This site is a book-length scholarly project and part of my on-going study of political hubris in modern tragedy, specifically, the self-destruction of revolution from Romantic to Postmodern theater and beyond. Built in May 2016 and published in December 2017, it remains a work in progress in that new material is regularly added to it and existing material is revised and reconfigured. The main body of the project consists in an analysis of a major scene from some thirty plays listed under “Project.”
Since I am a cultural critic and not a historian, I do not examine socio-political events but cultural works, primarily plays but also occasionally operas, movies, and novels. I study discourses and representations, not institutions and demonstrations. I look at several plays since Romanticism. I could have started earlier (with a play by Shakespeare, such as Coriolanus, or by a French playwright, such as Corneille or Racine), but I decided to start with German theater because early Romanticism is the moment when the idea of the Tragic is also born, when tragedy steps out of the dark theater into the daylight of public life and modern experience.
I focus on the ruptures of linear time and radical beginnings triggered by revolutions, on the openings of socio-political space created when people rise against ruling authority to demand freedom. These are modern questions of authorization and constitution that have been preoccupying political thinkers from Sorel, Luxenburg, Schmitt, and Gramsci in the early 20th century; Sartre, Camus, and Merleau-Ponty in the 1940s; Fanon, Arendt, and Castoriadis in the 1960s; Foucault, Habermas, Lyotard, and Unger in the 1980s; to Negri, Badiou, Mouffe, Rancière, and Butler in the 2000s.
I bring into dialogue political theory and tragedy, the most political of all literary genres, in which many theorists have expressed strong interest (Schmitt in Shakespeare, Castoriadis in Aeschylus, Badiou in Racine, Negri in Euripides, Butler on Sophocles and so on.) I argue that modern tragedy has as one of its central topics the ethico-political dilemmas of rebellion, namely, revolutionary beginning caught between limitless self-authorization and self-limiting rule. Tragedy stages the drama of the Greek arche in its double meaning of beginning and rule, and asks whether self-rule may control itself, whether radical autonomy may limit itself. Thus it explores the inherent contradiction of auto-nomia captured in its very etymology: Can freedom and rule co-exist? How can a collectivity be free and at the same time live under the rule of law? How can a constitution be both enabling and limiting?
Modern tragedy deals with the concrete manifestation of sovereign popular intervention as constituting power. At the extraordinary moment of revolution collective autonomy is engaged in a new founding. A self-instituting society will be making now its own norms. But what will their foundation be? The tragedy of revolution, of the absolute beginning and the possible justification of its groundless actions, dramatizes the search for the legitimacy of revolutionary justice (a justice that may violate both law and morality) and the competition for contrasting judgments for such legitimacy. It also asks whether and how violence during a revolutionary beginning may be justified.
In modern theater, the extraordinary event of a collective start turns tragic when the revolt faces the demands of the legitimacy of rule, when the constituting power seeking self-rule needs to justify its own way of rule. At that point, it discovers the antinomy of arche, namely, that in self-determination inhere both beginning and rule. Tragedy presents individuals who, while trying to control their destiny at the crossroads of choice among more than one valid course, they start with reasonable claims to autonomy but end up exercising excessive power and committing hubris.
C. P. Cavafy Professor of Modern Greek Professor of Classical Studies & Comparative Literature
2160 Angell Hall
University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA