The “Agonistic Turn”: Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics in New Contexts
First published in 1993, Bonnie Honig’s Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics challenged political theorists’ focus on justifying political institutions and norms, and helped to usher in what we might call an “agonistic turn” in political theory. While searching for “agonism politics” in Google Scholar brings up more than 26,000 results today, for entries prior to 1993 those same search terms number only 1300 results. As of July, there are already 2160 results for 2019 alone.
Agonism’s move from a marginal to central place in contemporary political theory has a double edge. Many varieties of democratic theorists have largely adopted one of Honig’s main claims – that agonistic contestation is not a regrettable feature of democracy, but a democratic good – as their own. This once-provocative claim seems now uncontroversial. The absorption of agonism into the theoretical mainstream, on the one hand, means that political theorists are much more focused on contestatory politics than they were thirty years ago (when the liberal/communitarian debate was at the fore). This is to the good, especially in a contemporary political context marked by deep division and contestation over political values, identities, and institutions. Yet this absorption of agonism into justificatory and institution-building theory, on the other hand, also means that the critical edge of Honig’s agonism – her claim that all political arrangements (even contestatory and deliberative arrangements) will generate exclusions, injustice, and inequality – may now be blunted.
This Critical Exchange revisits Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics to remember that a now widely dispersed mode of political theorizing has a history, and to think about what agonism should mean now to political theory. Have our modes of theorizing difference, contestation, and ambivalence become overly settled parts of political theorizing, which themselves require challenge and unsettling? What is the relationship of agonism to our contemporary political moment, and to contemporary approaches to thinking about inequality and injustice, like black feminism? And perhaps more importantly: what should agonistic theory be like today? Does PTDP call us to a new agonism in the present moment?
The virago as democratic exemplar: Honig’s feminist agonism
In his germinal essay, “Political Theory as a Vocation,” Sheldon Wolin argues that political theory is an activity of creative ordering, imputing meaning to human activities that might otherwise appear futile or without significance. Political theory becomes most significant in “times of crisis” (Wolin, 1969, p. 9), when our existing compass or “tradition” (in Hannah Arendt’s terms) has ceased to offer sufficient guidance. The theorist diagnoses the crisis, but “also deals in possibilities” (Wolin, 1969, p. 9) by opening up new ways of understanding political organization, action, and meaning.
Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (hereafter PTDP) enacts theory as Wolin describes it: showing the meaning of collective life differently and offering a different “political cosmos” to describe what otherwise might feel like “chaos.” Institutions and laws that other theorists (like Rawls and Sandel) argue are sites of meaningful order, Honig shows to also be sites of political inclusion and exclusion. On Honig’s reading, Rawls’ and Sandel’s purportedly just institutions turn out to enforce disciplinary norms of gender and sexuality, and to produce forms of delinquency and “oddness” that they then claim to address justly. While PTDP was engaged with the dominant theoretical debate of the time (the liberal/communitarian debate), the book was also reframing a concrete political situation as a crisis: namely, the diminution and retreat of vibrant collective politics, especially of a vibrant feminist politics. Honig’s political theory offers a new approach to this crisis: not more ordering, but ongoing politicization. As Honig notes, in one of many asides in the book that address feminist concerns, feminists made a mistake in thinking that Roe v. Wade represented a new, settled consensus. In democratic politics, nothing is ever fully settled; participatory, contestatory politics is needed to fight ongoing attempts to reintroduce oppressive arrangements.
I am drawing attention to the book’s feminist politicizing impulse at the outset because I see this as the book’s most valuable legacy, what I want to call its feminist or queer agonism. While agonism has largely been taken up in democratic theory as a formal theory of contestation of laws and norms (which deliberative democratic theorists try to absorb within their own terms), I am interested in how PTDP points toward a practice of theoretical politicization of what we may have understood as private, non-political, or irrelevant to the public realm. I am calling this its feminist or queer impulse, not only because it emerges from concrete encounter with feminist and queer politics in the book (as I will detail), but also because it resonates with a central principle of queer and feminist theory: that private and intimate feelings, violences, practices, forms of discipline, and norms are actually publicly constructed and have political implications and stakes. To put it in classic feminist terms, the personal is political. I want to draw on this politicizing impulse of PTDP and pull out a vision, in my contribution to this Critical Exchange, of agonistic democratic theory as a feminist and queer project: politicizing supposedly private or non-political forms of violence and discipline that have appeared natural or immutable, and thus out of the bounds of politics.
Indeed, returning to Honig’s book, I was most struck by how her agonism emerges not out of a free-floating affirmation of contestation, but most often by engagement with the concrete problem of the public/private distinction. The book is structured by mobilizing a critical politics of virtù (exemplified by Nietzsche and Arendt) to identify the violent and disciplinary closures of juridical “virtue” politics (that she finds in Kant, Rawls and Sandel). Honig most often aligns virtue politics with the attempt to settle lines between public and private, whereas virtù politics unsettles that line. Yet Honig also asks at the very outset of the text whether the model of contestation she is invoking itself represents a form of masculine closure. If “the subject of virtù” is typically represented (for example, by Machiavelli) as a certain type of vigorous masculinity – “the manly male warrior of ancient Greece or Rome” – then Honig’s invocation of it could appear to settle the bounds of what looks like proper politics, as a masculine form of active, loud contestation. Yet Honig argues that the character of political contestation must itself be contestable, not on formal justificatory grounds, but for the sake of concrete feminist concerns, and she invokes a figure that could allow us to imagine agonistic contestation as queer and feminist: “[w]hat if the subject of virtú is not the manly male warrior of ancient Greece or Rome, but the virago, a figure defined variously as a ‘turbulent woman,’ a ‘whirlwind,’ a ‘woman of masculine strength or spirit,’ a figure who, in herself, poses a limit to the continuing possible of calling those strengths and spirits masculine? What if virtù, with its sensitivity to excess and remainders, turns out to be a force that disrupts and unsettles such binary categories as masculine and feminine, pointing out their inadequacies, their limits, their aporias?” (16) The figure of the virago invites us to imagine politics as an activity of challenging not just unjust or disciplinary norms and institutions, but also norms of what and who count as political. Further, however, Honig’s virago invites us to see political theory as itself in tandem with, or as an adjunct of, political actors, a practice of feminist politicization.
Honig seems to diminish this early reference to the virago, saying, “[a]side from occasional ruminations like this one, I do not engage questions of gender and politics in a sustained way in this book.” (16) Yet I think she is not giving full credit to the import of her own ruminations, which are a powerful way of doing theoretical politicization: that is, taking pleasure in traveling down experimental paths and lines of thought that may appear irrelevant to the “central” concerns of the field or literature. Nietzsche notes the power of rumination in the opening to On the Genealogy of Morality: “to practice reading as an art…one thing above all is necessary, something which these days has been unlearned better than anything else – and it will therefore be a while before my writings are ‘readable’ – something for which one must almost be a cow and in any case not a modern man: ruminating…” (Nietzsche, 1998, p. 7). Nietzsche’s invitation to let ourselves imaginatively think like a cow – to ruminate – rather than adjudicate and discipline on the basis of the morality of ressentiment, is an invitation to take animalistic (cow-ish) pleasure in forms of thinking that may appear perverse, unimportant, or un-rigorous. If Honig’s book invites us to see the virago as a figure who challenges our sense of who or what counts as political, our rumination on that virago, and other figures she presents (like the Rawlsian grass counter, which I get to below), also allows us to feel pleasure in theoretical politicization – or, in Nietzsche’s terms, to read like a cow.
