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Democracy and Discipline in Aeschylus’s Oresteia
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My analysis of the previous scenes, like the trilogy itself, necessarily converges on the Eumenides and its promise of reconciliation. The final question I wish to consider concerns the extent to which the concluding play of the trilogy redeems this promise by solving the twin problems of establishing an effectively functioning civic discourse and integrating the feminine other into the democratic order of the polis. To do this, I shall comment on the trial itself, on the figure of Athena, and on Aeschylus’s use of theatricality. I turn to these final scenes—to the trial of Orestes, the establishment of the Areopagus, Athena’s persuasion of the Furies, the final procession—because how one reads the dynamics, outcome, and aftermath of the trial to a large degree determines how one understands the trilogy as a whole.

Critics have long noticed a double progression in the movement of the Oresteia, that action and imagery cohere.[54] The trilogy moves simultaneously toward the resolution of conflict and toward transparency in speech, twin aspects of the trilogy’s composition that complement and mutually reinforce each other. On the level of action, legal justice replaces blood vengeance, Orestes is acquitted, the Furies are reconciled and take up their new duties in conjunction with the Areopagus, Argos and Athens are allied, sacrificial ritual is restored, men and women return to their proper places. The natural order of the world is set right. At the level of imagery and linguistic texture, Ann Lebeck has powerfully described how the Oresteia moves from enigmatic utterance to clear statement, from riddle to solution. Through its use of imagery and in the texture of its poetry, the trilogy transforms darkness into light, the blood-stained robes of Agamemnon into the festival garments of the final pageant, the dense poetry and claustrophobic atmosphere of the earlier plays into the comparatively straightforward and clear statements of the Eumenides.[55]

Yet a disturbing countermovement that keeps alive and intact the tensions and oppositions of the earlier plays, disappointing our hopes for a permanent resolution to the conflicts of the Oresteia, lies underneath, or perhaps alongside, the triumphant celebration of the well-ordered polis that crowns the trilogy. A number of ambiguities persist in the final scenes of the Eumenides that challenge our expectations of harmony, fulfillment, and reconciliation. First, of course, is the trial itself. Orestes is acquitted, but as Athena points out, this hardly constitutes an unalloyed victory for him or defeat and dishonor for the Furies (795). The oracle has come to pass, but this does not mean that Orestes is free of all guilt. Its wording is significantly negative: Orestes was to suffer no harm for what he did (799). An absence of punishment does not necessarily imply an absence of responsibility. The vote is also tied, and this in itself attests to the uncertainty of the case. But depending on how one interprets the voting procedure (another ambiguity), “the vote of Athena” means either that the jury of twelve citizens split equally, and Athena’s was a casting vote in favor of Orestes, or else that the human jury numbered eleven, with Athena its twelfth, divine, member, who votes for Orestes and so achieves acquittal by a tie. The latter possibility means that a majority of the Athenian jurors voted against Orestes and Apollo and for Clytemnestra and the Furies.[56] Moreover, that Athena ultimately decides the case by either making or breaking a tie, and in so doing displaces the verdict from the human to the divine realm, indicates that human judgment and justice cannot decide the matter. It is Athena, not the legal process, that settles the conflict.

Although Athena ultimately decides the case based on grounds given by Apollo, there are a number of reasons why we ought to be skeptical of that god’s authority and so of the triumph of the values for which he stands—those of polis, Greek, reason, progress, and the male—over the values of oikos, barbarian, passion, tradition, and the female. First, Apollo’s dismissal of, and obvious contempt for, the Furies and their claims is counterproductive. For it is Athena, not Apollo, who actually fulfills the oracle. Moreover, Apollo is an essentially inconstant figure throughout the trilogy, and so his claim to partisan victory is suspect. Apollo sends the avenging Atreidae against Troy and a plague on the Greek avengers, destroys the Trojan Cassandra, and then sends Orestes to avenge her death and the death of Agamemnon.[57] Apollo is thus not always for the male, and on occasion he works with the Furies, rather than against them. Nor are the Furies always opposed to the younger gods or solely concerned with marriage: they have previously been linked with the will of Zeus, Orestes fears them if he neglects to avenge his father (Choephoroi 269–96), Cassandra associates the Furies with the curse on the house of Atreus, and the Argive army is sent to Troy as an avenging Fury. The scope of the Furies’ commitments is as wide as Apollo is ambiguous. Surely Aeschylus ends the trilogy in a way that partially vindicates Apollo by fulfilling his oracle. But through the ambiguous portrayal of the god, he also points to the tremendous human suffering along the way, suggesting the limits of such a vindication in a conclusion that is disturbing in that it both “resolves and leaves unresolved.”[58]

Finally, there is evidence external to the trilogy indicating that an Athenian audience would suspect an Apollo who had previously gone over to the Persians and who has close associations with the Dorian (i.e., pro-Spartan) aristocracies.[59] A god who could be wrong about politics, Winnington-Ingram reasons, “is not necessarily right about men and women.”[60] There is good reason, then, to be somewhat skeptical of Apollo’s authority and arguments in his defense of Orestes.

