BEDACHT

Juni 2021

Thema: GEWELD/VIOLENCE

Antigone as an archetype for female bodily protest erupting throughout history

  1. Introduction

A person engaged in any kind of protest needs to have a body, enabling them to perform the protest. It is like stating the obvious. The bodily presence however displays two important features of protest: the body might be the very reason of experienced oppression and thus provoking protest, and the body can be a means of protest itself. The social reality and its many frameworks are mainly constituted in a male order, thereby still ignoring people from other genders, who must conform their actions to the dominant social order imposed upon them. These people experience oppression because of their bodily features: women, transgenders, non-binary, …  and they react to it, by acceptance or protest. In this paper, I will restrict the subject to women, bearing in mind that the arguments might be applicable to other minority groups. I will try to explore shortly the bodily reduction of women and how they can return this reduction into a means of protest. I will use Butler’s postscript in The Force of Non-Violence as a guideline to reflect on the idea of ‘bare life taking action’. And I will explore the possibility of Antigone as an archetype linking the female bodily protests through history, in comparison to Ricoeur’s figure of the ‘prophet’.

  1. The female body: means of oppression and of protest

A body is not a neutral feature of a person, but it enables specific performativity, according to what is transferred upon it. A human being is assigned a gender at birth, based on the external sex organs. When this assigned gender is female, it also means that the person will likely experience oppression throughout her life, as she is then regarded as the other.[1] Women perform within the often male oriented social reality with this burden of a female body, which is considered merely a body. A woman cannot simply raise her voice to react on this oppression, because even speaking up itself should be according to that same male framework. It is the male voice society hears, as it is the man who is the public figure, leaving out women, often literally, when their bodies cannot be seen in the public space, by covering or averting them.  It leaves women but the choice to use their body, almost solely as a means of protest. Making the female body visible is speaking up. As Judith Butler writes in her book The Force of Non-Violence: “These bodies exist still, … they persist under conditions in which their very power to persist is systematically undermined.”[2] But how then, if women from the start are not considered as a full person, are they able to wind themselves in the male framework and yet protest it? How then can they persist?

A woman, accorded a weak body as part of the gender assignment, can easily be seen as vulnerable, which enables the status quo of female oppression. Butler wants to revalue the vulnerability[3] and not see it as passivity, but as a part of social embodied actions.[4] I would argue that vulnerability can specifically be accorded to woman’s body as part of being bare life. Vulnerability is the reproduction of paternalistic power[5], but because of being bare life. A woman is the product of the male public order that has power over women, which reduces them to just being a body and uses this reduction to maintain power. If women are excluded from the public, when they cannot be heard, they can make themselves be seen. Reduced to their body, women have nothing more to lose and using the words of Butler: “…they are demonstrating with it.”.[6] The body, as bare life, performs a social embodied action. Stripped down to its biological functions, the body becomes a means and a symbol of action.

When one has voice, spoken or written, it is easier to reach out to others with the same suffering. On the other hand, the advantage of bodily experience is that more persons can recognise the suffering through empathy. Making the suffering public can therefore be a way of finding connection with others. And as oppression causes suffering, it can lead to emotions of distress, a bodily experience. By publicly exposing them, others can acknowledge them via empathy and therefore also acknowledge the oppression. At the decisive moment body and emotions merge and erupt as a voice.  It is not always easy to give in to these emotions, which are considered as a bodily extension of lesser value in a male framework, as they may be used as affirmative arguments by the oppressor.

Nevertheless, using a body in its whole can be a powerful reaction to oppression. In Butler’s terms: “The living character of the subjugated is also brought to the fore… the bodies that say ‘I will not disappear so easily,’…”.[7] The list of women who used their body to say no to oppression is not exceptionally long, in reference to the long list of male (oppressive) leaders. Therefore, in history, the number of women that can count as an example are limited and it may be better to look for an archetype, for the way in which women can make themselves first visible and consequently heard. The figure most applying is Sophocles’ Antigone, for she says no to Creon with her body.  She grieves over the corpse of her brother, burying him and thus going against the law. Her grievance is her bodily expression. Through this experience she suffers, because she is not allowed to grieve and through this experience she will act.

