January 2009 Archives

Although its title refers to the central male figure Agamemnon, Aeschylus's Agamemnon is in many ways framed by the experience of three female characters: Iphigeneia, Agamemnon's sacrificed daughter, Clytemnestra, his abandoned wife, and Cassandra, his prize of war and mistress. 

Iphigeniea attempts to speak, to plead for her life, but is held back by the force of a bit, her "speech drowned in strength" (235). Clytemnestra speaks too much, as Agamemnon reminds her upon their first encounter (916). Cassandra speaks the tragic truth, foretells the full horror of Clytemnestra's plan, but is not heard (1214-1330). 

Agamemnon is tangled in a net of female voices, both spoken and unspoken, articulated and suppressed. By attending to the experiences of these three women, a picture of the place of the female in Greek society will begin to come into focus. 

The tragedy articulates the politics of the female voice: the implications of its repression, the power of its expression and the danger of not hearing the truth when it is spoken. What is the traditional female role in Greek culture? How is this reinforced by the Agamemnon, how is it challenged? Are there role reversals: females acting in traditionally male ways, males in traditionally female ways?

Agamemnon's Sacrifice

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Many of the occurrences that we read in Agamemnon struck me as peculiar. A puzzling question is why Artemis, who appears to be a feminist in her own right, would demand the life of one of Agamemnon's daughters, Iphigenia. If truly angry, she'd make Agamemnon risk terminating his family line by sacrificing his only son, Orestes. After some outside "research", I found that some Greek heroines were so "similar to known goddesses that they appear to be hardly more than a different name for the same divinity." Therefore, it is believed that Iphigenia was likened to Artemis, and even that "her name is frequently seen as a mere epithet for Artemis". This alludes to the theory that either Iphigenia was Artemis or, similar to Artemis, she was a virgin hunting goddess. If indeed Iphigenia had the same attributes as Artemis, this makes one wonder whether Artemis was resentful and had malicious intent when she gave Agamemnon his double-binding choices.  See: Encyclopedia Mythica

I also found it odd how Agamemnon would rather save the life of another woman, his sister-in-law, than that of his own daughter. Clearly, it is a bit more complicated than that (he had the lives of his men to save as well), but essentially that is what it is--Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia's life so that the Greek fleet could successfully sail to Troy to save Helen. I do believe that through this action, Agamemnon's objective was to further his name through "heroic" traits, like selflessness in sacrificing his daughter and valor in saving Helen. What is inconsistent and ironic about this is that it was Agamemnon's conceit that enabled him to get tangled in this predicament in the first place. What this boils down to is whether Agamemnon committed this act for the sake of his starving army or for the benefit of his reputation. I suppose it could be both.


Another portion of this story that I did not think flowed smoothly was how quickly Agamemnon changed from sympathetically debating his choices to emotionlessly killing his daughter ("Her supplications and cries of father were nothing."). Pertaining to our discussion about what exactly was meant when Agamemnon "changed", I agree with the view that he tried to detach himself from his emotions. I think that the line "when necessity's yoke was put upon him, he changed" pointed to the fact that there was a deadening of sensitivity. The subsequent lines indicate this: "from the heart the breath came bitter and sacrilegious...a will now to be stopped at nothing...the sickening in men's minds." The last bit, I think, ascertains the fact that without the deadening of sensitivity, patriarchal force would not be as strong and resolute. 

Not to get too far ahead, but the events that were recounted from lines 183-247 made it easier to imagine why Clytemnestra murdered her husband. It allows me to assume that she was perhaps deceiving those around her by acting like a loyal and lovesick wife when Agamemnon arrived home. Perhaps this was a temporary façade to hide her real intentions until the appropriate moment came to do away with him.

Aeschylus frames the Agamemnon with the powerful story of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia (175-256). What are the circumstances of this sacrifice? 

Focus first on the psychology of Agamemnon: What is the nature of his double bind? How does he articulate his situation? How would you characterize it? How does Aeschylus portray Agamemnon's attitude toward the double bind he faces? How does the chorus react to Agamemnon's choice? Is Agamemnon culpable for his actions? 

If we establish a distinction between his actions and his attitude toward his actions, does this change your understanding of the scene? 

Focus now on Iphigeneia: is she purely passive in being sacrificed? Does she resist her sacrificers? What is the imagery that surrounds her sacrifice? (You will need to keep this in mind as we look at Clytemnestra's killing of Agamemnon.) 

Think about this scene as an account of the nature of patriarchal authority. What does it suggest about the structure of patriarchies?

