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Judgment and Strategy$

Robin Holt

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780199671458

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199671458.001.0001

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(p.203) 11 Authority
Judgment and Strategy

Robin Holt

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In light of the discussion of leadership and the idea of a public, this chapter considers what it is to be in a position of strategic authority constituted by unhomely spectating and hence judgment. Illustrations come from Sophocles’ Antigone and Creon.

Keywords:   Sophocles, W. B. Yeats, Antigone, Creon, Thebes, Dionysius, care, harmony

Reprise: Self Presenting

It was for Kierkegaard the experience of doubt—existential skepticism—and not persuasiveness and conviction, that brought about the possibility of self-forming through spectating. Knowing and declaring oneself was an experience of thinking alongside one’s activity, feelings, and thoughts in ways that always eluded closure. To think with oneself in this way is always to be in the company of what is not yet empirically ‘there’, but which can be imagined to be so. The negative and the absent serve to animate and provoke images of the self into an active, even breathless state, they afford life its agitations, puzzles, and gyrations. There has to be, inevitably, a holding open to events and histories that expose any sense of self to what is beside itself at every turn, without end.1

Kant was also skeptical, yet despite his instinctual hatred of those experts who asserted matters of fact and so deigned to think for us, he had begun the Critiques still in thrall to the possibility of their being a singular source of authority, albeit this singular source was a faculty and not a class of privileged persons. He was, says Nietzsche, too scared of passionate feeling to haul anchor and leave the safety of his ‘categorical’ port.2 By the end of the Third (p.204) Critique, however, feeling has been let in, it is beginning to overspill the categories set in place as bulwarks and slipways for the proper organizing of human conduct, and Kant watches on as his carefully wrought sea walls succumb to the flood. Kant’s enlightenment suspicion of guardians and overseers—the priestly class of experts who deigned to tell us how to think and act—was for Nietzsche the right instinct. That Kant sought to replace this class with reason itself, however, and the ‘boneless generalities’ of the rational imperative, was where he erred.3 Allowing feeling ‘in’ takes us away from such certainties altogether, away from what is fixed and timeless, and towards the messy forces of history and our human desires. Adam Smith, more skeptical than Kant, allows sympathy as the ground by which what he called self-government is realized, so placing feeling centre stage. Although in the figure of the spectator feelings are curtailed by a sense of self-declared rectitude: this is right because I judge it to be so, and in such a form of judging it is as if the eyes close in on oneself. Whilst the source for such confidence carries with it a sense of realism by beginning in basic expressions of vanity, I have argued it remains misplaced because it allows one set of interests to pitch its sense of praiseworthiness against others. With those with interests that come to dominate comes complacency, and for the vanquished comes compliance or frustration and exclusion.

Hazlitt’s figure of the unhomely spectator is more compelling as a seat for judgment insofar as it remains equivocal about issues of praise. Its orientation toward a future that cannot exist means its role is as much that of the conjuror as that of a rational confidant: the spectator is fabricated from what is imaginatively found and picked up by memory, without fore-thought, and from this beachcombing come built projections of what might become of one’s self. Given that the future does not exist, one’s relationship with this presentation of itself is no different from one’s relationship with anyone else in whose feelings, thoughts, and actions one can be equally embroiled. Imagination has no boundaries, because there is nothing to transgress, or more appropriate perhaps, there is only transgression. When being thrown into the future we are always taken out of ourselves into lives being lived alongside ours, whilst always being configured within the organizational forms being demanded by what is passing into history.

(p.205) The potency of Hazlitt’s spectator comes in its own double move. First it closes off the cosiness of Smith’s fireplace reverie in which the spectator arrives owl-like at dusk to assess how praiseworthy one might have been. The self-sufficiency and cogency of Smith’s ordering is beguiling, but ultimately refuses the skeptical condition for which spectating is being invoked. Secondly comes a refusal to countenance the legitimacy of the smallness and inwardness of feeling, thought, and action demonstrated by the likes of Matt and Lambert. With Hazlitt comes an enlarged, unprejudiced, and consistent sense of spectating freed from the comfort of goals and the prospect of completion. It is imaginatively concerned with a sense of transformative possibility that takes up and plays with the organizing hierarchy of the public and private binary, forever attempting to keep them in one another’s company, without one gaining ascendency. To imaginatively realize such a condition requires, as Hamlet showed (and Kafka’s Georg could not), the resolution to refuse the demands of one’s condition by coming to know them attentively. The resulting judgment arises in publicly orienting oneself differently toward values and truths and to be publicly acknowledged as doing such. As Arendt realizes, the public matters, but less as a source of guiding agreement than of performative deliberation to which otherness as much as sameness belongs. As such, the spectating self is formed in awareness of its own possible demise as that which can transform, which is not, contra Arendt, powerfully constituted as a citizen amongst self-same citizens.

