1. Performance as Tone

In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin attempts to delimit tragedy and baroque drama. According to Benjamin, the basic characteristics that pluck baroque – that is, modern – drama from the logic of the tragic are as follows: transformation of the tragic hero into a martyr or saint; rejection of the silent solipsism of the tragic character in favor of the rhetoricized consciousness of the melancholic hero; the emergence of elements of dialogue, enabling the accommodation of the tragic and the comic; and, finally, the predominance of allegory over symbol – that is, the images of the tragic give way to the sacral function of allegorical signs.

Despite all these important differences between ancient tragedy and melancholic baroque drama, what unites these two genres is no less important, in our view, than what divides them. In other words, there is a certain poetics of the work of mourning both in ancient tragedy and in baroque drama that is independent of a particular age.

It is curious that Benjamin addresses the significance of sound and voice for baroque drama only at the very end of his work. And he does this in order to designate the crisis of baroque allegorical hieroglyphics – baroque drama’s principle quality – a crisis provoked by the introduction of the acoustic component into drama. Although he recognizes that the entire baroque system of allegories is mute and lifeless without the voice, Benjamin nevertheless argues that the reconciliation of sound and sense – as, for example, in seventeenth-century opera – marks the collapse of the Trauerspiel. Sound and voice imply a delay in the deployment of meaning and dramatic intrigue, and this leads to the evisceration of dramatic construction and allegorical significance. He writes: “For the baroque sound is and remains something purely sensuous; meaning has its home in written language. And the spoken word is only afflicted by meaning, so to speak, as if by an inescapable disease[.]”[1]

Benjamin overlooks the role of sound and tone in ancient tragedy. However, we know that tragedies were almost musical dramas. If we remove from tragedy the factor of the voice, which shatters this selfsame tragic silence, then, as for Benjamin, the prototype of Greek dramaturgy really would prove to be something on the order of judicial proceedings where “[t]he community is present […] as the controlling, indeed as the adjudicating authority,”[2] rather than Nietzsche’s “spirit of music.” The baroque Trauerspiel would then remain a rhetorical analysis of moral duty that would never be transfigured into opera.


As the basic trait of the poetics of ancient tragedy, Benjamin quite rightly mentions the collapse of the hero into silence, into a solipsism that destroys the character’s connection to the world. However, it is important to note that this very same effect also occurs in Shakespearean tragedy and in the baroque Trauerspiel (for example, in the plays of Calderón). It is definitely the case that this effect of the world’s being cut off turns all its clamor into silence. This silence contains the performance’s point of departure, but precisely in order to violate it. And this violation of tragic action’s initial silence is implemented not merely through speech, but through intonation, through sound of a certain pitch – through tone. This factor of acoustic pitch and intonation is as relevant to ancient tragedy as it is to Shakespeare or baroque dramaturgy.


In other words, both tragedy and the baroque Trauerspiel reveal their resemblance to one another precisely in this point, where the urgent need for performance emerges in each of them, and the dimension of sound and voice arises as its inalienable companion. Intonation, tone, and voice are of course not simply musical elements in drama. Rather, music itself here finds itself in the service of something without which the performance of the tragic would not unfold.


It is customarily believed that the tragic is formed in connection with the shock engendered by an awful, unimaginable event that gives rise to an exalted intonation. But, in essence, tragedy’s formative element is neither horror itself nor the loftiness of the pathos, which is generated by the scale of the characters and stories – there is enough of this in the myth and the epic. Much more important for tragedy is the fact that it is above horror, above death and mourning. However, the plot does not predetermine this “aboveness.” It is realized only in the mode of “theater” – in the mode of performing this “aboveness.”


2. Tragedy and the Captive Melancholic


According to Freud, the subject in late Western European bourgeois society is formed through a specific attitude towards loss of the Other. This attitude forms the subject as a melancholic. The symptoms of melancholia include the refusal to experience grief and the contraction, incorporation, internalization of the loss. On the contrary, when a love object is lost, the paradigm of mourning presumes that the subject openly grieves the loss and demonstrates a willingness to part with the lost object; this enables it to perform the scene (or “opera”?) of valediction, which is followed by recovery. The first thing that comes to mind in this instance is catharsis. Catharsis is a release of tragic suffering, and it primarily takes place in the mind of the spectator. However, as Nietzsche rightly notes, tragic grief cannot be reduced to catharsis. Grief (mourning) is not something that must simply be subjected to resolution and thus purged of trauma. Nietzsche argues that catharsis is a sign of the psychologization and, hence, the degradation of tragedy. (He has in mind the tragedies of Euripides, as well as Aristotle’s description of catharsis, which was produced during a time when the genre was already dying.)[3] In other words, mourning itself is a kind of anti-psychical aesthetic pitch that is not so much resolved as it is surmounted by means of performance. This procedure of overcoming cancels the mental state of traumatization, not at the cost of releasing the trauma, but, on the contrary, by as it were avenging the trauma with an even greater intensity that is artistic in nature. Whereas internalization of trauma means preserving the same self that was invested in the lost Other, the tragic subject has no need to preserve itself in this way. It is capable of saying farewell to the forfeited Other precisely because it has said farewell to its own narcissistic, individual ego.


