Having successfully passed through our close encounter with the coronavirus many weeks ago — my girlfriend had it and recovered; I’m (presumably) asymptomatic — my girlfriend and I have wanted nothing more than to go outside.
We spent at least a month, perhaps it was six weeks, not going outside our front door. After our stress lessen, we didn’t leave the neighbourhood. When the mood swings started getting quite intense, we knew we had to do something.
The lack of direct sunlight had already had a noticeable impact on our mental and physical health but, after getting moved on by police during a recent walk to the park in southeast London, we felt we had to go elsewhere to get fresh air and not feel like we were compounding how own paranoia.
Throwing all prior caution to the wind, we decided to get in the car and leave the bounds of the M25. At first, we had a destination in mind — remote and strategically chosen as to be wholly without tourist attraction, and a little too out-of-reach for the casual dogwalker. However, on the way, we found a dirt track into woodland that we felt immediately drawn to.
It could have been a clichéd start to a horror movie. Thankfully it was very much the opposite — whatever the opposite of a horror movie might be…
What followed was a couple of hours wholly devoid of human contact in which we sat in a glade that may have been the largest empty open space I’ve seen in months, before we then spent a while following deer through the woods, later taking a moment to sit in a Matrix armchair that made me feel a bit like Morpheus in the desert (forest?) of the Real.
The Baudrillardian visual joke felt strangely apt — and Baudrillard, of course, loved a joke. But it was an odd one to laugh along with. With the nation’s superego seemingly bloated on antibiotics, as we continued our battery hen-like existence, subsisting on an ideological drip feed and waiting for the next opportunity to clap, this first walk through nature felt like an opportunity to move through the world unseen for the first time in months. We were spared the judgements of others. We were also spared our own desire to judge and twitch at the curtains, wondering who is doing the most to protect their fellow citizens.
In Simulacra & Simulation, Baudrillard gives fugitive form to the Real as follows, writing:
If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire
draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the
Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though
some shreds are still discernible in the deserts — the metaphysical beauty of this ruined
abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning
to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real
through aging) — as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full
circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept.
Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the
generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no
longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes
the territory — precession of simulacra — that engenders the territory, and if one must
return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of
the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the
deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.
There is a 1:1 ideological cartography that is felt acutely at the minute, and its frayed edges are certainly becoming more pronounced. Mid-quarantine, for instance, during the worst of it, it felt like everyone was paranoia and, at the same time, no one was doing enough. The paradox was exhausting and infuriating, as you felt like the inadequate eye of the state, like everything else, had been outsourced to the neighbourhood watch. Is an intensely paranoid citizenry better than a police state? I suppose things weren’t quite that bad…
Right now, as we look out at our neighbours like scornful curtain-twitchers — our neighbours who have done nothing to social distance, even having a house party as soon as the Boris Johnson hinted at the possibility of a slackening of restrictions — the gulf between us also seems to be second-hand. Is this gulf between incompetence and paranoia ours or has it been passed down to us by successive governments who embody these ill-fitting affects absolutely?
It is hard to tell in the midst of it all but, as with Baudrillard’s original Borges-inspired analogy, the woods we found ourselves in were distinctly not those of the “Empire”; of the state. We felt apart from the swirling mess of ideological tension and suddenly found a new perspective to look back at the world from. From here, Baudrillard’s thesis only became more apt, as we considered the ways that coronavirus has presented us with a crisis of sign-value, where generations of semiotic worth are undermined to the point that PPE, video games and self-raising flour are the only hot commodities left. It is the cyberpunk future the Stepford Wives always wanted, and it is as ineffectively distributed as ever.
Not only had we slipped out of the maw but, with all of this going on, the eye of the state felt focused elsewhere. We were no longer looking at it; it was no longer looking at us. This was not the Derbyshire dales, stalked by police drone. This felt properly off grid.
