Ethical Shadows and the Political Subject

Natassa Siouzouli*

Great are the troubles of the righteous

Psalm 34:19

In this world, all that I choose has come unbearable

Spandau Ballet

The present study addresses the metamorphoses of the subject upon entering an aesthetic situation, taking as an example the play Wolokolamsker Chaussee I by Heiner Müller (1984). It is suggested that a subject participating in an aesthetic experience undergoes a transformation which concerns first and foremost her ethico-political self; in such a volatile state, the self moves towards its own demise. This occurs when the subject exits the aesthetic space and/or the performance, having accepted both the loss of her sovereignty and the inability to regain her control and power.
Keywords: subject, transformation, aesthetic space, ethical, political

The present study[1] addresses the following question: What kind of subject does the aesthetic space produce or bring forth? To answer the question, key concepts such as aesthetic space and subject will be first clarified, and the subject’s involvement in the aesthetic process will then be explored.

Regarding the aesthetic space, I have argued in depth elsewhere[2] that a space exists between the work of art, namely a theatrical performance, and its recipients. This is the space of the performance, and it is not limited to the space of the production, nor to the space of the reception. Instead, it occupies the aesthetic space in-between, which is dynamic, unstable, and present yet fleeting. Erika Fischer-Lichte has written extensively on the in-between space, especially with regard to the recipients in a performance exchange.[3] Here, I argue that not only the recipients enter an in-between situation, but the entire process of production and reception of the performance—which in the aesthetic space become one—takes place in an in-between space of uncertainty and complete doubt.

Fantasiometric Soldiers. Photo: VASKOS (Vassilis Noulas and Kostas Tzimoulis), 2016

The aesthetic space, then, is to be construed as the topos where essentially the performance happens; it is a space in which it is no longer possible to distinguish between production and reception. According to Erika Fischer-Lichte, the performance is the constant oscillation between the happening on stage and the engagement of its recipients, the one presupposing the other and vice versa. The aesthetic space can only exist in-between, it never settles here or there, but preserves its precarious, uncertain, unstable condition in order to fulfill its function, namely the production of aesthetic experience.

What counts as aesthetic experience? It is the experience produced in the aesthetic space which transforms the very core of the subjects who take part in this experience. I argue that the core of the subject touched and transformed by the aesthetic experience is her ethical and political conditio; in my understanding, the transformation of the ethico-political Da- and So-Sein is the aim of the interaction within the aesthetic space. The subject, after experiencing the aesthetic space, is released into reality, having been transformed in her ethico-political Da- and So-Sein.  In my view, this result is the one and only function of aesthetics.

Hans-Thies Lehmann has described the strategy of intervention in particular by theatre, as opposed to the spaces produced for instance by mass or social media:[4]

[Theatre proposes] a politics of perception,[5] which could at the same time be called an aesthetic of responsibility (or response-ability) . . . it can move the mutual implication of actors and spectators in the theatrical production of images into the centre and thus make visible the broken thread between personal experience and perception. Such an experience would be not only aesthetic but therein at the same time ethico-political. (emphasis in original)


Following Lehmann, I argue that any transformation of the subject deriving from the specific experience within the realm of the aesthetic space is an ethico-political one.

Regarding the role of the subject, many subjects are involved in the aesthetic process. In the present discussion, the subject is not necessarily identified with a person; more specifically, the subject in this particular context is an articulating as well as affected agent. We can already detect in this definition the problematic conditio of the subject as an impossibility to preserve her limits intact. The subject is always contaminated by the presence of what she addresses and what she desires to dominate; in this context the term object applies. I will utilize the well-known subject/object dichotomy, while placing and interpreting it within a specific context. In particular, I understand the object not as an externally discernible entity, but rather as a crucial dimension of the subject; without an object, it is difficult for the subject to justify her authority. I will revisit this point in the latter part of the present discussion. What I want to stress here is that a certain authority is ascribed to the subject as agent, deriving from the fact that she retains the power to interpret and to define what is articulated and what is performed.

In a performative interaction there are two central subjects, understood again as affecting and affected agents, which clash against each other; these are the stage and the auditorium. Both subjects claim authority in order to articulate and to define any process they initiate; indeed, the performance is instantiated when these subjects meet and confront each other. Such a meeting of the subjects happens in the aesthetic space where performance occurs. The two subjects each enter in the guise of authority; however, since the aim of the performance is transformation, neither of the subjects will be able to preserve its entirety and integrity. My claim is that aesthetic experience is the stimulus par excellence which induces radical traumata to the subject/subjects and transforms them in a way that cannot ensure their continued integrity as subjects. This is by no means undesirable, but is instead a necessary step for liberation from the burdens of subjectivity.

