Ilektra Kyriazidou
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Neighbouring in times of austerity
Intimacy and the ‘noikokyrio’
in Affective intimacies

How is collective intimacy built through commonalities of feeling precarious? The way in which certain forms of intimacy emerge in contexts of precarity and austerity policies is central to the political possibilities of affect in the everyday. In this chapter, I explore gendered embodiments of austerity and the affective dynamics of intimacy in a group of female neighbours who face exhaustion in their efforts to reproduce the everyday labour of life under the restrictions of low income in urban austerity Greece. In particular, I explore how intimacy between them is animated by feelings and interpretations of the austerity experience and show that it corresponds to relations of both solidarity and antagonism and is linked to the local institution of the conjugal household, the ‘noikokyrio’.

‘We feel the crisis on our skin’ was often used by female residents of a low-income neighbourhood in Thessaloniki, a city in northern Greece, to sum up their experiences of austerity. This popular phrase described the way austerity was lived, perceived and objected to by the residents as a form of daily crisis. It was a characteristic way through which they narrated and shared their experiences of being precarious, insecure and bodily exhausted through a feeling that was personal, collective and public at the same time; an appeal to a shared feeling of precarity as their bodies were overwhelmed by daily obstacles and commitments.

The ‘skin’ – the bodily skin and the social skin – offers a symbolic sense of the material and affective effects of austerity; it expresses a sense of embodied austerity, how it is felt as a blow to the body. This singular feeling – expressed, shared and articulated through a plural subject – marks relational milieus that correspond to forms of collective intimacy in living with the disastrous effects of austerity. But what is the qualitative order of this collective intimacy and what does it describe? What are its limits and thresholds? How are the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion demarcated each time people express and observe commonalities and differences of living in precarious conditions?

In this chapter I document and analyse the intimacies that affectively emerge in the everyday construction of meaning and belonging in urban austerity Greece. I focus on collective and gender-based forms of intimacy in neighbourly relations and explore how these are mobilised by embodiments, sentiments and interpretations of austerity experiences and cultural practices and meanings. I approach intimacy through the particular context of neighbourliness and at the level of affective emergences and dispositions, looking at the patterns and thresholds that direct the movements and shifts of collective intimacy.

Intimacy portrays a general realm of relationality and connection commonly associated with familiarity and wrought with continuity and unpredictability (Berlant, 2000). It has received considerable attention in scholarly work as an analytical framework and a subject of exploration, but also as a concept that indicates new realms of study that allow for novel descriptions of a dynamic array of relations (Wilson, 2012). Scholars have employed intimacy as an approach to critically think about the subtle operations of power amongst daily relations, exploring the ways intimacy links to national ideologies (Herzfeld, 2005), gender normativity, the hegemonies accepted in the mainstream culture (Berlant and Warner, 2000), the biopolitics of colonial powers (Stoler, 2002) and the hegemonies of liberal capitalist democracy (Povinelli, 2006). These studies present excellent examples of how the boundaries between the public and the private rearrange, as they examine the intimacy of public institutions, policies and large cultural, economic and political processes and the way these processes are embodied in everyday relations that often correspond to unequal social arrangements.

In line with this approach, this chapter examines the austerity policies implemented in Greece in intimate realms of everyday life. Greece was at the epicentre of the European sovereign debt crisis and has undergone major social, political and economic changes under the violent neoliberal restructuring that was implemented, which produced generalised precarity. This chapter explores the way in which austerity economies become intimate and the forms that intimacy takes in the effects of austerity in urban Greece. Drawing from twelve months of ethnographic research between 2015 and 2016 in a low-income neighbourhood in a western area of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, the chapter attempts to map the affective gendered everyday makings of intimacy between neighbours who face precarious conditions and forms of daily crisis. The neighbours are of different ages (forty-five to sixty-five years old), are mothers and a few are grandmothers, and are unemployed, precariously employed or low pensioned. Some live with their spouses and children, and a few are widowed or separated and live with their children or near their children’s households. The examined intimacy between them is contingent on the power dynamics, histories and locality of realms of neighbourly sociality they share in the everyday. It is shaped by dwelling in proximity and the Mediterranean climate conditions that bring them into public, random encounters at the local open street market, corner shops, Sunday church liturgies, public squares, cafeterias, small gatherings in each other’s houses and fleeting dialogues between them across apartment balconies.

