Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Dangerous Fracture: Undermining the Order of the Law in Sophocles's Antigone

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Dangerous Fracture: Undermining the Order of the Law in Sophocles's Antigone

Article excerpt

If the law employs the exception--that is the
suspension of law itself--as its original means of
referring to and encompassing life, then a theory
of the state of exception is the preliminary condition
for any definition of the relation that binds and,
at the same time, abandons the living being to law.

--Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception

In Mythe et Tragedie en Grece Ancienne, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet acknowledge the question of the law as "la matiere veritable de la tragedie" (15). The new idea of the law in an emerging democratic society, in which it was not yet clearly separated from the spheres of morality and religion, would have been a subject of constant and continued scrutiny in Greek tragedy--an understanding of tragedy explicitly realized in Sophocles's Antigone. Not only is the question of law at the heart of the conflict between Creon and Antigone, it also permeates the positions of all other characters and surfaces again and again in the language of the play.(1) This tragedy, as Hans-Thies Lehmann states, "transforms the articles and foundation of law into questions, certainty into risky hypothesis" (23, trans. mine).

What is it that Antigone can tell us about the law? Hegel, in his influential reading of Antigone in the Phenomenology of Spirit, saw the tragedy as a paradigmatic example of the conflict between two different legal systems: through a process of historical evolution, the order of the law of the state--represented by Creon--supersedes the older system of family law and the death cult personified by Antigone. The Hegelian Enlightenment model of history sets up the succession of systems of law as the precondition for the constant improvement of human society; Antigone thus comes to represent a general mechanism of teleological historical progress for Hegel and, despite its fatal outcome, possesses an almost reassuring quality. Yet, while quite instructive on Hegel's philosophy of history, this reading offers few insights for a critical audience today for two main reasons: not only must the discredited idea of teleological historical progress itself seem highly suspect to any contemporary approach to Sophocles's play, it also suggests a reading that smoothes out the intricate and insoluble conflict at the heart of the tragedy--a conflict that I will argue is not located in the clash of two different systems of law but in law itself, as a fracture that is constitutive of the law and that undermines its claim to validity from the very beginning. My reading of Antigone is informed by Judith Butler's recent engagement with the play (Anitgone's), but while Butler focuses on the problematic laws of kinship (and their political implications for representation), I regard Antigone as a theatrical laboratory in which judicial law and its inherent fractures are examined and analyzed. Pursuing a different train of thought, this essay's interest in the law nevertheless runs parallel to Butler's work and will turn to it later on. I hope to show that Antigone may provide a valuable point of reference for a discussion of the law at a time witnessing a "Rule of Law Revival" (Carothers) in Western policy--and during which, at the same time, the fatal fraction at the heart of the law resurfaces.

I will begin my reading of Antigone by considering the premise upon which Sophocles's understanding of law is based, namely the political situation of the Athenian polis in the fifth century BCE. (2) This brief overview of the political context in which he speaks will then provide the background for my engagement with his questioning of the law. At the time Antigone was first staged around 442 BCE, the Athenian polis was enjoying a period of relative peace: only a few years before the ongoing conflict with Sparta had been put to an end with the Kallias treaty of 446-45 BCE, and it would not be for another ten years that it would furiously break out again in the Peloponnesian War. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.