BMCR 2019.11.03

The Materialities of Greek Tragedy: Objects and Affect in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides

, , The Materialities of Greek Tragedy: Objects and Affect in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. London: Bloomsbury, 2018. ix, 302. ISBN 9781350028791 $114.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Perhaps the most striking feature of new materialism is its endless semantic elasticity. It gives us objects, object agency, things, thingness, substance, stuff, viscosity, matter production, bodies (sort of), body parts, embodiment, prostheses, assemblages, capacities, autonomy, resistance, and irreducible alterity. The expanses encompassed by affect theory are no less capacious. Here we find emotions, feelings, senses, energies, vitality, vibrancy, presence, co-presence, convergence, compassion, sympathy, empathy, synchrony, co-existence, withholding, consumption, cannibalization, and digestion. We edge also toward the human as thing, the nonhuman and posthuman, to say nothing of OOO (Object-Oriented Ontology).

We have dark matter and black holes. Networks and flux. The environment and unconscious. Atmospheres and orientations. Influences. Contagion. In-between-ness (regularly represented in italics and with two hyphens).

All this is to say that one can become overwhelmed by the largesse of ideas and potentials offered by the material and affective turns. Though there has been a cascade of titles flowing into classics under one aegis or the other, the theory-curious can be grateful for the volume under review for seeking to guide its readers through these two intersecting turns: using Greek tragedy as its limiting field, this text delivers interpretations that extend across the whole archipelago of materialities, objects, and affect, along with their many bedfellows and barnacles.

The volume is partly based upon a panel that met at the SCS meeting in San Francisco in 2016. In the Introduction (“Greek Tragedy and the New Materialisms”), Telò and Mueller offer a buzz trip through the many movements and ideas name-checked above, punctuated by references to living luminaries, like Jane Bennett and Lauren Berlant, as succinctly as one might hope. A helpful distinction is made between “traditional materialisms (Marxian, Freudian)” (2) and this new kind: it is the “post-humanist foundation” that has shifted the structure of the field, the “questioning of anthropocentrism, of the primacy of the human subject” (2). Thus the essays in this volume are meant to defamiliarize ancient Greek tragedy by shifting our view of its humans and things, but also to show how the genre “theorizes in its own terms” (3). Passages from Sophocles’ Philoctetes serve as the editors’ exemplum for what these theories can achive. With its emphasis on a bow, a foot, a wound, as well as on voice, address, and apostrophe, all framed in a social experiment of utter human isolation, Philoctetes lends itself naturally to such a study of persons and/as things. Accordingly, it also receives a much more thorough treatment by Mario Telò in a separate essay, “The Boon and the Woe: Friendship and the Ethics of Affect in Sophocles’ Philoctetes,” perhaps the most theoretically complex one in the volume. Here, Telò draws upon Deleuzian in-between-ness to advance the claim that Philoctetes’ treatment of others amounts to a form of “cannibalistic friendship” (135), freighted by a heavy threat of diminution. In this light, both Neoptolemus and the bow are rendered “homologous prosthetic objects” (140), at least until Heracles shows up and his voice “cannabilizes” Philoctetes in turn (151). The use of affect theory here thus serves to show the darker sides of the philia often prized in this play.

Two other essays in the volume focus solely on Sophocles, one by Joshua Billings, who examines the urn in Electra, and one by Anna Uhlig on the Ichneutae. Each of these essays shows, to some degree, how newer theories can be used to revive familiar objects of attention. (The urn in Electra, after all, already has a whole book named after it.1) In “Orestes’ Urn in Word and Action,” Billings focuses on language in Electra, a topic that has received much critical notice in recent decades. Billings draws attention to the construction and significance of the urn through language and shows how this use of language destabilizes the urn’s on-stage presence as an object. Uhlig’s piece (“Noses in the Orchestra: Bodies, Objects, and Affect in Sophocles’ Ichneutae ”), following the work of Bruno Latour, takes an olfactory angle on satyrs, with smell being the mode of their affective engagement with externalities, and thus the means of their bodily capacities and constitution.