Drawing from ethnographic analysis of data derived from participant observation, semi-structured interviews and informal discussions, I ask how austerity intervenes in the livelihoods of intimate relations and how it is contested and performed from below. To this end I explore two distinct occasions of intimacy between female neighbours, shaped by diverse affects and narratives. I examine how they link to austerity and to the local dominant model of the family household, the ‘noikokyrio’. By ‘noikokyrio’, I refer to a domestic arrangement, the conjugal household, but also to a historical and cultural view of domesticity that orients gender and relationality according to the hegemonic model of heterosexual marriage and procreation, and prioritises conjugal domesticity over any other form of sociality (Papataxiarchis, 2012). I focus on the way that collective intimacy happens in neighbourhood sociality, the form it takes and the traces it leaves behind, and thus I call attention to the narratives and affective compositions and dispositions that condition its emergence.

Affect points to the intensity and the bodily feelings sensed when bodies meet. It evokes the way relations and institutions can become sedimented little by little and how bodies intervene to occasion new emergences of relational realms. In this case, the concept of affect is mobilised in order to attend to scenes unfolding in the precarious conditions of urban austerity Greece, and particularly to the way they channel and mediate embodied life and interaction, composing planes of emergences, thresholds and entrenchments (Stewart, 2007). Hence, the study of intimacy in terms of affect exposes the configurations, discontinuities, contingencies and sedimentations that occur in everyday realms of relationality.

I treat affect in the dimension of the body, in Spinozian terms, as the ability to affect and be affected and thus as an ability to connect with others (Massumi, 2015: ix). Based on this understanding, affect is seen through a political lens as open and incomplete, which expresses a field of possibilities (Avramopoulou, 2018). More specifically, as a potential for collaboration, founded on the relational nature of our being in the world (Ruddick, 2010: 25), and a potential for change sketched in the way bodies affect each other and connect (Massumi, 2015: viii). For example, studies have demonstrated the crucial role of affect in motivating collective responses to inequality and organising forms of resistance (Alexandrakis, 2016). Affect can also reveal self-structuring processes of power relations and institutions and the many ways ‘relations become entrenched’ (Stewart, 2007: 15) and their effects can be translated inequalities (Massumi, 2015: 85–6). Affect thus suggests scenes and events of change but also of solidification (Massumi, 2015; Stewart, 2007; Kolehmainen and Juvonen, 2018). This study offers ways to recognise and understand emergent forms of collective intimacy in austere conditions and subtle reconfigurations in the everyday, but also how forms of living and relating are built up piecemeal and become established.

This chapter contributes to anthropological studies of austerity capitalism and critical discussions on intimacy and affect. It focuses on a particular ethnographic context – gender-based experiences of low-income family households and neighbourhood sociality in urban austerity Greece – and explores manifestations of affect and intimacy and the dynamics of their entanglements. It shows that forms of intimacy between female neighbours, who are trying to cope with the increasing deterioration of life, entail significant affective dimensions and dispositions that paint coalesced relations of solidarity and antagonism, entangled with austerity conditions and the affective and discursive register of the ‘noikokyrio’ in neighbourhood sociality. The distinct forms of intimacy map the intersections of different scales and social contexts, such as the household, austerity state and global neoliberalism, and complicate clear-cut distinctions between resisting and accepting austerity reforms.

Hence, affective intimacies in this chapter entail both affective economies and affective fluid passages that provide us with insight into the political operations of socio-cultural phenomena and into the intimate cost of global policies and their complex entwinement. They touch on deep-seated political questions on the ethics of solidarity and antagonism, as well as on anthropological queries about sociality and the embodiment of institutions and economic programmes.

I now present a neighbourly encounter in which my interlocutors share and discuss the way they feel and experience austerity. In the following section, I ethnographically approach the way their experiences and feelings derive from the changes in the social reproduction of livelihoods in austere times and how these create precarious conditions for them.1 The next two sections then examine how these conditions shape forms of collective intimacy and distinct relations of solidarity and antagonism between the neighbours. The fifth section looks at the affective and discursive role of the ‘noikokyrio’ in the making of collective intimacy. Finally, the last section concludes with some final thoughts on the relations between austerity, gendered precarity and the ‘noikokyrio’.

A neighbourly encounter

It is a spring evening.

