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The optimistic agonist: an interview with Bonnie Honig

The political theorist Bonnie Honig talks to IPPR's Juncture about the roots of her thinking, the radical and positive potential of political contestation and the importance of ‘public things’ in a vibrant democracy.

Bonnie Honig is the author of Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Cornell, 1993), Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton, 2001) and Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton, 2009). Honig’s latest book, Antigone, Interrupted, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. She was interviewed for Juncture by IPPR director, Nick Pearce.

Nick Pearce: What’s noticeable about your work is that you have an engagement with continental theory which isn’t typical of Anglo-Saxon political philosophy. Where does that come from?

Bonnie Honig: In the mid to late ‘80s I was in graduate school at John Hopkins University, where French theory was quite central to the humanities and the humanistic social sciences. Reading in that literature you take on board some of its conceptual apparatus, even if you are establishing your own relationship with it. So certain terms, like interpellation and discipline and normalisation, entered into my own vocabulary.

The words stood for ideas I needed to draw on. If I blend analytic and continental archives, it was because I was driven to do so by my work on Hannah Arendt. I was drawn to her because of her insistence on the central importance of what she calls ’the political’ to the study of politics. She was correcting for political science’s attention to bureaucracy, administration, and civic order and for philosophy’s focus on the eternal and the universal, each to the detriment of the contingent and the fragile that are, for her, the stuff of politics. Contingency, fragility, change, unpredictability – these are central elements of political life and yet they were inaccessible from a philosophical point of view and were seen by political science as something to be overcome. Arendt worried that the political, as a concept, could disappear beneath the pressure of political science and philosophy.

On this point, she dovetailed, rather improbably, with Michael Oakeshott, with whom I studied at the London School of Economics in the early ‘80s, before going to Johns Hopkins.

So, I wanted to understand Arendt, but my tools of understanding – historical and analytic – were ill-fitted to the task. I was drawn to her vision of politics as tumultuous and inaugural in nature – always forming and reforming communities and re-establishing the importance of public life. She offered a much more powerful and exciting sense of the possibilities of political life than I was getting, even from the communitarians in the liberal-communitarian debate, and certainly more so than the liberals, who are less committed to the public side of politics.

But the particulars of her account were mystifying. For example, she wrote about promising and forgiveness as exemplary forms of political action. To me, these were speech acts, typical ordinary language practices, performative utterances, that I knew all about from JL Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. But rather than emphasise their context dependence and their ordinariness, as Austin would, Arendt described these practices as ruptural and extraordinary. I could not make sense of that for a very long time. Why rule out context, intention and even reception (what Austin called the perlocutionary force of an utterance), if you were talking about promising and forgiving? What could promising and forgiving mean if they were deprived of these attributes? And why describe these practices as risky and courageous when they are so obviously rule-governed, humdrum, and clear?

I found some answers in the continental tradition. Nietzsche talks about the subject as an effect rather than the cause of speech and action, and from that rather existential perspective, I came to see how existence and identity themselves were at stake in performative utterances. Sometimes, promising and forgiveness take place in an abyss and they serve as a way to reach for a different, unknown future. That can be risky. Thinking historically, this was borne out. For example, the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence were doing something quite ordinary, signing a document but, because they did so in an extraordinary setting, with a revolution begun but not yet won, their act was extraordinary. As they said goodnight to each other, they joked about seeing each other in the morning on the gallows. For them, promising, declaring, signing, (all of these are Austin’s example of ordinary performatives), were anything but ordinary. I was helped to see this by Derrida’s fabulous reading of JL Austin, where he shows how Austin secures the capacity of speech acts to be reliably meaningful by studying them always in highly domesticated, even ritual, contexts, as if their capacity to be meaningful depends on such contexts. But, Derrida suggests, these kinds of speech and writing actually have their greatest power, generativity, and promise when they blow out of ruptured contexts, not settled ones. This, I came to realise, was also Arendt’s point about promising and forgiveness as risky and courageous acts.

Once I saw that, there was no going back. It was a bit of a scales-falling-from-my-eyes moment and I published my first two articles, sharing this translation of Arendt into the continental context to which she’d always belonged but somehow wasn’t thought of being a part of in America in the ‘70s or ‘80s.

