Appeals to Law in Antigonê, An Example of Differing Power Dynamics Between Marxist and Postmodern Discourse Analytics
An archetypal Greek tragedy, the fifth-century BC drama Antigonê by Sophocles is noteworthy within the history of political thought as an early articulation of the inherent and inevitable conflict between positive law (“human law” codified for a particular reason that is derived from and is binding by virtue of state fiat) and natural law (law that is independent of human declaration, it is universal irrespective of nation or culture and derives from the nature of things, or from a divine source), as simultaneously practiced within a single polity. Though not to a discernible degree within the academy, it is well regarded in the popular dialogue that Marxist and postmodern frameworks are functionally equivalent with respect to analyzing the use of power in a socio-political context. That is, it has been inferred that postmodernism at large substitutes the Marxist class conflict framework with an “oppression versus the oppressed” analogue (See Hick’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault).
The Themes of Civil Disobedience and the Source of Law
From the perspective of the legal discourse analytical framework, the plot of Antigonê is relatively simple. The play follows the protagonist Antigonê, the daughter of Oedipus as she seeks burial rights for her brother Polynices. Polynices, a former ruler of Thebes, died in an attack on the city in an effort to retake his office. Creon, the presiding king, issues a decree that the body of Polynices is not to be buried under the threat of death. Though attempts to court her sister Ismenê into helping fails, Antigonê succeeds in burying her brother’s body in defiance of Creon’s edict. A sentry alerts Creon to Antigonê’s actions. Antigonê is interrogated, upon which she does not obscure her actions and freely admits her defiance of Creon’s decree. Her position is predicated on an appeal to a higher natural law, that supersedes Creon’s positive law, thereby creating a dichotomy between legality and an ideal justice. Creon rejects Antigonê’s legal claim, for she had opposed his decree, though he spares Ismenê as a function of being a plausible accomplice. For her punishment, Creon sentences Antigonê to be buried inside of a cave. Creon’s son Haemon protests the death sentence as he is betrothed to Antigonê. Creon remains steadfast in his disposition until the prophet Tiresias warns Creon that the gods favor Antigonê and displeasing the gods would have harsh consequences. While personally, unconvinced, Creon nonetheless reverses course after “The Chorus”, which effectively function as Creon’s council, heeds Tiresias’ warning. However, Creon’s change of heart came too late, Antigonê was found having hung herself. Haemon, distraught, likewise commits suicide, which triggers his mother, Queen Eurdice to do likewise.
In this regard Antigonê possesses several proximate political themes as issues. Namely, the conventional natural law vs positive law conception is one that concerns itself with what is the role of state control, can individuals disregard statutes, codes or other claims levied by a state authority? Similarly, when is it appropriate to disregard positive law? Are familial obligations or divine sanctions sufficient?
Ultimately, the conventional interpretation regarding natural law and positive law is perhaps the most convincing. However, there is relevance to exploring different modes of interpretation when considering natural law and positive law, not as a party to the principal conflict in Antigonê, as two distinct warring traditions, but rather the discourse in the appeals to each legal camp by the individual characters. Writing a clash between an individual and a king, Sophocles seems to critique a powerful strongman. Because Creon is a seeming ideologue, the drama is not particularly read as a critique of a realpolitik or a Machiavellian king. Rather, considering the audience feels remorse for Antigonê and attributes her death, as well as Haemon’s suicide, to Creon, the drama illustrates the flaws in a system whereby a person with power might pursue unjustified ends. As well, Antigonê shows that the power of the state is expansive enough to partition and codify even the familial circumstances of its subjugates.
