Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Between Individual Principles and Communal Obligation: Ethical Duty in Sophocles's Antigone

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Between Individual Principles and Communal Obligation: Ethical Duty in Sophocles's Antigone

Article excerpt

Jacques Lacan, in the The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, presents a reading of Sophocles's Antigone that establishes the character Antigone as an ethical heroine who prioritizes an individual sense of duty over the normative values of community. Building on this, I argue that the ethical significance of the relationship between individual and community is central to the play. Where Lacan focuses on Antigone, ascribing her regard for irreplaceable individuality as heroic, I place more emphasis on secondary characters, viewing the play as a reflection on the ethical implications of the various ways in which individuals relate to their community. Through a consideration of the concept of phronesis, I show that Antigone is one of a collection of characters attempting to negotiate individual and communal concerns in the effort to be ethical. Offering two conceptions of the self--an individualistic self (prioritizing private values) and a communal self (prioritizing social norms)--the play presents the ethical endeavour as being determined by how we conceptualize ourselves.

Whereas a communal sense of self requires fulfilling the duties of a set social role, an individualistic sense of self requires adherance to the demands of personal conscience. From this perspective, the play conforms to Alasdair Maclntyre's position that the Sophoclean worldview simultaneously involves a deep sense of communal obligation and an imperative to transcend communal norms and social roles (144-45). As Lacan's theory is not the focus of my argument, I briefly explain his interpretation of Antigone and then move on to examine how the play's characters negotiate between individual principles and communal obligation.

Jacques Lacan's interpretation of Antigone is presented in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, a seminar in which he considers what Freudian psychoanalysis offers to the study of ethics. John Rajchman's comment that, for Lacan, psychoanalysis is "the ethical theory of what is beyond the pleasure principle" (43) captures the crux of the seminar. Lacan argues throughout that Freud's postulation of a fundamental human drive that is beyond the pleasure principle renders obsolete both a prudential ethics (e.g., Aristotelian ethics) and an ethics of duty (e.g., Kantian ethics). In other words, the psychoanalytic claim that human behaviour is not thoroughly governed by the pursuit of what is beneficial requires a revision of ethics, a revision that would cast ethics outside the realm of pleasure into what Lacan names the "real."

Lacan's theory of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real guides his seminar on ethics. He maintains that the three are interconnected yet distinct orders that completely define human existence. These orders work together, but at the same time resist being amalgamated into one. As Malcolm Bowie explains, "The I,S, R [...] pressurize each other continuously and have their short-term truces, but they do not allow any embracing programme for synthesis" (98).

The imaginary order emerges through the first experience of seeing one's own image, an experience Lacan refers to as the mirror stage. It is a pre-linguistic realm that incorporates both an empathetic identification with others and an aggressive, competitive relation to others. The symbolic order, emerging with the development of language, is communal, since "what I seek in speech is the response of the other" (Lacan, Ecrits 86). Thus, the symbolic order is the domain of our relationships with other people; it "is inveterately intersubjective and social. It is a res publica" (Bowie 93). Lastly, the real is excluded from, and thus produced by, the symbolic. Unlike the symbolic order in which things are exchangeable--for example, the signified tart-yet-sweet fruit is exchanged for the signifier "apple"--the real involves "that which is always in the same place" (Lacan, Ethics 70). In other words, the real is made up of that which cannot move about in a system of exchange but is thoroughly fixed and therefore unique and irreplaceable. …

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