Antigone and Friends

Antigone and Friends

A page from Anne Carson’s Antigonick,
illustrated by Bianca Stone.


Does Antigone need to act alone?

She is called ‘autonomous’, more curse than praise, and this is how Anne Carson re-writes, and enacts that term, (which allegedly appears for the first time in Greek tragedy):









(Antigonick, translated by Anne Carson, Illustrated by Bianca Stone, Design by Robert Currie, Bloodaxe Books, 2012)

Can such a self-identified, self-driven agent also act as the gestus of collective action? Or does Antigone always remain alone in her self-isolated, albeit heroic splendour?

In other words, beyond the bad blood that connects Antigone to her kin, can Antigone ever have friends? Can she enact a politics of friendship, one that may take the place of a politics of kinship?

Some thoughts below:


Antigone as anti-mother:

Antigone and Agave.

In enacting her name, Antigone appears as the anti-mother of Greek tragedy. We would be hard-pushed to find a major philosopher or political theorist of modernity from Hegel onwards who has not engaged with Antigone, as a motor of political action and/or philosophical critique. This analysis would like to pose Antigone at one end of the spectrum that triggers the Mother-machine. She is the anti-mother, against reproductive futurity (as the more recent readings after Judith Butler’s suggest). Although her body is driven by a thanatoerotic drive that is only married to death, she nevertheless helps to birth and generate endless ideas, about engagement and political action. At the other end of the spectrum, I would like to look at Agave. In many ways, she is the consummate mother, who generates both birth and death, and helps to articulate an aesthetics of cruelty for the stage in the process. Both, I would claim, act to unhinge the relationship between maternity and natality. The opening up of this gap sets into motion an aesthetics of cruelty for the stage. Like most mothers of Greek tragedy, Antigone and Agave are the opposite of nurturing; what they act to destroy, however, may also act as the ground and basis for the creation of theatricality.


Antigone as anti-sister:

Antigone and Ismene.

Let’s start at the beginning:

o koinon Autadelphon ismenes kara

Much has been made of Antigone as introducing a discourse of sorority—one that has been politically interpreted by schools of political theorists and philosophers, most notably Irigaray and Honig, as representing the possibility of a feminist agonistic discourse. Hölderlin famously translates the line into almost a single word (Gemeinsamschwesterliches, o Ismenes Haupt!), stressing the natal links between the two sisters and mobilising that German term (Gemeinschaft) so crucial in the debates of his time about the relationships between nature and culture (Gesellschaft). This relationship to her natal family that Antigone propagates is enacted both through her identification with her brother, Polyneikes, but also through her disavowal of her sister Ismene. For although the opening line stresses sameness, their blood mixing ‘in too many ways’ (as Anne Carson’s recent translation stresses), that initial excessive identification (Koinon/autadelphon), quickly morphs throughout the play into a total rejection of her sister.


Antigone and other monstrous female roles:

Still, why Antigone—and not any other of the female roles from Greek tragedy that could be read as equally subversive, particularly in the context of a radical feminist project? Klytemnestra, Medea or even Agave set in motion this Mother-machine, where the natal and maternal functions are analysed and sometimes contested. They do not, however, exert the same attraction. This might be due to the fact that the violence that these roles perpetrate is not always against themselves but against others, sometimes even against their own children, making these roles less alluring, especially for a humanist sensibility and for a hopeful politics that is suspicious of negativity. Perhaps it could be that these roles are too enmeshed in negativity (both philosophically and theatrically). However, just as we have no psyche ‘without a bent for melancholia’ (Kristeva), I would claim that we can have no tragedy (or art even) without negativity. In turn, a radical politics premised solely on natalism without also encompassing mourning and negativity might not be able to account for the so-called ‘democratic paradox’ (Jacques Rancière) or indeed the democratic deficit, and the violence this entails.


‘I was born to love, not hate’, and the politics and violence of friendship:

The representation of violence is crucial in tragedy and the play-text is immersed in it, not only state violence and the violence of the law, but also linguistic and aesthetic violence. This kind of ‘sweet violence’ that tragedy foregrounds, between pleasure and pain, blindness and insight, I would like to read in conjunction with Walter Benjamin’s idea of Divine Violence, a non-instrumental violence that is not a means to an end (a new law for example), but purely the sign of injustice in the world or there to exhibit that ‘there is something rotten in the law’ itself (Benjamin). One of its main qualities is its spectacular dimension, as it is always staged and theatricalised. And I believe that tragic form bears the signs of this Divine Violence. Much has been made of Antigone’s claims to a politics and a kinship of sorority. The term used throughout the play is, of course, philia (the male-to-male friendship that Antigone mimics and enacts), marking the gender politics of the term itself as specifically a discourse of fraternity rather than sorority. As Derrida has shown in The Politics of Friendship (1997) this Enlightenment narrative of fraternity is in turn not without its own exclusions and violence as he unravels the difficult but structural relationships between philia, fraternity, homosociality, virility and autochthony. The cave scene, Antigone’s death/bridal chamber, can be read as one of the ways that this Divine Violence displays itself in theatrical terms.



…poor hopeless king

so we do what he says

and against the back wall

we see her hung by the neck on a strand of silk

the boy flings himself on her body wailing

Kreon sees him runs in with a cry

Oh my dear darling what have you done

are you mad are you lost O child come away

come out I beg you

then the boy with eyes like murder spat in his father’s face

he said not a word but drew his sword and lunged

Kreon ran out the boy missed

then in a black rage at himself he

tensed his body for the sword and drove it all the way up to the lung

poor boy was still alive

he folded himself around the girl

and breathed a thread of red red bold onto her white white cheek

so he lay a corpse

on a corpse and his bridal consummation

was in the house of Death.

(Sophokles, Antigone, trans. Anne Carson, 50–1)


Antigone is described as hanging on the noose, Haemon hanging onto her, with Creon watching, for both hers and Haemon’s marriage to death need a witness-audience and the messenger tells us that Haemon beams a look at his father before he plunges the sword into his side, and his blood splashes across Antigone’s white (white, white, in Anne Carson’s evocative translation) cheeks. This final climax is narrated to Haemon’s mother, Eurydice, the only mother figure in the play, who merits much closer analysis. Of course, there are elements of melodrama here, but there are also elements of the gothic and romance, spectacularly exhibiting both the literariness and the physicality of tragic violence. And, through Eurydice as witness to the speech, we could claim that this ‘cave scene’ also conceptualises the politics of spectatorship. It might not be coincidental that the ‘cave’ becomes the topos for Plato later to explore through allegory the political and ethical efficacy of mimesis itself. This topos might also be structurally linked with the Mother-machine (as the condition of possibility of representation). Interestingly, in theorising his concept of Divine Violence, I would claim that Benjamin also activates this Mother-trope through his reference to the myth of Niobe, a myth that also appears in Antigone. Unlike Antigone, Niobe is punished for excessive motherhood.


Olga Taxidou


(This Fieldnote contains extracts compiled by Olga Taxidou from her text ‘Tragedy: Maternity, Natality, Theatricality’ in Tony Fisher and Eve Katsouraki, eds., Performing Antagonism: Theatre, Performance & Radical Democracy, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2017, pp. 43-61.)