Thursday, November 20, 2014


John Zumbrunnen, Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 165. ISBN 9781580464178. $65.00.

Reviewed by Matt Cohn, University of Toronto (

Version at BMCR home site

In this study, John Zumbrunnen reads all eleven of Aristophanes' surviving plays in the context of modern political theory. Political philosophers have produced a handful of books and articles on Aristophanes over the last few years (including Zumbrunnen himself, who has adapted three of his articles here), but Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship may be the first comprehensive study by one since Leo Strauss' Socrates and Aristophanes in 1966.1 Zumbrunnen's study is ambitious: he approaches the entire corpus with the argument that Aristophanes engages with the central challenge of democracy, as he poses it. But it is not always successful. Because it approaches every comedy as a response to the same problem, the analysis sometimes proves more to be a systematic application of Zumbrunnen's model than a nuanced reading of the plays. It is, however, consistently engaging, and it is exciting to see Aristophanes set in dialog with contemporary political theory.

Zumbrunnen begins in the introduction by suggesting that democracy is characterized by two competing impulses: on the one hand, an "agonal" impulse to rebel against the elite and resist rule; on the other, a "liberal" or "deliberative" impulse to seek consensus. Managing the contradictory impulses is the challenge of democratic citizenship, and Zumbrunnen suggests that Aristophanes' plays instill in their audiences the disposition required to meet it. This comic disposition is a mixture of reactions and skills ("comic voyaging," "cleverness," and "comic recognition"), but the recurring theme is that Aristophanic comedy trains ordinary spectators to be receptive to a multiplicity of meanings and balance the competing impulses. The subsequent chapters use the comedies to describe the features of the comic disposition and explore complications.

In Chapter One, Zumbrunnen draws on Jacques Rancière's idea of the emancipatory potential of art and develops the idea of "comic voyaging." He considers Lysistrata and Peace, which, he suggests, press no simple perspective or teaching on the audience—what Rancière calls "stultification"—but instead invite spectators to voyage among a range of perspectives and identities and thus explore their own. In Peace, for example, one is drawn variously to the rebellious Trygaeus, the chorus of Greeks acting in concert, and, finally, the chorus of Athenians. "Comic voyaging" is a useful concept, and the great merit of Zumbrunnen's study on the whole is that he makes into a virtue the sense of ambivalence that Aristophanic comedy can engender. But, while it may be stultifying, the two plays discussed here seem to be less ambivalent than some of the rest in that they present peace and the rebelliousness associated with attaining it as unproblematically positive.

Chapter Two argues that Aristophanic comedy complicates the idea of the ordinary citizen by examining how a spectator would identify with the protagonists of Clouds, Thesmophoriazusae, and Frogs. The idea of uncritical cultural populism posed by Jim McGuigan is the touchstone in contemporary theory. Zumbrunnen argues that Aristophanic comedy avoids ever offering a simple populist message because it never allows spectators to identify in a straightforward way with its ordinary heroes. His approach works quite well for Clouds: Strepsiades is an ordinary Athenian with whom spectators can easily identity, and his rebellion against the cultural elite is attractive; yet his plan is a laughable failure, and his violence distances the audience from his rebelliousness and populism. It is less successful with the other two plays, and the discussion of Frogs in particular is a missed opportunity. Because of his approach, Zumbrunnen's analysis of the play is almost entirely about how a spectator would and would not identify with Dionysus. Almost no attention is paid to what the play has to say about the role of poetry in a democracy and how (or whether) Aeschylean poetry will prove more useful for the state. Aeschylus is assumed to have been chosen because he will be a source of cultural unity, and Euripides rejected because he represents elite innovation. Yet in the play Euripides is the choice of the undead masses and claims that his poetry is democratic, whereas Aeschylus refuses to let the Athenians of the underworld judge his recherché poetry. This certainly could speak to the problem of cultural populism and seems more salient than how Dionysus is and is not ordinary.

Chapter Three, again using Rancière, examines one of the possible reactions to rule, anger by ordinary citizens at its contingency. By reading Wasps and Birds, Zumbrunnen suggests that anger is associated with the rebellious impulse against rule and that it is also associated with the deliberative impulse as a reaction to those who question rule. For example, there is anger in Birds before the foundation of Peisetaerus' regime, and then there is anger after it towards those who complicate it.

Knights and Acharnians are considered in Chapter Four, where Zumbrunnen proposes that Aristophanic comedy recommends a certain kind of cleverness that "maintains a wariness about elites even as it accepts their inevitability" (81). It is, therefore, an attribute that will allow spectators to balance the competing impulses of democracy. Once again, the plays train the audience by endorsing no single message or model. Dicaeopolis shows a cleverness that overcomes the elite and brings about change, but the play poses the problem that his rebelliousness ends in a break with democracy. Knights is approached on similar terms: Agoracritus is an ordinary citizen who challenges the elite, the Paphlagonian/Cleon, but his success is complicated by his ascendency over Demos and Demos' withdrawal into private life. Here, too, interesting complications are lost because the plays are treated briefly and approached as variations on the same theme. Agoracritus is chosen and succeeds not because he is ordinary, but because he is so extraordinarily bad that he is worse than Cleon. And, while Cleon may be elite in some sense, Agoracritus is allied to another kind of elite, the titular knights. While Zumbrunnen has much to say about how the ordinary citizen is problematized, too little attention is paid generally to the different roles of the elite.