Despite the momentous outcome in favor of Orestes, the trial is not the climax of the play. Even though Orestes is acquitted, the play is far from over. Almost a third of it, some 300 lines, still remains. Athena must persuade the Furies that they are not dishonored, that Orestes’ acquittal does not mean their defeat, and that they should accept their new position as tutelary deities of the homicide court. Only when the Furies accede to Athena’s combination of blandishments, threats, and respectful persuasion, does the reader (or the audience) feel secure.

Yet this feeling of security and release proves in no way permanent or conclusive. Even though Orestes is acquitted and the Furies are incorporated into the new order as the Eumenides (Kindly Ones), disturbing images and memories from the earlier plays continue to mar the joyous finale and provide both context for, and threat to, the trilogy’s ultimate achievement. The whole citizenry of Athens participates in a pageant in which the luminous torchlight and the purple robes of the processional recall the sinister signal fires and the purple-stained carpet of Agamemnon as much as they joyously signify their transformation.

There is one other way in which the final scenes of the Oresteia recall both what has gone before and how precarious its accomplishments are. Later in this chapter I comment on the Furies’ hymn to justice and the way in which Athena manipulates the ambiguities in the language of dikē to establish the law court in the face of the goddesses’ opposition. I do not want to discuss that scene any more than necessary here, except to note that when Athena echoes the Furies’ sentiments in admonishing her citizens “never to cast fear utterly from the city,” she, too, reminds the reader (and audience) of the conflict, perversion, and pollution that have gone before. Despite the “happy ending,” as Brian Vickers remarks, “it is the violence and perversion that live on in the memory.” The play thus creates a “remarkably powerful image of those threats against human being which are a corollary of our fragile existence.” Vickers concludes, echoing Athena, that “reading the Oresteia makes one afraid for one’s life.”[61]

The founding of the democratic polis is a precarious achievement, however, not only because it rests on the outcome of an inconclusive trial, and because of the disturbing echoes in the Eumenides, but because the new order will not entirely do away with the conflict that arises when we find ourselves forced to choose between alternatives that equally claim our concern and commitment, like Agamemnon at Aulis and Orestes at Argos. Certainly, the collectivity of citizens, together with the newly instituted law court, will mitigate and mediate those tensions and oppositions that engender tragic experience, at least a little and for a while. But men and women will always be torn between conflicting commitments: to the oikos or the polis, to home, place, family, and friends on the one hand and to glory, honor, adventure, and immortal fame won at the expense of the former, on the other. Although fathers will not always be asked to choose between a daughter and their army, mothers and wives between a husband and a daughter, nor sons between a mother and a father, most of us will experience the difficulty of balancing career and family in a society that does not honor both equally. For nowhere does Aeschylus indicate that human beings can “structure their lives and commitments so that in the ordinary course of events they will be able to stay clear of serious conflict.”[62] Nowhere does the Oresteia indicate that wisdom comes without suffering or that there is goodness without fragility. Wisdom must continually be rewon, while the goodness of the city depends on the unceasing and tireless efforts of its citizens. The trilogy does not let us forget that faith placed in finite solutions to complex human dilemmas is faith misplaced. The newly founded civic order, Aeschylus suggests, with its impartial and more comprehensive political and legal institutions, is not the solution to the problem of dikē, but it is perhaps a solution.

If it is true that from the opening lines of the Agamemnon to the final scenes of the Eumenides, the trilogy leads toward a resolution in the democratic polis, then it is equally true that the lines of that resolution converge on the figure of Athena. They do so in two ways.