As we walked through the woods, completely astounded, having almost forgotten what it was like to take a walk like this — which may sound melodramatic given how little time, in the grand scheme of things, had passed, but I think we have all been surprised by how intensely time can be compressed at present — we talked about where in the world we would have preferred to spend quarantine if we could have had the choice. This had been a common question, under present circumstances, but it was made all the more immanently psychedelic on our walk in the woods, as if to say it out loud would summon such a place behind the next bend.
Before we left the house, I’d seen a photo of Wittgenstein’s philosocabin on Twitter and so, when my girlfriend asked wistfully about where I’d like to be, it was the first place to come to mind.
I thought about Norway — and the towering trees around us helped manifest it — but I’m sorry to say I’ve never been. The closest we have gotten to Scandinavia is Denmark, where we’d spent some time north of Copenhagen, on the coast, not far from a village called Taarbæk.
The first time we went was in winter, having had the unexpected opportunity to go on holiday and stay in a small house on campus at DTU whilst a member of my partner’s family was working there. We went back a few times afterwards. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere more beautiful. It’s still my happy place. I’d give anything to be back there right now.
Walking through those woods in Surrey, as if walking through a dream of the more dense regions of the Jægersborg Dyrehave, there was a certain guilt hanging over our meandering. We knew that, up to now, we’d been more self-disciplined than most under quarantine, partly through necessity as an obviously infectious little unit, but to be outside that day was so far beyond the advice given by the state. And yet, we found ourselves more isolated than we had been in weeks. We felt disorientated, coming to terms with the fact that what felt like the right thing to do felt way beyond the state’s understanding of the public good.
This was compounded by the fact that living in London under lockdown had felt like an impossible task. Everyone lives on top of each other; London is already its own form of wet market, in a way, as we all jostle for position in these infernal stacks.
We passed three mounds of ant nests on our walk out and I had never felt more relieved to be outside the city limits. We were like two scavengers detached from the swarm and it felt, at times, like we might have died and gone to heaven. The blankets of bluebells certainly had a lot to do with that. We were the happiest we’d been in weeks, finally being able to, somewhat paradoxically, isolate ourselves away from our futile isolation.
From Denmark, my mind wandered to Kierkegaard’s Antigone. I’ve been thinking about her a lot these last few months, trying to chart a complex contained within a throwaway tweet, ricocheting from Hegel to Lacan to Nietzsche to Blanchot to Irigaray to Butler to Žižek and now to Kierkegaard.
Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, in Sophocles’ original play, is caught between family and state — or, we might say, similarly to us, personal responsibility and the law of the state. With her father dead, her brothers too, she and her sister Ismene find themselves bereft, adrift in a life that has brought little but grief and sorrow. They are cursed, thanks to their father’s misadventures, and seem to be struggling with the full emergence of a fate they always knew would come.
Then, to add a final insult to their myriad injuries: Creon, the king of Thebes, has decreed that the body of Antigone’s brother, Polynices, killed in battle, cannot be buried or mourned. “He’s to be left unwept, unburied,” Antigone reports to her sister, “a lovely treasure for birds that scan the field and feast to their heart’s content.” She knows the law, but she cannot stand it.
In this way, the play dramatises the classic tragic interplay between the state and one’s own conscience. Antigone cannot obey Creon’s decree. No matter her brother’s actions — he fought on the wrong side in a battle to overthrow Creon — she cannot leave him unmourned to rot in the sun. He is blood. His fate, to her, is unthinkable.
This conflict has been analysed by many. However, Kierkegaard’s intervention in the reception of Sophocles’ slippery heroine is particularly influential. He reimagines her in his own time but also preempting what she might become. This is to say that Kierkegaard’s is a modernist Antigone. No longer is she cast between her brother’s carcass and the laws of the state. Instead, the conflict occurs internally.
This view is one that, today — as I have perhaps already (inadvertently) demonstrated — comes all too easily. Kierkegaard charts, however, how a certain shift has occurred, between how Antigone appears to us today and how she appeared in her own time.