NP: Arendt is associated with politics as practice and participation, and the formation of character and belief through political action. What is it that made you feel at this time that the resources of the liberal political theory of Rawls, for example, weren’t enough?

BH: Most liberal and deliberative democratic theory treats proceduralism as a substitute for political engagement or as exhaustive of proper modes of political engagement. So when one reads the written work of these thinkers, often one can find (as with Habermas) that there’s a way in which the procedural mode of politics is, in a subtle or hidden way, dependent upon other modes of politics, but these other modes are not treated in the same honorific terms as proceduralism or discourse ethics because these other modes are unstable, or frightening or marginal. They are sometimes allowed to inform politics but they must be translated into the stable forms that institutionalisation requires. Habermas talks about the sluices through which issues move from the streets into more formal channels.

But unstable and marginal political movements or tumults conjure up the passion and loyalty that fidelity to procedure postulates. And they also provide the imagination and fantasy of possible and alternative futures that bring people into politics, sweep them up into movements or give them a reason to participate. That is why I say in my book Emergency Politics that, without the events that proceduralists want to marginalise – like the crowd protests in the streets of Philadelphia (discussed by Jason Frank inConstituent Moments) – for example, the idea of attachment to a constitution is about as ‘attractive as kissing a typewriter.’

In short, the secret lifeblood of the constitutional patriot is connected to things that are destabilising of orderly constitutionalism or proper proceduralism and therefore are defined out of the centre. But that centre of orderly politics is actually deeply dependent on the energy and animation and frankly, the fun, that come from gathering together around issues that are affectively charged.

Arendt once asked, while sitting on a panel debate on feminism, ‘What would we lose if we win?’ For the proceduralist that’s a good question to think about. If you actually succeeded in turning politics into mere proceduralism – completely procedural practices with none of the tumult and chaos that attend democratic forms of life – you lose the things you need for a democratic form: first, the tumult and spontaneity and even surprise that attend entry into the public sphere, and, second, public things. Admittedly procedures themselves are public things, but you also need parks and schools, prisons, armies and land and all the kinds of things people can struggle and fight over. In the US now, many of these are privatised or subcontracted out by the government to private industry.

For proceduralists, such public things are what the procedures are there to manage. What we’ve seen over the last 20 years of neo-liberalism is a tendency to privatise or undercut those public things. So Hannah Arendt’s great and annoying question about feminism, ‘What would we lose if we win?’ is poignant in the context of proceduralists’ struggle with neo-liberalism. If the proceduralists won we’d have great procedures, but we would have little need of them because we would have nothing to distribute, as all the public things would be privately owned or managed.

NP: With regards to public objects, are you saying that democracy requires objects of engagement, affection, ownership and contest that, in some sense, must be public in order to exist?

BH: Yes. I mean that democracy postulates not just a demos, the people, about which we debate so much when it comes to the politics of immigration, multiculturalism and assimilation. And it requires more than procedures, for reasons I just alluded to. Those are important dimensions of democratic theory and practice, but the other term which is talked about less, is objects, whose ‘thingness’ creates a sense of publicity beyond the so-called public sphere, and whose finitude creates friction. Public things, to borrow from Wittgenstein, cannot be anything or nothing. They are something, and if a thing is something, it has a kind of definiteness to it. This isn’t to reduce things to pure materialism – everything has a life in language – but in their thingness, public things have a kind of finitude to them, and the friction that comes of fighting over finite things, that friction can be seen as the electricity of political life, or one source of its charge. When we focus on the demos and on procedure, we take our eye off what we should see as the important ball in the game – having public objects. Under neo-liberalism it’s become quite clear that we can drown in proceduralism – there’s no problem keeping people busy with paperwork and accountability, or in the case of deliberative democrats for example, we can have important debates about how to redraw and then defend the borders of a democratic country legitimately – but if all those things take up all our time, we’ll look up from our papers and our borders one day, and see that there isn’t anything left to fight over. What democracy has always been about is fighting over the public thing. These could be airwaves, as in public broadcasting, or water or climate, or national history or education or parks, prisons, or the military and its codes, membership and responsibilities.