In The Psychic Life of Power,[4] Judith Butler (following Freud) notes that by not admitting the experience of grief and its elevation to the pitch of mourning, the melancholic individual divides the corporeal and the ideal, separates the general from the individual. According to Butler, in melancholia, the ego-image becomes a “control structure” precisely because the life of the psyche consumes and internalizes the social world.


The fact of the matter is that internalized trauma destroys the very possibility of the Other. The Other is potentially not only the Other of love, but also the Other of horror and fear; therefore, it has to be rejected (forfeited): the fear of experiencing horror is greater than the desire for love and automatically leaves the place of the Other empty, purged of love and death. Hence, the melancholic’s loss of joy, but also his liberation from the burden of grief and mourning. The Other is forfeited forever, but nor is it buried or discovered anew: it cannot be loved, hated, murdered or mourned. The melancholic is forever captive, unfree: he is bound hand and foot by his rejection of the external Other, by his appropriation of it.


3. Escaping from Subjection: Towards Atè


In a number of his films, Lars von Trier has carefully explored contemporary western culture’s incapacity and lack of desire for tragedy – on the one hand, its cautious attitude to trauma, which as it were proves society’s liberalism and humaneness; on the other, its utter indifference to the loss of the ideal – a loss that is in fact provoked by this hypertrophy of trauma.[5]


In the film The Idiots (1998), a group of young intellectuals who have lost faith and are fighting against the system are joined by a young woman who, although she lives with them and observes their absurd protest performances, does not join the game herself. She is insufficiently ironic to perform the subversive gesture and portray “Hamletian” madness like her friends. The further they go, however, the more the ardency of this collective performance of “idiocy” abates, precisely because the protest of the players against society is based on personal (albeit subversive) willfulness. This dandyish variation on protest “idiocy,” which is the flip side of the egocentric narcissism of the melancholic western individual, is suspended by the film’s final episode. It turns out that it is the above-mentioned heroine who is the “idiot” truly resisting the system. She brings her friends, who have already grown weary of their own pranks, to her home. It is here that they understand that she had joined them out of despair, after running away from home after the death of her baby son. As her outraged husband and stunned friends look on, she begins her own tragic performance of the “idiot,” slowly acting out the facial gestures of a child spitting pie from its mouth, for which she is promptly awarded a slap in the face by her husband. It is, however, the heroine’s clownish mockery of her loss that genuinely reaches the pitch of mourning, which in the performance simultaneously appears as the joy of parting with the trauma.


In his latest work, Antichrist, Trier turns to the classic nuclear family. Here, a married couple’s thoroughgoing immersion into the genealogy of the heroine’s trauma (she has also lost a child) exposes the thing we have discussed above: if the Other of love and the ideal is forfeited, a relationship collapses into the psychical, physiological dimension, finally winding up in the grip of the reflexes. The heroine’s obsession with her individual trauma arises from the realization that she did not love her child, whom she lost because he had been left unwatched while she and her husband were having sex. In this paradigm, motherhood (as the ideal) will always be opposed to desire (sexual desire). But sexual desire itself is unable to escape the bounds of individual physiology.


The bourgeois individual cannot be merciless enough toward itself (like the tragic hero) to find that point that surpasses trauma, the tragically playful point of surpassing trauma. But play, performance, is always already an outlet to the Other and others: this coming out begins first of all with an intonational aspiration and then is transfigured into an existential and political necessity. In his seminars on tragedy (in which he analyzes Sophocles’ Antigone in detail), Lacan describes a certain zone from which we hear the tragic hero. The tragic hero always faces a certain threshold of ruin – Atè – which he cannot help but strive towards, given the demands of his own internal, unwritten code of ethics; he voluntarily overcomes this threshold with a decision that is “beyond life.” This is not simply a striving towards death, but a striving towards a so-called “second death” – a death that knows neither fear or self-pity, a death that is already inhuman, in which the ethical act and the aesthetic beauty of this act are fused. Lacan argues that this ethico-asthetical performance of the striving towards grief, towards Atè, and the tragic hero’s overcoming of it with an otherworldly act are a manifestation of the beautiful.[6]