Applied to a sense of organizational self, something like this sensibility comes in W. B. Yeats’ image for an independent Ireland conjured into being through the literary effort of looking upon himself and his country with both skepticism and passion. Although salted in the background of the Ascendancy establishment, Yeats became a fervent convert to the cause for Irish independence after the brutal put down of the Easter rising in 1916. The rebellious leaders were murdered by the British state, and Yeats, always ambivalent about violence and nationalism, found himself stirred into passionate advocacy for a separate country. The British government had declared a state of exception to the rule of law, and lost all legitimacy: ‘All changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born.’ A beauty that beguiled yet threatened, and one that Yeats was at pains to organize into a unifying vision, one by which a new country could come into being. To allow for the new he reached into the old, articulating a myth of belonging that found voice in poems and plays that together constituted an imaginative welling up of feeling by which his audience too was entranced. There were neither abstract assertions nor demands for collective conformity with a would-be new order. His vision for an independent Ireland was an occult blend of spirit and experiment, a basic sense of social justice laced with a nostalgic sense of Celtic self-sufficiency and a forthright poetic courage. The vision was one of affect, from which effects would come, without (p.206) prediction, a vision grounded in Yeats’ personal, family, and national history whose coming together in the divinatory, passionate talk of newly imagined futures found the immense variety of myth, folk memory, political and military force, chance, and dramatic intensity being gathered and made into a place to which others too could belong. The forms Ireland might take in his and his readers’ imagination aver from detail, their imaginative force comes in allowing the reader to prospectively immerse him- or herself in the rich possibility of what might be entailed in ‘following on’ from the turning and turning of this second coming, for the vision only works from within the free play of free shadows to which writer and audience are all party—it is not the content of the vision that attracts so much as its enticing an audience to involve themselves somehow, as co-conspirators and creators. Yeats’ poetic work allows Ireland to envisage its history in the feelings of expectation and frustration felt by ordinary people: clerks, mothers, teachers, and farmers, rather than great intellects. There is an honesty here that cannot be conveyed by official commentaries, an awareness of the limits of the attempt to ‘bring the world under a rule’, as the British government tried to do and failed, inevitably.

There is also in Yeats the work of a critic as well as a poet, work which, as much as it commits utterly to the cause, also issues warnings to those aspiring to lead a free Ireland, for in their stone-hard resolve and commitment to the cause a certain callousness and insensitivity is being bred: ‘Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart’. Once sovereign themselves, just how much latitude in declaring their own exceptions would these newly minted authorities permit themselves when it came to the rule of law? In having to assert the validity and authority of a position there is the inevitable accompaniment of repression and violence. Would they demonstrate autonomy sufficient to open up passion and desire to critique?

So what of this self presenting in strategic inquiry? In typical strategic presentations the future is configured using concepts like evaluation, goals, milestones, and assets, and these are laid out in coherent representations fed by combinations of empirical information concerning what has occurred, by imaginative visions and scenarios, and by the promotion of vested interests. Yeats’ work is different. It works because it accepts the contingent, it appreciates the unhomeliness that lies at the centre of any vision for a home, and it remains passionate in spite of that. As is also so beautifully shown in stories like the Iliad, Yeats’ critical capacity accepts the world is already and always alive, and that facts gather about us: names, birth-places, foibles, norms, events, jealousies lay strewn like small pebbles along a vast stretch of open beach, nudged at the behest of great immortal tides into small congregations that carry an appearance of something substantial and enduring, but which last only as long as the next storm, or until fate walks by, picks them up and throws them casually into entirely new regions. As Matthew Arnold noticed whilst sitting on Dover (p.207) beach, things barely manage to find relief against stretching horizons until they are rolled back into the open sands or lost in the astringent surf.

In experiencing this loss and restlessness, the demands of self-forming into what is inherently open and indeterminate, strategic inquiry has been struggling, whether as a knowledge project in which the self being presented is assumed to be dispensing acts of organizing control, or as a visionary projection in which self is presented as an idealized end, or as wilful assertion in which the self is presented as issuing acts of self-government so determined they are inoculated from any orientation toward open time and space.4 All of these strategic forms of self presentation fail to take the empirical lesson of skepticism seriously. They want to compensate by proposing we can indeed control the world if we organize harder, with more accurate information and better managerial tools, or if we inspire and organize for an alternative, better world, or if we give up on self-forming and just float or fight. Using Kant, Arendt, and Smith as watershed figures, and then Hamlet and Georg as illustrative characters, I have attempted to evoke the beginnings of an alternative technique of organizational self-representation in which concerns with the limits of knowledge, vision, and will hold open the possibility for judgment. It is in Hazlitt’s figure of the spectator that this opening might be taken. His spectator offers a way through by holding onto the skeptical problem (he absorbs the inherent unknowability and plenitude of existence) whilst refusing to give up on a critical capacity to judge those conditions into which we are thrown and which demand we re-present ourselves. Indeed it is only in spectating that the self can be presented at all; for Hazlitt there is no such thing as ‘a self’, just endless historical modifications of self-forming under the aegis of spectating. Rather than being one of knowledge, vision or will, this self forming is, I suggest, a condition of judgment. Following Arendt, judgment embodies sensitivity to the demands of a situation—Aristotelian phronesis—that is nurtured by allowing general standards and rules to infuse the particulars of any situation (Lady Macbeth’s ‘fitness of time and space’) without imposition. Being performative in this way (judgment cannot happen outside of its expression as judging), the reading of and acting in situations becomes one and the same thing, and the experience, thus, becomes one of self-forming in the company of others doing likewise. In Arendt’s words, those who judge go visiting, considering how it is with others, and how one would be were one in their condition. Hence strategy—being, if you will, a concern with the self-forming of an organizational self through re-presentations of itself—can be understood in terms of judgment insofar as exponents of strategic inquiry (p.208) concern themself with how an organization can possibly attain a sense of coherence and unity in the first place, and from such awareness better appreciate how to maintain a sense of self as a form of imaginative (re)creation which, to use Hazlitt’s language, is both a throwing forward into a future sense of self, publicly, whilst carrying a past to which one remains utterly indebted.