One interesting illustration of the issue came up when the US Republican presidential candidate last fall, Mitt Romney, opened the first of the three presidential debates by saying that he wanted to cut off funding for PBS, the public-funded broadcasting service in the US. The way he framed it was as follows: he said something like, ‘I love Big Bird as much as anyone, but it’s going to be the end of public funding for PBS if I get elected’. So Big Bird, the character from the Sesame Street children’s TV show, became the damsel in distress of the presidential election for about a week. We saw images of a homeless Big Bird with a cardboard ‘will work for food’ sign – serious fun as part of the electoral season. But there was more than fun in it. When Mitt Romney named PBS as Big Bird, we found out not just that people are attached to this big yellow bird, but rather that they are attached to PBS and to what it means. That is, we saw people’s longing to have public attachments to public things.

Most commentators missed this, I think. They were distracted by the embrace of a children’s character by serious adults. They thought American politics had once again gone off the rails. Even people on the progressive left were making jokes about the infantile attachment of Americans to this child’s figure. But we could take this moment seriously in a way that is thought-provoking: it’s not all about Big Bird. Instead, Big Bird was an icon of what it means to have a public thing that people identify with. And Big Bird is just one of the very few visible examples of public things left, so it’s around that figure that you have that debate. But the debate didn’t have anything to do with the infantilism or childhood programming; it really had to do with one of the few public objects in American political life.

NP: A similar example in the UK would be the Coalition government’s proposal to sell off publicly owned forests, which caused a huge public reaction and was eventually withdrawn. For many people, the objection wasn’t just environmental but sprung from a sense that the forests signified English identity and traditions. Are those conservative sentiments powerful resources for progressive politics or does this run the danger of defending boundaries wherever they happen to be, leaving all the energy with the free market forces and resigning to a purely reactive politics?

BH: As your example suggests, there is often a way to cobble together a coalition of people who all agree on the importance of a public thing, but for very different sorts of reasons. Hunting, woodland protection and the outdoors were presumably, in their various overlapping ways, among the values that moved diverse parties into coalition on this issue: conservationists, who value preservation, progressives who value public things, and conservatives who have a distinctive connection to a certain aristocratic or pastoral sense of Englishness. If the problem, in this instance, is that this struggle was mostly reactive, then the political question is how to take that moment of defensive politics, created by defending that threatened thing from privatisation, and turn it into a more proactive and public-things oriented mode of emergent politics that’s not merely defensive against the prominent offensiveness that is neo-liberal privatisation.

NP: You seem to offer a way of thinking about the state which, as opposed to some libertarian or communitarian perspectives, doesn’t give up on the terrain of government as a necessarily disempowering and standardising Fabianism. How do you square that with practising a more plural politics in other sites of power?

BH: In the context of what we’ve been talking about, the state itself can be seen as an important public thing. It’s not a single thing obviously, it’s a complicated set of relations and institutions, but it is a public thing that took a certain shape as a result of histories of democratic political struggles, decolonisation efforts and international resolutions, and it has become a target for those on both the left and the right for different reasons. Because of the kinds of things you talked about under the name of Fabianism, instead of democratic practices and accountability like popular participation and protests and other forms of civic or popular review, we’ve gone the route of professionalisation in the civil service and accountability via targets and standardisations and numbers, which enable what is often merely an appearance of accountability, and actually operate in a very different way from other more politicised forms of accountability. So we end up with people having a very disaffected relationship to the state because it operates like the worst of bureaucratic authority and without any of the charismatic aspects of politics that make that other part mean something.

What’s important is that we think about the state both as a kind of public institution worth fighting over, and as just one of several players in a larger field of political contestation. This larger field involves both the participation of those who are local and under its purview as citizens, and also those who are transnational and want to call particular states to account for their operations in the international and domestic spheres. What that does is put the state back into the political scene as a player among other players, rather than treat it as the above-the-fray adjudicator of the political scene, which is the proceduralist assumption about, or aspiration for, state institutions.

The emphasis here has to be on how to reform state institutions into modes of accountability and operation that are more reflective of the kinds of relations that citizens want to have with their public thing, the state. Those relations would seek to overcome the disaffection that is produced by a constant paper-processing that is justified as a form of accountability, but doesn’t really operate as any particular kind of accountability at all. It just keeps everyone busy filling out forms.

