[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Larry D. Bouchard: Postmodern Tragedy, Contingency, and Culpability

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Larry D. Bouchard: Postmodern Tragedy, Contingency, and Culpability
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Larry D. Bouchard explores the question "Is the Postmodern
    Post-Tragic?," suggesting that the question implicitly asks: Are
    witnesses to suffering and evil in our days in continuity with others,
    past and future? Can terms like "tragedy" or "the tragic" continue to
    be resources for understanding and critical explanation? Can the
    category of the tragic still be used as a framework for responding to
    evil? He suggests that the contingencies of mystery and knowledge, and
    the contingencies of suffering and culpability, provide places to
    begin to think about such questions.

          Larry D. Bouchard, Associate Professor of Religion and
    Literature at the University of Virginia, is the author of numerous
    articles, chapters, and books on the topics of evil, suffering,
    tragedy, negativity, and theodicy, including his book, Tragic Method
    and Tragic Theology: Evil in Contemporary Drama and Religious Thought.

          Is the postmodern post-tragic? The question is both about our
    times and about our terms. It is not a new question, having been posed
    often since World War II and probably since Nietzsche, depending on
    when one thinks modernity began to end.

          When the question is posed seriously--when it asks whether
    witnesses to suffering and evil in our days are in continuity with
    other pasts and futures--then the question may help us respond to some
    of the fragments of art and testimony we encounter. The question
    simply asks whether "tragedy" and "the tragic" will continue to be
    resources for understanding and critical explanation.

          Although these terms resist essential definition, I generally
    reserve "tragedy" for a family of interrelated artistic forms. It
    includes Greek and Elizabethan tragedy, certainly, but extends to
    other forms and works that are "in dialogue" with the traditions of
    tragedy. "The tragic" will stand for the kinds of questions and
    experiences that tragedy poses and probes. Tragedy as art, then, is
    better defined not in terms of what it is but what it does. Among the
    things it does is inquire.[3]^1 Tragedy stages for communal inquiry
    questions of suffering and evil. Later I will reframe these questions
    in terms of configurations of "contingency" and "culpability." If
    tragedy speaks appropriately to postmodern times, it may well be in
    its witnessing and inquiring into such configurations.

"After" Tragedy and the Tragic?

          Let us return to our opening question: Is the postmodern
    post-tragic? I can think of at least three kinds of reasons for saying
    "yes"--yes, ours is a post-tragic time, and hence the paradigms and
    very terms of tragedy are probably inappropriate signs.

          Firstly, we might follow those who caution that literary
    "tragedy" is a closed genre no longer capable of important innovation;
    if we attempt to repeat this genre, the results will be pale and
    distracting imitations of, or posturing toward, tragedy.

          Or, secondly, we might aver that "the tragic" usually has
    reference to religious or mythical views of suffering and evil that no
    longer obtain. They no longer speak to us, either because reigning
    western religious traditions have taken us "beyond tragedy," or
    because after modernity the mythic or religious traditions needed to
    sustain tragedy no longer reign. "The tragic" and even "evil," by such
    views, may be essentializing categories properly left only to
    antiquarian interests.

          Or, thirdly, we might judge that tragedy and the tragic have
    been eclipsed by the historical traumas that our century in particular
    has witnessed. By this view, literary tragedy never imagined genocide
    of such proportion and regularity; in our time, history has been far
    more efficient at imagining evil than art has been. To denominate
    genocide and the ensuing rupture of religious and humanistic
    structures of meaning as "tragic" would be to impose a form on that
    which has ruptured form, to project a definition on that which resists
    defining, to interpret and thus to violate that which defies

          So the postmodern is post-tragic? Let us consider again. It is
    certainly possible to counter each of these warnings. One could argue
    that literary genres are not static forms, but rather pluralistic
    families of formal resemblance and difference. Some new students of
    genre would have us say that genres function to help us make art, and
    do not merely classify art.[4]^2 (This is part of why I said at the
    outset that tragedy is better defined through what it does, not what
    it is.) Moreover, genres can change, intersect, and ramify but need
    not finally close. Old tragedies are newly performed and innovative
    works, which may cogently be interpreted as tragedies, are still
    made.[5]^3 Or we might argue that "tragic experience" is not really a
    falsely essentializing or irrelevantly mythical category but can
    generate newer questions in continuity with older questions. Or we
    could simply notice that there are in fact contact points between the
    fragmentary traditions of tragedy and the kinds of evil and suffering
    witnessed in our time and the times of our parents and grandparents.