Ruminations about gender pervade the book. From Honig’s connection of Kant’s worry about “reason’s traumatic disruption of man’s natural existence” (20) to his anxious sexual politics (21), to her more extended treatment of Arendt’s attempt to maintain a rigid separation between the public and private realms, Honig continually shows how the project of justifying political laws/regimes has relied on the neutralization of institutions and social boundaries (especially the public/private divide) that depoliticize laws and norms that regulate gender and sexuality. Yet I am going to skip over Honig’s well-known and important politicization of Arendt’s public private distinction (“Action comes in, as it were, to the private realm,” 120) to point to another rumination in the conclusion. There, Honig offers a sympathetic critique of Carol Gilligan’s landmark book, In a Different Voice. While Gilligan usefully mobilizes a feminized ethic of care to show the problems with Kohlberg’s ethic of rights, Honig argues that Gilligan ultimately “reenables” this ethic, because she situates the ethic of care as its “nurturant support” (208). The problem with Gilligan’s approach is that it attempts to assure that the formal moral dimensions of human life are fully accounted for rather than thinking through how to empower those who are inevitably left out (208). “The feminism I have in mind,” Honig says, “does not embrace and repeat the constations of gendered subjectivities, it does not organize itself around them,” but rather “gives voice to the dissonances experienced by men and women for whom the binaries of rights versus care, reason versus emotion, or masculine versus feminine are ill-fitting, even oppressive, constraints” (209). Celebrating a “politics that contests closure” is not about an abstract celebration of political conflict as inherently progressive, but instead about empowering those who are rendered marginal, odd, delinquent, or invisible by the political systems that order their lives.
Honig’s engagement with Gilligan (like her engagement with Arendt) invites us to see the concrete pain and violence inflicted by the settling of lines between public and private, between what counts and does not count as political – even when Gilligan is trying to account for all the dimensions of a full moral life. Yet there is a pleasure invoked in Honig’s critique of Gilligan, too: even when we believe we have understood morality and politics, there may be more; people’s lives and experiences may show us something new, significant, or unsettling that we had not seen. The pleasure of this virago politics can be seen most clearly in Honig’s discussion of the Rawlsian grass counter, a “non-deliberating subject,” who is a “‘fanciful case’ – ‘someone whose only pleasure is to count blades of grass in various geometrically shaped areas such as park squares and well-trimmed lawns. He is otherwise intelligent and actually possesses unusual skills, since he manages to survive by solving difficult mathematical problems for a fee’” (152). While Rawls says that the grass counter may exist in the society of justice and fairness and not be regulated – since he is not contravening any laws or principles – Honig argues that his existence turns his fellow citizens into “case workers” (into Nietzsche’s virtuous citizens of ressentiment) who feel a duty to interrogate his (apparently lacking) conception of the good, or what we might call his cow-ish capacity, engrossed in the grass, for rumination. The Rawlsian grass counter, in other words, is someone who leads a life governed by an affective experience of pleasure rather than by a conception of “the good.” His existence thus poses a question that no one exactly knows how to ask. He is not seeking to deliberate with them, or to contest the norms by which they live. Rather, his very existence – his pleasure – is itself a living dissonance with their regime.
The example of the grass counter shows how (contra Arendt) private life is not a security that paves the way for public life; rather, as Michael Warner argues in Publics and Counterpublics (2005), public norms dictate what can be seen as properly private, and what as properly public. Here, by politicizing what we assumed to be unpolitical (the ruminating grass counter), Honig opens up a terrain of political life, energy, and feeling that we neglect at our peril. PTDP is showing us a diminished collective politics as a crisis for feminist and queer life, and the book is arguing that a vibrant emancipatory, Left politics must look beyond the parameters of institutions, laws, and norms for its energy and animating force.
Honig’s agonism may serve a useful role in pushing justificatory political theorists (like deliberative democrats) to see the importance of contestation in the public realm. But I see its more important role in its character as a feminist and queer agonism, pushing democratic theory to stay in touch with politics in a broad sense: not just politics that happens in institutions or recognized social movements, but also in sites of incipient politicization, whether that is a social realm, an institution, a set of feelings and affects, or ideologies (among other things). It also pushes democratic theory to look to feminist and queer politics and theory, not just as something to be accommodated into a universalist theory, but as a guide to what we should be theorizing. I see this in Honig’s ongoing work, that turned from PTDP to the politics of immigration, emergency politics, the politics of mourning, and neoliberalism. This encourages us to have a broader view of what constitutes “democratic theory”: not just theory that is explicitly concerned with the nature of democracy, but also theory that is at work ruminating on concerns, actors, and ideas that we have not yet recognized as political, and offering new visions of what this politics means for all of us.
Extraordinary events and mundane maintenances: Honig on the politics of sedimentation
Published in Political Research Quarterly, the article was an account of the concept of mestizaje in the work of Gloria Anzaldúa and Shane Phelan (Beltrán, 2004). Honig’s book did not focus on the question of Chicana feminism, but her analysis regarding the nature of political subjectivity shaped my thinking about how even the most radical or satisfying identities and forms of rule produce remainders that require engagement rather than displacement. And her central claim – that political theory often displays a desire to eliminate dissonance, resistance, conflict and struggle from the political regimes being theorized – had a profound impact on my own understanding of the political (Beltrán, 2010). Indeed, Honig’s insights about how virtue and virtù theories appear in various enactments of the political helped me think more deeply about how a variety of thinkers and movements express the desire for political closure. For me, it was Honig’s claim that “most political theorists are hostile to the disruption of politics” – alongside her analysis of the “virtue” politics of Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, and Michael Sandel – that helped me recognize similar impulses in the radical visions of Chicano and Puerto Rican scholars and activists.
Perhaps there is no identity so perfect, so seamless, so well-fitted to her that she could wear it, be it, perform and live it without resentment, without sadness, without yearning, without guilt, hatred and even violence (183).
In my contribution to this Critical Exchange, I would like to focus on a few elements of this text that I found particularly compelling and powerful when first reading this work in the early 1990s. In doing so, I want to consider what insights from this work have perhaps become a kind of sedimented logic within democratic theory. And finally, taking inspiration from PTDP, I want to conclude with Honig’s insistence on disrupting her own embrace of virtù politics, particularly her insights regarding how we approach the politics of disruption versus the politics of maintenance and institutionalization. For it’s this theoretical gesture that offers particularly valuable insights when thinking about the democratic challenges we face in the wake of 2016.
PDTP explores the opposition between virtue and virtù theories of politics, with Kant, Rawls, and Sandel serving as virtue theorists while Nietzsche, Arendt, and Derrida represent theorists of virtù. According to Honig, the desire for closure has often led virtue theorists to define and confine politics to the juridical, the administrative, and the regulative tasks of “stabilizing moral and political subjects, building consensus, maintaining agreements, or consolidating communities and identities” (27). Whether “republican, liberal, or communitarian” in orientation, Honig argues that virtue theorists often do violence to the multiplicitous, contingent, contradictory, and unstable subjectivities of citizens. Intriguingly, with her focus on desires and displacements – including the various “fears, anxieties, and needs” that emerge through their political imaginaries – Honig was already making what we now speak of as the affective turn in political theory, albeit with theorists we rarely think of when discussing the politics of affect (Rawls, Kant, Sandel).