Hesiod's Theogony -- an Ode to Tyranny

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In yesterday's class I spoke of patriarchal power as the prominent aspect of Hesiod's Theogony.  I would like to take this opportunity to explore that premise in further detail and, in doing so, address the last several posts.  For myself, the language of the text is the deciding factor, betraying an overwhelming deference for physical force as the decisive attribute (along with its implications of male superiority).

Early in the text, Hesiod makes a half-hearted tribute to the power of language, although it reads more like homage to his own capacity for "honeyed words":

"Whomever of kings, favored by Zeus, the daughters of great Zeus honor and see being born, the pour sweet dew on his tongue and from his lips flow honeyed words; his people all look to him as he decides issues with straight judgments; speaking unerringly he quickly and wisely ends even great strife..." (pg. 32, 81-87)

From a mortal perspective, the ability to rely on words rather than resort to force (ending great strife) is a divine gift and subsequently relegated to only a select few (those kings favored by Zeus).  And as several people have pointed out already, wisdom (characterized by Gaia's foresight and planning) is omnipresent throughout the story; every action of force seems to be a product of someone's plan.  But if we follow this chain of regress to its roots, we find that Gaia's initial betrayal is simple a reaction to Oraunos's initial application of force.  I am not suggesting that this prioritizes force as the reigning attribute here, just that this retroactive method of inquiry leads to a slippery slope: which really did come first?  More importantly, does that even matter?

The tale's initial idealism quickly yields to the violent nature of the Greek Gods as they, in turn, attempt to outmatch each other in terms of cruelty and brute force (it is no accident that the most ruthless of them all should reign at the end of the day).  Hesiod offers us this glowing review of rule by force on page 52:

"Greatly she [Hekate] assists and benefits whom she will; she sits by reverent kings in judgment, and he is eminent among the people in assembly, whom she wishes; whenever men arm for man-killing war, then the goddess is there, and to whom she wishes she gladly grants victory and extends glory." (429-434, emphasis mine)

He goes on to talk about her willingness to "stand by cavalry" and those who "compete in contest", unequivocally equating victory in physical contest (i.e. battle) with "extended glory".  Again, this ability is divine, granted arbitrarily by the Gods and, furthermore, a task she apparently enjoys performing.

Every instance of manipulation manifests itself in act of violence.  It is after Zeus acquires thunder and lightning that the language becomes increasingly disturbing in this context.  It has also been suggested that this was a product of Zeus's persuasion:

"He released them from their deadly chains his uncles, Ouranos' sons, whom their father mindlessly bound.  They did not forget gratitude for his help, and gave him thunder and the fiery lightning-bolt...relying on these, he is king of mortals and immortals." (pg. 56, 501-506)

While it does appear that Zeus has employed a hearts-and-minds strategy here, it is important to not that his rewards are the very tools by which he becomes "king of mortals and immortals.  Additionally, I would suggest that there lingers an unspoken alternative - a menacing "or else" that haunts any bargain (especially considering the context here).

There also seems to be a direct correlation between Zeus' rise to power and accounts of physical violence, torment, and coercion (all emphasis mine for dramatic effect):

-    "Wide-seeing Zeus sent arrogant Menoitios down to Erebos, striking him with a smoking thunder-bolt..." (57, 514-515)
-    "And Atlas, standing at the limits of the earth...under strong compulsion, holds the wide sky..." (517-519)
-    ""He bound devious Prometheus with inescapable harsh bonds...and he inflicted on him a long-winged eagle, which ate his immortal liver..." (521-524)

And we consider water boarding inhumane?  Even the once rational Gaia, for all of her planning and cunning, succumbs to anger and vengeance, bearing the monster Typhoeus in retaliation to the defeat of the Titans (820-821).

Perhaps this reading of Theogony is too superficial, but as previously discussed, both in class and on this blog, the rampant misogyny in the story only reinforces this interpretation.  The male physical domination over successive generations of females is analogous to the political roles they represent.  Ultimately, it is the use or threat of violence that carries the day; wisdom is just another tool by which the tyrant implements his authority.
Here you will find an enhanced podcast that outlines the stories operating in the background of Aeschylus's Oresteia.  

Zeus' Power of Women

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During today's class we discussed Zeus' reasons for eating Metis and how it could be looked at as attempt to take over the role of women or as a way to articulate politics.  The first suggestion would have allowed him to completely take over the female role and allow him to control the generating of g-ds.  The other point suggests that Zeus wanted to having more inclusion of women in politics.  By swallowing Metis, she'd be able to advise him on good and evil in addition to having the balance of the male reliance on force and the female powers of persuasion, cunning, and ability to generate.  

