As previously mentioned, I was recently invited to Kraków to run a reading group as part of this year’s Unsound festival. The theme of the festival was “bubbles”, and the sub-theme I chose to respond to was “displacement”, presenting some of my current PhD research on displaced children, as read through philosophical readings of Oedipus and Antigone.
It was a fleeting visit, as often happens when doing talks abroad, and I was only able to spend (just under) twenty-four hours in the city. But it was a wonderful opportunity. Thanks to everyone who came along, and thank you for being so engaged during what I imagine is a jam-packed week of successive hangovers .
Below is a sort of exploratory and explanatory preamble that I wrote to unpack the two short excerpts I chose for the reading group: the final two paragraphs of the chapter “Savages, Barbarians, Civilised Men” in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (London: Bloomsbury Revelations, pp. 309-311) and the concluding argument of the first chapter of Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim (New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 21-25).
Below that, I’ve thrown in some photos taken during my stay.
Choosing Anti-Oedipus for a reading group at Unsound feels like a bit of a cliché. From the Mille Plateaux label to Deleuze and Guattari’s general popularity in experimental music circles, they almost seem a bit old hat. But I think there are some further points to draw out of this text that can further comment on how we relate to one another and how we produce culture, or even break free of cultural norms, today in the twenty-first century.
My own research at the moment is focussed on this through their analysis of children, or the figure of the child as a kind of metaphor for a kind of free agent that is nonetheless beholden to a lot of sociocultural restrictions.
Deleuze and Guattari introduce this point here by first going back to Martin Luther and the Protestant reformation. They write how, for Marx, “Luther’s merit was to have determined the essence of religion … as an interior religiosity”. What they are referring to here is arguably the tandem emergence of Protestant Christianity and our very conception of the individual during the Renaissance. Though it’s hard to think otherwise today, we did not really have a sense of what it means to be an individual before this point – at least not in the same way we do today. But Luther changes this. His protests against the Catholic Church were driven by his hatred of the Church’s corruption, whereby the rich and powerful somehow had an inopportune amount of sway of their own salvation, relative to the rest of the population.
At that time, it was as if the Church offered a kind of “cash for absolution” deal, whereby the wealthy could donate to the Church and that made them more pious in the eyes of God. Luther disagreed with this, and argued that the Church had no such power. Our salvation before God is our individual responsibility – it cannot be bought, and it cannot be adjudicated by social institutions. The Church, for Luther, was meant instead to be a social space for individual actualisation.
But the problem that later emerges is that, following the rise of capitalism, this critique was reabsorbed within our social institutions themselves, giving rise to what we now call the “Protestant work-ethic”. This allowed capitalist institutions the opportunity to disregard their own social responsibilities. In a contradictory perversion of Luther’s protestations, economic salvation became the responsibility of the individual alone, and could not be adjudicated by overarching institutions, so it is down to the individual worker to realise their own emancipation by working hard and diligently.
This gave rise to a further and even more peculiar contradiction, whereby a critique of certain institutions was internalised by those institutions themselves, not so that they could change their ways but rather so they can relinquish their own sense of collective responsibility. As Deleuze and Guattari write, “capitalism is without doubt the universal of every society, but only insofar as it is capable of carrying to a certain point its own critique — that is, the critique of the processes by which it re-enslaves what within it tends to free itself or to appear freely.” Put another way, capitalism makes every worker feel like they are masters of their own fate, and that they only have to work hard to gain their own freedom, but this insistence upon hard work is, of course, the foundation of capitalism’s capture, and so, though we enter capitalist society buoyed by an ideological sense of our own agency, we ignore the reality of our own enslavement to capitalism’s norms and desires, which are not inherently our own.
Deleuze and Guattari extend this same problem to Freudian psychoanalysis. They note how Freud only replicates this problem within his analysis of the family and its psychosexual dynamics.
Freud takes this “interior religiosity”, as the “abstract subjective essence” of Protestant-capitalism, but “still relates this essence to the family as the last territoriality of private man”.
This is made obvious when we consider the story of Oedipus Rex – as told by Sophocles, for instance – in its entirety, and do not restrict ourselves to Freud’s reductionist reading. In the original play, Oedipus is given up at birth, because his parents are told a prophecy that he will be their downfall. They abandon him and place him outside of the family, leaving him to die. But Oedipus doesn’t die – he grows up and drifts around his world, untethered from the family as an institution. He grows up an orphan or adoptee – a displaced child. But Freud then takes Oedipus’s fate for granted, universalising it.
Though this may be encouraged by the tale itself, insofar as Oedipus cannot escape the prophecy told and is therefore fated to return to the familial fold, we can just as readily imagine another life for him, and consider what it is, socially or culturally speaking, that draws Oedipus back into the family that abandoned him. Indeed, this is the tragedy of Oedipus – that he was fated to kill his father, marry his mother, and have numerous children by her. But this is what Deleuze and Guattari call Freud’s “familialist reduction”, which he takes as a given, against Oedipus’s earlier life, when he instead symbolised “the drift of desire.” By taking Oedipus’s fate as a given, Freud cancels out this drift and forecloses it, just as capitalism does to the free individual, enabled by Protestantism.
