Tragic investigations: The value of tragedy in American political and ethical life
Stover, Elizabeth M
MetadataShow full item record
Tragic Investigations argues that understanding American political conflict through the conventions of tragedy offers us a better understanding the stakes of these conflicts and our civic character. Drawing on the work of classical scholars who have situated the conflicts of Attic tragedy within the cultural context of the fifth-century B.C.E. democratic Athenian polis and an Aristotelian tradition that emphasizes plot and catharsis, I situate American tragedy in the paradoxes of American Constitutionalism. Although the pertinent problems of Greek tragedy do not have an exact analogue our current life, we too contend with problems of how to understand the past and negotiate the present's diverse values. These values, however, are not represented by Gods, but by competing political parties, interest groups, and citizens. American tragedy occurs when the American public cannot agree on its political values and commitments, and yet policy must be set. Tragic catharsis, understood as a mechanism of emotional and ethical re-attunement rather than purgation, facilitates a transformed understanding of our relationship to each other as citizens and our relationship to national policy. After critiquing the model of tragedy developed by the American literary critics of the post-war era in the first chapter, I develop an alternative model of tragic conflict and catharsis through readings of three paradigmatic American political conflicts. In the second chapter, I argue that a tragic reading of the Culture Wars reveals why they have been so resilient to judicial and legislative intervention and resolution. In my third chapter, I examine how tragic representations of the Vietnam War in both popular histories and film have shaped our national response to the current war in Iraq. In the final chapter, I argue that Thoreau crafts a theory of tragic citizenship in Walden and Civil Disobedience in response to the conflict over slavery and the limits of American democracy. Thoreau's practice suggests that citizenship in the United States always already entails tragic responsibility, insofar as each citizen is responsible for the will of the majority as it is manifest in national policy, despite his or her position in a minority or individual conscience.