Still shot from video and sound installation Collapse (2009) by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme

Through this intervention, I aim to reflect on what it means to think and write about the present, in the here and now, during increasingly precarious times, amid a sense of urgency, suspension, defeat, and normalized weariness—all the while enacting embodied counterpublics of dissident affectability and memorability. Such enactments are about an everyday labor, partly utopian and partly desperate, of critically attending to the historical present as organized by authorized and injurious forms of living-on, including colonial dispossession, racial capitalism, border securitization, market accumulation and the debt cycle. Isn’t this conceptual space what the Global South is about, after all—as its phantasmatic ideality, registered in chronotopes and chronotropes of aliveness and conviviality, crumples under the pressure of postcolonial and neoliberal biopolitics? The historical present of the Global South is a time of emergency; it involves the slow-burning, debilitating affectivity of unending crises, and the precarious vision of collective subjectivities making claims on the world.

In Histories of a Vanishing Present, a forum for art, critical inquiry, and public scholarship shaped over time and across multiple spaces and geographies, artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme have sought to meditate on a constellation of moments of loss and resistance constituting the afterlives and postmemories of the Global South. [1] As part of the initiative, their video and sound installation Collapse (2009) invokes the ambiguities between relapse and possibility, presence and absence, as well as past and present, that have shaped Palestinian memories and experiences of struggle. Disruptions of community and narrative—including, significantly, a shared narrative of resistance—become the fictional and archival material for staging the affective and political sense of collapsing different temporalities. Recurrent inscriptions of political trauma, in their intimate relationship to the disrupted landscape and community, speak to a simultaneous breakdown and suspension of memory. The ghostly figures of the running, floating women that repetitively reappear in the mise-en-scène visualize the intimate anxiety of living at a time of ongoing, deadly crisis, but also the spectral potential to resist the sovereign, homogenized temporal confines of this crisis. Abbas and Abou-Rahme write:

“Moments of recurrent potential and failure of resistance are repeated to critically reconstruct past fragments and uncover the suspension of the future in the present. This feeling of continual suspension and relapse, progress and deadly repetition is played out exploring the overlap between personal trajectories and multiple historical narratives.”

I invoked here this work of art in order to critically delineate the temporal politics of present biopolitics that work to diminish horizons of political possibility. As Collapse suggests, the sense of sped-up, collapsing temporalities is embodied in the disperse and slow violence of weariness and disposability, but also in the open-ended and incommensurable time of the fugitive, as registered in the slow-motion figure of the elusive, floating women. Time cannot be really consolidated in a purportedly homogeneous, shared sense. It remains susceptible to performative interruptions and discontinuities, as well as fights and flights, enacted by those ghosts of anachronism and non-futurity that have been discounted by what Elizabeth Freeman calls “chrononormativity”: a normativity defined by a straight, reproductive, and forward-moving time. [2]

What remains, then, as a resistant potential of such moments and movements of simultaneous persistence and deferral, ephemerality and disposability? How do we relationally act to disassemble the power/knowledge tempo that works to ascertain, anticipate, and regulate the presence of the present as a perpetual deferral of justice? How are we to think and come to grips with the workings of the temporal and the temporary from the perspective of the ongoing duration and duress operating within our current differentially vanishing presents? What contextual and temporal possibilities for a reframing of the (im)possible might be recuperated from this moment of differently inflected suspension, syncopation, and relapse in their relationship to disposability, exhaustion, and struggles for social justice? These questions echo Walter Benjamin’s conception of temporality: a “time of the now” open to transformative potential. They also involve taking into account the critical politics of dispossessed and spectral subjectivities in the radical re-articulation of the present as an indeterminable resource for collective resistance to— and an agonistic alteration of—ongoing conditions of white supremacy, occupation, precarization, sexism, and economic and political destitution.

What does it mean to think anew the conditions of the present as a site of collective contingencies of endurance and survival in the context of unfolding disasters? This is to inquire into the present as a question of interlocking crisis, criticality, and critique, in order to account for the ways in which the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has a bearing on inequalities in terms of intersecting powers of class, race, gender, sexuality, and access to public healthcare. We might consider the inequalities that permeate and regulate social distancing through discourses of “staying at home”, which invokes intersecting inequalities implicit in normative kinship, class, citizenship, geographic location, energy and digital connectivity resources. And so we have to ask: What does this imperative mean for those who don’t have/can’t afford/lost a home, or those who are transient, or those who live in conditions of displacement and confinement, such as asylum seekers in refugee camps? And for whom, under what conditions, and through what normalised crises is home not a safe and shareable shelter? These entrenched inequality regimes play out in the social debris of the neoliberal calculus of profit, debt, precarity, and infrastructural depletion through which the breakdown of public healthcare institutions has been administered.

With these induced conditions of political suffocation in mind, vulnerability is put to work as a critically situated epistemology for resisting the terms of enforced precarious living in late capitalist biopolitics. It pertains to the unevenly allocated affective and political registers of loss, deprivation, and adversity through which reclaiming possibilities for anti-fascist, radical democratic collective life becomes desirable and possible. In opposition to normalized, privatized neoliberal resilience, this concept of vulnerability is meant to offer a lens to think through affective counterpublics as alternative spaces for resistance, response-ability, solidarity, and change amidst inequalities and injustices across time and space. Counterpublics denote ways in which worldmaking is envisioned and performed to resist and contest the conditions of (im)possibility that the official bourgeois, white heteronormative publics of the present generate.[3] The counterpublic potentiality of such utopian spaces and agonistic intimacies involves struggles against neoliberal decimation of public spaces and resources and, at the same time, struggles over the conditions that bring embodied subjects together to claim and reconfigure a public, on the street or in the square, beyond conventional divisions between public and private.