  1. Antigone as timeless archetype for female protest

Antigone, in the eponymous play of Sophocles[8], is a figure who is merely a woman, meaning that she has not the same rights as men in society: she has no voice and no place in the public sphere where the laws are made and institutions are ordered. Although she might have restricted rights, she still has her body, which she displays throughout the scenes. She is denied her grief over her dead brother Polyneices and is not allowed to bury him by the new king Creon. But Antigone refuses this ordered law. She says implicitly no when she acts, thereby displaying her body to an even greater risk. The only way to respond to the injustice done to her, is through bodily action.  She goes down to the field where her brother’s corpse is exposed to the birds of prey and she buries him; she grieves over his body. She is acting according to an emotion, to a bodily experience which is denied by an unjust law. The only way she can give in to her emotions, is again by using her body as performative means.

Antigone is the archetype of the many women who are also denied their voice and even their personal experiences. She must know her place in society and it seems that she very well does. But although she knows, it does not mean she accepts.[9] Antigone might perform a great deal into the social order, but she knows when even her precarious position is at stake, when even the only thing she is allowed, is taken from her: her basic bodily experience. When even the bare minimum is denied, she must and will react upon it. She will reclaim what was least accorded to her as a person and her body becomes a means of protest, a symbol of action, completely staying within the (unconscious) male framework, and yet remaining independent when showing her strength.[10]

Her body is the last means Antigone has left. Taking her body away, is taking her life. This minimal subjectivity is what enables her to react upon the law, impersonalised by Creon. He is aware of that too, because the only way to stop her, is by putting her in a cave, left to die. As Butler writes it: “… a voice that is not heard, is a voice is not registered…”.[11] The body must disappear, thereby making an end to the protest. It seems that the body is a means of oppression, but at the same time is a means of protest. It becomes so bare that it stands at the end of the chain of oppression and at the beginning of the chain of protest. By saying no through bodily action, Antigone reclaims the minimum a person is entitled to. She leaves the oppressor only two possibilities: taking her life or acknowledge her (protest).

The archetype of Antigone resembles the figure of the ‘prophet’ in Ricoeur’s book History and Truth: the non-violent must be capable of picturing himself in the history which he denies.[12] It is the figure that transcends the history for non-violence to have a meaning.[13] But in this specific female bodily protest, action starts from bare life. It is not about transcendence or an appeal to a higher cause, but a physical demand for equal public value. Antigone makes a beginning, makes a first bodily gesture. She does not reflect on the end, but she remains in the here and now, which means the archetype implies immanence. Ricoeur is right when he states: “…non-violence reminds us that this fatality is human.”.[14] But Antigone does not strive to surpass her humaneness, she reclaims it. It is only when her protest is seen by others, acknowledged and maybe reproduced, that transcendence is possible. It is history that will tell whether there was a question of transcendence. As Butler puts it: “For embodied performance brings that specific historical exposure to violence to the fore.”[15]. The specificity is immanent, the recognition by the social order makes it transcendent.

  1. Antigone’s eruption throughout history

It is clearly stated by Sophocles in the play that Antigone is a woman. However, her role can be played by any type of woman, because what is not mentioned by the author is Antigone’s skin colour, her occupation, where on earth she lives, under which political regime, religion, or economic system. She can be every woman, whether she is one person or a group, who is oppressed because she is a woman, leaving her with less voice in the public sphere or sometimes even completely voiceless. The play may be interpreted to any contemporary standard, if the main features are preserved: Antigone has a lesser position than a man and her bodily experience is being hold under. This can be done easily, as many women voices are still not considered as equal to a male voice, leaving them to be a mere body. This means that Antigone is an archetypical example and can be used as an inspiration for women to say no through their bodies.

