Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.28

Victoria Wohl, The Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy.   Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1998.  Pp. xxxvii + 294.  ISBN 0-292-79113-5.  

Reviewed by Nancy Rabinowitz, Deparment of Comparative Literature, Hamilton College (
Word count: 2397 words

This book is a fine contribution to an ongoing feminist analysis of the exchange of women and tragedy, building on structuralist and post-structuralist work; while it addresses itself to three plays (Sophocles' Women of Trachis, Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Euripides' Alcestis), it has broad relevance to tragedy in general and should be of interest to anyone working in the field. In an important advance on much earlier work on women in antiquity, Wohl raises questions of gender and status consistently, showing the imbrication of the categories; thus the book makes a subtle contribution to the study of democracy through its study of tragedy and gender (for a related approach, with even stronger attention to class, see Differential Equations: Women and Slaves in Greco-Roman Culture).

While Wohl agrees that "exchange rests upon and perpetuates a distinction between male subject and female object", she sees that tragedy "shows up the essential speciousness of the dichotomy" by its "dramatization of the transaction", for it "raises insistently the possibility of a female subject" (xxi). She finds the essence of this possibility in the silent female characters of Women of Trachis (Iole), Agamemnon (Cassandra), and Alcestis (Alcestis), whom she takes as occupying "a space of resistance" (xxi) which is located in "the very structure of the exchange" (xxi). The silent woman brings into question the order her exchange is calculated to bolster. But Wohl is not naive: she acknowledges that "Tragedy may question the trade in women, but it ultimately reinscribes both the system and its attendant hierarchies and oppressions" (xxiii). In the end, the "female subject is ... shown to be illegitimate or impossible" (xxxv). Still, Wohl urges us not to overlook the process, for the tragedies nonetheless "reveal the process by which woman is constructed as lacking, as other, as object, and by which man, correspondingly, is guaranteed as self-present object" (xxxv-vi). As a result Wohl maintains, tragedy encourages us to question that process and see that it is not natural or essential. The alternative, the feminine other, is not eliminated but represented even though repressed.

Wohl raises important questions; nonetheless this is a highly contested arena, and where one comes down in the end may depend as much on personal predilection as on critical method. As Wohl notes, she and I disagree: I am perhaps a pessimist and find the glass half-empty where Wohl finds it half-full. Thus, I don't find much resistance or power in the "voice" (xxi) of the literally silent characters. It may be, however, that speech was overrated not only by the Greeks but by us, and that the silence would have been as unsettling to the dominant order as Wohl argues it was. Moreover, even when I am not convinced by Wohl, I find that her readings are unfailingly interesting and stimulating. They make me stop and think about my own views.

Fluent in her understanding of contemporary theory, Wohl sets out the background to her work in a sharp and well-written introduction. Citing Sigmund Freud, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gayle Rubin, and myself, Wohl points out that feminists have noted that the exchange of women facilitates the "objectification and oppression of women" (xix). Taking off from Mauss' Essai sur le don, scholars have "identified gift exchange as a symbolic transaction, spontaneous and reciprocal, aimed not at financial profit but at social union" (xxvii); in ancient Greece, such gifts and the practice of hospitality (xenia) of which they were a part were the province of an aristocratic elite. In order to do the cultural work of constituting the aristocracy, these gifts had to be distinguished from merely commercial exchanges for profit. Wohl makes use of the Marxian concept of the fetishized commodity to analyze this process, then turns to psychoanalytic conceptions from Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein to interrelate the social, the economic, and the psychological.

As Wohl notes, women are the best example of the prestigious gift. She argues that if the exchange of women is revealed for what it is, if the fetishized commodity is "disenchanted," then the elite is challenged as well. The writings of Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Lacan, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Judith Butler enable Wohl to interrogate the seemingly straightforward subjectivity accorded men through the process of exchange. In poststructuralist thought, one is subjected at the same time that one gains subject status through "interpellation". As a state apparatus, tragedy is not outside systems of resistance and power; rather they are imbricated within it.

