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Rocío Orsi Portalo

Representations of Violence in the Greek Theatre


During the last years, a very interesting discussion has been aroused among Italian Political Philosophers. This debate, which focuses in the problem of biopolitics as it was posed by Foucault, has its main contributions in the work of thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito. Among the different issues raised in this problematic, both Agamben and Esposito are overall worried about the extreme consequences that the biopolitical discourse demonstrated to be able to reach, as it happened during the Nazi regime.

From Foucault’s point of view, modern societies have a paradoxical structure: on the one hand, governments must protect values of vital importance for their population, such as freedom or security are; but on the other hand, the means used to protect freedom and security, precisely seem to threaten the same freedom and security that must be protected. Roberto Esposito tries to fully explain this paradox by using the concept of “immunity”. Immunity, from the Latin inmunitas, is a metaphor borrowed from the Biological Sciences, which evokes the common biological fact following which every organism develops a protection system against the dangerous effects of invading microorganisms. As if it was an immunological system, every society develops different protection mechanisms with the aim of defending itself from all possible agents that could be a menace to it. These agents can be both internal and external enemies. In the Nazi frame of mind, for example, Jews as well as other minority groups (gypsies, homosexuals, mentally handicapped people, etc.) were seen as internal assailants, at the same time that it was believed that any foreign nation could become an external enemy. Extrapolating this to modern societies, it is interesting to notice that we tend to use this immunity language in a wide range of different of situations: for instance, the concept of preventive war, as it was used to justify the war on Irak, enclosed the same kind of antinomic structure we are trying to point out. The very concept of law or right, as interpreted by Benjamin and Derrida, doesn’t oppose to violence but entails it.

Roberto Esposito realizes that it is very difficult to get away from this negative dialectic. But Esposito doesn’t mention one possible way to approach the problem of combating violence in a non violent manner: government and citizenship can face up to the violence by representing it and, via this representation, preventing its actualization. I think we can find one clear example of this idea in one of the most important cultural institutions of the Ancient Greece History: the Greek Theater.

During the Classic Period, to which almost the totality of the extant dramas belongs, Greek population or, more particularly, Athenian citizens were deeply worried about the problem of civil war (stasis). In the Archaic Period, civil war was a very real threat to both rich and poor people of Athens. In a certain moment, a popular tyranny emerged against the abuses of the aristocracy. But this regime was incompatible with the high sense of freedom housed by the Athenian citizenship. The establishment and consolidation of the Athenian democracy coincides with the Persian Wars and therefore it was accompanied by an acute conscience of the perils surrounding the survival of the little Greek polis, but also by a sharp conscience of the importance that political freedom had. In fact, political freedom was conceived as freedom from the slavery to external rulers (i.e. freedom from Persian satraps), as well as freedom from the subjection to internal rulers (i.e. democracy). The main risk threatening political freedom was civil war and, given the multiple factions into which the Athenian political arena was divided, this constituted a real compelling risk.

In Greek theater we can find a set of elements that, as a whole, contributed to maintain the characteristic plurality of the Athenian society and the conscience of unity that was so useful in order to preserve the social stability and so the political freedom. In the first place, we can find the representation of the city as a political system characterized by its unity. The festivals as well as the same plays that were performed during these celebrations were a very useful tool to enforce civic identity, being even possible to see the structure of the polis represented in the theater buildings. But, secondly, we can discover in the festivals and, particularly, in the plays that were there represented a very faithfully illustration of the conflicts, problems, contradictions and paradoxes which were animating the political and social life. Therefore, plurality and unity were deployed in a way which seemed not contradictory but complementary of each other. Finally we could say that, in Athenian festivals, and especially in Athenian dramas, people found a broken mirror (as established by the French scholar Vidal-Naquet) in front which to look at themselves in search of a deeper self-knowledge, one even deeper than that that they could reach by their reflexive or philosophical resources alone.

Consequently, Athenian drama can be observed as an instrument of civic identity and, in a more positive sense, as a mean ordered to the self-celebration or the self-affirmation of the polis. But also it can be considered as a resource for the reflexive thinking and, in a more negative sense, as an instrument to accomplish a criticism of the existing values and conventions of Athenian democracy. Taking all this into account, my aim in this paper will be to show how the representation of violence can contribute to the elimination, or the catharsis, of the real violence in a real historic society.