My own interest in this story comes from how, in other tales of familial displacement, we do not take Oedipus’s fate for granted at all. In fact, stories of displaced children are ubiquitous in our culture. In terms of the English-speaking world, or the West more generally, there’s Moses, Hercules, Aladdin, Peter Pan, Jesus Christ himself, Oliver Twist, Pip from Great Expectations, various characters in David Copperfield — probably a dozen Dickens characters in just as many books, come to think of it — Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Harry Potter, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker, Worf from Star Trek, Eleven from Stranger Things, K from Blade Runner 2049, Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, most of the X-Men, the young King Arthur with his sword in the stone, that devil child from The Omen, the baby in Rosemary’s Baby — both birthed and held but also given up to or taken over by forces from outside the nuclear family bond — Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Pinocchio, Tarzan, Cinderella, Matilda (in her own way), Mowgli in The Jungle Book…
It is of course notable that many of these figures are male, with the pressure of escaping the family but also reproducing the family (at least socially if not biologically speaking), being left up to men, as if they are the only ones with much of a choice in the matter. But as we’ll come onto in a bit, I think female examples – and especially queer examples – are much more interesting.
(It is also worth noting how the archetype of the displaced child is not limited to human offspring either. There’s Harry from Harry and the Hendersons, Bambi, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Grogu from The Mandalorian, and so many dogs, so many anthropomorphised and alienated strays…)
This tension within our cultural representations of the limits of the family and its outside are framed by Deleuze and Guattari in an interesting way. They argue that
the family must appear in two forms: one where doubtless it is guilty, but only in the manner in which the child lives it intensely, internally, and where it is confounded with the child’s own guilt; the other where it is a tribunal of responsibility, before which one stands as a guilty child, and in relation to which one becomes a responsible adult (Oedipus as sickness and sanity, the family as an alienating factor and as an agent of dealienation, if only through the way in which it is reconstituted in the transference).
What Deleuze and Guattari later insist upon, however, is that we break out of this individualising tendency. They argue that we must “discover beneath the familial reduction the nature of the social investments of the unconscious.” This is still where the displaced child is an interesting metaphor, I think. Indeed, the stories about these kinds of individuals, listed above, are so culturally ubiquitous that they surely cannot be reduced to the “familialist reduction” and instead must speak to those “social investments of the unconscious.” In these stories, though the actual social experiences of displaced children are very specific, we nonetheless can find a tension we’re all enthralled by – the pressure to reproduce the family for ourselves, once we have escaped its bounds into adulthood, but also our innate desire, that we carry onwards from childhood and adolescence, to be free of its restrictions. It is as if these stories acutely dramatize a collective unconscious fantasy to deal with the conflated pressures of the family and its outside.
It is this same tension that Judith Butler takes up in her 2000 work, Antigone’s Claim. Indeed, the very first line of the excerpt I’ve suggested for this reading group articulates the problem that lies at the heart of Freud’s reading of Oedipus. Just as Deleuze and Guattari argue, in looking more generally at Oedipus’s fateful journey, in reading Butler we can just as well “concede that desire is radically conditioned without claiming that it is radically determined” – which is to say, we can accept that there are social structures that tragically draw us back to the family from which we escape, as happens to Oedipus, but these are conditions of influence rather than determinations of fate.
And Butlerlikewise makes reference to that peculiar double bind of capitalism (and the Freudian family) as well, in that these structures paradoxically affirm our escape from their bounds if only so that our reterritorialization within them is more affecting. This is what she is referring to, I think, when she argues we can acknowledge that “there are structures that make possible desire without claiming that those structures are impervious to a reiterative and transformative articulation.” We are more than capable of acting otherwise, if we can keep one foot outside of these processes of structural reterritorialisation.
Butler turns to Oedipus’s daughter to make this point – and it is worth noting that she is not the first person to do so; Antigone is just as significant a literary figure in the history of philosophy as Oedipus himself.
Antigone’s story is complicated, perhaps even more so than Oedipus’s. Her story begins following a civil war in Thebes. Two of her brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, also incestuous offspring of Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, are killed in battle. Following Oedipus’s self-banishment, when he discovered the truth of having married his mother, blinding himself and going into exile, his two sons nonetheless each had a claim to the Theban throne. Each led opposing sides in the resultant civil war, but they only ended up killing each other. Following their deaths, Creon becomes the king of Thebes, but he takes the side of Eteocles, declaring that he will be honoured in death whilst Polynices will be shamed and left to rot. And so, Creon buries Eteocles but leaves Polynices’ body on the battlefield, forbidding anyone, by king’s decree, of burying him.