To go back to Foucault’s terms, and especially his sense of care, this throwing forward evokes critical rather than just a phronetic concern for self forming, and concerns both the performative techniques of self-discipline (organizing according to a prevailing or known forms of signification) and transformation (having forms exposed to the felt significance of living in which being besides things entails a moving toward them, and away from what once was).5 As a judgmental condition, strategic inquiry becomes an organized form of care experienced in the indefinite possibilities for self-transformation set against, on the one hand, an entirely open future whose disciplinary force is, necessarily, imaginary, and on the other, the past forming what Hazlitt calls the ‘props that sustain the weight of our affections’ and which ‘give us strength to await our future lot in the form of memory’. Memories work by issuing less intense reminders of the events, habits, company, and learning by which we have come to experience ourselves, yet they occur atmospherically, they are subject to pullulating pressures and interruption and are far from being neatly outlined, nor are they even ‘ours’. It is the future that orients us toward memory, its blank expanse imploring us to fill out and use the silhouettes and ghostly presences in which filling out the acquired forms are necessarily transformed. Without a known future into which to act, judgment becomes that performative mode of inquiry occurring when the particular and general are found in endless and often tense conversation, in which the familiar and strange vie with one another without resolution, and in which the self and its situation blur along edges of feeling and the desire to feel. This is why Arendt’s polis is too neatly homogenous to work. Distinction becomes a struggle of orchestrating what we know about ourselves into a composition that allows us to declare ourselves as a unity, a self. This is the work of memory, but memory in concert with imagination, making spectating an historical and aesthetic forming of self, as much as a rational one. The forms of self being presented might sound discordant from time to time as they scrape against and stretch the standards and norms offered up in memory, but which remains demonstrably a work of our historically and collectively sited imagination, a composition whose themes, pace, and timbre are different from those of thoughtless activity; the sounds become a series of crafted rather than conscripted movements, albeit ones that can unhinge rather than just repeat what has gone before.

(p.209) Framing spectating as care encourages forms of imaginative self presentation in which the command ‘know thyself and declare it’ morphs into a process of constant creation as the settlements of the past—which we absorb in sometimes intense bouts of, and other times habituated, learning, and which we recover through mental and bodily memory—are both accepted and upset as in acting we project forward in imagining future selves (and others) whose authority has no grounding other than our own sense of power, our own sense that it is from us that they might emerge. Under spectating, a forming of the self is undertaken as one comes to know oneself by first knowing how it is to be otherwise, and in this knowing there is only a constant forming in the presence of contraries and contradictions. It is these that interest us, instilling in us the urge to inquire after the possibilities of self-transformation, inducing a turning in on ourselves that turns us on. By constantly pulling us back into consideration—without however directing us—the spectator makes conscious our awareness of how actions and thoughts might spill out into the future, not just as effects, but also as the hanging together of ‘then–when’, ‘now–that’, ‘at the time–when’ found within our own sense of self care. Its un-homeliness is akin to a prodigal return—what was once accepted and comforting recurs through disturbance from an insider who is also an outsider.


To illustrate this unhomely, caring sense of spectating and judgment in an organizational setting there is perhaps no better or obvious an example than the city of Thebes dramatized in Sophocles’ play Antigone. The tension gyres around the newly appointed ruler of Thebes, Creon, whose regency is being riddled with the uncertainties of internecine strife. Oedipus is dead. Oedipus’ sons Polynieces and Eteocles have fought over who will inherit Thebes, and both too are dead. Creon, brother of Oedipus’ wife Jocasta (also dead) finds himself ruling a city rent by struggle, its civic sensibility in tatters that flap listlessly then frantically in the uneven winds of fate. Creon’s role, as he envisages it, is to restore order so ‘the ship of state’ might once more sail in calmer winds, beyond the wrecks of war.

Creon’s longing for order is shared by his people, not the whimsical order of immortals who seem to have treated the city like a plaything, a top set spinning and then left to yaw as, childlike, their godly attention was diverted elsewhere. The order should be of a more human form, one where Creon, his family and the city rule as a civic unity, free from divine disturbance. In an assertive demonstration of this intent to rule on behalf of a people, Creon decides that of the warring brothers only Eteocles will have a proper burial. (p.210) Polynices, the aggressor who attempted an overthrow of what by custom was the responsibility of his brother who sought to defend Thebes, was to be dishonoured, left unburied as ‘a rich sweet sight for the hungry birds’ beholding’ (2, 25).6 Creon has no rulebook to follow here, save the one he is tearing up, or at least declaring an exception to, namely the rulebook of religious observances that defines burials as places where the living relatives may lament and seek vengeance for the loss of irreplaceable individuals. The previous King was Oedipus: resolute, intelligent, stubborn, vengeful, and doomed (and in this a little like Hamlet senior). Creon acknowledges how Oedipus allowed the city to flourish, before being undone by an enigmatic and withering curse brought to life by a combination of his own pride and acuity, and the god’s cruel whim, all of which was intensified by its being played out within the incestuous confines of a tight-knit family. Creon judges the problem to lie with the family itself and its inability to release itself from the gods’ curse. In refusing Polynices his place with the dead and the immortals, he seeks to regain for the city a sense of its being a law unto itself, a self-sufficient form that tarries with the gods rather than meekly submitting in the binary of a mortal–immortal hierarchy. And by placing a sentence of death on anyone attempting to even so much as throw dust on the body he is showing his word and his strength to act by flushing out the opposition that inevitably lies amongst those seeking to mourn and wail. No sooner is his edict issued than an array of oppositional force begins to cohere. The most strident and beautifully clear is Antigone, the warring brothers’ sister, whose refusal to accept the legitimacy of Creon’s reasoning sets an example that through the play bestirs others. The opening of the play finds her in defiant mood. She is determined to bury Polynices herself, first declaiming to her sister Ismene that the burial practices are sacrosanct and must be adhered to, before revealing a yet deeper reason for defiance: she is a sister, and a brother must be honoured. Ismene blanches in the shadow of Antigone’s intensity, afraid for them both lest they are punished for committing the ‘crime of piety’ (4, 5), and yet afraid more of the excessive capacity of her sister to suffer for the cause of her bloodline. Ismene demurs from what is right, Antigone asserts the rites regardless. The tragedy begins in this striving for a sense of what might or should be done/said: Creon looking towards ordering the city and its pre-eminence, and Antigone looking towards the grounding conditions of probity dictated to humans by the gods, and yet more intensely still to the integrity, honour, and glory of her own curse-stricken family. Both attempt to hold steadfast. Creon insists the corpse (p.211) remain unburied on pain of death, and Antigone insists on burying her brother, twice, before being caught and dragged unrepentant before the king.