We are sitting around the kitchen table, freshly baked sponge cake on plates, cups of coffee and the TV remote control on top of a pile of supermarket sale flyers. The TV is playing in the background.

A wooden cross and an icon of Jesus are hanging above the kitchen counter, and below the icon of Saint Mary.

On the wall to one side there is a credenza, on its long surface there is a whole gallery of our hostess’s family in gold and brown frames.

There is talk between female neighbours. We discuss the latest political news and the daily chores completed, feelings of tiredness and pride resonate in the bodies of my interlocutors as they talk.

The discussion is interrupted when another neighbour comes walking in with a limp and flings herself into a chair. She has taken a short break from caring for her bedridden sick mother next door.

She lets out a long-drawn sigh of pain and irritation. She points to her swollen knee and explains that it is a painful meniscus tear.

Others scold her for continuing to do care work ‘in this condition’. She explains while massaging her knee that is impossible to avoid all the daily activities aggravating the knee injury. ‘Who is going to do them?’ She draws in a breath and raises her brows. Her words set in motion other similar stories. Our hostess recounts her recent experience of continuing to do care work with a broken wrist after tripping on a pavement.

There is an atmosphere of anger as the neighbours talk about feeling overworked and physically exhausted. They talk about the support they offer to their families as something unassailable, but in their statements there is a visceral criticism of continuing working even when ill, tired or injured. They blame the ‘crisis’.

The injured leg is straightened out on the floor as tales are told about the increase of daily housework, about how lives are rearranged around the obstacles and difficulties other family members face, grandchildren’s and parents’ care demands, pension cuts, precarious work and unemployment.

The gendered impact of austerity

I attended this unanticipated meeting with one of my main research participants, who was fifty-eight years old and had been unemployed for two years at the time I got to know her. She was dismissed from her job as a production line worker at a clothing company under new elastic austerity laws regulating lay-offs in the private sector. Faced with a collapsed labour market, she was battling with intersecting forms of precarity and occasionally received municipal support and food from the area’s main church soup kitchen. Yet, even with limited resources, she helped in the reproduction of domestic labour in her two children’s indebted households by cooking, cleaning and caring for the dependent members. In 2016, after six years of ongoing austerity, she was diagnosed with heart disease and suffers from pain and sleeping problems.

Austerity, which has been shown to have a long history across geographies (Rakopoulos, 2018), is a way of managing sovereign debt ‘by the value systems of financial markets’ (Bear, 2015: 192). By austerity I refer to the conditions generated by national policies implemented to reduce the deficit through aggressive fiscal tightening and cuts in public spending, wages and pensions (Blyth, 2013). Greek austerity is a deepening of the neoliberal reforms introduced in the 1990s and is largely known to people in Greece as ‘mnimonia’, the Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) signed under rescue deals and in exchange for loans provided, which produced high unemployment, poverty, homelessness and the precarisation of life and labour. Yet, as studies show, the dire consequences of austerity in Greece were unevenly distributed across contexts of inequality and further increased exploitation and xenophobia (Athanasiou, 2012; Athanasiou and Alexandrakis, 2016; Karamessini, 2013; Vaiou, 2016).

Conducting ethnographic research in a neighbourhood in western Thessaloniki, an area with a high number of households living below the poverty line and widely viewed as working class (laiki sinikia), I encountered the disastrous effects of the intersections of social inequality, austerity capitalism and nationalist institutions that shaped every aspect of people’s lives, their income, health and intimate relations. When I arrived in the field in 2015, it had been five years of continuing austerity and the residents of the neighbourhood referred to ‘crisis’ to describe the political period of a financial meltdown, but most importantly, how they found themselves in a state of profound daily crisis generated by austerity reforms crosscut by unequal structures. The focus here is on the gender aspects of this crisis and how it burdened the lives of my interlocutors who tried to adjust the social reproduction of life to the changing conditions of austerity. As their lives were constantly organised according to the imperatives of reforms and debt repayment, their daily practices of social reproduction intensified in order to fill the gaps created by the reforms (Feminist Fightback, 2011; Hall, 2020).