The tragic hero (Antigone, Penthesilea, Lear, Hamlet) does not attempt to deaden the zone of Atè (grief) with therapy, to find means of anesthetizing it or to rely on social levers that neutralize this zone: we know quite well that the media and many social and humanitarian institutions (not to mention penal institutions) are supremely capable of handling this task. On the contrary, he maintains this zone of Atè in order to repeat it with performative and intonational means and thus conquer it. The tragic hero evinces a capacity for intransigence and frenzy precisely when his fate is predetermined. He exits his own story in order to dare to address what lies beyond it, and this is not simply an element of the production but a point that is almost always included in the text itself or even the plot of the tragedy (as, for example, when the heroes spoof theater within the theater itself).


Trier’s Antichrist shows the extent to which the “madness” of the traumatized European subject is not tragic, the extent to which it is selfish in its narcissistic enjoyment. Beyond the threshold of the rhetoricized compact between two individuals – a man and woman who allegedly love one another – there is no society (because it is only a legal agreement), no culture, no directedness towards the Other. All that remains is the opposition between the disciplinary language of power and therapy, which originates in the “man,” and the diseased, perverse body of the “woman,” which is subjugated to language but simultaneously attempts to take revenge on moralistic indoctrination with a carnival of violence.

Trier reveals here the schematic of western civilization, to whose analysis all of post-war twentieth-century philosophy was dedicated. Many of the works of Foucault and Agamben describe the relationship between control apparatuses and the bare life they administer – a life reduced to a physiological state, but which resists by means of transgression, perversion, and subversion. In such works as Foucault’s Madness and Civilization[7] and The Birth of the Clinic,[8] and Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal[9] and Homo Sacer,[10] as well as Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power, the strange aporia of contemporary western culture is established. Madness, the gendered remnant of the body, and “bare life” as the minimum not captured by the apparatuses are categories of freedom, of protest, but at the same time these bio-objects of potential freedom are confined to the clinic. That is, the problem is that here freedom and subjection are bound up with one another.


The bodies of bare life, trauma, and madness, uncaptured by the apparatus, cannot be snatched from the “clinic,” and the reason for this is that the individual fears the Other more than the dispositifs of the apparatus.


Because they help the individual ward off the dangerous, evil Other, the individual chooses a minimal, private freedom within the mediated defense of this freedom by the dispositifs of power, a defense that also inevitably involves subjugation by them. (This aspect of the evil, monstrous Other figures constantly in the films of Michael Haneke.) Consequently, our traumatized, gender-marked individual unit of bare life remains only the flip side of the subjugating apparatus. It is incapable of eluding this determination, not only because of the vise grip of infrastructure, but also because of fear of the Other. But even when the apparatus is annulled by one or other extreme circumstance (for example, in Antichrist, this withdrawal of the social apparatuses has to do with the fact that the heroes find themselves in the near-entropic situation of pure nature), the subjected body of the individual nevertheless turns out to be incapable of thinking its freedom beyond bare physiology. This is not surprising, given that traditionally we are forced to regard everything– culture, politics, the economy, history, society, reason, though, language, and art – as an apparatus of subjection.


In Trier’s Antichrist, the heroine rejects her husband’s therapeutic assistance, which, along with her return to health, presupposes paternalistic care and control. However, the heroine’s emancipating rejection of therapy takes place through role reversal. The now already former “patient” subjugates the subject of power: she commits physical violence against her husband. Here, it is not just a matter of the fact of violence itself, but rather the poetics of this violence, in which emancipation is identified with sadomasochism, and pain – both one’s own and someone else’s – is naturalized to the level of reflex.


This kind of “emancipation,” which remains trapped within the traumatized psyche and protests by means of revolutionizing only physiology, is characteristic of the society of control.[11]


In her work Körper (Schaubühne am Leniner Platz,2000),[12] the German choreographer Sasha Waltz, on the contrary, attempts to find a way out of the positivistic attitude to physiology precisely by means of the tragic dimension. Despite the idea, commonly found in post-structuralist criticism, that the body and its transgressive capacities are a zone of emancipation, Waltz’s work shows, on the contrary, how the deflation of politics, culture, and social practices to the personal freedom of hybridized bodies is the illusion of freedom, a libertarian utopia. The greater part of the piece is performed without music and is instead mainly accompanied by speech, industrial noise, and the sounds of assembly-line machines, as if affirming that physiological determinism, automation, and the technogenic penetration of life are complementary processes. The reduction of life to the biological life of a body surrounded by automated machines is a symptom that should be understood as the tragedy of the contemporary age; we should not imitate its ethics and anthropology, believing that the freedom to represent the body, its traumas, and its diseases is genuine sociopolitical freedom. Waltz (like Agamben) does not believe that the liberal freedoms of post-Fordist Europe are a clear alternative to the concentration camp. Therefore, in her work, the status of the body in the death factory of the concentration camp and the body in technogenic society, where catastrophe has become an inalienable part of social and technical progress, are equated.


