Skip to main content
Log in

Can the subaltern smile? Oedipus without Oedipus

Contemporary Political Theory Aims and scope

Cite this article

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Institutional subscriptions

Notes

  1. From Hershatter (1997, p. 25) to Apostolidis (2010, p. 239) Spivak’s critique of subject-constitution is what gets accentuated.

  2. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. For the notion of theatrical excess and its relevance in political theory see Davis and Postlewait (2003), Weber (2004), Martel (2011) and Honig (2013).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. For substantial examples on Eurocentric idealizations see the works cited in footnote 6.

  8. 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.

  9. Spivak will replay this critique against Foucault and Deleuze in Can the Subaltern Speak?

  10. 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.

  11. For reasons of space in this text I only address the lesser known text of Foucault (1994) on Oedipus.

  12. Vidal-Naquet’s early involvement is recounted in L’Affaire Audin. See Vidal-Naquet (1958).

  13. 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.

  14. On precarious life see Butler (2004).

  15. I am extremely grateful to one of the anonymous reviewers of this article for calling my attention to this structural dimension of agency.

  16. 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.

  17. For the contemporary relevance of this alternative story see Loraux (2000, p. 141).

  18. See also Critchley (2002).

  19. This reading is indebted to Honig’s analysis of Derrida’s Politics of Friendship, first offered in her Democracy and the Foreigner (2001, p. 53). She has returned to it in Honig (2013, p. 22).

References

  • Althusser, L. (1970) Reading Capital. New York: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  • Anzaldúa, G. (2007) Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Michigan: Aunt Lute Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Apostolidis, P. (2010) Breaking the Chain. What Immigrant Workers Can Teach America about Democracy. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Aristotle (1882) On the Parts of Animals. London: Kegan Paul, Trench.

  • Austin, M.M. and Vidal-Naquet, P. (1984) Economic & Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bernal, M. (2006) Black Athena. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Butler, J. (2004) Precarious Life. New York: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cartledge, P. (1993) The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chanter, T. (2011) Whose Antigone? The Tragic Marginalization of Slavery. New York: SUNY Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Connolly, W. (2002) Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Critchley, S. (2002) On Humor. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Davis, T. and Postlewait, T. (2003) Theatricality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Derrida, J. (1998) Of Grammatology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fanon, F. (2008) Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foley, H. (1995) Tragedy and democratic ideology: The case of Sophocles’ antigone. In: B. Goff (ed.) History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, pp. 131–150.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foucault, M. (1994) Truth and juridical forms. In: J. Faubion (ed.) Power: Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984. New York: The New Press, pp. 1–89.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foucault, M. (2003a) Truth and power. In: P. Rabinow and N. Rose (eds.) The Essential Foucault. New York: The New Press, pp. 300–318.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foucault, M. (2003b) Lives of infamous men. In: P. Rabinow and N. Rose (eds.) The Essential Foucault. New York: The New Press, pp. 279–293.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foucault, M. (2004) Preface. In: G. Deleuze and F. Guattari (eds.) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. New York: Continuum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foucault, M. and Deleuze, G. (1977) Intellectuals and power. In: D.F. Bouchard (ed.) Language, Conter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grene, D. (trans.) (1991) Oedipus King. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall, E. (1991) Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-definition through Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hershatter, G. (1997) Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-century Shangai. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Honig, B. (2001) Democracy and the Foreigner. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Honig, B. (2013) Antigone, Interrupted. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Isaac, B. (2004) The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jones, A.H.M. (1986) Athenian Democracy. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Loraux, N. (2000) Born of the Earth: Myth & Politics in Athens. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Macey, D. (1993) The Lives of Michel Foucault. New York: Pantheon Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Macherey, P. (2006) A Theory of Literary Production. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Martel, J. (2011) Textual Conspiracies: Walter Benjamin, Idolatry and Political Theory. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • McClintock, A. (1995) Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Morris, R.C. (ed.) (2010) Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Scott, J. (1992) Domination and the Arts of Resistance. New Jersey: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Spivak, G. (1988) Can the subaltern speak? In: C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, pp. 271–315.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Spivak, G. (1999) Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vasunia, P. (2001) The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vernant, J.P. (1988) Oedipus without the complex. In: J.P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet (eds.) Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. New York: Zone Books, pp. 85–111.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vidal-Naquet, P. (1958) L’Affaire Audin. Paris: Éditions Minuit.

    Google Scholar 

  • Weber, S. (2004) Theatricality as Medium. New York: Fordham University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Additional information

I use Oedipus when referring to the play, and Oedipus when referring to the character in the play.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/cpt.2014.51

Keywords

Navigation