Éris: everything is continuous conflict, 4

Conflict Betrayed

Michelle Gellrich argues that ‘theory’ has subjected conflict to banishment at least since Plato’s exclusion of the poets from the polis. In particular, it was the tragedians who were to blame for their focus on destabilising conflict and strife, which acted to destabilise, exacerbating the irrational (epithymetikón) appetites thus undermining the logos of the polis.[1] Gellrich claims that Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, written as a response to Plato, excludes the topic of conflict completely, thus enabling him to develop a theory of tragedy without having to go through the trouble of an explicit ban on conflict. The passing over in silence of conflict is something that would characterise discussions of tragedy until Hegel.[2] Even Hegel, the first thinker after Plato to develop a substantive theory of tragedy in terms of conflict (both in the Phenomenology and in his Aesthetics), ultimately conjures it away – she insists. He does so by subordinating conflict, understanding it in terms of the ‘cunning of reason’, where specific conflicts are reconceived as moments of mediation that are finally overcome within the whole.[3]

Lycurgus, Ambrosia and Dionysus, National Archaeological Museum of Naples

In a different context, conflict remains ever present, though ‘mediated’, becoming even the core element for understanding the development of capitalism from the left, centre, and right. So, leaving aside it’s centrality within Marxism, where capitalism exists on the basis of the irreconcilable conflict-contradiction of capital and labour,[4] think of periodic crises that are said to serve the necessary function of ‘shaking out’ ‘dead wood’, to ultimately re-establish capitalism upon a steady footing. From Keynes to social democracy, class conflict has been reframed in terms of equilibrating mediatory moments, e.g., trade unions serving as checks on the ‘animal spirts’ that permit steady – and peaceful – economic expansion and social order. In such cases, like it or not (usually not), conflict is presented as somehow foundational or inescapable, but at the same time as something that it is possible to conjure away but must be somehow managed. To properly think conflict, then, it is necessary not only to explore the differing forms by which conflict is practised and theorised, but also to uncover the domestications engendered to ‘manage’ the inescapable conflictual foundation. 

The Erinyes (Furies), Edward Burne-Jones

Some questions that then arise: what access do we have to this ‘foundation’? What necessity, what force do we respond to when we layout tracks for its development through new tactics of struggle? Does the unfolding of conflict always result in its evasion, since even the categories used to think it end up conjuring it away? Is then the ‘foundation’ only ever attainable in its occlusion, in its echoes, its reverberations? 


[1]  Michelle Gellrich, Tragedy and Theory: The Problem of Conflict Since Aristotle, Princeton University Press, 1998: 11-13.

[2] More precisely, Gellrich argues that until Goethe and Schiller no theory of tragedy emerges, but that Hegel’s remains the most influential and systematic. 

[3] I’ll leave aside for now whether this is an adequate account of Hegel – though it is essential to return to it. (The Hegel quote is from the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Cambridge University Press, 1975: 89).

[4] ‘The use-value which confronts capital as posited exchange-value is labour. Capital exchanges itself, or exists in this role, only in connection with not-capital, the negation of capital, without which it is not capital; the real not-capital is labour’ (K. Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin 1973, p. 274)

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