However, my feeling is that Zeus ate Metis for a combination of these reasons.  He wanted to control both men and women, but use it to incorporate women's characteristics into politics.  It would allow him to have a more complete view of those he was ruling over.  Through this Zeus achieves stability, in addition to listening and incorporating past generations of g-ds.  
Whether these assumptions are true, one thing that is clear is that Zeus had the most stable reign of power in comparison to previous generations.

Gaia's Power

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Throughout Theogony, Gaia influences all of the major power transitions while maintaining a low profile because she does not use force that we commonly identify as power, instead she uses a defined ability to plan and persuade.

In the beginning when Gaia is oppressed by the wicked Ouranos, who is preventing her from giving birth to her children, she uses trickery to get her son Koronos to ambush and castrate his father. While it may seem that she was over-powered by Ouranos in the aspect that she could not defend herself from such a domestic dispute in actuality she was able to devise a plan in which she got someone else to do the job for her. In that sense I would say that Gaia is much stronger than she gets credit for.

Moreover, during the second transition of power, Gaia helps Rhea think up a plan by which she can secretly give birth to Zeus and defeat Koronos. This is another good example of Gaia's ability to have a strong influence on the power transitions. She is once again able to use her practical knowledge to influence a power transition without doing much of anything herself; she influences other characters to ensure an inevitable outcome.

Finally, once Zeus, with the advice of Gaia, succeeds in consuming his pregnant wife Metis the soft undertones of Gaia's power become even more blatant. In my opinion, power is defined by the influence that one character has on the others. One could argue that the male figures like Ouranos, Kronos and Zeus were very powerful characters because of their physical prowess and use of force to obtain such power, but it is clear that Gaia has had a major influence on the majority of characters throughout Theogony. In that sense I believe her power has been vastly underrated.


Force and Deception

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During Friday's class we discussed how the political authority and legitimacy is transferred from one generation to the next by the use of force. Force has very physical connotations and examples of this are seen in the various swallowing of family members and raining down of lightning bolts by Zeus. However, it seems that something else is at play when power is transferred. To me, it seemed like deception and trickery were the main factors behind how power was transferred and it wasn't force that caused the changed. While physical force was frequently present, it was not the driving force. For example, if you look at the main transfers and holdings of power throughout the Theogony, you will find ploys at almost every point.

Oranous was overthrown by Gaia speaking with her children and planning a clever coup d' etat through the use of a sickle. Kronos loses his power when he is tricked into swallowing a stone that he believes is another child. Zeus prevents a son from overtaking him by tricking his wife into turning into something that would be easy to swallow and consume. The only major battle that occurs over taking the crown is Zeus's battle with the titans but that is brought about by the tricking of Kronos in the first place. 

What I would like to ask is if this use of cunning and deception still falls under the veil of force, or is there some other designation that is more appropriate here?

More Sexism: "A Lovely Evil"

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Pandora, given to Epimetheus as a punishment for Prometheus' theft of fire, represents the personification of evil.  While Pandora is not a gift of pure evil, she does represent a certain deceptive kind of evil.  She is outwardly beautiful and irresistible, yet through her ignorance, she allows all the evils and diseases to escape into the world. 

Pandora's actions parallel those of Eve in the Christian creation story. Like Pandora, Eve also released all the evils of the world by eating forbidden fruit from the tree of life. Pandora and Eve were both given as gifts to men, but ultimately resulted in a great evil to mankind. Before the creation of Pandora, men and the immortals lived in a Golden Age. Likewise, before the creation of Eve, Adam lived in a state of innocence in the Garden of Eden. Women are, therefore, the source and the embodiment of evil in the Theogony and the book of Genesis

Pandora, a "lovely evil", is also described as "irresistible to men". Her sexuality is the ultimate punishment to men because they are unable to resist, and, thus, become dependent on women in order to fulfill their desires and also to reproduce. This dependence is seen in Zeus' "second evil", or the lack of a son, which occurs when men refuse to submit to the temptation of women. If a man chooses to avoid the first evil of a woman, he will lack a son to succeed him after death.

Finally, I argue that the stories of Pandora and Eve explain the existence of current-day patriarchy. Pandora's irresistible sexuality could certainly be seen as a source of power. Instead, it is described as a source of evil because it results in a weakness for men. Women who attempt to use their sexuality as means to achieve power are seen as manipulative or evil. Pandora and Eve were both given as gifts to a man, which explains women's inferiority in present-day patriarchal society. Likewise, women's worth in society is partly based on their reproductive capabilities (as seen in Zeus' second evil) and their role as caretakers.

Sexism in the Theogony?

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Forgive me if I'm jumping the gun, or reading too much into things, but as we discussed the transfers of power in class today, I made something of an observation, and after further consideration, it seems pretty consistent with the text, so everyone let me know what you think, please.

