Symposium Introduction

Tragedy without Apology, Pleasure without End

Tragedy might well be the primal scene of Western literary theory. Initially, the mass consumption of tragedies in the Dionysian festivals of Athens went on for well over a century without eliciting much theoretical concern as far as we know, until Plato decided to object to the audience’s psychic derangement by its favorite poets and performers. This first shock of critical thinking about tragedy came in the context of Plato’s larger attempt at a kind of hedonic orthodoxy; that is, asserting the philosopher’s right to claim that one can distinguish objectively between true and false pleasures (casting most of the sybaritic variety as mere instances of “relief,” illusions of pleasure predicated upon the removal of pain [Republic 584a7–c12]), and that the utopian Kallipolis should monitor very stringently the kind of pleasures its citizens experience in the performance space. Pleasures have consequences in the ordering of the soul, Socrates argues, and the tragedians just scramble our psychic harmony, eroding rational hegemony (cf. Republic 605b 3–6, 606d1–7). One wonders if any actual Athenian took that critique seriously; at any rate, the state business of drama cranked on all the same for a few more centuries. But Aristotle of Stagira certainly took it seriously, at least if one assumes his Poetics can be read as a concerted response to Plato. However, whereas Plato speaks of tragedy in effect as a “concerned citizen” in the context of the Athenian polis and its powerful performance culture, Aristotle seems rather uninterested in performance, a feature dismissed as “spectacle” (opsis), which pursued blindly to its own ends produces the monstrous, not the tragic (Poet. 1453b1–11).1 In this regard, Aristotle seems almost to agree with Plato; but there is no agreement on the matter of pleasure. Aristotle tactically reduces the hedonic agenda to mapping the specific differences of genres and locating the telos of tragedy in plot structure (muthosPoet. 1450a15, 22–23). For one should seek not just any kind of pleasure from tragedy, but only that which is specific to it (Poet. 1453b10–11), a pleasure linked to the mechanisms of plot, the specific coefficient emotions of pity and fear, and bringing about a katharsis—whatever that means (Poet. 1449b24–28). And so Western literary theory went from the broad social-political critique of Plato to the structural-defensive strategy of Aristotle, and we have been apologizing for tragedy ever since—mostly by approaching it in terms of a branding exercise for some unique and user-friendly hedonic payload, the imagined benefits of catharsis, and the tidy parameters of genre.

One of many remarkable strengths of Mario Telò’s book Archive Feelings: A Theory of Greek Tragedy is that it is decidedly unapologetic, untidy, explosive, and diverse in its hedonic interests. It does not seek an easy way to make tragedy a reparative exercise. It does not rehash the exegetical arguments surrounding the Poetics, as if that would be the key to understanding all Greek tragedy at long last. In fact, in his return to the scène originaire, Telò largely dumps Aristotle in favor of a host of postmodern thinkers who make arguments of a kind that would send the Stagirite staggering for their complexity and unsettling implications. From the start, Telò comes out as fully anti-cathartic, refusing to play the game of retrofitting that vexed concept to suit his interpretation. He dumps the Athenians as well, no longer seeking the archaeological return to the Theater of Dionysus as the only horizon of true understanding, as if tragic emotions could only be effectively understood and validated when performed—as musicologists say—on original instruments. Following in the footsteps of Simon Goldhill’s seminal Reading Greek Tragedy, Telò’s “ardent reading” of the plays does not fixate on performance context, but returns the modern reader of tragedy to center stage, inviting us to step up our game in close reading with all its anachronic possibilities, and to jump into the frame of interpretation by rethinking critical writing itself. His rich engagement with a wide range of competing and even contradictory thinkers equips us to take on more boldly the idea, to quote Paul Hammond, that “tragedy is, par excellence, a deconstructive medium.”2

Central to the book is the question: “What if the pleasure of tragedy is produced not by release but by the lack of it—by a sense of stuckness rather than intensity as such?” The turn, then, is towards a conception of “pleasure in thwarted restoration” which Telò explores through a multifaceted recourse to the Freudian death drive and its later explorations by Jacques Lacan, Leo Bersani, Kaja Silverman, Slavoj Žižek, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and especially Jacques Derrida, whose Mal d’Archive motivates and informs the archival core of Telò’s book. After its programmatic introduction, “Re-impressions of Greek Tragedy: Toward an Anti-cathartic Aesthetics,” the remaining five chapters comprise extensive readings of Greek plays toying with their chronological order and what it means to read backward and forward within this tragic archive. The chapters are divided into the sections Archival Time, Archival Space, and Archival Endings, and the last chapter in particular shows Telò at his most dexterous. He uses Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est to initiate a discussion of “orgasmic anti-catharsis,” featuring the blood-spurting endings of four canonical tragedies: Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Sophocles’s Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus, and Euripides’s Bacchae, plays whose disturbing imagery Telò entwines around his exploration of jouissance, and he ends with a discussion of paintings by Cy Twombly. In his epilogue, Telò enlists Toni Morrison to show how far the implications of his new reading of tragedy can take us, and offers a lucid self-analysis of his commitment to the radical possibilities of tragic language: “Twisting the practice of close reading into a liminal exercise between critique and post-critique, I have relished the excess that oozes from formal edges” (279). Such a confession shows how Telò will be our guide to a brave new literary world of tragedy without apology, of pleasure without end.

Archive Feelings is vast and vortical, and as coeditor of the series in which it appeared, I felt it urgent to invite other scholars and critics to take up the challenge it throws down. I am grateful that Mario’s work and reputation for collegial interchange readily attracted a band of willing participants, each one a scholar and critic fully up to the task and eager for a place at the table. So, we present to you, dear reader, that scariest of things in the context of tragedy: a royal feast. There is no need to summarize at length what soon will follow for your reading pleasure, but let me highlight a few characteristic gestures of our hungry guests.

First to the table is Sean Gurd, who characterizes this book as an attempt to create a “discursive machine” that will “run next to certain tragic texts.” Gurd attempts to characterize Telò’s recourse to the Freudian death drive that runs this machine as similar to a ‘pataphysical appropriation of a psychological theory, one that combines “both hyper-rationality and deliriousness to produce results that are simultaneously ludic and profound.”

Next seated is Dan Orrells, who retraces the modern disciplinary formation of Classical Studies and the place of Greek tragedy within it, showing that at best this academic canonization exposed the paradox of tragedy as a place of the imagined Other (slaves, women, barbarians) within the Athenian polis, and its performance as an inevitable negotiation between ancient and modern. So Telò is certainly right to take up the close reading of tragedy to make it do something new, using the rigor of philology to enact “a gallery of gorgeously obscene thought experiments.”

Karen Bassi follows by targeting the uncritical, conservative nature of the “psychic equilibrium” catharsis was long thought to establish. But she then returns to Aristotle’s mention of Iphigenia Among the Taurians to suggest there is another sense of catharsis, one more amenable to Telò’s project: a signaling of “the inevitability of death in its temporary postponement,” a thought that casts Aristotle, Derrida, Freud, and Telò himself in a repetitive loop regarding the death drive.

Paul Kottman, from his end of the table, then returns us to Peter Szondi’s distinction between a poetics of tragedy and a philosophy of the tragic, and kicks the argument back to the larger frame of a philosophical interest in human suffering. From this perspective, he wonders if Telò, in his “anti-cathartic” approach, is still too indebted to the very same Aristotle he is trying to unhorse, since one could simply skip over Aristotle and address directly Plato’s concern about our stuckness in irrational pleasure-in-pain and put that into dialogue with Freud.

Helen Morales challenges Telò to state just what his project means for feminists, specifically in relation to the “‘emancipatory force’ of death-driven aesthetics,” the “jouissance of [Telò’s] hermeneutics,” and the question of a catharsis based not on an “ejaculatory” model like his, but rather on “a kind of ethical attunement.” She raises the poignant question, “Is there room for intersectionality in the death-drive?” She asks as well what would happen if we chose as a model for the pleasurable-pain of tragedy not ejaculation, but menstruation, another meaning of katharsis deployed by Aristotle.

“Archivable meaning is also and in advance codetermined by the structure that archives,” Derrida says;3 and in that spirit, we feel this Syndicate symposium will help to archive not just the reactions of various scholars to Telò’s extraordinary book, but his own willingness—I should rather say, outright eagerness—to engage dialogically with his readers. Though the book is a conventional monograph in appearance, it reveals itself to be a rich and disturbing tapestry of conversations between disciplines, continents, centuries, and myriad points of view. So now, for your consideration we spin that tapestry out further into the future through the internet’s endless archive.


  1. We should perhaps object more often to Aristotle’s assumption that “spectacle” leads to monstrosity, while the tidy intellectual mechanics of plot lead to tragedy proper. What would he have made of Seneca’s tragedies, unstaged and unstageable as they appear to have been?

  2. P. Hammond, The Strangeness of Tragedy (Oxford University Press, 2009), 4n7.

  3. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago University Press, 1996), 18.

Sean Gurd

Response

The Discursive Machine

I think Mario Telò’s Archive Feelings contains the most original theory of tragedy in a generation. Not since Simon Goldhill’s writings on Athenian democratic ideology—which Telò repudiates—has work appeared with such potential to seed a whole new way of thinking about Attic tragic theater. Telò’s characterization of tragedy as an instantiation of something like the Freudian death drive, and his assertion that the pleasure of tragedy comes not from mimesis or cathartic release but from an almost-inorganic instinctual repetition leading to the absence of release, a glorious reveling in being stuck, gives us a radically new viewpoint which should have far-reaching consequences. Gone is the placid smile that for Hegel adorned the surface of even the most horrific tragic text thanks to the mediating and mollifying power of form; rather, there is a terrible grimace as things fall once more into the abyss. Here, trauma and loss ever repeat, subject to always new and always failed attempts to domesticate them. Tragic aesthetics are concerned with the “pleasure-in-pain of wanting but being unable to fill the gap, to make up for the lack inherent in memory” (19). This seems truer to my own experience of tragedy, and of the delighted dissatisfaction that has forced me to return to it again and again for more than thirty years. I love tragic difficulty, tragic rebarbativeness; I love that I hate it, that I resonate with it and yet see nothing of myself in it all at the same time. Archive Feelings also strikes me as offering a theory of tragedy for our time, when the human world seems stuck, unable to escape the torture chamber it has created for itself, utterly and hopelessly besotted with the never-ending agony it subjects itself to. What could be truer to this moment than a dramatic form that cannot escape its own traumatized sense of history, that leaves us with nothing but excruciating joy?

As with every new theory of tragedy, Archive Feelings embodies the results of a new relation to tragic texts. This is not surprising, for one must approach texts differently to earn different results from them. Aristotle abstracts and finds tragedy to be a philosophical theory of what normally happens; Hegel sublimates and finds that tragedy reconciles conflict through form; Nietzsche historicizes and discovers a hymn to life in all its aspects, one which is inevitably impossible in the modern world; Freud symptomatizes and uncovers in tragedy an attempt to deal with suppressed memories and infantile desires; the mainstream of tragic studies contextualize and reveal an expression and questioning of shared cultural assumptions. What does Telò do in Archive Feelings? His own term for it, inspired by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, is ardent reading, and it rejects “the notion that critics should, or even can, place themselves outside of or beyond the text” (36). Attendant above all to “out-of-joint syntax, dislocated semantic configurations, and subliminal patterns of signification,” he “never takes the text as a given but constantly puts it under pressure—not to challenge or battle it, but to keep tragic form always moving, in a perennial, burning, anti-cathartic state of being done and undone” (37).

I do not want to doubt or question the lucid methodological description that Telò offers in these words, and I enthusiastically applaud the assertion that this kind of scholarship does not describe form so much as produce it. But without diminishing the importance of ardent reading, I think there are productive processes at work throughout Archive Feelings that this concept does not encapsulate, and which may in fact make the book the distinctive and decisive contribution that it is. I also suspect that it will take more time and words than I have here to adequately characterize it. So here is the first draft of my attempt to do so: the distinctive approach that Telò has developed here is to construct a discursive machine that works with implacable logic, and then to make it run next to certain tragic texts; the rhymes and resonances between these two discourses are the moments of focus thanks to which his sense of tragedy as an “archive fever” emerges. I do not think that these few words will achieve a complete characterization of this procedure. I can hope only to make a start, which I propose to do by taking a brief look at the book’s engagement with Freud and the theory of the death drive. This is where the book begins, and it is in a sense the platform from which everything is launched. Freud characterized the death drive as the most primitive of instincts, prior to and in some ways more fundamental than the “pleasure principle.” While the latter is an instinct to pursue pleasure and avoid unpleasure, the death drive compels us to return over and over to earlier moments in an organism’s being; it can be discerned in the clinically observable “compulsion to repeat” traumatic events. It is via a meditation on the Freudian death drive that Telò arrives at the insight that “tragedy’s repetitive engagement with the traumatic tales of myth implicates this dramatic form in what we can call a traumythic compulsion. In every instantiation, Greek tragedy stages its obsession with primal scenes and ‘sources,’ seeking to import through its very constitution their traumatic contents and the traumatic energy of the origin as such” (18). Given the centrality of this theme in the book, one might in fact be tempted to say that Archive Feelings represents a renewal of the Freudian position. But I cannot bring myself to believe this, for the simple reason that I do not think Archive Feelings in any way represents an “application” of Freudian theory to tragic textuality. Telò’s engagement with Freud is consistently mediated by the critical tradition, including the work of Derrida and Silverman, among others, so there is no question of an “orthodox” or “literalist” Freudianism here. Nor would one want or expect there to be: the death drive and its consequences are elaborated through a series of further critical reflections and developed, via these elaborations, into a new theory. This is typical of Freudian engagements in the contemporary humanities, and I do not mean it as a criticism when I point out that much of what characterized Freud’s doctrine is bracketed off here: his extraordinary powerful and prescient texts are valued not for their insights into the structure or nature of the individual psyche but for their figurative force, for the fact that they articulate, underwrite, and can serve to critique public narratives and discursive blockages. Freud’s Lamarckianism, his belief that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, the entire neuro-physiological model which he consistently presumes, and even his entirely realist belief that there is an unconscious, are matters of doctrine that are no longer adopted when the major topoi of his thought are deployed in cultural criticism.

A concept like the death drive serves as a dynamic engine for critical discourse, and it is neither surprising nor blameworthy that Telò can benefit from it without adopting the physiological theory Freud himself relies on in Beyond the Pleasure Principle to disclose it. But the consequence must be that this is not a substantially Freudian reading of tragedy. Rather, it is something else, something which takes a figure from Freud and then unfolds a discursive machine on its basis, drawing on its power without committing to its substance.

Let me offer an example of a similar kind of intellectual endeavor, drawn from an obscure and perhaps idiosyncratic source: Christopher Dewdney’s “Parasite Maintenance,” published a number of times but perhaps most accessible in his 1980 collection Alter Sublime. In this short essay, Dewdney proposes a striking thesis (one adapted as well by William S. Burroughs, among others):

The evolution of language, inextricably bound with the evolution of our consciousness as a species, has diverged from its parallel and dependent status with the human species and has become “animated,” i.e., has, much like a model of artificial intelligence, or a robot, taken on a life of its own. Furthermore, I propose that special linguistic qualities peculiar to the English language indicate the existence of a “Governor” (in a mechanistic sense) with which the “animated” language acts on the individual, restricting the limits of conceptualization.1

The subsequent pages of Dewdney’s essay argue, in a scientific language complete with precise drawings of neurons, synapses, and the cerebral cortex, how language has come to occupy its human hosts as an autonomous and living parasite; and how, in the case of English, that parasite strictly enforces the limits of the thinkable. He then proceeds to show, in the same highly scientistic language, that “the poet” has the capacity to find and record expressions that exceed those limits, in effect countering the censoring power of the “Governor” and liberating us from the prison house of language. Dewdney’s reasoning is tight, precise, and cast almost entirely in terms drawn from what at the time were contemporary views of neurophysiology and linguistics. But it would be a mistake, I think, to take this as a neurophysiological argument. Rather, it is a poetological argument that uses the language of neuroscience; and it makes a claim that does not stand or fall on the strength of the “neuroscience” it cites. As Christian Bök put it in an article published in Open Letter in 1997, “Dewdney utilizes the poetry of ‘pataphysics in order to parody the metaphysics of science.” The “’pataphysics” to which Bök refers was invented by Alfred Jarry in the late 1890s. One of its originary gestures, which is vividly adopted by Dewdney in parasite maintenance, was to use the language of prestigious sciences to make decidedly non-scientific claims. Crucial to the mechanics of ‘pataphysical language use is the appearance, and sometimes even the fact, that this language use be systematic. Bök’s invocation of parody notwithstanding, ‘pataphysics is not a joke, and its application of scientific language is usually in deadly seriousness, even if the results can seem playful. Better than the word “parody” to describe the relationship between science and ‘pataphysics, as Sean Braune pointed out, is the word parasitical: “’pataphysical language is parasitical on science in the sense that it is an unwanted guest who sits beside science’s table and metabolizes what science discards; its truths are often the rejecta of science, formed into surprising and unrepeatable objects.”2

If you feel like I’ve just eaten my own tail, so to speak, in claiming that Parasite Maintenance is ‘pataphysical and that ‘pataphysics is parasitical, you’re starting to get it: Dewdney’s project, like ‘pataphysics, depends on creating figural machines that are self-perpetuating and autonomous, combining both hyperrationality and deliriousness to produce results that are simultaneously ludic and profound.” Crucially, I think, Dewdney’s message is simultaneously articulated and embodied in the essay, which uses scientific language poetically in order to adumbrate an escape from its constraints: if the language of Science can seem to constrain thought, the language of poetry can circumvent those constraints, even as it works or plays with it, as Dewdney does here.

I am not proposing that Archive Feelings is a ‘pataphysical work. It is a criterion of ‘pataphysics that it be deliberate; one cannot retroactively characterize activities as ‘pataphysical except under extremely specific circumstances. But ‘pataphysics lies ready to hand as an example of the same move that is evinced in this excellent book’s handling of the death drive: Freud’s terminology and conceptual armature is adopted for its fecundity, and allowed to develop and grow in entirely new directions, directions that do not need to have much to do with their original soil. Long after the death drive did its work within the Freudian corpus, it is doing real and significant but very different work in Telò’s theory of tragedy. And while I do not think this book reveals the thinking of an orthodox or doctrinaire Freudian, it is not a heretical misuse of Freudian ideas, either: indeed, the logic by which cultural critics return to the death drive, even when we no longer accept the major underpinnings of the Freudian system, seems very much in the spirit of the compulsion to repeat, which as Telò so beautifully characterizes it represents a drive on the part of the living, organic being to return to what it no longer is, to soils that can no longer sustain it. And, like Dewdney’s ‘pataphysical essay, Archive Feelings exemplifies what it describes. For while Archive Feelings represents a major new theory of tragedy, it seems to me that it would be wrong to call it a theory about tragedy. Archive Feelings does not characterize or even describe tragedy or tragic texts. Rather, this is a thinking that returns to tragedy much as tragedy itself returns, compulsively, to traumatic myths. Indeed, Archive Feelings not only compulsively returns to tragedy; it compulsively returns to Freud, and the same agony of the inescapable archive, which is also an extraordinary and confounding joy, seems to be at work in Telò’s engagement with both corpora. The inability to “make up for the lack inherent in memory” is diagnostic of tragedy, but it is also diagnostic of the return to tragedy, and of the very attempt to theorize “return itself.” The ardency of the readings here is tragic, the result of a nostalgia for the non-self, the inorganic other, the death before life.


  1. C. Dewdney, Alter Sublime (Coach House, 1980), 75.

  2. S. Braume, Language Parasites: Of Phorontology (Punctum, 2017).

  • Mario Telò

    Mario Telò

    Reply

    Response to Sean Gurd

    The image of the “terrible grimace” replacing Hegel’s “placid smile” as he revels in the “mediating and mollifying power of tragic form” could not have better captured the shift in our aesthetic perception of tragedy that I sought to provoke in Archive Feelings. When Gurd says, “I love tragic difficulty, tragic rebarbativeness; I love that I hate it, that I resonate with it and yet see nothing of myself in it all at the same time,” his language is not simply an odi et amo but an amo quia odi, which boldly expresses the contradictory feelings, even the “ugly feelings” that, for many of us, tragic formal textures exude when we read the plays or we see them animated onstage. There is a disconnect between the non-scholarly experience of watching or reading tragedy and the practice of writing about it. While, as I say in the introduction, I believe that audiences are different, that there is not (and cannot be) unity in their responses, literary-critical analyses and theoretical accounts tend to steer clear of the ugly feelings; they do not seek the language and the conceptual apparatus for the rebarbativeness that Gurd speaks of. While allowing for multiple forms of open-endedness, ambiguity, deferral, and so on, scholars working on tragedy, especially classicists, do not usually take stock of the aesthetic and affective consequences of this open-endedness, the amo quia odi that stems from it, or its implications, which take us back to the famous pages on tragedy in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. We all agree that tragedy elicits multiple responses, but this multiplicity seems always to be encompassed within the horizon of Aristotelian catharsis, which, notwithstanding the instruments that Freud and Lacan gave us for understanding tragedy differently, exerted its fascination even on them. De-emphasizing the normative ideas of cleanliness and purification inherent to catharsis, scholars such as Victoria Wohl, in her brilliant 2015 monograph,1 consider the possibility not just of pleasure and pain but of pleasure-in-pain, something that Plato himself contemplated. While Wohl’s great reading of Hecuba (a notoriously “ugly” play) takes account of its sadistic pleasures, and she also beautifully reads the auto-immunitarian politics of Orestes, for the latter play she comes back to Aristotle in the end.2 I am not saying such an Aristotelian reading is not compelling; it is. But I wonder whether the impetus to go back to Aristotle and thereby marginalize tragic rebarbativeness has something to do with resistance to the death drive, which, through the force of its name, is taken as a suicidal instinct, even though it need not be.

    As Gurd rightly points out, Archive Feelings also attempts to show how Greek tragedy can speak of and to our time and to the sensation of no-time (not just no future) generated by the crises of capitalism and neoliberalism. Although I did not write this book during the COVID pandemic but during the second year of the Trump presidency, it was a time when Gurd’s formulation was already applicable: “the human world seems stuck, unable to escape the torture chamber that it has created for itself, utterly and hopelessly besotted with the never-ending agony it subjects itself to.” (It is significant that as Freud worked on Beyond the Pleasure Principle between March 1918 and March 1920, the Spanish flu killed millions of people worldwide, including his own daughter Sophie.)3 The phrase that Gurd uses to recapitulate this complex of feelings—“excruciating joy”—is perfect for defining the kind of anti-Nietzschean, anti-ecstatic aesthetics that I seek to model. It makes me think of Georges Bataille’s “joy in the face of death,” a concept frequently evoked in the book that captures, for me, our current condition of closely contemplating, with a mix of fear and desire, horror and perverse exhilaration, an impending but never fully materialized extinction. There is a strong reluctance, among most critics, to read tragedy in this way, to recognize expressions of “excruciating joy.” This seems a form of disavowal—and thus an indirect confirmation of what I call the death-driven force of tragedy; its triggering power, if you will; its capacity to challenge and immediately reactivate our predisposition toward the reassuring dictates of the pleasure principle. Most readers do not want to see tragedy as reflecting, or nourishing, our never-ending agony, our stuckness, our inability to escape the “torture chamber” in which we are confined, (un)sheltered.

    “Can Greek Tragedy Get Us through the Pandemic?,” a headline in the New Yorker (September 1, 2020) asked in reference to Zoom performances of various Greek tragic plays organized by the Theater of War Production, which, in the writer’s words, “has spent years bringing catharsis to the traumatized.” Although I do not wish to diminish the importance of such initiatives or deny the potential of tragedy, in some manner, to address trauma, I worry that the reparative impulse leans toward a reinscription of the normative, of a reassuring status quo ante that, even if one could recapture it, would not necessarily be desirable. Theorists working in queer theory and also in critical race theory who do not have much sympathy for psychoanalysis (José Esteban Muñoz and Jack Halberstam, for example) share my rejection of the reparative, a concept at odds with the idea of possibility intrinsic to utopian à venir. To me, catharsis seems a quintessential instrument of reparation; it is hard to conceptualize an anti-reparative catharsis, a sense of regained equilibrium that coexists with and is also contaminated by an aestheticized sense of our never-ending agony, our stuckness.

