Tragically Speaking: On the Use and Abuse of Theory for Life (Symploke Studies in Contemporary Theory)
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From German idealism onward, Western thinkers have sought to revalue tragedy, invariably converging at one cardinal point: tragic art risks aestheticizing real violence. Tragically Speaking critically examines this revaluation, offering a new understanding of the changing meaning of tragedy in literary and moral discourse. It questions common assumptions about the Greeks’ philosophical relation to the tragic tradition and about the ethical and political ramifications of contemporary theories of tragedy.
Starting with the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and continuing to the present, Kalliopi Nikolopoulou traces how tragedy was translated into an idea (“the tragic”) that was then revised further into the “beyond the tragic” of postmetaphysical contemporary thought. While recognizing some of the merits of this revaluation, Tragically Speaking concentrates on the losses implicit in such a turn. It argues that by translating tragedy into an idea, these rereadings effected a problematic subordination of politics to ethics: the drama of human conflict gave way to philosophical reflection, bracketing the world in favor of the idea of the world. Where contemporary thought valorizes absence, passivity, the Other, rhetoric, writing, and textuality, the author argues that their “deconstructed opposites” (presence, will, the self, truth, speech, and action, all of which are central to tragedy) are equally necessary for any meaningful discussion of ethics and politics.
fire, expressed in her limitless desire for death, compensates for Sophocles’s excessive mastery of form. As such, she becomes the figure of the patriotic reversal, reminding the Greeks what was innate to them but appeared as foreign: pathos rather than form. Dastur writes: It seems, in fact, that the Orient is formed in this double figure (figure of separation and of limitlessness) every time there is the menace of an excess in the one or the other direction — an excess of culture and art,
history, we moderns cannot afford to emulate the ancients, even if such emulation is more of an adaptation than a crude imitation. Antiquity cannot provide the answer to our quest to fulfill our nature, since “antiquity appears altogether opposed to our primordial drive which is bent on forming the unformed” (39), writes Hölderlin regarding our disposition for form, measure, and calculation rather than holy pathos. Nonetheless, the question of imitation does not entirely disappear even in
or even justify the political and intellectual disenfranchisement of that entity that came to be modern Greece over the modern period, where, until recently, it has been considered at best the distant backyard of European politics. Interestingly, this cultural atopia, this fundamental ambivalence that Greeks have in relation to their own history and that positions them somewhat askew in the modern European imaginary, might well be the very site from which to reconsider this binary of continuity
as a welcome sign of our irreducible alterity. The end of tragedy, in particular, enjoys a greater ethical significance from German idealism onward, because tragedy had hitherto offered the exemplary site of contestation between the two foundational ethical categories of freedom and necessity. 37 Old Quarrels As I have already mentioned, Dennis Schmidt makes this amply clear when he traces the reasons why the German idealist preoccupation with the tragic followed from the impact of Kant’s
solution was to side with philosophy and expel art from the city. However, expulsion is no settlement, and in this sense his failure is also to his credit, for a gesture as radical as his betokens the strife between these two realms as a difficult but necessary antagonism. Modern aesthetics too — with Hegel as its cornerstone — took wholeheartedly the side of philosophy, but this time not by expelling art but by subsuming it under philosophy. When the strife between the two was still on and the