BMCR 2010.01.38

Entering the Agon: Dissent and Authority in Homer, Historiography and Tragedy

, Entering the Agon: Dissent and Authority in Homer, Historiography and Tragedy. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xiii, 433. ISBN 9780199542710. $140.00.


It may be a measure of the ‘truth-value’ of alternately ballyhooed and deplored postmodernist and poststructuralist notions of democracy that they can have found their way into the heart of Classics Studies at Cambridge. The ‘central’ claim (if such a thing could be found) of post-structuralist radicalism concerns the paradox of openness. Openness as a democratic form is limited by paradox, because precisely as openness it must necessarily be closed, to closed-ness. ‘We’ democrats are dissenters: we oppose totalitarianism, we oppose the unilateralism of ‘you are with us or against us’, we oppose, in short, any ideal of social existence that does not institutionally accommodate opposition. But if we were to institutionalize the constant questioning of every institution, we would also question the institution of the constant questioning of every institution.1 This is why ‘truth’, in the postmodernist rubric, is a slippery notion, often appearing in more simplistic deployments and caricatures to be simply meaningless or incoherent. In the long-dreamed-of poststructuralist radical democracy, any given truth will have always been upheld against contending or opposing versions of that truth whose claim to authority must be recognized, at least as an unrealized potential.

The great strength and character of Ernest Barker’s Entering the Agon is the extent to which it faithfully and truthfully reflects the play of this paradox which is already at work in the literature and culture of classical antiquity. In a tightly organized formal structure of three ‘acts,’ Barker performs close readings of Homer, Greek historiography, and Greek tragic drama that highlight the tension between the desire for order and unanimity and the expression of dissent and difference. The analysis is thorough and systematic, and helpfully reveals questions and differences arising at the level of the meaning of key Greek terms and phrases, as well as more general interpretive differences that arise even where there is a basic agreement over the meaning of terms. The text attains its greatest force when it demonstrates the deep ambiguity of the ideal and practice of classical democracy: it is an ideal of dissent where important questions are placed es meson, in the open, but it also necessarily involves an assertion of control as a delimitation of boundaries which gives meaning and content to the freedom it idealizes:

…the notion of meson… represents an ideal of openness; paradoxically, for the concept of openness to have any meaning it must necessarily be accompanied by limitations and exclusions: for only by having certain circumstances, material or groups for whom or for which disclosure does not or cannot apply can openness itself be defined (18).

At its best, Entering the Agon illustrates this conceptual knot with clarity, showing how scenes like the funeral games for Patroclus, where Achilles puts prizes up for an ‘open contest’, take place, for all their openness, in the ritually closed circle of the Achaean army. Barker ably demonstrates that field of free play, the ideal of equality, cannot exist in a human world without boundary or form, and that this tension is borne out in Greek literature.

Barker is not afraid, furthermore, to make the kind of speculative connections with the contemporary world that make classical studies not only more interesting but deeply relevant to students of other disciplines. Among others, he points to the sociologist Antony Giddens and his concept of ‘structuration’:

…Antony Giddens argues that ‘we should not conceive of the structures of domination built into social institutions as in some way grinding out “docile bodies” who behave like the automata suggested by objectivist social science’. From this perspective, structure is to be regarded not as external to individuals but as fundamentally part of people’s everyday lives, which each person lives and experiences, works through and enacts. Thus Giddens’ approach stresses the activity of people working within social structures to reproduce them (whether consciously or not)—a process he labels ‘structuration’…. Giddens here is talking about social and political institutions, which, he argues, people perpetuate in their everyday lives. Nevertheless, what he has to say about real-life institutions can be helpful for thinking about their literary manifestations (15).

The practical political upshot of ideas like ‘structuration’, like that of postmodernist democratic ethic in general, remains ambiguous. Barker focuses on the fundamental ambiguity of power, the identification of the oppressed with their oppressors, as well as the way the oppressor can cloak his claims in the language of dissent and disagreement (Barker opens the text with G. W. Bush’s infamous ‘with us or with the terrorists’ remark as an example of an apparently agonic call to difference as a mask for cynical unilateral power) and he brings out a dimension of the tension in Greek culture that more simplistic, nostalgic portraits of fundamental nobility and unity of the Greek polis have suppressed.