I have already suggested that the Oresteia seeks a solution to the cycle of blood vengeance in the stability of civic discourse. As in Plato’s Republic, the problem for Aeschylus lies in an ambiguous excess of meaning, a depth in signification that proliferates competing claims rather than reduces or resolves them. More often than not, characters use this ambiguity in language to set up barriers to communication rather than to establish it. The examples of linguistic transgression that occur throughout the trilogy thus challenge our ability to specify meaning in language, to control the power of speech, and so to rely on the stable categories that constitute the basis of the social order. In these terms, the foundation of the law court and the subsequent verdict in favor of acquittal aim to fix a meaning for dikē, to establish once and for all a secure civic discourse in which contending claims and competing interests might be adjudicated, if not reconciled. Yet, as we have seen, equal votes comprise that decision, an indication that the claims of each side weigh equally in the balance and that the newly formed legal institutions of the city cannot solve the problem of dikē. Aeschylus must displace the final decision to Athena’s divine agency, a displacement that is crucial for a proper understanding of the trilogy’s resolution. First, and most obviously, it is crucial because as a dramatic device, it heightens the tension in the scene. Moreover, such a displacement points once again to the failure of human communication and interpretation that persistently mars the trilogy. It is most important, however, because it places the burden of decision, hence of reconciliation, on Athena. For Athena is an interesting figure in Aeschylus’s articulation of the discursive and sexual economy of the trilogy.[63]

Athena is important for the way in which she establishes linguistic order, and so justice, in the Eumenides. In the stasimon sung to justice (490–565), the Furies appeal to a sense of dikē familiar from the earlier plays of the trilogy. Theirs is a justice that relies on fear, respect, and reverence for the inherited bonds of obligation—without fear of just retribution, parents would not feel themselves safe in the presence of their children. The result would be either anarchy or despotism. The Furies understand the social order to be coterminous with blood relations. They thus protect society by prosecuting crimes that violate the kinship structures of society, but in particular they are concerned with transgressions of the kind the matricide Orestes commits.[64] They understand justice to be identical with the reciprocal revenge of a dikēphoron (bringer of retribution).

Athena echoes the Furies’ sentiment virtually word for word when she establishes the law court that will finally render justice and terminate the cycle of vengeance (681–710). She, too, urges the jurors and the audience “not to cast fear utterly from the city,” nor to live in anarchy or despotism, but according to a middle way that is best. Yet Athena cannot mean what the Furies mean by justice, even though they use the same word. Why, then, do the Furies allow Athena to impanel a jury that will decide the case in other than their terms and so against them? Surely something more is happening here than merely the inclusion of the Furies in a wider understanding of justice.[65] Athena (or Aeschylus) plays upon the shifting and multivalent sense of justice at work in the trilogy. It is precisely this ambiguity in the meaning of dikē that enables Athena to establish the court against the better judgment of the Furies. Where the Furies demand dikē as reciprocal punishment, Athena offers dikē as law court, as legal judgment. She chastens the Furies with such shifting terms when she says “you wish to be called, not act, just” (430). That Athena and the Furies each appeal to dikē does not indicate, then, that they agree on its meaning.[66] In fact, given that the Furies violently oppose the decision for acquittal, we have to conclude that even in the end, they do not abandon their sense of dikē as reciprocal punishment. Athena establishes the law court and institutes a new legal order over the protests of the Furies by playing on the ambiguity of the term dikē itself. Athena here has recourse to the same strategy and tactics used by Clytemnestra.

Even though Athena founds the Areopagus and in so doing fixes a meaning for dikē, her work with respect to the Furies is far from over. Believing themselves dishonored by the younger generation of gods who favored Orestes’ acquittal, the Furies now rage against Athens, threatening to poison and blight the land and its inhabitants. Through a combination of patient persuasion and discrete manipulation, threats backed by Zeus’s thunderbolts and sincere promises, Athena charms the Furies into accepting the verdict and their new place as beneficent metoikoi of the city, as well as their transformed status as tutelary deities of the homicide court. Athena’s is thus a victory of persuasive rhetoric:

I admire the eyes
of Persuasion, who guided the speech of my mouth
toward these, when they were reluctant and wild.
Zeus, who guides men’s speech in councils, was too
strong; and my ambition
for good wins out in the whole issue. (970–75)
Just as the trilogy begins with Zeus Xenios (the god of guest friendship) and ends with Zeus Agoraios (the god of public meetings), it begins with the forceful persuasion of Clytemnestra and ends with the forceful persuasion of Athena.