Greek austerity had a hard impact on low-income family households, with significant gendered dimensions. The drastic household income reduction, the welfare state’s withdrawal and widespread labour precarity called for an increasing participation of female family members in their children’s or parents’ reproduction of livelihoods. We can say that the accelerating precarity strengthened the local model of the ‘functionally extended’ family household, which refers to the family households linked through kinship in the context of a common intergenerational allocation of housework (Papataxiarchis, 2012: 229), and intensified gendered unpaid care work.

My interlocutors were greatly affected by these changes, disproportionally bearing the growing workloads in life’s reproduction. They faced increasing responsibilities in paid and unpaid work, as they struggled to support their families in multiple sites and in ways that often merged production and reproduction. For example, my main interlocutor was trying to earn some money to help her children’s family households by producing home-made spirits, jams and fruit preserves from materials she received from the area’s open street market in exchange for work, which she unofficially sold to her neighbours and the open market. Her closest neighbour worked ‘off the books’, providing in-home senior care to another family household in the neighbourhood, trying to make some money and help her unemployed son. Our hostess in the neighbourly encounter assisted her sister’s bakery business in return for a small unofficial payment that complemented her pension and allowed her to support her children’s families. The spaces and temporalities of production and social reproduction often overlapped and realigned the taken-for-granted boundaries between the private and the public, the economic and the intimate (Wilson, 2012).

At the same time, my interlocutors tried daily to redraw the borders between paid labour and household life, in their attempts to offset the insecurity of the precarious work they and other family members faced. They managed affective and financial economies and temporalities with more work and less income, and often felt anxiety under the pressure to organise expenses and careful spending, prioritising the needs and desires of other family members. This form of self-giving to their families – even if not a disinterested gift as it often accomplished other interests, such as securing the loyalty of children – was precarious and emotionally conflicting. I thus approach their practices of everyday social reproduction under austerity not solely as ways of surviving crises and fields of everyday struggle but also as realms of precarity. They evoke the ordinariness of austerity crises and show how austerity economies depend on gendered unwaged labour. Most importantly, they name anxiety and physical exhaustion as core gendered embodiments of austerity in low-income households.

Collective intimacy and relations of solidarity in precarious situations

Let us return to the neighbourly encounter described. In this unplanned meeting the participants talked about their troubles in coping with the intensification of physical and emotional work that goes into supporting their families. During the talk there was a palpable sense of anger and frustration. Troubles registered in emotions and emotions begot emotions that made the precarity experienced alongside the difficulties and anguish in everyday social reproduction affectively apparent. Yet, the talk delivered a contradictory feeling of frustration, anger and pride in dealing with daily forms of crisis.

As I accompanied my main interlocutor around the neighbourhood, a few more similar events unexpectedly followed. Each event happened differently, yet each time female neighbours complained about the increasing troubles they faced in their efforts to help and care for their families. Every time I wrote the content of the stories told and the feelings felt in my fieldwork notes. I tried to map the form and potentiality of the emergent intimacy between the participants in these events and the entangled emotional landscapes: the anxiety, insecurity, pride, frustration and anger.

The collective anger and lament unfolding in these meetings brought to attention a situation and, in that sense, made visible the hidden practices and relations that are involved in the sustenance of family households and interrupted the invisibility of the gendered impact of austerity. This brought about yet further implications, i.e. the undermining of the nationalist framed narratives of the Greek debt crisis, which assumed a homogenous social body equally affected by austerity. Above all, they generated a common sphere for thinking and feeling the experienced conflicts and troubles in the everyday that gave way to a gender-based solidarity, as we will see.

Taking into consideration the affective aspect of this realm of relationality allows us to understand the way intimacy happened, what form it assumed. Candace Vogler’s (2000) affective approach to ‘troubles talk’ between women is extremely relevant here. As she describes, ‘troubles talk’ (women talking about their troubles) is ‘a kind of collective lament’ (Vogler, 2000: 79) that does not re-inscribe the borders of selfhood but shapes a ‘depersonalising’ intimacy that is ‘beyond an affair of the self’ (Vogler, 2000: 81). The aim of these conversations is not so much to find solutions to the problems discussed but to immerse oneself in the talk (Vogler, 2000).

The meetings between female neighbours described here did not resolve the problems voiced but fashioned a larger affective setting through which they expressed their stories and conflicting feelings. The talk did not seek solutions, nor did it end with giving final answers, but flagged something that could no longer be suppressed. It raised the problem of the intensification of gendered unpaid work and the precarity it causes at the level of affect. This is a key aspect of the form of intimacy between the neighbours in these events. A kind of intimacy, as Vogler (2000: 81) insightfully describes, that allows one to ‘feel like the most personal things do not mark one off as unique’.

