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First as tragedy

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This is definitely going to be all over the place, because I’m writing it as much to sort out my thoughts as anything. Buckle up.

I’ve mentioned before that I consider Antigone to be an important part of my mess of an ideological system, and I’d like to try to explain why. In case you’re unfamiliar with the text and can’t be bothered to skim the wiki article: it’s a play by the Greek tragedian Sophocles, written sometime in the fifth century BCE. Antigone is the sister of Polyneices, pretender to the throne of Thebes, slain in a civil war. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, declares that Polyneices is to be denied the honour of a traditional burial. Antigone declares this decree unjust and contrary to divine law, and buries the body herself; Creon, in turn, sentences her to death. He later reverses the verdict, spooked by the prophecy of Tiresias, the blind soothsayer. Rather than wait for the sentence to be carried out, however, Antigone has already managed to hang herself. Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed, commits suicide upon discovering her body. Eurydice, his mother, kills herself when news of her son’s death reaches her. Creon repents and despairs, but the damage is done. Curtains.

The full text (trans. R. C. Jebb) is available here. It’s not the most exciting read, but it’s short, and worth your time just for the scene of Antigone’s trial.

Antigone in New York

A scene from the TV production of Janusz Głowacki's tragic farce, "Antigone in New York". You should probably see it if you get the chance.

In Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as a story about “the sort of man who is not pre-eminently virtuous and just, and yet it is through no badness or villainy of his own that he falls into the fortune, but rather through some flaw [ἁμαρτία] in him, he being one of those who are in high station and good fortune.” You’ve probably already noticed what I might find interesting about Sophocles’ play in the light of this definition: the title isn’t Creon. The story of the king of Thebes mirrors the one of Oedipus, the one that Aristotle had in mind when delineating the prototypical tragedy, but… it’s not his story, really, is it? It’s not just the title; Antigone is clearly one of the two central characters in the text, or perhaps the central one. (This is actually extremely important, but it’ll take me a while to get to that.)

So that’s the first thing: Antigone is vaguely pleasing to a feminist sensibility. Don’t confuse that for my saying it’s an overtly feminist text or anything, but it welcomes and encourages a reading of Antigone as the main tragic character, rather than Creon, in stark contrast with Aristotle’s Poetics and most of our received and unexamined wisdom about the history of European literature (and in doing so, encourages the reader to question and review that wisdom). That’s gotta count for something.

The second thing, the one that inevitably comes up when discussing this text, is the matter of kinship and citizenship. I think there’s a whole lot more at stake here than just some legalistic quibble, though. The issue, as it’s usually presented, would seem to be a conflict of jurisdiction: who has authority to decide what to do with the corpse of Polyneices? The established law and traditions of the land? His family? The current ruler? The will of the people? Zeus?

My favourite line of the text, which Jebb kind of wrecked, is “Tis not my nature to join in hating, but in loving.” I’m convinced it should rather go “I’m called to share in loving, not to join in hate.” Then again, I don’t know Greek at all. I just think it sounds better.

This line describes and frames the central conflict. It’s not about whether kinship trumps royal decree, not at all. Rather, as a liberation theologian might put it, the conflict over the body stands for the conflict between Love and Power. And the thing about Love is, it’s not just some neurological phenomenon, but an ethical stance, an ideology and a goddamn force of nature. In fact, a Christian reader would have a field day with the text’s invocation of “divine law”, and its alignment with Love. The best I can do is note the poignancy of the metaphor.

There is a peculiarly American expression for a peculiarly American mode of discourse: “speaking truth to power.” As far as I can tell, it’s actually a recent invention; the Quaker origin story seems plausible. This is the mode of expression typically ascribed to people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Hicks. It’s considered unequivocally positive: it withholds nothing, it exposes the buffoonery and villainy of the mighty, it puts them in their place.

'Hello, chaps! Comrade Deng sent you, yes? Haha, what a fucking gǒushǐ duī! All his policies suck, am I right? Carry on then!' — found in an unfinished manuscript of a Jon Stewart sketch

It’s also absolutely worthless. What does Power care for truth? It’s got plenty of that already, and can manufacture more as needed. The whole point of Power is that its naked material might is cloaked in pervasive epistemic control. The bloodthirsty feudal warlord rules by divine right; the international philantropist and predatory financial speculator pulled himself up by his bootstraps; the abusive husband is just subject to the tempestuous whims of male biology, which require a gentle and submissive handmaiden. Those who make a career of gently mocking the order of Things Believed to be True realize this; they stop just short of unsettling conclusions, “unreasonable” claims and, yes, disturbing truths. Truth to power? You may as well go fart into a hurricane.

This is the third thing, and the most important. Antigone doesn’t “speak truth to power.” Antigone calls Power to account. Actually, it’s even more than that; everything she says to Creon, the agent of Power, can be distilled down to just one word: no. She is wronged by Creon, and she disobeys. Feel free to posit that Creon transgresses against the primal and ultimate reality of Love; it’s a nice sentiment, but not one I can share in good faith. I think all the reasons she gives: love, tradition, the divine order, begin to coalesce and “make sense” only after the no, which is itself a response to Creon’s exercise of perfectly legal and eminently reasonable state violence.

