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On Philosophers, Violence, Humour & Tragedy

Simon Critchley Interviewed by Qalandar Bux Memon and Asif Akhtar

(Portrait by Luca Del Baldo)

Part One 

(Interview conducted June 2011)

Part One: The Role of Philosophers, Violence and Resistance, and Humour.

QM – You have claimed that the role and responsibility of the philosopher is, in part, ‘the production of crisis’. Firstly, could you unpack this idea in more detail? Secondly, to what extent does this ignore the responsibility of action? For example, under a Fanonian conception, the prayer is to be ‘actional’ but always simultaneously a ‘question’. The questioning is the constant production of crisis but with the desire of actional disposition. The aim for Fanon is thus to create a movement back and forth between the two, never quite being comfortable in either. Related to this, isn’t the production of crisis as a role of a philosopher itself a historical moment–that of capitalism and its mechanistic division of labour, i.e., of alienation? Isn’t it to alienate the philosopher, to return him or her to a now critical ivory tower away from the ground and from action?

SC: The idea of the responsibility of the philosopher in the production of crisis is one that I borrowed from Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. It has a specific context, which is arguably susceptible to a Marxist critique of the kind that is being sketched in the last lines of your question, no doubt about that. There is a certain view of philosophy in which philosophy is the questioning of common sense and the goal of such a questioning leads back to the assertion of a certain theoretical or contemplative attitude. I take this to be at the core of the question as to the relationship between action and contemplation. If the responsibility of the philosopher is to be ultimately contemplative, then I agree with the critique. The idea of the activity of philosophy can be extended through action; it’s part of an actional disposition. For me, Franz Fanon is a philosopher. His work operates in relationship to a specific context of action—namely the resistance to the French colonial occupation in Algeria—and his work is the attempt to reflect upon that. The idea of a movement back and forth between the production of crisis and actional disposition should—I think—be the situation of the philosopher. If the idea of philosophy as the production of crisis leads back to a critical ivory tower then I want nothing to do with it. I want it to be something that arises out of action and returns to action absolutely.

QM – I want to ask you something that is rarely asked of a western philosopher (by which I mean someone who reads predominantly ‘white writers’). What effect do you think European colonialism has had on the tradition of philosophy and on philosophers of the European tradition? We are often told about the fracturing effect of the Holocaust on western philosophy and of the grand role of 1968, but what about colonialism?

SC: For me the history of colonialism is absolutely fundamental for understanding philosophy, for understanding what philosophy might do. Philosophical modernity from the 17th Century onwards is the history of European colonial expansion. To isolate philosophy from colonialism is simply to engage in a form of historical amnesia. Certain philosophers, like Locke, were bound up with the invention of the colonial project. Locke was involved in the writing of the fundamental constitutions of the Carolinas and invested heavily in plantation slavery. And we find many other examples. Modern philosophy has to be understood in relationship to the colonial and imperial projects of European modernity. To turn to the last part of the question—which is for me even more important—I don’t buy into the idea of the Holocaust as a novelty or a breaking of history. The Holocaust is the extension of the logic and practices of European colonialism—specifically French and British colonialism—into the European territory. The techniques of the Holocaust, such as the use of concentration camps, were picked up by the Germans in colonial wars, the Spanish Cuban war of 1896 and the British Boer Wars in South Africa in the early 20th Century. The ambition that Germany had in the 1930s was for their own space, what they called “Lebensraum” (‘habitat’ or, literally, ‘living space’). They wanted their own colonial space just like the French and the British. Africa had already been carved up, North America had been carved up and Asia had been carved up, so the Germans decided that Eastern Europe would become the German colonial domain. I see the Holocaust as simply the extension of the logic of European colonialism and we therefore have to understand the Holocaust as an event in the history of colonialism and to eradicate the idea of it being unique or exemplary just because it took place in Europe. I think this is nonsense, historical nonsense. There is a fantastic book by Sven Lindqvist called “Exterminate All the Brutes”: One man’s Odyssey into the heart of darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, which demonstrates this point in great detail, showing how the Germans picked up and appropriated the military hardware of the colonial project. German anti-Semitism is also peculiar: if any country was going to become a really anti-Semitic regime in the early 20th Century you would have put your money on France rather than the Germany.