In contrast to virtue theorists who display a tendency toward closure and repressing otherness, virtú theorists appreciate that world-building always involves a process of becoming. In this way, they seek to politicize rather than police, punish, or ostracize “the moments of dissonance and otherness that disrupt their orders” (10, 186). Some of the most compelling discussions that Honig develops when analyzing how virtù theorists approach the political involve her reading of Nietzsche on responsibility and institutions and Arendt on promising.
For Honig, “Nietzsche’s recovery of responsibility is pivotal in a reconstructive project to which too many readers of Nietzsche still attend too little” (8). Going beyond his well-known disruptions of convention, Honig reveals an alternative ethos that seeks to be more generous, creative, and responsive to the impulses and desires that that characterize the human condition in modernity. In thinking about the self as “an original multiplicity,” for example, Nietzsche offers a recovered sense a responsibility whose subjectivity is not premised on the need for blameworthy agent or self-destructive ressentiment, moving instead toward a relationship to the past that is creative and redemptive rather than passive and fatalistic (65, 52). Here, Honig builds on the politicizing impulses of Nietzsche’s thought without endorsing his vision of an aristocratic “great politics” that envisions “the herd dominated and the earth shaken by the few overmen” (74). These insights regarding a recovered sense of a “responsible subjectivity” are later amplified when Honig turns to Nietzsche’s “brief endorsements” and “scattered remarks” to highlight his “reverence for institutions” (73). Underscoring this important yet underrated strand of Nietzsche’s political thought, Honig notes how the “commitment to maintain institutionally a measure of stability, a measured stability…‘this life which must ever surpass itself,’ must also situate and maintain itself, and often it will and ought to do so institutionally” (72–73). And while Nietzsche seeks to avoid overly domesticating a world characterized by contingency, he also knows that such efforts “are our way of making the world habitable and he admires and endorses our capacity to do this” (72).
Honig’s critique allows us to see how Arendt turns to a legitimating fable of the Declaration that seeks to “bridge the impasse of freedom…the abyss that afflicts all performative utterance, all declarations of independence, all acts of founding” (109). Again, what is powerful here is not only the ways we come to see Arendt as a virtù theorist but how even visions of pure performativity and worldliness can fall prey to the logic of closure that Honig identifies in virtue theorists.
For Derrida… “We hold” illustrates beautifully a structural feature of all language: that no signature, promise performative—no act of foundation—possesses resources adequate to guarantee itself, that each and every one necessarily needs some external, systematically illegitimate guarantee to work.… Arendt resists this undecidability because she seeks in the American Declaration and founding a moment of perfect legitimacy.… What she does not see is that the American Declaration and founding are paradigmatic instances of politics (however impure) because of this undecidability, not in spite of it (106–107).
Indeed, one element of PTDP that I’ve always appreciated is how Honig develops a framework that she then challenges. Rather than simply reinstall the binary of virtù versus virtue, Honig asks her readers to go beyond the very binary she identifies. For her, “each side of the opposition tells us only half the story.” For example, toward the book’s conclusion, she speaks of how Rawls and Arendt are both right about the private realm, “and that is why each of them is wrong about it” (204). Unable to see or account for what the other recognizes, Honig notes, “[o]nce any conception of politics and identity or agency begins to sediment, its usefulness as a lever of critique is diminished and its generative power becomes a force of constraint” (206). This awareness that even her own framework risks becoming “sedimented” is an authorial gesture that moved me the first time I engaged this text in graduate school. It showed a kind of scholarly bravery – an intellectual confidence rarely seen in first books – to continually question and not just defend the logics one has so carefully constructed. As she ultimately insists: “Politics consists of practices of settlement and unsettlement, of disruption and administration, of extraordinary events or foundings and mundane maintenances…to reduce politics to only one side of each of these operations…is to displace politics” (205).
Honig’s closing insights led me to reconsider these binaries in light of the Trump era of American politics. Prior to 2016, it seems to me, democratic theorists aligned with the Left – as well as a certain portion of Left activists in the United States – often resisted the administrative in the service of disruption. Over the past two decades, many of us working in the field of democratic theory wrote works that celebrated various iterations of virtù politics – practices and movements that exceeded the institutional and the electoral. We emphasized the importance of contingency, celebrating practices of resistance, unruliness, refusal, and disruption. And much of this is to the good: Democratic theory is better for these critiques and interventions. Yet I would also argue that when it came to the institutional and electoral realms of politics, many of us on the Left ceded certain aspects of administration and maintenance to liberals and the Right. In other words, did radical democratic theorists and activists embrace the insights of the first part of Honig’s text while paying too little attention to the insights that conclude the book? Did we let our celebration of virtù politics become a kind of sedimented identity?
A year after PTDP was published, Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party issued the Contract with America, a series of far-right policies that GOP leaders pledged to enact if elected to power. In 1994, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years, and many of those same conservatives later organized as the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. Again and again, the American Right has embraced administrative logics in the service of disruption, working tirelessly to institutionalize their rage. At the same time, as conservatives moved further right and institutionalized themselves within the Republican Party, neoliberal rationalities were becoming increasingly ubiquitous: For many, neoliberalized law, governance, and political practices became a form of political common sense.
During this same period, Left activists resisted this turn to the right and cultivated a far more capacious understanding of the political, turning to a wide array of protest movements and aesthetic projects that aimed to expand the terrain of our political imaginaries beyond a defensive and crouched liberalism. Again, all to the good. But did we perhaps fail to take seriously the projects of mundane maintenance that virtue theorists prioritize? Did our criticisms and critiques of the limits of liberalism and neoliberal consensus lead us to dismiss the “reverence for institutions” identified by Nietzsche (73)? In our expansion of the political, did we perhaps fail to attend to the institutional and electoral realms to which the Right so effectively laid claim?
Across the ideological divide, political actors in a post-2016 world share a frustration with the failed promises of neoliberal governance and the politics of economic stagnation and endless war. In this context, I would argue that following the election of Donald Trump, the Left is in the midst of a reevaluation, coming to value the juridical and the institutional in new and unanticipated ways. Meanwhile, it is the Right that is taking increasing pleasure in the power of their unruliness – in expressive practices that generate outrage and in the pleasures of racist and misogynist utterances. So my closing question is this: Is the Right engaged in some sort of degraded and dangerously creative form of virtù politics – Nietzsche without his recovery of responsibility and generosity? Arendt without the commitment to thinking and judgment? If so, then today an increasingly urgent task for progressives and leftists involves engaging with and reimagining our democratic institutions. Fighting against our own sedimented approaches to the political, PTDP offers a powerful reminder that refusing the logic of closure and celebrating dissonance and resistance do not require turning away from the creative work of democratic maintenance and administration. Indeed, if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that our democratic future demands we do both.