In ancient tragedy, Kierkegaard explains, the individual is not so much an independent “subject” as a moment of variation. If we take the structure of an ancient tragedy to be like a song, the chorus, quite literally, represents the chorus as we know it today — that moment of essential telos, that collective gesture, an “action and situation” that approaches “the substantiality of epic or the exaltation of lyric” — the chorus is, in a way, like a participatory part of the audience, the spectator dramatised. The individual character, however, is a verse — “the concentration of lyric” that cannot be absorbed by the chorus itself.
This sounds knotted and complex but it is, in a way, the same relationship between verse and chorus in song — one of difference and repetition but all, nonetheless, contained within a common structure, known and popularly understood. This is particularly true of Antigone. She is not so much a Great Individual, striking out on her own, but a sort of expressive driftwood, giving voice to two eternal currents that the audience knows: genealogy and law. It is a drama that explores two struggles felt by all. We might say all dramas do this through subtext but, in ancient Greece, tragedy, in a far more explicit sense than we are used to, prefigures the audience as spectators of their own collective unconscious.
Modern tragedy — and this is still true today — is not so epicly self-contained. It does not necessarily try and speak to a collective unconsciousness and its universal struggles but instead to an individual consciousness and its particular struggles. As Kierkegaard writes:
The [modern] tragic hero is subjectively reflected in himself, and this reflection hasn’t simply refracted him out of every immediate relation to state, race, and destiny, often it has refracted him even out of his own preceding life. What interests us is some certain definite moment of his life as his own deed. Because of this, the tragic element can be exhaustively represented in situation and words, there being nothing whatever left over of the immediate. Hence modern tragedy has no epic foreground, no epic heritage. The hero stands and falls entirely on his own deeds.
Kierkegaard notes that this is an understanding we have of the ancients thanks to Aristotle. Furthermore, he notes how Hegel aligns himself with Aristotle too, as he untangles self-consciousness from “spirit”. Kierkegaard’s insight, however, seems to be that, just as the tragic form itself has been transformed by modernity, so too must our conception of it keep apace. Hegel, it seems, for Kierkegaard at least, lags behind, relying on what the ancients can tell the moderns without fulling following through on the dialectic that results from our combined understanding of the ancient collective and the modern individual.
For Kierkegaard, then, Antigone becomes the essential figure who, reactivated in the present, reveals the full complexity of our tragic circumstances.
What in the Greek sense provides tragic interest is the fact that, in the brother’s unhappy death, in the sister’s collision with a single human circumstance, there is a re-echoing of Oedipus’s sorry fate; it is, one might say, the afterpains, the tragic destiny of Oedipus, ramifying in every branch of his family. This totality makes the spectator’s sorrow infinitely deep. It is not an individual that goes under, but a little world; the objective sorrow, set free, now strides forward with its own terrible consistency, like a force of nature, and Antigone’s sorry fate is like an echo of her father’s, an intensified sorrow. So when Antigone, in defiance of the king’s prohibition, resolves to bury her brother, we see in this not so much a free action on her part as a fateful necessity which visits the sins of the fathers on the children. There is indeed enough freedom here to make us love Antigone for her sisterly love, but in the necessity of fate there is also, as it were, a higher refrain enveloping not just the life of Oedipus, but all his family too.
So while the Greek Antigone lives a life free enough from care for us to imagine her life in its gradual unfolding as even being a happy one if this new fact had not emerged, our [modern] Antigone’s life is, on the contrary, essentially over. It is no stingy endowment I have given her, and as we say that an aptly spoken word is like apples of gold in pictures of silver, so here I have placed the fruit of sorrow in a cup of pain. Her dowry is not a vain splendour which moth and rust can corrupt, it is an eternal treasure. Thieves cannot break in and steal it; she herself will be too vigilant for that. Her life does not unfold like that of the Greek Antigone; it is not turned outward but inward. The scene is not external but internal, a scene of spirit.