Barker takes ample opportunities to engage in contemporary debates on the culture of antiquity, and invokes Edward Said, among others, to illustrate the relevance of the question of ambiguity to interpretation:

Richard Seaford has complained that the emphasis of tragic criticism on ambiguity is ‘in danger of becoming a disabling cliché, in which irreducible ambivalence… becomes the final destination of analysis’. Seaford’s concern articulates the intellectual bankruptcy of the kind of decontextualized reading that frustrates [Edward] Said: according to this view, contemporary studies on tragedy, regardless of context and structure, reduce all possible interpretations of tragedy to one of ambiguity—the prevailing trend within the academy at the present time. On the other hand, one of Seaford’s targets, Simon Goldhill, has responded by asserting that ‘reading for closure or reading for ambiguity is always already a politicized positioning, an engagement’, by which he means that each critic is inevitably involved ‘in the agon of producing, controlling, debating political meaning’…. The issue is not simply “is it ambiguous or not?”, “open or not?”, but “what is at stake in our determination that it is ambiguous, open or not?” (26-7)

The manifold complexity of the theme of the ambiguity of power and dissent, one Barker traces in a broad sense as a theme of ancient and contemporary debates about social norms, politics, and difference, is fully evident in his teacher Goldhill’s final remark: it is not merely a question of ambiguity or clarity, but of the ambiguous status of claims to be able to identify what is clear and what is ambiguous.

The great weakness of Barker’s text is the confusion that arises regarding the issue of the value that we ascribe to difference and dissent. Throughout Entering the Agon, to put it as bluntly as possible, Barker seems to want to take the side of dissent, that is, to take the side of ambiguity against clarity, to take the side of plurality and uncertainty as opposed to unanimity. This is set up formally, or we might even say, in a spirit of constructive dissent, formulaically, in the structured oppositions within the three acts. Within the Iliad, notwithstanding internal ambiguities, Barker finds a Homer who says “thumbs up” to dissent:

…many problems are encountered on the way, and many remain still to be resolved; nevertheless, by the end of the Iliad a sense of achievement has been gained, and the assembly has been affirmed as the place where dissent can, and should, take place (367).

Among the ‘problems encountered on the way,’ one that Barker barely mentions is the fact that the model of assembly and deliberation given in the Iliad is one of an all-male, and more importantly, strictly military, order. It seems beyond doubt that any dissent from civilians, let alone women and children, is at least marginalized in the text. Nevertheless, it would surely be out of place for a text saying “thumbs up” to dissent to provide a simple affirmation of the value of any one particular form of dissent.

What is more confusing in the end is the simplistic, almost Manichean dualism by which Barker pits the Odyssey against the Iliad, arguing that, “The agon between the Iliad and the Odyssey bequeaths to the tradition two alternative ways of thinking about the dialectic between authority and dissent” (134). Barker insists that “viewed through Odysseus’ gaze, dissent no longer appears as a profitable means of negotiating crisis: it is, instead, a source of the problem that places the community, with the household at its centre, under threat” (91) and that the “narration of debate [within the Odyssey] has the effect of consolidating authority along with the concomitant strategy of suppressing dissent” (92). So if Homer gives an appropriately ambiguous and problematic “thumbs up” to dissent in the Iliad, he gives an unambiguously undemocratic “thumbs down” to dissent in the story of Odysseus.

The formulaic answer, that the Iliad values dissent and the Odyssey devalues it, winds up by retreating from the manifold ambiguity of the problems of democracy and of interpretation the author has drawn on to accompany his close reading of the Iliad. Barker must minimize, for example, how Odysseus’ role as the narrator of the central books of the text might be seen as unreliable, how his ‘sinuous’ and ‘many-sided’ character is a strange choice of character to give value to unanimity and clarity and to devalue ambiguity and dissent. He does not imagine, as did Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment (another text notable for its attempt to draw out the deep contemporary relevance of Homer), how the dryness of Homer’s report of scenes like that of the killing of the faithless maids might stand as a mute witness to the atrocities committed in the name of legitimate power. Barker insists that the Odyssey, “performs a narrative of Odysseus’ return… insists upon a self-conscious awareness of a self-authoring strategy” (133) and that “Faced with such a performance, critics tend to adopt self-contradictory positions” (133).

