit that we are in fact dealing with a Hobsbawmian “invented tradition”: by adopting self-consciously archaising practices, emergent elites seek to legitimise their status by demonstrating their continuity with a quasi-mythical past.

It is suggested here that such practices arose as a way of bolstering a fragile global hierarchy and establishing social cohesion in an era when a rise in the overall living standards on the planet was accompanied by increased competition for resources and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change. Testing this hypothesis, however, is beyond the scope of the current paper.

Further documentation of the mysterious structures and their history of re-use here, as artillery defences and as a prison.

Further reading on the future archaeology of the Middle Anthropocene: “Our Piece of Paradise: Patterns of Coastal Habitation…”


IMAGES: Athens 2004 canoe/kayak venue by Milos Bicanski; Athens 2004 training pool by Associated Press; London 2012 Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects; Wenlock and Mandeville, the London 2012 Olympic Mascots via Rainbow Productions; Beijing 2008 velodrome by REUTERS/David Gray; Athens 2004 baseball stadium by Jai Mexis & Partners via This American Life.

Monumental evidence of wealth-destroying “tournaments of value” in the Middle Anthropocene

Greeks “smug” on referendum anniversary

“Look at how we celebrated our result,” urges Toula, a political science student, “beautiful proud Greek women dancing traditional dances in the squares, not tattooed hooligans with prison haircuts telling their neighbours to ‘go home'”.

On the streets of Athens this week, Greeks are forgetting their financial woes for a moment to bask in the unmistakable glow of smugness, as the surprise result of the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum throws the country into turmoil. Commentators have noted the parallels between the Brexit referendum, and the “Greferendum” of exactly one year ago, but the result appears to have confounded everyone, including the Greeks. Sick of being maligned as the lazy, disorganised and politically immature teenagers of Europe, they are now revelling in the spectacle of the notoriously phlegmatic northern European nation coming spectacularly off the rails in a slow motion train wreck after voting to leave the European Union.

The Greek Prime Minister quickly seized the national mood with a series of tweets celebrating last summer’s NO (OXI) vote (“Our people’s NO, paramount act of resistance to the Euro-priesthood of austerity”), with which Greece similarly rejected the sinister embrace of the Brussels elite.

Greeks have been watching the fallout from the UK’s Brexit vote with the kind of shocked bemusement normally reserved for viral videos of an anaconda swallowing an elephant, or a small child falling head-first into a piranha tank after being hit by a frisbee. For generations the “Egglezos” (the Englishman) has stood as a byword for gentlemanly good manners, common sense and punctuality. Now they watch the nation they associate with the Queen, Winston Churchill and James Bond descend into the more familiar territory of Benny Hill and Mr Bean, but with a distinct flavour of the Weimar Republic.

Greeks by and large maintain a grudging admiration for the British, whom they regard as cultivated people with a sophisticated political culture, marred only by their colonial snobbishness, their propensity to steal antiquities and the fact that they have a “rod up their arses”. Except for the ones who holiday in Faliraki, who have exactly the opposite problem. While most would consider them a curious race and demonstrably inferior to the Greeks, many expressed surprise at their inability to read a simple ballot paper. “Where on the voting chit does it say ‘immigration’?” asked Makis, a bright thirteen-year-old kicking a football against a palimpsest of faded election posters reading “Hope is on the Way”, “OXI” and “Antifa – no bosses”. “Do they think that was a tough question? They should see what my grandad had to deal with last year, it had a 30-page bibliography. Plus, they had months to prepare and revise. We had to cram overnight. Mind you, that’s how my cousin says you pass exams. Although he did flunk his, but he blamed Merkel and the Euro-priesthood of austerity.”

And what of the fallout from the result? “Here we were told that if we voted OXI there would be no toilet paper, that there would be riots in the streets. It would appear that our British friends’ planning for the day after was, as they say, ‘wholly inadequate’. Now where have I heard that before?” asks Mr Thrasyboulos, a retired lawyer with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Maybe after their success in Iraq they should reorganise their own country ‘along sectarian lines’? That has always worked out well for them, hasn’t it?” his friend, Mr Babis, added, leaning over the backgammon board. “Say what you will about our lot, but it sounds like they had contingency plans coming out of their ears: plan B, plan X, the mint heist, you name it. We are a creative race. Odysseus was a Greek, you know.”

Greeks have even less respect for the UK’s political leadership. “What kind of jokers are these? Running for the hills and leaving the women in charge? I remember that Mrs Thatcher and her handbag. Mark my words, this will end in tears.” The trope of Odysseus, the Homeric hero described in the epics as “much suffering” and “man of twists and turns”, resurfaces in their comparisons as they recount how Prime Minister Tsipras was able overnight to convert the proud NO into a YES and secure a further bailout from the country’s creditors.

Meanwhile, some are starting to ponder how Brexit might affect Greece. The “systemic” media here have been quick to promote doom and gloom scenarios, however Greeks are defiant. With the same proud classical illiteracy that their leadership has displayed on many occasions, they insist that “the Cassandras will be proved wrong”, referring to the mythical soothsayer whose curse was that her (generally pessimistic but accurate) predictions were never heeded.

As we ended the interview, Mr Thrasyboulos had a more constructive suggestion. “We hear that the UK will need to hire foreign trade negotiators to help extricate them from the EU. We have plenty of internationally acclaimed expertise in this department, and would be happy to lend a hand to our British brothers in the proud negotiations that lie ahead.”

Greeks “smug” on referendum anniversary

A bit of background

Two weeks ago I booked a ticket back to Greece to vote in the “bailout referendum”. It is the most impulsive thing I have done in a long while. I did it firstly because I wanted to have my say in what I felt was a pivotal vote. I also wanted to see the situation on the ground with my own eyes.

I made the pilgrimage to vote, and I instantly felt dirty. I have found it hard to explain this to people, particularly my non-Greek friends, without sounding like a ranting lunatic. So I have come to the internet, where ranting is the norm, ha ha. Seriously though, I felt compelled to present a slightly better informed analytical perspective on recent events than I have tended to find in the media. I wanted to shine a light on some of the absurdities that proliferate in the current situation – I couldn’t possibly be comprehensive, the volume is enormous – to introduce a logical perspective. I am on the side of logic, but aside from that I will try not to be partisan.

I wish I had had the presence of mind to document my observations as they occurred over the last two weeks, but I am not a natural blogger or habitual user of social media. I know that my posts will lack that raw immediacy of tweets and live news feeds, and I hope that doesn’t make them seem less “authentic”. Not only will you get an overabundance of instant response elsewhere, but I also take the old fashioned view that a bit of time to reflect is not a bad thing.

A bit of background