What does any of this have to do with an escape to the country from Covid-19? Kierkegaard essentially sets the stage for all Antigones to come. I have wondered, ever since, if a new one might emerge from our present circumstances, defined by anti-lockdown protests and the need to work and the desire for secret escapes, complicating this vision of Antigone’s “criminal good” all the more.
In many analyses of Antigone’s fate, after Kierkegaard, more attention has been given to the limit that she represents, rather than any particularly emancipatory project. For Lacan, for instance, in his seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis, Antigone becomes a kind of quintessential modern masochist. Kierkegaard sees the “guilt” that Antigone carries with her, in its very constitution, as being a sort of perversion of the destiny of Christ. She is her father’s daughter. As such, Antigone is subjected to a secret; an “inherited guilt”, like original sin, but it is a guilt that also defines her. She is even proud of it, and it is this further self-affirmation that leads her to commit her “good crime” which, nonetheless, leads to her demise.
Such is our Antigone. Proud of her secret, proud that she has been chosen to save in so remarkable a manner the honour and esteem of the house of Oedipus… She consecrates her life to sorrow over her father’s destiny, over her own.
Antigone, then, is like “a victim in search of a torturer and who needs to educate, persuade and conclude an alliance with the torturer in order to realise the strangest of schemes.” This is no longer Kierkegaard but how Deleuze describes the masochist, and so too does Lacan describe the masochist as that person who desires “to reduce himself to this nothing that is the good, to this thing that is treated like an object, to this slave whom one trades back and forth and whom one shares.” For Lacan, this is Antigone absolutely, but he also aligns this masochism with those dionysian Freudian drives: of the feminine, of death and of the mother. It is here that Lacan defines his ouroborosic death drive — Antigone’s desire for death becomes a desire to return to the womb, from whence, especially in her family, so many complications sprang forth.
In reducing herself to such an object, as the archetypical feminine, she suspends herself, as Lacan says, “between two deaths” — a death at the hands of the state and a death by her own hands. It is suicide by cop, Theban style. And yet, Lacan argues that Antigone has no other choice. She is not only caught between two deaths for herself but her brother’s two deaths also — as far as the state is concerned, he is a dead criminal; for Antigone, he is a dead brother nonetheless, no matter his crimes; and, not only a brother but a surrogate son, following the death of her mother. Therefore, her tie to her brother is only intensified by the tragedy of her life thus far. How does one resolve this conundrum? By suspending all language, and only entering into action from this outside. Beyond the relations that define each relationship to her brother, to cast a body out and let it be ravaged by dogs remains an abhorrence against nature.
Because [Polynices] is abandoned to the dogs and the birds and will end his appearance on earth in impurity, with his scattered limbs an offence to heaven and earth, it can be seen that Antigone’s position represents the radical limit that affirms the unique value of his being without reference to any content, to whatever good or evil Polynices may have done, or to whatever he may be subjected to.
The unique value involved is essentially that of language. Outside of language it is inconceivable, and the being of him who has lived cannot be detached from all he bears with him in the nature of good and evil, of destiny, of consequences for others, or of feelings for himself. That purity, that separation of being from the characteristics of the historical drama he has lived through, is precisely the limit or the ex nihilo to which Antigone is attached. It is nothing more than the break that the very presence of language inaugurates in the life of man.
This reading of a Lacanian feminine that comes with its innate mode of slippage is later taken up by Irigaray, who affirms it absolutely. She inaugurates, in Speculum of the Other Woman, somewhat echoing Lacan from fifteen years before, a radically feminine subject.
For her, it is up to a (truly) modern Antigone to produce the synthesis between herself and Creon that Hegel neglected. She must not resign herself to her individual tragic fate — a suicide outside language — but spread her innate rupture amongst the citizens of the state. She should refuse “to be that unconscious ground that nourishes nature” so that womanhood can “demand the right to pleasure, to jouissance, even to effective action, thus betraying her universal destiny.” She should affirm the link between the death drive and motherhood, as Lacan sees it — Antigone’s desire for death is similarly a desire to return to the womb. She inaugurates, for Irigaray, a newly matriarchal mutation of “kinship.” I interpret this, somewhat jaggedly, as a mantra that women should not be nothing but breed nothings.