The last feature of the comic disposition is explored in Chapter Five, which is the best and most original of the discussions. Zumbrunnen uses a concept of status-based recognition emerging from Nancy Fraser's work on the postsocialist condition together with Patchen Markell's work on tragic recognition to discuss the latest surviving plays, Assemblywomen and Wealth, and to develop his own idea of "comic recognition." This is a kind of recognition that holds "fantasy and irony in perpetual and productive tension" (99). Wealth, for example, offers a fantasy in which humans' shared status is recognized and there is, attached to status recognition, radical economic redistribution, but this fantasy coexists with the familiar ironic reading of the play, according to which Poverty's arguments undercut Chremylus' victory. A conclusion follows that summarizes Zumbrunnen's argument and relates the comic disposition to Stephen White's "late modern ethos" in a very profitable way.

One of the book's major premises is left unexamined, although this is understandable given that its focus proves to be more on using Aristophanic comedy to explore problems of democracy and their solutions than on examining the actual effects of the plays. The argument inscribes the challenge of democratic citizenship into the comedies themselves: they reproduce the tensions between rebelliousness and consensus. The premise is that comedy will offer a space where spectators can explore these tensions and develop the disposition to meet them outside the theater. But the theater may pose the same dangers as democracy. A spectator can be swept along by a single perspective, just as a citizen can be swept along by one of the competing impulses of democracy. For example, instead of registering ambivalence and learning to navigate the multiplicity of meanings, one may indeed revel in the triumph of a Dicaeopolis. Clouds perhaps illustrates the danger, as Zumbrunnen does briefly mention. If Plato's claim that it contributed to the public's ill will towards Socrates is taken at face value, then the audience's voyage went awry; they too fully identified with Strepsiades and his rebelliousness. Perhaps Knights, whose success coincided with Cleon's, similarly failed to train audiences. This question of audience reception is related to the question why comedy in particular should be useful for responding to the challenges posed by democracy. Zumbrunnen's argument emphasizes the importance of fantasy and irony; but, if comedy is an effective means of responding to the challenges of democracy, its humor and the laughter it engenders in spectators must be valuable, too.

Zumbrunnen uses Henderson's Loeb translations, but he frequently engages with the Greek, which is transliterated into Roman characters, to make useful observations. In the transliterations, there are a number of inconsistencies and typos, and the name of the protagonist of Acharnians is incorrectly spelled "Diceapolis" throughout. On pp. 41–2, he understands Aristotle's description of comedy as a mimesis of "inferior" (φαυλότεροι) people at Poetics 1449a32–4 to mean that they are "inferior as compared to their better or superior tragic counterparts," i.e., for his purposes, ordinary. But, as 1448a16-18 indicates, they are more specifically inferior to people nowadays: not ordinary, but worse than ordinary.

There are infelicities and flaws in this book, but many are caused by its ambition. While its analysis is not always thorough and fully satisfying, it is always stimulating, and Zumbrunnen points some useful ways forward for the dialog between Aristophanes and political theory.


1.   For recent discussions of Aristophanic comedy by way of political philosophy, see J. Zumbrunnen, "Elite Domination and the Clever Citizen: Aristophanes' Acharnians and Knights," Political Theory 32 (2004): 656–77 (adapted for Chapter Four); K. M. De Luca, Aristophanes' Male and Female Revolution (Lanham, MD 2005); J. Zumbrunnen, "Fantasy, Irony, and Economic Justice in Aristophanes' Assemblywomen and Wealth," American Political Science Review 100 (2006): 319–33 (adapted for Chapter Five); P. Ludwig, "A Portrait of the Artist in Politics: Justice and Self-Interest in Aristophanes' Acharnians," American Political Science Review 101 (2007): 479–92; J. Zumbrunnen, "Comedy, the Ordinary Citizen, and the Salvation of the City," in When Worlds Elide: Political Theory, Cultural Studies, and the Effects of Hellenism, eds. J. P. Euben and K. Bassi (Lanham, MD 2010): 229–52 (adapted for Chapter Two); J. Lombardini, "Comic Authority in Aristophanes' Knights," Polis 29 (2012): 130–49; and most recently the collection of essays in The Political Theory of Aristophanes: Explorations in Poetic Wisdom, eds. J. J. Mhire and B.-P. Frost (Albany 2014).

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