Erika L. Weiberg looks at both Sophocles’ Ajax and Euripides’ Heracles in her study of weaponry on stage (“Weapons as Friends and Foes in Sophocles’ Ajax and Euripides’ Heracles). Weiberg’s essay takes a refreshing approach, looking at contemporary studies of veterans afflicted by both posttraumatic stress disorder and easy access to guns to examine the suicides of Ajax and Heracles in their eponymous plays. Weiberg stresses that she aims not to assimilate the ancient to the modern but rather to show that a “nexus of the material, the social, and the affective experience of trauma” (64) are deeply entwined in both frameworks. (Weiberg does not pay much attention to the difference between actuality of cases-studies and the fictionality of tragedies, but her readings hold up to scrutiny nonetheless.) Weiberg traces the loss of philia and community for both tragic heroes and shows how theories of traumatic “acting out,” from Freud’s onward, are applicable. This essay is most pointed in its analysis of how linear time comes undone for the heroes as their psychological traumas are reperformed.

Most of the other essays in the volume similarly array themselves around one or two tragedies qua case studies, and most of these in turn focus on Euripidean tragedy: Victoria Wohl writes on Troades, Ava Shirazi on Hecuba, Karen Bassi on Alcestis, and Seth Estrin on Ion. Comparable as the mode of essay is in these cases, their theoretical bents are widely divergent. Wohl’s chapter (“Stone into Smoke: Metaphor and Materiality in Euripides’ Troades ”) borrows from, and also interrogates, Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010, Durham, NC) to tease out the role of language in assimilating the realms of the material and immaterial in the event of large-scale trauma. She particularly underlines the importance of metaphor in rendering fuzzy the border between language and matter, expression and thing. Bennett’s analysis of Euripides’ language is particularly fine, as is her own language; for example, Andromache’s understanding of the death of Troy as “erasure” is glossed as “an alpha-privative set on life” (32). Ava Shirazi’s piece (“The Other Side of the Mirror: Reflection and Reversal in Euripides’ Hecuba ”) places mirrors within a semiotic system of bronze and light to show how the image of a mirror frames a moment of horrible reversal in a choral ode of Hecuba.

Karen Bassi’s chapter (“Morbid Materialism: The Matter of the Corpse in Euripides’ Alcestis ”) examines the phenomenon of corpses on stage in Greek tragedy and looks at “forms of substitution” (40) in the practice of mourning by way of tombs and urns. Bassi shows how this ethic of substitution goes bonkers in Alcestis when Apollo motivates a cycle of substituting one death for another. This cycle finally cashes out in a morbidly silent and ontologically indeterminate Alcestis. This piece shares some preoccupations with the essay of Seth Estrin (“Memory Incarnate: Material Objects and Private Visions in Classical Athens, from Euripides’ Ion to the Gravesite”). Estrin traces the characters’ use of mnemonic objects in the play to materialize their memories. These objects, as Estrin demonstrates, do not simply “record memory, but incarnate it” (113). Estrin, an art historian (and colleague of mine at the University of Chicago), makes his case by examining actual images of ancient materials, namely funerary objects. He explores the process of mourning in Athenian contexts and expertly shows how Euripides’ many artistic descriptions in the play draw on similar language to that of epitaphs, enacting parallel processes of memory creation.

Another mode of essay takes the form of overview: Naomi Weiss discusses the senses in a spread of extant Aeschylean tragedy (the only essay solely on Aeschylus in the volume), A. C. Duncan examines tragic masks, and Nancy Worman looks at hands across a number of tragedies that particularly involve Oedipus, Electra, and their siblings (siblings-plus). In “Speaking Sights and Seen Sounds in Aeschylean Tragedy,” Naomi Weiss examines Seven Against Thebes and Agamemnon as exempla of Aeschylus’ many experiments with the material, metaphorical, and sensory. She focuses particularly on Aeschylus’ powerful use of sound and his forays into the synaesthetic, ending with an excellent close analysis of Clytemnestra’s “beacon speech,” and looking ahead to the other two tragic plays of the Oresteia.