QM: Your work on violence and resistance has caused controversy and ignited debate. You have defended a position of ‘non-violent violence’. For example, you argue for a refusal to ‘mimic and mirror’ the divine violence of the state (fascist, totalitarian or colonial). You seem to want to also allow room for the commandment, ‘thou shall not kill’. However, some of your critics feel that you under-estimate the role of ‘systemic violence’ that operates over subjects and that, faced with this, there arises a need—both psychological and political—to engage in methods of resistance that do not shrink back from violent counter attacks at oppressive regimes. I want to present you with a case study to see how your theory might handle this. Let’s consider CLR James’s documentation of Haitian slavery in 1700’s, and the subsequent violent resistance of the slaves, as it appears in his book The Black Jacobins. James describes the torture of slaves, both as systemic, and as closely bound up with a whole system of beliefs and values, i.e. Christianity. James notes that on their arrival in Haiti, ‘having become the property of his owner, [the slave] was branded on both sides of the breast with a hot iron. His duties were explained to him by an interpreter, and a priest instructed him in the first principles of Christianity.’ The various methods of slave torture were not ‘freak’ incidents but standard ‘recognised practices’. The resistance that led to the freeing of the slaves in Haiti—the first abolition of slavery—was necessarily violent and involved torture, rape and burning of property. A systemic violence was simply the real shape of existence. How could a ‘violent non-violent’ resistance articulate itself and achieve liberation? How could a commandment—thou shall not kill—that originates from the oppressor to whom one is sold to objecthood, lead to subjectivity, i.e. to the freeing of the slave to be a subject in relation to the ‘other’? The commandment itself is problematic in so far as it is imposed with violence, that of a new horizon of discourse and ethics being forced on the ‘slave’. Might not the systematic violence—in law, in actions, in discourse—necessitate a violent counter attack? I have used the example of Haiti but one could equally cite Algeria and the resistance articulated and justified there by Fanon, or Latin America and the resistance articulated there and justified by Che Guevara, and many others.   

SC: My thinking on this question has changed in the last 6 years or so. When I published Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance in 2007, I argued for an ethics and politics of nonviolence whereby any passage from nonviolence to violence would be a betrayal of the anarchism I was seeking to defend. My position has changed and I will try to explain why. The more I thought about the topic it became clear to me that to assert an idea of nonviolence as a principle in the face of systemic violence is simply to invite your own defeat. In this, the example of the Haitian revolution or the example from Fanon is powerful. I guess this links back to a text that Robert Young wrote in response to the debate that Zizek and I had, which was published in Naked Punch Review a couple of years ago. I agree with Robert Young that violence is not one isolatable thing; it is a historical phenomenon, a dialectical relation between violence and counter-violence. Fanon justifies anti-colonial violence in his book The Wretched of the Earth on the grounds that it is counter-violence to the violence of French colonialism. We can say a similar thing in relationship to the discourse of al Qaeda if we look at the statements of Osama bin Laden. There was a statement released after 9/11 called ‘The Tower’s of Lebanon’, an extraordinary text. In it, bin Laden describes watching Israeli and American fleets bombing the seafronts of Lebanon, destroying—amongst other things—many towers. He claims that this is how he got the idea of destroying the twin towers in New York. So the idea of 9/11 is apparently a response to a televised event and it is an act of counter-violence to the violence of the American occupation of Saudi Arabia, which is specific to Osama bin Laden. If the Americans had got out of Saudi Arabia, or if they had never come to Saudi Arabia, there’d be no reason to attack New York. However, as they did, and as they then used it as a base in the First Gulf War from which to commence a military occupation of the country, a counter-attack was justified. The point is that violence and counter violence exist in this dialectic and that dialectic is necessarily dialectic of history. Now, if that’s the way it is then where does that lead the question of non-violence? This is a really difficult question. Firstly, we all emerge from a history of violence; none of us are free from that. Our obligation is to understand the history of violence from which we were born and the dialectic of violence that constitutes our being. For example, British colonial rule of India is a history of violence and counter-violence. The genius of Gandhi was to construct a politics of nonviolence based upon ethics and principles of the political and to bring about situations where that was effective. It wasn’t obviously overwhelmingly successful—it lead to civil war and the partition of India and Pakistan—but for a period it was conceivable. And non-violence does not mean passivity or withdrawal; it is rather a kind of extraordinary activity. I was very interested a few years ago by the way in which certain resistance groups linked to the anti-globalisation movements were using forms of nonviolent warfare: instead of using guns they were throwing flowers or sticking flowers in guns and whatever it might be. Basically it was a comical form of protest. Again that can work in a certain context, but equally there are contexts where that is not going to work. I am saying a couple of things. I am saying firstly that the history of violence is constituted by a dialectic of violence and counter-violence. However, this does not mean that nonviolence is impossible but that it is extremely difficult and requires huge imagination. And we have seen some of this in the last months of North Africa and the Middle East, through the phenomenon of protestors chanting “peaceful peaceful” during demonstrations. It is an attempt to construct a certain nonviolent experience. And at the same time those very people that were shouting “peaceful, peaceful” were often being shot at by militias or police or the military. What does one do at that point? Does one resort to violence or not? And this brings us to the last part of the question. I think that this is where I agree in part with Fanon: there are situations where violence becomes necessary—in a struggle. However, I don’t think it is ever justified. I in fact want to separate the discourse of necessity from the discourse of justification. So it might become necessary at a certain point—as Fanon has said—to burn property, but I am not sure whether it is justified. I am trying to use Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the maxim “Thou shall not kill”, but to understand it as a fragile command so that “thou shall not kill” becomes the first and last word of nonviolence, a fragile guideline of action that might ultimately be overridden by events.

