Theodore Koulouris, University of Brighton
The below forms part of an essay I published in 2018, whose aim was to theorise Sophocles’ Antigone, one of the most important texts in western literary tradition and intellectual history, as an example of a conscientious resistant subjectivity which could help us conceptualise meaningful forms of resistance in the present.
The grotesque murder of George Floyd by three Minnesota police officers is only the latest example of the brutality of the neoliberal / disaster-capitalist state, which, quite simply, can no longer go unchecked and/or unresisted. Remaining silent in the face of injustice is to partake of injustice and provide it with sustenance. I, therefore, welcome the initiative of the research Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, University of Brighton, to elicit contributions from its members in support of BLM.
The basic argument of this essay is that what I call the neoliberal law – the law which advocates the supremacy of the markets over the rights of ordinary citizens – consigns people to a state of bare life (Agamben), to a miasmatic state which, much like Antigone in Sophocles’ play, ought to be punished, cordoned off and/or amputated from the body politic.
Mobilising the thought of Judith Butler, Bonnie Honig and Jacques Derrida, I argue that not only does the concept of ‘law’ (and more specifically the law of the neoliberal state) presuppose the concept of violence, but that the resistant subjectivity is doubly consigned to the punishment casually and brutally unleashed even when the law is merely called into question.
The below extract constitutes the concluding section of this essay and contains an analysis of what I consider to be the three stages of Antigone’s resistant subjectivity as the play unfolds. The reader may find interesting parallels between Antigone’s resolute stance and the stance of resistant citizens in the USA. Having thought about it since George Floyd’s murder took place, I have reached the conclusion that Creon, the mythical authoritarian ruler of pre-classical Thebes, comes across as more enlightened a statesman than the current President of the Unites States.
The extract has been adapted and reproduced here in solidarity with the millions of resistant citizens who are fighting against injustice in the USA (and, of course, all over the world). For the sake of space, I have removed footnotes, in-text referencing, and bibliography from this extract. For those interested in reading the whole essay, an open access copy may be downloaded here. […]
5. Protest and Resistance, Sacrifice and Mourning
[…] I argue that the formation of Antigone’s resistant subjectivity comprises three important aspects (or stages), the analysis of which here may help illustrate the conceptual proximity of Creon’s decree to the neoliberal law, while problematising the conceptual challenges of resistance as praxis.
The first stage in the formation of Antigone’s resistant subjectivity is her complete awareness of what she sets out to resist. Antigone is thoroughly cognisant of Creon’s brutality. Not only does his decree violate the limits of ethical behaviour but it also goes against the collective feeling of the people of Thebes. Its legitimation springs from the state of exception in which Thebes finds itself, and, more importantly, from the authority of the sovereign which is as absolute as it is irrevocable. Antigone is acutely aware of this, and it is this that compels her to take a stand. The second stage is marked by her investment in mourning. From her very first address to Ismene, Antigone invokes her doomed lot: long before committing herself to the resistant act that would catalyse her future, Antigone was already mindful of her legacy – she is the daughter of loss, the spawn of an unutterable act. Indeed, we cannot theorise Antigone’s resistance outside of the potent significances of mourning, especially in so far as mourning is both conceptually and practically aligned with sacrifice. And, to be sure, sacrifice reveals another stage or facet in the formation of her resistant subjectivity. Mourning and sacrifice, therefore, coalesce to impose a categorical imperative on Antigone’s decision.