    Already in its Freudian version, the death drive is not a suicidal instinct but a broad force of negativity, of undoing. In The Force of Non-Violence (which appeared almost at the same time as my book),4 Judith Butler uses the idea of the death drive to discuss the “impression of overwhelming and unprecedented human destructiveness,” which Freud noticed in his time, as we do in our own. In a 1915 essay on World War I written Before the Pleasure Principle, Freud calls this “destructiveness” a “blind fury,” which, as Butler notes, he “takes from Greek tragedy.”5 This observation invites us to locate the anti-cathartic in the Erinyes of the Eumenides. My reading suggests that we see ourselves in the Erinyes, whose “excruciating joy” is our own, as is their “hopeless besottedness with never-ending agony.” From a different perspective, the death drive is for Butler a force that struggles against the constraining power of the superego, a constraining power that is destructive in its own right. We can see the death drive as a destructive force against destructiveness, a mania, or madness, needed for political change.

    For those who think of the death drive as a suicidal impulse, I would also emphasize, with Gurd, its figurative force as a principle of existential and consequently aesthetic stubbornness or recalcitrance (like that of matter or tragic poetic form itself), which, as Gurd puts it, “can serve to critique public narratives and discursive blockages.” This is, after all, what Lee Edelman means when he assimilates the death drive to the condition of the queer, the Real that exceeds the hetero-sexist Symbolic.6 But perhaps a consideration alongside Rancierean dissensus—a resistance against the consensual force of the representational—is most helpful in illuminating the death drive’s figurative valence and its emancipatory potential as a politics of refusal, which, for me, is essential to Greek tragedy and constitutes its most cogent political legacy.

    I agree with Gurd’s meta-reading of archive fever as an apt description not just of the psychic-affective-aesthetic dynamics that I locate in tragic texts, but also of the “discursive machine” fabricated by my practices of too-close-reading (to repurpose D. A. Miller’s phrase)7 and radical formalism. In a sense, I aspired to bridge the gap between scholarly and non-scholarly experiences of tragedy, not shying away from those dynamics but drawing energy from them, importing affect into critique and criticism, and building a critical discourse shaped by an “excruciating joy,” a feverish energy. I wanted to show the possibility—as well as the urgency—of critique and criticism that inhabit a certain agitation, that perform the perverse exhilaration of the tragic by letting themselves be affected or infected by it. This perverse exhilaration of the tragic is implicated with the death drive; consequently, criticism conceived as a pulsating performance and circulation of tragedy’s ugly feelings is itself a death-driven process, the enactment of a jouissance, the dramatization of an ongoing rushing more important than its notional destination. In this additional respect, I agree with Gurd that in the book “the death drive serves as a dynamic engine for critical discourse.” My attraction to the pre- or post-linguistic, to form as a de-formation, can be seen to parallel the motion toward the inorganic or a primordial undone-ness that Freud associates with the death drive.

    This leads me to another point in Gurd’s comments, the connection he establishes between my ardent reading and his own ‘pataphilology, in which, as he says,

    there is . . . a recurrent concern with sound—the audible glyph of language . . . —as the basic material of the linguistic attractions perpetrated in puns, etymologies, and new-language formation, or as the noise of the singular or the subject. Indeed, there is also a recurrent preoccupation with the subject: what is it? How can it be freed? Is it, perhaps, a ‘pataphysical object, secured through strange new forms of language practice? And there is a consistent engagement with forms of time that . . . seem to defy orthodox chronology, to tie the line of history into a knot or a Möbius strip.8

    In my analyses, the subject vertiginously gets lost, or utterly disappears, in the knots of subliminal verbal formations or de-formations, in the affective or formal figurations of the (Lacanian) Möbius strip, in the chronological heterodoxies of suspension, achrony, and the Deleuzian coexistence of actual and virtual. I am not afraid to say that my version of ‘pataphilology reclaims a certain impressionism, which was a critical taboo when I was in graduate school. In a forthcoming book, I define this impressionism as “a practice that heeds evanescent potentialities as well as the affective, visceral excess that informs poetic form yet exceeds it, coming through in the gaps of representation.”9 It is a mode of reading that capitalizes on a paradoxical post-critical paranoia or over-analysis, as it were—on “whispered suggestions, shadowy feelings, tenuous connections, murmuring resonances, hazy shadings of meaning or non-meaning, insinuations.”10 Of course, the subtitle of Derrida’s Archive Fever is “A Freudian Impression”; my fervent impressionism—philo-logical in the etymological sense but also para-philological and pataphilological—is another expression of archive fever as a “discursive machine,” another metacritical embodiment of the anarchivic aesthetics of Greek tragedy.

    Embracing Gurd’s characterization of Archive Feelings as not a theory about tragedy, but of tragedy, I interpret the “of” more as a subjective than an objective genitive. That is, what the book seeks to demonstrate, through the archive fever circulated by its readings, by its ardent affectivity of reading, is that Greek tragedy is a theory, a theory of the return—a concept that, in in its capaciousness, perhaps helps us bring together the various psychoanalytic or post-psychoanalytic positions mobilized in the book. Greek tragedy—or, at least, the Greek tragedy that I read in this specific moment, in this moment of crisis—shows the possibility of reconciling Freud with post-Freudians and even anti-Freudians and dramatizes the affective texture of the ongoing, inevitable (re)turn to Freud (or the various Freuds contained in Freud) in critical theory (anti-humanistic as well as post-humanistic). Gurd captures the archive feelings that I ascribe to tragedy when he speaks of “the result of a nostalgia for the non-self, the inorganic other, the death before life.” I would add that this “non-self” is another self, predicated on exiting the constrictions of the self, one that does not disavow its inorganic origins and ultimate destination, one that embraces death in life, or lifedeath.


    1. V. Wohl, Euripides and the Politics of Form (Princeton University Press, 2015).

    2. V. Wohl, “The Politics of Enmity in Euripides’s Orestes,” in Greek Drama IV: Texts, Contexts, Performance, ed. D. Rosenbloom and J. Davidson (Oxbow, 2012), 224–69.

    3. See E. Rottenberg, “At Witz End: Theory in a Time of Plague,” Psychoanalytic Psychology 38.2 (2021): 115–17.

    4. J. Butler, The Force of Non-Violence (Verso, 2020).

    5. S. Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” SE 14: 111–40.

    6. L. Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Duke University Press, 2004).

    7. D. A. Miller, Second Time Around: From Art House to DVD (Columbia University Press, 2021).

    8. S. Gurd, “Introduction: Elements of ’Pataphilology,” in ’Pataphilology: An Irreader, ed. Gurd and Vincent W. J. van Gerven Oei (Punctum, 2018), 55.

    9. Resistant Formalisms: Aristophanes and the Comedy of Crisis, forthcoming.

    10. Resistant Formalisms

    • Avatar

      David Youd

      Reply

      On Closet Reading

      I’m thrilled to see what already promises to be a lively and important exchange. I write here in hopes that more readers will chime in. I have just a few thoughts on the work’s style and method, since, although Archive Feelings strikes me as a model of expository clarity, it is also a book headily intoxicated with ideas and uncompromisingly theoretical in its bent (its lifedeath being also an inebriated sobriety). Thus what Gurd calls Telò’s “discursive machine,” running alongside tragedy and allowing “the rhymes and resonances between these two discourses” to emerge, seems also, to me, an instrument so keyed up with excitation, the cerebral intensity of its strings of readings pitched so high, that it often brings the reader right to the edge of shattering. Like the best works of its kind, it holds out the sort of experience that throws one into a bodily loop, setting the book down only to pick it up again seconds later, not from any intellectual surfeit but from the painful sharpness of the appetite it excites. It is an unbearably exciting book, and, once caught in its lubricious machinery, we are swept inexorably along by the drive to, like Telò’s Thelma and Louise, “keep goin’!”

      Part of this energy, I think, emerges from its stylistic procedures. For instance, it often compresses otherwise voluminous commentary into a brisk run of adjectives, or unpacks a surprising payload from the aesthetic contours of a single word—or a single letter (I’m thinking now of the “p,” “pa,” or “m” of Philoctetes). It never looks away the language of tragedy, and for me at least, much of the “pleasure-in-pain” of Archive Feelings lies in this exquisitely painstaking attention to detail, details which, seemingly effortlessly spilling from Telò’s pen, we ourselves are at rapturous pains to soak up. To take just one example, in his reading of the non-closure of the Agamemnon, we get discerning suggestions on ejaculatory metaphorics (“the outré juxtaposition of ganei (‘liquid sheen’) and sporêtos (‘sown seed’), where rain is confused with male seed”), metrical inundation (the gush of gore “engulfing the verbal and metrical flow”), and the “stickiness” of sound (where psakadi gloms together initial syllables of sphagên and kakphusiôn), confronted by an anorgasmic grammar (“aspectual incompleteness of the present tenses”), and the formal implications of stage materials (the imperfect “closure of the net, intimating its anarchivic porosity”) (244-245). However we understand its methodology, the work’s sometimes grisly lifeblood is surely this commitment to close reading (what Telò, following D.A. Miller, calls “too-close” reading). Whether this commitment comes as one renewed or simply undead, Telò shows himself stubbornly and almost shamelessly alive to the queer nuances that suffuse Greek tragedy (in fact, to confess a felicitous misreading of my own that proved somewhat telling, I initially mistook Telò’s phrase espousing “closest reading” (34) to say “closet reading,” a lapsus oculi condensing associations with bedroom closeness and closet drama, to say nothing of its queer epistemology of obliquity).

      Of course, although Archive Feelings surely “contains,” as Gurd says, “the most original theory of tragedy in a generation,” Telò would doubtless refuse the opus the status of telos. Not least because for him the jouissance of tragedy “radically contests the very notion of orgasmic teleology” (241). In its interrogation of closure, the work is itself shaped by an anti-closural ethic: it offers rather than asserts, poses questions rather than imposes answers, and forwards interpretative possibility rather than articulating its putative constraints. In short, it refuses to play the Father by imposing hermeneutical law. On the other hand, Mario Telò has tendered a book which bears, to my mind, some likeness to the Freudian Mother. Its seething waters engender what Freud described as the “oceanic feeling” of religious ecstasy, the rapture of dissolving into the marine abyss of pure being which, to risk producing a “terrible grimace” with a watery pun, “Mario” could be said to name. Part of the “undoing” of the self which the work so beautifully explores.

      But there is nothing tepid about this work. The intimacy evinced with the texts it embraces is sometimes so ardent that we feel we should be embarrassed to look on. But of course, we are not mere witnesses, and there is no mimetic distance to shelter us. Instead, we cannot help but ourselves grow feverish in the throes of its intellectual fervor. And if, as Gurd cogently states and Telò here elaborates on, this book is utterly of the moment, a book for our time of perpetual crisis and unending stuckness, we can only wonder with warm anticipation what new horizons of reading it will have opened up, in classical studies and beyond.

    • Avatar

      Allen Miller

      Reply

      What isn’t part of the machine?

      Let me first say, I love Sean’s commentary. It is beautiful and expansive. But I am wondering how Sean’s notion of the discursive machine differs from Foucault’s concept of the way people like Freud and Marx are founders of entire discourses (“What is an Author”), that is to say new modes of investigating and speaking about the world? The founders of discourses do not simply represent the “author functions” of discrete texts that make specific claims about the world. Rather they enable entire new ways of speaking. If that is true, then the death drive in this conception becomes a kind of archive that enables new forms of enunciation, and that would include the kind of enunciations we find in Telòs’s brilliant reading of tragedy, without Telò having to accept every empirical claim Freud himself made. Is that quasi-pataphysical? Or does this look more like the way Plato makes possible neoplatonism, Cicero’s De Republica, Augustinian theology etc. Or is pataphysics just the way discourse actually works, at least in the kinds of hermeneutic and figurative discourses that are typical of modern (post)humanist work?

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      On Closest/Closet Reading

      David, thank you so much for your brilliant response. Rapturous, stubborn, shameless, feverish, “oceanic”: these are perfect characterizations of the affective force of tragic language’s “discursive machine,” which my “closest” readings and their idiosyncratic style tried to bring out or, if you will, remove from the closet of a certain kind of academic discourse. My attempted revival of radical deconstructive reading through the emotionally invested, madly (or even maddeningly?) personal rendition of affective, stylistic hyper-closeness (which, as in every relation, perilously navigates the borders of proximity and distance) is an attempt to problematize the very opposition between reparative and paranoid reading and to make a contribution to the current debate on queer formalisms. The danger and “inappropriateness” of (hyper)closeness are, to an extent, alternative ways of appreciating tragedy beyond the ethical, cognitive, and cultural-historical framework that is still dominant.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      Response to Allen Miller

      Thank you so much, Allen! Perhaps what you are suggesting, Allen, is a model of discourse similar to ever-expanding, ever-contracting matter. So, there is perhaps a way to connect the Derridean archive (nourished by a differential death drive) and posthumanist notions of matter, which are already, to an extent, anticipated by the proto-post-humanist sections of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (see the recent contributions by Tracy McNulty and Miriam Leonard)

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong

      Reply

      The Stuckness of Catharsis

      If I may open a slightly different thread here in relation to discursive machines, I kept reflecting while reading Archive Feelings that the anti-cathartic impulse in the work could find traction from the fate of cathartic therapy itself. There was a moment when the scholarship on Aristotelian catharsis and the early Breuer-Freud cathartic therapy found a perfect discursive link up. It can be found in Hermann Bahr’s Dialog vom Tragischen (Berlin, 1904), in which a character literally holds Jacob Bernays’ essay in hand to reconcile classical philology with Studies on Hysteria, tracing a rather Nietzschean reading of Greek civilization that points towards tragedy not as a metaphysical consolation, but as a hysterical cure. The Apollonian world of heroic ideals created by Homer put unrelenting pressure on the average Greek, who could hardly live up to their example, so “the whole culture of the Greeks was then set upon and surrounded by hysteria.” But the Greeks still had the strength to create the institution of tragedy as cure: “tragedy in practice does nothing different from what those two doctors [viz., Breuer and Freud] do: they remind a people made ill through culture of what they do not wish to be reminded,” the savage emotions that lie hidden beneath the surface of the civilized citizen.

      This constellation of ideas was not just brought about by the coincidence that Bernays was Freud’s wife’s uncle. There are many reasons why fin-de-siècle psychology returned to Aristotle and the cathartic paradigm, which seemed well suited to the new performance culture of hysteria. Once again, the hedonic agenda set the tone: if the psyche is now seen as a psychophysical entity, a Fechnerian system that manages energies by seeking to establish an equilibrium, then the discharge provided by catharsis has an important function of decreasing unpleasure. The psychic pain caused by “strangulated affect” seeks an outlet, either through symptoms (by which it will only repeat itself, sadly, morbidly, antisocially in a seemingly endless loop) or through the more definitive burn-off of “cathartic therapy”—so the early theory went. Hence, the Lustprinzip of the mental economy was inextricably bound with pain, since the mind’s endogenous excitation was forever producing unpleasure and “more rationality” (especially post-Nietzsche) was hardly a solution to an unavoidable human condition.

      But even Freud found cathartic therapy was a better story than a clinical reality. Initially, he fell for the seduction of affective narrativity and reparative catharsis, but the infatuation did not last, for neither his patients nor the world really worked that way. While patients got some relief and satisfaction from catharsis, it proved only partially effective, leading to the recurrence of symptoms which led in turn to further need for catharsis. The danger was that this cycle just created a passive dependence in place of conscious insight, and the patient’s desire for catharsis could itself become a form of resistance. It’s just hard, in the end, to work through things with drama queens.

      So can we suggest, then, that the cathartic theory of tragedy has revealed itself to be just a well developed resistance to theory? Historically we return to it time and again in hopes for some tidy explanation for our fascination with the dark pleasures of Greek tragedy, but are we in effect caught in a loop of explanatory self-satisfaction? Mario’s book is boldly leading us out of this trap in which many have been stuck since Aristotle’s day.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      On Catharsis as Resistance to Theory

      I love your De Manian formulation, Richard. Freud’s attachment to catharsis might be imputed to his perennial desire for scientific legitimation in the anti-Semitic, positivistic Vienna of his time. What’s the use of psychoanalysis if it doesn’t provide a solution, a form of efficacious healing? This healing aspiration is shaped by what Paul Kottman has recently called science’s melancholic subjectivity, a kind of voracious cognitive introjection of the object, which he has pitted against the objectivity of the humanities—or, we may say, of theory as opposed to science and positivistic scholarship. This objectivity entails a fundamental respect for “the recalcitrance of the object,” in Adorno’s words. Making the loop of symptoms emerge, come out into the open is not small feat for psychoanalysis. The symptom, as you say, is an “outlet,” an externalization, a kind of “release” in its own right. Would it be too weird to call it a kind of anti-cathartic catharsis? Freud’s insistence on casting psychoanalysis as a “science” is his death drive, if you will. Just as the notion of cathartic equilibrium is caught in the loop of reconstructing an imagined status quo ante, as I argue in the introduction of the book, Freud’s attachment to the cathartic model figures his constantly frustrated, never fulfilled effort to fit into the scientific status quo, into a positivistic disciplinary equilibrium that is radically incompatible with psychoanalysis.

    • Paul Kottman

      Paul Kottman

      Reply

      Two thoughts on this weelthread

      I am grateful to be part of this discussion.

      Reading Sean Gurd’s remarks and Mario’s response, two questions come to mind.

      First:

      Gurd notes that Mario is offering a “theory of tragedy” and he compares Mario’s theory favorably to Hegel’s. I understand a “theory of tragedy” to be something like what A.C. Bradley sketched, a century ago, when he wrote about “Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy.” That is, a theory of tragedy would be something like a poetics; a cognitive account of what tragedies (works of that genre) are, and of why they matter.

      At the same time, as Gurd notes and as Mario confirms, any good theory of tragedy (like Mario’s) incorporates and is marked by an affective response to tragedies. This can produce what Mario understatedly calls “a disconnect between the non-scholarly experience of watching or reading tragedy and the practice of writing about it.” In short, it seems that theoretical accounts of tragedies cannot outrun our felt responses to them; and so, our felt responses cannot be warranted by any cognitive practice. Theories of tragedy, in this sense, themselves express something tragic: the insuperability of, and the theoretical indefensibility of, what Mario (after Sianne Ngai) calls our “ugly feelings.” The more we can tarry, theoretically, with this – what to call it? – impasse, the closer our ways of teaching or talking or philosophizing about tragedy themselves become tragic. When Mario’s thinking tarries in this way, he gives us room to do the same. Whether such room can be put to any salutary use at all is, I think, an open question.

      The openness of that question puts into question the value of both theories of tragedies, like Mario’s, and of tragedies themselves. I understand this aporia to be what Plato hit upon in Republic 10, when he tried to establish the authority of philosophy vis-à-vis the grieving, affective helplessness that tragedies express.

      Second:
      Mario is concerned, in the book and in his response to Gurd, to offer what he calls a “rejection of the reparative.” Why should the reparative require rejection? In my longer response to Mario, to be published here in a week or two, I try to say something more about Mario’s aims in this regard. But, here, I want to wonder aloud about the meaning of rejecting the reparative, or of what Mario also calls the “anti-reparative.”

      Given Mario’s turn to Freud in the Archive Feelings, let me state my musings in psychoanalytical terms, although I think the issue could also be stated in terms provided by what Martha Nussbaum once called “therapies of desire,” readable in the ancient Hellenic, Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. If there is some analogy between the kind of reparation at work in medicine (for a fever or a broken leg, say) and possible kinds of reparation when it comes to a broken heart, or deep feelings of shame – and that is, of course, a big ‘if’ – then psychoanalysis and certain moral philosophies (Plato on tragedy, the Stoics etc.) might be seen as attempts to see where the analogies do and do not work. I understand the most intriguing dimensions of such philosophies to unfold when ‘cures’ for the soul (offered by religious healers, say, or the therapy industry) cease to be credible in the way that plaster casts are credible as ‘cures’ for a broken arm. As Adam Philips puts it, “a culture that believes in cure is living in the fallout, in the aftermath, of religious cultures of redemption.”

      I take it that Mario, like the most adventurous psychoanalysts, wants to ask what our view of life would be like – both in theory and in practice, in life as we live it – if our tragedies had no curative moment whatsoever. But why should asking this require the (theoretical) rejection of reparation, or an “anti-reparative” aesthetics? Doesn’t this rejection foreclose the very openness of tragedy? Why not, somewhat more dialectically, speak instead of a cure of the wish to be cured, or of a reparative relation to inherited ideas of reparation?

      Perhaps Mario really wants to insist: There is no reparation. But, if so, then from what theoretical vantage is he then claiming to be speaking?

      Tragedies show, again and again, how what we wish to reject or expel is precisely what has already invaded us at the core. Which makes me wonder: What reparative work might be going on at the core of any rejection of reparation?

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong

      Reply

      To Mario, on Resistance to Theory

      I can certainly agree there was a strategy of legitimation going on with Breuer and Freud’s recourse to the concept of catharsis. Early on in the development of psychotherapy, Freud indulged in a constant clinical improvisation, using hypnosis, suggestion (the pressure technique), and finally landing on free association as a method of interaction with the analysand. But as I’ve argued before in relation to the archaeological analogy, we should see these strategies of legitimation not simply as external, or as you say, aimed at the “anti-Semitic, positivistic Vienna” of his time. They are also internal to the interactions with his early analysands, and are therefore transactional analogies. Unlike Charcot’s performing grisettes, Freud’s early patients were not only among the richest women in Europe like Anna von Lieben and Fanny Moser, many of them were also Jewish, like von Lieben and Elise Gomperz, wife of the famous classical scholar Theodor Gomperz, who was himself in conversation with Breuer on the interpretation of catharsis. Scholars like Peter Swales and Volker Langholf have suggested these early patients had a strong effect on Freud’s early formulations, and their high degree of culture might have made the cathartic paradigm (which was both theatrical—i.e., bourgeois—and secular) appealing as a description of the unusual process of memory work. Jonathan Lear has emphasized how this theatrical paradigm functions to put the hysteric in a position of sympathetic self-spectatorship, negotiating the boundary between proximity and distance in her own recollection of trauma. And some psychoanalytic authors like Joyce McDougall overtly deployed metaphors of theatricality for the analytic space for some time (Theatre of the Mind, Theatre of the Body).

      But as for your second point, the symptom is an anti-cathartic expenditure of energy in Freud’s thinking, a bit like flaring natural gas. But as it does not address root causes, it loops endlessly in a waste of energy. Freud’s mixture of “catharsis and archaeology” has a lot to do with his desire not just to join science, but to extend it. Charcot had done much to fix an iconography of hysteria as a florid seizure disorder, a project typical of a nosographer hoping to locate a morbid entity in a taxonomy of disease. But Freud was more eager (and arguably was under more pressure) to cure it, and drove deeper into its etiology, hence the shift from symptoms to causes in his approach. The problem with Freud is that his eagerness to find a winning narrative of cure often put him well over his skis (Breuer was far more reluctant to claim such wins). So to return to your final point, we might say his final acceptance of another human impulse that is not towards health but rather entropy gave him another option for why people are so damnably difficult to cure from mental distress. I think it’s true over time he grew more comfortable with his pessimism, which is why the later Freud has greater affinities with tragedy. Once he’d created his “scientific myth” of the primal father, which he even called the Urvatertragödie, he’d left the simplistic mechanism of catharsis well behind.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      On Theory, “Anti-Theory,” and the Reparative

      Thank you, Paul, for both of your points. Si parva licet, my “theory” of tragedy, especially if compared to Plato’s and Hegel’s, would be better called an anti-theory, one that, by heeding and almost inhabiting affective disruption, the “ugly feelings” that many theorists of tragedy are bothered by and seek to rein in, contests the normative framework intrinsic to any theory of the tragic. My deep, unruly engagement with critical theory (an obsessive eclecticism, which I know, Paul, you will have a lot to say about in your “official” response) is precisely my own way to voice the need for an anti-theory of tragedy, to express the idea that a theory of tragedy can only be an anti-theory, as it were.