From the Lebanese protests in 2015 and 2019 to the struggles born out of conditions of urban precarity amidst the South European economic crises and austerity programs, and from Black Lives Matter in the US to Ni Una Menos in Argentina and elsewhere to the anti-neoliberal mobilizations in Chile, critical(ly) situated knowledges and assemblies induce transformative exercises in vulnerability and freedom with others despite the present biopolitical timescapes. Different street actions and activist movements claim public spaces to breathe as horizons of criticality, in their transcendence of national borders and gathering—in outrage and in grief—to contest the differential terms of socially situated and distributed vulnerability. They contend with long-held and routinized terms of unlivable lives and ungrievable deaths through quotidian practices of worldmaking.

“I can’t breathe”: In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter, reclaiming the haunting temporality of black bodies rendered expendable by racial capitalism requires attending to different exigencies of unbreathable life in the historical present, thereby contesting the reliance of this present upon racialized deadly violability. At the same time, the repeated drownings of the economized, racialized, and illegalized in the deadly migrant route of the Mediterranean Sea and at the militarized borderscapes of Fortress Europe invoke expanded constellations of unbreathability in the Global South. A protest sign that appeared in a migrant rights demonstration in Italy in the summer of 2020, “From the Mediterranean to Minneapolis, under water or under a knee, I can’t breathe”, captures this translocal archive of dispensability and agonistic affectability. This sign allows us to think further about the existing differential conditions of precarity that allow certain bodies to come together and make a claim in public while rendering others out-of-place, disposable, and unbreathable. Clearly, indicating the struggle for breath as constitutive of collective vulnerability and courage in distinct modalities and contexts become occasions for dismantling the properness of memorability and reenacting the interrelation of grievability, camaraderie, and protest. Spanning several countries in Latin America, the multinational activist movement Ni Una Menos (“not one [woman] less”) is fighting the killing of all those subjected to the violence of masculinist and neoliberal violence. This collective commitment that not one more woman will be lost to feminicídio struggles to dismantle the terms by which routinized and unacknowledged violence constitutes women and all those non-conforming to cis-heteronormative capitalist domination as dispensable. From Santiago to Beirut to Athens to Buenos Aires, transnational activist responsiveness to black, migrant, precarious, female, and/or queer deaths disrupts the temporal coordinates of normative life by which those lives had been rendered “already dead”. It does so by calling forth politics and poetics—in their inseparability—of remembering otherwise in the face of political loss and, at the same time, transformative modes of relationality and survival, whereby bodies on the line avow their vulnerability and refuse to be violated. Such local and translocal public assemblies at once defend and demand public space as a space of responsive relationality. They protest variegated configurations of economic and political precarization by reinhabiting unlivable times and spaces in ways that open up for a critical performativity of the present and future.

To call for a critical theorization of the present today, at a moment which is increasingly defined as a time of ongoing and unending crises, is to seek out possibilities of attending to social temporalities as provisional genres of embodied action, resistance, and contestation in varied contexts of unevenly allocated hardship, vulnerability, and despair. It is also to explore deferral, postponement, ongoingness, and recursivity beyond the linear temporal paradigms of (un)accomplishment and (un)fulfillment set by calculative self-willed individualism, and towards openings breathing spaces for relationality, care, solidarity, and alternate imaginaries. It is, in other words, a way to potentially contend with the conditions of precarity and (un)livability by which the embodied ordinariness of late capitalist temporization is produced and sustained. This discussion concerns the political, ethical, and affective intensities entailed in bodies-in-dissent performing acts of worldmaking in the historical present, in the wake of recursive conditions of (im)possibility. It concerns the collective work of reimagining, recuperating, and reinhabiting inchoate places and times from where to breathe together and otherwise as a way to contest institutionalized injustice related to ongoing racialized, sexualized, and classed privatized exhaustion.

Along these lines, sensing the ordinariness of the ongoing present is about asking how the present is haunted by (its) absent presences, those uncanny presences cast as absences through matrices of social disposability related to racism, nationalism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia, able-bodiedness, and capitalist exploitation and precarity. How might these discarded remainders and disregarded reminders become an occasion for mobilizing a critique of the present, for resisting (in) the present? What can we do with and about the lived experience of critical theory at the present time? As it takes place in a ghostly present tense attentive to unfinished, unfinishable, ongoing, and reanimated chronotropes of precarity and disposability, the situated politics of worldmaking draws its possibility from that which renders it impossible. This is a possibility collectively made of disremembered traces and ephemeral debris of counter-memory. Aporetic and agonistic at once, the political horizon of collectively addressing criticality in the present through its absences is indeterminately haunted by this present’s no longer and yet-to-come.


[2] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History. In Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt and translated by Harry Zohn, 253–264. New York: Harcourt, Bracs & World, 1968.

[3] José Esteban Muñoz, “Pedro Zamora’s Real World of Counter-Publicity: Performing an Ethics of Self,” in Hispanisms and Homosexualities. Edited by Sylvia Molloy and Robert Irwin. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1998.

Athena Athanasiou is Professor of Social Anthropology at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences. Among her publications are the books: Agonistic Mourning: Political Dissidence and the Women in Black (Edinburgh University Press, 2017); Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (with Judith Butler, Polity Press, 2013); Crisis as a ‘State of Exception’ (Athens, 2012); Life at the Limit: Essays on Gender, Body and Biopolitics (Athens, 2007); Rewriting Difference: Luce Irigaray and 'the Greeks' (co-ed. with Elena Tzelepis, SUNY Press, 2010). She has been a fellow at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, at Brown University, and at the Center for the Study of Social Difference, at Columbia University. She is a member of the editorial advisory board of the journals Critical Times, Feminist Formations, Philosophy and Society, feministiqά, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, and Journal of Greek Media and Culture.