          What all three objections to tragedy suggest is that we are too
    late for tragedy, or that tragedy is a belated category. To this I
    want to respond that "tragedy" and "the tragic" have always been
    belated categories. The "tragic" is, and always was, a "post"-category
    of experience, discovered in interpretation. Likewise, the forms of
    literary-dramatic "tragedy" are and always were themselves
    post-tragic. Tragedy must be at some distance from the experiences it
    re-presents. At a distance, tragedy might name an experience or give
    it voice and currency (or else encumber it with inept language or
    images). Tragedy is and was a constructed spectacle, confession, or
    witness. Thus, if we think of tragedy mainly as an ideal type by which
    to classify art, we may well find it inappropriate now. Likewise, if
    we speak of it as a singular tradition, a fabric without frays,
    tangles, or seams--much less tears--it will be hard to find the
    continuities between it and the broken strands of our times, spaces,
    and lives. But we can think of tragedy pluralistically and
    heuristically: it can explore varieties of "tragic" experience.

          As to "the tragic," the effects or experiences identified and
    explored by tragedy (what are called "tragic visions") are also plural
    and shape our language and perceptions unexpectedly. In ordinary
    language, how we name experiences "tragic," though often denigrated as
    trivial, is shaped by the historical sediments of tragic art. Tragedy
    leaves us with language and images by which we recognize, name, and
    interpret a variegated range of experiences.

          In recent years, the tragic has frequently been interpreted
    under the aspect of tuché, a Greek word for chance, luck, or
    "contingency"--in some contrast to the specters of moira (fate or
    destiny) or of "evil." There are a number of possible reasons for this
    turn. Fate can sometimes be viewed as less an independent cosmic force
    than an arrangement of circumstances, like the premises of a good
    plot. And the origins of culpable evil in Greek tragedy are often
    entangled with divine caprice and so are crucially indeterminate.
    Oedipus, for instance, has his faults, but they do not drive the plot
    or explain his story.

          Contemporary interest in contingency in tragedy also comes with
    a greater appreciation for the inherent limits of language, frameworks
    of meaning, and systems of thought. One of the more common definitions
    of postmodernism is sustained suspicion about foundations or
    "metanarratives."[6]^4 Tragic contingency correlates with what Martha
    Nussbaum would have us recognize as the plurality and "fragility" of
    the various goods that give direction to our lives (e.g., friendship,
    health, aesthetic pleasure, justice),[7]^5 and with what classicist
    James Redfield and others describe as the limits of virtue and
    cultural value, which are explored in tragedy.[8]^6 And recent
    associations of tragedy with contingency also correlate with a
    hesitancy to use the term "evil" as a moral and religious category. I
    would extend these views that tragedy teaches us to reflect on
    contingency. But I would also invite a return to understanding the
    tragic not only through the contingencies of life and thought but also
    in terms of their entanglement with ethical and religious questions of
    moral culpability.