      “The wish to be cured” is precisely what I mean by “reparative.” I should have called it a reparative desire. I thus don’t think that we are in disagreement. For me, “this wish to be cured” is the objet petit a of the tragic experience and of many theorizations of tragedy. Precisely because I deconstructively believe, as you say, that “tragedies show, again and again, how what we wish to reject expel is precisely what has already invaded us at the core,” I see the reparative (the idea that tragedy does cure us) as a kind of closure, as an illusory rejection or expulsion of the “ugly feelings,” a kind of reinscription of the tendency to coopt tragedy into a liberal agenda (what I am afraid projects like Nussbaum’s essentially do).

    • Daniel Orrells

      Daniel Orrells

      Reply

      Resistance to Theory and to Cures

      I’m interested in what Mario had to say about not wanting to be cured when watching/reading tragedy and Richard’s comments about the resistance to theory.

      Let me begin with resistance to theory: Classical Studies as an institution has for a long time been very resistant to Freud and Freudianism, especially since Jean-Pierre Vernant’s famous critique of the Freudian psychoanalysis of Sophocles’ “Oedipus”. And yet, much recent scholarship in classical reception studies, which has argued time and again that modern performances of tragedy cathartically manage to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable, rely (often unknowingly) on Freud’s initial approbation of an Aristotelian interpretation of tragedy. And this is not just ironic; I think this irony is pernicious. The exploration of the reception of antiquity in modernity ends up so often re-idealizing, re-glorifying, re-classicizing the ancient Greek past. “Greek tragedy can say what we still cannot!” so the refrain of classical reception scholars goes. Classical reception studies supposedly cures Classics, that decadent, degenerative, limping aristo, the last of his line. Classical reception studies breathes new life into the old codger. Classical reception studies reminds the illiterate masses that Classics really does – timelessly, universally – matter. It’s a certain sort of Freudian-Aristotelian edifice – a theory – which underpins the classicist’s resistance to theory and their joyful, naive celebration of the survival of the classics.

      But I think we should be wary of this cure. Re-idealizing the classical past is not going to help anyone. Idealizing centralization of the Graeco-Roman past always entails the marginalization of something else. Every act of remembering is also an act of forgetting. And that for me is the value of “Archive Feelings”. Instead of soothing us, this book unsettles us. If there is no catharsis, there is no end to thinking, to working through, to trying things out, to getting things wrong, to messing up, to making a mistake, to being a failure. Not putting an end to reading is an affirmation of working in collaboration rather that in competition, to envisaging novel, anti-capitalistic, anti-neo-liberal modes of knowledge production. “Archive Feelings”, for me, doesn’t seek to offer another way of propping up – of curing – Classics. Rather it puts Greek tragedy into contact with all sorts of other literary and cultural traditions and horizons. It offers an opening to exploring the ancient Mediterranean world in every-changing intellectual constellations. That seems to me to be a much more equitable and more secure future for the study of “stuff” like Greek tragedy.

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong

      Reply

      Reply to Dan, or Oedipus in Academe

      Classics as “that decadent, degenerative, limping aristo, the last of his line”–sounds very much like Oedipus, Dan. But then you knew that. As we discussed recently in another symposium on another book in our series, Michelle Zerba’s Modern Odysseys: Cavafy, Woolf, Césaire and a Poetics of Indirection, we’re groping for an approach that embraces complex convergences instead of unilinear, causal arguments that reduce reception to a matter of: classical text x —> influence on modern text y = perennial power of classical text x (Classics wins again!). That old model of “the classical tradition” can be blamed for wanting to pull the same rabbit out of different hats over and over again.

      Here I think reflection on the modern production of the ancient archive is always a useful place to begin, how it is structured in the very act of archiving (e.g., ancient “literature” as a series of printed texts), and how this archival production and reproduction are always already embedded in modern cultural practices. I think Mario’s displacement of tragedy from a performative context and his refusal to give in to the desire for recreating a cultural moment in Periclean Athens are helpful in reframing this engagement to be more radical from the start. But as often is the case, we struggle with the implications of what the outcomes look like: what is “produced” by this cultural production, what are the “research outcomes” our administrative software can input and aggregate? The Freudian condition we most suffer from in academia is, after all, the narcissism of small differences.

      JP Vernant’s “Oedipus without the Complex” was a classic instance of disciplinary policing, and yet if you read the essay, you’ll find his most burning questions about Greek tragedy are fundamentally psychoanalytic in nature:

      “To what extent is man really the source of his actions? Even when he seems to be taking the initiative and bearing the responsibility for them does not their true origin lie elsewhere? Does not their significance remain to large extent hidden even from the one who performs them, so that it is not so much the agent that explains the action, rather the action that, by revealing its real meaning after the event, reflects light upon the agent’s nature, revealing what he is and what in actual fact he has unwittingly done.”

      Here the resistance to theory really did lead to the return of the repressed. Had Vernant been less invested in playing the disciplinary policeman, his engagement with contemporary psychoanalysis would have been far more enriching than the petulant essay that he wrote instead.

    • Helen Morales

      Helen Morales

      Reply

      So why read and watch tragedy?

      Thank you so much for including me in this discussion – I have learned a huge amount from Mario’s amazing book and from this debate. I hope you’ll forgive me for being a bit flat-footed in my request for clarification here. I’d like to go back to Paul Kottman’s ‘Two Thoughts’ response where he asked about the value of Greek tragedy. I’m with you, Mario, when it comes to your argument that Greek tragedy is not cathartic (as I suspect are most classicists these days). I’m also persuaded, I think, that there is little that is curative or reparative about the operations of Greek tragedy, but does that mean that there is nothing salutory (Paul’s term – a good one), in reading or watching tragedy? If the value lies just in the pleasures of tragedy ‘nourishing our never-ending agony, our stuckness, our inability to escape the ‘torture chamber’ in which are confined, (un)sheltered’ (Mario above) and in the ‘absence of release, glorious reveling in being stuck’ (Sean Gurd above) then I think I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I can see the pleasure and the value in tragedy’s disruption of norms (Mario above) but, again, if that is its only or even main value then it wouldn’t we tire of it? Wouldn’t it be a bit tediously indulgent? For me (and I’m not an expert on tragedy nor as conversant with high theory as my fellow discussants here so I may just be being a bit thick) but for me part what is salutory about watching or reading tragedy (and I mean salutory rather than reparative or curative, though I wonder now if and where they slide into each other) are the ethical engagements it demands of its viewers and readers – its prompting us to ask why we are stuck, and invitation to imagine and debate other choices and other outcomes. This engagement sometimes (it depends on the tragedy) feels to me the opposite of stuck, to take us beyond the stuckness of the characters in the drama. Where/how do the ethical engagements of tragedy fit in Mario’s analysis?

      PS David Youd’s reminder to make something of the punning possibilities in Telò and telos is rather lovely.

      PPS re Richard’s intro – I wasn’t being entirely serious when (following Aristotle) I suggested menstruation as an alternative to ejaculation…!

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      Tedium and Self-Indulgence

      Thank you so much, Helen, for your comment! I completely understand the discomfort, which is often evoked by my investment in the ethics of negativity (something that for me doesn’t coincide with nihilism). Isn’t finding a space for the expression of forms of willful, radical refusal enough of an attraction for viewers or readers of tragedy? “Indulgent” is a morally (or moralistically) charged term. My position aligns with that of Afropessimists like Fred Moten and Stephen Best, who argue that the social structures of systemic oppression call for aesthetico-political moments of deep disruption, of abolitionist dismantling. The kind of ethical engagement that you propose—one that goes beyond the unconditionally oppositional stance of stalling, that is, arresting the status quo through the affective inhabitation of negative agency—seems to me to carry the danger of normative re-inscription, of being coopted back into the Symbolic structures that tell us not to be stuck, not to be self-indulgent, to reject ugly feelings and, instead, to embrace forms of reparative participation. My impression is that the focus on the ethics of tragedy, which has occupied the history of tragic scholarship since the Romantic period, can make us miss the opportunity to connect tragedy with the radicality of the impossible.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      From Victoria Rimell

      Hello all! What I most relish and want to celebrate about your spectacular book, Mario, is the sensation it gives me of entering into a movement, or a series of different experiences of movement in response to tragic poetics (flowing, slipping, surging, rushing, shivering, fitting, plateauing, squirming, churning, undulating, looping, circling, buzzing, falling, flying, coasting, slowing, tarrying, coming to a halt). So I’m interested that many of the responses above focus on stuckness, rather than movement within stuckness, which emerges as a key concept in the book.

      I find myself tracing the spaces between stuckness as the experience of not moving, and other ways stuckness is parsed in the book and in this conversation (as never-ending, as struggle, delay, waiting, waiting out, suspension, circling, spiralling). It occurs to me that ‘stuckness’ is a vividly onomatopoeic word that names a reaction to an experience rather than the experience in itself, which we (or perhaps there is no ‘we’) might also symbolize differently as a staying-with, an endurance, tolerating, or holding. The psychotherapist might say that tolerating the experience of not-moving (or what in the book becomes lifedeath) is a condition of possibility for the processing or integration of trauma over time – an understanding far removed from a repressive purity politics of reparation and hope. Stuckness is a diagnosis tinged both with trauma and with a defence against trauma – a defence that, like the death-drive, performs the power to make things stop changing, to stop life/vulnerability/being in time: stuckness merges, or threatens to merge, tragic characters’ traumythic compulsion (to use your infectious phrase, Mario!) with our own readerly-participant response, and at the same time seems to defend against that contagion or overwhelm. This, for me, is part of why the book succeeds in revving up these exciting and excited conversations, and why dialogue is so important in reckoning with the consequences, in practice, of the book’s insistent rejection of the ‘notion that critics should, or even can, place themselves outside or beyond the text and refuse any risk of affective contamination’ (36). We can sense and track that risk not (just/so much) in the pyrotechnic discourse of ‘agony’, ‘excruciating joy’, ‘torture’, ‘shattering’, a vocabulary that, when repeated, seems to me strangely abstract and depersonalised, but in our responses to the much more banal ‘There is nowhere left for me to go’. There is always the fear that an open-ended engagement with the possibility (rather than, or as well as, the impossibility) of the therapeutic ‘carries the danger’ of pulling us back into the normative symbolic structures that tell us ‘not to be stuck, not to be self-indulgent, and to reject ugly feelings’ (MT 3.16.22). It is also true that, at this historical juncture, the system’s thanatological power to correctively consume critiques of itself is horrific, and we have already introjected stuckness as shamefully self-indulgent and ugly. But I also see that any move that looks risky, dangerous and self-exposing in the face of that master has the capacity to disturb its defences, even as it is humiliated and quashed. To me, this is one way of parsing what Derrida said in his final interview, ‘deconstruction is always on the side of the yes, on the side of the affirmation of life’. The ‘emancipatory potential’ of Edelman’s thesis excites me, but also seems to signal an avoidance, or defence, that is both reassuringly human and tragic: no-escape is weaponised, but can’t in the end be tolerated.

      My own process of staying with the paradoxes that dance or spasm through the book would go something like this: On one hand, the hope of reparation is a death drive, which is always a fantasy of escape and mastery, because it hopes to stop change-over-time and therefore defend against the vulnerability and materiality of life; the death drive often operates (catastrophically and grotesquely in the US) to ‘incite’ (I would be tempted to say ‘structurally underpin’) ‘oppressive powers – patriarchal, capitalistic, tyrannical’, and at the same time ‘threaten them, pushing against their deceptive promises for the future’ (AF 23). As I understand it, Mario, you want to draw out the doubleness of the death drive as, on one hand, a will to master and still life (i.e. to overcome vulnerability and différance) or a fantasy of escape/stillness beyond life, and, on the other, as a raging movement that involves a (fantasy of) violent destruction whereby the process of destruction is as crucial as the realisation of transcendence that is the seductive, fantasized telos or archê of non-being. The book ‘zeroes in’ on the mobility in the death-drive’s momentum, and here again I feel acutely the core provocation of whether we are describing or traumatically re-enacting (‘reproducing the feeling of’ AF 279) tragic intensities. What comes into my awareness (which includes an awareness of the particular way my trauma is constellated here as an individual and within a collective female unconscious) is the extent to which this process of destruction channels a violent will to dominate almost identical in logic to the denial of vulnerability and relationality that is the fantasy of death-as-nothingness, or death-as-escape. I find myself asking whether, even though the death-drive is (or even ‘makes us’) human, it follows that the bid to resist the defence that is the death drive, in the name of life (that is, vulnerability, relation) must turn, as its first resource, to the movement of the drive itself, rather than to other kinds of movements that the death-drive annihilates. The book leaves me grappling with the tensions it suspends between, on one hand, staying with the doubleness of the death-drive as both horror and escape from horror, both unleashed movement and the fantasy of immobility, and on the other, wanting to separate out the ‘movement of the death drive toward its destination’ from the ‘destination itself’ (AF 34), a shift which would acknowledge what is being defended against, give back the shame of stuckness, and begin to tolerate ‘death in life’.

      What that amounts to, for me, is a book that not only keeps alive the fever of tragic form, but is also a creative force in itself. I am shaken and changed by it.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      Movement within Stuckness

      Thank you so much for your characteristically brilliant, profound, lyrical response, Victoria. The way you conceptualize one of the sensations of suspension circulated by the book—an interpretive and affective suspension between preserving the duplicity of the death drive and separating its movement from the destination—exemplifies the movement in stuckness that you articulate so beautifully at the beginning of the response. In a sense, this suspension is an expression of the tension—present in the book and in tragic form as well—between the Freudian idea of the death drive, predicated on the motion toward non-life, and the Lacanian/Zizekian one, based on a circular movement within life. (My impression is that in Archive Fever, Derrida oscillates between them).

      When you say, “What comes into my awareness (which includes an awareness of the particular way my trauma is constellated here as an individual and within a collective female unconscious) is the extent to which this process of destruction channels a violent will to dominate almost identical in logic to the denial of vulnerability and relationality that is the fantasy of death-as-nothingness, or death-as-escape,” you raise a very important point. Would it be a cop-out to say that this will is undermined by its very violent energy, as it were?

      Your poetic reflections about movement in stuckness make me think “Situation 5,” one of the videos created by Claudia Rankine in collaboration with her husband, John Lucas, for her book Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). As Shaun Meyers puts in the latest issue of SAQ (121.1, 87):

      Even as the mise-en-scene of “Situation 5” evokes progress, through its sonic and visual unfolding of spoken words and a motion picture unbroken by the still shot, its background track makes sounds void of direction. The forward motion conveyed by the rapid advance of Rankine’s words spoken over unfolding footage of black men in vehicular transit works in tension with the affects of suspension imparted by the poem.

    • Avatar

      Victoria Rimell

      Reply

      let’s try that again

      Hello all, again. What I most relish and want to celebrate about your spectacular book, Mario, is the sensation it gives me of entering into a movement, or a series of different experiences of movement in response to tragic poetics (flowing, slipping, surging, rushing, shivering, fitting, plateauing, squirming, churning, undulating, looping, circling, buzzing, falling, flying, coasting, slowing, tarrying, coming to a halt). So I’m interested that many of the responses above focus on stuckness, rather than movement within stuckness, which emerges as a key concept in the book.

      I find myself tracing the spaces between stuckness as the experience of not moving, and other ways stuckness is parsed in the book and in this conversation (as never-ending, as struggle, delay, waiting, waiting out, suspension, circling, spiralling). It occurs to me that ‘stuckness’ is a vividly onomatopoeic word that names a reaction to an experience rather than the experience in itself, which we (or perhaps there is no ‘we’) might also symbolize differently as a staying-with, an endurance, tolerating, or holding. The psychotherapist might say that tolerating the experience of not-moving (or what in the book becomes lifedeath) is a condition of possibility for the processing or integration of trauma over time – an understanding far removed from a repressive purity politics of reparation and hope. Stuckness is a diagnosis tinged both with trauma and with a defence against trauma – a defence that, like the death-drive, performs the power to make things stop changing, to stop life/vulnerability/being in time: stuckness merges, or threatens to merge, tragic characters’ traumythic compulsion (to use your infectious phrase, Mario!) with our own readerly-participant response, and at the same time seems to defend against that contagion or overwhelm. This, for me, is part of why the book succeeds in revving up these exciting and excited conversations, and why dialogue is so important in reckoning with the consequences, in practice, of the book’s insistent rejection of the ‘notion that critics should, or even can, place themselves outside or beyond the text and refuse any risk of affective contamination’ (36). We can sense and track that risk not (just/so much) in the pyrotechnic discourse of ‘agony’, ‘excruciating joy’, ‘torture’, ‘shattering’, a vocabulary that, when repeated, seems to me strangely abstract and depersonalised, but in our responses to the much more banal ‘There is nowhere left for me to go’. There is always the fear that an open-ended engagement with the possibility (rather than, or as well as, the impossibility) of the therapeutic ‘carries the danger’ of pulling us back into the normative symbolic structures that tell us ‘not to be stuck, not to be self-indulgent, and to reject ugly feelings’ (MT 3.16.22). It is also true that, at this historical juncture, the system’s thanatological power to correctively consume critiques of itself is horrific, and we have already introjected stuckness as shamefully self-indulgent and ugly. But I also see that any move that looks risky, dangerous and self-exposing in the face of that master has the capacity to disturb its defences, even as it is humiliated and quashed. To me, this is one way of parsing what Derrida said in his final interview, ‘deconstruction is always on the side of the yes, on the side of the affirmation of life’. The ‘emancipatory potential’ of Edelman’s thesis excites me, but also seems to signal an avoidance, or defence, that is both reassuringly human and tragic: no-escape is weaponised, but can’t in the end be tolerated.

      My own process of staying with the paradoxes that dance or spasm through the book would go something like this: On one hand, the hope of reparation is a death drive, which is always a fantasy of escape and mastery, because it hopes to stop change-over-time and therefore defend against the vulnerability and materiality of life; the death drive often operates (catastrophically and grotesquely in the US) to ‘incite’ (I would be tempted to say ‘structurally underpin’) ‘oppressive powers – patriarchal, capitalistic, tyrannical’, and at the same time ‘threaten them, pushing against their deceptive promises for the future’ (AF 23). As I understand it, Mario, you want to draw out the doubleness of the death drive as, on one hand, a will to master and still life (i.e. to overcome vulnerability and différance) or a fantasy of escape/stillness beyond life, and, on the other, as a raging movement that involves a (fantasy of) violent destruction whereby the process of destruction is as crucial as the realisation of transcendence that is the seductive, fantasized telos or archê of non-being. The book ‘zeroes in’ on the mobility in the death-drive’s momentum, and here again I feel acutely the core provocation of whether we are describing or traumatically re-enacting (‘reproducing the feeling of’ AF 279) tragic intensities. What comes into my awareness (which includes an awareness of the particular way my trauma is constellated here as an individual and within a collective female unconscious) is the extent to which this process of destruction channels a violent will to dominate almost identical in logic to the denial of vulnerability and relationality that is the fantasy of death-as-nothingness, or death-as-escape. I find myself asking whether, even though the death-drive is (or even ‘makes us’) human, it follows that the bid to resist the defence that is the death drive, in the name of life (that is, vulnerability, relation) must turn, as its first resource, to the movement of the drive itself, rather than to other kinds of movements that the death-drive annihilates. The book leaves me grappling with the tensions it suspends between, on one hand, staying with the doubleness of the death-drive as both horror and escape from horror, both unleashed movement and the fantasy of immobility, and on the other, wanting to separate out the ‘movement of the death drive toward its destination’ from the ‘destination itself’ (AF 34), a shift which would acknowledge what is being defended against, give back the shame of stuckness, and begin to tolerate ‘death in life’.

      What that amounts to, for me, is a book that not only keeps alive the fever of tragic form, but is also a creative force in itself. I am shaken and changed by it.

    • Avatar

      Victoria Rimell

      Reply

      reply

      Thanks Mario, too kind 🙂 I think it’s exactly right that in Archive Fever’ Derrida oscillates between’ Freud and Lacan. I suppose I would want to say that what he is enacting, therefore, here and elsewhere, is a wave or undular rhythm that is neither Freud’s line nor Lacan’s circle. It’s interesting that you hear the background track in the Situation 5 video as sounds ‘void of direction’ – if you’re referring to the video I’ve seen, it’s jazz, isn’t it? Doesn’t a pulse, or beat, or momentum underlie even the most complex jazz rhythms? There is the forward movement of Rankine’s words, the sitting with the intolerable and familiar prison of intergenerational trauma, and also, a rhythm that is neither linear nor circular, and that cannot be accounted for in Lacan’s scheme.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      The Beat (Rankine, Moten, Morrison)

      Thank you so much, Vicky, for your beautiful, poetic comment. What you say makes me think of Fred Moten’s theorizations of the beat, the pulse, and the syncopation of jazz, and, especially, of the comparison that, in many interviews, Toni Morrison makes between the sonority of the tragic chorus and jazz. In a sense, my use of various theories of the death drive—and, especially, my own oscillation between them—is an attempt to capture the affective-psychic rhythm or beat of tragic form. In the epilogue, I do refer to Toni Morrison, but I plan to go back to her while editing, with Stephen Best, her Cornell MA thesis on Aristotle’s Poetics, Faulkner, and Woolf.

Daniel Orrells

Response

Postdramatic Tragic Experimentation with Archive Feelings

Mario Telò’s remarkable book is not an interpretation of Greek tragedy. It is a thought experiment in what one can do with Greek tragedy and in what Greek tragedy can (be allowed to) do (if you just let it). It is not a book that seeks to disinter hidden meanings from the text as a traditional literary critic might endeavor. Rather, it is a book that enacts and performs the postdramatic possibilities of Greek tragedy in the twenty-first century. About fifty years ago, in an essay titled “Putting on the Greeks,” the French intellectual Roland Barthes summed up the dilemmas of performing Greek tragedy:

We never manage to free ourselves from a dilemma: are the Greek plays to be performed as of their own time or as of ours? Should we reconstruct or transpose? Emphasize resemblances or differences? We always vacillate without ever deciding, well-intentioned and blundering, now eager to reinvigorate the spectacle by an inopportune fidelity to some “archeological” requirement, now to sublimate it by modern esthetic effects appropriate, we assume, to the “eternal” quality of this theater.1

Barthes encapsulates the challenge to modern writers, directors, actors, and theater practitioners when producing Greek tragedy: what does it mean to be “faithful” or not to the original? This is a specifically modern question which has only become pressing since the late nineteenth century: not since antiquity had Greek tragedy been performed in theaters with all the paraphernalia regularly in ancient Greek. In the Renaissance, Greek tragedies were translated into Latin, and consumed in Latin. Greek myths were often recorded in Latin versions (by Roman writers like Ovid and Seneca) or ancient historical events (documented, for example, in Plutarch’s Lives, which were widely read in Latin, French and English translations): these are just some of the sources of early-modern tragedy. Shakespeare, Racine, and Corneille were not troubled by the issue of faith to the Greek original. They read a wide range of ancient and modern authors and knew full well that ancient mythological stories and historical events could be told in multiple ways—that a myth could mean more than one thing, just as ancient playwrights rewrote myth to suit their own questions and agendas. Ancient myth and history were an archive of creative possibility.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, something changed: Classics emerged as a university discipline and transformed how we engage and interact with the ancient world. The rise of the professional scholar—and the birth of the classicist was a leading protagonist in that academic drama of the nineteenth century—saw to it that standards of proof and evidence in scholarly writing were discussed in new ways. A crucial aspect of these often dry debates was refiguring the relationship between the ancient and the modern worlds. As subjects like classics and history became university and college disciplines, a new emphasis was put on the differences between the present and the past. Historians began to see the past as a foreign country, as another world. The ancient world was meant to look different from the modern. For the historian or the classicist to be objective, they had to put aside any personal or subjective feelings about their ancient objects of analysis and be willing to see the ancients as they “really” were, no matter how objectionable, bizarre, immoral, or even obscene. And yet, at the same time, older arguments about the exemplarity of the ancient Greeks and the Romans, in particular, persisted: classical antiquity seemed to provide timeless models of culture and paradigms of artistic excellence for us moderns which transcended the boundaries of periodization.