The Ambassadors or Nijinsky’s Heater. Photo: VASKOS (Vassilis Noulas and Kostas Tzimoulis) 2016
The Subject In-between: Heiner Müller

The present analysis is based on a reading of the play Wolokolamsker Chaussee I: Russische Eröffnung by German author Heiner Müller, written in 1984. This particular text clearly illustrates the topos of the subject as an ethico-political agent, as I approach it. The play begins and ends as follows (241/249):

Wir lagen zwischen Moskau und Berlin
Im Rücken einen Wald ein Fluß vor Augen
Zweitausend Kilometer weit Berlin
Einhundertzwanzig Kilometer Moskau

We lay between Moscow and Berlin
A forest on our back a river before our eyes
Two thousand kilometers away Berlin
One hundred twenty kilometers Moscow

The play is explicitly situated in the in-between: between Moscow and Berlin, a Soviet commander and his battalion linger as they wait for the German. The commander is worried that his men are but youngsters, as evidenced in the line “My soldiers come just out of school” (241), and believes they lack understanding of war as a visceral experience [“They know war through cinema” (241].  Indeed, they are full of fear and unprepared to confront the German. Increasingly worried, the commander decides to create a false alarm in order to test the courage and readiness of his soldiers. His plan does not go well; many of his men flee to the woods, while a group leader not only tries to flee, but also in a panic shoots himself in the hand. He is brought before the commander, who decides that he is to be shot dead by his own group in an hour’s time. While the men are gathering for the execution, the commander changes his mind and pardons the group leader, who laughs in relief as his companions help him put on his coat. However, subsequent events of the interaction follow another course: “Then a blackout and my command wiped/ Out the picture Fire and gun shots fired” (248). The group leader falls dead from the gunshot wounds of the executioners.

The commander is the subject in-between par excellence. He becomes one with the situation in which he has to linger. Throughout the play, he oscillates between dilemmas and the (im)possibility or the necessity of a decision.[6] The commander, as the subject-agent, becomes the topos where the ethical and the political confront each other. I argue that the aesthetic subject, the agent enmeshed in the workings of aesthetics, constitutes the topos par excellence, which emerges unmistakably as the aporia[7] of the ethical in the face of a political decision. This occurs because the aesthetic does not propose answers or demand affirmations, but instead poses endless questions and constantly engages the subject in new dilemmas and situations of indecisiveness.

Jacques Derrida has described the situation of the subject forced to make a decision:

The undecidable is not merely the oscillation or the tension between two decisions; it is the experience of that, which, though heterogenous, foreign to the order of the calculable and the rule, is still obliged – it is of obligation that we must speak—to give itself up to the impossible decision, while taking account of law and rules. . . . There is apparently no moment in which a decision can be called presently and fully just; either it has not yet been made according to a rule, and nothing allows us to call it just; or it has already followed a rule . . . which in its turn is not absolutely guaranteed by anything; and, moreover, if it were guaranteed, the decision would be reduced to calculation and we wouldn’t call it just. . . . The undecidable remains caught, lodged, at least as a ghost . . . in every decision, in every event of decision.


The undecidable haunting the subject who makes the decision is what I call, following Alenka Zupančič (2000), the ethical surplus that is not suspended or subjugated by the (political) decision but instead remains with the subject forever.

Walter Benjamin (12) states that political struggle equals the necessity to decide.  In the present context, this is shown when the commander has to make a decision in order to function as political subject. He will, however, be forever haunted by the ethical shadow of his decision. From that point on, the ethical shadow is not external to but rather part of the core of his subjectivity.

Die Salve war der Stolz des Kommandeurs
In seiner Uniform mein andres Ich
Wollte den Toten um Verzeihung bitten
Für seinen Tod der meine Arbeit war

The salvo was the proud of the commander
In his uniform my other I
Wanted to ask the dead man for forgiveness
For his death which was my labour

“In his uniform my other I”: The entity of the subject is traumatized. The subject is not one subject anymore. His decision is what Zupančič calls “an excluded or impossible choice” (32, emphasis in original) which is the condition of the possibility for him to be defined as a subject. To function as a (political) subject is to acknowledge the trauma, the shadow and the deficit of one’s subjectivity and endure them.

Und immer geht der Tote meinen Schritt
Ich atme esse trinke schlafe nachts.
In meinem Kopf der Krieg hört nicht mehr auf
Die eine Salve und die andre Salve
Gehn zwischen meinen Schläfen hin und her

And always goes the dead man my pace
I breath eat drink sleep at night
In my head the war never ends
The one salvo and the other salvo
Go between my temples back and forth

The subject is trapped in the in-between space from which there is no escape. The subject who makes a political decision has to live with the deficit of her traumatized subjectivity which carries the unmet possibilities offered by the aporetic ethical. I view the subject’s state of being-in-between as a situation that favors her disappearance, in the sense that her power and authority are seriously impaired. This raises the question of how to view a subject who lacks power and authority. According to the present analysis, the result is always a deficient and diminishing subject.

