Hypatia 18.3 (2003) 221-226
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Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. By Judith Butler. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Judith Butler's most recent contribution, Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, focuses on the character of Antigone from Sophocles' plays Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus as a site of investigation into the norms of kinship and sociality. Through her examination of the figure of Antigone, Bulter challenges both the liberal political tradition and the authority of Lacanian psychoanalysis, exposing the often unquestioned political forces of these traditions that determine our own lives and their acceptability in Western culture. Antigone's Claim [End Page 221] is a work of intricate and detailed analysis of enormously difficult material. Butler masterfully leads us to the import of both Hegel's and Lacan's assumptions and claims with regard to the incest taboo and its ostensible formation of kinship relations, as marked by the Oedipal complex. This book will find an audience in those who are captivated by the multivalent meanings of the figure of Antigone, those who grapple with Hegel's texts both for their internal movements and for the overall, often problematic (yet fascinating) picture Hegel offers, as well as those who take up psychoanalysis in general, Lacan in particular, in order to discern more critically the structure of both our individual and collective worlds. However, her book is most instructive to those of us who attempt to merge feminist theory with global political concerns, a movement which, if forgiven my arrogance, I might call the Fourth Wave. Butler is one of the current theorists who can help usher us into this application of theoretical criticism.
Butler's project in Antigone's Claim should be read as an outgrowth or further installment of her previous work on Hegel, especially in tandem with her recent book, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (1997). In the latter, Butler explores the intersection of power and the psyche with the aim of advancing a perspective that calls into question the traditional ontological separation of the two concepts. The traditional model assumes a subject that can be understood apart from the forces of political power or social agency, a version of the public-private dichotomy. By examining the fluid dynamic of desire, Butler shows that this separation is highly problematic. If we understand subject formation in terms of a regulatory dynamic of power between self and world, we find that out of this formation the "domain of livable sociality" is circumscribed; that is, proper or normal relations stem from this formation dynamic (1997, 21). This later claim is important as a counter to the common psychoanalytic notion that presocial, "natural" relations determine proper social relations, epitomized in the Oedipal complex, as Butler will demonstrate in Antigone's Claim.
We can note the correlation to this broader investigation of power and its relation to subject formation in Antigone's Claim. Butler's inquiry into the normativity of kinship repudiates the notion that kinship and sociality are separate entities, and so makes way for an analysis of kinship based upon the dynamics of social power—a revelation that explodes the liberal-individualistic subject, as well as the authority of the structuralist legacy in the psychoanalytic schema. The concept of desire, as integral to the power dynamic, provides the link between Butler's two recent books, as well as between Hegel and Lacan in Antigone's Claim where Butler shows the forces of power to determine the place of desire and thereby its role, all under the guise of a natural condition.
The play Antigone has been variously interpreted but always figuring the character of Antigone as representative of some definitive realm. Butler takes up two interpretations, the Hegelian and Lacanian, powerful for differing reasons, but both falling into a common assumption. The Hegelian interpretation in the [End Page 222] Phenomenology of Spirit (1977), the Philosophy of Right (1967), and the Aesthetics (1975), has become the dominant reading of the play such that the oppositions that Hegel articulates remain decisive, even for those who...