QM: Related to the above question, I want to ask you about your conception of the state.  You seem to propose working away from the state and not desiring ‘state power’, which thinkers such as Zizek or Fanon have suggested being a necessary part of liberation. Now, it is clear that the state is responsible for oppression and that European discourse is largely suspicious of the liberationist aspects of state organization, Hilter and Stalin having come to represent the caricature of this suspicion towards state power. However, in the Third World the experience is often different. In countries where you have imposed leaders—for example, Pakistan we have had a US backed dictatorship by Musharraf, which was then dismantled to bring in Zardari, a noted criminal with murder charges—state power becomes a necessary site of resistance. How would your anarchist politics operate in such terrain? Is the validity of anarchism limited to the western world where specific material conditions—the pillage of the world and the Third World people’s labor power—allow for such a luxury? Also, has not the experience of ‘state power’ been at least partially liberating in Bolivia, in Venezuela, in Cuba and for a time in other parts of the Third World after decolonisation? 

SC: That’s a good question. Let me try and clarify a couple of things. I begin from the assumption—or if you like, the aspiration—that the state is a limitation for human existence. So my politics is an anarchist politics whose political expression would constitute a kind of federalism. And to that extent I remain influenced by people like Bakunin in particular. Due to a certain spirit of Marxian thinking, the goal of communism was always perceived as the withering away of the state; everyone agreed about that. However, the issue was whether the withering away of the state required the occupation of a transitional state form or not. The Bolsheviks thought that it did, and therefore the Russian revolution lead to the formation of what was conceived as the transitory state power. The Anarchists thought that it did not, and wanted to go directly from state rule to federalism. The lie of Leninism was that the state did not quite whither away, it became more oppressive and powerful and more absurd than it had ever been even under the tsarist regimes of imperial Russia. The first people that were attacked and imprisoned and murdered were the Anarchists. The Bolsheviks knew they were the real enemy. So the first point to make is that a state is a limitation on human existence. The second point is that we live in states. How do we make sense of this fact? A few years ago it was difficult for me to imagine a political existence without states. I am not so sure anymore. I think in many ways what has been happening in the political articulation of the last year or so—not just in the Arab world, but also in Europe—is perhaps something else; the possibility of a kind of federalist politics that could do away with the state. I see no reason why the revolt—I don’t think it was a revolution—that took place in Tunisia and Egypt should remain within the horizon of a Tunisian or Egyptian state. It seems to me that North Africa and the Middle East were states whose frontiers were decided by the Great colonial powers of the time, in particular France and Britain. Why should those borders be maintained? They are not natural borders, there’s no necessity for these borders. Why couldn’t what happened in North Africa lead to the radical dissolution of those state boundaries and the formation of new political groupings based around cities, regions, agricultural areas or whatever it might be? But to go back to clarify this idea of resistance, this idea of distance from the state, I am opposed to the neo-Leninist discourse that you find in Zizek whereby the state is the only organising central term in any politics and we have to compromise with state power and the necessary violence of state power. Zizek argues that in a comical way of course, but I find it sort of nauseating as an approach. It seems to me that if the state is immovable, if it seems to be very strong, then politics can be about the creation of forms of distance within the state or what I call interstitial distance, i.e. a distance that doesn’t exist but which has to be created, a distance from which state power can be questioned. And the goal of such forms of resistance could be the occupation of state power. At this point in history—June 15th 2011—I really don’t know what’s going to happen, and certainly none of us know what is going to happen with the articulation that we are seeing in North Africa and the Middle East. However, I think that in many ways what is going on there has all sorts of lessons for what is happening in Europe. And it seems to me that the European nation state is undergoing a radical crisis of legitimacy. The European state is in an absolute crisis of legitimacy and I think everything is up for grabs. In the next year or so we will see increasing political dislocations and forms of revolt which will lead to the questioning of state authority.