This central feature of the intimacy during the ‘troubles talk’ generated and sustained the potential to rethink personal experience in relational and political terms (Vogler, 2000). It revealed how relationality can constitute a politically important act in itself (Ruddick, 2010), more so in austerity times (Hall, 2020), that can take the shape of a gender-based solidarity. Focusing on affect helps us to recognise this solidarity, which was not claimed nor named – a solidarity that corresponded to an affective bond built amidst resonating patterns of experiencing, thinking and feeling. A solidarity that just happened in the sharing of troubles and emotions and that constituted a political relation that did not operate at the level of feminist political action but registered as an affective and active passage and interaction. A solidarity that charted a potentiality in the way bodies can relate to each other in the daily life of the neighbourhood.

The solidarity described here is thus a political relation and affect that could not be formulated as a strategy. Ways of relating in the neighbourhood can generate solidarity but cannot, however, plan or organise it. They can shape matrixes of words, intensities, connections and feelings that can generate a relation of solidarity that can re-arise but cannot be mastered. However unpredictable and unstructured, this relation is important in bringing bodies together against the individualisation of their experiences that tends to hide their anguishes and experienced conflicts. Moreover, it seems to challenge the rationality of austerity that is founded to a great extent on the responsibilisation of citizens, which displaces welfare into the ethics of personal responsibility and tends to convert widespread precarity into fragmented individualised experiences. This kind of collective intimacy therefore constitutes a potent example of the political possibilities of creating sites of recognised relationality amidst commonalities of feeling precarious (Butler, 2004).

Antagonism and the austerity state

The instances of solidarity described above coexisted with different events and forms of sociality in this group of neighbours. I am referring here to events that were marked by hostility and conflict between my interlocutors and that in distinct ways shaped the dynamics of collective intimacy in the neighbourhood. In these moments, the neighbours engaged in a kind of antagonistic relationality, manifested in insinuations and adverse comments expressed towards each other and in scenes of tacit hostility and mistrust. In what follows, I give two examples that portray the content and the subtleties of such events of antagonism between them.

Two neighbours, with whom I was conversing at a local café one evening, interpreted the difficult circumstances experienced by another neighbour (my main interlocutor) as her own failing as a single mother to make sensible financial management in the past. They also accused her of previously spending money recklessly in what is considered an anti-domestic practice, partying at local live music nightclubs (mpouzoukia). Her problems were contrasted with the difficulties they unjustly faced with the austerity policies. In another instance when I was with my main interlocutor at the open local market and met them again, we all started discussing the problem of another neighbour who worked informally as an in-home senior carer and had been unpaid for three months. While we all agreed on the grim effects of her situation, I was surprised to hear my three discussants commenting that she was ‘also lazy’ and ‘not good at her job’.

There have been previous observations of gender-based antagonism in Greece (Cowan, 1990; Herzfeld, 1985).2 Yet, in the specific context of austerity, antagonism is shaped by the situation of living in precarious conditions and with low income. It entails an antagonistic position taken across experiences of national austerity. Antagonism is thus not so much the result of individualism but of a distressed reflection of one’s position vis-à-vis precarity and the austerity state. It involves emotional elaborations of disregard and indifference towards others and their hard struggle to reproduce the labour of daily life amidst impediments and the uncertainty of precarious work. This resonates with the ‘affective formation of indifference’ by the politics of exclusion enacted by the austerity state towards those bodies that were presented as a threat to the national order in crisis (Kyriakopoulos, 2016: 97).

The allegations even seemed to propose that those to whom they were directed were the agents of their own precarity due to previous excess, laziness and irresponsible behaviour. They were not simply expressions of a negative view but negative definitions that pronounced what the other female neighbours were not: good carers, housewives and mothers. The figures of the irresponsible mother and lazy carer were juxtaposed with the way that caring, mothering and managing the family household is expected to happen. I propose thus to see these acts of accusing and antagonising other neighbours not solely as expressions of power dynamics in everyday sociality, but also in terms of the gender normativities they reanimate and the effects of inequality they affirm.

