Arts & International Affairs: Volume 3, Issue 1, Spring 2018 - Page 32

HYPOCRITE, ACTOR, POLITICIAN ... hypocritical system that purports one thing and practises another? What happens when politicians are “pretenders” and claim to be the king rather than demonstrate a role, or occupy a position? The political theorist and psychoanalyst Cornelius Castoriadis calls democracy “a tragic regime” (1997:84–107) 4 stressing that in a democracy there is no external force or archē. It is a regime of self-limitation, and possibly hence the tendency toward hubris, as limits�moral/political/aesthetic�almost invariably invite transgression. For Plato, philosophers are the ideal intellectuals/rulers of his ideal city. Democracy was problematic because “poets” were its intellectuals and theater was its phantasmic other. When Shelley pronounced poets to be the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” he was articulating a defense of poetry but also of theatricality. Could actors occupy such a privileged position in a democracy? If democracy is somehow inherently tragic and theatrical, are not politicians its main actors? And what is at stake when the performative function of politics is conflated with the performance of politics itself? Perhaps that is why the most unconvincing and difficult emotion for a politician to portray is sincerity itself. If democracy is a tragic regime, then theatre and theatricality more generally could be its primary aesthetic trope. And I refer to the aesthetic here in its Greek sense (aesthesis), as located and experienced through the senses, through the body. Just as tragedy is not political theory or simply an exposition of ideas, perhaps democracy too has an aesthetic dimension that makes it more open-ended and ambivalent. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the classical Greeks considered tragedy to be the great school of Athenian democracy, one that at once celebrated its achievements but also highlighted its exclusions (women and slaves, for example). Aesthetic education in this sense is also political education. Interestingly, as Castoriades claims, tragedy was central to both experiences. As an example, I would like to propose a reading of a scene from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War where aesthetic form is integral to its politics and to its modern readability (Castoriades also reads the History as an example of tragic form). I would like to focus on the famous Melian Dialogue that has become such a canonical text for contemporary International Relations. It is significant that it is written as a dialogue, and follows a theatrical structure. It is as if at this catastrophic moment when Athenian democracy is at its worst and its limits are tested, Thucydides transforms from a historian into a poet (as playwrights were called in his time). What more powerful way to voice a critique of Athenian democracy than through its finest aesthetic form, the tragedy. This offers Thucydides and us the power of krinein of judgment through distance, through separation, and not solely through identification and empathy. Or to phrase it differently by referring to Aristotle’s famous definition of tragedy, we experience the catastrophe of Melos through both pity/eleos (empathy, identification) and fear/phobos (awe, wonder, distance). Eleos and phobos are fundamental emotions generated by actors/hupocrites, but they are also formal tropes of reception. Too much empathy can easily dissolve into narcissism (as in the mythological character who could only identify through sameness) 4 For an insightful meditation on this idea, see Gourgouris (2014:809–818). 31