In other words, the only way to keep a classical work alive is to treat it as ‘open’, pointing towards the future…
— Slavoj Žižek, Antigone
Sophocles’ Antigone was written during a time of national fervor, war, and turmoil. It has subsequently been a topic of interest from Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, and Hegel, to contemporary philosophers, psychoanalysts, political and social theorists alike — each considering it afresh for their time. One might wonder why such a work would continue to be considered today? Perhaps it is due in part to the reality that not much has changed between then and now when considered through the lenses of gender norms, legal violence, resistance, precarity, loss, and mourning — a few of the subjects covered in this text and from which we still have much to learn. This paper is written in response to Slavoj Žižek’s seminar, “Living and Dying in a Topsy-Turvy World” presented at The European Graduate School in October 2021, and will briefly explore Sophocles’ Antigone through the readings of Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler, in consideration of what this tragedy might hold for the topsy-turvy world in which we live today.
Žižek opens this seminar with the question of what it means for us to be living in a topsy-turvy world, a fitting description in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent natural disasters, the uneasy events around the election, and all the local catastrophes in various cities across the United States giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.1 Taken from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the original German phrase die verkehrte Welt is translated in English as “the topsy-turvy world” or “the inverted world” and is used to designate the madness of the day, or the social reality of Hegel’s time. For Žižek, the best description of this term comes from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”2 Žižek shares that for Hegel, such a period as this, as well as the world in which we currently find ourselves, is precisely the time for philosophy. This is a time in which the best and worst, hope and despair, are inextricably linked. Taking the initial question further, Žižek asks: what sort of ethics is implied when we live in such a strange topsy-turvy world? To which he then turns to Antigone.
Sophocles’ Antigone, with the daughter of Oedipus as its protagonist, is a Greek tragedy written around the time of 441 BCE. The title of the play and it’s namesake “Antigone” holds a certain radical ambiguity, only further adding to the vast interpretations of what this piece means, both then and now. Among the various meanings, it has been construed as ‘anti-generation’ (gonē is translated here as ‘generation’), ‘unbending’ (linking it to a more feminst reading of a woman’s refusal to be subordinated), ‘opposed to motherhood’ or ‘against offspring’ (a refusal of motherhood and marriage in choosing an act that would ultimately lead to death), or the more masculine translation as ‘to be worthy of one’s parents’ or ‘in the place of one’s parents’ (Antigone’s actions cross the norms of gender and she is referenced as masculine at various points throughout the play). As the story goes, Antigone sets out in an act of defiance to perform a proper burial for her brother (considered a traitor), despite the king’s decree to let the body rot. Her act of resistance to the political order results in her banishment to a living tomb, where she then takes her life. The following lines, wherein Antigone speaks precisely on the laws which she cannot obey, have caused a scandal for centuries:
I’d never have done it for children of my own, not as their mother, nor for a dead husband lying in decay — no, not in defiance of the citizens. What law do I appeal to, claiming this? If my husband died, there’d be another one, and if I were to lose a child of mine I’d have another with some other man. But since my father and my mother, too, are hidden away in Hades’ house, I’ll never have another living brother. That was the law I used to honor you.3
This law Antigone honors and what might be gleaned from it today remains a source of fascination and debate.