In austere conditions, the antagonism seemed to pit neighbour against neighbour and tended to become a way through which neighbours disciplined each other. What strikes me is that the moral narratives employed by my interlocutors resemble the morality of shaming of debt (Graeber, 2011), central in the negotiation and management of the Greek debt crisis, which not only shaped popular views but also influenced policy. They recall the demonisation of the local population in Greece (Shore and Raudon, 2018), portrayed in orientalist terms as lazy, irresponsible and unruly, that influenced the national imagination (Kalantzis, 2015).

We see therefore how antagonism offers the medium through which global policies fasten into deeply embedded local meanings and relations (Herzfeld, 2016); the way it organises a moral sociality in which austerity is performed from below. Let us not forget that austerity was presented by policy makers as a necessary response to previous excess and a form of self-discipline (Muechlebach, 2016), which suggests reverberations and overlaps with accusations of previous overspending towards my main interlocutor.

The tensions and divisiveness I witnessed in these moments of antagonism evidenced that solidarity was overridden by conflict and collective intimacy shifted into a matter between antagonistic selves. The co-presence of these diverse instances and the conflicting and ambiguous emotional entanglements, gathered up in everyday scenes of neighbourhood sociality, complicated my inquiry into the relations between female neighbours afflicted by austerity and prompted me to think further on this messy ecology of intimacy.

Seen in the context of previous ethnographic references, solidarity and antagonism are not contradictory relations but moments of a constantly changing sociality that can easily shift from affinity to hostility (Herzfeld, 2016).3 Yet, what interests me here is the affective and discursive role of the local model of the family household, the ‘noikokyrio’, in these tangled compositions of intimacy.

The ‘noikokyrio’ as ethos and affect disposition

As I followed my interlocutors in their everyday routines and interviewed them about certain aspects of their lives, I came to realise the affective subjective dispositions of their statements and practices which included: regular comments on how others – relatives, friends and neighbours – attended to the project of ‘noikokyrio’, the local model of family domesticity based on heterosexual marriage, and a persistent pursuit of recognition for being ‘good’ housewives, mothers, grandmothers, spouses by demonstrating how ‘well’ they inhabited these gendered realms of identity. This aspect of demonstrating excellence in embodying and reproducing the ‘noikokyrio’ is central to the sense of belonging it promises. And it is this promise of inclusion and belonging that colonises the affective ecology of collective intimacy.

I want to argue that the collective intimacy in this group of neighbours that continuously interfolds solidarity and antagonism, however idiosyncratic, is linked to the ‘noikokyrio’. I do not refer here to the ‘noikokyrio’ as an unchanging structure that reigns over all of local social life. There have been important changes and novel forms of kinship and domesticity (Kantsa, 2006; Kantsa and Chalkidou, 2014).4 Most importantly, I do not approach the ‘noikokyrio’ solely as a domestic arrangement, but as a cultural background that organises kinship, gender and sociality (Papataxiarchis, 2012). There is a deep-seated competitive and conservative ‘ethos’ that is shaped by the way the ‘noikokyrio’ is positioned as an independent economic and social unit that must constantly defend itself against external real and imagined threats and struggle for its conservation (Papataxiarchis, 2020). This ethos informs all aspects of Greek society, a society fundamentally of the ‘noikokyreous’ (people of the ‘noikokyrio’) (Papataxiarchis, 2020: 70). It is an ethos that tends to enforce heteronormativity in the everyday (Papataxiarchis, 2012), affectively as a sense of rightness based on the norm of heterosexuality, in all aspects of different forms of social life (Berlant and Warner, 2000: 312). It corresponds to a reality people affectively shape and whose shape they acquire (Ahmed, 2014: 148). But let me first outline some key aspects drawn from previous anthropological accounts that outline what is culturally distinctive in the ethos of the ‘noikokyrio’.