Waltz’s Körper (like Trier’s Antichrist) is stylistically distant from tragic action per se. In this work, however, the choreographer insists on the intonation of mourning despite the fact that it is anesthetized in every possible way.


4. The Feminism of Tragedy


It is quite important that we keep in mind that it is not an unconscious yearning for death that produces the tragic hero. In tragedy, the choice of death is made consciously; it enables the hero to escape subjection or to sacrifice himself for the sake of accomplishing a certain righteous cause – his own or someone else’s. In his discussion of Antigone, Lacan is completely right to say that death and the striving towards it take on a bewitching beauty in tragedy.[13] However, this “beauty” is produced not only by death and the passionate display of death, but also by the fact that the choice of death is not a personal event but a social necessity undertaken by a personality (as, for example, in the case of the death of Socrates). But aside from everything else, the choice of death as a societal event is also a performative gesture on the part of the hero himself. Every tragic hero is an artist and performer: the prosodic, acoustic, and intonational elements of this performative act are no less meaningful than its ethical and rhetorical aspects. This is the essence of the genealogy of the opera (in the sense of the operas of Monteverdi and Purcell, rather than the degenerate condition to which the opera was subsequently reduced). In the opera, the hero or heroine does not sing just for the sake of it: song is not meant to ornament a dry story. Rather, it is the main component of the choice of death, of preparation for it.


In her performance of Dido’s final aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas,[14] the English mezzo-soprano Janet Baker quite precisely demonstrates the function of song in tragedy. This is something that is not given to every opera singer, most of whom try with all their might to depict the pathos of the music in such a way that we are meant to think that singing is a kind of natural accompaniment to the action. On the contrary, Janet Baker sings the aria “When I am laid in Earth” as if singing were a kind of misunderstanding in relation to the action – an absurdity committed by a dying, suffering human being for no conceivable reason.


In other words, song is simultaneously a violation of and an accompaniment to the preparation for death, an oddity amidst the predeterminacy of events. Janet Baker employs yet one other extremely vital element in the performance of the tragic hero: the song and the music render her comical. We might even say that she regards her own grief with clownish irony: she as it were accompanies her song with a grimace, and thanks to it she is no longer Dido, but an actress who leaps out from Dido’s fate. This subversive comic element is present in nearly all the pre-death monologues in Shakespeare’s tragedies: the tragic hero’s own mockery of his fate is introduced into his passionate speech.


It is, however, precisely these melodeclamational and self-ironic aspects that have important gender consequences. Tragedy is feministic: anthropologically, ethically, and intonationally, it presupposes “becoming-woman.” In “Rhapsody for the Theatre,”[15] Alain Badiou writes that, whether a man plays a woman or a man (in the ancient theater and Shakespearean theater, female roles were performed by men), theatrical performance as such is bound up with performing the role of the “feminine.” This does not at all mean that becoming-woman is naturally given to a woman performing in the theater. In order to successfully play a role in the theater (again, it does not matter whether the role is that of a woman or a man), a woman also has to become an actor playing the role of the “feminine.”


Ordinarily, woman is marked by the absence of phallus and, hence, by her own absence. The desire to “become a woman” – in other words, the desire to perform – presupposes a search for the extra-phallic. And here the extra-phallic will no longer be understood as absence: the logic of tragic performance retracts this binary opposition of presence/absence. The intonational-prosodic and melodic components of tragic grief are one of the most intensive manifestations of this self-refusal of the phallic. This extra-phallic anthropology is open to people of both sexes – that is, it is not presupposed as a given for individuals of the female sex, insofar as it is deployed through performative practice. But more important is the fact that performance itself anthropologically alters the disposition: instead of the traditional and universal striving towards the phallus as the principal signifier, in the art of tragedy – the art of performing and overcoming grief – both man and woman desire and achieve the withdrawal of the phallic. And this is a withdrawal that is no longer imagined through castration.


5. Postscript: Tragedy in Contemporary Art


But what, then, is the use of tragedy, with all its performative maneuvers, melodeclamations, and gender and intonational transformations?