The relationship of this work to feminism is complex. As Wohl notes, there are no real women on stage. Her point is that "the tragic exchange ... serves not so much to oppress or manipulate a preconstituted and clearly defined group, 'women', as actually to constitute that group" (xxv). This is a very significant point, though it unfortunately sometimes gets overlooked in the ensuing pages where character analysis takes over; as a result, it sometimes sounds as if Deianira, or Cassandra, or Alcestis acted in ways that Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides did not write for them. The possibility of unintentional meanings should be discussed more explicitly. Moreover, the question of what the scenario Wohl has delineated means (or meant) to women (either then or now) is also left largely implicit. When Wohl speaks of the "advantages" of raising these questions, it is not clear to whose advantage she refers (xxiii).

Part I, "Sovereign Father and Female Subject in Sophocles' Trachiniae", analyzes the play from three perspectives. The first, that of Hyllus and Heracles, exposes the challenge to patrilineal succession by Hyllus' attempt to resist his father's edict that he marry his concubine, Iole. Wohl argues that Heracles regains subjectivity and masculine heroic stature in the course of the drama and that Hyllus is forced to identify with his father and give up his mother. Before that resolution, however, Hyllus objects; in his reluctance to comply with his father's request, he ruptures rather than supports the fantasy of the seamless necessity of the process. Deianira too interrupts the Oedipal succession, "if only for a minute" (5). She is the exchanged object who refuses to stay an object. Focusing on the process of exchange instead of the final victory enables Wohl to see that "the oppression of women generates a resistance in the text toward the very system that oppresses them" (16, cf. 27).

In the next two chapters, Wohl further develops the notion of the resistance offered by Deianira and Iole. As she points out, Deianira attempts to act as an aristocratic subject by giving a gift and by entering an agon with Eros. From that position, Deianira makes possible a critique of exchange, but that possibility is immediately foreclosed. Deianira has no other option than to seek subjectivity through male paths, paths which in the long run are destructive. Wohl asks if there are other invisible paths (37); I would argue that there are, and that it is significant that we must look for them elsewhere.

While Wohl indicates that female subjectivity is always problematic, and that "within every female house there is a male bed, just as within every female character there is a male actor" (46), she still holds out hope for resistance in the silent Iole, as "tragedy's preservation of a fantasied space beyond these models, of a female other beyond the control of the male self" (56). For Wohl, Iole is the other, "identification of [which] is a central project for the formation of the Sophoclean self, regardless of gender" (39). As a silent figure, Iole enables Deianira to explore her-self while the Queen is "imagining a subjectivity" (38) for the slave who faces her. Just as she seeks subjectivity through male paths, Deianira is shown here trapped in misogynist structures, ascribing dangerous desire to Iole when she might more rationally be concerned with Heracles. Given Iole's existence as a cipher, whose only function is to be exchanged, I think that Wohl is doing what Deianira does, that is, projecting onto the figure of Iole our own modern desires for such a possibility. While I would emphasize the foreclosure, Wohl's strategy does offer a ray of hope in the bleak landscape of this tragedy.

In Part Two, "The Violence of Kharis in Aeschylus' Agamemnon", Wohl turns to the notion of the commodity fetish. If in Trachiniae the exchange of Iole creates bonds between father and son, in Agamemnon the exchange of women dissolves bonds between men (59). She argues that whereas Deianira (momentarily) demystified the heroic career of Heracles, by focusing on his slavery and the exchange of women, the Agamemnon shows that the exchange of Iphigenia, Helen, and Cassandra precipitate a moral and economic crisis. The fetishization of the commodity ends by making commodities of those who think they are subjects. "The terror of this objectivication (sic), I argue, is the driving force behind the play, and generates defensive fantasies in the characters of Clytemnestra, who punishes the violence of fetishization, and Cassandra, who forgives it and offers sympathy for its fatal effects" (60). Wohl argues that the female figures in the play undermine the aristocratic elite by eliding the difference between the two kinds of exchange (gift and commodity). The play cannot resolve the problems which are shown to be inherent in the system of exchange; thus although "male society and subjectivity are rebuilt in the end," it is "upon a foundation that has been shown to be quicksand" (60).