First, we must take into account that the ‘noikokyrio’ is promoted by the state and the church and widely adopted by the local population in Greece (Papataxiarchis, 2012). Its strength is depicted in several indicators, such as the high number of conjugal family households and the absence of state policies in support of other family and domestic arrangements (Kantsa and Chalkidou 2014; Papataxiarchis, 2012). It is founded on a set of normative meanings and associations between kinship, gender and sexuality, that provide what Herzfeld (2005) calls the ‘cultural intimacy’ of the Greek state, the representations of the essentialisms of nationalism and ‘national heterosexuality’ (Berlant and Warner, 2000), in popular culture, law and economy. Motherhood, for instance, is rife with normative meanings of life, gender (Athanasiou, 2006) and sexuality (Kantsa and Chalkidou, 2014); it is seen as a moral attribute (Paxson, 2004: 18) and a duty to the family, God and the nation (Georgiadi, 2013), and underscored by Christian beliefs and identifications with the image of Saint Mary as a devoted mother (Rushton, 1998). Being a housewife (noikokyra) is a source of status in successfully reproducing the household in managing economy and order (Salamone and Stanton, 1986).

During periods of crisis the link between the nation and the ‘noikokyrio’ is strengthened. The nation in crisis threatened by others (the foreign powers that manage austerity, the immigrants that enter the country, the undisciplined bodies), must protect and defend the ‘noikokyria’ against the hostile others (Athanasiou, 2012; Papataxiarchis, 2020). The defensive nationalism that was cultivated (Kotouza, 2019) intensifies the conservative ethos of the ‘noikokyrio’; in times of crisis ‘the insecure nation corresponds to the insecure “noikokyrio”’ (Papataxiarchis, 2020: 70).

The ‘noikokyrio’ operates as a regime of belonging; it acts as a central organising principle of inclusion. ‘It presents to individuals the most viable cultural option according to which the self as a member of a corporate conjugal group is entitled to a place in the wider community’ (Papataxiarchis, 2012: 223). And while it can function as a medium of integration (Rozakou, 2006), a refusal to reproduce it brings stigmatisation and othering (Athanasiou, 2006). Those who do not match the privileged ethos of the ‘noikokyrio’ and don’t feel part of the belonging in a normal way are confronted with the exclusionary aspects of this ethos (Kantsa and Chalkidou, 2014). While those who invest in it must constantly demonstrate compliance in performing and embodying the ethos of the ‘noikokyrio’ (Papataxiarchis, 2020). This can take cruel and violent dimensions.5

Thus, the issue here is how ordinarily hostile the antagonistic ethos of the ‘noikokyrio’ can become. How do investments in the ‘noikokyrio’ and belonging move into and through the regeneration of exclusion? How do gendered patterns of responsibility and support of the ‘noikokyrio’ exhaust the gendered body in austere times? But also, how does the ethos of the ‘noikokyrio’ become compatible with neoliberal global policies? The case examined here of gender-based experiences of exhaustion during austerity in the context of reproducing the ‘noikokyrio’, entwined with solidarity and hostile antagonism between female neighbours, articulates exactly these concerns. It expresses certain implications of the austerity experience in relation to the ordinariness of crisis, exhaustion and indifference and to the complicity of culturally-oriented feelings and relations with a neoliberal logic.

Approaching the ‘noikokyrio’ as an ethos, I believe, helps us to understand its affective reach in everyday local sociality: how it orients the affective into privileged realms of gendered meaning and action and draws boundaries of communication that guide everyday makings of intimacy. How, in short, it organises gender and intimacy not through a set of demarcated norms but on an affective everyday level. From this point of view, antagonism depicts what Sara Ahmed (2014: 8) calls ‘affective economy’, a feeling produced as an effect of ‘circulation’ that is culturally and socially oriented and that, in this case, forms part of the conditions of the emergence of neighbourly intimacy. Solidarity is thus a passage of intimacy that follows a series of affective transformations worked upon antagonism. In this case, it comes with the sharing of troubles felt within the ‘noikokyrio’ between female neighbours. And although it does not challenge the premise of the ‘noikokyrio’, it marks a realm of relationality that does not work through exclusion and indifference. I propose to see the antagonism between the neighbours thus as an ambivalence that describes how gender-based conflicts can give way to bonds and how alliances often entail conflicts (Vlahoutsikou, 2003).


In this chapter I focused on diverse couplings of intimacy and affect in the sociality of a group of female neighbours who face difficulties in reproducing the daily labour of life under the restrictions of low income in urban austerity Greece. I looked at the discontinuities, concretions and eventualities that were taking place as austerity intervenes in their lives and relations. The tones and contents of their statements, traversed by different affective dynamics, were central in mapping the intimacy that was formed between them in everyday neighbourhood sociality. On one hand, affect depicted a carriage of potential for the renewal of neighbourly relations and, on the other hand, an affective economy of exclusionary effect.