Antigone ultimately finds herself outside the original familial (and now political) quarrel, and decides to go against the new king’s wishes and bury Polynices under the cover of darkness. News gets back to the king that Antigone is responsible for burying her brother and he sentences her to death.
The fallout of the drama is complicated and considerable. The city mourns Antigone’s imminent execution, and Creon’s son Haemon tries to get his father to spare her as well. But he refuses. What we find, as a result, in Antigone’s tale, is perhaps the inversion of the Oedipal drama . Whereas Oedipus is reterritorialized, with his return to the family making him king and therefore the head of state, Antigone instead slips into some indeterminate place in between. On the one hand, she defies the state in favour of her family, but with her family already being so embroiled in the state itself, by betraying the state she also seems to escape the familial structure as well. She acts against both, her loyalties comingling and seemingly cancelling each other out – by welcoming death, of course, she also dooms her family’s continuing genealogical line – until she finds herself in an obliquely transgressive position that emerges from a respect for her family but which rejects the processes of social production and genealogical reproduction that fall on her following the civil war.
Butler draws our attention to this in discussing Antigone’s name, translating it as “antigeneration”, or perhaps “antiproduction” in Deleuzo-Guattarian terms. She becomes a kind of paradoxical figure, who is representative of an escape from the family as a structure of representation.
Bringing Antigone into the twenty-first century, then, as Butler notes, we can see how the idealised image of the family has been repeatedly challenged and undermine by other ways of living. She adopts Antigone for this purpose, as a representative of those children who,
because of divorce and remarriage, because of migration, exile, and refugee status, because of global displacements of various kinds, move from one family to another, move from a family to no family, move from no family to a family, or in which they live, psychically, at the crossroads of the family, or in multiply layered family situations, in which they may well have more than one woman who operates as the mother, more than one man who operates as the father, or no mother or no father, with half-brothers who are also friends…
Antigone becomes the preferential figure for us to consider then, against the Freudian universalisation of Oedipus, because we live at “a time in which kinship has become fragile, porous, and expansive.” And so, Butler continues,
Antigone figures the limits of intelligibility exposed at the limits of kinship. But she does it in a way that is hardly pure, and that will be difficult for anyone to romanticize or, indeed, to consult as an example. After all, Antigone appropriates the stance and idiom of the one she opposes, assumes Creon’s sovereignty, even claims the glory that is destined for her brother, and lives out a strange loyalty to her father, bound as she is to him through his curse. Her fate is not to have a life to live, to be condemned to death prior to any possibility of life. This raises the question of how it is that kinship secures the conditions of intelligibility by which life becomes liveable, by which life also becomes condemned and foreclosed.
Now, I suppose my questions for you, in bringing these two texts together, is how we might think this kind of shift otherwise, or in a more expanded context. Deleuze and Guattari focus in particular on how the family reproduces the processes of production that are enforced by capitalism at large, but they make this argument following Michel Foucault, who had a more expansive sense of how our institutions of discipline and control – the family, the prison, the school, the hospital, etc. – all borrow mechanisms from all the others, producing a kind of abstracted Fordist production line for the individual within society. Since we’re at a music festival renowned for celebrating the experimental and the avant-garde, we might consider how the production (or anti-production) of culture is possible in its fraught relationships to governments, arts institutions, norms of good taste, artistic genealogies and canons, etc.
Some of you may know some of my work already, which has been predominantly related to the work of Mark Fisher, who wrote about the death of rave, for instance – the ways that rave, as a kind of outsider culture is caught between the cultural desires of the social and the controlling impetus of the state, much like Antigone. In the UK in particular, we have a narrative of rave being quite literally put to death by Margaret Thatcher’s government, which outlawed the playing of repetitive beats. Rave, for all it represents on the outside of culture, is – again, like Antigone – fated “not to have a life to live,” but instead “to be condemned to death prior to any possibility of life” – or, we might say, any possibility of our living otherwise, or organising ourselves communally in other ways.
Death hangs over this framing, but in a manner that is more symbolic than actual. As Butler argues, “death signifies the unlived life”, but where we differ from Antigone is that we remain haunted by that other life’s possibilities. In “serving death”, as Antigone does, under Oedipus’s curse, her life may be foreclosed but she also affirms this foreclosure in turn. The solution, for her, is not to acquiesce and do as she is told, but rather to defy the state and the family, to serve death in her commitment to another way of life that is denied her but which she refuses to give up. She affirms, as Butler writes, “the deathlike quality of those loves for which there is no viable and liveable place in culture.” And so, “Antigone refuses to obey any law that refuses public recognition of her loss”. This loss can be literal – as it is for Butler, who makes the analogy to queer communities decimated by the AIDS crisis – but it can also be symbolic: do we, as attendees of Unsound, similarly refuse to obey any law that refuses the public recognition of our cultural losses, our lost futures, etc.?