QM: let’s turn away a little. Your work on humour has been persistent and detailed. I particularly find your infusion of ethics into humour interesting. Can there be moral judgments on jokes? How do we judge a joke from an ethical perspective? Are there unethical jokes?

SC: I have been very interested in the political uses of humour as a way of diffusing state power. It seems to me that one of the extraordinary things about humour is that it is a way in which the powerless, or the relatively powerless, can get back at those in power without resorting to violence. There is something strong in the weakness of humour. Laughing at power is very important. I think there can be a connection between ethics and humour but we have to be very careful here and maybe this would take us off topic in separating humour from jokes, from the comic, from satire, from irony. We need to move very carefully. Freud makes an important distinction between jokes and humour. Jokes he says have a relationship to the unconscious, and they have a relationship to repressed content. If I go for a few drinks after class and I make a whole series of anti-Pakistani jokes one after another you might think I have got some real problem with Pakistanis, which perhaps dates back to my childhood in England. There might seem to be a repressed racism that I am unable to acknowledge and which thus finds its expression in humour. That’s Freud’s insight into jokes. For Freud, jokes have a negative ethical process. We can read something about the repressed from them. But for Freud, something else is happening with humour, which is for me really interesting. With humour I can look at myself from outside myself and find myself ridiculous and laugh at myself. I can then, for example, construct a sort of meta-racist joke which would parody the repressed content. The example Freud gives—which I like—is the example of a hanged man who on the morning of his execution is taken to the site of the hanging. He looks at the walls of the courtyards where there are girls ahead of him and he says, “Well, the week is beginning nicely”. Freud says that the mechanism of humour is here: humour is where we look outside ourselves from the standpoint of a superego and find ourselves ridiculous. I think that has an ethical function. Humour has an ethical function insofar as it can momentarily suspend us from our engagement in the world and give us this sort of external, martial viewpoint. Humour is always ethically ambiguous and even politically ambiguous. It would be nice to think that there was an intrinsic link between comedy and political resistance because it would make us feel good about ourselves, but there isn’t. The same joke can be used for opposite purposes. The joke I use, as an example in my book On Humour is a radical feminist joke of the early 1980s: “how many men does it take to tile a bathroom”? Answer: “I don’t know, it depends on how thinly you slice them”. Now, the form of that joke is exactly the same form as a sexist joke or a racist joke. There is nothing intrinsically emancipatory about humour or comedy. It depends on the content.

Part Two: Tragedy and the Political.

AA: In the recent lecture series on the tragic you were in conversation with Judith Butler about Greek tragedy; it appears that Greek tragedy is bound up in a narrative structure. Supposing tragedy is to be read as a patterned motif or a blueprint for the human condition, is there some specificity to tragedy with what was going on in ancient Greece or can this motif be found in other ancient narrative traditions, for example ancient Hindu mythology?

