Every law is founded on a crime

"There are no more cannibals, because we ate the last one yesterday," Zupančič jokes wryly to capture the essential logic of law.

Every law is founded on a crime
Antigone and the corpse of her brother Polynieces

At the heart of every law is a disavowed crime.

This, Alenka Zupančič tells us, is the heart of the Antigone story.

Many interpreters of Antigone have staged the conflict in Sophocles' famous tragedy as that between the universal demands of the moral law and the particular dictates of the civil law. However, Zupančič challenges this interpretation by arguing that the conflict we see in Antigone is actually inherent to law itself, not simply an expression of the conflict between two different laws.

Creon, the ruler of Thebes and the antagonist who prohibits Antigone from burying her brother Polynieces, commits an obscene act (in the technical sense of the word ob-skein) by laying bare the nakedly decisional character of law, founded as it is upon an original act of determination which distinguishes between two crimes – Eteocles kills in defense of the city of Thebes, and Polynieces attacks Thebes in the name of saving it from tyranny. Who is the criminal?

Only retroactively after the instatement of a new legal regime can Creon proclaim that Polynieces was the criminal, for we can equally imagine an alternate scenario where Polynieces overcomes his brother and puts his uncle Creon to death as a usurper who attempted to wrest control from the rightful heirs of Oedipus. It's this founding decision to retroactively designate Polynieces as the criminal and Eteocles as the hero which founds the obscene underside of the law.

"There are no more cannibals, because we ate the last one yesterday," Zupančič jokes wryly to capture the essential logic of law. In America, we might boldly proclaim that there are no more terrorists because we have finally bombed (and tortured!) the very last one. In this sense, a legal regime is merely the hegemony of some unspeakable violence.

The Law relies on this founding exception where the violent instatement of the law must itself be retroactively exempted from the law's sanction. Without this fundamental exemption (which functions by remaining only ever implicit), the law would not be able to function, for the person or group who first promulgated the law would themselves become caught in its prohibitions, thereby leading to an infinite recursion in search of a solid grounding for law.

Part of why I bring up violence, Antigone, and Zupančič's read of Sophocles' play is that I had to cut the Antigone section from my presentation about lament which I shared here a few weeks ago. I wanted to demonstrate for my listeners how Antigone's lament, her drive to bury her dead brother and thereby to mourn his loss, becomes a negativity which cuts across the entire political order of the city, descending Creon's new legal regime into utter desolation.

By insisting on the violent underbelly of the Law, Antigone herself committed an act of violence against the state, albeit one which became much more destructive than it needed to be because of Creon's stubbornness which leads him to over-play his hand. This the core of the tragedy in the play, for Antigone is determined to honor her family's bond which is founded in the monstrous tragedy of Oedipus, but it's Creon who unwisely clashes with Antigone's determination to honor her family's fate.

Part of the point here though is that even a seemingly small matter, such as the burial of a single individual, has the power to metastasize within a particular communal context, based on how close that act hits to the traumatic core of the group's internal structure. By pulling on the right thread, the entire tapestry can unravel – so what threads are you pulling? How do we pull on the right threads?

We are not therefore to search for a Law which does not possess this decisional gesture as its foundation (yes, I'm outing myself as an inveterate voluntarist here), but instead to identify ourselves with whatever original loss upon which our context has been built, and to keep pressing into that contradiction until we break through to the other side. Only in this way will we achieve a better and more just arrangement amongst ourselves.

Let us read Antigone then as the violent insistence of the blood upon which every order is based, as that lamenting voice which draws attention to the founding crime upon which every polity is built, and perhaps we may then partner with her in burying the dead in order to resurrect the city.

I highly recommend Alenka Zupančič's short book Let Them Rot (<-affiliate link), a collection of three essays in which she advances a Lacan-inspired interpretation of Antigone (one which offers something different than Žižek's). In addition to the ideas about law and crime which I've outlined above, she uses the question of why we bury the dead to jump off into an investigation of human subjectivity, and she really presses into the strangeness of Antigone's explanation of her actions.

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