NP: Can we move onto the question of what grounds a politics of the common good? You challenge thinkers like Stephen White who try to find a new basis for affirming the equality of human beings in our shared human mortality – in our common awareness of death. What are your reasons for rejecting that attempt to rescue universalism?

BH: For some humanist or cosmopolitan thinkers, rather than think about the demos of democracy in terms of a common national identity or common history, they want to think more transnationally or universally. They ask: ‘What do we all have in common that we could build our politics on?’ In many cases the answer is often that we’re all finite, we’re all mortal. This is a continuation of a line of thinking within the continental tradition, an idea we get from Hegel and Heidegger. In moments of political precariousness, where people are faced with terrible losses whether because of economic crisis or political violence, the temptation is very much to find a kind of commonality in that trait of finitude or vulnerability, and to look for a way to build ethics and politics on that commonality. I see the temptation to move in this direction. But I have some concerns about it.

First, we may question the accuracy of the claim. Humans have a lot of things in common and precarity is one of them – we won’t live forever and we’re not superhuman. But we do have other things in common, as well, like our capacity to take pleasure in things. Hannah Arendt insisted always not on the mortal nature of the human but on the natal nature of the human. That is, another thing we all have in common is that we’re all born new to this world that preceded us and will hopefully outlast us. That isn’t to deny mortality and fragility as common traits, but rather to reject efforts to turn them into the essential trait of humanness. Recently I have been working on Donald Winnicott’s theorisation of object relations and I am drawn to his list of traits, which includes resilience, pleasure, joy, creativity, natality and fragility.

Second, the political consequence of giving essential place to precarity or mortality is that we thereby interpellate people into vulnerability. A politics built on vulnerability will be centrally oriented not just to non-violence, as many hope, but also or instead to security, welfare and care. Vulnerable people are not ones who mount the barricades, or put themselves at risk in the streets, or immerse themselves in communities that need help, or release confidential documents. So although it might be a good political move for people to have heightened connection with others in similar situations because of their shared sense of fragility, the risk is that they

will also feel less empowered to act together with others and more inclined to be fearful and to avoid encountering others. A different politics might grow out of attending to some of the many other aspects of the human experience. To me that argues for heightened attention to the other aspects of action and concert in political life, in which people who take such risks experience not just fragility but great joy, and not just a sense of precarity but a broadened sense of community and togetherness, not just martyrdom but also transformation. It is important then to remind ourselves that, though vulnerability is a powerful trait right now, it is not an ontological trait of the human condition. It has acquired a certain centrality in our time because of the arrangements of powers and distributions and values and priorities of a particular historical and institutional moment. Making fragility a fact of humanness depoliticises and prevents us from asking critical questions: Why is vulnerability the trait of the moment? Why is it the thing we’re focused on?

You can see the same kind of thing in the reading of the play Antigone in my forthcoming book. There has been a real focus on one essential problem in the play: the death of Antigone’s brother Polynices, whom she is forbidden from burying because he is a traitor. For centuries now, we have assumed that the central dilemma is whether Antigone should violate the king’s rule and bury her brother, even though it has been prohibited. She is treated as the universal sister who, like all good sisters, just wants to bury her brother. This reading sees her as posing a very important question in the history of continental philosophy – Hegel made it central to his thinking at a certain point. But actually if you go back and think about the play, what you find is that there are several different deaths in the play, and each one poses to some character, and to the audience, a question about how these different deaths should be dealt with. So the play is not just about finitude, vulnerability, death and burial as humanist topics, nor about the duty of a sister to her brother. Instead, it explores very broadly the politics of burial at precisely a moment of intense politicisation. This is the moment of Pericles’ funeral oration, in which he tells grieving parents not to grieve too loudly over their lost sons, but rather to have more. Thus, the death of the traitor is just one instance of the broader problem. The broader problem has to do with the rulers’ effort to control the public display of emotion, especially by women and elites in the 5th century, and to enlist burial for public purposes. In this context, mourning and burial are not universal features of human mortality, but rather highly contested and politicised practices. And so, in the play, with each new death (it is a tragedy, so there are several), the question arises anew: How should we mourn this death? Loudly proclaiming our loss or softly submitting to the needs of the polis? How should this body be buried? Honorifically, in order to bind this life to that of the polity, or with resistance, to mark the transgressive instrumentalisation of the dead by the politically motivated?