To historicize or to idealize: that was the question. It was in this strange scholarly context that certain universities such as Oxford and Cambridge in the late nineteenth century started performing ancient Greek drama—in ancient Greek, because classical scholars had developed a profound interest in the historical otherness of the ancient world and because there seemed to be something timelessly worthy about ancient Greek culture. Other universities mimicked the idea—my own, King’s College London, started performing its Annual Greek Play almost seventy years ago in 1953. The interest in performing Greek tragedy, then, reflected the institutionalization of classics as a specialist discipline in the late-Victorian university: scholars were becoming fascinated by all aspects of Greek culture, beyond construing the language: how were the plays originally staged and performed? The performance of Greek tragedy allowed nineteenth-century scholars to think that they were getting at a deeper understanding of ancient Greek society, as if they were enacting ancient Greek culture. And yet, every production had to wrestle with the problem of how to represent the gods, how to do the Chorus, how to pronounce the Greek . . . These problems encouraged creativity and radical changes to the “original” material, so that there was continual debate about how “faithful” or how “free” productions could and should be. The performance in Greek of Greek drama offered a way for classicists, their students, and their audiences to think, more broadly, then, about the relationship between antiquity and modernity: how close to / how far apart from one another are they? The performance of Greek drama since the nineteenth century reflects an ancient tradition and a new chapter in the history of theater. The very idea, then, of putting on a Greek tragedy is a paradox—both very ancient and very modern.

Professor Telò’s Archive Feelings is a fascinating meditation on Greek tragedy precisely because it responds to this paradoxical reception of the ancient Greeks. His book does not to seek to put Greek tragedy into its historical context and position the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in the social and political world of fifth-century Athens. And not just that: Professor Telò departs from the most influential reading of Greek tragedy, first developed by Aristotle in the fourth century BCE that a tragic play should have a plot with beginning, middle, and end that culminates in a cathartic conclusion for its audience. Professor Telò doesn’t want tragedy to leave us purged and satisfied at the end of the performance. His contention is, indeed, radical: Greek tragedy has evolved into a worldwide theatrical phenomenon for many reasons but one being for the historical sketch I outlined above. All too often, Greek tragedy is performed in upmarket, bourgeois venues that exclude vast swathes of society. In fifth-century Athens, tragedy was designed to be a radical democratic experiment, even if Athens, whose economy relied on slaves and didn’t allow women a political voice, was hardly democratic in our sense of the word. Classicists have long been fascinated by the powerful and destabilizing voices of the remarkable women and non-Greeks who people Greek tragedy, which nevertheless would have been performed in a theater in a city which was riven by social hierarchy, asymmetrical power relations, and xenophobia. For Professor Telò, Greek tragedy isn’t meant to take its audiences through a problem to arrive at a solution. Tragic art is not improving. Tragedy is not meant to speak the unspeakable, to express what we find so difficult to voice. It is not a “safe space.” Greek tragedy is anti-cathartic. It should not be an artform of the liberal bourgeoisie of the neoliberal age. Indeed, just as that age seems to be shaking and quivering as commentators such as Adam Tooze and Paolo Gerbaudo are pointing out, so Professor Telò’s book sets out a vision for a new age of tragedy. The climaxes of the most famous tragedies should offer no catharsis, no settlement, for its audience, but should leave them suspended, offended, stained, decentered, and actively questioning. We shouldn’t be going out for an evening at the theater! Archive Feelings is a theory about how reading or viewing Greek tragedy unleashes a profound question at the center of our selves. And yet, Professor Telò’s discussions of Greek tragedy are crafted close readings of the ancient Greek texts in all their ludic, terrifying complexity. Professor Telò is that professional scholar who reads the Greek closely—but to make it do something new.

To take one example out of many: when he examines a culminating scene of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, we watch/read Clytemestra recounting her slaughter of her husband Agamemnon. Clytemnestra describes placing a “boundless net” around Agamemnon and striking him three times. She says that Agamemnon “gasps out his life” and “blow[s] out a sharp slaughter of blood,” which “hits me with a black drop of murderous dew—me rejoicing not less than a sown seed rejoices with Zeus-given liquid sheen in the labors of the bud” (lines 1382, 1388–92). Aeschylus’s language is certainly not for the fainthearted. Classicists have argued that Clytemnestra’s unsettling abuse of the language of nature—sowing seeds—reflects her perversion of political, social, and sexual relations: she has killed her husband. Others have seen a sexually sadistic Clytemnestra on stage. For Professor Telò, “Agamemnon’s liquid rejoinder is directed at Clytemnestra” who is “rejoicing,” as if sexually aroused by “the abject pleasure of being sprinkled with bodily fluids” (244). At the climax of the play, we have yet more climax, a sense of boundlessness, of endlessness. There is no end, no catharsis, but a sense of radical possibility. Greek tragedy is not to be contained within its theatrical box, safely framed as a pleasurable evening out. Rather, its language inveigles itself into us, gets under our skin, and penetrates us. As Professor Telò says, “Agamemnon’s liquid rejoinder is directed . . . at us too—the spectators/readers.” In taking up “most of lines 1389 and 1390, engulfing the verbal and metrical flow,” Agamemnon’s “sharp slaughter of blood” just keeps on flowing, oozing, and staining. The close, philological reading of the Greek, reflecting the rigorous professional training of the classicist, is also an unsettling provocation. Tragedy cannot be slotted into its historical place. Tragedy continues to affect, scandalize, and change us. There is no catharsis here. Tragedy is permanent revolution.

Archive Feelings is not interested, then, in explaining the Aristotelian unity of the Greek tragic plot. Rather the book comprises a series of remarkable experiments in close readings of moments from various plays, exploring them for what they do to us, to the boundaries of our selves. Reading Archive Feelings is to experience the effect of the tragic text. If it isn’t about traditional drama, Archive Feelings is a postdramatic performance, a mode of stagecraft and visual art which has sought to wreck the sense of a plot with beginning, middle, and end, an artform which has turned the tragic texts into enactments of multiple meaning and interpretation and refusals of representation. Brecht, Arnaud, and Schechner have all wrought something new out of the old Greek myths. Telò’s Archive Feelings offers its own provocative reading performance, a pleasurably painful, painfully pleasurable cabaret of avant-garde acts, a gallery of gorgeously obscene thought experiments that ask us to question who we are and who we might become. The next time you go see a production like Sarah Kane’s electrifying Phaedra’s Love or spend twenty-four hours at Hotel Medea or experience Jan Fabre’s orgiastic and ravishing Mount Olympus, bring Archive Feelings along with you, and watch and read, read and watch. Then ACT UP yourself!


  1. R. Barthes, “Putting on the Greeks,” in Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 59.

  • Mario Telò

    Mario Telò

    Reply

    Response to Daniel Orrells

    I welcome Daniel Orrells’s characterization of my book as a “thought experiment”—as an attempt to see “what Greek tragedy can (be allowed to) do (if you just let it).” I wonder whether scholarship in the humanities, especially in the field of ancient literature, should not more often be a thought experiment, a creative engagement with a textual corpus that is not a quest for hidden meanings or buried truths but a productive, achronic mismatch, an encounter between distant worlds that can never touch each other. In speaking of a thought experiment, Orrells seems to me to be responding to what I myself would characterize as my radically non-historicist, non-reconstructive orientation and hyper-formalistic methodology. With respect to the latter, this is a strategy for illustrating and understanding how, as Orrells beautifully puts it, tragic “language inveigles itself into us, gets under our skin”—the inverse, you might say, of Artaud’s “one simple little word . . . a precise word . . . a word well-soaked in my marrow, gone out of me and standing at the extreme limit of my being.”1

    As for my self-identified non-historicist, non-reconstructive orientation, Orrells hones in on staging and the dilemma or “paradox” (in his words) of performative criticism, citing the questions raised by Roland Barthes: “Should we reconstruct or transpose? Emphasize resemblances or differences?” I, along with Simon Goldhill and others, am skeptical about the possibility of reconstruction (just as I am skeptical about catharsis).2 Even when we think that we are reconstructing, it seems, we are transposing and idealizing, projecting our own staging fantasies, our own archaeological imagination of what might or must have happened onstage at the time of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. (And, of course, this striving for reconstruction is a prime expression of archive fever.) Using the much-discussed notion of “untranslatability” as a comparandum, I would suggest that tragedy forces us to face the issue of “unperformability.” Beyond our epistemological limitations and the impossibility of what Derrida calls the self-identical past, such “unperformability” can arise from the stubbornness or the recalcitrance of tragic form, its non- or anti-representational insistence, which I sought to heed. In this respect, I am very much in agreement with Orrells’s characterization of Archive Feelings as a performance of Greek tragedy’s “postdramatic possibilities” or as a “postdramatic performance” in its own right.

    My exploration of the postdramatic possibilities of Greek tragedy are another part of my project to bridge the gap between scholarship and creative receptions and, once again, to show how scholarship can become a space where interpretation draws on and merges with a visceral, cathectic, even impressionistic response to tragedy, translating the “effect of the tragic text” into literary-critical or critical-theoretical language. Perhaps it is time to think of auto-theoretical approaches to tragedy. I also want to say that Greek tragedy is, as Orrells suggests, avant-garde—as he puts it, “a pleasurably painful, painfully pleasurable cabaret of avant-garde acts.” And here I am thinking not just of the notoriously iconoclastic Euripides, who could well be said to “wreck the sense of a plot with beginning, middle, and end” in plays such as Heracles, famously called “broken-back” by Gilbert Murray and loved by Oscar Wilde.3 Aeschylus’s Niobe (a play I discuss elsewhere)4 was also “postdramatic”: Niobe appearing silently onstage, making spectators endlessly wait for her to speak, anticipates Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present. We could follow Artaud and argue that this Niobe prompts us to think that “every mode of being solidifies at a starting-point” and that “this fixation and this immobilization, this kind of erection of the soul into monuments, arises into being, so to speak before thought.”5 We can certainly place the disruption, in Aeschylus’s play, of the distinction between pre-performance and the beginning of the performance, between not-yet-ness and dramatic ongoingness, among the “refusals of representation” and thought experiments that Orrells speaks of. This postdramatic, proto-Artaudian impetus is also evident, I argue, in Eumenides, which confronts us with “a constant resetting,” with a spasmodic alternation of multiple beginnings, “each striving to impose itself . . . striking through the earlier one” (220). The Chorus’s departure in the middle of the play generates another postdramatic moment—an emptiness that, as I say, “fleetingly evokes the fall into the abyss looming before a plot stuck between ‘beginnings’ that cancel each other out” (220). I think it is also time to apply to Greek tragedy the abstract conceptualizations of form and temporality customary in film theory.

    I am pleased that Orrells closes his intervention with the exhortation “Then ACT UP yourself!” which, of course, evokes the ACT UP movement but also invites us to consider Mark Merlis’s 1998 novelistic recontextualization of Philoctetes within the AIDS crisis. In my reading of the finale of the play, where we hear from Heracles that Philoctetes’s wound will be cured and he will rejoin the Greek army, I seek to locate postdramatic intimations of a refusal of being healed in a fantasy of becoming water. This fantasy encompasses, as I observe, “a reinscription of [the] wound, a radical undoing of catharsis’s immunitarianism,” a participation in “the sea’s wounded surface and its troubled movements . . . its spasmodic breaking” (160). Jonathan Bell has critiqued a medical model that “lifted [sexual minorities] above the stigma of public welfare system and integrated them further into heteronormative capitalism.”6 My reading of Philoctetes’s anti-catharsis—emblematic, to an extent, of Archive Feelings’ theory of tragedy—posits an anti-representational conation against a version of integration. This conation may be regarded as a reaffirmation of the queer self-shattering theorized by Leo Bersani, but it also could be, in more strictly political terms, the counterpart of a dissensual, decolonial, anticapitalist resistance in the ACT UP movement itself—a radical acting up within ACT UP.7See R. Esparza, “‘Qué Bonita Mi Terra’: Latinx AIDS Activism and Decolonial Queer Praxis in 1980s New York and Puerto Rico,” Radical History Review 140 (2021), 107–41. See L. Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave?And Other Essays (Chicago University Press, 2010).[/footnotePostdramatic Tragic Experimentation with Archive Feelings


    1. A. Artaud, Artaud Anthology (City Lights, 1965), 35.

    2. S. Goldhill, How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

    3. See A. J. L. Blanshard, “Heracles: Homosexual Panic and Irresponsible Reading,” in Queer Euripides: Re-readings in Greek Tragedy, ed. S. Olsen and M. Telò (Bloomsbury, 2022), 141.

    4. “Tragic Cryo-Ecology, or Niobes Glacial Aesthetics,” in Niobes: Antiquity Modernity Critical Theory, ed. M. Telò and A. Benjamin (Ohio State University Press, 2022), and Greek Tragedy Now: Iconic Figures in Pandemic Times (forthcoming).

    5. Artaud, Artaud Anthology, 33.

    6. J. Bell, “Between Private and Public: AIDS, Health Care Capitalism, and the Politics of Respectability in 1980s America,” Journal of American Studies 54.1 (2020): 159–83.

    • Daniel Orrells

      Daniel Orrells

      Reply

      Reading with Freud

      Mario’s response also makes me think of recent scholarship on ancient drama which is not invested in understanding / accessing the “original” performance. Scholars such as Johanna Hanink (Brown University) and Lucy Jackson (University of Durham) have been exploring the canonization and ancient reception and re-performance of fifth-century drama. While their work is historicist, the very existence of this scholarship demonstrates how reception studies and non-historicist writing such as Mario’s is helping to disrupt orthodox work on ancient texts and their contexts – how they were always already mutating and being re-performed. Their canonization was also their multiplication. Indeed, for me, “Archive Feelings” is interesting because it is not committed to historicizing Greek tragedy and yet at the same time, it does offer ways for us to think about how and why writers like Aeschylus were avant-garde. Mario’s nod to Aeschylus’ “Niobe” is a helpful reminder here.

      Mario’s turn to Freud also helpfully reminds us that there is no engagement with antiquity which isn’t also – primarily – an excavation of one’s own self – a self-discovery more than anything else. For all the scientific positivism that Freud spoke and wrote, he has also offered different ways of thinking about our relationship with the (ancient) past. I’m thinking here of his 1907 essay “Delusion and Dream in Jensen’s Gradiva.'” Freud examines how the protagonist of Jensen’s novel, Norbert Hanold, a classical archaeologist, learns nothing about Roman Pompeii when he visits the site. Instead, he re-vivifies his childhood love for Zoe Bertgang, whom he had mistaken for the ghost Gradiva. While for Freud, Norbert’s excavation of his past showed Freud that the psychoanalytic cure was possible (we really could get back to the original trauma/the original performance), Freud also knew that the archaeological analogy didn’t quite work: the archaeologist, as I’ve just said, didn’t make any discoveries about ancient culture in Pompeii – all he found was himself. For Jacques Derrida, that was one of the crucial lessons of psychoanalysis: the present frames and structures any understanding of the past. There is no text without context. There is no archive without the politics, ethics, and economics which facilitate the very possibility of the archive.

    • Avatar

      Allen Miller

      Reply

      Embodying the past

      One of the things that Professors Telò and Orrells’ brilliant exchange makes me think about, is what does it mean to embody the past? I mean embody here in the most literal of senses. Not to understand it, not to interpret it, but to enact it with our bodies. To let it flow out of us. To release ourselves within it. When we put on a tragedy, we not only have an intellectual experience of it, but we enact it, if only in our minds. Clytemnestra’s dance of death, Agamemenon’s final bloody ejaculation. These are not just ideas, not just signifieds, but phenomena that leave their traces (Spurs) within us. They changes us down to the neuronal and endocrine level. The breath picks up, the heart beats faster. This in a real sense is what Classics DOES. It marks us, makes us, breaks us.

      The interpretive intellectual level, the problem solving, the towering technical erudition: none of that is irrelevant or unimportant. That too is a form of bodily interaction, that too modifies the response we have. But it is generally a secondary response. A moment that tries to make sense of what just happened to us, what we just did to/for ourselves. At its best, it is an extended and careful remaking of ourselves through this intense interaction with moments of great intensity. At its worst, it is a defensive reaction, a drive to surround the past, tame it, reduce it to a series of problems to be solved.

      John Adams would go back to his apartments at Cambridge when he was a student at Harvard and recite Cicero at the top of his lungs. In letters, he describes the sensation. We can imagine his breathing. Throughout most of history this is the way these texts were experienced. I like to think of Adams becoming excited as he rattled off the list of Catiline’s perversities, his voice rising, his breath quickening.

      Archive Feelings is a brilliant reading of tragedy. But it is so much more. It is a call for a reading of the ancient past with our bodies and not just our brains. It is a call to move beyond various police actions that monitor the boundaries of texts and their meaning, saying what they must and must not mean. It demands that we enjoy these texts, that we love these texts in all their strangeness, their beauty and their horror. As the statue says in Rilke’s “Torso of an Archaic Apollo,” “you must change your life.”

    • Daniel Orrells

      Daniel Orrells

      Reply

      A brief thought in response to Allen

      “With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.” Pater, “Conclusion,” from “The Renaissance”.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      Avant-Garde Aeschylus

      Thank you, Dan, for your generous comment. What you say about the convergence between reception studies (both historicist and non-historicist) and my non-historicist approach to reading is super-interesting. Isn’t the very idea of an avant-garde Aeschylus, who looks ahead of his time, an implicit demonstration of tragic form’s untimeliness, of its discomfort with the temporally contingent dimension of its performative Sitz-im-Leben? This for me has implications not only for dramaturgy, but for the nexus of affect and psychology that the aesthetic can capture. The avant-garde represents a desire to get out of time (backward and forward, or backwardforward, as Derridean hauntology would put it), which is precisely one of the possible ways of conceptualizing the death drive. The notion of the post-dramatic that you are talking about is another way of looking at this, I think.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      The Breath Picks up, the Heart Beats Faster

      Your comment, Allen, is beautifully lyrical! Thank you! I love the image of John Adams “becoming excited as he rattled off the list of Catiline’s perversities, his voice rising, his breath quickening.” How can we translate this embodiment into an interpretive act, how can hermeneutics become a visceral inhabitation of the spasm, of the convulsion, of the scream, of breathlessness? This is what Archive Feelings seeks to do, implicitly (unconsciously?) responding to the policing imperative I often heard in graduate schools that impressions and emotions should be banned from interpretation (this is clearly the prohibition behind the new critical “affective fallacy”). In a sense, affective modes of reading gathered under the umbrella term of post-critique have helped us articulate similar questions, but they lose me when they propose “just reading” and when they tell us to focus on what the text says instead of what it doesn’t, thereby re-establishing a kind of hierarchical hermeneutics and seeing deconstruction and psychoanalysis as the enemies of emotional reading. Tragedy, it seems to me, offers us the opportunity (or, in a sense, urges us) to perform the minor or minoritarian gesture (as Deleuze and Guattari would put it) of unconditionally welcoming—and embodying—the imaginative possibilities of the literary.

    • Avatar

      Allen Miller

      Reply

      A theory of reading

      “Acceleration, hoarding, vertiginous suspension, breathless looping, affective bulimia or binge eating, serial cutting, trying to enter or fold in upon oneself, autoimmune inflammation, the orgasm as unfinished, non-teleological pleasure: these are the intimations of aesthetic experiences that I use to articulate my model of anti-catharsis. I regard these potentialities as “archive feelings” because they all arise from the effort to recapture a phantasmatic archê that, directly or indirectly, points to the ultimate origin, non-existence.” (Telò 2020: 4).

      One of the things I love about Telò’s book is that while it presents itself as a theory of tragedy, it is in fact a theory of reading. I recently began an article on “unspeakable enjoyment” in Catullus with this quotation. I could imagine any number of texts that I could read under this rubric from Catullus to the Catilinarians to Baudelaire’s “Une Charogne”. Indeed, it is perhaps uniquely well suited to moments of lyric intensity. This is a kind of wide-open reading, a transformative reading. It is deeply based in a close reading of the text. It is not fanciful, but it is deeply committed to the power of our fantasies in the most profound Freudian sense, to the imagination of a world beyond the law.

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong

      Reply

      Thalatta! Thalatta!

      Mario’s book is a reminder that we need to push aside the facile tendency to circle the wagons of “theory” around a precious “object” like Greek tragedy, as if we are simply changing lenses on a microscope. The interactions of theory and literature are never so hygienically articulated—nor should they be. Hence the book is as much about the reception of Freud as it is about the reading and reception of tragedy. The death drive remains a contested legacy, particularly in the wake of ego psychology’s strategic avoidance of it. To commit to it is to join in the fray, to make Freudian theory “unsafe” again for a reparative therapy of adaptation-through-crisis. By engaging openly with the reception of the death drive along with a host of post-modern thinkers and by running this “discursive machine” as Sean calls it alongside Greek tragedy, Mario is releasing some unsettling, energetic possibilities, what Dan calls “a gallery of gorgeously obscene thought experiments.”

      This reminds of other “gorgeously obscene thought experiments” from those heady days of early psychoanalysis, especially the spectacularly speculative Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality of Sándor Ferenzci. If one is worried that Freud’s original literary view of catharsis is too modeled on the male orgasm, with the interplay of Vorlust and Endlust, foreplay and teleological release, then Ferenczi’s theory that intercourse is in fact regressive in nature certainly turns that around. The book grew from his conviction of the necessity to free up analogies between the biological and mental sciences, an “utraquistic” methodology that allows for discursive machines to integrate the realms that one’s training did so much to separate. Ferenczi first deconstructs genital sexuality, which one might be tempted to consider the telos of sexual development and the evolutionary raison d’être of sexuality itself, as “urethro-anal amphimixis,” a synthesis, as it were, of the earlier urethral and anal pleasures of childhood, a simultaneous desire to give away and to retain. Sexual intercourse is effectively a man’s transitory satisfaction of a desire to return to the mother’s womb—a remarkable reversal of the usual idea that in intercourse a man “possesses” a woman, “makes her his.” But like Freud, Ferenczi plays out the implications of this both ontogenetically and phylogenetically, such that the “regression to the womb” not only draws on the individual’s intrauterine experience, but the species’ former evolutionary experience as aquatic life. The trauma of birth thus rhymes with the trauma of the recession of the oceans and the necessity of adaptation to terrestrial life. And now the intrepid penis can be seen in a new light: “the penis in coitus enacts not only the natal and antenatal mode of existence of the human species, but likewise the struggles of that primal creature among its ancestors which suffered the great catastrophe of the drying up of the sea.” The conclusion: “in genitality is to be found the expression, and perhaps the belated abreaction, of not only an ontogenetic but also a phylogenetic catastrophe.” So doing someone is undoing the fully realized self and the species, or undoing undoing, or both at the same time. The penis becomes the ouroboros. But note even here there remains that residual, reparative need to suggest catastrophe can be “abreacted” by the pleasure principle.

      A feminist could certainly slam Ferenczi for making such a weirdly phallocentric paean to intrauterine existence; this was a curious thought experiment indeed. Ever since I first read it years ago, I’ve not been able to conjure away the idea of a man in the throes of passion shouting, like Xenophon’s Greeks, “Thalatta! Thalatta!”

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      Anti-Teleological Pleasures

      Thank you, Richard, for this beautiful comment! A real, fun tour de force.

      You help us establish very promising connections, I think, between Ferenczi and the anti-teleological readings of the male orgasm in feminism (Kristeva and Irigaray especially) and in the deconstructive phenomenology of Jean-Luc Nancy, which I engage with in the last chapter of the book. This is another demonstration of the fact that, as Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler (among others) have demonstrated, (Freudian) psychoanalysis need not be seen as the enemy of feminism. (I am sure we will come back to this topic after Helen’s response and my response to her are published).

      Another aspect that your post raises is the link between the death drive, catharsis, and the concept of the “oceanic,” which Freud discusses at the beginning of Civilization and its Discontents. The repetition thalassa thalassa could perhaps be used as a starting point for a new reflection on the relation between the “oceanic” and the death drive. In the book I suggest we replace catharsis as a mode of affective reception with other liquid dynamics, but I wish I had given more space to the “oceanic.”

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong

      Reply

      Sex as an Archival Performance

      I hate to make sex a tragedy, but Ferenczi’s reading of genital intercourse also makes it quite the archival performance, tracing as it does the whole phylogenetic history of the species, the ontogenetic development of the individual, and, in its procreative possibilities, the potential for a genetic future, that is, the illusion of a future of the individual through its offspring. Talk about the “dizzying loop of lifedeath!” It’s a weird celebration of catastrophe, in Ferenczi’s reading.

