- Feminist Readings of Antigone by Fanny Söderbäck
Feminists’ readings of Antigone have tended to focus on the rigid conception of gender roles assumed by the Greek polis that put the gendered family in tragic tension with political life. Luce Irigaray’s “Eternal Irony of the Community,” a treatment of Hegel’s interpretation of Antigone that is included in this volume, is an example. But Fanny Söderbäck promises, in her introduction to Feminist Readings of Antigone, a collection of essays that consider the specifically political insights of Antigone. These essays move beyond the critical aspect to consider the productive insights of Antigone for addressing contemporary political problems. Particularly remarkable because of its timeliness is the unity of the persistent themes of the political import of the relation of life to death, as well as of bare life to political life, and the state’s need to have access to the body in order for the law to have force.
How political life functions to make protected life out of bare life while simultaneously excluding certain lives from the protected life of a citizen has become the pressing concern of contemporary political life and thought. As Judith Butler explains in the selection from Antigone’s Claim included in this volume, “These are not lives that are being genocidally destroyed, but neither are they being entered into the life of the legitimate community in which standards of recognition permit for an attainment of humanness” (149). [End Page 234] Guantanamo Bay prisoners, enemy combatants, and the increasing number of undocumented workers illustrate the predicament of the living body left unprotected by the political apparatus. While democracy claims universal suffrage, Sophocles presents the difficulty posed by the “natural” body in the state’s effort to effect political inclusion, even as he writes in a time, like ours, when democracy was the watchword of a culture. Sophocles’s Antigone shows the intersection between the necessary exclusion that forms the community and the material effect of this exclusion on bodies. This is not to say that body equals bare life, but that the treatment of bare life, both as it is inscribed into the law and excluded from it, is felt in the body. True, six of these essays have been published elsewhere, but Söderbäck does a great service by drawing them together to show how Sophocles opens a pathway of political response to these political troubles.
Adriana Caverero proclaims the significance for feminist thought of founding political life on the exclusion of the animal body. Caverero maintains that the narrative of Antigone depends on the twin “frightening hypotheses” of the female body and the male body. There is on the one hand, the “naked life” and “wild corporeity” that binds and defines the female in terms of birth, her own and her capacity for children, in the absent figure of Jocasta and in Antigone (55). Woman is prevented from becoming a subject because of the “maternal demand for self-sacrifice” that accompanies birth. On the other hand, the male body in the absent figure of Oedipus and in Polyneices, becomes other than animal body in the becoming subject whereby “the birth of the self is experienced as an unmourned sacrifice” (55).
Caverero argues that Antigone herself occupies her body as both male and female, generative of body and of self, “the riddle of all life that issues from woman” (60). But Caverero’s analysis can be taken farther to show that Antigone announces this conflict within political life between the body as necessarily excluded and the body as that by which the law of the state has force. By burying her brother’s body and thus treating it as more than mere body, Antigone testifies to the importance of the body for the state. By her own “nearly obsessive regard” for Polyneices’s body, Antigone acts to make evident the same obsessive regard Creon shows for the body, to which he testifies by his excessive anger at Antigone’s burial of...