Tragically Speaking: On the Use and Abuse of Theory for Life (Symploke Studies in Contemporary Theory)
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From German idealism onward, Western thinkers have sought to revalue tragedy, invariably converging at one cardinal point: tragic art risks aestheticizing real violence. Tragically Speaking critically examines this revaluation, offering a new understanding of the changing meaning of tragedy in literary and moral discourse. It questions common assumptions about the Greeks’ philosophical relation to the tragic tradition and about the ethical and political ramifications of contemporary theories of tragedy.
Starting with the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and continuing to the present, Kalliopi Nikolopoulou traces how tragedy was translated into an idea (“the tragic”) that was then revised further into the “beyond the tragic” of postmetaphysical contemporary thought. While recognizing some of the merits of this revaluation, Tragically Speaking concentrates on the losses implicit in such a turn. It argues that by translating tragedy into an idea, these rereadings effected a problematic subordination of politics to ethics: the drama of human conflict gave way to philosophical reflection, bracketing the world in favor of the idea of the world. Where contemporary thought valorizes absence, passivity, the Other, rhetoric, writing, and textuality, the author argues that their “deconstructed opposites” (presence, will, the self, truth, speech, and action, all of which are central to tragedy) are equally necessary for any meaningful discussion of ethics and politics.
discontinuity that structures the consciousness of modern Greece has never been given due attention in the European imaginary, and its philosophical and political implications are too intricate and manifold to be fully delineated in this rather sketchy presentation. However, even if we cannot follow all the contours of this history, it is important to at least introduce the general peculiarities that classical reception inaugurates when it enters the unstable topology of Greece, both ancient and
Old Quarrels higher order of piety that we are called to join and during which we turn away from the god(s) who absconded, thus remembering, imitating, and honoring piously their gesture of infidelity.50 Suddenly, the Greeks’ felicitous failure to master holy pathos, which makes them less excellent in piety precisely because it recognizes the human inability to master the sacred, is transformed into an actual lack in need of completion: the completion will come in (the future of) our modernity
determinist view of the human being: we are either thoroughly passive at the hands of necessity (“necessity” now having been renamed “alterity”) or entirely defined by preexisting cultural codes. Some of the questions that arise out of this revaluation of tragedy are: How much, in the name of originality, have we hypostatized the “truth” that our human condition is and will remain exclusively different from that of the ancients? How much, in our quest for originality, which is itself a Greek
task itself; and it was not because it was impossible to think what grounds thinking, since the ground lies by definition outside what it grounds. Be that as it may, I would like to propose something along different lines than Heidegger — namely, that this impossibility may not have been an issue for the Greeks. Unlike us — for whom it registers as an impossibility because we admit to the logic of reflexivity as we privilege its abysses — the Greeks’ inclination toward a philosophy of life had
with him a threshold into a sacred place where, on behalf of the god, dialogue can lead to a revelation of the self. Socrates has proposed a Feast of the Gods. (190–91) For a city, however, that has lost sight of this function, Socrates is not worth anything, not even worth living. It is this meaning of “worth” that Socrates evokes in his famous phrase “the unexamined life is not worth living” (ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ) (38a5–6).36 The essence of being human — that is, the essence of