The figure of Athena is also important to the resolution of the trilogy because she occupies an ambiguous space in Athens’s sexual economy. A female goddess, Athena votes for Orestes on sexual grounds, for she is, as she says, “always for the male, with all my heart and strongly on my father’s side” (737–38). Moreover, descended as she is solely from her father, Zeus, Athena has no mother and so has experienced none of the ties of commitment and continuity of place the Oresteia traditionally associates with the feminine. Here she seems to validate Apollo’s argument for the primacy of the male as the “true” parent. Yet she is also a warrior and a virgin, and so doubly rejects the role of a woman in a patriarchal society. A trilogy that begins with Clytemnestra’s usurpation of Agamemnon’s power and prerogative ends with Athena’s own transgression of the accepted boundaries of gender identification.

By now it should be clear that both in her ability to manipulate language and in her usurpation of what were traditionally considered male roles, Athena recalls Clytemnestra. But what are we to make of such a disturbing association? Does Athena allied with Clytemnestra undo all the work that Athena allied with Zeus has accomplished? The final play of the trilogy does conclude happily with the establishment of a civic discourse and the integration of the feminine other into the city’s social order. Yet the play performed before the city it celebrates has depicted with immense force the internal tensions and oppositions of that discourse, not only in the clash of sexual and social interests but also in its challenge to the very possibility of the formulation of a civic language and sexual order grounded in rational legal procedure. Already so full of transgressions and manipulations, the Oresteia ends neither with the final restoration of a natural or “normal” order nor with the unambiguous achievement of clear and transparent communication. A reconciliation between men and women is achieved, but it is achieved by a figure who embodies all the transgressions of gender definition that the trilogy has sought to resolve. A civic discourse based on rational legal principles is established, but by a figure who transgresses its norms, and by means that partake of the persuasive rhetoric of manipulation the trilogy has fought to mitigate.

I therefore do not wholly agree with Brian Vickers when he argues, in reference to Clytemnestra, that “the final stages of the Eumenides complete Aeschylus’ exorcism of her, a sustained concentration of moral disapproval rarely equalled in literature.”[67] If Clytemnestra is exorcised, then, as we have seen, she is also resurrected in the figure of Athena. The man-woman Clytemnestra, who kills her husband, finds her counterpart in the god-goddess Athena, who similarly crosses the boundaries of gender definition.[68] Nor do I agree with H. D. F. Kitto that the Eumenides solves the problem of dikē.[69] If the achievement of the law court is to fix a meaning for dikē and so institute the shared civic language necessary to the polis, then the integrity of that language is violated at the very moment it is established. The figure that closes the trilogy cannot but remind us of the figure who opens it. Athena’s association with Clytemnestra brings the Oresteia full circle, and so reopens all the negotiations the trilogy had hoped to settle.

There is one final way in which Athena recalls Clytemnestra and the uncertainty of Agamemnon, and so undermines the very order she, and by implication the Oresteia, strives to establish. Vernant has commented on the reflexive dimension of Aeschylus’s trilogy. In particular, he has pointed out the manner in which the trial scene of the Eumenides invites the citizen-spectators to think of themselves as jurors (a role with which they would be intimately familiar) and judge the actors, the actions on stage, and the overall performance itself. Having witnessed a judgment on stage, the Oresteia asks its audience to reflect on the nature of judgment by rendering a judgment about the activity of judging. On another level, however, the trilogy reflects on its own activity in a decidedly more ambivalent fashion. I have been arguing that the text turns back and in upon itself in a movement that resists closure and so the hierarchical organization of values—the creation of a center—that the narrative establishes. It does so, in part, through its use of theatricality, by which I mean how the playwright calls attention to the performance itself as a theatrical spectacle.[70] Aeschylus employs this technique with surprising results in the Oresteia, most notably in the planning and execution of Agamemnon’s murder. I have already discussed that sequence of scenes that culminate in the king’s fateful step upon the crimson tapestries and analyzed them in terms of gender reversal and the manipulation of language. That interpretation portrayed Clytemnestra as something of a strategos in her own right, one who confronts and defeats her enemy in battle. I want to examine that scene afresh, this time in terms of its theatricality, and link it up with Athena and the trial of Orestes, in order to consider its significance for the trilogy as a whole.

Likening Clytemnestra to a general positioning and directing her troops as if for battle is certainly a plausible reading of that fatal encounter. Far more powerful, in this context, however, is to understand Clytemnestra in the role of a director, producer, or even playwright. She has prepared an elaborate scene, beginning with the system of signal fires, written a welcoming script for Agamemnon, assembled her deadly props, and even shown impatience when her maids miss their cue and fail to spread the tapestries in a timely fashion. In this play within a play, Clytemnestra writes, directs, acts, and produces the murder of her husband, and she has been many years in the plotting.