In the beginning Creon is abetted by his advisors, the enigmatic Chorus, who—somehow speaking for the gods, but never clearly—announce in unison their interest in arriving at a resolution. They sense that Creon’s refusal of burial is a reasonable attempt at using punishment to recover civic order, his judgment to declare an exception to the rule of traditional law working as both retribution and deterrent. Leaving the aggressor’s body exposed as carrion will find him outcast in the afterlife, whilst also warning others of the likely fate of those prone to disobedience. Creon has asserted himself firmly, as a man and governor, and in this manly edict Antigone detects the hubris of one who believes the law of the city is his law (like Georg’s father) and can trump all other law. The hubris she identifies in Creon is threefold. First, she doubts that leaving her brother’s corpse exposed will bring about the desired effect, suggesting that punishing her honest attempt to honour the dead would alienate the people and cast the city into yet further turmoil. Creon retorts that no one has complained about his edict, nor has he heard voices of support for what she has done. Antigone—she who as a woman is always acting from the outside—replies this is simply the heedless nature common to most leaders: ‘They [the citizens] see, and do not say. You have them cowed’ (17, 25). Creon’s mistake is to conflate fear with agreement, the citizens are pinioned by Creon’s issuing a state of exception in which the old ways have been suspended, perhaps permanently. The guard who discovers Antigone putting dust onto the body for a second time makes this fear very apparent. He tells Creon quite honestly that he is not at all sure why the old ways have been suspended, and has arrested Antigone simply on the grounds that he feared for his own life should he not have done so. There is no respect for Creon, a condition that is made even more apparent later in the play when Creon’s son Haemon, who is pledged in love to Antigone, continues the refrain, reminding his father that leadership involves persuasion and conviction more than it does cowing people with force. Creon’s fault is to remain ignorant of talk from the gutters, he stands too far above the city’s ordinary commerce and gossip, alone, unable to speak with or learn from others.

His second form of hubris, more profound than the first, is his willingness to set the changing motley of human legal tradition against timeless godly verities; woe betides those who remain content to dwell in man-made structures alone. Creon is committed to establishing firm social order designed and sustained by human design, one role firmly cemented to another, each occupied by a loyal citizen, including that of ruler whose authority, being chosen, is non negotiable. It is the man who rules, not gods and not women, and he rules both the family and the city. Creon is adamant that Antigone’s insolence must be dealt with: ‘I am no man and she the man instead/ if she can have this (p.212) conquest without pain.’ (16, 30). For Creon ‘no woman rules me while I live’. Nor can any man rule him, even his son Haemon must buckle. Later on, when Haemon refuses to shed himself of the singular love for Antigone, as though it were a replaceable cloak, Creon accuses his son of the same crime of disobedience. For men and women alike the ordering and fate of the family shares the same form, order, and direction as that of the city state: ‘If I allowed disorder in my house/ I’d surely have to license it abroad/ A man who deals in fairness with his own/ he can make manifest justice in the state’ (23, 25). Creon believes himself to be atop both the house and state, commanding obedience in both, including in himself, as a servant to both family and state. Indeed it is noted by the same guard who arrested Antigone how, before catching her in the act of reburying her brother’s corpse, her appearance had been presaged and perhaps even facilitated by a strange whirlwind, suggesting brother and sister were receiving some form of divine attention. Transgress the immortals and very soon you confront the mortality of your body, and your city. In disobeying higher authorities—and there are always higher authorities—Creon will quickly find himself issuing decrees all alone and his laws carrying no protection against such mystery. All he can do, despite his attentiveness to a clean and fair civic design, is to encourage denial of the gods awhile, and as such house his own doom. Far better to dwell with the gods in exposed, humble acknowledgement of their ‘unwritten and unfailing laws’ (15, 40), and to enjoin to them equally in death marked by a proper burial to which all are due.

Thirdly, Antigone is aghast at Creon’s presumption in seeking to determine others’ unique lives so completely. Antigone’s desire to fulfil the funerary rites is an instinctual expression of the vaunted position in which the virtuous were held and respected as such. Polynices was a noble and deserves this acknowledgement as he makes his way to the next life and she, Antigone, has the right to undertake this ancient keening. Antigone remains sufficiently assertive to act from outside the city and beyond the Chorus, wailing for her brother, and declaring him notable and worthy of grief and re-marking, a woman defying a man, a citizen defying a ruler, and a sister refusing to admit one person is the same as the next: her brother is peerless, unique, and must be honoured as such. She spectates in relation to the organizational form of the city, but neither to the elusive network of immortals nor to her own family, whose obsession with homeliness constitutes the continual downfall of its home. Her punishment is to be incarcerated in a cave and the entrance blocked, there to die in starvation and alone. The inversion is marked, a corpse going unburied gives way to a live body being buried, and as she walks toward her own death she laments for her own noble self too with the self-centred intensity of one who feels fundamentally wronged. The lives of these individuals will be acknowledged, they will last through history.

(p.213) Creon believes he has learnt what it is right to do as a ruler in difficult, historical and structural circumstances, he has assayed the situation and made a judgment. He believes Antigone’s act is a narcissistic giving over to two unreliable orders: first that of the immortals which is only ever a felt order of belief and superstition, and second that of her family, which in her case is a fraught and troublesome form. His order is known, clear and made ever more present in its being asserted and backed by principles of collective responsibility and substitutability: no individual is greater than the city, nor is any god.7 He is stubborn, forthright, a confident tyrant.

