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Tag Archives: Greek Tragedy

How Normative Is the Greek Chorus? Spinoza, Rorty, Davidson and Sophocles

Geometry of Know

A passing comment recalled to me a certain conceptual break through. I was studying Davidson’s “Three Varieties of Knowledge”which presents his theory of Triangulation while at the same time studying narratology, and looking into Bakhtin. For some reason discussion of mimetic and deitic elements suddenly struck me as revealing of the elemental Greek Tragedy structure (Hero, Chorus, Audience), and I realized that Greek Tragedy exemplified Davidson key epistemological point, that we attain objective knowledge due to our largely coherent, belief-veridical, intersubjective knowledge of others (with Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument playing an integral part). The Tragic Chorus formalized an essential epistemo-ontological ground, a necessarily reflective element within the field of the real which indicated to us something of what the real was, as if it were us. And just as quickly it seems, I realized that Davidson’s Triangulation was the same sort of argument  Spinoza put forth which grounded the “social” within the imaginary powers of an imitation of affects – E3p27 (we feel what others we take to be like us are feeling). That is, there is a bio-kinesthetic linking of affective capacities with perception ordering itself which allows affects to ripple through and across bodies in  a reportive, if imaginary way. The broadcastive behavioral forms of other things condition our own experiences, determining them along a causal vector, in a sense normatively and charitably making rational, affective wholes without which the world could not coherently exist.

The Normativity of Truth

Thought comes to mind about Rorty’s wonderful reversal of a decade of dispute with his ally Donald Davidson, wherein he realized that indeed there is a place for a Theory of Truth in Philosophy. His realization was that without a community of users, there is no language game, and a community requires normativity (presumably of use, behavior and experience). As he put it, Prescription precedes Description. It was here, in prescription, in normativity, that the powers of our descriptions lie. So to complete full circuit, if indeed Greek Chorus performs the middle (intersubjective) leg of Donald Davidson’s Triangulation of three knowledges, just how normative is the Greek Chorus?

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Martha Nussbaum and Hecuba: The Living Latticework of Ethics

Polyxena (much welcoming) and the Chorus

University of Chicago professor, Martha Nussbaum, speaks emotionally and clearly about the tender nature of ethical binding, “we are more like a plant, than a gem”, as she summons up the lessons from Euripedes’s play. She communicates in body and mind the tenuous connections which make up our sense-making dimensions of the world, the fast and terror-ible filaments which communicate our living nature: ethos.

[from grundlegung, from The Brooks Blog]

We can become shattered and animalized, when the bodily components of our trust become broken. And goodness is the openness to this kind of risk. But Nussbaum’s personal appeal, “I wake up at night thinking of Euripedes’ Hecuba…” calls to mind the haunting moment wherein the chorus women speak as one woman, a conflation of plural and first persons: she readies herself for bed, unbeknowingly perched on the destruction all that makes sense, in the towers of Ilium. This is the scene of two that “haunt” me from the play:

I, my curls in twisting
Turbans was rhythming,
Out from golden mirrors gazing
Into the bottomless rays,
That readied I might fall into bed,
But up a roar rose in the city.  (922-927)

How this is the tension of Iium in all the twistings that satisfy and pacify, golden, and the then discordant escalation that amplifies and signals. The “I” collapses into a single horrifying moment.

Secondly, there is the report of Talthybius, to Hecuba, of the kind of death that Polyxena her beautiful daughter suffered, when the Greeks had commended that she be put to death as a sacrifice on the tomb of Achilles so as to sate his ghost (the ghost of their inequities):

And when she heard the word of commanders
Loosening the cloth from the peak of the shoulder
She tore it to the hollow of her ribs, navel-low,
And showed her breast, as lovely as a goddess’
Statue. Then sinking to her knees she spoke these
Words of surpassing bravery: “Here young man, if
It is my breast you want to strike, strike here… (556-565)

Apart from Nussbaum’s sensitive reading of the fragility of ethical behavior I think stands these two limits of the feminine body, that which is recursively wound in peace, the self-enjoyment which circulates upon its own, with an infinitesimal relationship to the depth of rays and their mirror in its own gaze (an operation which is variously projected upon the woman, yet in fact is polyvalent);

but also, unlike the shattered nature of Hecuba’s fate, her dog-becoming – and I disagree that becoming-animal is necessarily a “shattering”, as it is also a potentiating of the body, a fractaling – there is Polyxena’s display of the body in defiance, the abject resistance to order, subverting the very sexualized mechanism of a “breast”, making oneself a site of protest and eruption. This a core Greek Tragedy notion. In this way, the surface volume of the fragility that Nussbaum points out touches at its surface, the Body Without Organs, as how Deleuze and Guattari may have conceived it. The surface of the human is inhuman, there, the breast and the mirror meet.

If we are more like a plant than a gem, then perhaps we are more like a rhizome than a tree.