This article explores the relationship between theory and praxis by contrasting three different models of intellectual endeavor: totalizing, particular and decolonial. Attending to the critique that Gayatri Spivak raised against Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in Can the Subaltern Speak?, this article advocates a dramaturgical reading of texts as a model for political theory to address subaltern agency. It reads such agency in the smile that Pier Paolo Pasolini registers in his 1967 film version of Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Tyrannos. Dramaturgically read, Oedipus reveals another text, the tragic history of a yet insufficiently explored democratic alternative that goes against the established democracy and its complicity with inequality in the continued naturalization of slavery despite its foundation in equality. This subtext demands understanding Oedipus as a political production from the speechless agency of dissident servants, a more subversive aspect of democratic politics.
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I use the term decolonial with reservations given that Spivak (1999) herself has criticized the use of the term as problematically repositioning the ‘coloniality’ such term was seeking to contest back in the center. Yet the main limitation lies in the potential sacrifice of difference, of reducing a variety of incommensurable critiques into a singular term that somehow re-groups them in such problematic way.
Decolonial theorists particularly attentive to dramaturgy are Fanon (2008), McClintock (1995) and Anzaldúa (2007), among others. In this text I focus only in Spivak’s text, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (1988). For a broader account on the reception of Spivak’s article see the essays edited by Morris (2010).
My claim is not to repeat that ancient democracy’s monopolization of politics rests in the de-politicizing of slaves, women, metics and foreigners, considered as the labor necessary to produce leisure for citizens to act. My claim is that theater, because of its complex dramaturgy, offered an alternative for troubling that binary. A different story of agency survives, given that tragedy, paraphrasing Edith Hall (1991), also challenged the notions that it simultaneously legitimized by imagining the powerful agency it sought to disavow.
Chanter’s exceptionality lies in addressing the issue of slavery with regard to Sophocles’ Theban trilogy. This is not to say that classical scholars have not addressed slavery in Greek antiquity, on the contrary, slavery figures prominently in their work and in particular in connection with democracy. See for example Hall (1991), Cartledge (1993), Vasunia (2001), Isaac (2004) and Bernal (2006). However, the fact that Chanter’s interpretation of Sophocles’ text is more an exception than a rule calls attention to the difficulties and necessities of reexamining the reception of classical literature.
For substantial examples on Eurocentric idealizations see the works cited in footnote 6.
Within her effort to read classical tragedies in their historical contexts, Helene Foley (1995, p. 135) questioned the techniques of zooming and distancing Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood attributed to tragedy as a medium that ‘alternately brings the action close to the realities of the contemporary polis, when its characters raise issues of contemporary concern … and distances the action from its audience, by setting the play in Heroic Thebes … or by staging the play’s debate as a quarrel among members of a ruling elite’. Foley’s legitimate concern with the lack of control over the anachronistic device, however, becomes politically productive for assessing the semantic slippage of its categories. The Greek word used to describe the Theban servant is therapon, which refers to whoever provides ‘free service’ to a master as opposed to a slave, a doulos, which Oedipus actually invokes anxiously when he manifests his own concerns for his ignoble origins, a point adequately stressed by Chanter (2011). However, Foucault, Vernant, Vidal-Naquet, Chanter and myself, we all refer to the servant as a slave not only because Thebes was a tyranny but also because the torture inflicted by the sovereign on the servant reflected the juridical procedure to produce truth when democracy dealt with slaves in the Greek polis. Given the impossibility of clearly fixing what must be zoomed and what distanced in relation to the categories employed in the tragedy, one of the assumptions that govern my article is that such semantic inversion is possible, that the drama of servitude in the distant action can be related to the close reality of slavery in the democratic context of the contemporary polis.
Spivak will replay this critique against Foucault and Deleuze in Can the Subaltern Speak?
For a different discussion of Gramsci’s theory see Scott (1992). Scott’s theory of hidden transcripts, where subaltern’s agency is readable, is indebted to Foucault’s conceptualization of discourse. The hidden transcript is the subtext of political dissidence which holds, with the public discourse, a confrontational and instrumental relationship: it seeks as much to undo it by erupting in flagrant disobedience as it seeks to protect it in order to avoid the risks of exposure. Contra Gramsci, Scott’s ‘weapons of the weak’ consider false consciousness to be fundamentally wrong in its inability to address the infrastructure of counter-hegemonic discourse elsewhere.
For reasons of space in this text I only address the lesser known text of Foucault (1994) on Oedipus.
Vidal-Naquet’s early involvement is recounted in L’Affaire Audin. See Vidal-Naquet (1958).
All subsequent quotes inside the text are taken from Grene’s translation and the numbers refer to those in the margins of the Greek original.
On precarious life see Butler (2004).
I am extremely grateful to one of the anonymous reviewers of this article for calling my attention to this structural dimension of agency.
This interpretation was inspired by Honig’s (2013) reading of the play inside the play, in her recent interpretation of Antigone. Attentive to its excessive theatricality – sotto voce, adianoeta, double entendre – Honig’s Antigone is neither the iconic objector of consciousness, celebrated by liberalism, nor the tragic heroine, celebrated by psychoanalysis, but a more complex political conspirator who acts in concert with her sister, Ismene, and seeks sovereignty.
For the contemporary relevance of this alternative story see Loraux (2000, p. 141).
See also Critchley (2002).
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The author thanks Nicholas Xenos, Roberto Alejandro, Angelica Bernal, Ivan Ascher, Adam Sitze, Thomas Dumm, Allison Myers and, specially, Barbara Cruikshank, who organized the political theory workshop in which the final version of this text was discussed for publication, and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism.
I use Oedipus when referring to the play, and Oedipus when referring to the character in the play.
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Henao Castro, A. Can the subaltern smile? Oedipus without Oedipus. Contemp Polit Theory 14, 315–334 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/cpt.2014.51