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  • Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy by Richard Halpern
  • Crystal Bartolovich
ECLIPSE OF ACTION: TRAGEDY AND POLITICAL ECONOMY. By Richard Halpern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017; pp. 336.

As his title forecasts, Richard Halpern's Eclipse of Action concerns itself with the erosion of political action as the primary preoccupation—and effect—of dramatic tragedy. Tracing a "tension" between "poiesis" (making) and "praxis" (doing), his argument—though not his historical narrative, which takes us back to classical Greece—begins with a first chapter on Adam Smith, whose "political economy" as a discourse signals the demise of action in the classical sense by espousing a definition of happiness based on "populations" aggregated by productive economic activity, displacing the classical ethical ideal in which individuals aspire to military prowess and political participation in the ancient Greek polis. Smith's "invisible hand" reduces such individual action to mutually cancelling epiphenomena that lead to happy outcomes for the population as a whole, if not for individuals. While other works by Smith, such as the Theory of Moral Sentiments, might appear to return us to individual ethics, they do so only by reimagining ethics as the judgments of detached passive spectators, which, in classical terms, are nonactions. Smith's discourse exerts so much power that even attempts to defend the classical Republican ideal against the emergent market economy, by critics such as Adam Ferguson and later Hannah Arendt, struggle to escape its terms, according to Halpern. It must be underscored that this power is not merely discursive; for Halpern, Smith's work proved so influential because "the very structure of commercial society materially enforced his judgements" (3). Capitalism undermines the model of action crucial to classical tragedy in favor of production.

To illustrate in drama the inversion of classical tragic values that Halpern sees Smith as identifying, six additional chapters proceed chronologically through readings of the Oresteia (chapter 2), Doctor Faustus (chapter 3), Hamlet (chapter 4), and Samson Agonistes (chapter 5). In chapter 6, he returns to the philosophical focus of chapter 1, this time taking up Marx and Hegel, before moving to modern tragedy, by way of Beckett, in chapter 7. The book's postscript brings the broad temporal sweep up through the 1990s in a discussion of Sarah Kane's challenging play Blasted as an example of "Post-Beckettian" and "Post-Fordist" drama. In a terrain where many critics—at least in their avowals, as actual practice is another matter—eschew long metanarratives, Halpern unabashedly traces a trajectory from classical Greece to the contemporary United States in which the emergence and development of capitalism have profound effects on art, politics, and the relation between the two.

The Oresteia, for Halpern, offers the classical example of drama that inculcates the Aristotelian emphasis on "action" that political economy will later undermine. Unlike many who look to Greece as the birthplace of an entirely admirable "democracy," Halpern, in an un-Arendtian manner, not only underscores the exclusions on which its vaunted citizenry is predicated, but also stresses that its vision of imperialist provisioning—what he calls a "raptor economy"—appears attractive to elites who have denigrated labor to such an extent that forced extraction of war booty and ongoing tribute from distant peoples appears superior to local production in any form. Against this vision, the Oresteia, for Halpern, demonstrates the power of tragedy by exposing the human costs of denigrating the household (Agamemnon), casting doubt on violent action, otherwise admired as heroic (Libation Bearers), and providing an alternative, pacific, vision to the glorification of perpetual war (Eumenides). Such critical perspectives matter politically, Halpern argues, in a culture where drama provides a spur to the political action of debate that is fundamental to the life of the polis for citizens. [End Page 397]

Chapters 3 through 5 take up material from the period of what Marx, at the end of Capital 1, calls "primitive accumulation," a term which remarkably, given Halpern's earlier work (his first book was The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation), does not appear in this book. A nod to the originary accumulation of capital, though, emerges just the same in Halpern's choice of early modern London as the first...


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