Having already critiqued practices that fetishize social precarity and the morbidity of the average European individual, we are of course obliged to mention creative practices on the other side of the divide – that is, those practices in contemporary art that, on the contrary, focus on an investigation of society, that attempt to touch upon the most important contemporary social and political problems.


Is the tragic dimension present in these practices? To the degree that many of them (for example, the works of Amar Kanwar, Artur Żmijewski, Boris Mikhailov, Renzo Martens, and Rabih Mroue) deal with the horrendous events of the present day and elaborate in connection with them utterly unique types of poetics, this dimension is definitely present.


However, aside from other things, two positions must be present in a poetics of the tragic: either the artist must himself take on the role of the subject of horror and catastrophe (this factor is perhaps most well articulated in Rabih Mroue’s work; he himself becomes an actor who speaks on behalf of the event) or the artist finds that point where those who suffered the catastrophe make their own performance (albeit in the form of a character, as, for example Haneke and Trier do in their films). With certain exceptions, the second position is practically absent in contemporary art. This is not so much the fault of artists, as it is an effect wrought by the social politics of artistic institutions. Its progressiveness notwithstanding, this politics often plays a normalizing role. Even when documentation involving war, violence, and political conflict is displayed as part of the artwork, a mapping of the problem occurs, but in such a way that everything is presented in the stylistics of a potential resolution, an improvement of the situation. And here it is not that one should oppose resolution, but that one should avoid developing a discourse of normalization in situations where resolution is impossible. This is what it means to speak of an event in the idiom of tragedy. But for this one needs a performative “subject” possessing the tragic intonation, a subject that society will not find obscene.



[1] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London and New York: Verso, 1988), 209.

[2] Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 116.

[3] “One voice tells us that pity and fear are to be driven by these grave events to the point of discharge and hence relief, another that we are to feel elevated and inspired by the victory of good and noble principles when we see the hero being sacrificed in the name of a moral view of the world; while I fully believe that precisely this and only this is the effect which tragedy has on very many people, the clear conclusion to be drawn from this fact is that all of them, along with the aestheticians who interpret things for them, have never heard that tragedy is a supreme art. The pathological discharge which Aristotle calls catharsis, and which leaves the philologists uncertain whether to count it amongst the moral or medical phenomena, is reminiscent of a curious premonition of Goethe’s. He says, ‘I have never succeeded in treating any tragic situation artistically without some lively pathological interest, and I have therefore chosen to avoid them rather than seek them out. Could it be yet another merit of the ancients that even subjects of the most intense pathos were merely aesthetic play for them […]?’ […] Anyone who can still speak only of the kinds of surrogate effect which derive from extra-aesthetic spheres, and who does not feel himself raised above the pathological-moral process, can only despair of his aesthetic nature[.]” Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” in Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, trans. Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 105–106.

[4] Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

[5] Although, for Freud, the internalization of the Other may give rise to the formation of the “ego ideal,” this ideal is wholly individualized and bereft of universal status. It is a speculative abstraction of the melancholic individual. Bound up with loss all the same, it is unable to overcome it. This ideal is imagined as something external, something lost a priori and forever, something unthinkable in reality.

[6] Jacques Lacan, “The Essence of Tragedy,” and “The Tragic Dimension of Analytical Experience,” in Jacques-Alain Miller, ed., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959–1960, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 243–325.

[7] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965).

[8] Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage Books, 1975).

[9] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

[10] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).


[11] It suffices to recall Viennese actionism and the many other artistic experiments with transgressive bodily practices that have escaped the binary opposition apparatus/bare life by aestheticizing trauma. Even today, contemporary art often demonstrates such examples of the naturalization of pain and affect. Here, we might point to the exhibition Pain (Hamburger Bahnhof and Berliner Medizinhistorische Museum der Charité, Berlin, 2007; Eugen Blume, Thomas Schnalke, Annemarie Hürlimann, and Daniel Tyradellis, curators), where reflection on pain was reduced to a representation of body organs that had been operated on and displays of medical and prison instruments. Or, for example, the quite interesting albeit unequivocal research exhibition Into Me/Out of Me (Kunst-Werke Berlin, 2007; Klaus Biesenbach, curator), which presented nearly the entire archive of subversive and transgressive bodily practices in art of the past forty years.

[12] Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBjKP6UZzbQ&feature=related; short excerpt: https://video.yahoo.com/watch/5678874/14883005

[13] Jacques Lacan, “Antigone between Two Deaths,” Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 270–287.

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_50zj7J50U.

[15] Alain Badiou, “Rhapsody for the Theatre: A Short Philosophic Treatise,” Theatre Survey 49.2 (November 2008): 187–238.