As was hazarded by Antigone, Creon’s resolution in presenting an image of the city to itself and others as a ship of state of which he is navigator and captain serves nothing more than to tease out resistance in others.8 The organizational form in which he envisages Thebes taking shape lacks the fluidity to cope with multiple economies of feeling: those of the gods, of nobles, of newly ambitious citizens; of a tired and newly cynical army. The Chorus begins to waver, thinking perhaps that Creon’s representation of the city has it stuck between a rock and a hard place. They are wary that his patriarchal assertiveness is encouraging the ire of the gods: ‘the boasts of a proud tongue are for Zeus to hate’ (5, 40). They feel something perverse in his care-less obstinacy in which he is completely at home. Unwilling to consider presenting the city anew, he resorts to issuing yet further punishment to those who dispute the self image upon which he has fixed himself. Provoked by Antigone’s example, bouts of disobedience start to come thick and fast, expressions of tradition and prejudice whose time-worn physiognomy begins to stare Creon in the face, and he tries to stare back. ‘Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is strong’9 said Nietzsche, and the impulse becomes fierce in Creon. Punishment is a sign of a failure to persuade others, (p.214) it is costly, and when levelled at those on the side of tradition and prejudice typically entrenches opposition.

There is symmetry in Creon and Antigone: they are both assertive and committed to the right way, one honouring a family of noble but doomed individuals and the other the city fixed into a patriarchal design of structured offices. Yet Antigone has few fixed outcomes in mind and no compulsion to offer others council as to what they should do (save Ismene, to whom she appealed for help). Hers is a cry of passionately felt rectitude, a eulogy to her own capacity for feeling the rightness of doing something directly, without intervening calculation, without design. She acts impressively, generously, leaping into action without the company of reasoned argument, and the generosity with which she squanders her mortal life so utterly and willingly impresses itself upon others. Where Hamlet has to work at realizing a severance from his worldly role as prince, to become unhomely to better appreciate Arendt’s attempted distinction in authority between power and strength, Antigone is already ‘visiting’ and her body is catching up with her rarely minted, judging character. Antigone pursues her truth as such, indifferent to human comforts,10 she is told by the Chorus: ‘You went to the furthest verge/ of daring, but there you found the high foundation of justice, and fell’ (30, 5–10). In Berthold Brecht’s adaptation of the play he has her carrying a door on her back, as though in being burdened by self-sufficiency she finds some kind of access to a sense of religious truth and family truth by which she can shut out political truth. It is uncomfortable and inevitably it becomes a demonstration in self-praise directed not at herself but the necessity of doing right by others, notably doing right as a sister to a brother, whose companionship trumps all considerations of her own survival. She is aware she risks death, but this is nothing, for in death she will lie with her brother as a friend, and in honour:

  • God’s child and god she was
  • We are born to death.
  • Yet even in death you will have your fame,
  • To have gone like a god to your fate,
  • In living and dying alike (29, 30)

In comparison with her very public presentation of her own self, Creon’s orders are emptied of stirring power—they no longer sing because the emotional commitment to save Thebes from strife has found itself expressed in increasingly fixed and unsympathetic terms, until, at breaking point, Creon has only himself to command, and in the end he is commanding a husk of a man. Antigone gets out there, provocatively, and ventures on an uncertain journey of affecting others through exemplary commitment to her own motivations. (p.215) Her language is not a medium for transmitting information about states of affairs, but a self-galvanizing, self-enhancing poetic idiom in which events become woven into ever more nuanced pæans to herself and her lineage. This is what Sloterdijk calls an ancient role for language, long concealed by the modern obsession with words, and more broadly language, being some kind of problem, some kind of mediating source of obfuscation, on the other side of which lies reality. In Antigone’s talk life and death becomes her own prosodion—a processional performance of confident self presentation.11

Her howling and scraping at the dust becomes a one-way giving over: heed the love I have for my brother and for the rites of burial. Antigone carries the gift of her life intensely, generously, her self-praise affects others in their capacity to feel with her: it is the self-praise of one overcoming oneself. More so still it redounds with the love between sister and brother, a giving over to the bonds of birth by which one is tied inextricably to the other, equally. The provocation of this truth-teller resonates because of an appeal to higher truths, the truths that can come to you when you have done with the labour of trying to find passageways through the ancient statues and pillars of tradition, when you have reached the thin air and admit one’s fate. Creon’s judgment errs because as he tries to tell truths—the truths associated with the need for order, or with too obsessive a relationship with family—he fails to submit to necessity, imaginatively taking upon himself his own commitment to a single idea: the tyrannically ordered city and household. Whilst this may hold domestically as an idea at least, politically a leader must show flexibility, aware of others and what is owed to them. The tragedy shows this necessity bodily. His struggles are strewn across his face and contorted gestures, the agony of failure is writ through his blood. We see someone gradually realizing he is not living in a world of ideas and theories and models, but of action, failed action, an admission that comes resoundingly in the play’s closing lines:

  • Our happiness depends
  • on wisdom all the way.
  • The gods must have their due.
  • Great words by men of pride
  • bring greater blows upon them.
  • So wisdom comes to the old (45, 5).

Only dimly does it dawn on Creon his judgment has faltered, how his ‘planning was all unblest’ (42, 20). After the enigmatic and diluted warnings of the Chorus fail to properly alert him to his error, the tragedy unwinds through a (p.216) series of far stronger indications. We see his son Haemon, continuing the ship metaphor, pleading with his father to release her on grounds of pragmatic statesmanship: ‘A man, though wise, should never be ashamed/ of learning more, and must unbend his mind./…the ship that will not slacken sail,/ the sheet drawn tight, unyielding, overturns./ She ends the voyage with her keel on top’ (24, 35–25, 5). Then to compound this careening the blind prophet Tiresias predicts the gods will shun Thebes if Creon’s decision is not recanted, so angry are they that the rites associated with their ultimate reality have been shunned. Haemon cannot understand why his father is so determined to ignore the voice of the city, and the public Chorus becomes even more unsettled, and their collective intensity eventually finds Creon faltering. Yet too late: Antigone has hung herself rather than endure the ignominy of slow death. Haemon, distraught at finding her dead, follows her in suicide, as does Eurydice, Haemon’s mother and Creon’s wife. Loss and grief abound, Creon is alone, chastened, lurching in painful wisdom that he has ruled over nothing but ‘empty desert’.