    • Avatar

      Naomi Weiss

      Reply

      Aristophanes on tragedy’s postdramatic possibilities

      I’ve really enjoyed reading this exchange. Mario’s mention of Aeschylus’ Niobe made me think of how we can (re)read several moments of Aristophanes’ Frogs in terms of tragedy’s “postdramatic possibilities.” This comedy suggests that there was quite extensive theorizing of tragedy as an artform already within the fifth century, long before Plato embarked on the Republic. In light of Mario’s work, what I find really striking about the play’s commentary on Aeschylean and Euripidean tragedy is how it dwells on a kind of supremely anti-Aristotelian, anti-mythos “aesthetic recalcitrance” (Archive Feelings, p. 9).

      Mario highlights above how Niobe’s silence is anti-representational in disrupting any distinction between pre-performance and performance. This is what the character of Euripides in Frogs makes clear when he describes how Aeschylus “wanted the spectator to sit there, waiting for the moment when his Niobe would make a sound; meanwhile the play went on and on” (919-20, trans. Sommerstein). But I was wondering if we could also think of all the famous repetitions in the parodies of the two tragedians’ work in similarly anti-representational terms. Take, for instance, that famous “oil bottle” (lēkythion) with which Aeschylus is able to finish every line of Euripides’ prologues (1198-24). I know its various meanings have been endlessly debated (see M. Griffith, Aristophanes’ Frogs [Oxford 2013], pp. 130-31 for a useful summary), but two effects of this episode particularly stand out to me. First, every time Euripides tries to get his story going, it’s reduced to and stalled by the same banal object. Second, the lēkythion, as remarks in this comedy and others (e.g., Thesm. 139-40) make clear, is a supremely phallic object, so the repetition of not just “oil bottle” but “lost his oil bottle” (lēkythion apōlesen) suggests the failure to reach a climax over and over again. Of course this is a comical jibe at Euripides’ own (lack of) poetic virility, but it also feels like we’re being constantly brought back to, as Mario puts it, “a point in time anterior to the exposure to tragic excitation” (Archive Feelings, p. 14). We get pushed back to the beginning, so that pre-performance and performance come together in an endlessly recursive deflation.

      Frogs can certainly be mined for other instances of pleasure-in-pain as an experience of tragedy. In Archive Feelings, Mario shows how Dionysus’s response to the scatological jokes in the comedy’s opening scene reveals the god of theater’s own sado-masochistic fantasies (Archive Feelings, p. 263). Another example is the repeated cry of iē kopon (literally, “aiee beating!) in Euripides’ parody of Aeschylean choral lyric, which has a physical impact on Dionysus (this time diarrhetic rather than emetic!): he exclaims, “What a load of beatings! Well, I for one want to get to a bathroom, for the beatings have made me all sore down below” (1278-80). But Dionysus isn’t even allowed this release, since Euripides tells him emphatically “no” (, 1281): he can’t go until he’s heard more choral lyrics, which contain the battering runs of phlattothrattoplattothat (1283-95). Dionysus never gets to relieve himself—he has to endure many more lines of tragic parody without any cathartic climax. Again, all these repetitions produce and expose, to draw from Mario’s language once more, a sort of stuckness—the “modes of recalcitrance materialized in poetic form as (repressed) tragic pleasures (Archive Feelings, p. 9).

      This comedy also, I think, is itself “a performance of Greek tragedy’s postdramatic possibilities” in the sense of being playfully non-reconstructive—and this gets us back to Dan Orrells’s initial post in this chain. For example, Dionysus at one point remarks that what he enjoyed about Aeschylus’ Persians most was when the ghost of Darius appeared “and the chorus straightway clapped their hands together like this and said iauoi” (1029). This line is funny in part because, for all of Aeschylus’ insistence on the play’s militaristic values, it turns out Dionysus didn’t care about the content of Persians and instead just liked the chorus’ clapping and singing. But the moment he describes never actually occurs in Persians, at least not in the text as we have it. There are plenty of vowel-filled, foreign-sounding cries in this tragedy, but the chorus does not emit this particular cry, nor is there anything quite like it or an indication of its accompanying choreography at the moment when Darius comes onstage. Given the various other accurate quotations from other plays by Aeschylus, we can assume that Aristophanes is deliberately misquoting here. In doing so, he extends the tragedy’s bounds beyond any “original performance,” inviting new meanings, new readings. And really that’s what the entire long scene of tragic parodies is doing as well: for even if individual quotations accord with the texts of tragedies that survive today (or form the fragments with which we try to piece them together), none of this pretends to be a faithful reconstruction. What it does reproduce, however, is a sense of what tragedy does to its audiences. That Aristophanes homes in on the kind of “affective force” that Mario himself explicates is a testament to the importance of Archive Feelings.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      An-archivic Frogs

      Thank you so much, Naomi, for your perceptive and generous post! I agree with you that there are many ways to see the complexities of the “archive” (with its confusion of preservation and loss) in Frogs. The play ends with the restoration of the “arch-“aic Aeschylus, even if the desired tragic archê—the object of Dionysus’s literal death drive—is Euripides. The textual complexities and uncertainties of the finale of the play also exemplify an ironical failure of the archive, if you will, and force modern dramaturgs to embark on post-dramatic experiments…

      I love what you say about the famous scene of the loss of the little flask. As I suggest somewhere else, the phrase “he lost the little oil flask” has the same arresting power of Niobe’s silence. I would add that the oil flask is a metallic container of a life-giving substance—something that perhaps recalls Niobe as a lithified mother…but there is much more that one could say. In psychoanalytic terms, the repetition of that line—so iconic of Frogs!—is perhaps an image of the insistence of the maternal jouissance…(a feeling that ties in well with the mythical biography of Dionysus).

    • Avatar

      Allen Miller

      Reply

      BPP

      When reading Naomi Weiss’s perceptive comments on the lekythion in Aristophanes’ Frogs, I very much liked the focus on a climax that never comes, a limit that is always seen but never really crossed. I know we have been very focused on Derrida’s Archive Fever for obvious reasons, but I wonder if we do not also want to think more carefully about “To Speculate on Freud” from the Postcard. This is Derrida’s careful deconstruction of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. To drastically oversimplify, what he shows is that Freud consistently posits a limit and its transgression, a place beyond the yin and yang of the pleasure and the reality principles, but never really gets there, that the limit constantly reasserts itself and this is necessary for its transgression to even be conceived. Derrida then traces this logic back to the peras and the apeiron in Plato’s Philebus (okay, yeah, that is my favorite dialogue). What this seems to indicate is that the death drive is only conceivable as a beyond that is both necessary and impossible to conceptualize. Jouissance then is less about a climax (what Lacan calls phallic joussance as opposed to jouissance proper) but is always about a kind of loss of identity before the unlimited or what Lacan would call the Real. One might even call it the sublime.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      Anti-climax

      Thank you so much, Allen, for reminding us that jouissance is primarily anti-climactic, anti-teleological (anti-phallic)—and entails a loss of identity.

      To make a small point about Derrida and the position of Archive Fever within his oeuvre: it is so interesting that parts of The Postcard overlap with the seminar La vie la mort (or, lavielamort) that he gave in 1975–1976 but was published only in 2019—and the year after (the annus horribilis of COVID!) in English translation.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      Refusing Restoration

      I agree with Allen that what is salutary in the aesthetics of tragedy is precisely the possibility of refusing restoration. Those who follow Bernays’s take on catharsis (the least moralistic one) emphasize the non-restorative force of the experience, its expansion of sensory capabilities, with no return, but with the coming about of some kind of non-regressive equilibrium (or “cleansing”). But for me the very notion of equilibrium presupposes a before and an after. (The word restaurant in English, referring to a place where one finds a kind of physical equilibrium through food, contains, in fact, a re- and etymologically suggests, as the dictionary explains, the idea of “restor[ing] to a former state”). When I talk about the possibility of refusing restoration, I think, for example, of a Philoctetes who does not accept the promise of healing at the end of Sophocles’ play. Can we really be on board with the prospect of healing through reintegration in the army, through an annihilation into the military whole, through a cooptation into the colonialist project? There is no question that these are the implications of accepting Philoctetes’ catharsis (an obvious figuration of our own) as we read the play today. (And historicizing the so-called ethics of epic/tragic heroism seems to me quite a weak move.) What we need to do, I propose, is to read against representation, to retrieve intimations of refusal of this scenario that are embedded in the texture of the tragic language. This is not just a question of valorizing indeterminacy or openness, but of being attuned to the fact that the tragic stems precisely from the emergence of impersonal formal forces, vectors of aesthetic-political dissensus, that undo the reparative scenarios created by the representational level. This is why I agree with Richard that, as others have observed, we should go beyond the fetishization of (the original) performance as the hermeneutic archê, as the mysterious origin that makes sense of everything. For some reason, we always fall into the positivistic trap of performance criticism even when we seem to be accepting this idea in principle. Daniel Orrells’s use of the category of the “postdramatic” seems to me very productive—a way perhaps of reconciling a (historically intedeterminate) notion of performance with the interrogation of the non-representational. The salutary in Philoctetes is a kind of self-projection into feminine liquidity, into a continuation of the undulating back and forth warmly tended by his only companion—the disease.

Karen Bassi

Response

Theory Looping

Aristotle, Derrida, Freud, Telò

What is tragedy to us? More specifically, what is Greek tragedy to us? By “us” I mean contemporary readers of the ancient texts and, if more complexly, viewers of contemporary performances of the ancient plays. These questions lie at the heart of Mario Telò’s Archive Feelings, A Theory of Greek Tragedy. Structured around the centripetal force of catharsis in Aristotle’s Poetics, the book offers a radical revaluation of this foundational term in the history of classical scholarship on tragedy. Telò reviews this history, going back to Jacob Bernays’ explanation of catharsis as a process of “healing restoration.” Noting that this process is analogous to Bakhtin’s conception of the carnivalesque, tragedy produces an irruption in normative social structures only to—eventually—reinforce their dominance. Telo’s book is a manifesto against this conservative psycho-social narrative.

As Telò notes, this narrative is teleological insofar as catharsis is explained—and defended—as the restoration of an earlier state of “psychic equilibrium.” But this begs the question of what constitutes this earlier state. And of how it is defined. I, for one, have never experienced it. In any event, according to this dominant view it is by virtue of this “restoration” that the pain of experiencing a tragedy becomes—eventually—pleasurable. Note that pleasure is a given and, it seems, uncontroversial, expectation. Transferred to its social register, pleasure names the maintenance of the status-quo; psychic equilibrium, in other words, is the reward of social conformity. But if this is the case, tragedy has little to offer in the pursuit of social justice or political resistance. This is the dilemma that Telò’s book faces.

Why are scholars of tragedy continually called back to the Poetics or, conversely, why can’t they seem to proceed without it? This repeated return to a source is itself a target of Telò’s work, premised on the fact that the desire for authority and mastery inherent in such a return only foretells its lack of fulfillment. Catharsis is thus not so much an aesthetic desideratum as it is a placeholder for a conceptual and theoretical project triangulated by psychoanalysis, postmodernism, and deconstruction. Telò is not offering a revisionist reading of the Poetics. Nor is he asking yet again what Aristotle meant by catharsis. Nonetheless, his Introduction sent me back to Aristotle in what is clearly a symptom of disciplinary obedience, the very thing he cautions against. But doing so helped me to better understand Telò’s project. We know that the Poetics is something of an orphaned text and that it is lacking in consistency. In his commentary, D. E. Lucas speaks of “a collection of odds and ends.”1 Within this collection, the meaning of catharsis seems to proceed in five halting steps. (1) Imitation (to mimeisthai) is innate or natural (sumphuton) in humans from childhood (1448b); (2) Learning (manthanein) is the greatest source of pleasure (chairein) for humans (1448b); (3) Imitation (mimêsis) is a primary source of learning and hence of pleasure (1448b); (4) Tragic imitation brings about “the catharsis of pity and fear and other similar emotions (pathêmata)” (1449b); (5) Hence, the “release” of such emotions in response to a tragedy facilitates the pleasure of learning. Catharsis is thus part of a universal pedagogical theory of imitation that Aristotle sums up as “learning and inferring what each thing is” (hoti houtos ekeinos 1448b). Any potential threat to emotional stability or emotional health is mitigated in the claim that this process is innate or natural in humans. Relatedly, the promise of “learning what each thing is” is predicated on a belief in ontological security. Both are subject to Telò’s dominant critique, i.e., that appeals to origins beget conformity.

But there is one other appearance of catharsis in the Poetics (1455b). In a discussion of the criterion of plausibility in the tragic episodes, Aristotle notes that in Euripides’s Iphigenia among the Taurians (IT) Orestes is saved from being sacrificed by a feigned rite of ritual purification (katharseôs). In this instance, catharsis is part of a play within the play or a mimêsis within the mimêsis, resulting in a reprieve from death. Using the expiation of blood guilt (Orestes’s killing of his mother) as an alibi, the false ritual has the desired effect: the escape of the principal characters from a land in which all Greeks are to be put to death. If the catharsis of “pity and fear” has a role to play in this scene (as at 1449b), it facilitates this fantasy of escape as a deferral of death. Deeply embedded in the mimêsis itself (as a plot device), “purgation” does not restore the subject’s psychic equilibrium. Rather, it signals the inevitability of death in its temporary postponement. In other terms, catharsis marks the always uncertain moment that divides life from death.

Aristotle thus prefigures Telò’s theoretical debt to Derrida and, through Derrida, to Freud. Or, in a favorite image from the book, the four are caught in something of a repetitive loop. I summarize these debts too briefly here. In Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Derrida describes the archive as caught between preserving and destroying its objects; it names a compulsion for completeness that can never be realized. Freud presents memory as locked in a cycle of repression and repetition, a cycle that betrays a similar compulsion. Both are symptoms of the death drive, the yearning for an (impossible) return to a prior originary state. In other words, both respond to a desire to preserve the past—and by extension to control it—as it inevitably recedes or, in Derrida’s phrase, “slips away.”2 For Telò, this is the predicament of Greek tragedy and the unexpected source of its pleasure. Repeatedly mining the traumatic events of a mythical past, the Greek tragedians produced what he calls an “anti-cathartic aesthetics.” The reception history of Aristotelian catharsis is thus turned on its head; the return to psychic equilibrium is exposed as a consoling fiction. In its place, Telò proposes the emergence of “archive feelings,” an aesthetics rooted in the emotional and physical effects of tragic language and conditioned by longing and loss. These feelings, manifested in looping, hoarding, and binging (among other obsessions explored in the individual plays) are sources of a “non-teleological pleasure.” If I understand it correctly, this pleasure is derived in the incessant need to restore (or store up) what has been lost or what is lacking in life. Telò notes that this death-driven aesthetics is operative in capitalist consumption, in the repetitive attraction of social media, and in the impacts of the Anthropocene. It also produces the inescapable pleasure of reading the novels of Toni Morrison. Tragedy has its modern and postmodern forms.

In Telò’s reading of Iphigenia in Tauris (chapter 4, titled “Archival Crypts”), he focuses on the series of near or “suspended” deaths that drives the plot, beginning with Iphigenia’s escape from her own sacrifice at Aulis. These “undead” characters—defined by their desire to escape the gruesome graveyard that is Taurus—are part of what Telò calls “an archive of deaths” or, following Derrida, the “archive-as-crypt.” Strewn with objects—skulls, a letter, a sword, a statue—this archive comprises the family history of the House of Atreus from the cradle to the grave. As Telò argues, it is a history that cannot be erased by or concealed under the escape plot (with its false premise) or by the play’s so-called “happy ending.” All winds blow back to Aulis. Thus, life in the play is caught in a state of suspended animation, a state that describes the act of sacrifice itself, with its oscillation between preservation (of the collective) and destruction (of the victim). For Telò, this state is epitomized in the image of the ship stalled in the harbor in Taurus. And in what is also true for the end of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, he concludes that “the future promised by Athena is nothing but the repetition of a repetition” (195). Or, as I suggest above, it is nothing but a mimêsis within a mimêsis.

“Restlessness” is another important thematic in the book and one that models the restless energy of Telò’s own reading practice. It is a practice that foregrounds philology but does not promise a more perfect understanding of the tragic text as a historical or cultural artifact. To return (again) to the Poetics, if humans learn their earliest lessons through imitation (as sameness or similitude), Telò insists that learning is enabled through embracing and interrogating imitation’s difference—as expressed in language—rather than negating it. His is a “philology as feeling” as opposed to a philology of domination (emphasis in the original). This approach to tragedy reminds me of Frank Ankersmit’s distinction between “looking at” and “looking through” historical texts where the latter claims unfettered access to a prior reality or, in other terms, to an originary event. In contrast and by analogy, “looking at” a literary text means foregoing such claims. Telò marshals the tools of lexical semantics, metrical patterns, and rhetorical tropes in order to “read archivally.” Contingency, ambiguity, uncertainty, and lack (of authority and mastery) constitute the pleasure of reading tragedy in the “thwarted restoration” of what never existed in the first place (i.e., “psychic equilibrium”) (7). Telò returns to the Poetics in order to start over again.

What fuels the repeated return to Greek antiquity and to the Classics as the standard-bearer of Western exceptionalism? Telò’s answer is expressed in part in an overt rejection of historicist research, i.e., of looking through the tragic texts: “My argument is not historical” (7n24). This rejection does not lead to an impasse. Rather, Greek tragedy becomes a vehicle for exploring the relationship of form to content, guided by a belief in the universal (and trans-historical?) explanatory power of psychoanalysis, a belief that still haunts its reception. In promoting the universal over the historical, or psychic processes over data collection, Telò is free to chart a path of “similarity and proximity . . . between antiquity and modernity” (7). But similarity and proximity are not reducible to inheritance and influence (or intertextuality). As a consequence, the charge of anachronism—so common in Classics and other historical disciplines—is moot. If this is a risky business from a disciplinary perspective, it is also courageous. Somewhat paradoxically, this risk is abated by the mediating voices of contemporary cultural and literary theorists. These include not only Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, but also queer theory, post-humanism, the new materialism, and Afropessimism (among others). In a note late in the Introduction (103), Telò states that his “eclecticism is programmatic” and that it serves a “somewhat unified post-modern sensibility enacted in the very reading of tragedy’s densely wrought language.” Appearing in a late note, this programmatic statement becomes something of a cautionary note after the fact. If the archive names what eludes completion, the note acknowledges the analogous impossibility of a “unified” reading.

In the back and forth between getting close to the tragic texts (the “closest reading”) and moving away from them (the theoretical framing), the book also refrains from treating the individual plays as works with beginnings, middles, and ends, as Aristotle describes them. This is apparent in the layout of the book, with chapter titles that don’t include the standard references to playwrights or to the titles of individual plays. The reader must consult the index where, under the names of each of the three major playwrights, she is told to “see specific titles.” Here too the method is modeled in the presentation. For those who both do and do not know the “specific titles” of the thirteen plays under discussion, their absence puts emphasis on the theoretical framing, arranged according to Archival Time, Archival Space, and Archival Endings. These archival dimensions take the place of the plot—what Aristotle calls the “soul” (psychê) of tragedy—and of catharsis as tragedy’s desired effect. Instead of beginnings, middles, and ends, Telò’s readings effectively anatomize the tragedies in order to reveal their death-driven rush toward an unreachable telos, whether we are talking about the end of the plot or the equilibrium of the human psyche. In both cases, the soul is undone.


  1. Aristotle: Poetics, ed. D. E. Lucas (Oxford University Press, 1968), 182.

  2. J. Derrida, Archive Feelings, 91.

  • Mario Telò

    Mario Telò

    Reply

    Response to Karen Bassi

    I very much appreciate Karen Bassi’s evocation of the wonderful passage from Aristotle’s Poetics (1455b) on Iphigenia in Tauris, which I now realize I should have included in the book. I love the point that, in this play, “‘purgation’ does not restore the subject’s psychic equilibrium” but “marks the always uncertain moment that divides life from death.” I would add something implicit in this formulation: that the mimesis within a mimesis centered on catharsis, the pretended purificatory ritual in the play, is a mimesis of a mimesis, an imitation of an imitation (similar to the “repetition of a repetition” that I locate in Athena’s promise of a future), where of marks both an objective genitive and a possessive genitive. Mimesis of a mimesis is a phrase that conveys a receding approximation, something like the circling around the objet petit a in the Lacanian death drive or the feel of lifedeath. Of course, Iphigenia’s ongoing purificatory murders, the sacrifices she oversees—ostensible catharsis—are each a mimesis of a mimesis, that is, an imitation of her own “original” but uncompleted and consequently imitative sacrifice, which was conceived as a catharsis that would free the Greeks from their stuckness in Aulis. It thus seems that this play, which, along with Oedipus at Colonus, is perhaps the most explicitly archival, dramatizes the possibility that, as I suggest in the introduction of the book, catharsis may entail its own undoing or impossibility. Instead of seeing the play as a characteristically Euripidean game of mirrors, of formal symmetries or asymmetries, we can reconceive this ritual irony as the perverse irony of catharsis—troped by the figure of the loop, which in Archive Feelings, as Bassi observes, implicates me, Aristotle, Freud, and Derrida. According to William West, in an article that Bassi drew to my attention, “the death drive is what Aristotle calls the mimetic instinct, misrecognized.” In other words, the repetition compulsion that Freud tried to explain by positing the existence of the death drive is not altogether different from the mimetic instinct that for Aristotle is innate to human beings.1 Aristotle’s mimesis is, in this perspective, similar to what I call “traumythic compulsion” (18). While Aristotle, differently from Plato, highlights the sanitized, cathartic version of mimesis, Iphigenia in Tauris—looking ahead to the nexus of aesthetics and psychoanalysis in Beyond the Pleasure Principle—shows the intrinsically looping character of mimesis and the affective overload it circulates, which exceeds the mimetic, representational level. I do not want to psychoanalyze Aristotle, but his reference to Iphigenia in Tauris—with its meta-mimetic structures—may perhaps suggest his disavowal of the anti-cathartic, death-driven implications of mimesis.

    Bassi juxtaposes philology as feeling—the phrase I use in the introduction to define my modes of reading—with Frank Ankersmit’s idea of looking at. To me, in fact, looking at seems another way of overcoming the opposition between surface and depth, something that my notion of reading around, as discussed in the epilogue, seeks to get at. Looking at evokes, in fact, an aspirational proximity, a wished-for ad-jacency, a toward-ness, and a contactless contact, together with an insistence and intensity. This is the intensity of an “attachment,” an ongoing, tenacious projection that never ends toward the possibility of a contact that never begins.

    Bassi also connects anachronism and theoretical eclecticism—and, indeed, anachronism, or what I call queer unhistoricism, is another methodological dimension of the book that performs the ontology and psychology of the archive. Such anachronism, an expression of anarchivic temporality, dramatizes, in the very practice of scholarly writing, the impossibility of a self-identical past; the diastêma between past and present that, for Derrida in Specters of Marx, is the site of the tragic itself;2 and the inevitable collapsing of discrete chronic registers into the synchronicity of the reading experience. This anarchivic collapse or synchronicity applies to my theoretical alignments, as Bassi observes. In these post-theoretical times, it is perhaps not desirable—and it may not even be possible—to erect fences between various schools of thoughts. Though Lacan and Žižek polemically strive to differentiate their conceptualizations of the death drive from Freud’s, can one think of any of them without the others? Can one divorce the Freudian legacy from the uses of psychoanalysis in queer theory and Afro-pessimisms? An eclectic approach to the densely wrought formal surfaces of Greek tragedy—that is, a theoretical re-reading of the extant plays in these post-theoretical times, in this moment of theoretical collapse, synchronicity, or syncretism—can reconnect us with the obscured negativity of Deleuzian vitalism, alert us to the disavowed Derridean or Lacanian implications of object-oriented ontology, or even allow us to perceive the Deleuzian potentialities of Derridean deconstruction. One could say that, in my eclecticism, I perform the anarchivic mobility of the theoretical archive while exploring and inhabiting the anarchivic aesthetics of Greek tragedy.


