115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Immanence and the Community of Unreason: Toward a Theory of Euripidean Tragedy

Damian Stocking, Occidental College

Where Sophocles and Aeschylus sought to protect the "Dionysiac" community of Athens through the frustration of our mortal dreams of immanent self-enclosure, Euripides, in response to the emerging desire to achieve a state of (community-destroying) immanence through rationality, introduced figures whose achieved immanence puts a limit on rationality, a creates thereby a finite community of unreason. 

Proposal: 

This paper proposes a new way of understanding Euripides’ contribution to ancient Athenian tragic form—one that attempts to explain the underlying nature of the innovations the playwright introduced to the genre, yet in a way that will lay equal stress upon his essential continuity with his predecessors. Drawing on previously published works, I begin by demonstrating that tragic theater in Athens should be understood as a means for the protection and maintenance of the polis as a community, in the sense of the term articulated by recent social philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy, Giogrio Agamben, and others.  As these theorists have tried to show, a community is a far different thing than that entity of overarching social unity and political consensus that it is usually taken to designate. These thinkers begin with the premise that human beings exist only in and through a “finite” relation to other human beings, and that that finite relation in turn relies on the maintenance of an unpredictable state of difference between ourselves and others. As beings-in-community, we only “are” to the extent that we are exposed to the differences with others that constitutes us. The instabilities to which such “exposure” subjects us is however, is difficult to tolerate, and so we naturally try to limit it--in particular through the achievement of a condition of pure “immanence,” a state in which (either as an individual or member of a group) we imagine ourselves no longer subject to the threat of an “outside.” Such perfect self-enclosure, though, however ardently sought, would in its eradication of difference prove fatal to the continuing life of any community; and so, to quote Derrida, any community that wishes to “live on” must find a way to “protect itself from its own self-protection.” 

Ancient tragedy, as I understand it, was established as just this kind of thing: a way the Athenian community devised to protect itself from its own instincts toward self-protective self-enclosure, toward immanence. Thus, in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, we are presented time and time again with characters who dream of the achievement of such immanence, either through self-removal from others, or through the imposition of a unity with themselves over others. Time and time again we witness the baleful effects on this assumption of perfect immanence, the sorrow and horror of which release us back into full Dionysian community with others. But while Euripides continued in this same tradition, he introduced a significant innovation. For a new form of immanence had arisen in his time—namely, the immanence of rationality, which attempts to appropriate all difference into systems of thought. Thus, rather than simply presenting us the failure of every mortal dream of immanence, Euripides began introducing a series of figures—Dionysus, Medea, Heracles, and others-- who had in fact achieved it. This achieved immanence, in turn, becomes the limit upon which every subsuming of difference by rationality must founder. In a rationalizing age, Euripides sought to protect the community of the polis through unreason. 

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