Creon fails, then falls, hollowed out by the force with which he attempts to wrestle the contradictions of rule into an order that he feels befits both family and city, a force which he likens to the use of a horse’s bit, but without the mannered dignity of Athena.12 Hannah Arendt finds in Creon an authority without legitimacy because it lacks relational structure. If a sovereign is to have legitimacy, a city should be governed by power not strength, and power is always and only in the possession of a community experiencing their coming together in public conversation across reciprocally acknowledged roles in the form of a polis. Bonnie Honnig is less damning and acknowledges in Creon an authority attempting to create versions of these roles, but failing to get agreement.13 Creon issues orders, he rants, he asserts his manliness, and all the while he mistakes what it is to rule a city by believing he is acting in the public interest but, in truth, he is simply expanding his private, familial interests into an all-encompassing concern of the city. He assumes his interests are aligned with those of his family and the city at large and, in presenting himself to himself and others as Thebes, he fails to accede to the inevitability of strife that is built into all cities.

As a person Creon may demand of himself a sense of constancy and integrity by which others come to realize his character as one resolved to place itself in the service of the city. As a family member (and, as the only surviving male, the putative head) he may appreciate a need for order, especially in the cursed (p.217) House of Oedipus, so that as a well functioning economy (oikos) they come together to procreate and sustain their lives. As a ruler, however, this unity of organizational form gives way to a more political appreciation for what Honnig calls the need for concession and a preparedness for rupture, something he finally embodies in his own demise when at the end of the play he wants to leave the sight of men, his judgment finally yielding to shame ‘I who am nothing more than nothing now’ (44, 10). Creon’s edict refusing Antigone her rightful role (as sister, as a woman, as an embodiment of a more archaic, aristocratic economy) in the burial rites of her brother is not only an infringement of personal and family roles (where his singular strength might count and bring about some form of resolving order), but a trespass on the polis which is always a contested space, as Haemon attempts to remind him:


  • Am I to rule by other mind than mine?
  • Haemon:

  • No city is property of a single man
  • Creon:

  • But custom gives possession to the ruler
  • Haemon:

  • You’d rule a desert beautifully alone (26, 1–15)
  • It is because Creon knows his own mind but never spectates that the tragedy unfolds.14 He is, as Haemon remarks, in his own orbit, presenting himself to himself as a world entire, and so entirely without potency.

    Although at times he feels he is doomed by the whim of the gods, Creon has little excuse for his error, especially given the history of Thebes. Thebes was made of such rival forms, it always had been. It was founded when Cadmus, a Phoenician, having been advised by the oracle at Delphi to follow a wandering cow and create a new city wherever it came to rest, was led to a clear, life-giving spring guarded by a dragon. Being a dragon it refused Cadmus and his men, slaying many, until it in turn lay dead at the point of Cadmus’ sword. The fiery serpent had been an intimate of Ares, god of discord and war and, in successfully facing its wilful and indiscriminate violence, Cadmus had both won and erred: he had slain a sacred creature. Athena, equivocal and grey eyed, and like many of the immortals somewhat disdainful of Ares, took pity on Cadmus’ predicament and quickly bade him take half the teeth of the dragon and plant them in the soil, from which dark place grew the sown men (Spartoi), fully armed and quick to temper. Ares had wanted Cadmus punished by the Spartoi, yet, as Athena suspected, by taking the initiative and quickly planting the teeth himself Cadmus had disrupted Ares’ plans. The Spartoi (p.218) emerged too hastily, and without leadership or intelligent direction, they were as quick to battle one another as they were to attack Cadmus, until only five remained. These Cadmus was able to quieten and tame, and together they created the civic order that was to become Thebes. This order was further settled through Cadmus’s marriage to Harmonia, daughter of a hasty and, for the gods, somewhat laughable affair between Ares and Aphrodite. Harmony, the issue of attracted and equally paired opposites, is raw contradiction and tension, and bestirs herself to reconciliation in her own marriage to Cadmus, a movement that Nicole Loraux likens to a joining of dissimilar halves that remain opposed to one another, but somehow not in outright discord. Harmony is an active binary form, and not at all peaceful.15

    Thebes is born in strife: Cadmus acknowledges this; unlike Georg’s father, his lawgiving is a justice held fast in tensions and exceptions, not peaceful agreement, and this civic condition is embodied in the necklace he gives to Harmony, a piece of jewellery whose beauty hides a curse of misfortune for all around whose neck it is subsequently hung. Creon should have been aware of this history, and of how the myth continued to unfold in further stasis. It was, for example, the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, the priestess Semele, who gave birth to the outsider god Dionysius. She had been washing herself free from the blood of a sacrificial bull when Zeus, disguised as an eagle, flew overhead and fell, as ever, and as temporarily as ever, in love. His ‘visitation’ resulted in pregnancy, and his wife Hera, suspecting Zeus, befriended Semele. Knowing mortals could never survive an encounter with an undisguised immortal, Hera sowed seeds of doubt in Semele, encouraging her to question her lover as to his real identity. Semele demanded Zeus reveal himself, and despite initial protestations he complied, coming at her bedecked in deathly lightening. Semele died, and Hera felt avenged, but Zeus rescued the foetus and stitched it into his thigh from which fleshy nest he was born strong, yet dissolute and wayward, dia—or divided—from the ordered fantasy of an indivisible thing.16 Once grown Dionysius was driven mad by Hera and (p.219) outcast, wandering and raving in far off lands until eventually cured by the goddess Rhea, he was in touch with both sanity and insanity, with untamed nature and civil life, with creation and destruction. From Rhea he learned the cultivation of the vine to which democratic cult (for all can share the joys of wine) he became an intense exponent and leader, demanding of his followers a passionate and excessive devotion whose intensity brought ritual and abandon into delirious proximity.

