Falling/flying/fleeing bodies: Antigone becomes the Sphinx (the stranger, the strangler)

Falling/flying/fleeing bodies: Antigone becomes the Sphinx (the stranger, the strangler)

Film still from Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)
by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen


Antigone’s claim to bury her dead brother despite Creon’s decree exposes the contingency of kinship’s law: what Butler calls “kinship trouble”, instead of the verticality of the Oedipal model. Antigone’s claim calls for a kinship that is destabilized, unstable, “tragic”, as it were. It implies the tragedy at the heart of kinship. Consider the queer – although melancholic – re-registration of tragic kinship in the film Strella, where George and Strella become and will always remain ex-lovers.

But Antigone is not a queer “heroine”, she is not Hegel’s “Jesus or Socrates”. “She” does not depict queer subversion. Perhaps she allows us to queer (queer as a verb) kinship by means of destabilizing its phallic order. Butler: “kinship founders on its own founding laws” (Antigone’s Claim, p. 82).

Butler sees in Antigone a possibility of challenging heteronormativity as a fundamental condition of kinship.

Maurice Blanchot, désoeuvrement (unworking).

Unconditional demand, but performative ambivalence. Not just resistance, but immanent critique, resistance from within, vulnerability to power. Nothing pure about political performativity. Repetition of the norm, a repetition of which the outcome is not guaranteed. Repetition with difference. Butler: Antigone commits “promiscuous obedience” (Antigone’s Claim). She obeys Oedipus’s curse, albeit promiscuously. She obeys and subverts. She repeats unfaithfully. She repeats and differs. What happens “when the perverse or the impossible emerges in the language of the law and makes its claim precisely there in the sphere of legitimate kinship that depends on its exclusion or pathologization” (Antigone’s Claim, p. 68)? Kinship troublemaking. Kinship parody. Death-driven jouissance beyond the phallus? Antigone as a fatality of heteronormative kinship. What possibilities for other forms of kinship might this fatality offer? Think further on the relationship between possibility and fatality.

Antigone’s Claim is haunted by living and dying outside the boundaries of normative kinship relations. It is haunted by ungrievable death as a result of AIDS.

Antigone of Antigone’s Claim does not refer to a stable dialectical synthesis (patriarchal, heteronormative, homely, reproductive notion of gender difference) purged of loss and tragedy. Neither dead nor alive. A liminal figure, akin to Ate.

Ate. Asking about the tragic limits of ways of knowing. Asking about ways of knowing that bring about one’s downfall.

It is through ate that Lacan relates Antigone to the limit of the symbolic order.

Antigone’s unsettling desire resounds in the troubled Theban family. It resounds in the polis, in Thebes – a city blockaded, cursed because of its unclaimed past; a city in a state of emergency. Thebes, the antipodes of Athens.

I return to my text “Anamneses of a pestilent infant: The enigma of monstrosity, or beyond Oedipus”, in Antigonean spirit.

I struggle to retrace the connection between the feminine monstrosity and the eruption of the plague. Alterity as a binding condition for affectability that assures the cohesion of the social body, while, at the same time, leaving open the necessary possibility of disruption and dis-memberment.

Going back, again and again, to Davis France’s inspiring documentary “How to Survive a Plague”: a history of ACT UP in response to AIDS losses. Putting one’s body (as body-positive) on the line, collectively, creating mourning counterpublics, politicizing loss and grief, summoning the ghosts of gay, lesbian, and queer militancy and mourning, courage and desire, to inspire our current “post-AIDS” condition.

See also: Marios Chatziprokopiou, “Theatre and Plague”: “plague as a trope revealing what remains unburied…”


More on monsters and plagues: the traumas of biopolitics. The master and the monster. The optics of memory. The Sphinx associated with death – the figure of “psychopompos” posited as guardian of tombs – but also with undomesticated sexuality, as sexually ambiguous and intensely sexualized “queer” beings that disrupt collective constructions of sex and death. (At) the obscure edge of the polis. She dwells in the polis by being excluded by it. The volatile, suicidal figure. Gravitational trope. How to “fall” (in love, sin, sexual difference, homosexuality). Falling to pieces.

The abject other must fall before it flies to acts of subversion. Her enigma remains open.

Oedipus as question. “The name ‘Oedipus’,” as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe put it, “appears to have been a name for the West.”
The Sphinx, on the other side, the encrypted figure of the Other.
The ironic questioner: a critique of the will to knowledge – as learning how to rid Thebes of the Sphinx and their riddle; defeating the beast; enslaving the “Other”.
The riddle as the cryptography of embodied human time.
Difference articulated in the form of questioning. The question of the question persists.
Questioning what we want to know, what we want to see.

“Things are more complicated, however. I would like to argue that the Sphinx – the questioner – strangles, dismembers, and devours not those who merely ignore the “answer” to her riddle, but rather those who do not heed the performative call of her enigmatic discourse, those who mistake responsiveness for the quietude of fixed meaning. Let us unravel then the devouring figure of the Sphinx as the call of the stranger (the strangeness before the self and within the self): as the performative calling into question the self’s claim to unity and knowledge. Devouring here echoes the threat of self-splitting, and this is a threat with profound sexual and racial connotations”.

Antigone and the Sphinx (rather than Oedipus and the Sphinx; Man and Monster). From Sophocles to Cocteau, through silence (Sophocles) and star/Marlene Dietrich (Cocteau).

More questions: What happens when that which is considered non-political, the uncontainable body (always already marked as gendered, racialized, economized) which has been exiled from the polis, re/turns to the polis and contaminates its body?

The return of monstrous femininity. The repetitive, un-timely return of the abject.

Whose body? The body, the corps, the corpus, the corpse. That which falls. Πτώμα, σώμα. Falling bodies. Fallen bodies. Bodies that fall in their cadence of “self-discovery”.

The Sphinx falls into the abyss, a chora to which women are typically relegated. The Sphinx’s suicidal fall: a flight gone awry. A flying/fleeing from the Oedipus situation; a returning to the prepreoedipal – the abysmal semiotic.

The Sphinx is an uncanny, queer body whose excess remains ungrounded; hence the ensuing suicidal fall, an event utterly paradoxical for a winged entity that the Sphinx is.

Bodies fall over a dead body at the embattled threshold of the polis.

Hence Antigone must be buried alive. In the crypt.
Her place is the positionality – the situated knowledge – of the dead alive, νεκροζώντανη.
She has been declared dead by the hegemon’s decree (political dispossession, expulsion from the political body).
She doesn’t consider a life under tyranny livable.
She is already a fatality. A fallen to the necropolitics of kinship laws. She falls witnessing how “kinship founders on its own founding laws”.

Let’s think of this anti-foundational act. Think of act as anti-foundational.




Athena Athanasiou, “Anamneses of a Pestilent Infant: The Enigma of Monstrosity, or Beyond Oedipus”, in Ethnographica Moralia: Conversations in Interpretive Anthropology, ed. George Marcus and Neni Panourgia. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “Oedipus as figure”, Radical Philosophy 118 (Mar/Apr 2003).


Athena Athanasiou