SC: Good question. We have to begin by asking, “what is tragedy”? “What is ancient Greek tragedy”? I guess my view is that it is an invention; it is a new aesthetic form. It is new because it puts the city on the stage and because it is a form of public art—unlike the epic— which is basically a sort of a bard, like someone singing or a lyric poet writing his poems. Most importantly, tragedy produces a kind of split in the consciousness of the spectator. The spectator in ancient Greek tragedy sees the myths that were meant to structure social reality— the myths that were a key part of one’s education—being thrown into question and into doubt. So the key experience of tragedy is that of there being a break with tradition, a break with the authority of the myth. So tragedy arises historically in ancient Greece at that moment where there is a crisis, a breakdown in the legitimacy of the political order and the establishment of a new political order. The whole thing is framed by a war of different kinds. So there is something specific about Greek tragedy. The spectator of a tragedy has this capacity for a double consciousness. He is conscious of the rituals, rites, practices—everything that is held sacred by the society—but he is also conscious of the fact that these rituals, rites and practices no longer have authority. So, tragedy arises in a moment of radical dislocation or disruption, something like what we would usually associate with the break between tradition and modernity. Now if such experiences can be found elsewhere—in relationships to Hindu mythology for example—then I think we have to say that tragedy is not unique. But that would be for you to say, not for me, I guess. Certainly, if we think about tragedy as the symbiosis of double consciousness then the difference between antiquity and modernity is not so pronounced. We tend to think of people in the ancient world as robots who have these beliefs which they believe unquestionably. And I don’t think that’s true. I think the people of the ancient world were as sceptical as we are, and that is precisely what tragedy plays out. Now, if there is a similar relationship to Hindu mythology then we have an interesting area to explore!

AA: In the lectures you were also trying to probe the relationship between the tragic and the political. With regards to the idea of sovereign monstrosity, I wanted to bring your attention to Machiavelli. If we attempt a comparison between Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Sophocle’s Oedipus Tyranus, then can the Machiavellian prince be read as a tragic hero who has brought the trans-generational curse of monstrosity on himself? Alternatively, can we treat Oedipus Tyranus as a rhetorical device which acts in the field of the political?

SC: First thing to say is that whatever is going on in tragedy, the subject of tragedy is the city rather than the tragic hero and the tragic hero is a symptom of a crisis of sovereignty in the city. So the play is called Oedipus Tyrannus—Oedipus Tyrant—and the tyrant is the sovereign, and Oedipus is the Prince. He guides the ship of the state well until a plague arrives in the city and begins to kill all the citizens. The citizens then begin to seek out the source of the plague and the source of the plague is the transgenerational curse of monstrosity that Oedipus embodies and so Oedipus is then forced to leave the city. So in many ways, thinking about Machiavelli—or indeed about Hobbes—Oedipus is a kind of parable of sovereignty and the king is a kind of monster, always. There are in fact numerous political theories that would back this up. The king or the sovereign occupies a space between culture and nature, between mortality and immortality. The king has two bodies—a mortal living body and an immortal body—and the life and health of a state, the sovereignty of a state, might periodically require the murder or the sacrifice of the king. This apparently happened in pre-Columbian Aztec cultures, in Mayan cultures. In such cultures, the last thing you wanted to be was the king because if you are king it is just a matter of time before you are going to get killed. And you can see the political lessons of Oedipus Tyrannus where the king is a scapegoat, a parable of sovereignty, which maybe should tell us something. If we get rid of one tyrant—Mubarak, or whoever it might be—what happens? We will need another sacrifice. Apparently Napoleon said to Goethe that what faith was in the ancient world, politics is in the modern world.

AA: It reminds me of a similar line in Nietzsche: apparently when Napoleon saw Goethe for the first time he said, ‘My word, this is a man! And I was expecting only a German’!

[both laugh]

AA: Sticking with this Machiavellian moment for just a while longer, I wanted to discuss with you this passage from Florentine Histories where Machiavelli points to philosophy as a leisurely indolence whilst discussing the example of a Roman ruler banning the entry of philosophers. How do we counterpoise this view of philosophy versus the one we are presented in Plato’s republic, where philosophy is something the gods take pleasure in and it is the tragic poets that need to be banished from the city? How can we contrast these views of tragedy and philosophy and how would it be possible to locate history as a narrative therein?

