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Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship

Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship

John Zumbrunnen
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship
    Book Description:

    Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship' finds in Aristophanes' comedies a complex comic disposition necessary for meeting the fundamental challenge of ordinary citizenship. That challenge, Zumbrunnen argues, emerges from the tension between two democratic impulses: a rebelliousness that resists all attempts to impose any form of institutionalized rule; and an inclination toward collective action taken through institutions of popular rule. Democracy demands that ordinary citizens negotiate the tension between these often conflicting impulses. Aristophanes' comedies rest upon and seek to instill in spectators a complex comic disposition that holds a simple celebration of rebellion in tension with an appreciation for the organized collective action necessary to bring about real change. John Zumbrunnen is associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the author of 'Silence and Democracy: Athenian Politics in Thucydides' History' as well as numerous articles and essays.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-771-1
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    Contemporary democratic theory increasingly poses a choice between democracy as the power of the people resisting all institutionalized rule or democracy as rule by the people through carefully specified procedures and institutions. On one side is a diverse group of theorists often referred to as agonal democrats.¹ From various perspectives, these theorists insist that contestation, struggle, and resistance lie at the heart of politics in general and democratic politics in particular. Agonal democrats thus reject the drive for consensus that they find in theories of those on the other side, liberal democrats and deliberative democrats.² Consensus, according to the agonal...

  5. Chapter 1 Peaceful Voyages: Peace and Lysistrata
    (pp. 21-40)

    March 3, 2003, was a banner day for the contemporary popularity of Aristophanes. On that day, according to an organizer, participants in The Lysistrata Project staged “over 1,000 readings” of Lysistrata “in 59 countries and all 50 states,” reaching “over 200,000 people.”¹ Reflecting on the project in a later interview, organizer Kathryn Blume said that “in an ideal world the project would change the relevance of the voice of ordinary citizens and it would make war on Iraq impossible.”² As a way of stopping the Iraq War, of course, the project failed. That failure no doubt reflects the difficulty of...

  6. Chapter 2 Ordinary Citizens, High Culture, and the Salvation of the City: Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Frogs
    (pp. 41-59)

    In the Poetics, Aristotle insists that the characters of tragic poetry must be “good [chrēsta].” He immediately goes on to say that this goodness is “relative to each class of people” (1454a). By this he means, for example, that women in tragedy must only be good as women, not good according to the standards of goodness for men.¹ Later, he indicates a second sense in which the goodness of tragic characters is relative. They must be “better [beltiōn] than ourselves” (1454b). We are left, then, with the conclusion that, though they need not be good in any absolute sense, men...

  7. Chapter 3 Archē and the Anger of the Ordinary Citizen: Wasps and Birds
    (pp. 60-80)

    In chapter 2, I sought to complicate the idea of ordinary citizenship chiefly by emphasizing the fluidity of the ordinary. Though Aristophanes’s plays revolve around the relationship between ordinary citizens and cultural or political elites, they at the same time resist the reification (or deification) of ordinary citizens. This, I suggested, is one way in which Aristophanes avoids what today we might think of as uncritical populism, cultural or political. Insofar as they allow the meaning of ordinary to shift, the plays render problematic any simplistic celebration of the ordinary.

    I return to these arguments about the identity of the...

  8. Chapter 4 Elite Domination and the Clever Citizen: Acharnians and Knights
    (pp. 81-98)

    Though it ended with a gesture toward the idea of new beginnings, the previous chapter emphasized the seeming inevitability of what appears in Wasps and Birds as an old and familiar problem: the inevitable contingency and illogic of any scheme of rule, of any claim by some to be better fit for positions of power. As I there suggested, this illogic or contingency stands closely related to the challenge of democratic citizenship as I have understood it in this book. Ordinary citizens are called both by democracy’s rebellious impulse and by democracy’s impulse toward organized collective action. The former impulse...

  9. Chapter 5 Fantasy, Irony, and Economic Justice: Assemblywomen and Wealth
    (pp. 99-122)

    The last chapter ended with the suggestion that cleverness, while central to the sort of ordinary citizenship that might resist elite domination, may coexist with the kind of anger considered in chapter 3. Chapter 3, for its part, ended with the idea of moving beyond the limitations of a reality in which the maddening contingency of archē inspires rage. This chapter returns to the possibility of new beginnings, offering a reading of Aristophanes’s final two surviving comedies, Assemblywomen and Wealth. I find emerging from a juxtaposition of these two plays a kind of comic recognition that, I argue, works by...

  10. Conclusion: Democratic Possibilities
    (pp. 123-136)

    Ultimately, this book seeks to advance three related claims. First, I mean to encourage a rethinking of democratic citizenship. Democracy, as I argued in the introduction, presents citizens with two fundamental demands that exist in tension with one another. In the context of contemporary debates between agonal and liberal or deliberative understandings of democracy, I have referred to these competing demands as democracy’s rebellious impulse and democracy’s impulse toward responsible and effective collective action. On one hand, democracy calls citizens to resist the institutionalization of rule. On the other hand, democracy calls citizens to participate in collective democratic action, which,...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 137-152)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 153-162)
  13. Index
    (pp. 163-166)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 167-167)