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The Power of Oedipus: Michel Foucault with Hannah Arendt

Miriam Leonard

University College London

In recent years it has become increasingly common to draw connections between the political thought of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault. On the one hand, there are strong continuities between their respective theories of power.  On the other hand, as influential theorists such as Giorgio Agamben (1998) have argued, Arendt and Foucault share an account of modernity and of the entry of biological life into the political sphere. Both thinkers also share a deep immersion in the texts of antiquity and place an analysis of the ancient world at the heart of their thinking about the modern condition. In this paper I will explore how their different accounts of Oedipus as a political figure reveal their preoccupations with questions of power and political subjectivity.

Foucault analysed Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus in a series of essays and lectures from the early 1970s-to early 1980s. Across these works, Oedipus becomes a significant protagonist in the development of his thinking around the nexus of power/knowledge. In the wake of the critique of the Freudian Oedipus developed simultaneously by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus and by Jean-Pierre Vernant in his essay ‘Oedipus without the Complex’ (1981; first published 1967), Foucault presents Oedipus ‘as not the one who didn’t know but, rather, the one who knew too much’ (2000, 24). Foucault drills deep into Oedipus’ identity as a knowing subject to show how his pursuit of truth is firmly linked to his wielding of power.

In particular, Foucault characterises Oedipus’ knowledge as the knowledge of the tyrant. He contrasts what he calls Oedipus’ ‘alethurgy’ to the divine truth saying of the oracle and Tiresias and to the witness statements of the messenger from Corinth and the shepherd of Cithaeron. Oedipus’ inquiry in Sophocles’ play ends by bringing divine knowledge into harmony with the truth telling of the slave.   But in the coming together of these two realms, the kind of tyrannical knowledge that Oedipus represents is bypassed: ‘Oedipus was necessary for the truth to appear…but he was eliminated as a kind of “excess”’ (2014, 81). What Sophocles’ play dramatizes for Foucault is the emergence of the juridical subject. Oedipus’ quest helps to bring this about but effectively replaces the power of the tyrannus with the nomos of the people. As Foucault concludes: ‘The public square that stages the judicial institutions assures, guarantees, and confirms what has been said through the flash of divine prophecy’ (2014, 81).

In his analyses, Foucault had made a strong distinction between Sophocles’ two Oedipus plays. For him the political Oedipus of the Oedipus Tyrannus  stands in opposition to the metaphysical protagonist of the Oedipus at Colonus. For Hannah Arendt, by contrast, the political reading of Oedipus carries over to his death at Colonus. Arendt’s Oedipus comes to define political power in a different way. He makes his appearance in Arendt’s oeuvre in the closing paragraph of her book On Revolution (2006). There she contrasts the famous declaration of the futility of existence expressed in the ‘Ode to Silenus’ to Theseus’ decision in the same play to grant Oedipus asylum in Athens. Although she doesn’t say so explicitly, the pessimism of the world-view expressed by Silenus, could be linked to Arendt’s analysis of how biological life –  what she calls homo laborans – exists in conflict and isolation from the life of political action. When the chorus comments on a life lived beyond its natural course, it characterises the life of biological necessity: a life lived in bodily decrepitude in isolation from the community. Theseus in his offer of asylum recognises Oedipus as a figure of more than mere life. The life of the polis depends on the recognition of the human as a political, not a biological, subject.

In bringing Foucault’s and Arendt’s readings of Oedipus into dialogue, this paper will show how Sophocles’ texts have played a fundamental role in drafting the political scripts of modernity. 

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Foucault and Antiquity Beyond Sexuality

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