I have also noted how, through her persuasive rhetoric and her ambiguous sexuality, the figure of Athena recalls Clytemnestra. Here I want to point to a similarity between Clytemnestra’s “staging” of Agamemnon’s murder and Athena’s “staging” of Orestes’ trial, a similarity that cuts across other aspects shared by these two figures. There are a number of ways in which the trial “staged” by Athena recalls the dramatic theater of Clytemnestra. First, a trial recalls the theater in its physical aspects, with a judge and jury seated on a raised platform or “stage,” with testifying witnesses entering and exiting on cue, and with an audience of citizens, all potential jurors, in attendance. Second, the progress of a trial is similar to a “plot” (in the sense of both drama and intrigue), where identity and character are exposed, the truth about past or present actions revealed, and where a verdict or judgment is rendered on the protagonist. In establishing the Areopagus, calling the witnesses, selecting the jury and rendering the final decision, Athena writes the script, directs the “action” and determines the outcome of Orestes’ trial much as a playwright or chorēgos would do a tragic performance. Athena’s staging of Orestes’ trial thus recalls Clytemnestra’s own elaborate staging in Agamemnon.

But surely this pushes a point too far. After all, Clytemnestra commits a murder, Athena merely judges one. While I do not want to deny this important difference, I do want to emphasize once again the method of persuasion that Athena employs and the ambiguous space she occupies, disturbing characteristics she shares with Clytemnestra that also make it possible for her to end the bloodshed. But what does this mean for the play as a whole? The trilogy equates Clytemnestra, plotting, deceit, and verbal manipulation with being the playwright/producer/actress of one’s own drama. Two points follow from this. First, we are forced to recall that theater itself relies on plots, plotting, illusion, deceit, and verbal ambiguity, in short, all of Clytemnestra’s devices.[71] This alone should cast some doubt on the ability of the tragedy to render clear and secure meanings. But when we associate those same elements with Athena, then the law court, the justice it brings, and the Oresteia itself (and perhaps tragedy?) all share the same radical insecurities in regard to the stability of linguistic and sexual categories that Clytemnestra’s theater so disturbingly conveys.

One reason the carpet scene is so powerful, and the trial of Orestes so awesome, is precisely because they, too, like a tragedy, are staged, and as such raise disturbing questions about the ability of the tragic performance itself to establish a reliable context for communication. If the theatricality of Clytemnestra and Athena so easily manipulates Agamemnon and the Furies, are not the spectators of the performance also susceptible to a similar manipulation by the playwright and his play? This further implies that as the Oresteia attempts to end the cycle of blood vengeance by fixing a clear and unambiguous meaning for dikē, it cannot escape or evade the ambiguities, uncertainties, and difficulties of speech dramatized by the play within the play. If I am right about Aeschylus’s self-referential use of theatricality, then the Oresteia not only interrogates the “success” of Athena’s founding, but also provides a powerful example of man’s drive to circumscribe the world in intellectual and rational terms and a similarly powerful example of the limitations of that attempt.[72]

There is no final closure here, no unalloyed triumph of men over women, polis over oikos, new over old, what is chosen over what is inherited, reason over passion. Rather, the end of the trilogy introduces a series of new transgressions that forces the narrative to turn back upon itself in a destructuring movement that questions the very foundations of its own accomplishment. Through the figure of Athena, we have learned that the boundaries that constitute language and society are always already transgressed.[73] This final scene of ambiguous reconciliation, orchestrated by such a paradoxical and ambivalent figure, should draw us up short and force us to reflect on the violence concealed by constructed teleologies and hierarchies that appear “natural.”

So much is true of the Oresteia itself: the trilogy also transgresses the “norms” of linguistic and sexual order in the very act, and in the very space, in which it establishes them. The Oresteia surely institutes and legitimates a democratically constituted hierarchy of values, establishes norms of inclusion and exclusion, and creates bonds of membership by drawing boundaries. But the trilogy also shows us how such boundaries are constituted, that they are ultimately political, and that such limits are transgressed the very moment they are established. The problem of dikē is not solved in the Eumenides, but the trilogy as a whole shows us that we cannot live without such (temporary) solutions. The Oresteia lays bare the construction of those solutions as enabling fictions, calling attention to their incomplete nature and revealing to the spectators how a normal and normalizing order constructs the feminine as abject other, as the very constitutive outside of its own possibility, even when such an order harbors the most democratic of intentions. The trilogy thus as much reminds the audience of the violent exclusions and subordinations that constitute the democratic city in which they live as it validates that city.