To return to precarity, then: we can do more than one thing at a time as theorists and as political actors. We can even do contradictory things at the same time, pushing two things that seem to be in contradiction but which both require advancement and our support. So why would we just do precarity and not also resilience? Why would we just focus on Polynices, and miss the rest of the action on stage? Some see Antigone as a model for maternalist politics like the Argentine Madres (the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) but, while we all admire the Madres, why would we conclude from their example that motherhood or maternalism is a privileged site of politics, as such, rather than just one way of being powerful when you’re powerless? There are ways that involve not identity-based or even gender-based or patriarchally-based forms of activism. We spoke earlier of the environmental coalition among conservationists, conservatives and progressives, for example. There are many modes of entry and participation in power and power seeking, modes of engagement and community building that are available to us.

To be clear, the issue here is not just an epistemological problem of misunderstanding as singular something that’s really plural; it’s that in so doing we forego multiple avenues to political power because we get captivated by a very singular picture as the only way to get political power. And that particular way can always be taken over by the thing you’re pushing against, if you only have one. This is Diana Taylor’s point when she writes about how the Madres were restored to the private sphere rather than brought into power after they helped to topple the dictatorship. Their traditional role as mothers gave them power as protestors but scripted them as powerless in a way that stuck once democracy was restored.

Political theory should always be tactical, and seek out multiple routes so that if one thing doesn’t work in one place, you might be able to make progress somewhere else. Power in multiplicity is a very important aspect of this kind of work.

NP: You’re known as an agonist thinker. And yet your arguments seem to have more radical and optimistic potential than would normally be associated with agonism and its stress on the irreducibility of conflict.

BH: Optimism is the agonist’s greatest asset. People who would like to be able to withdraw from politics, who are tempted by the pleasures of private life untouched by contestation – in other words, who don’t think the private sphere is infused with power relations that need to be addressed – may feel put upon by the claims made by agonistic politics. It seems to refuse to them the withdrawal they seek. From their perspective, then, the claim that political contestation is unending seems to be quite pessimistic because, if your goal is withdrawal to a private life untouched by political engagement, the argument that engagement is inescapable seems pessimistic.

But if you aspire to forms of life in common constellated around public things, in affectively charged ways that are both pleasurable and sometimes infuriating, built around finding, promoting and building shared public objects, engaged in some common cause, but not disciplined into oppressive forms of normalisation, then agonistic politics is very optimistic. Moreover, if you crave withdrawal but find waiting for you in the so-called private sphere, accretions of power and privilege that signal your impotence in a world beyond your control and influence, then agonism’s commitment to action in concert is for you, and its screams optimism.

We have talked a lot about publicity and public things, but to be really clear it is around these things that equality and liberty and justice take shape. When they become merely procedural values, or when the form they take has to do with targets or indicators, they become shapeless and unrewarding values. They can only do the work that makes us value them if they are situated in the material life of citizens and residents together. And that I think is the optimism of agonistic politics. There is always an ongoing contestation, some of it in defence of historical achievements such as the welfare state, but agonism is not per se always oppositional or inherently contestational. It just anticipates resistance to all efforts to institute and maintain equality or justice. I argued in my first book that even the best of such efforts always generate remainders and so we agonists must also be attentive to those and aware that a further politics must follow to redress that. Thus, agonists hope that we can experience political engagement with pleasure and joy as well as the attending frustration that always comes with the friction of life in common.

This interview appears in the upcoming issue of Juncture, IPPR's journal for rethinking the centre-left. It was originally published online at Juncture's website. 

This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by OurKingdom in partnership with Politics in Spires.

About the authors

Nick Pearce is professor of public policy & director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath, and former director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Bonnie Honig is the Sarah Rebecca Roland professor of political science at Northwestern University and a senior research professor at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago.


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