Black feminism and the dilemma of agonism
The following are reflections on Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics and the dilemma the texts illuminates for black feminists. Honig’s endorsement of the Arendtian conception of power, as well as her commitment to the agon and a politics of permanent contestation are welcome among a set of black feminist thinkers, namely bell hooks and Cathy Cohen. Honig presents a vision of political world that well accommodates and would support a hooksian vision of power, seeing the world building work it has the potential to do, and that is in some ways tailor made for Cohen’s deviants to become the transformative political actors that Cohen would have them become. Another set, those more closely aligned with thinkers like Juliet Hooker, would see a political world in which black women and the marginal are simply doing the maintenance work of democracy, cleaning up the remainder bins of politics, doing dangerous and often deadly work. For democracy’s fugitives, democratic exemplarity only invites state repression and premature death, often not the glorious kind. Honig and Hooker both have interesting takes on politics as permanently unfinished business. For Hooker, it is the very unfinished nature of our democracy that makes democratic practice itself risky, often deadly. For Hooker, once settled status inequalities like race are acknowledged, the objects in the remainder bins pile up and the unfinishedness becomes unequal and exhausting. Hooker would remind us that even as we rightly celebrate the world Rosa Parks helped to create, we remember that she had to leave the Montgomery she created for Detroit. hooks and Cohen demonstrate that we are most likely to find our agonists among the most marginalized and we must because we should not build worlds without them; Hooker implores us to consider the ethics of doing so.
This passage is striking because what is it to live a life at the intersection of multiple identities and therefore to live a life at the intersection of multiple power formations, but to constantly be a part of the unacknowledged remainders in a world where most are convinced that politics has generated solutions to the problems of employment discrimination, reproductive rights or violence against women? On the latter issue think of the remainders that today’s abolition feminists like Beth Richie, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis struggle to bring to the attention of carceral feminists. What was Kimberlé Crenshaw doing in her foundational intersectionality articles but calling attention to the egregious remainders of race and gender employment discrimination law and anti-violence work, remainders that would only be addressed by agreeing that it was necessary to multiply the sites of political contexts when others held that the matters had been closed? What is intersectionality theory if it is not an effort to get some issues and indeed people out of the remainder bins of politics and onto the main field of contestation?
Whereas virtue theorists assume that their favored institutions fit and express the identities or the formations of subjects, virtù theorists argue that no such fit is possible, that every politics has its remainders, that resistances are engendered by every settlement, even by those that are relatively enabling or empowering. It is for the sake of those perpetually generated remainders of politics that virtù theorists seek to secure the perpetuity of political contest (3).
The Arendtian conception of power as action in concert and specifically Honig’s refusal to allow Arendtian action to be walled off in the public realm as well as Honig’s call to a politics of permanent contestation can be placed in productive conversation with the conception of power bell hooks endorses and Cathy Cohen’s statements on the necessity of moving from deviance to politics.
If action is boundless and excessive why should it respect a public–private distinction that seeks to regulate and contain it without ever allowing itself to be engaged or contested by it?…Once reminded of the rather deep and stable settlements of the private realm, the alleged exhilarations of actions disruptions start to ring false…The disruptions of action seem to leave so much in place: god, technology, gender, race, class, ethnicity…Any reading of Arendt that takes seriously the agonistic, virtuosic and performative impulses in her politics must, for the sake of that politics, resists the a priori determination of a public/private distinction that is beyond contestation and amendment (119, 118).
hooks asserts that women on the margins have been exercising an important and unrecognized form of power that must be given greater consideration in feminist theory. Twenty years later, Cathy Cohen would prove that: first apparently feminist classics appear in 10-year intervals, and second she would take, not liberal feminists, but middle class blacks to task for not seeing the political potential in a group exercising something similar to what hooks calls power:
Women need to know that they can reject the powerful’s definition of their reality – that they can do so even if they are poor, exploited, or trapped in oppressive circumstances. They need to know that this exercise of this basic personal power is an act of resistance and strength. Many poor and exploited women, especially non-white women, would have been unable to develop positive self-concepts if they had not exercised their power to reject the powerful’s definition of their reality (hooks, 2015, p. 92).
Cohen is more concerned than hooks was with how to ensure that this power is political, that it is exercised collectively and that it is transformative, as something not simply to be held by the marginal and exercised to reject the positions of those who would define them inaccurately but as a world-building resource.
Despite feelings of some in Black communities that we have been shamed by the immoral behavior of a small subset of community members, those some would label the underclass, scholars must take up the charge to highlight and detail the agency of those on the outside, those who through their acts of nonconformity choose outsider status, at least temporarily…These individuals are not fully or completely defining themselves as outsiders nor are they satisfied with their outsider status, but they are also not willing to adapt, or to conform. The cumulative impact of such choices might be the creation of spaces or counter publics, where not only oppositional ideas and discourse happen, but lived opposition, or at least autonomy, is chosen daily. Through the repetition of deviant practices by multiple individuals, new identities, communities, and politics might emerge where seemingly deviant, unconnected behavior can be transformed into conscious acts of resistance that serve as the basis for a mobilized politics of deviance (Cohen, 2004, p. 43).
Thinking of Arendt, hooks, Cohen and Honig together, one gets a truly inspiring vision of politics. In a world where capacities for action are not limited to certain groups and in a world where action itself is not walled off from the private sphere, the people best able to comprehend power as something distinct from violence and the people who have had to reject the self-definitions and norms of those who have held more masculinized forms of power over them are perhaps the most suited and amenable to a politics of permanent contestation. Their lives, their circumstances may provide the best training for agonistic politics. Honig writes that it is perhaps among the most marginalized to whom we should look to enact this politics as they have lived lives that best dispose them to the politics of permanent contestation. Perhaps Cohen’s “deviants” need resources and support or simply clear routes to the agon, insurance that the agon will never be closed to their contestations. Honig, with action unbound, presents the place and the terms wherein they can best do the transformative, world-building work that Cohen would have them do.
But is this what must be done in a world in which all power formations – Arendtian, hooksian and intersectional power formations – exist and we take the multiplication of sites of contest as the good to be achieved? Honig writes, “Arendt presents the bifurcation between the determinism of the natural body (in the private realm) and the freedom of the acting self (in the public realm) as attributes of individual selves, but they actually operate to distinguish some selves from others in the ancient Greece that is her beloved model” (Honig, 1995, p. 142), and Honig would add that this is also true today. “To be a citizen is not to be wholly identified with one’s embodiment: for others their identity is their embodiment.” When Honig says of Arendt that her action is spontaneous, novel, creative and always-self-surprising and calls for more of it, one thinks, “How creative must action be among those whose bodies remain so strongly associated with mere process?” Power though they may well possess alongside admirably agonistic spirits, Juliet Hooker would name those of whom hooks and Cohen speak among democracy’s fugitives, action’s outlaws.
What is the relationship between activism to bring about the conditions of equality Arendt sees as a precondition of action, that is Honig’s action unbound, and democratic action, which for Arendt demands equality? And relatedly, or more importantly, when does it cease to be the politics of augmentation to address remainders and become what Hooker sees as the more problematic work of sacrifice and democratic repair? Can this distinction be drawn in a world in which action is boundless and a capacity that can be exercised by all? Are all remainders simply sacrifices? Should our best agonists continue to enter the field of contest when the sacrifices pile up on their side? Should they continue when often they are the ones who are sacrificed?