A. C. Duncan’s essay (“The Familiar Mask”) argues that tragic masks were not only tools for actors, but also “maintain[ed] an ineffable vitality at odds with the purely instrumental” (80), allowing for slippage between persons and things. Duncan explores the “off-stage” life of tragic masks, drawing together evidence that masks were familiar objects in their own right, before exploring a few instances in tragedies when masks must have been used to show the objecthood of dead or otherwise defamiliarized faces. There isn’t a ton of evidence on extra-theatrical mask usage, but what scraps there are—mentions in fragments of Aristophanes, a description from a (fourth-century or later) Aesopic fable—provide an intriguing glimpse into the culture surrounding the theater.

In “Electra, Orestes, and the Sibling Hand,” Nancy Worman looks at hands as metonymic of sensation and also “as an agent of autoaffection, as an experience of the toucher touching and being touched” (185). From this basis, Worman explores “handling” in tragedy and notes that hands tend to push or pull, attack or protect. In other words, there is always a threat of violence. Worman concentrates particularly on familial touching, examining passages from the several plays that tell the story of Oedipus, and moving on to the points of “manual contact” in the plays that revolve around Electra and family. In almost every case, violence wins over affection, erotics, or security. Even the affectionate touching of Sophocles’ Electra and Orestes takes on a minatory tone. The haptic is always highlighting the tragic part of tragedy.

The afterword by Edith Hall (“Materialisms Old and New”) merits and rewards close attention. Hall aims to provoke, but with a purpose. To her, the “downgrad[ing]” of human subjects that is spelled out in Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and implicit in many applications of new materialism, comes at a heavy and perhaps unethical price: the willful forgetting of “the relationship between material things, human labor and socio-economics” (206). Hall shows briefly how certain passages from tragedy might be better understood by noting the emphasis on human effort behind objects, and indeed an appreciation of the historical circumstances of production. She urges, in other words, a re-evaluation of the Marxist form of materialism, seeking to maintain the humane in scholarship even in the face of posthumanisim.

All told, this is an enormously engaging book, full of subtle and imaginative treatments of tragedy. It is beautifully packaged with a gorgeous picture on the cover: a sculpture by Antony Gormley of a person spinning out into wiry thingness, appropriately called “Feeling Material.” It is light on endnotes for a book on tragedy, preferring to look ahead rather than back. What it offers most clearly is a taste of the great variety of modern materialisms and also a sharp sense of what these movements disavow: explorations of the soul, the spirit, transcendence, language as a transparent or logical system, transparency or logic, human agency, consciousness, intentionality, or authorship. These essays are only very slightly invested in politics, history, or historicity. They start and end altogether elsewhere, allowing for a new set of insights within a familiar set of limitations. Engaging with the volume is an extraordinarily useful way to understand the many potentials, and the constraints, of this varied set of intellectual movements. I can well imagine teaching with these essays, if only to prod my students to excitement, irritation, and ideas.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Greek Tragedy and the New Materialisms (Mario Telò and Melissa Mueller)
1. Stone into Smoke: Metaphor and Materiality in Euripides’ Troades (Victoria Wohl)
2. Morbid Materialism: The Matter of the Corpse in Euripides’ Alcestis (Karen Bassi)
3. Orestes’ Urn in Word and Action (Joshua Billings)
4. Weapons as Friends and Foes in Sophocles’ Ajax and Euripides’ Heracles (Erika Weiberg)
5. The Familiar Mask (A. C. Duncan)
6. The Other Side of the Mirror: Reflection and Reversal in Euripides’ Hecuba (Ava Shirazi)
7. Memory Incarnate: Material Objects and Private Visions in Classical Athens from Euripides’ Ion to the Gravesite (Seth Estrin)
8. The Boon and the Woe: Friendship and the Ethics of Affect in Sophocles’ Philoctetes (Mario Telò)
9. Noses in the Orchestra: Bodies, Objects, and Affect in Sophocles’ Ichneutae (Anna Uhlig)
10. Speaking Sights and Seen Sounds in Aeschylean Tragedy (Naomi Weiss)
11. Electra, Orestes, and the Sibling Hand (Nancy Worman)
12. Materialisms Old and New (Edith Hall)


1. Mark Ringer, Electra and the Empty Urn: Metatheater and Role Playing in Sophocles (Chapel Hill, NC).