Invocations of the Tragic:
A Glossary for Critical Theory

The glossary explores what persists and what remains from the textual, epistemic, aesthetic, and political legacy of “Antigone” at the present historical moment with regard to pursuits of dissent, agonism, democracy, egalitarianism, and revolt. Each lexical entry invokes a single concept related to “Antigone,” while questioning conventional assumptions about the tragic and its implications for contemporary critical theory. The entries encourage us to ask whether there can be another way of performing a glossary, beyond definitional finality and cathartic closure.
Editors: Athena Athanasiou and Elena Tzelepis
Editorial assistance: Alkisti Efthymiou

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Activism

by Adriana Zaharijević

 

Antigone is a defiant maker of her own history: she seems to be what all activists inherently strive for. Antigone fights unflinchingly for what she believes right, against the authority embodied in the laws of the sovereign, appropriating his words, and valiantly speaking back. Her will is so strong that she rejects counsels and appeals of those she holds dearest, her sister and her lover. No one can hold her back. Until the very end, she remains determined to be her own legislator, even if this means legislating death to herself. Antigone’s defiance, however, goes beyond her entombment in the death chamber. She stakes not only her life, but also all of what life—a life of a woman in the ancient polis—could have consisted of. By flouting the law, she renounces her femaleness, rejecting an existence of “only and exclusively… the fleshy prerequisite of biological life” (Athanasiou and Tzelepis 108). By her doing and undoing—rites, speech, sex, laws—Antigone performs a series of transgressions and produces a radical crisis in established power. By being steadfast and consequent in her resoluteness, she undoes the political, but also the order on which the polis depends. The chorus both reprimands her (“your self-willed temper has destroyed you” (Sophocles 93)) and praises her, calling her glorious and αὐτόνομος, “answering only to the laws of yourself” (Sophocles 90).

 

Antigone’s autonomy is reflected in her being the only mortal who, guided only by her own laws, will go into Hades alive. But, her indisputable heroism notwithstanding, Antigone cannot function as the paradigmatic figure of political agency, and therefore activism. In our activism, we cannot want to emulate her. Antigone dies. She pays for her defiance with her life. The risk she was prepared to take led to her bodily disintegration. Thus, the main question for political activism is: what would it mean for Antigone to have stood up to Creon and lived?

 

If we follow Judith Butler, we need to be able to envision a world in which we, as activists, perform transgressions and produce crises in established power—without risking disintegration, without putting our lives at stake. Antigone’s story is thus also a story that tells us that the individual—however autonomous—cannot stand up to social reality alone. We want an activism that challenges social intelligibility and political representability, but without tragedy, without staking life. The question of survival is, in a sense, a prerequisite for a successful or, rather, livable political agency. Thus Butler says: “It seems to me that you survive in community or in solidarity, with others who are taking the risk with you. So there might be a kind of collective effort that allows for those risks to be taken, pose a certain danger but not a suicidal one.”

 

Butler wants to keep Antigone, but not as a heroic individual. “We should be able to live in a world in which our demands for justice do not cost us our lives. We want to survive; we want to make such claims and survive. So the question that Antigone raises for me is, what kind of world would it have been or could it be in which Antigone could survive?” (Reddy and Butler 122). What kind of world do we want to build through our activist actions? One in which no Antigone would have died.

 

And how to reach that world? “The only way she could have lived is if she had had a serious social movement with her… It’s really important to be able to re-situate one’s rage and destitution in the context of a social movement” (Bella). Imagine that Antigone had others who were taking the risk “with her”: she leads or participates in an insurrection against the tyrant, or in a massive public mourning, a kind of collective act of defiance of a sovereign edict. Not only does she then perhaps not die, but her body is shielded and sheltered by other bodies, gathered together. (Zaharijević)

 

We need Antigone to live in order to continue undoing the status quo. We need her heroism, but only if she acts with others, in concert. Antigone alive should be our paradigm for acting.

 

References

 

Athanasiou, Athena, and Elena Tzelepis. “Mourning (as) Woman: Event, Catachresis, and ‘That Other Face of Discourse’.” Rewriting Difference. Luce Irigaray and the “Greeks,” edited by Elena Tzelepis and Athena Athanasiou, SUNY Press, 2010, pp. 105–118.

 

Bella, Kyle. “Bodies in Alliance: Gender Theorist Judith Butler on the Occupy and SlutWalk Movements.” Truthout, 15 December 2011, https://truthout.org/articles/bodies-in-alliance-gender-theorist-judith-butler-on-the-occupy-and-slutwalk-movements/

 

Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble: Still Revolutionary or Obsolete?” Interview by Bang Bang, May 2007, http://www.fahamu.org/mbbc/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/BangBang2007InterviewwithJudithButler.pdf

 

Reddy, Vasu, and Judith Butler. “Troubling Genders, Subverting Identities: Interview with Judith Butler.” Agenda, vol. 18, no. 62, 2004, pp. 115–123, doi: 10.1080/10130950.2004.9676210.

 

Sophocles. Antigone. Oxford University Press, edited and translated by Reginald Gibbons and Charles Segal, 2003.

 

Zaharijević, Adriana. Butler and Politics. Edinburgh University Press, 2023 (upcoming).

 

Bio

Adriana Zaharijević is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory (University of Belgrade) and an Assistant Professor of gender studies at the University of Novi Sad. Zaharijević’s research interests have developed along two axes: first, the history and theories of women’s movements both in the West and in the East, especially Yugoslavia and contemporary Serbia, with a special stress on anti-militarism, anti-nationalism and, of recent, anti-capitalism; second, theoretical and historical underpinnings of the contemporary neoliberalism. She publishes on different topics within political philosophy (critique of liberalism, feminist philosophy, and critique of violence), and engagement studies (agency, translation, and critique as engagement).

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