Engaging with [Frederick] Douglass thus extends what it means to be a fugitive democratic thinker in Wolin’s sense because Douglass moves beyond recognizing the revolutionary and unsettled character of democratic politics to demonstrating the permanently uneven reach of democracy and the rule of law, as struggles to enlarge the demos are likely to be resisted and viewed as anything but “lawful” protests. Today’s fugitives are thus the DREAMers or Black Lives Matter protesters who enact exemplary democratic practices even as their status as citizens is precarious, and as their political activism renders them vulnerable to increased state reprisal (Hooker, 2017, p. 32).
Hooker quotes Melissa Harris Perry, who says, “The abrupt loss of Erica Garner is more than an individual tragedy; her death, like her father’s is a public lesson.” Hooker says, “It is American inequality wrought on a fragile human body for all of us to see.” Hooker continues, “But Erica Garner’s tragic premature death, the fact that her heart literally stopped beating, also points to the urgent need to examine what it would mean to grapple fully with black loss (the loss of Erica’s father) without subsuming it to the imperatives of democratic repair.” Or her death helps us to tally all that we have to lose in the seemingly never-ending work of democratic repair. Hooker says, “Garner’s death at such a young age raises questions about the personal and physical toll of the kind of black activism against racial injustice that is usually lauded as an exemplary democratic act” (Hooker, 2018). Are these, however, the unequally distributed, occupational hazards of democratic citizenship in our intersectional democracy, filled with fugitives? Or are they something else? Will the costs for engaging in action for those so closely associated with their bodies and mere process continue to be those very bodies?
The death of activist Erica Garner in 2017 at 27 from a heart attack provoked “profound sadness,” “deep despair,” and rage among black women. Garner was propelled into activism following the death of her father, Eric, after he was placed in a fatal chokehold by a NYC police officer…Eric Garner’s death scene and Michael Brown’s unattended body lying in the street for hours, became the emblematic images of racial violence and racial terror in the US in the twenty-first century. In turn, Erica Garner’s death, less than four years after her father was killed, poses stark questions about the intergenerational costs of state violence, the burdens of activism and the enhanced and unrecognized vulnerabilities faced by black women (Hooker, 2018).
Arendt celebrates heroic action. Blacks die doing maintenance work outside the edifice she would build to house her heroic action – some of their deaths are celebrated but what remains is a problematic division of democratic labor in a world of remainder and sacrifice. Arendt spoke of public happiness. It is also important to Honig. Many activists who Hooker would say are engaged in repair work admit to feeling what she described. But they are also plagued by exhaustion, depression and death. What does Honig thinks about the fact that Erica Garner, like her father Eric, now also can’t breathe?
Varieties of agonism
It has now been a quarter century since the language of agonism began its rise to prominence in political theory. In reflecting on this phenomenon, we should be quite careful about how we piece together our understanding of agonism. Why? As Lida Maxwell’s original invitation to this Critical Exchange noted, agonism now holds an almost unquestioned salience in left political theory; so how precisely we understand its character is of no small significance. It is, of course, always useful to be careful about the character of our core commitments. But I want to suggest that we have an additional, specific reason to be careful, and that concerns the fact that Donald Trump presents us with a vivid and authentic exemplar of one variant of agonism. And it is striking to me how often academic references to agonism seem oblivious to the fact that they, at least tacitly, affirm what is essentially the same variant.
With that concern in mind, I want to distinguish two types of agonism. For many political theorists, the most familiar variant traces back to Carl Schmitt’s 1932 essay, “The Concept of the Political,” an English translation of which appeared in 1976. This perspective was brought to prominence by Chantal Mouffe’s deployment of Schmitt in the 1990s to critique standard conceptions of liberalism and democracy as they appear in the work of Rawls and Habermas. Today, if there is a reference to agonism in political theory, you are likely to find it accompanied by a citation to Mouffe and/or Schmitt. We might call this Schmitt–Mouffe variant “imperializing agonism.”
Bonnie Honig’s work, I want to suggest, offers a different type. Here we might usefully refer to the “Hopkins School” of agonism. I am speaking of Honig, William Connolly and Richard Flathman. In their own individual ways, they all have drawn upon Nietzsche – not Schmitt – to craft distinctive accounts of the importance of agonism for political theory. The differences between these three reflect the way they were influenced by additional political thinkers: Arendt in Honig’s case, Foucault in Connolly’s case, and a diverse cast in Flatham’s case. To my mind, this is the strand of agonism which we should embrace. Call it “tempered agonism.” Lest one think that “tempered” means a “softer” version of agonism, I would point out that tempering is a process that produces a metal that is more resilient than an untempered one.
What is the central difference between the imperializing strand and the tempered one? Imperializing agonism gives us a distinctive way of categorically (in the sense of ontologically and existentially) defining politics: politics just is the unrelenting struggle of friends and enemies. Any other way of seeing things is simply a mischaracterization of the subject matter. For tempered agonists, however, there is simply no way of declaring the truth of the matter in such a sovereign fashion. As Honig nicely puts it, agonism and its chief opponent, let us call it consensualism, “represent not two distinct options but two impulses of political life” (14). As a consequence, we should not seek to repress one or the other by definitional fiat; rather we must continually be “negotiating” between them. The title of Honig’s introduction is: “Negotiating Positions.”
Why is this difference so important? One sees the reason clearly in Mouffe. She begins with a full embrace of Schmitt’s definition of the political as the unrelenting struggle of friends and enemies. But she then declares famously that we should tone down this straight Schmitteanism; in short, we should affirm not “antagonism,” but rather “agonism,” with the latter now meaning a respectful contest between political adversaries who agree to wage their struggle along broadly democratic lines within the rule of law. How often have I heard that mantra repeated – “not antagonism, only agonism” – as if the mere saying of these words will transform the reality of the former into the latter?
What I want to suggest is that Mouffe’s move here represents a purely verbal achievement with no real conceptual substance to give it critical force. The Schmittean existential-ontological grounding that Mouffe affirms at the start always reasserts an imperial domination within this framing of agonism. If I am an adherent of this position, I may behave toward you, my political opponent, in a fashion that affirms some rules of equality and democracy that restrain our contests whenever it is convenient and serves my interests; but when such constraints hinder what I and my “friends” truly desire, we will, with immaculately clear consciences, grind you into the dirt of history. When push comes to shove, then, the friend-enemy dynamic simply trumps any other norms.
As I suggested a moment ago, this is no mere academic issue, because we now have an Imperializing Agonist-in-Chief in the White House. Trump clearly sees the world in terms of fundamental, synonymous binaries: friends/enemies, winners/losers, loyal people/traitors; and his actions continually make vivid the dangers of the Schmitt-Mouffe variant. Trump will defend things like due process when they fit his strategic goals; but he enthusiastically trashes them, when he finds that they impede in any way his axis of “friends,” aka his loyal base. Thus, Trump, at one point, talked about a fair resolution of the Dreamer issue – “I love the Dreamers” – yet his positions later show them to be pure pawns in his broader crackdown on immigration.
One of the real pleasures that comes with rereading Honig’s book today, or the work of others in the Hopkins School, is how resistant they are to the dangers of the Schmitt–Mouffe formulation. But, in issuing this praise, one also tacitly highlights a crucial issue in tempered agonism, that I want to raise. What exactly is the ontological–ethical–political source of the “tempering” force on which Honig draws in her framing of agonism, and how does she understand its status within her work as a whole?