    In The Bacchae Euripedes has Dionysius returning to Thebes seething with a quiet and controlled anger. Semele’s sisters Autonoe, Ino, and Agave have put it about that their nephew is no god at all, but the upshot of a passing mortal fancy too embarrassing to admit to; the patrimony of Zeus, they gossip, is a cover story. Dionysius drives the sisters into a mad frenzy during which commotion they flee to the mountainous woods surrounding the city and join the Maenads, the devout cult of female acolytes gathered in his service. In bouts of collective deliré the Maenads have caroused, drank, and sacrificed, and the women from the royal house of Cadmus join in the debauchery: the stealing of bronze and babies, the suckling of gazelles, being licked clean by snakes. Dionysius (in disguise) then persuades Pentheus (son of Agave and now king, Cadmus having grown old and retired) to assume the disguise of a Maenad and look on so he might apprise himself of how best to rid the city of such a rampant scourge. Pentheus climbs a tree to get a better look, and once aloft Dionysius reveals himself and incites his followers into a frenzied attack on the scapegoat king whose disguise no longer hides his robes. Pentheus is ripped limb from limb and his severed head carried triumphantly by his raving mother and presented to Cadmus and the citizens as a symbol of their prowess. Horrified Cadmus banishes the aunts who, slowly coming to their senses, realize what they done. Dionysius looks on as those who denied his lineage have their own diminished as they are made outcasts. He is the god of Thebes, a civic god acknowledged by the chorus in Antigone as he who watches over both the formal spaces of theatre and civic spectacle and also the mysterious spaces of the night sky: he is a form that dissolves form.17

    It is into such a myth that Creon finds himself placed, a city that since its inception has been a plaything for the gods, a city without the repose even of concealing this hurt as from one generation to the next its rulers err and struggle with success and failure alike.18 The city already has many forms, into which Creon is to carefully knit his own if he is to judge sympathetically. The tragedy concerns the nature of law: who and what to judge, bearing (p.220) witness to Heraclitus’ maxim that strife is in all things, especially that which appears unified. Antigone bears the tragedy of affirmation and denial with righteous certainty: she has the ear of the immortals and the heat of self-affirming anger to warm her as she wails and covers the cold body of her brother’s body with obliterating dust, and as she then brings herself to self-willed death. Creon bears it with bemusement, frustration, and finally a self-immolating declaration of despair in which he at last admits to the inner discord by which the city form, any city, is given birth, and toward which it is always liable to fall if those who rule fail to stir and keep in motion the parties who would otherwise not mix.

    Asked by the people of Ephesus for his opinion on how to realize civic harmony, Heraclitus was alleged to have remained silent, and instead to have mixed water, barley flour, and mint and then drank it, before leaving.19 Judgment arises from keeping in touch with things, refusing to contain them with classification long enough to preserve both their familiarity and strangeness. Creon’s mistake is to consciously and collectively create an organizational form according to his own self-image. His strategy is set to replace the rupturing wail of a keening woman with the sobering, reasoned advice of legions of officers and to settle the gods into a far off, sacred space far removed from the profane world of human affairs. When he encounters Antigone he treats her as though she were a wild thing who cannot be tolerated, an alien whose wailing and antique veneration of the old ways must make way for what is written down, clearly, as law, but his law. It is the blind prophet Tiresias, the augur, who councils the leader to be mindful of his insisting on trying to create such a unity, warning Creon that in asserting one economy above all others his vision for a city at peace with itself will fail and he, having to resort to brute will, will fall; as Lear found in his ‘love test’, in self assertion comes self destruction.

    The envisaged form Thebes might take—much like Corbusier’s Plan Voisin—displaces any care with wilful assertion and overlays any historical sense of a city’s unhomeliness (including a collective memory of its origin) with a timeless and unlived narrative vision of proper order emerging from chaos. Creon never gets to the point of admitting that his narratives threading the past, present, and future of Thebes are horizon lines assembled in diagrammatic orders that, under the slightest atmospheric pressure, present themselves anew, entirely. The tragic ends, or is dissolved, in the skeptical acceptance that language barely touches the world it espouses and attempts to influence. Yet Creon cannot see this, for then he relinquishes his designated role as a distinguishing and protecting sovereign force justified in his declaring exceptions by a sense of stately (p.221) good, and so he goes on suffering, along with the city. Thebe’s experience is akin to what Sloterdijk characterizes as ‘the vacillation of souls between isolation and consolidation, between the effort to separate and desire to unify, between the hell of difference and that of identity’.20 Creon moves to make Thebes, and all the citizens within, both distinct and unified, and falls foul of the inherent incoherence in the attempt to present such a unified organizational form to itself.

    Now in an age of corporate forms and digitized public spaces, now the gods have deserted and prophets have ceased to inaugurate truth, the role played by Tiresias in Thebes in attempting to persuade those in strategic authority of the need to admit contraries in processes of self presentation falls to that of the judge.


    (1) Kierkegaard’s existential sense of belief runs against the eschatology that permeated the Christianity of his time. Here the negative exists so as to present believers with a sense of struggle towards ‘the light’, its role is as part of a dialectical progress, a moving towards what is better and away from what is worse. Redemption, which when historicized promises the salvation of entire peoples, or even history itself, is the culmination of belief by the negative, is finally exhausted. In such progression comes a narrowing and a closing off as the human condition becomes more refined and its excellence more palpable; a condition that Kierkegaard, with coruscating irony, finds best embodied in the worldly entitlements of Copenhagen’s priestly classes. For Kierkegaard, if the negative exists only to exhaust itself at the moment of asking the final question, its death also signals the death of the human spirit because to finalize questioning is to leave the human dead as a historical being.

