Monday, May 1, 2023

Hyper-Democracy: The Politics of Aristophanes

Case, Zachary
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My dissertation grapples with three significant areas of Classical scholarship: the politics of Aristophanes, the meaning of democracy, and the nature of ancient theatre. In the first place, I propose to re-conceptualize Aristophanes’ political agenda, which has often been conceived in terms of the poet’s personal antagonism towards democracy or in terms of the impossibility of pinning down any particular agenda in the first place. My dissertation, which rejects a biographical approach whilst remaining committed to a version of intentionalism, argues that Aristophanes advocates and theorizes – though only ever informally, implicitly, and incidentally – a conception of democracy that is more democratic (i.e. inclusive and egalitarian) than anything the Athenians themselves had ever practiced. That is what I call hyper-democracy, whose critical vocabulary is provided by modern political theorists, especially (but not limited to) Jacques Rancière and Hannah Arendt. This conception is embodied in Aristophanes’ plays, particularly in those which stage and empower disenfranchised citizens, women, and slaves. What is at stake is also a new way of thinking about the theatre in classical Athens, which has for a long time been regarded as a predominantly civic affair and dominated by scholarship on tragedy. What my dissertation shows is not only that comic theatre is not strictly civic, but that it can even be considered strictly non-civic when it comes to Aristophanes’ plays, which work to disrupt any notion of a unified citizen-audience and to denaturalise civic ideology. In support of this, I make the case for regarding the theatre as an extra-institutional body, much closer to the agora than to the assembly and lawcourts, and one which does not merely reflect but actively manifests political action on stage.

Like Aristophanes’ plays, my dissertation falls into two distinct, though not unrelated, parts, with a kind of ‘parabasis’ falling in between. Part I, comprising episodes one (‘Laughing Together… Not’) and two (‘Closure versus Anti-Closure…’) that respectively focus on the first half of Frogs and the end of Wealth, explores the intended effect of comedy on the audience. Laughter and closure are two issues that are central to what comedy is ‘about’; getting to grips with them is implicit in any interpretation of comedy, and, as such, my attempt to do so will lay the groundwork for the second half of my thesis. My central claim here is that if the spectators expect to laugh and for the endings to achieve closure, that is not always what they get. The effect of this is divisive and alienating, amounting to a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. With the audience members at times divided from each other and aware of the division, the contingency of their identities can be exposed, and Aristophanes’ open, expansive, and egalitarian conception of democracy can accordingly be crafted.

If Part I considers the disruptive moments in the affective relationship between the plays and (members of) the audience, Part II, comprising episodes three (‘Citizens’), four (‘Women’) and five (‘Slaves’), considers the disruptive moments within Aristophanes’ comic worlds, with close readings of Acharnians, Lysistrata, Assemblywomen and Frogs. We move, in other words, from Brechtian ‘defamiliarization’ to Rancièrian dissensus – a move Rancière himself makes when addressing the thorny issue of the political efficacy of art, discussed in my ‘parabasis’ (‘From Defamiliarization to Dissensus’). These disruptive moments constitute democratic empowerment, as disenfranchised characters including Dicaeopolis, Lysistrata, Praxagora, and Xanthias make claims to the political by entering the ‘space of appearance’ (Arendt) and embodying the logic of dissensus (Rancière). The fact that the plays under consideration end by shutting down the egalitarian and emancipatory possibilities that they raise does not prove Aristophanes’ conservatism. Rather, the patterns of the plays reflect the perpetually shifting nature of hyper-democracy: a form that, as Sheldon Wolin writes, is ‘doomed to succeed only temporarily.’

At the same time as I engage with modern political theory, I remain committed to historicism. I show that the plays under discussion, which cover Aristophanes’ career and the three main groupings of polis society, were staged around watershed moments in Athenian history, in particular the two oligarchic revolutions of the late fifth century. These can be seen to inform the development of Aristophanes’ political thought. In my 'exodos’, I re-interpret a much-debated testimony stating that Frogs was reperformed, using it to bolster my case for Aristophanes’ commitment to what I call hyper-democracy (‘Reperforming Frogs and Aristophanes’ ‘Commitment’’).

Whitmarsh, Tim
Laemmle, Rebecca
Aristophanes, Democracy, Ancient Greek Comedy, Political Theory, Rancière, Arendt
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Jebb Fund King's College Faculty of Classics



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