[…] Even though Antigone made the ultimate sacrifice, I do not generally consider sacrificing everything as the be-all and end-all of effective resistance; however, in committing oneself to resistance one ought to be prepared to sacrifice something. To echo Caygill, resistance does not consist only in the existential dilemma ‘to resist or not to resist,’ but also, I would add, in one’s ability to reconcile oneself with the possibility of sacrifice, even if by ‘sacrifice’ we denote the loss of one’s status as a law-abiding citizen. Effective resistance cannot be actuated within the parameters of a law designed to protect the interests of the state and its ruling class in the Poulantzian sense. As we have seen, Bonnie Honig reads Antigone and Ismene as a double-faceted resistant collective, as two mutually enabling resistant agents underwritten by significant personal investment in a collective socio-political objective. However, for the purposes of my analysis here the difference between the two is predicated on Antigone’s willingness to sacrifice something and Ismene’s reluctance to do the same – at least to begin with. What is more, Antigone’s engagement with resistance and sacrifice appears to be – to appropriate a Derridean term – one of ‘infinite responsibility’. To the extent that resistance is a term as empty and irreducible as, perhaps, deconstruction – who resists what or whom, in whose name, and for what purpose – it remains constantly in need of a referent, a correlative qualifier capable of regulating its significatory valence and practical articulation. In that way, the expectation or indeed promise of sacrifice makes sense when resistance – and, in tandem, the sacrifice expected of the resistant agent – is aligned with an emancipatory objective which is, first and foremost, underwritten by justice or, indeed, the promise of justice. Sacrifice and resistance as ‘infinite responsibility’ should, first, problematise the legitimacy of the decision to resist. As Howard Caygill argues, ‘resistance understood in terms of the preservation or enhancement of the capacity to resist cannot be reduced to a binary opposition of “run or rest,” but must be situated within a complex spatio-temporal field that manifests itself in postures of domination and defiance.’ While for Antigone the binary opposition ‘run or rest’ was never an issue, Ismene’s initial reluctance and subsequent submission to resistance as she sees her sister being led to her doom legitimises her own identity as a resistant subjectivity. Second, the sacrifice-resistance dialectic may protect the latter from displacement, misappropriation, and eventual neutralisation. In so far as legitimate resistance is underwritten by infinite responsibility to an emancipatory objective, it cannot extent legitimation to an act (or acts) of indiscriminate violence as indispensable correlative of opposition. Sacrifice and resistance, cannot, and should not, exist outside of this injunction. At its core, therefore, the will to resistance presupposes a will to protest, while protest as an act – despite the conceptual complexities associated with the term and on which I will shortly elaborate – presupposes conciliation with sacrifice, and, consequently with the work of mourning. In initiating an act of resistance, one must be willing to succumb to, at the very least, learning to say ‘no,’ thereby being prepared to set oneself beyond, or outside of, the normal, the acceptable and/or the lawful. In other words, one ought to be prepared to be thought of, like Antigone, as akosmos [a dissident] – or, to borrow a Daily Mail term, a saboteur. As such, the decision to protest signifies one’s conciliation with the possibility of being treated as a miasma – both as that which is unwanted and as contagion – and this, at the very least, is a sacrifice that the resistant subjectivity ought to be prepared to make.
Protest, then, may appear both as a self-fulfilling prophesy and as a concept at war with itself. Granted, as ‘avowal’ it may precede ‘resistance,’ but as a concept it is enmeshed in a complex network of juridical, political and theological determinants, all of which calibrate its conceptual proximity to (and practical efficacy) as ‘resistance,’ while doing nothing to disambiguate its semantic scope from (and in relation to) praxis – that is to say, from and in relation to what it seeks to achieve. Nowhere is this more obvious (or indeed useful) than in texts such as the Antigone. Of course, it would be facile to even insinuate that it is only by, and through, reading such texts that we come, or learn how, to resist. There are, however, a number of ways in which the reception of such texts may foster an ethics of resistance. The very ambiguity inherent in ‘protest’ as a concept carves out both an ethics of engagement with what is to be resisted and the multiple torments involved in the process of resistance. In Antigone’s case, protest necessitates a dual act of acceptance and dissent, which precedes the final, uncompromising act of resistance – the articulation of an absolute ‘no.’ Her protest – replete with multiple gestures of avowal, rejection, remonstrance, and unbelievable tenderness – suggests that a certain ambiguity is always present for as long as it takes protest to become an undeconstructible, unanalysable form of resistance. Antigone’s avowal of her dead brother’s right to a proper funeral would constitute no offence had she not acted on it. Ismene was spared not because of Creon’s magnanimity, but because her own protest, albeit as vocal and virulent as that of Antigone, was never (and for whatever reason) transformed into an act of resistance – that is, into a disruptive act that would unsettle the Theban state and its ruler. The moment Antigone herself transcends ‘protest’ and embraces ‘resistance’ she becomes an enemy of the state and is, therefore, sentenced to a ‘life’ in a cave, to a life neither bare nor qualified, to a life undeserving of family, citizenship or law; in short, to a life not worth living.