A Marxist Literary Criticism-Depicting Political Tendency
Such a pattern easily lends itself to Marxist scrutiny. Owing its conception from the Roman philosopher Cicero, there exists an adage in legal investigations referred to as cui bono, or “who benefits?”. The phrase alludes to the notion that that the motive behind a crime may be uncovered by analyzing which party might benefit from initiating a conflict. The sociological school of thought referred to as conflict theory (a sociological perspective from the tradition of Marx) borrows from this concept and creates a whole framework to scrutinize why something in a society has originated. Characteristic of this intellectual tradition is the attribution of social problems as the result of different strata in the social hierarchy competing for power. Thus, to understand the conflict, analysis can consider which party is in a position to benefit, and what particular values are being undermined and reinforced with respect to the conflict. Using this framework, the drama Antigonê by Sophocles may be better understood as a conflict arising from Creon’s efforts to retain his power and the law being used as an instrument meant to preserve the status of the ruling class. Even proponents of the conventional interpretation can concede that the prohibition of Polynices’ burial could easily be a consequence of class anxiety. Creon’s status within the social hierarchy was under threat by Polynices.
However, it is first necessary to understand the nature of the state, as the state as a body is a unique instrument in the context of conflict theory. A distinguishing feature of the state as opposed to any other body, is its presumed legitimacy by the populace with which it has secured a monopoly of legal force. With this monopoly on force, the state partitions for itself a space to create laws to further secure and exercise its power and to maintain its continuance. A notable anthropologist Franz Oppenheimer investigated the state and concluded that irrespective of the type of exact orientation of the state, i.e regardless if it was conceived as a maritime state, feudal state, republic et al., it originates for a specific purpose. Saying:
The State, completely in its genesis essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad (15).
For certain, this template is exemplified within Antigonê (See also The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Engels for a similar approximation). There are three distinct super classes within the drama. The ruling class, the enforcement class and the subjugated class. The ruling class is represented by Creon the head of the Theban state, the sentry is from the enforcement class, and Antigonê and Ismenê constitute the subjugated class.
The conflict is initiated by Antigonê, leading Creon to contest Antigonê as a challenger to his status. In retaliation, Creon, a member of the ruling class seeks to prevent any downward mobility of his class strata. He then exploits a lower class, the enforcement class, represented by the sentry, to dominate the subjugated class. Creon does this through domination and through implied violence. He threatens the sentry with death, thus the sentry becomes subservient to Creon and must carry out his will (qtd. in Kennedy and Gioia Scene I 116–120).
Wielding the power of the state, Creon likens the Theban government to an extension of his own person in a fashion that Michel Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish as a common trait of monarchies (55). That is, the act of Antigonê disobeying the law is interpreted by Creon as a violation of himself, saying that whoever buried Polynices is “scheming against me in alles” (qtd. in Kennedy and Gioia Scene I 107). Creon does not suggest that he himself is the only victim of Antigonê’s actions. Rather, the state, as a collective is assumed to be an injured party (Kennedy and Gioia Scene I 102–103).
From this, the audience sees the ability of Creon to advance a narrative. This narrative scrutinizes Antigonê as an enemy of the state, thus the enemy of Thebes, despite the two not being synonymous. In arguably the most telling passage, Creon indirectly labels Antigonê and Polynices “anarchists”. “Anarchist”succeeds in creating “the other” in Antigonê from the ruling class’ perspective. That is, “anarchist”as a term that serves to subvert values that do not correspond with the ruling class’ agenda (qtd. in Kennedy and Gioia Scene I 107). This aids Creon in deflecting Antigonê’s claim to burial rites for Polynices. Via this narrative, Antigonê is not merely perceived as a threat to the ruling class’ political power, she is perceived as a public threat, thereby diminishing her social standing.
Once captured, the conversation between Antigonê and Creon display further class tension. Antigonê resists the ruling class and their appeals to state laws. Ultimately however, she surrenders to the dominance of Creon’s resources and accepts her demise (Kennedy and Gioia Scene IV 81). This illustrates the ability of the more dominant class to control individuals within the lower classes, an inherent feature possessed by states according to Oppenheimer (Weatherly).