Following this reverse line of interpretation one might give to the play, adapting it to the current situations of women, means that there are actual corresponding situations in the social environment, equal to that of Antigone. Very recent are the mothers in de Black Lives Matters protests who called themselves ‘The wall of Moms’, thereby using their grief to react against police violence on black people. Although they are a group, they act as one body and as Antigone. Here almost literally because they also act out of grief. They stand in the long line of history, where mothers use their despair to protest injustice.[16] But there are other forms of Antigone-like bodily protests. There is Emily Davis who throwed her body in front of the king’s horse to demand suffrage, or Rosa Parks, who said no by sitting in front in the bus. Alaa Saleh finally attracted international attention to the Sudanese protests with her performative action, dressed in traditional white cloths and jewels. Or the protests of Femen, taking the bodily exposure to its extreme. These women had no voice, only their body, but were able to perform within the existing framework of being merely a body and protest the injustice done to them.

  

  1. Conclusion

A way of acting upon experienced oppression in society, can be through protest. The most common forms of protest are those where people make themselves heard, but for some minority groups, like women, this form of protest is not that simple. Social reality is constituted on male frameworks, making it harder for women to have their voices heard as they are oppressed by reducing them to their bodies. They are made voiceless and must find a way to persist under the male conditions. Being a mere body, they can return this reduction into a feature and use it as a means of protest. By showing the body, from just appearing in the public arena, over showing emotions, to fully exposing it, it can be seen by others. Making the body seen, is claiming a voice.

There are examples in history, but they each accord to their own epoch. They do have common features, which can be found in the archetype of Antigone. She has, as a woman, restricted rights and when the new king even forbids her grievance, she reclaims it. She uses her grief, as an extension of her body, to act against her oppressor. As she is just a body, she has nothing more to lose than life itself. She uses her body as performative means, just like the many women in history did when they reclaimed what was being silenced. Antigone is the archetype for women, erupting in history every time the burden of oppression is no longer bearable. The action is rooted in immanence, for women claim a public voice through their body. History will determine whether these actions can also transcend to a higher end.

  1. Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt Inc., 1970.

Boltanski, Luc. On critique: A Sociology of Emancipation. Cambridge/Malden: Polity, 2011.

Boltanski, Luc, and Laurent Thévenot. “The sociology of critical capacity”, in European Journal of Social Theory, 2/3, 1999.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Structures, habitus, practices”, in The logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Butler, Judith. The force of non-violence. London & New York, Verso, 2020.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 2007.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The second Sex. Translated and edited by H. M. Parshley. Harmondsworth: Penguin books, 1972.

Giddens, Anthony. The constitution of society: outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity, 1984.

Ricoeur, Paul. “Non-violent man and his presence to history”, History and truth. Translated by Charles A. Kelbley, Evanston:  Northwestern University Press, 1965.

Sophocles. Antigone. Translated by Elisabeth Wyckoff. Pdf found on the internet, The Aspen Institute, www.aspeninstitute.org

[1] See Judith Butler, “Subject of Sex/Gender/Desire”, in Gender Trouble, Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 1-46, and Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex, transl. and ed. by H. M. Parshley, Harmondsworth: Penguin books, 1972, for further reading on the topic of women’s identity and gender as cultural phenomenon.

[2] Judith Butler, The Force of Non-Violence, London: Verso, 2020, 197.

[3]Judith Butler, The Force, 186.

[4] Ibid, 192.

[5] Ibid, 186.

[6] Ibid, 194.

[7] Ibid,196.

[8] Sophocles, Antigone, transl. Elisabeth Wyckoff, The Aspen Institute, www.aspeninstitute.org

[9] See Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, “The Sociology of Critical Capacity”, in European Journal of Social Theory, 2/3, 1999, 370, 371. Antigone debates within the civic and/or the domestic order as orders of worth.

[10] See Arendt’s definition of ‘strength’: a property inherent in an object or in a person and belonging to its character, which may prove itself in relation to other persons in Hannah, Arendt, On Violence, New York: Harcourt Inc., 1970, 44.

[11] Judith Butler, The Force, 195.

[12] Paul Ricoeur, “Non-Violent Man and his Presence to History”, History and Truth, trans. Charles A. Kelbey, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965, 224.

[13] Paul Ricoeur, “Non-Violent Man”, 228.

[14] Paul Ricoeur, “Non-Violent Man”, 229.

[15] Judith Butler, The Force, 196.

[16] See the Women in Black, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the Damas de Blanco, the Ayotzinapa 43.

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