“What is expected has not been accomplished”. A Historical Materialist Approach to Attic Tragedy

  • Milan Kroulík Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès


In this essay I propose a materialist approach to interpreting and contextualizing tragedies that draws on a materialist strand of anthropological theory. A close analysis of seemingly disparate readings of Greek tragedies allows me to articulate the following unconscious proposition shared by these interpretations: encounters with a tragedy are modelled on the basis of a silent, contemplative, reflexive reading that presupposes the cultural formation of the Transcendental subject. I then proceed to show that the Bacchae offers both a criticism of a rationalist formulation of a detached viewing of any event, and key images to perceive tragic encounters in a material-sensual manner. In order to theorize this, I use Michael Taussig’s theory of mimesis, which is an idiosyncratic development of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the mimetic faculty. This enables me to see Pentheus as a double of post-Enlightenment interpreters and Dionysus as the mimetic, sensorial force that enables and destabilizes rationalist certainties. I then interpret the encounter between Pentheus and the Bacchants on Mount Kithairon as an imageric ur-scene that is repeated in the act of viewing a tragedy and in a further displacement of a scholarly approach to a tragedy. This enables me to enact in these events the always already present necessity to demystify the disinterested, intellectualizing and objectifying gaze. Any engagement in this world is an interplay of at least two dimensions – ideational and sensorial – that cannot be untangled to such a degree as to become stable. This understanding of humans as mimetically adept subsequently leads to the de-centering of a de-historicized subject placing him/her on the same level as the engaged material.

Keywords: Bacchants; Euripides; materialism; mimesis; Walter Benjamin; Michael Taussig