While the Marxist lens offers insight into particular motivations, its depiction of the flow of power is quite sterile. This depiction of the power dynamism offers little beyond power flowing downward in a linear progression from top to bottom. This is not to chastise the school of critique as sterile. For certain, this power dynamic is an important observation in political thought because it properly places the enforcement class as an instrument of the powered ruling class. In a modern context the analogue is that police power and state power are synonymous insofar as the police and the larger law enforcement apparatus are the means in which the statutes of the state are conveyed through coercion or the threat thereof, while the police are the principal agents of the state’s coercive apparatus (See Thesis 7 in Rancière’s Ten Theses on Politics).
“New Criticism”-The False Abstraction of True Order and the Skepticism of Power as Something Possessed
While the subject matter of the Sophocles piece does lends itself to such a Marxist critique, as it includes a conflict of individuals from different structures, or classes, of the Theban society, a postmodern (“postmodern” in this work is meant to be understood primarily with respect to Michel Foucault’s work, though tacitly including general aspects of others such as Léotard and Derrida, whilst acknowledging the differences among the various thinkers who have been ascribed the postmodern label) analysis seemingly provides an additional “issue” that is frequently disregarded in this context. From this discourse analysis, systematic structures such as language, or social institutions may be situated in power relations. Using this school of criticism illustrates another side of the conflict between Creon and Antigoné that is somewhat separate of the jurisprudence interpretation, or the clash between natural law and positive law. This analysis is also distinct from conventional Marxist analysis, which likewise analyzes power, insofar as the postmodern view supposes power to be constituted in a reciprocal relationship, not necessarily a “force” that moves from the “top downwards” in a linear progression.
The first instance of such a power relationship between Creon and Antigonê is when Creon is notified of the body’s burial (Scene I 63–87). Of course, at this point, Creon is unaware that Antigonê was the culprit. However, this scene and the succeeding dialogue is relevant because Creon almost supposes himself to be injured as a result of Antigonê’s act. As previously mentioned, Creon even at one point refers to the offender as “anarchists” (Scene I 107). When Antigonê disobeys the law, Creon understands this to be a violation of himself, and seeks to replicate the violation on the perpetrator.
However, power according to this framework is amorphous. While not enveloped within the historiography and culture of the Christian west, Antigonê’s declaration to Creon that she defied a state edict functions similar to the patterns of the church confessionals in the middle ages. The confession is and was considered the best technology for producing a truth. The confession may be called a technology, because in a relation of power, it grants the authority asking for the confession an instrument with which the authority can make the subject more legible. As such, the subject is assessed in accordance to the premise of the confession. The seeming objective for the confession is to modify the behavior of the subject. Whether terms of granting an award for good behavior such as the forgiveness of one’s sins or in terms of punishment for negative behavior. Even the ritual of confession can have a deterrent effect if the performance of the ritual may bring humiliation to the subject.
Per Foucault, the confession does not only produce power that flows from the top down. To the contrary, the deed that requires a confession to be produced is presupposed. Guilt is a prior assumption. The confession is instead functional by revealing what was previously unrevealed. This can enforce conformity and was a mechanism for order. During the high practice of the church confessional, sex was the “privileged theme of confession”. Any and all sexual peculiarity or fetish was compelled to become known by the priest. This reinforced self-policing in sexual circumstances, using ecclesiastical norms of sexuality as the standard of whether a particular sexual act or inclination warranted confession. But this institutional effect of the confession is not isolated to the church confessional of the middle ages, rather it can be dispersed into other relationships, while leaving for the possibility of creating spheres of freedom for the confessor.
When Creon is asking Antigonê about her allegations, this discourse is a technology of truth. Antigonê, as the subject of the confession, is however an act of power. From this framework, Creon is asking Antigonê for the permission to replicate violence on her person. Yet, not only does Antigonê reject the request, she asserts that her “secret” to be confessed is sanctioned by the gods in opposition to Creon’s edict.
Therein, postmodernism allows for power to be both situated into a relationship. Not only is this view more methodologically individualistic, but it likewise allows for power to elevate from the bottom up or be cyclical.
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