Wohl's reading in part depends on distinguishing the virginity and reproductive capability of Iphigeneia, but one could argue that they simply represent separate stages of female life. The transition would ordinarily be marriage, but in Iphigeneia's case that is replaced by sacrifice, for which virginity is necessary as guarantee of legitimacy to the offspring. Given the models of adult femininity presented (Helen and Clytemnestra), Wohl's notion that the girl might become Helen is surely accurate (cf. Electra's own fears of becoming her mother). I missed a more extended discussion of the way this reading dovetails with the ostensible logic that the play puts forth (i.e., that her death is necessary to reclaim Helen). Overall, however, readers will find riches in the discussion of erotic violence and violent eros.

I was less impressed by the Marxian discussion invoked in Wohl's citing of Helen as "universal equivalent"; given the eroticization of Helen, it would seem worthwhile to explore the notion of the fetish put forth by Freud and utilized by feminist film theory. In the discussion of Helen, there also should be more emphasis on the role of the poet in creating the character. Though Wohl notes that "Helen is named as the cause" and that "Reparation is achieved through deflection of the problem onto the female object" (98), there were times when it seemed as if she accepted the play's representation of Helen as truth.

In her discussion of Clytemnestra, Wohl suggests that the character does not understand the agalma/ploutos distinction; does she not understand it all too well? Does Aeschylus not use her to get Agamemnon to incriminate himself precisely by walking on an agalma? It is crucial, too, that Clytemnestra does not force Agamemnon to do anything (cf. 105) but persuades him, as the gods did not force him to sacrifice Iphigeneia.

Cassandra (unlike Iphigeneia and Iole) speaks, but as Wohl points out, when she does, she articulates a male point of view (112); she represents the male fantasy of a virginal daughter, of a woman loyal to men (113). Wohl highlights the agency of the text (116) in controlling the danger at the heart of Cassandra. With this discussion, we can see Wohl's subtlety: for instance, though she uses Cassandra as a parallel to Iole and Iphigeneia, she does not emphasize her resistance. Interestingly enough, Cassandra does display significant resistance, both in the past to Apollo and in the present to Clytemnestra, though it is foreclosed by her willingness to die and by her forgiveness.

The final section of the book, "Mourning and Matricide in Euripides' Alcestis," attends to a "vacillation within the play between two models of psychic and social well-being, one predicated upon the objectification and exchange of women, the other in which such a commerce is not only unhealthy, but impossible" (121). Wohl argues that the male homosocial relationship between Heracles and Admetus is established over Alcestis' dead body, through a kind of matricide. As the relationship of Hyllus and Heracles triumphed over Hyllus' loyalty to his mother, so too in Alcestis is the patriliny reestablished. As she says, "In the silent, moribund figure of Alcestis is encrypted the paradox of tragedy's traffic in women, for her presence simultaneously forecloses the possibility of a female subject and incorporates that foreclosed possibility as a point of uncertainty and instability right at the center of the paternal symbolic" (131). Wohl takes Alcestis, veiled and silent in the end, as a "figure of radical unknowability, foreclosed subjectivity, and potential, if voiceless, resistance" (175).

She argues that the very difficulty that critics have had with the ending is evidence of the resistance in the text and that this objectification of Alcestis is not performed painlessly. Wohl takes the new genre that the play establishes as "sympotic", not satyr drama. She hypothesizes that Admetus refused to be a tragic hero, but finds his place in the male space of the symposion instead. Since the symposion was an aristocratic circle of male equality, a new elitism is established when Heracles and Admetus are joined by the exchange of the "new woman", Alcestis.

Wohl and I differ most significantly, I would say, on the source and potency of the resistance that she and I both see. I located it in the feminist reader, while she locates it in the tragedies themselves. Part of the question is whether we privilege the endings, which close off the option of resistance, or the process, which depict the resistance (or what I have seen as female strength in Anxiety Veiled). A more detailed discussion of the difficulty of locating resistance in silence, perhaps based on the dynamics of the subaltern, would have added depth to the analysis. Finally, given its focus on economic metaphors, the book might have been strengthened by heightened attention to "real" men and women. But this is a book that will repay your reading, particularly if you are interested in ways out of the seeming ly hopeless model of "the traffic in women."

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