Love among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens

Love among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens

Love among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens

Love among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens


Classical Athenian literature often speaks of democratic politics in sexual terms. Citizens are urged to become lovers of the polis, and politicians claim to be lovers of the people. Victoria Wohl argues that this was no dead metaphor. Exploring the intersection between eros and politics in democratic Athens, Wohl traces the private desires aroused by public ideology and the political consequences of citizens' most intimate longings. Love among the Ruins analyzes the civic fantasies that lay beneath (but not necessarily parallel to) Athens's political ideology. It shows how desire can disrupt politics and provides a deeper--at times disturbing--insight into the democratic unconscious of ancient Athens.

The Athenians imagined the perfect citizen as a noble and manly lover. But this icon conceals a multitude of other possible figures: sexy tyrants, potent pathics, and seductive perverts. Through critical re-readings of canonical texts, Wohl investigates these fantasies, which seem so antithetical to Athens's manifest ideals. She examines the interrelation of patriotism and narcissism, the trope of politics as prostitution, the elite suspicion of political pleasure, and the status of perversion within Athens's sexual and political norms. She also discusses the morbid drive that propelled Athenian imperialism, as well as democratic Athens's paradoxical fascination with the joys of tyranny.

Drawing on contemporary critical theory in original ways, Wohl sketches the relationship between citizen psyche and political life to illuminate the complex, frequently contradictory passions that structure democracy, ancient and modern.


The spirit of Athenian democracy is a familiar topic, but I hope in the course of this book to defamiliarize both of its key terms. the “spirit” I seek to understand is not the ineffable Geist of the democracy but its psyche or unconscious, its psukhē. the phrase “spirit of democracy” often implies a tautological doubling, in which “spirit” and “democracy” each means precisely the other: the demos is characterized by its democratic spirit and the democracy by the spirit of its demos. But when the psukhē is understood as the unconscious, the relationship between the two terms becomes more complex, and a new reading of “spirit” yields a new understanding of “Athenian democracy.” Behind the well-known facade of Athenian democratic ideology lies a phantasmatic history of longings and terrors, perverse desires and untenable attachments. These fantasies constitute Athenian democracy as we recognize it: they are the psychic scaffolding of Athens's manifest political structure, holding aloft its political ideals and holding together its political relations. They can also, however, disrupt the smooth surface of Athenian ideology, exposing its impossible sutures, its dangerous gaps, and the forced labor of its erection. When they are uncovered, these fantasies show us a democracy often at odds with its own spirit and reveal both terms alike to be less familiar than we may have thought.

This study of the spirit of democracy is thus an analysis of the democratic psyche. What does it mean, though, to analyze the psyche of the Athenian democracy or of the Athenian demos? the unconscious is a notoriously elusive object, and all the more so when it belongs not to a living individual but to a long-dead community. First, I take “demos” not as a transcendental subject but as a discursive formation, a compendium of things the Athenians said (and did not say) about themselves as citizens. This figure might lack the commonsense organic unity of a human subject, but as a discourse it does have a certain internal consistency, a logic that governs both its expressions and its repressions. Available to us only through textual representations, this discourse is also itself textual: it is articulated through politically invested tropes and structured by ideologically inflected metaphors and metonymies. Like any discourse, it encompasses not only what it can and does say but also what it cannot say—its unspoken or unspeakable subtext—and hence is always marked by certain fundamental incoherences. Those incoherences are the locus of the democratic unconscious, which will appear not as a character within this “text” but as a distinctive quality of it: the shape of its silences and the . . .

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