Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship
Ort: Rochester, NY
Autor(en): John Zumbrunnen
Autor der Rezension:
Umfang / Preis: 174 pages / £35.00
Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship by John Zumbrunnen, associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, offers a thematic approach to the plays of Aristophanes, focusing on a clearly political reading. In contrast to other readings of Aristophanes’ works Zumbrunnen argues, that these are neither simply apolitical entertainment nor strictly conservative plays, nor are they political in the sense of a straightforward political message. Referring to philosopher Jacques Rancière's theory of the emancipatory potential of art, Zumbrunnen instead develops a particular way of thinking about Aristophanic comedy: His central topics are the so-called "ordinary citizen", that is the “normal” Athenian citizen, who does not belong to any political or economic elite and what he calls a "comic disposition" that should enable democratic citizens to deal with the tensions of democratic life.
Zumbrunnen starts from current political theories dealing with the role of the ordinary citizen in democracy. Despite the vast differences between ancient and modern democracy, he argues that today’s ordinary citizens are confronted with the same basic challenges as those of ancient Athens. Contemporary democratic theory mostly views democracy either as the power of people resisting all instituationalized rule or as rule by the people through specific institutions. Drawing on Aristophanes, Zumbrunnen moves beyond this either-or choice between “democracy as rebellion” and “democracy as orderly and responsible collective action”. Instead, he identifies rebellion and collective action as rival impulses within democracy. He argues that Aristophanic comedy shows ordinary people resisting all attempts to being ruled, and, at the same time, contributing to the collective action of the demos, the people. Zumbrunnen understands Aristophanic comedy as exploring what he calls the "challenge of democratic citizenship”, that is, the tension between these twin impulses within democracy to which the citizens are subjected.
Zumbrunnen shows in detail that Aristophanes often chooses ordinary Athenians as protagonists, who see themselves excluded from any elite or even oppressed by some kind of cultural or political elite. These ordinary Athenians embark on extraordinary attempts to challenge those with greater political status, ressources or power. At first glance, they may be understood as political heroes with a notion of democracy as rebellion. However, Zumbrunnen goes even further in suggesting that the satirical description of the elites and of the ordinary hero opens up the question of the ordinary citizen’s role in democracy rather than offering an answer to it.
The book considers all of the eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes and is divided into five chapters. Each chapter discusses at least two plays and relates them to a contemporary political phenomenon or a contemporary controversy in political theory. Zumbrunnen does not attempt a comprehensive reading of an individual play, nor does he interprete Aristophanes’ surviving corpus as a whole. Instead, he develops specific thematic threads that are for him both central to Aristophanes’ art and relevant to an ongoing process of understanding the challenges of today's democracy and democratic citizenship.
Zumbrunnen develops his thesis of the comic disposition of ordinary citizenship in three steps: First, he shows how Aristophanic comedy engages with its audience, and suggests that Aristophanes invites the spectators to experience what he calls a kind of "comic voyaging" into the uncertain. Then, he turns to the very idea of the ordinary citizen, who is, on the one hand the hero with whom the spectator can identify, but on the other hand clearly described in a critical way. Finally, he turns to think about comic voyaging as a means to develop the comic disposition appropriate to the challenge of democratic citizenship and develops an understanding of what he calls the “cleverness of the ordinary citizen”.
The first chapter discusses Lysistrate, today the most popular of the Aristophanic plays, written during the long period of the Peloponnesian War. Here, Zubrunnen particularly sheds light on contemporary attempts to interprete the play as a straightforward anti-war story (in the context of the Iraq war). He then offers a more complex reading of Lysistrate and the today less popular Peace, in which he goes beyond their seemingly straightforward message to "make peace with Sparta". He argues that in both plays, those who appear on the scene are "the part that has no part": people who are usually not heard and whose words may be not considered sensible. Zumbrunnen shows, how Aristophanes complicates the question of the sensible by creating a comic voyage of the ordinary citizen, which leads through many trials and errors: The hero of Peace begins as a human trying to reach the gods and blaming them for the war, then he calls upon other Greeks to help him free the Goddess of Peace who is imprisoned in a cave. Finally, he ends up as an Athenian liberating his home city from the people who are in fact responsible for the war. The spectator of Aristophanes’ plays has to be willing to embark on such uncertain voyages and this is, in Zumbrunnen's view, the first step towards the comic disposition as a necessary response to the challenge of democratic citizenship.
