Why We Need Medea Now More Than Ever

Xinyu Guan

Feet planted in the middle of the road, a young Black woman in a sundress stands alone against a phalanx of police in Baton Rouge. This moment, captured by photographer Jonathan Bachman in July 2016 freezes a singular moment of confrontation during the nationwide protests following the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In the foreground on the left side of the frame are two police officers in full riot gear and on the right stands Iesha Evans. Her imperturbable posture, her dress fluttering in the breeze, and her face—stoic and serene—form a stark contrast with the faceless, armored officers advancing upon her.

Yet this image of triumphant defiance, of taking a stand against state power, does not show the aftermath. Evans, who had traveled to Louisiana from out of state, was arrested moments later and detained overnight in East Baton Rouge.

This is the story with which Juliette Cherbuliez—the director of the Center for Premodern Studies at University of Minnesota—began her talk “Medea: A Manifesto.” “Generally, we don’t know or ask what happens after these photos,” Cherbuliez contended. “It is the stance of defiance itself that we admire.” She called this admiration “the Antigone effect” and challenged her audience to envision a different kind of politics—one that resists the urge to monumentalize the individual and make tragic heroes.

An engaged Zoom crowd tuned in on Thursday, February 17, to hear Cherbuliez’s talk, cosponsored by the Whitney Humanities Center and the Department of French. Cherbuliez proposed Medea as what may seem an unlikely alternative to Antigone. Medea plots against her father, massacres her brothers, burns down the city of Corinth, and murders her own children. Unlike Antigone, who buries her rebel brother then takes her own life in open defiance of King Creon, Medea is a mother who kills yet does not die. Cherbuliez argued that Medea’s story—the story of a life-giver taking life, of a violence that is distinctly gendered, non-aristocratic, and disturbingly mature—offers an account of violence as relational and embedded in the very constitution of the modern city. And so, it presents a violence that cannot be easily kept outside, “over there.”

What political figures may emerge from our imagination, Cherbuliez asked, once we forego the reductive representation of political resistance as always being initiated by a peerless individual like Antigone? What would our politics look like if we acknowledge that certain forms of violence are “constitutive of how we protest, resist, gain power, but also love and save ourselves”—that political violence, embodied in Medea, will always be with us?

Cherbuliez’s own generative questions were followed by more from the audience, in a lively Q&A session, moderated by Alice Kaplan, Sterling Professor of French and director of the Whitney.

Instead of hailing a new icon, Cherbuliez suggested we reconsider modern violence through the prism of premodern myths. To operate in Medea’s wake means “to linger in its carnage,” to recognize how stories take shape in various genres and media and how they shape public thought to this day. It is not Medea, then, who transcends historical boundaries, but the humanities’ persistent effort to stretch the collective imagination, to explore how humans may continue to live together in this world.

Xinyu Guan is a PhD student in French whose research focuses on early twentieth-century and postwar French literature, film, and cultural history. She also works for the Whitney Humanities Center as a Graduate Professional Experience Fellow.