          The idea of contingency evokes a complex range of meanings,
    ranging from "what is the case but might not have been," to
    circumstances that accidentally threaten well-being, and even to the
    sense of unforeseen, surprising realizations of good. The various ways
    in which contingency and culpability become entangled (but not fused
    or equated) in tragedy can also evoke a sense of mystery, which
    reminds of its association with sacred festival. To the extent that
    tragedy and religion remain occasions of postmodern understanding and
    critique, their juxtaposition may continue to provide spaces for
    exploration. So I propose that tragedy can become compelling to us as
    it inquires into areas of contingency, many of which bear on the
    religious imagination. One might speak of the contingencies of selves
    and communities, even of what the biblical traditions might learn to
    call "the contingencies of grace."[9]^7 Here I will address the
    contingencies of mystery and knowledge and those of suffering and
    moral culpability.

of Mystery and Knowledge

          In much religious discourse, mystery is a value-laden term, both
    when mystery is intrinsically valued--as in the mystery of divine
    election--and when the sources of values and virtues (such as justice,
    beauty, love, wisdom, integrity) are deemed not amenable to exhaustive
    or reductive explanation. Mystery corresponds, then, to an awareness
    of the inherent limits of knowledge, and yet points to possibilities
    of knowing beyond or within those limits. By contrast, exhaustive,
    reductive explanation might be a modern value that opposes the very
    notion of inherent mystery, as when E. M. Forster's Cyril Fielding
    opines in A Passage to India that there are no mysteries, only

          Tragedy may both encourage and chasten our desire to recover a
    sense of inherent mystery--not so much mysteries to be solved as
    mysteries that persist. Mystery may occur in some configurations that
    have surprising relevance for our self-understanding, or mystery may
    disrupt understanding altogether. The art of tragedy may muddle as
    well as disclose mystery. It is sometimes said that if Oedipus had
    simply ignored the fragmentary knowledge he received from oracles,
    memories, seers, and messengers, his ruin could have been avoided. But
    not only is it contrary to his nature to ignore such gnosis, his own
    ruin has already been entangled with that of Thebes--a city whose
    future his past threatens to annihilate. His mystery of origins is,
    for his adopted citizens, arbitrary, capricious, and finally
    unarguable. Their configuration in his lot simply is, as is his with
    theirs, and it displaces the conditions for understanding. In
    postmodern parlance, their near ruin is experienced as a rupture in
    the world. And the easing of the intensity of rupture, first by the
    exile of Oedipus and later by his near apotheosis at Colonus, does not
    finally heal it; for the rupture will continue to ramify in story
    after story.

          Tragedy usually inquires into mysteries that are not welcome. If
    there is welcome news in this, it may be that tragedy often alerts us
    to the idea of the "irreducible." To acknowledge that some
    questions--perhaps concerning the origins of the personality or of a
    historical catastrophe--are "irreducible" to a single framework of
    causal or functional explanation is to become open to a sense of
    mystery that might enrich our awareness of the range of that question.
    However, we should also say that what we discover to be irreducible is
    likely to be contingently so. Yesterday, we had no terms for
    explaining the Sphinx's riddle. Today, Oedipus arrives and answers it.
    Tomorrow, we will send him into exile. Then Freud will come. And so
    on. Sometimes some compelling question--perhaps of who is responsible
    for this good or this evil, or a question about the origin of
    consciousness--appears to us as not reducible to single explanatory
    strategies. And while this particular compelling question appears
    irreducible, it may well appear deeply so, completely so. But
    appearances can change with histories of knowing, and can change yet
    again. The history of oracular knowledge is as contingent as the
    history of persons. Tomorrow, we will know, then we won't, and later
    we may know again.

of Suffering and Culpability

          It is easy to see why some see pluralistic culture as
    fragmentary. To some the stridency of our debates over ethical issues
    and frameworks signals the absence of any kind of cultural and moral
    consensus. To others, our shrill arguments obscure what moral
    agreements we may indeed share, even across the many cultures in our
    common life.[10]^8 But in any case, it may be quixotic to try to speak
    of "evil" in our cultural setting. The word is so tradition-laden as
    likely to be meaningless apart from particular religious or
    philosophical narratives.