As I ponder this question two issues stand out for me. First, in the years since PTDP, the importance of Jewish thought in Honig’s work has become increasingly apparent. Arendt has, of course, always been there, but she has been joined over time by various figures and stories from the Hebrew Bible and by other thinkers like Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, and Judith Butler. In saying this, I do not mean that these figures constitute an exclusive group, only that they are prevalent and persistent voices.
Now simply referring to this group and Judaism as a source does not yet say much about how they function as a source. For some scholars, a source, especially when it is religious, is like a well from which one draws all that gives thought and action meaning. The influence largely runs in one direction. But Honig’s relation to her source seems intriguingly different. And this is the second issue I wish to raise. Honig does not just draw upon her source; she continually reworks, refigures and thus recreates it. Her source might accordingly be imagined as more like a circle of deeply reflective conversation partners than a well. These voices provide Honig succor and orientation, but the conversation itself is always evolving and her voice continually “augments” it as well – to use a crucial, multidimensional term that has engaged her for many years.
Stephen K. White
Theater and the dispersal of the agon
At the start of Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, Bonnie Honig tells us something about the kind of reader she is, or probably more accurately used to be. “As a child,” she tells us, “I used to read the last page of mystery novels first.” She then outlines the benefits and costs of such a reading strategy. While being more open to “appreciating its details [and] getting to know its characters” she was, she tells us, “less vulnerable to the text” (1). The autobiographic aperçu, ostensibly about the paradox of writing introductions, in fact foreshadows a much wider interest of Honig’s in narrative or what one might call a politics of form. Honig’s attention to stories and the particular form these stories takes is part of what makes her work in political theory so innovative and explains to some extent her broad and deep impact on the fields of literary studies and the humanities more generally. On re-reading this book I was struck by the extent to which narrative is repeatedly foregrounded. From the start, Honig chooses to characterize what others might see as philosophical tracts or political manifestos as fables and stories. There are in fact, no less than eight references to fables in the index. The discussion of Kant starts with a reading of his “Speculative Beginnings” and the fable returns in her accounts of Arendt’s, Derrida’s and Rawls’ “fabulist” renderings of the American Revolution and founding.
And it is a fable, perhaps the grandest of fables – Homer’s Iliad – which gives Honig her central term, the term we are discussing here: the Agon. For the term agon first appears in Honig’s book in the discussion of Nietzsche’s essay “Homer’s Contest.” It is through Nietzsche’s appreciative reading of the dynamics of epic combat that the term agonism first takes shape. It is in part thanks to Honig’s analyses that Nietzsche’s status as a political writer, indeed as a writer who has a place in the theorization of democratic politics, has been recognized. Yet, one potential legacy of this Homeric notion of agonism could be that by focusing on the heroic and sometimes savage struggles of a band of aristocratic warriors, agonism’s ability to sustain a model of democratic politics is strained. Indeed, this element of agonism is carried over into Arendt’s discussion of the polis which she sees in profound continuity rather than rupture with Homeric society. “Speaking metaphorically and theoretically,” she memorably writes, “it is as though, the men who returned from the Trojan War had wished to make permanent the space of action which had arisen from their deeds and sufferings, to prevent its perishing…The polis properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together” (2013, p. 198). When Arendt speaks of the polis as not a place but as a structure of political organization, she elides the differences between different poleis and erases the historical relationship to democracy.
One curious feature of Nietzsche’s essay, however, and one that animates Honig’s commentary, is that despite foregrounding Homer in its title, much of it centers around the dynamics of competition in democratic Athens. Honig makes this evident in her discussion of ostracism, an Athenian institution which was often seen as a way of curtailing precisely the kinds of contests between aristocratic heroes which held the demos to ransom. But Nietzsche offers an alternative interpretation: “The original sense of this peculiar institution however is not a safety valve but that of a stimulant….This is the kernel of the Hellenic competition-conception: it abominates autocracy, and fears its dangers; it desires the preventative against the genius – a second genius” (1911, p. 58). Honig has recourse to Nietzsche’s discussion of ostracism as an illustration of his “reverence of institutions” – but one could go further noting his critique of autocracy and perhaps even underline his openness to specifically democratic institutions. Despite the virtuosic model implied by the attention to Homer, the essay actually advocates a more collective oriented agonism. Nietzsche writes: “To the Ancients…the aim of the agonistic education was the welfare of the whole, of the civic society. Every Athenian, for instance, was to cultivate his ego in competition, so far that it should be of the highest service to Athens and should do the least harm” (1911, p. 56). Nietzsche does not see democracy as a bar to the agonistic spirit but as a stimulant. Individual kleos and democratic flourishing are working hand in hand. As Christa Davis Acampora writes, “It is the community and not any great individual competitor that founds [the agon]” (2013, p. 17).
Nevertheless, one might worry that Nietzsche’s unexpected portrayal of Athens directs our attention away from the institution which supports the competition for excellence in both Homeric and democratic arenas: the institution of slavery. Contemporaneously with “Homer’s Contest,” Nietzsche would write an essay called the “Greek State” which, with its forthright denunciation of the “dignity of labour,” also casts a shadow over Arendt’s later formulations. The core of the essay is a plea to organize society in such a way as to maximize the creation of art: “Be it then pronounced that war is just as much a necessity for the state as the slave is for society, and who can avoid this verdict if he honestly asks himself about the causes of the never-equalled Greek art-perfection?” (1911, p. 15). Nietzsche’s Greeks teach us this fable: “We must accept this cruel sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture…The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men” (1911, p. 12). There has been a consensus among scholars to treat Nietzsche’s statements about slavery as metaphorical and to hold him at a distance from the debates about abolitionism which preoccupied his contemporaries. But as a notebook entry on Harriet Beecher Stowe and her debt to Rousseau suggests, there is evidence that Nietzsche was himself well aware of the continuities between his arguments about ancient slavery and the emancipation movements of the nineteenth century.
The fabulous world of epic, then, may ground Honig’s discussion of the agon – but its features depart in various ways from their Nietzschean genealogy. In particular, while the vocabulary of fables and epics does not disappear from Honig’s book, a different genre of narrative takes on greater prominence. The agon in Greek culture simultaneously denotes military, sporting, musical, philosophical, legal, political and medical contests. In the fifth-century BCE Athens, the term agon increasingly described a formal element of Greek drama, a set piece of opposing speeches by protagonist and antagonist or protagonist and chorus. The formulaic nature of these verbal encounters as well as their specific vocabulary have been read by many literary critics as a reference to the emerging institution of the law court. Thus, debates about the nature of justice or the question of human accountability conducted on stage specifically referenced the incipient terminology of legal battles. Yet the direction of travel – legal metaphor in drama or dramatic metaphor in the law court is difficult to establish. While one of Honig’s concerns in her book is the reduction of politics to law, the porosity of theater and the law in Athens are a reminder, of how politics, law, and literature remain interarticulated. In classical Athens, the law is not the stabilizing discourse which keeps the disruptive force of tragedy in check – law and tragedy irrupt simultaneously to agonize the category of the human.