Cavalleria rusticana or Sancho and Panza. Photo: VASKOS (Vassilis Noulas and Kostas Tzimoulis) 2017

At the end of the play, Müller includes a short text that could be read as a stage direction. In this text, the author states:

. . . der Platz des Zuschauers ist zwischen Waffe und Ziel.

. . . the place of the spectator is between weapon and aim.

Νo subject is immune to transformation. The spectator-subject, too, resides explicitly in the in-between space, enduring the fear and trauma of this unsecured place. She has to make her own decision, to understand and to act, by facing the aporia of the ethical that persists as an all-encompassing shadow. Every subject has to endure the threat against her subjectivity and must also accept and incorporate this threat. According to Müller, both the commander and/or the group leader as well as the spectator, in other words, every subject participating in the aesthetic experience within the aesthetic space, exists literally in-between, on the verge of an inevitable transformation. This transformation is the end of a process which challenges first and foremost the very core of the subject, that is to say, her ethico-political identity.

Fantasiometric Fishers. Photo: VASKOS (Vassilis Noulas and Kostas Tzimoulis) 2017
Epilogue: What Is Left?

A question which still remains unexplored is what conditions exist beyond the boundaries of the subject. In other words, we have not yet determined what circumstances follow a traumatized subject. Obviously, patterns of Western culture leave little possibility to imagine a subject which disappears entirely. What we can imagine, however, is a place where the subject recognizes her limitations and deficiencies in order to relinquish her persistence and allow for other formations, becomings and appearances. We can imagine the revolt of the object and perhaps the conscious shifting of the subject to become an object herself; it is possible to imagine the liberation of the subject from the burdens of subjectivity as a means to open a space for the uncontrollable. This process begins with the conceptualization of the subject as an ethico-political being, as described above. In particular, this short study has suggested that aesthetics, specifically performance and more concretely the aesthetic space produced within an aesthetic situation, is such a topos where these kinds of radical transformations and processes are both possible and imperative.


[1] The following text is a short introduction to my upcoming book, Ethical Militancy: The Workings of Aesthetics, Neofelis, forthcoming 2022. As I do not discuss specific performances and in order to illustrate this paper, I have chosen to use photographs by VASKOS that in my view problematize the position of the subject and her transformation.

[2] For an example, see “Die Spaltung im Blick. Krise und ihre Aufhebung in der Arbeit Laurent Chétouanes” (“The Division of the Gaze: Crisis and Sublation in the work by L. Chétouane”), pp. 211–22.                 

[3] For an example, see The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics.

[4] Lehmann makes a strong case for live performances of co-presence, although performances have since utilized other types of constellation, such as video performances, documented/ mediated performances and performances without an audience or one-to-one performances.

[5] It is important to notice in this context the affinity of perception, encoded by the German term Wahrnehmung, to aesthesis. German theatre theorists tend to highlight the importance of the terminal proximity between aesthesis and aesthetics.

[6] For example, in the following lines he refers to his soldiers: “Their heads should be punched/ And one wants to stroke their heads” (244).

[7] As Jacques Derrida has noted, “I suggested that a sort of nonpassive endurance of the aporia [the end of the road, where there is not any problem to solve anymore: my note] was the condition of responsibility and of decision” (16).

[8] All translations from the German text are mine.


Benjamin, Walter. “Der Autor als Produzent. Ansprache im Institut zum Studium des Fascismus in Paris am 27. April 1934” [The Author as Producer]. Accessed 23 Mar. 2021.

Derrida, Jacques. “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority.” Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by D. Cornell, M. Rosenfeld, and D. Gray Carlson, Routledge, 1992, pp. 1–66.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. Translated by Saskya Iris Jain, Routledge, 2008.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. Translated by Karen Jürs-Munby, Routledge, 2006.

Müller, Heiner. Wolokolamsker Chaussee I: Russische Eröffnung (nach Alexander Bek) [Heiner Müller Shakespeare Factory 1]. 1984. Rotbuch Verlag, 1996, pp. 241–50.[8]

Siouzouli, Natascha. “Die Spaltung im Blick. Krise und ihre Aufhebung in der Arbeit Laurent Chétouanes” [“The Division of the Gaze: Crisis and Sublation in the Work by L. Chétouane]. Jahrbuch GTF – Tanz und WahnSinn [Dance and ChoreoMania], edited by U. J. Fenger, J. Birringer, Henschel,  2011, pp. 211–22.

Zupančič, Alenka. Ethics of the Real. Kant, Lacan. Verso, 2000. 

*Natassa Siouzouli, PhD, studied theory of theatre in Athens and Berlin. Her third book Ethical Militancy: The Working of Aesthetics will be published in 2022 by Neofelis in Berlin. She also works as a translator.

Copyright © 2021 Natassa Siouzouli
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