In anticipation of all these reasons, this chapter began with the suggestion that no Greek tragedy could better illuminate the current controversy over democratic hopes and disciplinary reversals than Aeschylus’s Oresteia. That suggestion framed a series of reflections on the dilemma—in contemporary theory—over the intentions and effects of a democratically achieved consensus. The present contest over the meaning of democracy vacillates between the quest to instantiate norms of consensus and the suspicion that such rationally achieved agreement is a regulative ideal, one more strategy that effectively masks the mechanism of power as it produces normalized and disciplined selves and citizens for the effective functioning of the order. That choice—between the regulative democratic ideal of critical theory and the endless genealogical subversion of democratic codes—was too narrowly construed and tended to resist any alternative path through the unstable terrain of contemporary democratic politics. Yet if we are to respect difference in our own increasingly heterogeneous and diverse society, and if we wish to preserve the preconditions of democratic governance as well, another route must be found. Aeschylus’s treatment of the “feminine” as the constitutive other has been particularly helpful for illuminating a politics of identity and difference and in charting the dangerous territory of a democratic politics. The Oresteia, on this telling, can be made to yield a democratic politics of disturbance that maintains a commitment to the ideals of democratic consensus even as it disrupts democracy’s normalizing effects. Such is Aeschylus’s contribution to the contemporary contest over the meaning of democracy.

The central burden of this chapter has been to demonstrate that the Oresteia both celebrates the triumph of a democratic civic discourse and exposes the legacy of violence, exclusion, and subordination directed at the “feminine other” that accompanies that triumph. In a double movement, the trilogy articulates a positive vision of democratic life that seeks to disrupt and disturb the forces of normalization such a vision entails. This reading of Aeschylus has indicated that such forces of disturbance persist right through to the trilogy’s very end (Athena as doubly ambiguous), enabling the Oresteia to help formulate a democratic sensibility that relentlessly politicizes the founding exclusions that constitute democratic practice (whether religious, cultural or sexual), while at the same time providing a democratic identity and order against which to struggle. That is one way in which the Oresteia negotiates the tension between a democratic critical theory and a genealogical critique of democracy.

The Oresteia achieves this, of course, not by dissolving that tension, but by deepening it. Democracy in the Oresteia requires the stable foundations of law grounded in rational legal procedure: justice as legal judgment replaces justice as reciprocal revenge. Yet as we have seen, genealogical critique uncovers a democratic reason embodied in the newly founded law court that is masculine in gender and founded squarely on women’s exclusion from, and subordination to, the male-ordered polis.[74] Moreover, that foundation is itself traversed by its own fault lines, irregularities that portend further seismic disturbances in the bedrock of democracy. As a figure who already transgresses the very discursive and sexual norms of the democratic polis she aims to establish, Athena herself embodies the “paradox of founding” that Habermas’s consensus theory of democracy seeks to evade.[75] Despite the celebratory and triumphant ending, the Oresteia constructs the meaning of the democratic founding, and so of democracy itself, as open to further contest, struggle, and renegotiation. Read this way, Aeschylus’s trilogy alerts us to the antidemocratic preconditions and practices of democratic rule and to the positive role played by a “democratic politics of disturbance,” a politics that, like the disturbing transgressions of Clytemnestra and Athena, “projects new challenges to old relations of identity and difference, disrupts the dogmatism of settled understandings and exposes violences and exclusions in fixed arrangements of democratic rule.”[76] Such a reading of the Oresteia indicates one way in which a democratic critical theory and a genealogical critique of democracy, if properly understood, might contribute to the formidable task of democratizing difference.

It might even be the case that what I have said about Athena and the Oresteia applies to tragedy as well. In the theater of Dionysus, the citizen-spectators come to learn that the categories of society are never as stable as they appear. During a civic ritual that celebrates the city and its democratic traditions, a play like Aeschylus’s Oresteia both participates in that celebration and radically disrupts the “normalized” order it constructs.

Let me end this chapter and preface the next with Zeitlin’s characterization of Dionysus, the god of tragedy, as a transgressor, a description that applies equally well to the figure of Athena: “This mixture…is one of the emblems of his paradoxical role as a disrupter of the normal social categories; in his own person he attests to the coincidentia oppositorum that challenges the hierarchies and rules of the public masculine world, reintroducing into it confusions, conflicts, tensions and ambiguities, insisting always on the more complex nature of life than masculine aspirations would allow.”[77]

As much may be said about Max Horkheimer’s and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.

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