Panel on “Tragic Conditions” at the 2021 MLA Convention

As the 2020 Chair of the Forum “Classical and Modern” of the Modern Language Association, I was happy to put together at the 2021 convention a virtual roundtable of great scholars with a special interest in tragedy.

MLA Panel no. 524Tragic Conditions, Saturday, 9 January 2021, 5:15 – 6:30 PM

Presider:  Vassilis Lambropoulos, U of Michigan, Ann ArborSpeakers:  Alexander Beecroft, U of South Carolina, Columbia; Joshua Billings, Princeton U; Blair G. Hoxby, Stanford U; Sarah Nooter, U of Chicago

Short description:  The question of what kind of work may be deemed tragic has been complicated by new criteria mobilized for the term’s definition and evaluation.  In addition to theatrical and moral criteria, scholars have been considering identity, affect, corporeality, and materiality, among others.  Participants discuss conditions conducive to the appearance of tragedy, conditions qualifying as tragic enough for the stage, conditions required for the genre of tragedy, and conditions considered tragic.

Long description:  Following a half-century of attacks on tragedy by writers from Walter Benjamin to George Steiner, a broad intellectual and artistic consensus emerged that tragedy is not dead, and does not need to be.  In fact, producing canonical tragedies, discovering forgotten ones, and making new works has become so widespread around the world that the genre has never been so popular since antiquity.  At the same time, research into the genealogy of “the tragic” has identified its origins in German Idealism.  While some sociologists and political theorists continue to work with this notion, literary and cultural studies have focused instead on the conditions of tragedy itself.  This roundtable will address concerns about the requirements of tragedy, the qualities that legitimize and validate it.As figures like Oedipus, Medea, Lear, and Nora travel across languages, arts, media, genres, and identities, critics and artists continue to use tragic tropes while at the same time renegotiating tragic limits.  As conventions like the chorus, modalities like ritual, and techniques like catharsis are invoked and refunctioned, the tragic space is reoccupied by forces that seek their own efficacy.  This roundtable will explore conditions that, at different times and situations, foster and facilitate the creative distribution of tragedy in particular cultures.

Participants may consider the following questions:

  1. Are there any historical, cultural, ideological and other conditions, usually codified as a period of crisis, that facilitate tragedy? Is tragedy a particularly productive artistic engagement for transitional times?

  2. Are there any literary and stage conventions and techniques that are important, even indispensable, for the function of tragedy? Is there a minimum of requirements for a tragic genre?

  3. Are there any rules that a play or other work needs to follow in order to work as tragedy?  Is there a poetics of tragedy, like those that writers for centuries have tried to devise?

  4. Does tragedy have its own critical vocabulary?  For example, is the Aristotelian, French neoclassical, or Brechtian terminology useful for a contemporary engagement with tragedy?

  5. Are there any tragic conditions in life that drama needs to take into account? Is it worth positing a certain equivalence between tragedy in life and in art at a particular historical period or irruption?

  6. Is there a necessary connection between tragedy and classicism?  Is tragedy required to draw on classical periods (e. g., antiquity), themes (e. g., tyranny), virtues (e. g., valor), and values (e. g., aura)?

My contribution

My project combines literary analysis, performance study, and political theory.

When there is a tyrannical abuse of power, a transgression/excess of rule by self-aggrandizement, we have a crisis of sovereignty and collapse of its foundations.  Revolution rises to challenge the legitimacy of sovereignty.  I study this political work of the revolution by analyzing the inherent contradictions of the exception and self-authorization when the extraordinary rebellion of constituent power seeks to inaugurate a radical beginning and constitute a new order.

I focus on the antinomies of civic autonomy, on the fact that freedom must be self-policed.  I treat the fundamental Idealist antinomy between freedom and necessity as the antinomy of arche as beginning and rule, revolution and institution, constituent and constituted, authorization & authority, stasis (the people) & state (government), polemos & polis.  I am especially interested in ways of limiting/controlling autonomy.

Foucault (Security) says that classical theater from Shakespeare to Racine is basically organized around the coup d’ Etat.  I propose that, starting with Romanticism, theater is organized around the revolution.

Modern theater stages the antinomies of civic autonomy as a tragic agon, the tragedy of revolutionary governance.  It dramatizes moments of extreme dilemmas/irreconcilable contradictions of legitimacy as contestation intrinsic to the revolution.

Modern theater is rich in historical and imaginary figures and events pertaining to revolution, such as kings like Philip II of Spain, emperors like Boris Godunov, presidents like Kazantzakis’ Capodistria and Cesaire’s Lumumba (Season in the Congo), revolutionaries like Marat and Toussaint Louverture, militants (Brecht’s Measures Taken, Müller’s Mission, Negri’s Swarm), terrorists (Camus’ The Just), outlaws (Schiller’s Robbers, Wordsworth’s Borderers), uprisings (Hauptmann’s Weavers, Grass’ Plebeians rehearse the uprising).

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