As the story of the gods really begins, the text describes Gaia and Ouranos as equals (ln 126). However, this status of equal seems to disappear very quickly. By line 155, Ouranos is already exerting power over Gaia, pleasing himself, but causing gaia great pain. She exerts her power, too, by coming up with a plan, but (and this is the part where the question of sexism or patrairchy first really occurred to me) she is unable to execute the plan herself. She requires the help of Kronos, her son. Furthermore, the plan is to castrate Ouranos. In this sense, it is Ouranos's posession of genitals, or his identity as male, that gave him power and the removal of which marks the loss of power. In this way, Gaia and other female figures are disempowered not only by the practice of male domination, but also intrinsically by their very female-ness. And again with the overthrow of Kronos, it is Zeus that defeats him and establishes power, and continues to exert that power over his wife. It becomes a pattern of behavior.

I would appreciate comments and feedback about this idea, because it doesn't seem fully fleshed out to me. let me know what you think!



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During our last class there was extensive discussion on, and criticism of, what the class saw as the flashy, degrading, and generally shallow nature of President Obama's inauguration ceremony. Many said they were "stunned" or "struck" by the degree of commercialism that pervaded the ceremony and following celebration, while others described feelings of disappointment and disrespect. Some argued that it was the product of a capitalist media chasing profits. Another point of view was that it was merely a continuation of President Obama's "star-studded" campaign style. No mater how you perceived the ceremony, whether you were angry or attracted, it is clear that this inauguration was meant to be an eye-catcher. This was the sole purpose of the ceremony's extravagant format.

Prominent political scientist E.E. Schattschneider states in his research based book, The Semisovereign People: A Realist View of Democracy in America that "Democratic government is the greatest single instrument for the socialization of conflict in the American community (Schattschneider, 12)." The inauguration was a prime example of this. It wasn't driven by profits or previous patterns of campaigning (although they may have contributed). It was a calculated attempt to expand the realm of American politics, exactly what President Obama has been championing this entire election. "Dressing up" the inauguration was a win-win situation. Those involved may have been offended, but not enough to turn away from politics, while those outside the political circle were drawn in by the figurative fireworks. The presentation was incalculably better than the monotone, C-SPAN style, ceremony that is common among government affairs and, if anything, was positive for President Obama and the U.S.political system as a whole.

It seems that some students understandably find it easier to post stories to delicious under our common tag than to write a blog post on the site, so I thought I might start things off by directing your attention to the tagged stories page and inviting you to comment on some of the stories.  I notice a theme of some of the posts that centers on torture, which makes sense insofar as torture is an attempt to use force to persuade.  We know, of course, that force is a particularly ineffective way to gather reliable intelligence.

We will see, as the semester progresses, that persuasion (even if force is operative behind the scenes) is a far more effective way to gather intelligence and establish stability in community.

So, perhaps I can begin the discussion by asking those who posted stories about torture to talk a bit about what led them to post those stories.  You may start by commenting on this post if you don't want to start a post of your own.

Theogony Podcast

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This is a podcast introducing the Theogony.

Theogony Introduction.m4a

To subscribe to the podcasts posted to the blog using iTunes, do the following:

  1. Copy the link to the subscription link to this blog:
  2. Open iTunes
  3. Under the Advanced menu item, select subscribe to podcast
  4. Paste the subscription link there.
All podcasts posted to the blog will now download to your iTunes library when you connect to the internet.

Community Tags

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One of the ways we will try to integrate resources discovered on the web into the online and in-class discussion is to use a common tag to bookmark the web pages through delicious.com. Delicious.com is a free service designed to allow users to organize and share bookmarks.

So members of the class are asked to:

  1. Establish a delicious.com account if you don't already have one.
  2. Install a "Bookmark to delicious" button on your favorite browser.
  3. Begin to tag items you think might be of interest to the course using the "PSUPHIL298" tag.
The blog is set up to feed these tags to the "Tagged Stories" page as well as to the main home page and the main blog page under "tagged stories."  Whenever you use the above tag to bookmark an article in delicious, the feed will be updated and we will have a running list of stories related to our course.

Students are encouraged to read the stories posted by others and to write blog posts about them or comment on the blog posts of others.  The hope is that these web resources will become part of the larger discussion in the class.

This course is an outgrowth of an article I wrote entitled The Daughters of Metis: Patriarchal Politics and the Politics of the Between, for an abstract, click here, for the full text, click here (.pdf)

The content of this blog begins with the discussions my students and I have as we engage the material outlined in the syllabus for the course (.pdf).  

It will, however, continue once the course is concluded as I turn to work on a book manuscript concerned with the possibilities these initial discussions open for the attempt to rethink the meaning of politics on a model other than that of domination.

Tagged Stories