Barker’s desire for clarity given manifold complexity in a context of unlimited human suffering is deeply understandable, but it must be pointed out that such a dualistic argument about Homer, that might unfortunately be reducible to ‘you are either with us (dissenters, but ‘pro-Iliad’) or against us’, is hardly free from self-contradiction itself. It might even be said that to think dissent radically, to think difference radically, it is necessary to admit that one must be open to the possibility of self-contradiction, or else risk subsuming all debate in the ‘open circle’ of enlightened military men, whose very openness is constituted by competing vectors of force. It might be said, even more tendentiously, that in all ‘his’ works, Homer (if that was his name) stands outside the open circle of the arrayed forces of history, and that it is precisely as a witness to the failure of the heroes, that he finds the virtue in failure, and of having the courage to refrain from saying ‘yes’. This is to hesitate before ascribing value to any given social institution, because value in itself implies a kind of agreement or social compact among the evaluators.

Most interesting and ironic of all in Entering the Agon is that a more nuanced reading, once which would bring out the deeply dialectical nature of both of Homer’s great works, is already contained in a fragmentary (if not incoherent) form in the Barker’s book , dissenting, as it were, from the main line of argument. The implicit self-contradiction can be seen where Barker says that the Odyssey “insists upon a self-conscious awareness of a self-authorizing strategy, implicating the audience in the celebration of Odysseus’ tale at the expense of competing narratives” (133). For Barker, this insistence makes the Odyssey ‘anti-dissent’, but surely it is precisely the self-consciousness of the one-sided narrative given by Odysseus, the fact that we are in on the game of the storyteller (now was that Homer? Odysseus? Menelaus? Helen? Penelope?), that Odysseus has just about told us himself that, in classically paradoxical fashion, ‘the truth is that I am a really good liar’, that makes such a simple conclusion impossible. The conclusion that many of Barker’s own observations point towards is that the Iliad and the Odyssey are like two sides of the epic coin: one appears to valorize dissent while implicitly pointing up its illusory quality, whereas the other explicitly valorizes authority and unanimity while implicitly pointing up the way dissent must be violently suppressed in order to achieve them.

It is notable also that the formulaic reading of the theory and practice of dissent becomes more nuanced as the work continues through acts two and three. Regarding Herodotus’ ‘Odyssean’ historical inquiry, Barker reports that “the portrayal of Greeks debating in Herodotus is more nuanced and problematic than it had been in Homer because the historian is confronting the problem of inter-poleis debate: precisely what is lacking is any kind of institution that can deal with dissent among the competing communities” (171). The comparison of Sophocles and Euripides is more interesting still, with Sophocles employing an “Iliadic strategy that explores and valorizes dissent” (279), and Euripides leaving his audience “alone to deal with dissent and face the consequences of their own judgment outside the security of any institutional framework, even that of the play itself” (280). Euripides, in other words, implies the infinite quality of democratic dissent. It is not enough to constantly question every institution; we must also question the institution of questioning every institution. It is surely the unlimited nature of democratic questioning that explains the great successes and failures of past and present democracies. Democracy can be the most open society of all; it can also very easily fall victim to the interests of its loudest and more powerful ‘dissenters.’

Barker and his audience might be forgiven for feeling unsatisfied with the conclusion that it is not enough to give value to dissent, and that what matters instead is casting doubt on the meaning of value itself. Nevertheless, we might ourselves be forgiven for insisting that such great foundational works of Western Civilization as Barker is examining in Entering the Agon be defended against a devotion which reduces them to the kind of one-sided affirmations and attacks that reveal the weakness of democratic institutions, not their strength.


1. See for further reference Gad Horowitz, “Groundless Democracy,” in Shadow of Spirit (London: Routledge, 1993).