Žižek is one of many philosophers who has written extensively on the topic of Antigone, suggesting that it provides a unique ethical opportunity for our time. Indeed, Antigone’s act of resistance disrupts the entire social edifice in favor of an unconventional ethics. “There is something monstrous about her…”4 The law Antigone honors is the law of exception. However, for Žižek, it is not only an exception, but an act which turns the exception into a new law. What is key in Žižek’s reading is that ethics begins with a ‘But…’ as in Antigone’s “I’d have followed the law, but my brother.” In this reading what is introduced is an interruption, a turning of ethics on its head. Rather than the ethical being a set of shared common customs in place in order for society to function, Žižek is interested in what is unwritten, suggesting that even the unwritten is essential, which is along the lines of Walter Benjamin who says that a good translation must be missing what in the original is left unsaid.5
Judith Butler develops a reading of Antigone that is at once a critique of and point of departure from both Hegel and Lacan, but also against Žižek — hence its mention here. Actually, with regard to the latter, the two — Žižek and Butler — write and speak in critique of one another on the correct reading of Antigone. However, in considering both perspectives together, I find the readings to be complementary. It could be suggested that Antigone fits neatly among Butler’s other political writings on topics such as gender, war, precarity, responsibility, performativity, the speech act, and the public sphere. With Hegel and Lacan on the notion of kinship as a starting place, Antigone represents for Butler a time in which kinship becomes “fragile, porous, and expansive.”6 Indeed, this reading of Antigone challenges us to be open to new modes of kinship. Antigone is not representative of kinship as we’ve understood it, but rather, that which follows kinship's aberration. Such is a time when families are blended, chosen rather than given, where more than one person may function as the mother or the father, where families are displaced due to divorce, war, or immigration, or where certain social arrangements are not recognized as legitimate forms of love, and thus not recognized as legitimate forms of loss.7
Contrary to Žižek’s assertion that the term ‘brother’ for Butler is ambiguous, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the term is polyvalent — Oedipus himself is both her father and brother, and in using the term literally, Antigone could be referencing any or all of her three brothers, for living or dead the referent remains applicable to each. Taking this further, Butler suggests that “when she claims that she acts according to a law that gives her most precious brother precedence, and she appears to mean ‘Polyneices’ by that description, she means more than she intends…”8 I am reminded here of Žižek’s interest in what is unwritten, or left unsaid. With this ambivalence/polyvalence in mind, Butler goes on to suggest a reading of Antigone that acts on behalf of those who are marginalized or excluded from the public sphere. Through the refusal to allow Antigone’s familial rights to a proper burial, her ability to grieve and mourn publicly are denied. One can’t help but hear Butler’s reading in light of their other writings on whose life gets to be counted as grievable, are allowed to be mourned, or counted as a loss. In a recent lecture delivered at the University of Chicago, Butler questions: “is living with laws any less violent than living without them?”9 Antigone, I believe, considers the same question. Indeed, is not Antigone’s act — the law she chooses to defy versus the law she instead honors — precisely an example of this topsy-turvy or inverted world in which we find ourselves today?
To conclude: Žižek suggests that our starting place for conceiving a true ethical universality is the acceptance that catastrophe has always already happened. Advocating for a radical freedom, we must move forward by first perceiving that catastrophe is our fate, but once accepting our future, we might then work to prevent it. Here, freedom is the possibility of changing one’s destiny. With regard to Antigone, catastrophe had already happened. With catastrophe as the starting point, we can then see, as Žižek notes, that Antigone interrupted the ethical with the conjunction ‘But…’. Antigone’s ‘but my brother’ is a new beginning. This ‘But…’ is the only way to ground a new ethical universality in which everyone is included at the end. To close by way of an example, Žižek presents this reading of Antigone in light of the more recent Black Lives Matter movement, where the only way Black lives might truly come to matter is to begin with Black Lives Matter, for whom there have been major catastrophes. This is the only way everyone will be included at the end: not with the affirmation that all lives matter, rather, to begin first with the assertion: but Black lives matter.10 This is the topsy-turvy world in which we live, the madness of our day — and the one in which Antigone lived — wherein ethics has never truly included all and so we continue to have to argue on behalf of ‘But… these others’.
1. Slavoj Žižek, “Living and Dying in a Topsy-Turvy World” (seminar, The European Graduate School, October 2, 2021).
2. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (New York: Signet Classics, 2007), 1.
3. Slavoj Žižek, Antigone (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), 13.
4. Žižek, “Living and Dying in a Topsy-Turvy World.”
6. Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life & Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 22.
8. Ibid., 77.
9. Judith Butler, “Danziger Lecture” (lecture, The University of Chicago, November 11, 2021).
10. Žižek, “Living and Dying in a Topsy-Turvy World,” (October 16, 2021).