    (2) Kant felt it his private duty as a professor to expound publicly on questions of state and social authority. In this he was regarded as a potentially troublesome presence by the Prussian state (see Craig Calhoun, ‘Introduction’, Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1992. p. 2).

    (3) Nietzsche, Dawn. §190, §207. In the ‘Afterword’ to this edition Keith Ansell Pearson writes of Nietzsche as an heir to the Enlightenment project, arguing that Nietzsche sustains the hostility to superstition right through to a refusal to advocate any position. Kant’s commitment to a transcendental aspect of the self, or come to that Rousseau’s advocacy of the general will, were two such forms of theological commitment that could only induce yet further nonage. To dare to know is to leave room for exposure, to always be able to revaluate values by self-observing our condition and our drives and attending to the organization of such, continually. pp. 386–95.

    (4) See Bob Cooper, ‘Process and Reality’ in Jenny Helin, Tor Hernes, Daniel Hjorth, and Robin Holt (eds), Oxford Handbook of Process Philosophy and Organization Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2015.

    (5) See Michel Foucault, ‘Subjectivity and Truth’ in About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self. Translated by Graham Burchell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2016. pp. 19–51.

    (6) This and all subsequent quotations from the play are taken from the translation of Sophocles’ Antigone translated by Elizabeth Wyckoff, The Complete Greek Tragedies. Edited by David Greene and Richard Lattimore. New York: Pocket Books. 1973. pp. 161–209.

    (7) Bonnie Honnig (‘Antigone’s laments, Creon’s grief: Mourning, Membership and the Politics of Exception’, Political Theory, 2009, 37(1): 5–43) gives a sustained reading of Antigone’s character as Homeric, an antique reminder of the noble worth individuals might attain through heroic deeds, how they might curry favour from the gods, how their loss is often irretrievable and the source of lament, how she resists what in the figure of Creon is the new order of a tyrannical majority organized according to agreed legal codes and by offices rather than by tradition and the virtuous. Antigone and Creon represent antagonistic economies rather than the rupturing of one economy of membership.

    (8) The metaphor also comes in Plato’s Republic (VI, 488a–488d) in a discussion of the usefulness or otherwise of philosophers as advisors to rulers, and how democratic systems are constantly at risk of running aground or into the rocks. In democracies the law of numbers and the institution of truth in opinion means the helmsman and navigators of a city are always exposed to the importuning and flattering attention of hoi polloi seeking the promotion of their vested interests and only too willing to value and praise cunning over expertise. Creon, wanting to be a real pilot of the ship, is alive to the dangers of such manipulation, but in trying to avoid the clamour of vying voices becomes himself a tyrant, closed off to the counsel of the Chorus and his family, and alone in his paranoia and suspicion. See also Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982–1983. Translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. pp. 40–65.

    (9) Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin. §The Tarantulas.

    (10) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy. §4.

    (11) For Sloterdijk, Nietzsche is the prime exponent of such narcissistic language. Zarathustra is a book of self-praise, an expressive foray into the struggle and triumph of a being whose faith out lifts and out reaches the resentful conceits of authority figures like Creon; it is disinhibited, fervent in its delighted self-concern, enlightened by its own light, perhaps too much so at times.

    (12) See Michael Shaw’s ‘Introduction’ to Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’ Electra. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000. p. 35.

    (13) Bonnie Honnig, ‘Antigone’s laments, Creon’s grief: Mourning, membership and the politics of exception’, Political Theory, 2009, 37(1): 5–43.

    (14) Akin to what Heidegger was to call the Jemeinigkeit (mineness) of time, set against a lostness in the typical modes of organizing undertaken through clock time where things or ‘objects’ assume their place in the instrumental pursuit of (measured) progress. See William McNeil, The Glance of the Eye: Heidegger, Aristotle, and the Ends of Theory. New York: State University of New York Press. 1999. Also Mike Zundel, ‘Walking to learn: Rethinking reflection for management learning’, Management Learning, 2013, 44(2): 109–26.

    (15) Nicole Loraux, The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Greece. New York: Zone Books. 2002. pp. 119–20. Loraux holds onto a sense of all civic spaces being an instituted form of conflict—the commons have Ares in common, a stasis or holding together of equally opposed equal parties, as distinct from unequal divisions. She discovers an ambivalence within any Greek polis, a sense that law or justice is a continual process of holding on abeyance the urge of citizen groups to fight, a civil strife that morphs into the arguments of the agora, a warring instead of words from which pro and con comes the law of majority opinion swaying this way, then that, without the possibility of unanimity. This grounding in conflict is still visible in the victory—kratos—of an opinion over all others, the political supremacy of one part agreed to on the fragile basis of principled submission (see pp. 68–71; pp. 98–104).

    (16) Nicole Loraux (ibid., pp. 95–6) talks of dii or dia or dividing, disbanding (of an army) and dissolving (politically of a community), and yet also the coming together after a dispute as in dialuō, so an unbinding of that which disassociates, namely the anger or desire of citizens for death and excess; although it could refer to ‘of Zeus’—Dios.

    (17) Charles Segal, Dionysiac Poetics and Euripedes’ Bacchae. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1982. pp. 15–19.

    (18) Aristophanes in his play The Frogs describes the misfortune of Thebes, when it fell in thrall to the Sphinx, as an entire city held fast by nothing more substantial than an inscrutable look. Like frogs, comedy is never far from the surface of tragedy.

    (19) Loraux reads this episode beautifully: The Divided City. pp. 108–10.

    (20) Peter Sloterdijk, Nietzsche’s Apostle. London: Semiotext. p. 68.