    1. W. N. West, “Repeating Staging Meaning: Between Aristotle and Freud,” SubStance 28.2 (1999): 138–58.

    2. Derrida, Specters of Marx (Routledge, 1994), 81.

    • Daniel Orrells

      Daniel Orrells

      Reply

      Mimesis of a Mimesis

      This is just a brief note to say: I really enjoyed reading Professor Karen Bassi’s commentary on “Archive Feelings”. What a wonderful reading of Aristotle’s “Poetics,” which will change the way I teach this text now, when I put it in touch with modern theoretical debates about tragedy. Professor Bassi helps us see how Aristotle’s text contains an autocritique of its own argument, and therefore how this text allows for different, contrasting modern receptions and applications.

    • Avatar

      Chiara Graf

      Reply

      Reply to Karen Bassi

      Thanks very much to you both for this exchange! I have learned so much from following along with this symposium over the last few weeks.

      My question has to do with Mario’s suggestion above that “catharsis may entail its own undoing or impossibility.” As Mario says in the Introduction to Archive Feelings, Aristotle’s theory of catharsis is “prescriptive more than descriptive” (6) in its location of pleasure in the release of painful emotion. When I read this, I can’t help but think of Zizek’s formulation of the superego as the grim and joyless injunction to “enjoy!” Looking at Prof. Bassi’s summary of Aristotle’s account of catharsis above, I see something very mechanical in this circuit of prescribed pleasure. I am almost imagining Aristotle as the authoritarian superego of philology, commanding all us readers to enjoy our catharses. Prof. Bassi’s comment above that “I, for one, have never experienced it” points to the fruitlessness of this injunction.

      But more broadly, I wonder what the relationship is between the stuckness of anti-catharsis (which I understand as a dullness that leads to paradoxical pleasure), and the intensity of catharsis (which can have a forced quality to it that paradoxically strips it of intensity). “Ugly Feelings” have come up a lot in this conversation, and this is an insight I have found so valuable in Ngai: so often she points out the ways in which ostensibly intense or sharp feelings wind up playing out in a dull way—the “interesting” actually engenders a lack of engagement, shock is actually sort of boring, etc. So, does catharsis undo itself not just because of the parasitic relationship of the pleasure principle to the death drive, but also because of the inherent forced boringness of intensity? (Or is the latter just a symptom of the former?)

    • Karen Bassi

      Karen Bassi

      Reply

      Pandemic blues

      Thanks very much to Dr. Graf for these provocative questions. It strikes me that the “inherent forced boringness of intensity” is precisely the condition that the pandemic has so vividly imposed upon all of us. Is boredom (how to define this feeling…?) a precondition of Aristotle’s catharsis and/or its refusal? The question is mediated by the experience of drama or embodied mimesis, in which time and space are both inhibited and extended – with another inferred reminder of the pandemic. Confined to the space and time of the staged environment, does witnessing a tragedy release us/free us from our mundane lives (defined by emotional states or attachments, by “pity and fear”) or does it situate us more firmly in the grip of the mundane? Here I refer to Dr. Graf’s “circuit of prescribed pleasure” as the mundane and repetitive circuit of capitalism. To the extent that “living through” or “living in” the pandemic frames and constrains our everyday lives, we are something like tragic characters caught in the throes of pleasure/pain. The pandemic alerts us to the dead end of Aristotle’s catharsis and to the persistent return of Telò’s anti-catharsis in human life.

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      (Im)possible Intensities

      A million thanks, Chiara, for participating in the conversation, for your very apt evocation of Zizek’s superegoic imperative “Enjoy,” and, especially, for bringing up the issue of intensity.

      One of the ways I conceptualize anti-cathartic aesthetics—and this is completely in line with your final point—is by connecting catharsis with the desire for an “imagined fullness of feeling,” a phrase I use in relation to Euripides’ Phoenissae (p. 85). In a choral ode of this play, pity (eleos) is presented by the Chorus as sharp as the blade that Jocasta will use to kill herself. As I put it:

      In the duplication of the prefix homo- (“the same”) we can detect the Chorus’s, and our own, archive fever, a desire for a complete assimilation to (and of) the characters’ experiences, the fantasy of capturing—in the sense of reproducing and appropriating—an imagined fullness of feeling. Besides channeling the insistence of fear, the song’s repetitions communicate the insistent energy of this fantasy of appropriation. We get a glimpse of the deeply anti-cathartic impetus that tragedy awakens in its audience by making them wish to access, assimilate, and preserve the death-driven actions of its characters. The frustration of this impetus leads to the jouissance of hoarding—a satisfaction found in boredom, in a lack of satisfaction that, in the midst of depleting saturation, breaks and pierces just like the pity and fear described by the Chorus.

      What I am saying is that the mimetic nature of the aesthetics of catharsis—its reliance on the re- of re-production, re-creation etc, that is, the archival spacing—inevitably entails a dulling of intensity. Intensity is also, to an extent, a fantasy, or its own form of object petit a, if you will.

      In the same chapter, I also seek to make the case for what I call “the death-driven intensity of tedium—the wearing down of form that keeps the play going.” Tedium is the propulsive engine of Phoenissae; it produces a kind of paradoxically distributive or durational intensity—an intermittent but perhaps also continuing punctum, as it were.

      I very much look forward to seeing your edited book on intensity, a great topic!

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      Cathartic Capitalism and the Pandemic

      Thank you, Karen, for this wonderful comment! I am glad that before me you brought up the issue of mimesis, which you have beautifully illuminated in your own scholarship. To me, catharsis does sound like the capitalistic command often heard during the pandemic (before we even had a vaccine) that we need to get on with our lives, that the economy cannot stop, that we have to return to a (fantasized) status quo ante, to the “normal” life before the catastrophe. Unfortunately, those who have evoked the cathartic power of Greek tragedy as an antidote against pandemic blues (not just classicists, but also the New Yorker) seem to me to reinforce this logic.

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong

      Reply

      Theory Looping Again and Again

      I am reflecting on Karen’s words, “Freud presents memory as locked in a cycle of repression and repetition, a cycle that betrays a similar compulsion. Both are symptoms of the death drive, the yearning for an (impossible) return to a prior originary state.” This fits nicely in the contour of Freud’s own theory of the origins of tragedy, so tightly imbricated in his “scientific myth” of the Urvater and one of the many things crammed into Freud’s most “archival” of works, Totem and Taboo. If I may, I’d like to run with that in the spirit of Mario’s archival performance of tragic anti-theory, since there is a fascinating connection here between Freud’s endless looping back to the father and the invention of patriarchy in relation to the Greek tragedy.

      The historical primal father was, as it were, a metaphor waiting to happen: his sexual monopoly and tyranny were ended when the brothers kill and eat him, yet he returns time and again in symbolic form, stronger than ever, powered up by the ambivalent yearning of the fraternal clan simultaneously to be and be rid of the father. As Freud describes it,

      With the introduction of father-deities a fatherless society gradually changed into one organized on a patriarchal basis. The family was a restoration of the formal primal horde and it gave back to fathers a large portion of their former rights. There were once more fathers, but the social achievements of the fraternal clan had not been abandoned; and the gulf between the new fathers of a family and the unrestricted primal father of the horde was wide enough to guarantee the continuance of the religious craving, the persistence of an unappeased longing for the father. (SE, Norton edition p. 185)

      How interesting it is that Freud posits the “religious craving” in the gap between fraternal patriarchy and the savage autocracy of the primal father (whom elsewhere Freud identified with Nietzsche’s Superman). The father loops back twofold now, as god the father and the totem animal, but in a fascinating “allegory” in which “The scene of the father’s vanquishment, of his greatest defeat, has become the stuff for the representation of his supreme triumph”—i.e., the animal sacrifice of the totem (a traumatic repetition of the murder) is now celebrated to the glory of the father god as a sacrifice in his honor. Thus the attempts to expiate the traumatic event through “traumythic” performance in ritual do little to assuage the collective guilt, further proof that “cathartic” rituals do not restore a prior state of innocence or moral cleanliness, they simply replicate the lifedeath of the Father as the ideal of human power, and surrender to him more and more.

      Thus at the end of Totem and Taboo, when Freud inserts his own theory of the origin of Greek tragedy in tacit rivalry with Nietzsche, he focuses on the tragic hero’s necessary suffering and tragic guilt. With clear impatience, Freud rushes to rescript the pattern of Aristotelian tragedy in his own traumythic terms:

      He had to suffer because he was the primal father, the Hero of the great primeval tragedy which was being re-enacted with a tendentious twist; and the tragic guilt was the guilt which he had to take on himself in order to relieve the Chorus from theirs. The scene upon the state was derived from the historical scene through a process of systematic distortion—one might even say, as the product of a refined hypocrisy. (SE, Norton edition p. 193)

      So, if there is a restoration to be had through catharsis, it is the restoration of hypocrisy through a kind of scapegoating ritual, one guaranteed to perpetuate the neurotic rituals of a traumatized society. Tragedy would thus be a kind of gain from illness, not a cure. Small wonder that theorists of a more disruptive variety see Aristotelian catharsis as a coercive system, not a liberatory one. In the words of Augusto Boal, “The coercive system of tragedy can be used before or after the revolution…but never during it!” (Theatre of the Oppressed, p. 46).

      Mario’s insistence on the death drive and the archive in relation to a thorough engagement with Greek tragedy empowers more than a rereading of tragedy; for me, it has helped me trace further the uncanny filiation of the death drive in relation to Freud’s long entanglement with the father complex, patriarchy, and religion. Since the Oedipus Complex posits the fundamental crisis of childhood in the confrontation of the emergent subject with the antinomies of ambivalence—i.e., simultaneous incestuous desire and parricidal rage, Eros and aggression in their most traumythic forms—it is no wonder why Freud runs this course from the 1890s to the 1920s. And in our retrospective view of Freud, it should inform our excursions into the Freudian archive.

      But now the horizon of theatricality returns—is this the return of Mario’s repressed? In Freud’s view, ritual performance merely energizes the archival forces of memory/repression; tragic performance’s excavation by a Freudian philology would merely uncover its “refined hypocrisy.” But here’s a thought: Rather than empowering the moment of performance as the only “true text” of tragedy, that point to which echt philology must return obsessively, forensically, in order to justify itself as a discipline, a truly archival philology could both incorporate theatricality and see beyond it, not fetishize it, but rather play with it as yet another haunting. Would that be a fair extension of your view, Mario? Should we not learn to play with the play within the play?

    • Avatar

      Allen Miller

      Reply

      Carnival at Romans

      As I read Karen Bassi’s learned response and the various replies, one thing sticks with me. Bassi says that catharsis in Aristotle is normally taken to function like carnival in Bakhtin, a momentary release before restoration. On this view, carnival is a momentary overturning that actually reinforces hegemony. This is a common reading of Bakhtin. By the same token, catharsis then figures the momentary apparition of terror, the return of the repressed, all the better to inoculate us against its return. We take our purgative and flush pity and fear from the system and go back to being good bourgeois citizens, paying calls, taking our daily constitutional round the Ringstrasse.

      But there is another reading of carnival. Many scholars of Bakhtin read it as an evocation of Stalin’s permanent revolution. Each new overturning produces not a settling restoration but a new normal founded on terror. Bodies are open, registers of existence are confused, subject and object become abject. As in La Durie’s famous evocation of the Carnival at Romans, we have not a brief interlude but a massacre.

      In previous responses, we have worried about is the anticathartic reading a responsible understanding of tragedy? What would it mean to be stuck? to not proceed to a telos, which is always in some sense a restoration? Would this be self-indulgent? But what if, like carnival, to refuse the restoration and to embrace the purge per se were a vision of revolution, which did not lead us back around the Ringstrasse ?

      Robespierre at the height of the French Revolution wrote:
      “if the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue.”

      As we face, the very real possibility of the end of the world whether through climate catastrophe or through nuclear miscalculation, the possibility of a return to the normal seems increasingly like denial rather than restoration. Is there not also something salutary is in refusing restoration, in seeing a carnival that sweeps it away? Can we really imagine a radically different existence without (at least psychic) terror? Is not tragedy on some level also the possibility of the carnival unleashed?

      As Lacan says in his reading of the Antigone, no one can long live beyond the veil Ate, but the possibility of that crossing, of actually moving beyond the calculation of the pleasure principle is the very possibility of ethical action as something beyond the mere repetition of the pursuit of accepted goods, of the pursuit of goods, of the endless capitalist production of goods. This as he notes is the ethics of psychoanalysis.

      Is such a reading a self-indulgent aesthetics? or is Mario’s anticathartic reading of tragedy on some level the condition of possibility for a reimagination of the world? One that leads not back to the endless trek round the Ringstrasse, which seems destined to lead not to tragedy but actual annihilation, but to a new road, a poros beyond aporia, a road to come. Are our choices really only Stalin or a restoration that in itself leads to terror? Or might an anti-cathartic reading of tragedy be one way finally to think differently?

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong

      Reply

      Boal responds to Miller

      “…perhaps the theater is not revolutionary in itself, but it is surely a rehearsal for the revolution. The liberated spectator, as a whole person, launches into action. No matter that the action is fictional; what matters is that it is action!”

      Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed

    • Avatar

      Allen Miller

      Reply

      Carnival at Romans

      As I read Karen Bassi’s learned response and the various replies, one thing sticks with me. Bassi says that catharsis in Aristotle is normally taken to function like carnival in Bakhtin, a momentary release before restoration. On this view, carnival is a momentary overturning that actually reinforces hegemony. This is a common reading of Bakhtin. By the same token, catharsis then figures the momentary apparition of terror, the return of the repressed, all the better to inoculate us against its return. We take our purgative and flush pity and fear from the system and go back to being good bourgeois citizens, paying calls, taking our daily constitutional round the Ringstrasse.

      But there is another reading of carnival. Many scholars of Bakhtin read it as an evocation of Stalin’s permanent revolution. Each new overturning produces not a settling restoration but a new normal founded on terror. Bodies are open, registers of existence are confused, subject and object become abject. As in La Durie’s famous evocation of the Carnival at Romans, we have not a brief interlude but a massacre.

      In previous responses, we have worried about is the anticathartic reading a responsible understanding of tragedy? What would it mean to be stuck? to not proceed to a telos, which is always in some sense a restoration? Would this be self-indulgent? But what if, like carnival, to refuse the restoration and to embrace the purge per se were a vision of revolution, which did not lead us back around the Ringstrasse ?

      Robespierre at the height of the French Revolution wrote:
      “if the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue.”

      As we face, the very real possibility of the end of the world whether through climate catastrophe or through nuclear miscalculation, the possibility of a return to the normal seems increasingly like denial rather than restoration. Is there not also something salutary is in refusing restoration, in seeing a carnival that sweeps it away? Can we really imagine a radically different existence without (at least psychic) terror? Is not tragedy on some level also the possibility of the carnival unleashed?

      As Lacan says in his reading of the Antigone, no one can long live beyond the veil Ate, but the possibility of that crossing, of actually moving beyond the calculation of the pleasure principle is the very possibility of ethical action as something beyond the mere repetition of the pursuit of accepted goods, of the pursuit of goods, of the endless capitalist production of goods. This as he notes is the ethics of psychoanalysis.

      Is such a reading a self-indulgent aesthetics? or is Mario’s anticathartic reading of tragedy on some level the condition of possibility for a reimagination of the world? One that leads not back to the endless trek round the Ringstrasse, which seems destined to lead not to tragedy but actual annihilation, but to a new road, a poros beyond aporia, a road to come. Are our choices really only Stalin or a restoration that in itself leads to terror? Or might an anti-cathartic reading of tragedy be one way finally to think differently?

    • Paul Kottman

      Paul Kottman

      Reply

      Theory Looping/Aristotle

      I would like to add my appreciation for Professor Karen Bassi’s commentary, which I find very helpful. This exchange with Mario also helps me to better see how Aristotle’s text and its reception might be brought into conversation with the contemporary theoretical concerns that animate Mario’s book.

Paul Kottman

Response

Philosophy and the Tragic

Back to Plato?

Mario Telò’s Archive Feelings: A Theory of Tragedy is comprised primarily of elegant formalist reading of Greek tragedies. His book is worth reading for the quality of those chapters alone. Because his expertise in this area exceeds mine, I shall devote my few remarks to a broader consideration of Telò’s overall stated aim, especially as that claim is articulated in the book’s opening chapter.

Archive Feelings returns us to questions raised in the earliest debates over the significance of tragedy: namely, to the inheritance of Plato and Aristotle. In the short space available to me, I want to contrast my understanding of the stakes of Aristotle’s and Plato’s remarks on tragedy with that of Telò, to at least sketch what I think his framing of the issues risks missing – especially with respect to what might be revealed about what I shall call Telò’s real plea. In doing this, my point is not so much to intervene in a debate about how to properly read Aristotle or Plato – I will not try to convince anyone, in other words, that my reading is the correct one. Instead, my aim will be to outline an alternative way of thinking about the issues that Telò raises, by drawing attention to what I see as an under-analyzed relation to the Aristotelian inheritance in Archive Feelings.

But to do that, I should first state what I think Telò’s own proposal is.

In the Aristotelian theory of catharsis,” Telò writes, “mimesis is the distancing frame capable of transforming pain into pleasure, protecting the spectator/reader of tragedy from being ‘hurt’; it is what ultimately places the subject in a safe position” (4-5). Telò sees Aristotle’s views on mimesis in tragedy as underwriting the central importance of catharsis. The “fundamental tenet of catharsis,” he claims, is “its tending toward some kind of healing restoration” (6). Telò’s “goal,” as he puts it:

is to suggest an alternative to reparative or redemptive tragic aesthetics by asking. What if the pleasure of tragedy is produced not by release but by the lack of it – by a sense of stuckness…? What if, in other words, the absence of psychic restoration after pleasurable pain is tragedy’s main allure? (7).

Although Telò turns to Sigmund Freud’s enigmatic notion of a ‘death drive’ in dealing with this question, he is well-aware that what he calls “a rehabilitation of Plato’s aesthetics” (4) also looms large. For Plato, the pleasure taken in tragedy is its satisfaction and stimulation of a nonrational appetite for grief – “the fulfilment of a ‘hunger for tears’” (5).  Telò approvingly cites Rana Saadi Liebert’s Tragic Pleasure from Homer to Plato: (Cambridge UP):

Aristotle does not resolve so much as contain the tragic paradox within the realm of representation, where it remains the case that an encounter with painful objects gives pleasure because of and not despite their pain.1

Telò marshals a set of thinkers whose views on tragedy are quite disparate — Adorno, Derrida, Deleuze and above all Freud – to make the following claim:

By placing the death drive, as theorized by Freud and others after him, at the center of my model of anti-catharsis, I locate the pleasurable pain of Greek tragedy in an alluring destabilization without release, which is effected not only by moments of formal anti-closure, but also by the aesthetic power attached to fantasies of never-ending undoing by the subject. (10)

I hope that this brief reconstruction gives some sense of the measure and aims of Telò’s book.

On the one hand, the canvas on which Telò paints is quite large – Greek tragedy, Plato, Aristotle, Freud, Derrida and Delueze. On the other hand, the ambition of Archive Feelings is also deceptively modest: Telò aims to show that Freud – and before him, Plato – were on to something, in their consideration of a pleasure taken in pain, an “alluring destabilization without release.”

By calling this ambition modest, I want simply to note: Would even the most rigid Aristotelian (or ‘contextualist’ reader, such as J.P. Vernant or Froma Zeitlin, Telò’s other foils) need to deny the plausibility and possible implications of such a destabilization? That is, if “Aristotle does not resolve so much as contain the tragic paradox within the realm of representation” – as Liebert, I think rightly, states – then why should that give us any reason to think that such containment requires a denial of the reality or significance of an “alluring destabilization without release”? By the same token, why would attending to that “alluring destabilization” need to take the form of what Telò wants to call “an anti-cathartic aesthetics” (4, my emphasis)? These are my basic questions; toward the end of these remarks, I want to suggest ways to think about these questions as symptoms of something under-analyzed in Telò’s book.

It was Peter Szondi, in his Essay on the Tragic (trans. Paul Fleming, Stanford University Press, 2002) who distinguished between a “poetics of tragedy” (Aristotle, or an Aristotelian tradition of poetics, broadly conceived) and the “philosophy of the tragic” that emerged around 1800 in the writings of Schelling, Hölderlin and Hegel. One thesis that suggests itself in Szondi’s distinction between poetics and philosophy, tragedy and the tragic, is that the relation between tragedy and philosophy cannot itself be resolved poetically because it is a problem for philosophy qua philosophy. Put another way, the sheer existence of tragedies – what that existence means — cannot be resolved by responding to the poetic questions: ‘What is a tragedy?’ ‘What is that kind of artwork?’ ‘What are tragedies’ distinctive features?’ The more fundamental problem posed to philosophy by the very existence of tragedies as a distinctive aesthetic practice concerns what the tragic poets themselves know, or reveal, about human existence, pain, death, eros, loss and so on. Plato was of course the first to see this problem clearly2

Now, it is remarkable how often – in discussions of Plato – Plato’s specific critique of tragedy in Republic Book 10 gets conflated with the broader critique of mimesis with which Book 10 opens. I suspect that the overwhelming influence of Aristotle’s Poetics, since the Renaissance, is largely responsible for this conflation. Let me call this the ‘Aristotelian forcefield.’ Due to this forcefield, it can seem to modern readers as though Aristotle’s robust defense of the cognitive significance of mimetic arts in the Poetics – above all, tragedy (since tragedy was, for both Plato and Aristotle, “the deepest, most significant and philosophically interesting of all mimetic artforms”)3 — is also a riposte to Plato’s critique of tragedy.

However, it can be instructive to separate these strands of argumentation.

When Plato has Socrates declare that mimetic works are “dim reflections” of reality, or that they are deceptive (books 2 and 3, especially) or that they lack a practical purpose, he does so in ways that make clear how little a challenge mimetic practices finally pose, in Plato’s framing, to Socrates’ ability to grasp them through the deployment of the very concept of mimesis – mimesin holon (Book 10). But when it comes to tragedy, what really worries Plato — “the chief accusation” against tragedy – arises not from this critique of mimesis, but instead from the tension between the rational part of the soul, and the grief that cries out from the mournful, nonrational part of the soul in response to tragic performances:

What is by nature best in us, because it hasn’t been adequately educated by argument or habit, relaxes its guard over this mournful part because it sees another’s sufferings, and it isn’t shameful for it, if some other man who claims to be good laments out of season, to praise and pity him; rather it believes that it gains the pleasure and wouldn’t permit itself to be deprived of it by despising the whole poem.  I suppose that only a certain few men are capable of calculating that the enjoyment of other people’s sufferings has a necessary effect on one’s own.  For the pitying part, fed strong on these examples, is not easily held down in one’s own sufferings.4

Again, notice: What underlies Plato’s “chief’ critique of tragedy has little to do with the mimetic status of tragedies. Plato’s deeper worry is more general: tragic (and comic) poets have a proto-philosophical knowledge — they know the causes of human suffering, the kinds of losses humans bear, and the kind of psychic responses to loss to which humans are susceptible. Jay Bernstein puts this point well:

Like the philosopher, tragic poets have a synoptic vision: tragedy (and comedy) is a view of the world as a whole. The tragic worldview perceives human life as inherently self-contradictory, as continually bound to opposing goods and impossible differences, as bounded by irredeemable loses; what is self-contradictory or seeped in loss cannot be cognitively mastered, but it can, and should be, understood, felt, acknowledged, accepted.  In tragedy we understand through feeling; and what we feel, finally, is grief.  Tragic knowledge is performative and sensible as opposed to philosophical knowledge that is thetic and intelligible. There is indeed an ancient quarrel between philosophy and tragedy: what Plato finds truly intolerable about tragedy (and comedy) is the thought that such a view of the world be ultimate and final, that human life be lamentable or absurd.5

Now, so far as I can see, nothing in Aristotle’s Poetics – neither the significance of catharis, nor the centrality of mythos – is meant to directly refute Plato on this point. Instead, Aristotle begins the Poetics on a different note entirely, by rescuing mimesis from the critique to which Socrates subjected all mimetic practices – to show what mimetic activity makes intelligible, and how.