But what interests me here is how what one might call Honig’s “performative turn” in the book suggests a different form for agonism. In a brilliant move, Honig brings Arendt’s discussion of the question of founding and the American Revolution into dialog with Derrida’s critique of J.L. Austin’s theory of performativity. On Honig’s Derridean reading, Arendt’s theory of action becomes “a non-sovereign performance that works to reconstitute communities and inaugurate new realities” (2013, pp. 43–44). This performative action is crucial to the model of agonism which Honig goes on to develop in Antigone, Interrupted. The frame of democratic institutions, the involvement of the chorus, the arguments, interruptions and conspiracies between the protagonists: all of these aspects of tragedy make it a privileged place to explore the collective dimension of agonism. But it is also by tracking the genre of tragedy that Honig can specifically make good on the promise of her first book: “the same impulse can motivate the application of performativity to Arendt’s public–private distinction” (122). Honig needs an agonism grounded in tragedy – not Homeric epic – to fulfill her promise. For theater is precisely the sphere where the boundaries between public and private – the very question of what is political – “how far down does the political go?” – are so insistently debated.
Nevertheless, in Antigone, Interrupted, Honig shows how reading these plays tragically may ultimately blunt their political promise. She argues that the politics of tragedy can all too easily morph into the tragedy of politics. By revealing the covert workings of a mortalist humanism in some of the most politically minded readings of the Antigone she uncovers again a insidious displacement of politics. As she does in her first book, Honig calls on us to examine and rethink our reading practices. By proposing to read the Antigone as melodrama rather than tragedy, she keeps the agon in play. If the epic agonism of Nietzsche should be rejected because of its anti-emancipatory politics, a tragic agonism, Honig suggests, must ultimately also be rejected because of its emancipation from politics. Antigone,Interrupted thus shows how we might have to give up on “the tragic” but not on tragedy as drama. In her reading of Antigone, Honig’s agonism has found, if not strictly its genre, then its stage. Perhaps this explains why Honig is sticking with drama and offering us as her next project theatres of refusal. It is a cliché of Greek tragedy that the audience, familiar with the mythic stories, already knew how the plays would end before they saw them staged. Perhaps the child Honig was destined to give up mystery novels in order to discover Greek tragedy.
What is agonism?1
…to practice reading as an art…something for which one must almost be a cow
Nietzsche (quoted in Maxwell)
What accounts for agonism’s rising prominence in the last two to three decades of political theory? What should it be enlisted to do next? Can it help us understand the race and gender politics of our moment? Or combat the current faux-populism in the U.S.?
This last, especially, is on everyone’s mind now.2 But back in the early 1990s, PTDP was addressed to a more achievable task, though it sure looked daunting at the time: to open up room for new political theory thinking outside the frame of then current debates about liberalism versus communitarianism, as deliberative democratic theory quickly advanced to their ranks. The frame encouraged a focus on ontological questions of subjectivity, the generation of norms for governance, and practices of justification that would seal or settle the foundations of political order. PTDP was a critique of such foundational visions of politics as settlement and of justification as hegemony. It promoted agonism as an alternative, dis-orienting perspective in political theory, highlighting its commitment to attend to the remainders of political settlement and the perpetuity of political contest.
PTDP took seriously the thinkers and texts that seemed to be the greatest obstacles to the project and found in them the resources out of which agonists might build alternatives. Its central aim was to dislodge the debates of the day by reorganizing them into a different, staged clash between virtù (disruptive) and virtue (orderly) theories of politics, highlighting the contrast between these two visions of politics as sharper and more significant than the attention-getting contrasts between (deliberative) liberalism versus communitarianism. I contrasted representatives of virtù theory, Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Arendt, with representatives of virtue theory, Kant, Rawls, and Sandel. Then, by highlighting elements of virtù in the virtue theories of Rawls and Sandel and virtue elements in the virtù theories of Nietzsche and Arendt, the book enacted the agonism of virtù, infiltrating and occupying its opponents, and not (as in the agonism of Homer’s epics) nobly destroying or defeating them.
Another mark of the book was that it drew on, but did not identify the book’s argument with, feminist and queer theory. I wanted to mainstream such contributions, but I think Lida Maxwell is right to point out that this elision may have suggested that agonism was a merely formal practice of contestation without essential, orienting commitments on gender and sexuality or ethnicity and race. I assumed the commitment of agonism to care for the agon (elaborated from Nietzsche’s “Homer’s Contest”) and for the “remainders” of politics would be enough to provide agonism with its substance: a political commitment above all to equality.3 But I take Maxwell’s point that my agonism was not incidentally feminist and queer (my examples, my archive): hence my turn to the virago, the female bearer of virtù, as an orienting figure. And, as other contributors here point out, my agonism later drew on other sources, too: Jewish, gothic, melodramatic, (post)humanist, and classical. Twenty-five years ago, however, situating the book as feminist or queer would not only have strengthened it; it would also have marginalized it and undermined its aim: to occupy and infiltrate the mainstream.4 That said, if there was some protection for agonism in my (openly violated) “method of avoidance,” then perhaps I had a bit more in common with Rawls than I realized.
Agonism’s advance since then, it seems to me, is partly evidenced in the fact that twenty-five years ago, most political theorists were not doing work like that being done now by contributors to this forum, not all of whom identify as agonists but all of whose work contributes to a politicized political theory that speaks not only to the timeless questions of the (thankfully, ever-broadening) canon but also to the pressing challenges of our day. This is now mainstream democratic theory: normative, critical, historical, cultural, literary, feminist, queer, environmental, interdisciplinary, engaged.5
The engagements with PTDP tendered here test, extend, and perhaps (as Stephen White says) temper the book’s original vision of agonism. They challenge me to rethink some things and, after rehearsing and responding to what I take to be the essential points of critique, I turn to consider three crucial points in the book that I would today handle differently.
Agonism must be distinguished from antagonism, says Stephen White, who contrasts my views and those of the “Hopkins school” with Chantal Mouffe’s. White argues that my own version of agonism is tempered, partly, by my Arendtianism (different from the agonism of Richard Flathman and William Connolly) and by my later turn to Judaic sources.6 By tempering, White means not a moderating process but an enhancement of strength and resilience.7 I appreciate his take for its cautious acceptance of the ineliminability of friend-enemy relations from politics while fending off more Schmittian assumptions (that he finds in Mouffe) that politics is, as such, always reducible to friend-enemy relations.
Agonism might want to be more like antagonism. This is a way of stating Shatema Threadcraft’s question regarding what, if anything, agonism has to say about the deep and enduring racism of American politics, which assigns heroic action only to some and maintenance work to others. Agonism contests this distinction, actually. Everyday speech acts, like promising and forgiveness (J.L. Austin’s performatives), can be heroic, as when Arendt in The Human Condition treats promising and forgiveness as inaugural, not ordinary (PTDP, ch. 4). Conversely, Arendt’s focus on inaugural action actually commits her to practices of maintenance (113–114), a point she grants in connection with her account of augmentation in On Revolution. But Threadcraft is right in holding that in the U.S., the division is racial and the work of maintenance leaves black activists “plagued by exhaustion, depression and death.” She has Erica Garner in mind, daughter of the murdered Eric Garner whose protestations, “I can’t breathe,” were ignored by the police who held him, unjustifiably, illegally, and inhumanely, in a chokehold. Garner’s killing was filmed and publicized by his friend, Ramsey Orta, who was then harassed and ultimately arrested. When the police arrested his mother, too, Orta made a deal with prosecutors to secure her release and is now serving time, the detailed story of which is a record of almost every evil of the American carceral system (Jones, 2019). Erica Garner, thrust into activism by her father’s case, died at 27, three years after her father. She had an enlarged heart, suffered an asthma attack, and was carrying a world of responsibility on her shoulders: “For a whole year, I’ve protested every Tuesday and Thursday,” she said. “I feel like a representative for people throughout this whole nation because I’m doing this, I’m speaking out, me being his daughter” (Wamsley, 2017). We cannot bring her back but we can grieve her loss and take up her work, offering to lighten a bit the burdens of others like her. Agonistic actors in concert are not immune to exhaustion, depression, and death. But they are also not equally exposed to them, as Threadcraft rightly points out. Being with others strengthens and emboldens those engaged in resistance, and also offers up the pleasures of being together to offset the rest.