In the second chapter, Zumbrunnen focuses on the plays Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs, continuing his exploration of the ordinary citizen. He starts from Aristotle's definition of the characters of comedy as ordinary (in opposite to the characters of tragedy who, according to Aristotle, ought to be "better than ourselves") and shows that the category of the "ordinary citizen" should not be understood in a simple populist way, but is much more complicated: while in Clouds, Aristophanes imagines an ordinary Athenian challenging cultural elites, in Frogs and Women at the Thesmophoria he puts the god Dionysos and the tragic poet Euripides at center stage. Dionysos (being a god) and Euripides (being a member of the cultural elite) are obviously ordinary citizens, but are in some aspects depicted as ordinary by Aristophanes, Zumbrunnen argues, the spectator is driven to reflect on the category of the ordinary itself.
In Chapter three, Zumbrunnen turns to the plays Wasps and Birds and to the role of anger for democratic action, today sometimes called "populist rage" and often seen as a threat to the very essence of democracy. Zumbrunnen explores, how the anger and the rebelliousness of the ordinary citizen relates to the nature of rule (arché) in the comic Athens law courts of Wasps and in Cloudcuckooland, the utopian city among the birds, where people and birds try to create a kind of utopia, where no anger against any elite is necessary. However, in the process of creating it, the same problems and with them the same kind of anger as in Athens occur. In Zumbrunnen's view, Aristophanes shows the role of anger in a multifaceted way: it results from the ordinary citizen’s experience of being ruled and the feeling of being misruled. Anger may serve to change things when a long-standing political system becomes too rigid. It can also be an expression for the wish of the ordinary citizen to gain more power for him- or herself, and sometimes the angry action can be unreasonable and lead to consequences, that are not in the interest of a democracy.
The fourth chapter considers a potential Aristophanic alternative to the anger ordinary citizens might feel toward elites, aiming to rule them. Drawing on Acharnians and Knights, Zumbrunnen considers the possibility that ordinary citizens might meet elites not with anger but with a particular kind of cleverness. He juxtaposes Aristophanes’ idea of a clever citizenry to a speech of Cleon, a political leader and demagogue at Aristophanes’ times who praised the so-called moderate ordinary citizen and mocked the recklessness of the intelligent. Zumbrunnen shows, how Aristophanes not only opens a possibility of a democratic politics rejuvenated by a clever citizenry but, at the same, time raises questions both about the likely side effects of such cleverness and about the role of elites in transforming ordinary citizens. Once again Zumbrunnen puts this question into the context of recent calls for agonal democracy.
In Chapter five, Zumbrunnen turns to the aspects of fantasy in Aristophanes’ plays. He argues that this fantasy is not a simple escape into an apolitical realm, but may be a strong suggestion for real and radical change, kept in balance by irony, that at the same time questions the possibilities of such radical change. However, as he makes clear, that does not deny them entirely. He examines Aristophanes’ last plays Assemblywomen and Wealth, where questions of social and economic justice occur and shows that contemporary debates about recognition and redistribution as well as their close intertwining may, too, be found in Aristophanes’ plays.
Zumbrunnen’s sophisticated method offers a complex approach to questions of today's democracy and political theory with the help of a source that is more than two-thousand years old and belongs to a quite different sphere, the sphere of theatre. In doing so, he makes a provocative contribution to political theory and at the same time claims actual relevance for Aristophanes’ plays that are in fact (except perhaps Lysistrate) not very present on stages in our times. Zumbrunnen has a deep understanding of theatre as a medium for the report of complex facts, contradictions and tensions, and shows Aristophanes as the ancestor of a real democratic technique of theatre. By the way, and perhaps without being completely conscious of it, Zumbrunnen's idea of the "comic disposition" makes a very strong and necessary contribution to ongoing fashionable debates on political theatre, that much too often toy with straightforward political agitation rather than with the idea to offer a possibility to understand a complex and complicated field of contradictory facts, in times when probably things in the political sphere have become much more complicated than in the Athens of Aristophanes’ time.
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Erstellt am: 28.10.2012