I’ve mentioned “human nature” before, because I think that this aspect of Antigone is extremely productive for a possible emancipatory narrative of human nature. (It helps that it’s an ancient Greek text, too; that gives it that good old air of Eurocentric philosophical legitimacy.) My suggestion goes something like this:

The experience of being human is tragic, but not in the Aristotelian sense. We are caught between overwhelming forces: social, economic, historical, biological. Even imagining for a second that Utopia has dawned and all injustice has been banished, we are still left with good old sickness, death, grief, unrequited love, unfulfilled desire, disappointment, failure, betrayal. Our inescapable tragic flaw is that to all these merciless, uncaring forces, we are compelled again and again and again to answer: no.

Is this account of the human condition true? No, not in any meaningful sense I can think of. But it makes for a damn good story.

So, going back to that question I suggested way back at the beginning: why is Antigone not called Creon?

Both of the main characters are trapped in a tragic situation, but only one of them is “properly” tragic, according to my formulation. Creon acts the way Power demands of him, because that’s what a “strong” king does. He safeguards the legitimacy of the established social structure and avenges all perceived slights. He cannot show leniency to the defeated usurper; in doing so, he would be admitting the usurpation at the very core of royalty. In doing so, he is not “flawed”. He says yes. Yes, death to Antigone. It must be so.

So that’s one reason: Antigone is the more human character, the more relatable one. Her no makes fundamental sense to us; we feel in the gut that, for whatever reason, she’s doing the right thing.

But there’s also something else.

Why then dost thou delay? In thy discourse there is nought that pleases me,-never may there be!-and so my words must needs be unpleasing to thee. And yet, for glory-whence could I have won a nobler, than by giving burial to mine own brother? All here would own that they thought it well, were not their lips sealed by fear. But royalty, blest in so much besides, hath the power to do and say what it will.

Thou differest from all these Thebans in that view.

These also share it; but they curb their tongues for thee.

I don’t think it’s all that vanguardist to point out that Antigone, in fact, speaks for the people.

It’s good to cultivate a healthy mistrust of anyone who claims to do that, of course. But here? When the same grim Power that looms over the lives of all Thebans has taken a direct and personal blow at her?

Yeah, I’ll take her at her word.

Written by unhaunting

October 4, 2011 at 6:53 pm


with 2 comments

I was certain this was common knowledge, but two people have asked me to clarify, so I’m providing the full Žižek quote here. Bear in mind that this is my retranslation into English from the Polish translation that I own, so it will definitely differ from the original text. Still, the gist will be there, I’m sure.

One of the specifically pernicious effects of the politically correct Cultural Studies position is a (concealed, but hence even more effective) prohibition against revealing the structural problem of lesbian subjectivity; against an attempt to understand the clinical fact that most lesbian relationships are unusually cold, emotionally distant, radically narcissistic; that love within their context is impossible, and the subject’s own position is problematic. As if drawing logical conclusions from this fact (and not just handwaving it away as an effect of internalized patriarchal repression) was equivalent to accepting classical patriarchal “wisdom”.

(Rewolucja u bram. Pisma Lenina z roku 1917, Posłowie, str. 441. wyd. ha!art, Kraków 2006, tłum. Julian Kutyła; here’s the English version)

Clinical fact! Did you fucking see that? Old boy Slavoj presumes to know clinical facts about lesbian relationships — and what a very specific word that is, too, clinical. Pathological, he might as well have written. Thus spake the privileged interpreter of female sexuality. How he came to possess the objective knowledge of these clinical facts, we can only speculate. (Personally, I’d assume he’s extrapolating from something Judith Butler told him about a friend of hers. Clinical facts indeed.)

When I read it first, I was furious, but seeing how everyone around me was enamored with Žižek, I kind of let it slide. I figured they’ve read it too, and there’s already been a shitstorm about it, and one way or another, the matter’s been settled. But… I don’t think it has, actually.

So that’s why I’ve never liked him, and I never will. I don’t give a shit if this is “on purpose” or to rile up “the liberals” or what. It’s dehumanizing and patronizing shit, turning the lived identities and experiences of women who love women into some abstract post-Lacanian theory that speculates upon their subjectivity — right after it erases their existence. This point he attempts ot make here clearly shows that he hasn’t made the slightest critical engagement with feminist theory, besides ransacking it for whatever he thought sounded cool, and yet he wants to be taken seriously?

Actually, “pretending he gets it” is still giving him too much credit. I think he is quite consciously working to reestablish the acceptability, or even necessity, of male privilege in leftist discourse.

We must reject this completely. Combat Žižek.

EDIT: And lest we forget his principled stance against the menace of multiculturalism. Thanks to @Aidan_Rowe for linking me to this, I wanted to include it but couldn’t find it in my bookmarks.

Written by unhaunting

September 22, 2011 at 6:04 pm


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