For Judith Butler, however, Irigaray’s position is something of a misstep. To universalise Antigone, in the particularity of her experience, is to drag her back from her limit and sanitise the unsharable facts of her existence. This is to say that Irigaray’s affirmation is all well and good, but Antigone’s is hardly a demonstration of a woman’s radical autonomy. The tragedy is precisely that this is what she lacks. Even in her rebellion, she remains trapped within father’s fate.
In trying to affirm Antigone, then, Irigaray tries to force an agency into Antigone’s life that is not there. As Butler asks, in her book Antigone’s Claim, in light of Irigaray’s reading, “can Antigone herself be made into a representative for a certain kind of feminist politics, if Antigone’s own representational function is itself in crisis?”
Butler’s (proto-xenofeminist) conclusion is as follows, perhaps (and finally) bringing back to mind the strange paradox in which we find ourselves at present:
Prohibited from action, she nevertheless acts, and her act is hardly a simple assimilation to an existing norm. And in acting, as one who has no right to act, she upsets the vocabulary of kinship that is a precondition for the human, implicitly raising the question for us of what those preconditions really must be. … If kinship is the precondition of the human, then Antigone is the occasion for a new field of the human, achieved through political catachresis, the one that happens when the less than human speaks as human, when gender is displaced, and kinship founders on its own founding laws. She acts, she speaks, she becomes one for whom the speech act is a fatal crime, but this fatality exceeds her life and enters the discourse of intelligibility as its own promising fatality, the social form of its aberrant, unprecedented future.
When Butler speaks of the “less than human [who] speaks as human”, she is explicitly referencing Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer — an “accursed man”; a walking paradox who can be killed with impunity but not sacrificed. Agamben’s homo sacer is something of a zombified existence but it is quite telling here, I think, in our present context. (And yes, I know that invoking Agamben is dangerous territory to wander into in the context of Covid-19.) Thankfully, Žižek is on hand to provide an Antigone most appropriate to now, with both Agamben and Butler in mind.
First summarising Butler’s critique of Lacan, he writes in the introduction to his own retelling of Antigone: “Lacan’s very radicality (the notion that Antigone locates herself in the suicidal outside of the symbolic order) reasserts this order, the order of the established kinship relations, silently assuming that the ultimate alternative is the one between the symbolic Law of (fixed patriarchal) kinship relations and its suicidal ecstatic transgression.”
Might we think, instead, then, of a modern Antigone who does herself justice? Apart from the interpretations that have inadvertently dragged her back from the limit in which she exists? Žižek reposes these questions, arguing that
Antigone speaks for all the subversive ‘pathological’ claims which crave to be admitted into the public sphere; however, to identify what she stands for in this reading with homo sacer misses the basic thrust of Agamben’s analysis. There is no place in Agamben for the ‘democratic’ project of ‘renegotiating’ the limit which separates full citizens from homo sacer by gradually allowing their voices to be heard; his point is, rather, that, in today’s ‘post-politics’, the very democratic public space is a mask concealing the fact that, ultimately, we are all homo sacer.
This was perhaps, in part, Agamben’s argument when he, somewhat misguidedly, applied his own political theories to the present pandemic. As Joseph Owen writes for Verso:
Agamben claims that coronavirus … is an epidemic conjured up by the Italian authorities and exacerbated by the national media. For him, the virus functions as an insidious form of mass panic and misdirection, as an excuse to extend prohibitive emergency measures over a mostly willing and anodyne population.
For anyone vaguely acquainted with Agamben’s work, his response won’t come as much of a surprise. His view is that citizens accept the bare minimum of existence to live under almost permanent restrictions of liberty. Governments treat every event as a pretext for the suspension of normal laws. Citizens adapt to the new reality: they defer to the exception, and so it becomes the rule. In doing so, some vital element of human life is suppressed or undone.