The affective entanglements of the collective intimacy examined in this ethnographic account revealed the potentialities of relational fields built in the everyday amidst growing social and health inequalities, alongside the affective politics of sharing commonalities of feeling precarious, exploited and exhausted in settings of neoliberal transformation. It also provided an example of the way people are often immersed in affective fields of relations that affirm various forms of exclusion and inequality.

The intimacy between my interlocutors developed from a collective lament into solidarity as they engaged with the affect that emerged in sharing the difficulties and exhaustion they faced in their efforts to help their families during austerity times. They expressed conflicting feelings in the strained self-giving of the body, and contested the precarity and invisibility of social reproduction and the neoliberal rationality of austerity. But, in the same group of neighbours, collective intimacy also took an exclusionary form as it was driven by antagonism brewing in neighbourhood sociality, an affective economy oriented by the conservative ethos of the local institution of the family household, the ‘noikokyrio’. In this instance, neighbours interpreted other neighbours’ precarious experiences of austerity as personal gender failures. Such evaluations were entirely compatible with the ideological nexus of debt-austerity state-global neoliberal institutions.

What can we draw from this ethnographic case of distinct forms of collective intimacy during austerity coalescing into everyday neighbourliness? Firstly, we see the human and intimate cost of global neoliberal capitalism (Panourgia, 2016). We see how austerity changes peoples’ lives and exhausts low-income women. But also, how it is contested and institutionalised at a personal and collective level as it acquires meaning within everyday practices and relations. It appears that experiences of austerity correspond to complex affective realities that lie beyond accepting or rejecting austerity (Hall, 2020). We see, at the same time, how the ‘noikokyrio’ succeeds in reproducing and maintaining itself not as rationality but as affectivity which operates ‘by weaving ways of feeling and acting … into the habitual fabric of everyday life’ (Massumi, 2015: 85). Furthermore, we see how the ‘noikokyrio’ becomes central in people’s lives during periods of crisis: as a defence mechanism mobilising patterns of responsibility and support that burden female members, and as a moral ground on which people interpret other’s precarious livelihoods according to gender stereotypes. This indicates some further consequences: the reinforcement of essentialised accounts of gender during austerity (Avdela, 2013), and a generalised conservative recoil.

As I finish writing this essay, the outbreak of COVID-19 has generated a new language of crisis and urgency and a new affective landscape of precarity exacerbated by a previous period of exhausting austerity. It has divested forms of collective life and magnified the cultural significance of the ‘noikokyrio’ and its heteronormative ethos (Papataxiarchis, 2020), and increased household responsibilities that burden women (Vaiou, 2020). The pandemic situation has recreated imaginaries of the ‘noikokyrio’ as a realm of safety and a shield of protection from the virus that once more disavow its cruel dimensions and deeply entrenched gender inequalities. This time though, the patterns of commitment and reciprocity across family and generational ties have altered under the pressures of confinement. At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted the urgency of reconsidering the economy of paid and unpaid care work and the rationality of austerity and its impact on health and health services. The severe public cuts had left a large part of the population more vulnerable to the pandemic and exposed to health inequalities.


1 By social reproduction, I refer, as per Federici (2012: 5), to ‘the complex of activities and relations by which our life and labour are daily reconstituted’, which are gendered, devalued and made invisible in capitalist economies.
2 From early ethnographies (Campbell, 1964; Friedl, 1962) on Greece, a central topic has been the extra-domestic antagonistic sociality that is opposed to the support of familial relations.
3 Contemporary ethnographic accounts of neighbourly intimacy in urban austerity Greece (Kyriazidou, 2019) depict messy zones of care and hostility, which are also observed in other neoliberal national contexts of precarity (Han, 2012).
4 The twenty-first century has also seen recreations of queer histories and contemporaneity in/of Greece and new local queer grassroots movements, which are critical towards the ‘noikokyrio’ (Papanikolaou and Kolocotroni, 2018).
5 I am referring here to the murderous attack in Athens in September 2018 on a queer activist and drag performer, Zak Kostopoulos, who was accidentally locked in a jewellery store and while trying to get out was beaten to death by the shop owner and police in front of a crowd that just stood by. Zak’s death was linked to the macho culture of the ‘noikokyrio’ (Athanasiou and Papanikolaou, 2020).


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