SC: I can’t possibly answer this; it is too big a question. Great question, but I will just offer a few remarks. There is a line of thinking in Machiavelli—you find it also in Hobbes and in Rousseau—which is that the last thing you want in a legitimate polity are philosophers; they are a principle of corruption. People don’t normally read the last chapters of Leviathan but they contain an extraordinary critique of philosophy where Hobbes says that he basically agrees with Machiavelli that philosophy flows from luxury and that the construction of academies is the direct consequence of forms of moral and political decadence. Rousseau agreed. He thought that philosophy was a kind of perversion or sickness, which he saw as a consequence of narcissism, the most extreme development of narcissism. And it is difficult to argue against this because it is right. Now, Aeschylus—the first of the three Tragedians—was a warrior. The only thing he had on his gravestone, allegedly, was that he fought in the battle of Marathon. He was proud of that.  He also, we think, fought in the battle of Salamis and his first play—Persians—is about that battle, which then finds aesthetic form in tragedy. The history of tragedy is the history of the decline or martial virtue. This is also Aristophanes’ argument in The Frogs; how do we restore martial virtue to the city? Well, we’ll take Aeschylus back from Hades to the city and he will write “true” tragedy. And we have to get rid of Euripides and also the Sophists and what we have to get rid of most of all is Socrates. So there is an extremely powerful tradition—which is a reactionary political realism—that would agree with Machiavelli that philosophy is a principle of corruption. Therefore philosophy is anti-political. That is one way of reading Plato’s Republic, as an act of treason against the Athenian city-state, which of course is why Socrates was executed. So in that view, philosophy is the enemy of politics and political organisation and should be kept out of the city. Tragedy arises during a period of decadence, but maybe it can be admitted because it is consistent with forms of tyrannical sovereignty. [laughs] There’s this passage in the Republic where Socrates says that tragic poets are lackeys of tyrants. And that’s also true, it’s not that there’s no evidence to back it up. It raises a deep question about the relationship between art and politics. Is art simply there to serve as an ornamentation of politics, as the ideological superstructure of state power, or is it something else? Machiavelli has a point. He was a decent man and an honest citizen, as Rousseau said. But Machiavelli knows he’s fucked, right? He knows Florence is no more, the Florentine city-state has been subjected to the Spanish and French invading armies and the adventure is over. So we can also reflect this back on to Machiavelli’s own discourse, which is a kind of nostalgic discourse for a lost political legitimacy. This might well be where we are as well.

AA: Just to clarify what I was trying to get at earlier. In tragedy—as you suggested—the city is the principle subject, so in Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories the city of Florence becomes the principle subject of the narrative that he is recounting. So is history told in the same narrative structure as tragedy? And from our contemporary perspective does the state then take on the role of the tragic hero?

SC: Yeah, I don’t think it changes very much, which is kind of a melancholic insight. I mean, tragedy is—for me I suppose—mostly a diagnostic tool, it’s a fantastic diagnostic tool for thinking about the nature of conflict—both political conflict and psychological conflict—and also about the limitations of what philosophy is capable of. The normative consequence of tragedy at this point on June the 15th 2011 is still unclear to me. But I find that so many situations we face in the world are partly illuminated by tragedy. We often find ourselves in a situation where justice is on both sides in a situation of conflict where appeals are being made to perceptions of what is right and the frame for that is war, grief, and the production of rage. If we think about that in relationship to something like Israel and Palestine, in relationship to what’s going on in Libya right now, it makes a lot of sense of it. It also means we have to abandon any progressivist philosophy of history. I don’t think we are in any better situation than Aeschylus or Machiavelli, which is why we need history. If we were in a better situation then Machiavelli would make absolutely no sense to us. The fact that he does, and that he seems to be powerfully true, is very interesting.

AA: You touched on this briefly in the lectures where tragedy was utilised by religion and later by nationalism. Would you say that psychoanalysis might be the most recent heir of the tragic, where it can be utilised both as an aesthetic frame and also as a tragic window into the human soul or consciousness? In these modern times are there ways to approach the tragic without the psychoanalytic frame?