It is at this point where the relationship between resistance and mourning becomes manifest. To the extent that effective resistance takes place precisely within the parameters of an effort to eradicate a given status-quo and replace it with another, it cannot be realised devoid, or outside, of a double-faceted engagement with the work of mourning. On the one hand, to seek to replace a certain state of affairs (or socio-political reality) with another presupposes full cognition of what has been (or is in danger of being) lost to (or because of) this state of affairs (or socio-political reality). For instance, Wendy Brown invites us to mourn the loss of liberal democracy as the first prerequisite of resisting the ravages of neoliberalism. Although I do not entirely share Brown’s assertions on the historico-political affordances of liberal democracy, her central premise pertaining to the need to mourn in order to resist strikes me as rational and useful. On the other hand, the combinatory potential of mourning and resistance, which presupposes an epistemological break with one’s current reality and its substitution with another, ultimately reveals one’s readiness to affirm, to avow (and, certainly, to reconcile oneself with) the loss of said reality. The French title of Derrida’s The Work of Mourning (2003) is telling: Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde [every time unique, (every time) the end of the world] does not have an eschatological aspiration but rather underscores that the work of mourning – and, here, our engagement with resistance – is first and foremost dependent on our willingness to accept the conceptual and practical significances of loss. This, of course, is easier said than done. The loss of a loved one – or indeed the loss of an ideal, a way of life or a socio-political reality – presupposes conciliation with the work of mourning as the means through which a new (hopefully better) socio-political reality may be created. Derrida’s ‘democracy to come’, or, indeed, the ‘messianic without messianism’ are useful concepts here, but in articulating our resistance to a certain socio-political reality we essentially seek to achieve its ‘death’ and to effectuate the coming of a new one. The driving question here should be who is willing to mourn, or who is ready to withstand the (potentially ferocious) violence of mourning? In asking these questions I, of course, underscore the centrality of violence – or its possibility – as an instrumental element of resistance. In fact, being subjected to violence – verbal, physical, or psychological – and/or perpetrating violent acts is a sacrifice, with which the resistant subjectivity ought to be reconciled. That said, to the extent that this is countenanced by the resistant agent, the emancipatory aspiration of rightful resistance ought to be animated, according to Caygill, by the virtues of justice, courage/fortitude, and prudence – ‘all three contributing,’ according to him, ‘to the deliberate preservation and enhancement of the capacity to resist’. There is an ineluctable paradox at play here. Whereas courage/fortitude may expose one to extreme violence or death, thereby negating his/her ability to further resist, prudence presupposes understanding that resistance consists in more than the binary ‘resistance/non-resistance.’ It is the collective combinatory potential of resistance that interests Caygill, a potential that the Antigone so marvelously illustrates. Caygill explores the efficacies of this combination by analysing the case of the women of Greenham Common in juxtaposition with the Mexican Zapatistas. Whereas the former were invested in a collective understanding of resistance as rejection of (military) violence, the Zapatista resistants had not only reconciled with violence but ‘consider[ed] themselves as already among the ranks of the dead.’ This precisely underscores the awesome combinatory potential of resistance in the Antigone. Ismene’s deliberative, methodical approach is supplemented and fortified by Antigone’s instinctive alliance with mourning and death.
Lastly, the resistant subjectivity that commits itself to resisting injustice for the sake of an egalitarian, emancipatory politics ought to be fully aware of the folly, callousness, and injustice of the politics s/he seeks to change. […] The law of the neoliberal state is at pains to shift blame from the toxicity of financial capital that caused the crisis […] to the millions of citizens who, much like Antigone, dare to resist. […] The first aspect of Antigone’s resistance I mentioned above – that is, her steadfast belief that the law she sets out to defy was unethical, irrational and brutal – is also the hardest to realise.
Even though, for the sake of clarity, I have listed these stages in order, I do not suggest that successive linearity is the only way through which resistant subjectivity may be formed. The July 2015 Referendum in Greece and the 2017 General Election in the UK, prove that even direct or parliamentary democracy may constitute arenas of effective political resistance, arenas in which citizens, who are neither entirely ready nor entirely willing to resist neoliberalism, may align themselves with a political proposition animated by a vocabulary of hope, solidarity and collective endeavour. The possibility of a revolutionary politics of and for the future, according to Razmig Keucheyan, is predicated on our ability to resist the ravages of (neo)liberalism by conceptualising and enacting ‘new strategic paradigm(s)’ capable of defending material conditions while addressing, I would add, the urgencies of supra-nationalism, automation, and political ecology. After decades of establishing itself as the only socio-economic and political hegemony, neoliberalism has run out of options and has, in effect, placed diverse electorates in the advanced capitalist West in a metaphorical antechamber to resistance. Predicated on a palindromic movement from opposition to acquiescence and from emancipation to morbid despair, people’s resistant subjectivity is collectively formed as I am writing these lines. I noted above that although Antigone’s resistance appears almost as natural as her pronouncements on love, it is, in fact, made possible by a series of individual steps, all of which are marked by both avowal or acceptance and rejection or negation. Her head-on clash with Creon and the complete rejection of the symbolic order which valorises his rule is preceded by the acceptance of sacrifice and mourning as constitutive parts of an ethics of resistance that is robust and urgent. As Honig argues, mourning constitutes an important aspect of the process of resistance, in so far as it is, on the one hand, capable of monumentalising the enormity of what has been lost and, on the other, in a position to stage conflict as a state of affairs between two commensurate, albeit rival, (political) economies. The most potent will to resistance presupposes, at the very least, a tacit reconciliation with sacrifice and, therefore, with the possibility of mourning. To my mind, this is the main reason for which Antigone is still relevant today. To know how to mourn, and Antigone certainly does, is to know precisely what has been lost and, more to the point, what could be lost further.
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