Indeed, it is remarkable that Aristotle’s treatment of pity and fear – our affective response to tragedy – does not directly confront Plato’s “chief accusation” in Book 10 of The Republic. Aristotle instead stressed that plot-structure [mythos] is the “soul” of tragedy, and he connected this to an account of the impact of tragic dramas on audiences. Tragic plots – thought Aristotle – present a shared understanding of the worldly conditions for the protagonists’ actions and sufferings, a collective understanding of the things in view of which the drama’s main events might occur. The events in a tragic plot must be plausible, after all, and they must unfold on account of one another in some intelligible way. If a tragic story moves us, Aristotle thought, it is because the events depicted seem to us ‘likely enough’ and rational in this way, as if they could happen to any of us. What we watch happen in a tragedy is not likely enough to justify ‘real’ fear, but the events are too close (and too significant) to ignore. The way audiences are moved by what happens – indeed, whether audiences are moved – thus gauges this collective understanding of matters generally, and confirms the “universality” of a shared human condition.6 Our affective response, Aristotle insists, is linked to the ultimate rationality of the events themselves, and the meaningfulness of the world in which they occur.

I rehearse all this, because I see Telò as, first, wanting to return our attention – with Freud’s help – to that feature of tragedy about which Plato worried, namely the pleasure taken in pain, the sub-rational appetite for grief which tragedy waters and upon which it feeds. And, second, Telò wants to do this by – he says, repeatedly – contesting the Aristotelian inheritance, which he regards as somehow obscuring or as opposed to, the Platonic inheritance I am briefly excavating. But, for reasons I have been suggesting, this second aim seems unnecessary for – even a non-sequitur with respect to – the achievement of the first aim.

I could not help but wonder, as I read Archive Feelings, if Telò is himself – contrary to his stated intention – revealing the extent to which he is under the influence of what I called the ‘Aristotelian forcefield.’ That is, I wonder why Telò feels compelled to frame his intervention as “anti-catharic” at all? Why not simply skip Aristotle altogether – since, as I just noted, Aristotle himself does not stop to answer Plato’s “chief accusation” against tragedy? Why not, that is, rehabilitate relevant aspects of Plato’s real complaint against tragedy’s watering of the nonrational part of the soul, and then place that in direct dialogue with Freud’s death drive and its contemporary elaborations? Doing this would give Telò everything he needs to stage a transhistorical dialogue about tragedy and affect, linking Plato and Greek tragedy to Freud and his readers.

The answer to these puzzles seems to be that Telò sees catharsis as analogous to the pleasure principle, or the Freudian “life instinct.” Telò writes:

When, in the Poetics, Aristotle introduces catharsis as the purgation of fear and pity that tragedy achieves through these same emotions, he seems to assume an instinct for survival and self-mastery (expressed in what Bernays calls the ‘restoration of psychic equilibrium’), which, in his schema, the assault of tragic emotions activates… it can be assimilated to the Freudian life instinct. (13)

Here, I must confess that I cannot find in Aristotle’s text this assumption of a psychic instinct for survival and self-mastery. And, since this is Aristotle we are talking about, if such an ‘instinct’ had been noticed by the philosopher, then we can be sure it would have received systematic treatment at his hands. But I do not want to object to Telò on the basis of ‘Aristotle scholarship’ alone, since Telò himself is not proposing a ‘scholarly’ reading of Aristotle in defense of any claim he is making. Instead, and this is what I want to draw attention to, there seems to be some transference going on between Telò, Freud and Aristotle.

I suspect that part of the transference has to do with the extent to which Telò does not want our affective responses to tragedy to be limited by any assumption of mimetic distance, or for that matter, by a “poetic” theory at all. For, mimetic distance – Telò thinks – risks obscuring the death-driven ‘archive fever’ which makes any attempt to recover a traumatic past by ‘mimetically staging’ it both a symptom of our longing (for what is lost) and an incessant reminder of that loss. Thus, insofar as Aristotle builds a bridge between mimetic presentation and catharsis-as-release-from-longing, Telò feels himself called to take a stand – in the name of what is forever lost.

Let me put this another way. At the level of the letter of his text, Telò’s objection to Aristotelianism is that something in Aristotle’s ‘theory’ of catharsis blocks a proper understanding of tragedy as death driven. I hope I have already said enough to indicate why I find no evidence in Aristotle – or for that matter in Telò’s treatment of the Aristotelian inheritance — to substantiate this suggestion. But I now want to say how, I think, the letter of Telò’s text betrays a different wish. That is, the spirit of Telò’s text makes a plea to which its letter stands opposed.

The book’s subtitle notwithstanding — Telò’s real plea, I suspect, is not for a better ‘theory’ of the affective force of Greek tragedies, one capable of contesting the Aristotelian inheritance. Instead, Telò’s real, if unavowed, plaint is that we should hear, beneath any talk of mimesis and catharsis, the tragic facts of life to which both are indebted

Is there a more succinct statement of these facts than that of Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus?

Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the human sufferer.  Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the secret cause.7

When suffering is identified in a sufferer, the mind is arrested by pity; terror arrests the mind, too, insofar as the cause of such suffering remains secret.

The real obstacle posed by the Aristotelian inheritance, for Telò, is not – contrary to the letter of his text – that Aristotle illicitly posits an instinct for self-mastery capable of “healing restoration” and of returning us to life instincts in the wake of being ‘arrested’ by fear and pity.

The real obstacle by which Telò – and all of us – find ourselves frustrated, in this regard, is that nothing in the Aristotelian inheritance can come to the rescue when we find ourselves thus arrested. And that is something we must find ways to lament.[1] 8


  1. Rana Saadi Liebert, Tragic Pleasure from Homer to Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017), 12. I agree with Liebert’s statement, but for reasons – I think – that are different from Telò’s endorsement; more on that in a moment.

  2. So, I disagree with the second half of Peter Szondi’s opening claim in An Essay on the Tragic, that “Since Aristotle, there has been a poetics of tragedy. Only since Schelling has there been a philosophy of the tragic” (1). I see Aristotle’s Poetics as a response to the problem of a more fundamental connection between tragedy and philosophy, as first formulated by Plato, in his critique of tragedy. I have in mind Socrates’ “chief accusation” against tragedy: the contrast between the ultra-stoicism of the deliberative part of the soul, as taught by philosophy, and the lamentation that flows from the mournful, pitying part of the soul in response to tragic performances [Republic 606a-c]. That said, Szondi’s identification of the philosophy of the tragic with German philosophy is certainly justified and understandable, in view of his discussion, especially, of Hegel’s “tragic dialectic.” Telò, for his part, does not discuss the German philosophy of tragic (Hegel, Hoelderlin and Schelling are nowhere mentioned), just as Szondi does not include Freud in the lineage he traces from Schelling to Benjamin. It remains striking that ‘theoretically informed’ treatments of Greek tragedy which draw especially upon Freud (and Lacan) largely avoid the German philosophy of the tragic from Schelling to Benjamin, and vice-versa. Why the mutual avoidance?

  3. Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 240.

  4. Plato, The Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 606a-b

  5. J.M. Bernstein, “Tragedy,The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature, edited by Richard Eldridge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

  6. Aristotle’s repeated emphasis on the “universality” of these elements in tragedy is connected to his remark that tragedy is “more philosophical” than history in the simple sense that, out of the morass of particular or contingent ‘happenings’ in human affairs, an audience can discern the general sorts of things that ‘someone like us’ might typically do or say.

  7. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Penguin, 2016), 189.

  8. I find Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on Aristotle and modern ethical life to be a good model for carrying out such a lament philosophically. Jonathan Lear’s recent responses to MacIntrye, which put Aristotle and Freud in conversation, are important in this respect, too, for adding psychoanalysis to the list of ways to mourn.

  • Mario Telò

    Mario Telò

    Reply

    Response to Paul Kottman

    Paul Kottman gets to the core issues—that is, the theoretical framing of Archive Feelings and its relationship with Plato’s and Aristotle’s conceptualizations of tragic aesthetics. Kottman wonders why I operate in an Aristotelian framework, why I let myself be influenced, if only negatively, by the “Aristotelian forcefield,” why I feel compelled to frame my intervention as “anti-cathartic.” As he puts it, “Why not simply skip Aristotle altogether?” My answer is that since the plays themselves dramatize situations of literal catharsis, which trope our own aesthetic reactions, they seem to condition the way we can (or should) affectively respond. Think of Oedipus’s bath and change of clothing in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus; or the promise of healing extended to Philoctetes; or the purificatory rituals that await Euripides’s Heracles in Athens, his place of redemption, and that are obsessively referred to in Iphigenia in Tauris, as Bassi has reminded us; or Agave’s famous arti manthanô in Bacchae, when she appears to return to rational thinking, a precarious “equilibrium” (a word often used in definitions or discussions of catharsis); or even the purification undergone by Orestes at Delphi in Eumenides, a play in which the “cleansing” of the Erinyes, the removal of the literal and metaphorical dirt deposited on their bodies, generates a sense of “relief” at the end of the Aeschylean trilogy that coincides with the foundation of the state. Many of the plays set themselves up as cathartic journeys or, at least, present what I would call a cathartic structure, which the influential legacy of Aristotelian catharsis makes it difficult to ignore regardless of whether Aristotle himself saw these cathartic journeys in the tragic plots and formulated his theory accordingly. Aristotelian catharsis, I would say, provides us with a powerful heuristic for reading aesthetically.

    Critics have certainly observed that catharsis does not always work, that the plays are open-ended, ambiguous, shaped by indeterminacy and overdeterminacy. But they are reluctant to say that these formal “failures” have a psychological effect and that the resulting sense of apparent freedom, of non-closure, is the pleasure of non-pleasure. In other words, rather than failing to produce catharsis, to achieve their expected aesthetic function, the plays seem to succeed in guaranteeing the death-driven pleasure that consists in the impossibility of catharsis—in the emergence of the non- or anti-cathartic in the very pursuit of catharsis. Certainly, Aristotle does not identify catharsis with the life instinct, and I understand why this identification could be seen as a sleight of hand. My reading was a tendentious way of showing how the very dynamic of catharsis, with its inbuilt restorative dimension, can be conceptualized as an instance of archive fever. In the same perspective, mimesis, too, can be seen as anarchivic (as I discuss in response to Bassi’s comments). Kottman’s summary of my position is accurate and compellingly expressed: “mimetic distance…risks obscuring the death-driven ‘archive fever’ which makes any attempt to recover a traumatic past by ‘mimetically staging’ it both a symptom of our longing (for what is lost) and an incessant reminder of that loss.” Now I would say (or say more clearly) that mimetic distance seems difficult to maintain—the death-driven dynamic of mimesis (stemming from the loss intrinsic to imitation) inevitably spills over to us.

    Kottman’s point that a productive parallel could be drawn between Plato’s idea of the non-rational soul and the death drive is well-taken. I am intrigued by his invitation: “Why not . . . rehabilitate relevant aspects of Plato’s real complaint against tragedy’s watering of the nonrational part of the soul, and then place that in direct dialogue with Freud’s death drive and its contemporary elaborations?” Still, I wonder how this Platonic/Freudian approach would work in the practice of reading—which is ultimately what I am interested in. Kottman reminds us that “what really worries Plato . . . arises . . . from the tension between the rational part of the soul, and the grief that cries out from the mournful, nonrational part of the soul.” Would, for example, a dialogue between Plato and Freud privilege grief and mourning rather than some of the other “ugly feelings” that I focus on? (Before Rana Liebert, Nicole Loraux reevaluated the power of mourning in a quasi-Platonic fashion in Mothers in Mourning.)1

    I love the Joyce quotation with which Kottman lyrically ends his response. I am particularly captivated and moved by the idea that pity (eleos) and terror (phobos) “arrest” us in the perception of the frightening mystery of being and of our shared participation in suffering (not only human but cosmic, I would say). As Kottman puts it, “Nothing in the Aristotelian inheritance can come to the rescue when we find ourselves thus arrested.” This sense of being “arrested” in the contemplation and inhabitation of “whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering” brings me back to the kind of affective dynamics that I have called anti-catharsis. Only the preposition ad- (“to,” “toward”) separates ar-rest from rest, but ar-rest is, in a sense, the opposite of rest. It indicates a form of stuckness that can be qualified as a forced rest or even a restless rest—that is, the kinetic affect of the death drive since its Freudian conceptualization. Does the ad- in ar-rest merge, as it were, with an alpha privative? Does this a(d)- indicate the restless rest of a despairing towardness—a projection toward an impossible or denied destination or toward a (co-)suffering other?


    1. N. Loraux, Mothers in Mourning (Cornell University Press, 1998) and R. S. Liebert, Tragic Pleasure from Homer to Plato (Cambridge University Press, 2017). To address a further concern, I confess that my avoidance of “the German philosophy of the tragic” is deliberate. My goal was not to place my readings in dialogue with modern theories of the tragic, but with trends in contemporary (psychoanalytic or post-psychonalytic) critical theory that, while not focused directly or extensively on the tragic, can help us defamiliarize the interpretation of tragedy as an affective experience. (Freud, Lacan, and Derrida do talk about Greek tragedy, but, differently from German Romanticism, they do not aspire to supply a theory of the tragic.) One of the reasons for my avoidance was, consciously or unconsciously, the desire (to go back to Orrells’s response) to depict an avant-garde, postdramatic tragedy—more Artaudian than Schellingian or Schlegelian or Nietzschean. Yet I remain very much interested in Walter Benjamin and Greek tragedy, a relationship that plays a major role in the volume on Niobe that I am co-editing with Andrew Benjamin.

    • Paul Kottman

      Paul Kottman

      Reply

      Reply by Paul Kottman

      Thanks for this reply, Mario.

      — On the issue of how a “Platonic/Freudian approach” would work in the practice of reading:

      Here is one suggestion, which I think takes up Freud’s example: Rather than ask only how we might read these ancient texts – that is, how they look to us by our lights – we might also ask: How do we see ourselves, by the lights of Sophocles or Euripides?

      I take it that Freud modeled such a “practice of reading” in, for instance, the way that Mourning and Melancholia draws illumination from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

      I think one could certainly draw on the example of Nicole Loraux, too, as Mario suggests.

      — Mario asks: “Would, for example, a dialogue between Plato and Freud privilege grief and mourning rather than some of the other “ugly feelings” that I focus on?”

      The first sentence of Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia reads:
      “…we will now try to throw some light [erhellen] on the nature of melancholia by comparing it with the normal affect of mourning.”

      Of course, one could read Freud as making this comparison so as to draw a distinction between mourning and an ‘ugly feeling’ – “grief and mourning rather than…” Similarly, Freud could be read as meaning to “privilege” mourning while pathologizing melancholy.

      However, one might also read Freud as suggesting that the comparison of melancholia to mourning is needed, not for the sake of drawing distinctions or privileges, but because the comparison [Vergleichung] might allow these feelings or states, and their implications, to illuminate one another, and perhaps help us map the contours of our ignorance about this whole field.
      If Freud’s trauer somehow translates Plato’s achos, then it is also worth remembering that Plato’s Socrates spoke of “excess grief.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) now includes “Prolonged grief disorder,” while others today refer to “chronic mourning.” I mention all this only suggest that it remains unclear how we map our ignorance about “ugly feelings” – whether we can sense the contours of such feelings at all – without prolonging our references to mourning (if not our mourning, too).

      — Mario writes: “Now I would say (or say more clearly) that mimetic distance seems difficult to maintain—the death-driven dynamic of mimesis (stemming from the loss intrinsic to imitation) inevitably spills over to us.”

      Yes. Although, by the very same token, tragedies also embody how mimetic practices are as difficult to avoid as they are to maintain.

      — Lastly: Like you, Mario, I am struck Joyce’s repetition of the word “arrests” in that passage from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Given that the passage is a commentary on Aristotle, and bearing in mind Joyce’s supreme attention to words, it is hard not to imagine that Joyce is also invoking Aristotle’s theory of motion and rest – as well as its difference to Galileo and modern physics. For the latter (for us moderns, maybe) rest is always, as Mario puts it, “a forced rest or a restless rest.”

    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò

      Reply

      MOURNING AS MELANCHOLY

      Thank you so much, Paul, for your comments. Is it too obvious (and predictable) to mention the fact that after the 1917 essay Freud abandoned the distinction between mourning (a kind of “cathartic” grief) and melancholy, recognizing the difficulty of even conceptualizing a grief that fully stops?

      Since the book is also an attempt to bring contemporary art into dialogue with ancient tragedy, I want to mention a sculpture by Alighiero Boetti titled Self-Portrait (http://artfcity.com/2012/08/10/alighiero-boetti-at-moma-from-sarcasm-to-sap/), which Paul has brought to my attention. Here we see the “danger” of cleansing—that is, being inundated. In my reading of Hamlet’s evocation of Hecuba—which is usually read as an allusion to catharsis—I say: “As a viewer of a Hecuba-inspired performance, Hamlet is affected by her drowning; he is enveloped in her watery archive.” When we mourn, can we ever be spared from drowning in melancholia?

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong

      Reply

      Mimesis, Death Drive, and Catharsis Again

      Mario responded to Paul saying, “Now I would say (or say more clearly) that mimetic distance seems difficult to maintain—the death-driven dynamic of mimesis (stemming from the loss intrinsic to imitation) inevitably spills over to us.” To this Paul has responded, “Yes. Although, by the very same token, tragedies also embody how mimetic practices are as difficult to avoid as they are to maintain.”

      Why is it that we would assume the death drive gets around the problem of mimetic distance, and therefore, circumvents a facile application of the pleasure-principle to go “beyond the pleasure principle” and “beyond mimesis”? Instincts are our mythology, as Freud said, and we like to conjure them up to solve our problems. But there’s a good orthodox Freudian argument to be made that would rather blithely attach the death drive to tragic catharsis that might go like this.

      Tragedy is a perfect outlet for the problem of the death drive. As Freud often notes, the instincts of Eros and death “seldom—perhaps never—appear in isolation from each other, but are alloyed with each other in varying and very different proportions and so become unrecognizable to our judgment” (SE 21:119). Sadism and masochism show such strong alloys, and sadism is especially productive in that “the death instinct twists the erotic aim in its own sense and yet at the same time fully satisfies the erotic urge,” (SE 21:121), certainly a win-win on the instinctual tensions front. And yet, sadism is not the only possible alloy in the crucible of the pleasure principle.

      But even where it emerges without any sexual purpose, in the blindest fury of destructiveness, we cannot fail to recognize that the satisfaction of the instinct is accompanied by an extraordinarily high degree of narcissistic enjoyment, owing to its presenting the ego with a fulfilment of the latter’s old wishes for omnipotence. The instinct of destruction, moderated and tamed, and, as it were, inhibited in its aim, must when it is directed towards objects, provide the ego with the satisfaction of its vital needs and with control over nature. [SE 21:121]

      Thus while Freud goes on to see a cosmic struggle between Eros and the death drive, it is equally clear that he keeps telegraphing the solution: the externalization of aggressive instinct onto objects, which, as a European Jew, all too often turns into a kind of scapegoating he knew all too well.

      Now, the essential problem of guilt, which is the sickness inherent in the civilizing process, is the outcome of parental ambivalence (ontogenetically and phylogenetically). In the late Freud, “Whether one has killed one’s father or has abstained from doing so is not really the decisive thing. One is bound to feel guilty in either case, for the sense of guilt is an expression of the conflict due to ambivalence, of the eternal struggle between Eros and the instinct of destruction or death” (SE 21:132). So now let’s apply this to his earlier reading of the audience’s reaction to watching Oedipus Tyrannus. The play subtly awakens the repressed Oedipal feelings in us, and initially it seemed simply that relief from our regime of Oedipal repression brought the Endlust of tragic catharsis. It is based on the méconnaissance of ourselves with Oedipus, for if we truly, consciously brought our Oedipal feelings to full awareness, we’d run out of the theater like Hamlet’s uncle, caught in our act of feeling guilty. Here we see why early on, Oedipus and Hamlet are deployed so closely together, since effectively Oedipus is Freud’s mousetrap play to stimulate our latent guilt and open us up to his theory. One used to just assume Oedipus’ self-blinding is a nod to the resolution of the Oedipus complex, the symbolic castration (two eyes = two balls) in deferred obedience to the father. But what if, to follow Freud’s later characterization of tragedy in Totem and Taboo, this is a “refined hypocrisy” in many overdetermined senses, scapegoating our own guilt on the figure of Oedipus and enjoying our satisfaction of his undoing by “Fate” (a power we know Freud likes to equate with “only a later projection of the father,” SE 21:185), which provides us with either sadistic or masochistic satisfactions depending on your particular Oedipal timbre (cf. his analysis of Dostoevsky). Given the ego’s defensive structure, this presupposes mimetic distance, which enables the space of play through our identification with the character on the stage (see “Psychopathic Stage Characters,” SE 7:305-306, 308-309).

      So why would satisfaction of the endopsychic pressure of the death drive not be tied to mimetic distance? Again, isn’t this similar to the endless killing and dying of first-person shooter games, where the ludic realm allows us to run with our instinctual repetition compulsion? And why would the discharging of aggressive instinct, as in “getting your gun off,” not be seen as cathartic? The late Freud presents this challenge to the early Freud: unlike the theory of cathartic therapy, which optimistically sought to abreact or discharge discrete energic quanta of “strangulated affect,” the death drive presents the need for incessant flaring of aggressive energy that is no longer simply traumatic in origin. It’s not a hard move to then see all “sublimated” forms of violence, like sports, games, and tragedy, as distanced attempts to wrest control of this internal pressure. As I said, this would be a conventional Freudian line of argument. Ultimately Freud was very pessimistic about the effectiveness of sublimation for most people, and while such a cathartic mechanism might be carved from the later Freud, I’m equally sure he would not think it sufficient to truly solve the problem of civilization. When he talks of the “mild narcosis” of art, he certainly shows his doubts.

    • Avatar

      Allen Miller

      Reply

      The Great War

      I have been following this interchange between Kottman’s lucid response. Mario’s replies, and now Richard’s reply with great interest. One reason I will confess is that while I love Mario’s book, and I use it in my own work, I also love the Poetics and have no intention to stop. I understand that the notion of a purgation of pity and fear, a catharsis, does in fact imply a purification and hence a restoration. There is a medical metaphor at work here, and hence a therapeutic aim.

      But I also want to recall that Beyond the Pleasure Principle opens with Freud’s discussion of Austrian soldiers who come home from the trauma of the Great War and suffer from repetition compulsions. They may repeatedly dream of the same horrible moments. They may have certain rituals that must be performed–hand washing, touching certain objects, arranging their affairs in a certain order. None of these behaviors can be understood as the pursuit of pleasure, or even as the simple attempt to modify or sublimate that pursuit to prevent unpleasure. Many of these behaviors are debilitating, or in the case of dreams terrorizing.

      Freud deduces from this that there must be a beyond of the pleasure principle, a beyond of vitalism that leads towards a form of self-quieting or dissolution. This is not a restoration of health. The action does not purge the patient of the trauma, but like the game of Little Hans it may give just a brief moment of power, a moment of suspension in which trauma is held at bay before remerging. This is a kind of loop as we move back and forth between fort and da. This is not the jouissance of the instrument, of getting your gun off. It is closer to the terror of the Kantian sublime, which always had the potential to tip over into dissolution and abjection.

      As I read Mario’s book, the stuckness he wants to highlight is that moment of suspension before the loop begins again, before the reel of Hans is cast out into the Real of Lacan once more. This is an aspect of tragic enjoyment (and not just the joy of tragedy) that cannot be described through catharsis, I would submit, and cannot return us to the pursuit of pleasure.

      And yet, and yet …. The mechanism of the mythos as described by Aristotle does indeed provide a satisfaction. The single completed action of a certain magnitude does both expose us to the cognition of certain feelings and bring a sense of closure. It does not do this in place of the looping of the death drive, anymore than soldier’s repetition compulsion means he cannot simultaneously pursue pleasure within the constraints imposed by the reality principle in other realms. These happen simultaneously and on different levels. This is why Mario’s readings have an applicability far beyond simply the texts of tragedy, and why Aristotle continues to be a resource for understanding the nature of a specific genre construction, whether in the texts of Sophocles or Racine.