SC: Yes, good question. What interests me, as a first principle in thinking about tragedy, is the fact that we know so little about it. We just don’t know what it was for and we don’t know what the spectator took away from it. We have no idea because there are no records. However, I would say first of all that these texts, for whatever reason, have a power with which they still speak to us. It is not just ethnocentrism. I don’t know whether it is there in all the texts from that period but Sophocles and all the rest had an extraordinary power and they can illuminate the situation we are in now too. But we read them from where we read them and we feed those texts with our own blood. So every age constructs an image of tragedy that is in its own image and I think that’s really important to note. Now, psychoanalysis is the invention of the late 19th Century. It is a consequence of a whole series of preceding philosophical developments—Schopenhauer and others—and of the emergence of early forms of psychiatry and conceptions of the unconscious, and also of different attempts to find a therapeutic cures for phenomena like hysteria. All this stuff finds its expression in the 1890s. You know, it is not surprising that tragedy provides a lens through which Freud makes sense of his concepts. The drama of the human soul seems to be illuminated for Freud by tragedy and by tragic concepts. Can we think about tragedy without the psychoanalytic frame? Yes, I think we can. The problem with the psychoanalytic approach is that it often feeds into a radically individualistic notion of what’s going on in tragedy. What’s going on in tragedy is the suffering of individuals and we can identify with those suffering. We can feel bad for Antigone or feel pity for Oedipus. If tragedy is really about the city in it’s spectacle, in it’s articulation, then we could maybe come somewhat closer to Machiavelli than to Freud: we could think about a really political understanding of tragedy. But we still have these elements. We cannot, as it were, disengage the consciousness that uses these things. But I think it’s important to restore the political concept of tragedy. For me the philosopher who gets that is Hegel. Hegel doesn’t eliminate the characters; rather the characters are those persons who embody the forces that constitute the dialectic of political life. Something like that is the way I think I would go. Ask me again in a while… [laughs]

AA: What about tragedy as personal experience versus tragedy as a collectivised ritual of communal mourning? As you mentioned earlier we don’t really know what the use of tragedy was, what these orchestrations looked like, or what role they had in ancient Greek society. What role does the tragic conception play in our understanding of contemporary political elements, and more specifically, how can the tragic play such a role in the political now, where we have the pervasiveness of neoliberalism in the global and the micro-calculus of the utilitarianism in the individual realms of existence?

SC: The short answer is, I think, tragedy can be a critique of ideology, in particular, the ideology of neoliberalism in the global and utilitarianism at the level of the individual. Tragedy—it seems to me—identifies something persistent, fragile, and snagging and also something dependent and slow moving about us. There are structures that we can see in these plays that we still seem to be inside of, which we haven’t escaped and that can be a way of resisting neoliberalism and utilitarianism, which are both forms of amnesia that are premised upon a progressivist idea of history. Walter Benjamin has this idea of revolutionary activity, or, let’s say, the activity of revolt as a kind of slowing down or breaking. So, in the face of the speed of the world—a world that seems to get ever faster— what is a strategy of resistance? Is it a hyper-exhilaration which is the way say some Deluzians would want to go? Do we need to, as it were, take the acceleration of capital and de-territorialise it completely? I’ve never found that particularly persuasive. Or is it something like a slowing down—the cultivation of something that resists this framework of neoliberalism and individualism? And that’s the way I tend to argue it. In relationship to contemporary political events then, what is tragedy? In tragedy we find people in the situation of rage and angry as hell. And why are they angry? Because there has been a death, right? An unjust death that has not been allowed to be mourned or properly buried. And the framework for that grief is a situation of war. So rage, grief and war are for me the three key concepts of tragedy. And it seems to me that this throws an awful lot of light on where we are now politically: we are living in a situation where the politics of grief and lamentation are becoming persistent features of the political landscape, where funerals have become acts of political process, where the coffin has become like a weapon of resistance which is shot at. Tragedy is about how the frontier between the living and the dead is unstable. In tragedy the living are not really living because they are attached to the dead, and the dead are not really dead because they keep coming back in the form of ghosts. And I think that also throws a huge amount of light on where we are: we are not individuals in some neoliberal world of acceleration, we are fragile, slow moving creatures who are haunted by the ghosts of history that won’t die but just continue to live with us. And that is a good thing because it is an act of memory. So I think tragedy throws an enormous amount of light on the contemporary politics of grief, and if there’s one thing that neoliberal regimes can’t tolerate, it’s grief and mourning. That’s it. We should get over the past. The past is the past. Stop morning. Get on with it. Get back to work. Produce stuff. What we find in tragedy are people who just refuse to do that. They cannot let the past go and in this is their resistance.

(The interview features in NP 15 to buy the issue click on the link below:

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