          And yet to say that our time is without a sense of evil is at
    least paradoxical--inasmuch as the last century produced events as
    recognizably abominable as any history has known. And in some
    postmodernist commentary, it is the unprecedented magnitude and
    horrible particularity of these events that occasions the pervasive
    sense of rupture from past and future which I have mentioned. We may
    argue about whether we are really postmodern now. But the proposition
    remains compelling that Western culture's sense of its own
    possibilities has been sundered by moral and political
    catastrophes--those associated with totalitarianism, extreme economic
    inequity, war, and genocide--events which renew our doubts about the
    final humaneness of humanity.

          However, the mingling of boundless desire with fear, and
    especially the mingling of knowledge with great power, which has so
    enlarged our capacities for catastrophe, have indeed been explored
    throughout the history of tragedy and also of most religious
    communities. When students of western religious thought--especially
    those responsive to Augustine's belief that the telos and good of a
    human being is to reply to love with love--locate places for the
    tragic, they tend to move along either of two directions. They may
    consider the moral ambiguities of tragic choice to be ultimately a
    consequence of sin (forms of misdirected loving, which corrupt the
    good) or else that sin is a response to tragic suffering and
    contingency. These two trajectories for understanding the tragic only
    roughly correspond to the distinction between moral hubris and natural

          Along the first direction, exemplified by the
    mid-twentieth-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the
    matters we may call the tragic in life (choices, dilemmas, and the
    suffering that follows from them) are interconnected and inseparable
    from their sources in prior sin. Here, the tragic includes sin, the
    psychological and social contexts for sin (e.g., anxiety, temptation,
    and the historical momentum of injustice), and the kinds of suffering
    that are the consequences of sin: structures of injustice, oppression,
    and reciprocal violence. Why is sin prior? For Niebuhr (as for
    Kierkegaard), our anxieties about the future tempt us to try to secure
    ourselves against contingency, no matter the cost. Sin, then, is seen
    as a deeply contradictory motivation to make oneself (or one's group)
    the infinite center of the world--a hubris that inevitably leads to
    others' (and one's own) suffering. The powerless slave suffers the
    effects of the sins of slavery; the culpable slaveholders are also
    slavery's victims. In short, as far back into a history of causes of
    injustice or resulting suffering as one wants to go, the tragic is a
    personal and social complex intractably rooted in sin.[11]^9

          Along the other trajectory, exemplified by the contemporary
    theologians Edward Farley and Wendy Farley, tragic suffering precedes
    sin.[12]^10 The hubris, violent hatred, selfishness and greed,
    rationalized preference and privilege, and slothful resignation that
    can beset persons and groups are seen as bad responses to conditions
    of being finite: that is, to scarcity and other natural limits, to
    conflicting values and goods, and to the pervasive realities of death
    and pain. By this account, what is tragic in life is the priority of
    contingency and suffering, not the priority of sin. Sin, rather, is a
    deeply contradictory response to the tragic contingency. If, in the
    Bible, the stories of the Fall or the Tower of Babel are images of the
    first trajectory, whose source is sin, the stories of Job and perhaps
    of the clinically depressed King Saul are images of the second, whose
    source is a lack of fit between human well-being and the finite world.
    I do not claim that these two theological directions for understanding
    the tragic are mutually exclusive (for the terms are defined and
    distributed differently)--only that they are different and are not
    reducible to each other. Culpability and contingency are lines that
    tangle and cross each other in endlessly ramifying ways. And literary
    tragedy calls us to respond to particular tragic entanglements of
    culpability and chance.