    • Paul Kottman

      Paul Kottman

      Reply

      from PK

      From Mario: “Is it too obvious (and predictable) to mention the fact that after the 1917 essay Freud abandoned the distinction between mourning (a kind of “cathartic” grief) and melancholy, recognizing the difficulty of even conceptualizing a grief that fully stops?”

      — Not at all. Indeed, I was suggesting that even in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ there is more “und” than “oder.”

      I’m delighted that you also appreciate that Boetti piece, Mario. As I mentioned to you via text — and now more publicly — a good title for Boetti’s autoritratto could be what you call “anti-theory.” Or, “obsessive compulsive theorizing.” It embodies something like philosophizing as symptom. Fevered thinking might cathartic, after all.

      Thanks, all, for inviting me to be a part of such a rich discussion.

Helen Morales

Response

Archive Fever and Feminism

One of the great boons of Mario Telò’s book is to insist on the messiness of Greek tragedy, its excess, and its resistance to being parceled up into neat narratives and tidy interpretations. His particular target is the old idea, taken from Aristotle (in one widespread understanding of Aristotle’s theory of catharsis) that tragedy is cathartic in the sense that its pleasures lie in the audience experiencing a sense of release. Tragedy is, goes this line of interpretation, reparative. Archive Fever contests this approach, and, indeed, all readings of Greek tragedy that see in the plays redemption, the restoration of order, and laying the groundwork for future happiness. For Telò, tragedy’s pleasures are much grimmer than we have typically allowed: the genre is, he argues “an aesthetic expression of the death drive,” one that mires its characters, and its readers, in self-destruction, compulsive repetition, and pleasure-in-pain.

I should put my cards on the table at this point and confess that I am not, I think, Telò’s ideal reader. Some of his denser engagements with Freud and Derrida are beyond my ken, and I found the term “archive” rather slippery, or perhaps just too capacious. And there was rather too much masochism and ejaculatory jouissance for my liking. As I got stuck into the book, I fretted that I hadn’t fully grasped the theory; by the time I had finished it I fretted that my sex life is too vanilla. Both are likely to be true, but let’s not dwell on that. Despite my inadequacies it was clear to me that one of the central arguments of this big, bold, and brilliant book, is spot on. The pleasures of reading Greek tragedy (or viewing, but Telò is more concerned with reading than viewing) do not lie per se in any release and relief that come at the end of the plays. Archive Fever presents an impressive challenge to functionalist readings of Greek tragedy that understand the tragic violence in the dramas as being in the service of restoring order at the end. Richard Seaford’s argument that at the end of the Bacchae “salvation [is] brought to the polis by the death of Pentheus” is a good example of such a functionalist reading; Telò must be right to contest it.1

My questions have to do with the other central argument of Archive Fever, that the pleasures of tragedy lie in its frenzied repetitive looping, the sense of stuckness that it implicates us in, and its resistance to normative and fixed readings. In a nutshell, I want to ask: What does this mean for Greek tragedy and feminism? The book’s index (its own archive) does not have entries for feminism, gender or ethnicity, despite Telò’s obvious familiarity with feminist work (Toni Morrison, Anne Carson, Judith Butler, Bonnie Honig all feature, as does the iconic feminist movie Thelma and Louise), and despite the attraction that some of the Greek tragedies have held for feminists, within and beyond the academy. I want to discuss three areas, then, where I would like to know more about whether and how Telò’s approach is compatible with feminist approaches. The first concerns the “emancipatory force” of death-driven aesthetics, and whether it is emancipatory in ways that further feminist goals. The second ponders the “jouissance of [Telò’s] hermeneutics,” the medium-is-the-message part of the analysis. And the third, related, question, asks what happens if we eschew an ejaculatory model of catharsis for one that understands catharsis instead as a kind of ethical attunement. Subtending these questions is a broader desire to know about how the political ideologies of Greek tragedy, however, complicated and fraught these may be, align, or don’t align, with Telò’s reading of the aesthetics of Greek tragedy. Presumably aesthetics cannot be separated from power relations, and attendant moral issues. Is there room for intersectionality in the death-drive?

In her chapter “Tragedy and Feminism” in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy, Victoria Wohl sums up why Greek tragedy has proven so appealing for feminist viewers:

the radical potential of tragedy’s critique [is] its implication that liberatory alternatives subsist within the very structures of the hegemonic.2

Examples of this might be found in Antigone’s challenges to Creon (and to the state) in Sophocles’s Antigone, Clytemnestra’s avenging of her daughter’s sacrifice and seizing of power in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and in the Chorus’s observation that male poets tell myth from a perspective that is biased against women, and Medea’s destruction of her faithless husband in Euripides’s Medea. It is worth pondering Wohl’s insight alongside Telo’s explanation of where he sees tragedy’s “emancipatory force”:

Reacting against the very idea of containment in all its forms—even ecstasy when it closes in and stabilizes—tragedy, through its death-driven aesthetics, carries emancipatory force, claiming a place for futility, suspension, undulation, frozenness, mere duration, and a purposeless sensation within the realm of public feeling. (281)

I would like to know more about how futility, suspension etc. are emancipatory. If I understand Telò correctly, part of their emancipatory force is that they refuse overly neat and calcifying narratives. And they militate against teleology. But it is precisely in the teleological that Wohl’s liberatory alternatives can be found: in Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband, in Creon’s ruin, in Medea’s jeering at Jason and spectacular escape. Telò invites us to read the final tableau in Euripides’s Medea and the celebrated representation on the Cleveland Vase of Medea’s escape in the dragon chariot, as portraying not her escape, but, like the iconic final image of Thelma and Louise where the two women are suspended over the Grand Canyon, “intimations of the crash, fear of and for disaster [that] produce a pleasure-in-pain” (110). I agree that these intimations are there, but would suggest that it is part of Euripides’s outrageous boldness in creating the fear that she might fall, but the realization that she doesn’t. This is less a “stuckness,” or “suspension,” than the sheer exhilarating appreciation that, for once, a tragedy allows a murderess woman to fly off to safe haven in Athens. I am not wanting to oversimply the ending to Medea or any other Greek tragedy, especially those of Euripides which, as Francis Dunn has observed are markedly and intricately inventive;3 I am wanting to preserve a reading of the ending that is meaningful for feminist viewers.

Am I trying to smuggle in what Telò calls “normative” narratives? Perhaps, if feminist interpretations are normative. What separates out a normative feminist interpretation or appropriation from a non-normative, or queer, one? Perhaps there’s another way of apprehending Telò’s emancipatory reading. Can there be something liberating in mere duration, purposeless sensation etc.? Can this be a form of feminist refusal? It is hard for me to see how. Moreover, why is resisting a teleological narrative per se emancipatory, especially if some of the teleological narratives resisted work to feminist (i.e., emancipatory) ends?

The second issue: for Telò in his writing, the medium is the message. In the epilogue to the book he explains:

In the jouissance of my hermeneutics, in the spiraling energy of my analyses, I have tried to reproduce the feeling of the death-driven modes of aesthetic reception that I seek to uncover. Twisting the practice of close reading into a liminal exercise between critique and post-critique, I have relished the excess that oozes from the formal edges. (279)

Indeed, parts of it read like John Henderson, if Henderson were writing while trapped in the Freud Museum and high on molly. (I mean this with immense admiration for both scholars and only slight alarm). There are some close readings that take my breath away. The reading of the Argo in Euripides’s Medea through and against the description of the Argo in Accius’s Medea, the kommos in the Libation Bearers with the idea of in-cess (of archiving oneself in one’s own body), the analysis of Pentheus body in The Bacchae, and many more. The poetic, affective and exegetic power of Telò’s writing is palpable. However, in the chapter “Tragic Jolts, Jouissance, Impossibility” I wonder whether Telò’s approach blurs the line between pointing out the eroticization of suffering in tragedy, and turning tragedy into pornography. There is something about the cumulative effect of honing in on select descriptions, and couching the dynamics of eroticized suffering as ejaculatory jouissance that I found staining, of tragedy (not by tragedy—and of me the reader).

What would happen if we went not with ejaculation as our model for the pleasurable-pain of tragic dynamics, but with menstruation; as Telò notes, Aristotle used the term catharsis for both ejaculation and menstruation. Might the aftermath be not sadness (“post coital tristesse”), unless the person was mourning not being pregnant, but relief from the pain? Less messily, what would happen if we were to take catharsis not as meaning some kind of emotional cleansing, release, and reparation, but, following Charles Segal and Stephen Halliwell, as something like an emotional refinement that is in the service of ethical attunement? From this perspective, catharsis is not so much something teleological, something ejaculatory (or menstrual), something that involves release, relief, and reparation, but something akin to emotional clarification through the intellectual engagement demanded by Greek tragedy. This brings us (back) to the questions of how the aesthetics of tragedy are enmeshed in, create, and are created by, our moral experiences of tragedy. The exhilaration, the pleasure-in-pain if you like, of Greek tragedy for me at least has never been in cathartic release, but in the intellectual and ethical responses it demands of us, as well as the emotional ones. In the discussions with other audience members afterwards, or in my head, while I am reading. It is in the worrying about my pleasure taken in Medea’s escape, my recognition of how this implicates me. It is in our attempts to understand tragedy, something tragedy demands of us, that its pleasures and intrinsic worth lie. Despite some of my reservations about his approach, I can think of few people with whom I’d rather have these discussions than Mario Telò.


  1. R. Seaford, “The Social Function of Attic Tragedy: A Response to Jasper Griffin,” CQ 50.1 (2000): 30–44.

  2. V. Wohl, “Tragedy and Feminism,” in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. R. Bushnell (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), 157–58.

  3. F. Dunn, Tragedy’s End: Closure and Innovation in Euripidean Drama (Oxford University Press, 1996).

  • Mario Telò

    Mario Telò

    Reply

    Response to Helen Morales

    Helen Morales’s response offers me the opportunity to clarify the kind of work that the archive does in the book. It is true that it does a lot of things, but it seemed—and still seems—to me a suitable theoretical heuristic for thinking about the nexuses of human and non-human materiality and affect; aesthetics and politics; and, in turn, aesthetico-political reading and psychoanalysis. What happens if we think of the tragic body as a container and consider its relation with non-human containers, both bound (sanctuaries, homes, caves, vessels) and unbound (the sea)? Can we not enhance our perception of the affective potential of these human and non-human containers—that is, the way they affect and are affected—if we regard them as archives, which as various strands of theoretical thinking (the “archival turn”) and our own experiences demonstrate, are machines of tragic feeling (numinousness, fear, horror, awe, grief, anger, shame, stupor)? In addition, archives that preserve sensitive content—from artifacts of the Holocaust or of the Middle Passage to the controversial art of Robert Mapplethorpe—continually raise questions concerning which materials should be preserved and how, questions whose answers inevitably have political implications. Political archê is implicated in the establishment of the archive. Greek tragedy itself is an archive of painful feelings, lost yet still pulsating—and, for me, a play like Oedipus at Colonus is almost explicit in making this point. As an archive of disturbing feelings, tragedy invites us to think about the relationship between aesthetic and political containment, which is central to archive studies. It is containment that connects human and non-human materiality with catharsis (a form of affective containment) and, consequently, links catharsis, in its aesthetico-political implications, with psychoanalysis, which is a kind of archival discipline in its own right and, as Derrida shows, is essential to understanding the metaphysics of the archive, its constitutive co-implication of connection and distance, of preservation and destruction.

    Morales raises an important question: is my theoretical model feminist? Without hesitation, I would say it is both queer and feminist—I do not see the two as exclusive alternatives. There is intersectionality in the death drive—at least in the notion of the death drive that emerges from my encounter with various theoretical orientations and from my model of radically formalistic reading. To answer Morales’s question on the emancipatory force of the death drive, I want to go back to the finale of Euripides’s Medea, to feminist anti-reparativity and the dangers of the reparative. In her critique of my reading of Medea’s appearance on the mêchanê in the text of Euripides and on the Cleveland vase, Morales observes that the prevalent, or attractive, feeling is “less a ‘stuckness,’ or ‘suspension,’ than the sheer exhilarating appreciation that, for once, a tragedy allows a murderess woman to fly off to safe haven in Athens.” While I do not deny that this is a possible (or satisfactory) response, and while we can indeed read the “intimations” of a fall, which Morales acknowledges, as a manifestation of Euripidean boldness, an ironical element, the complex co-existence of representation and non-representation, of what is seen and what remains unseen—if cognitively and emotionally perceived—primes us, I think, to focus, affectively as well as interpretively, on the co-presence of salvation and destruction, and Medea’s suspension between the two.

    Yes, Medea will survive; yes, she will go to Athens, but how can we feel satisfied with the thought of her prospective instrumentalization in the service of reproductive futurism? Here, I would refer to Penelope Deutscher’s discussion of the feminist implications of Lee Edelman’s theory of queer negativity:

    To fetishize the figure of the imaginary Child can also be to indirectly produce, presuppose, and render invisible the role of the woman as subordinated to the ends of reproduction and collective futures. For, embedded in the billboard image of a fetus’s miraculous, apparent autonomy is the concurrent invitation to challenge reproductive rights attributed to the pregnant woman carrying the future Child.1

    Embracing queer negativity—the looping temporality of the death drive—means rejecting reproductive futurism’s implicit construction of a woman “who seems to be having too many abortions, who seems . . . to be indifferent to the consequential narratives expected of her reproductive decisions” or “may be . . . accused of abusing the health system, of refusing reproductive responsibility.”2 For Deutscher, “reproductive futurism produces a conditional feminism pegged to promises—for example, for better-raised children and societies, whose interests would not be obstructed by bad mothers and anti-social women.”3 In my reading of the Medea scene, the emphasis is not on the prospect of the fall and destruction (the literal death drive) as such, but on the blockage of reproductive futurism, on the suspension or the interruption of what Jane Ward has called “the tragedy of heterosexuality,”4 of, indeed, the image of a woman “subordinated to the ends of reproduction and collective futures.” Aesthetic suspension can mean interruption or “abolition” of the status quo.

    Although evocations of the death drive provoke bemused or hostile reactions among feminist and queer theorists who are psychonanalysis skeptics, the political implications of the Lacanian take on the concept seem to me not very different from Jack Halberstam’s theorization of gaga feminism, a queer feminism characterized by “stutter steps or hiccups,” by “move[s] toward . . . the preposterous, the . . . giddy, hallucinatory visions of alternative futures” (my emphasis).5 (Giddiness is precisely one of the archive feelings explored in the book.) Medea’s suspension is a way of going gaga—enacting the sort of glitchy, futile gesture (a “hiccup”) through which reality might be “rescripted, reshot, reimagined.” This giddiness—the affect of my aesthetico-political view of the death drive—is the feel of an anti-teleology. Halberstam’s queer feminism is anti-teleological and adheres to the radical, anarchical position of Fred Moten, who speaks of “the right to refuse rights.”6 When Halberstam says that “gaga feminism . . . will most likely take us to the edge, to the abyss,” I immediately think of Medea’s own hovering over the edge—a death-driven kinesis, both queer and feminist. In the hint of Medea’s resistance to a pre-scripted future, in her occupation of an intervallic space, a position that signifies a refusal to be demarcated, grasped, there is also an enactment of object-oriented feminism. In her manifesto, Katherine Behar observes, “OOO’s [object-oriented-ontology’s] conception of objects as fundamentally withdrawn and self-contained resonates with feminist objects that resist us, and the feminist notion that as objects, we resist.”7

    To address another concern, it is perhaps inevitable to see my exploration of ejaculatory jouissance as conditioned by my being a gay cis-gender man. However, in my readings, ejaculation is construed as a transgression of the very orgasmic ideology it seems to epitomize. As I clarify in a footnote, this perspective is very much in line with Luce Iragaray’s and Julia Kristeva’s ideas of ejaculation as an abject liquefaction of the masculine subject, of phallic unity. Morales’s point about the danger of assimilating tragedy to pornography, of staining it, is well-taken. But my question remains: how shall we read these crude, risqué moments where patently ejaculatory imagery (which I am not the first one to notice) appears at the end of a play? Shall we gloss over this imagery, decide not to linger on it? Is there not a danger of returning to traditional perceptions of tragedy as a rarefied and lofty genre, of suppressing or sublimating its most visceral, uncomfortable sensations? For me, tragedy is stained; it is aesthetically polluted, as it were. Violent discomfort and a sense of unsettling contamination seem to me to be integral to the affective experience of tragedy, which does not exclude aestheticized versions of raw sexual acts. Morales’s invitation to think in terms of menstruation rather than ejaculation is an important and provocative one (Aristotle labels both physiological phenomena as catharsis). In this case, we may indeed theorize “relief from the pain,” but I would add that notions of loss, wounding, mutilation, and uncleanliness may remain in the picture to complicate things.

    I am flattered by Morales’s comparison of my writing with the distinctive style of John Henderson’s scholarship—even though she finds the affinity a bit alarming. I would like to use Morales’s observation to make a general point about scholarly writing in classics. A reviewer of Writing Down Rome says:

    The experience of reading Henderson is frustrating, and not just because he fills his pages with multilingual puns, anagrams, song lyrics, crossed-out words, and so forth. Henderson is interested in the phenomenon of catachresis—word-abuse—in the Roman authors, and he clearly intends his own text to resemble theirs in this respect. . . . Over the course of a single essay, this is taxing but can be rewarding. Over the course of the entire book, the reading experience just becomes wearing.8

    Wearing, taxing: Aren’t these apt descriptors of the experience of reading Lucan, Statius, Juvenal? What I share with Henderson is perhaps the attempt to experiment with—and stretch the boundaries of—scholarly writing, and think about possibilities of affective mimeticism, of inhabiting textual effects as affective intensities materialized in writing. Why shouldn’t one aspire to forms of creative scholarly writing—scholarly writing that displays its own intimate attachment to, and perhaps even fusion with, the object of analysis? Can we not contemplate scholarly prose that, in a sense, performs what it describes?

    I like Morales’s formulation of the feeling, or even embodiment, of what she calls ethical attunement: “the worrying about my pleasure taken in Medea’s escape.” What is the affective force of this worrying? Is it not a kind of spiral? A giddy sensation? A feeling that does not go away and produces a continuous fort and da—the rhythm of the Lacanian death drive. The intellectual and ethical responses that, as Morales puts it, implicate her manifest themselves in an aestheticized duration (“worrying”) that can itself be regarded as an archive feeling. For me, what matters is not “the attempt to understand tragedy” as such, but the corporeal manifestations of this attempt: exertions, spasms, the perverse enjoyment of a never-resolved, anxious perplexity.


    1. P. Deutscher, Foucault’s Futures: A Critique of Reproductive Reason (Columbia University Press, 2017), 51.

    2. Deutscher, Foucault’s Futures, 53.

    3. Deutscher, Foucault’s Futures, 53.

    4. J. Ward, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (NYU Press, 2020).

    5. J. J. Halberstam, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Beacon, 2012), 5, 26, 29. See also S. Nooter, “Medea: Failure and the Queer Escape,” in Queer Euripides: Re-readings in Greek Tragedy, ed. S. Olsen and M. Telò (Bloomsbury, 2022), 99–109.

    6. See F. Moten and S. Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (AK Press, 2013). There are obvious resonances between Deutscher’s appropriation of Edelman’s No Future for feminism and some statements of Halberstam: see “[Marlon from Finding Nemo] literally forgets family, forgets to get married, forgets to become a mother, and in the process opens herself up to a new way of being. I suggest we do the same” (129) and “making peace with the anarchy of childishness, entering into new forms of relation and family, resisting the legitimizing structures of marriage and kinship etc.” (143).

    7. K. Behar, “An Introduction to OOF,” in Object-Oriented, ed. K. Behar (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 19.

    8. C. Keane, https://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/1999/1999.10.06/.

    • Avatar

      Sarah Nooter

      Reply

      A reply

      Hi folks,

      It’s been so fascinating to follow these exchanges over the past month about such a captivating book. I think now is a moment for me to intervene briefly, in part because I am very struck by Helen’s response and how it engages with various critical frameworks in and beyond Mario’s book, asking in particular if his reading can be thought of as feminist – to which Mario has replied, “yes, it is both queer and feminist.”

      I find this debate to be a tricky and important one. Mario writes so beautifully in his book of tragedy from an interpretative position we can label as “queer.” To take one example,

      We may see tragedy forge bonds, affective moods, and dispositions that can be regarded as ‘queer’ not just because they twist heteronormative kinship, but because they draw upon aestheticized expressions of refusal, futility, abeyance—negative yet possibly emancipatory sensations mobilized by formal expressiveness. (10)

      Helen, for her part, quotes Victoria Wohl’s excellent essay on tragedy and feminism, which asks whether “liberatory alternatives” exist, “subsist,” in the undercurrent of tragedy.

      Mario suggests that the Medea we see at the end of the play, high above the stage in her chariot drawn by dragons, is not escaping triumphantly but rather teetering in a “vertiginous suspension” (112), stuck and contained rather than – as we may have hoped! – in flight.

      In this debate, “catharsis” or, more simply, “escape” reads as (oddly) both normative and feminist; while stuckness, refusal, futility – this is queer. So it is that Lee Edelman enjoins readers to resist the futurity represented by the “Child,” to inhabit the refusal of the machinations of reproductive futurity, while Jack Halberstam cautions that Edelman’s theory holds a hint of anti-womanhood in its construction, inasmuch as it associates women with the oppressive structures of society through the (chosen or otherwise) affective embodiments of pregnancy, childbirth, childrearing: “woman becomes the site of the unqueer: she offers life, while queerness links up with the death drive.”

      And here Helen’s proposal of menstruation rather than ejaculation as a reading of catharsis becomes so intriguing to me: look how quickly we loop from ejaculation as the moment of release/pleasure in a framework that involves no further temporality or consequences beyond itself (that’s the point!) to menstruation as the body’s cyclical, painful release from childbearing and yet also its normative participation in the seasonality of life cycles – maturation, childbearing, menopause and so on. (Wait, whose body? But nevermind.) A loop and also a teleology – the death drive or the thing it’s driving away from? Jouissance or its oppression?

      I’m veering here, so I’ll just close with another appreciative quote from Mario on his embrace of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “ardent reading”: “the philology as feeling that informs my mode of reading leads me to seek out-of-joint syntax, dislocated semantic configurations, and subliminal patterns of signification, fervently alert to the radical possibilities of micro and macro formal elements” (37). Any reader of Mario knows the deeply intense, indeed vertiginously skillful embodiment of tragic language one finds in his own language. That messiness Helen cites here, and that Mario excavates, is the life behind all of these questions. It is what makes his reading indispensable.

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong

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      Freud’s Queer Theory

      “A queer instinct, indeed, directed to the destruction of its own organic home!” So says Freud of the death drive in the New Introductory Lectures (no. 32). Or rather, so James Strachey says Freud says. Freud wrote rather ein sonderbarer Trieb, a “strange drive” to give an alternate rendering, showing the interesting problem of both sonderbar and Trieb in English retrospect. Freud scholars may quibble over the meaning of the words Trieb and Instinkt in Freud’s work, but both Eros and the death drive earn their queerness at the get-go by their very lack of forgone teleology. The instinctual energy of libido very early on was precisely interesting to Freud on account of its flexibility; like all drives, libido creates pressure, seeks its aim of satisfaction, yet can find its satisfaction in myriad ways, unlike thirst and hunger. Instincts have predictable, stereotyped patterns for satisfaction, but the drive is far more open-ended. The introduction of the death drive didn’t change that, just overrode the simplistic teleological view that the organism is life driven and nothing else—what psychological theory could rest on that simplistic assumption? Freud found his ultimate mythology in Eros and the death drive, which could be seen as a tragic dualism infinitely greater than Oedipal ambivalence—which might be why ego-psychology preferred to abandon it. But as early as the 1950s, Norman O. Brown though rather, “We need, instead of an instinctual dualism, an instinctual dialectic” (Life against Death, p. 83).

      I think one thing is clear from all this discussion: Mario’s book has indeed opened up a view of tragedy and tragic pleasure that is far more a dialectic now than a deadening dichotomy, more inclusive in its range of queer options, more demanding in its hyperawareness of tragic language, more extensive in its postdramatic interests, and more creative in its hedonic phenomenology. I certainly believe the range of responses here in this symposium can attest to this, and I am extremely grateful to all who posted here for their engagement.

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