Agamben’s position was not exactly a popular one… Many saw it as hysteric a response as he was accusing the national media of, bordering on the conspiratorial and also suspending any individual or community’s capacity to act. As insightful as it may have been, it nonetheless felt blinkered and reductive. However, perhaps the complexity of Antigone’s fate is a better context from which to consider his point, as we find ourselves all homo sacer, suspended between two deaths.
This is the terror I think we felt acutely when on our walk — damned if we did, damned if we didn’t. To do as we were told felt like resigning ourselves to potential death due to the incompetence of the state and — unfortunately (but also by extension) — some of our neighbours. To go out for a walk was perhaps to demonstrate our own incompetence when confronted with this sense of entrapment.
Žižek captures this paradox well in his adaptation of Sophocles’ play. The closing remarks of the chorus seem to get closer to the point than Agamben’s hysteria:
Old wisdom has it right — we can’t escape
the clutches of our fate. But what this wisdom
ignores is that we also can’t escape the burden
of our own responsibility. We cannot use our fate
as an excuse to do what pleases us.
The parents of Antigone’s father
knew in advance his fate and tried to avoid it,
but their very measures to achieve this noble end
helped the fate to realize itself. The bitter lesson
of Oedipus’s story was that a man who has no choice
since evil is his fate, is no less fully guilty
for his disgusting deeds. But what Antigone’s sad story
taught is that if we miraculously return in time
to change the course of the events that brought about
the present cataclysm, the new outcome
might even surpass the old one in horror and distress.
It is up to you to choose at your own risk and peril.
There is no one to help you here, you are alone.
When we’re alone, when nothing happens, all of a sudden
we’re hit by the murmur of life, and at that moment
wise men know how to suspend the chaos and decide.
I think our decision, in the grand scheme of things, was just such a criminal good. At least we weren’t going to march on Hyde Park, insisting on displaying our own incompetence readily in front of an incompetent state and media. We were proud of our secret, but a secret it remained. The terror of this decision, however, and the terror of Antigone’s tale is that in following the (technically) lawful good of the state, we might all become killers. The guilt of imperialism embodies this most explicitly, but what about when death occurs on such a scale at home? There is a strange paradox in affirming that possibility so that one might actually be less of a risk.
The absurdity of this predicament is captured brilliantly in Jacqueline Rose’s recent essay “Pointing the Finger” — an essay on Camus’s The Plague in the time of Covid-19. Camus’s tale is itself a kind of retelling of the stakes of Antigone’s. This is most apparent when Rose writes of how the character Grand, for instance,
point[s] the finger at the modern state, which forbids violence to its citizens, not becuase, as Freud puts it, ‘it desires to abolish it, but because it desires to monopolise it, like salt and tobacco.’ For Tarrou, the responsibility of the citizen for his own violence is not diminished by such fraudulence but intensified, since it confronts him with what the state enacts in his name. The plague will continue to crawl out of the woodwork — out of bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers — as long as human subjects do not question the cruelty and injustice of their social arrangements. We are all accountable for the ills of the world.
It is here that we find ourselves confronted with the Real, in the Lacanian sense as much as the Baudrillardian sense with which we began. Lacan, in his seminar on ethics, which concludes with Antigone, states that “the moral law, the moral command, the presence of the moral agency in our activity, insofar as it is structured by the symbolic, is that through which the real is actualised — the real as such, the weight of the real.”
This was no less apparent on our woodland walk, in which we felt the full weight of the real at its most sublime; at its most beautiful and terrifying. We entered a world in which spring was still unfolding, unperturbed by pandemic, but in which the greenery only amplified the human detritus scattered throughout the forest. This was a world simultaneously without virus and without us. More than anything, though, to escape the bounds of the city allowed us to truly confront our own moral agency, unmediated by the absolute takeover that social media and emails and news feeds had enacted upon our lives — for better or for worse.
Welcome to the forest of the real.