          As far back as one traces the history of sin, Niebuhr and
    Kierkegaard tried to say, there is prior sin: "sin presupposes
    itself."[13]^11 Yet as far back as one presses this analysis of sin,
    contingencies also appear that are not reducible to
    sin-as-culpability. The complications of sin and historical chance are
    muddled together as far back as we can see or imagine. And the
    interpretation of such muddles as occasions of "mystery," with that
    word's connotations of both awe and perplexity, is among the perennial
    implications of tragedy. Bernard Williams recognizes that this
    entanglement of contingency with culpability runs counter to how we
    usually link moral responsibility to an agent's knowledge and
    intentions; so, typically, we do not want to hold Oedipus responsible
    for unwitting actions or forced choices. Indeed, Oedipus interprets
    his personal innocence in Oedipus at Colonus. But Williams' claim is
    that the tragic view offers a richer and more realistic description of
    the ethical environment--an environment we continue to probe along
    with our Greek (and, I would add, Hebraic) ancestors: "As the Greeks
    understood, the responsibilities we have to recognize extend in many
    ways beyond our normal purposes and what we intentionally do."[14]^12

          So accustomed are we to treating mitigating circumstances only
    as reasons for pardon that some may assume that such readings of
    tragedy can only weaken moral accountability. On the contrary, the
    coarse mixing of contingency and culpability--which often cannot be
    sorted out and finally assessed, and which might well define the
    ethical character of "the tragic"--vastly enlarges our
    "accountability"--especially as witnesses. We are called to bear
    witness and become responsive--that is, "to give account"--to the
    appearing of moral evil implicated in: contingently related structures
    of nature, visible and invisible historical patterns of injustices,
    ideological distortion, and suffering. We find ourselves accountable
    witnesses to such mixes of contingency and culpability in ways that
    resist simple ascriptions of innocence or blame.

    [15]^1 On how tragedy may be defined as an aesthetic mode of inquiry,
    with help from Aristotle and recent genre theorists, see my Tragic
    Method and Tragic Theology: Evil in Contemporary Drama and Religious
    Thought (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989)
    especially 8, 18-23. ] [16]^2 See Paul Ricoeur, "The Hermeneutical
    Function of Distanciation," Philosophy Today 24(1973): 129-141. Mary
    Gerhart develops implications from Ricoeur and others in Genre
    Choices, Gender Questions (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1992). ]
    [17]^3 See my expansion of these reflections in "On Contingency and
    Culpability: Is the Postmodern Post-Tragic?," Evil After
    Postmodernism: Histories, Narratives, Ethics , ed. Jennifer L. Geddes
    (London: Routledge, forthcoming in 2001), where I discuss the 1996
    productions in London of Sophocles' Oedipus plays, Goethe's Faust, and
    Robert Lepage and company's The Seven Streams of the River Ota. ]
    [18]^4 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
    Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis:
    University of Minnesota Press, 1984) xxiv. ] [19]^5 See Martha
    Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy
    and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) 3-7. ]
    [20]^6 See James Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The
    Tragedy of Hector (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975),
    especially chs. 1-2; see also John D. Barbour, Tragedy as a Critique
    of Virtue: The Novel and Ethical Reflection (Chico: Scholars Press,
    1984) and Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University
    of California Press, 1993). ] [21]^7 Again, see my developement of
    these considerations in "On Contingency and Culpability." ] [22]^8 See
    James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America
    (New York: Basic Books, 1991) and Jeffrey Stout, Ethics After Babel:
    The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon, 1988)
    for two different views of moral disagreement in contemporary American
    religion and culture. ] [23]^9 See Sören Kierkegaard's analysis of
    anxiety in The Concept of Anxiety, ed. and trans. Reidar Thomte and
    Albert B. Anderson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) and
    Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Volume I: Human
    Nature (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941) chs. 1, 7-9.
    Niebuhr's view of the tragic should not be identified with the idea of
    Job's comforters, namely, that God simply wills suffering on persons
    as just punishment for sin. The view is rather that oppression,
    self-delusion, and eventually the fall of the powerful are structural
    consequences of the spiritual dynamic, sin, i.e., the hubristic
    imagining of infinite power or self-securing autonomy. ] [24]^10 See
    Edward Farley, Good and Evil: Interpreting a Human Condition
    (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), especially ch. 6; and Wendy Farley,
    Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy
    (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990). ] [25]^11 Kierkegaard, The
    Concept of Anxiety, 32. ] [26]^12 Williams, Shame and Necessity, 74. ]

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