Agonism has to move well beyond Nietzsche, where I located it in PTDP, lest it retain the traces of Homeric elitism, warring conflict, and unconcern about slavery. This is the concern of Miriam Leonard, who sees my later turn to Sophocles’ Antigone as part of an effort to temper Nietzsche’s Homeric agonism by replacing epic with tragedy and even, eventually, melodrama. I have worked to pluralize the genres of political theory over the years but I think of the various genres, to which Leonard rightly calls attention for their partial perspectives and historical baggage, not as a sequence in which each one corrects for the prior ones’ limitations, but rather as agonistically engaged, each offering a rival approach to the films or texts under consideration. In Antigone, Interrupted, for example, I do not replace tragedy with melodrama, but I do unsettle habitual interpretations of tragedy by confronting them with the powers and limits of melodrama’s rather different emplotment.
Agonism could be seen as too formal, a commitment to mere contestation, as such, unless I embrace the feminist and queer politics in which my agonism was, in any case, originally wrapped. This is Lida Maxwell’s claim which offers its own tempering of agonism as always already feminist and queer, well before other sources were brought to bear. I previewed her claims above and return to them in a fuller discussion below.
Cristina Beltrán finds in agonism a useful contestation of the closures of identity politics, while noting the importance of an agonism that is not only disruptive but also institutional, just as my reading of Nietzsche emphasized his Apollonian side in addition to his more often noted Dionysianism.8 This, too, is a tempering, we might say. And, looking to the book’s discussion of “remainders,” Beltrán asks for agonism’s guidance today, now that remaindering people has become again an essential feature of American politics. Beltrán and the others would not be surprised to hear me say we need both virtù and virtue in moments like this. This means we need to combine: mass mobilizations against the use of concentration camps at the border; canny electoral strategies to win power for those who will do right by those betrayed by today’s faux-populism; pushing the Democratic Party to more egalitarian public policies that will deliver on the promise to do better; improving outreach to black, indigenous, Latinx, and independent voters who often sit out elections, partly because of concerted Republican efforts to suppress the vote via gerrymandering and various Jim Crow style obstacles to voting such as closing locally accessible polling stations, and instituting, too close to elections, new proof of residency and identification requirements. Prosecuting illegal voting which is rare and rarely intentional is another part of this strategy of voter intimidation.9 Mobilizing communities so we can advance the agendas we embrace even when the national government does not is important. It will also be important to develop and refine legal strategies to nullify appointments, directives, and decisions made by an illegitimate President.* There must also be a public accounting: those who have committed or covered up crimes, profited from emoluments, or violated human rights must be publicly tried and brought to justice. Finally, as I have argued elsewhere, if our current institutional arrangements survive all this, every effort must be made politically, culturally and legally to prevent the Republican Party separating itself in the future from Trump. They will surely and shamelessly make every effort to do so by scapegoating him if they need to when the time comes. Whether or not all these things happen depends on how mobilized, organized, and agonistically engaged are the citizens and residents of this country.
Returning to the book, I would make three changes to it in light of what I have since learned and developed further in my work, informed in part by the work of the contributors to this Critical Exchange.10
First, I would attend to Hannah Arendt’s erasure of slavery from the American founding and of racism from its history since. This is one of the glaring “remainders” of her political theory. Miriam Leonard is correct to highlight the role of fable and narrative in this book. I remain inspired by Arendt’s faith in the power of stories to unsettle consensus and open room for new thinking. But some stories do the opposite. Fabulist is the term I used to describe Arendt’s account of the American Revolution, which she cleanses of details she saw as extraneous to the colonists’ fight for freedom (slavery, political theology) and that she thought would interfere with the potentially powerful purity of its example.11 In my new book on the politics of refusal, I compare Arendt’s fabulism to Saidiya Hartman’s fabulation, noting that Hartman’s version refuses the authority of the archive to which Arendt herself contributed when she glorified the Compact of the Mayflower but said nothing about the slave ship that Hortense Spillers rightly calls the Mayflower’s twin.12 When I followed Arendt’s lead, 25 years ago, and re-theorized, as a kind of social contract, the “We hold” of the Declaration without calling attention to the holds of the slave ships and the contracts that secured them, I repeated the wrong.
I also missed an opportunity to develop then in more detail what I hope I have explored since but will say here more explicitly than before: agonism must contest not only Arendt’s public/private distinction but also her rather non-genealogical commitment to new beginnings. Here I might have allowed Nietzsche to do more in PTDP to chasten Arendt and not just vice versa. Agonism’s commitment to contestation means it cannot think of new beginning as ab initio birth.13 Indeed, its commitment to the plurality in every so-called unity invites a reconsideration of Arendtian natality, which, as Adriana Cavarero argues, “is perhaps the most original category of thought that Arendt gave to the twentieth century” (cited in Marso, 2018). But, as Lori Marso points out, Cavarero adds a caveat. The scene of birth in Arendt is cleansed of the experience of birth and is “essentially [a] scenario,” Marso says, without the mother. Without her, we miss the very first experience of plurality: the relationship between mother and child (Marso, 2018). Where there was one (Arendtian natality!), there are now two (Cavarero’s and Marso’s natality as plurality!), and their bond is division – a relationship of love and rage, closeness and individuation. This is the predicament of the new: its enmeshment in and dependence on others. Casting the new as the natal with no maternal, Arendt then has to add plurality to her account. But plurality is already there in natality; and this means the “new” is marked by agonistic struggle (what William Connolly calls identity\difference).
I pursued this notion all the way into the womb in “Difference, Dilemmas, and the Politics of Home” (1994), an essay on Bernice Johnson Reagon’s brilliant “Coalition Politics” (1983). Reagon criticized feminist home-yearning as the antithesis of coalition politics: “They’re looking for a bottle with some milk in it and a nipple, which does not happen in a coalition.” For Reagon, coalition politics means leaving behind the dream of home because in politics you have to “team up with someone who could possibly kill you because that’s the only you can figure you can stay alive” (1983, pp. 356–357). Hers is a vividly agonistic picture of political action in concert. I suggested that it ultimately depended on rethinking home, too, though, since “home” is itself a more conflictual and coalitional space than Reagon here grants and even pregnancy (which I was experiencing at the time) is an agonistic struggle.14 I cited David Haig, an evolutionary biologist (whose name startlingly resembles my own father’s!) who said “the fetus shares only half of its genes with the mother. The other half comes from the father. As a result, the evolutionary interests of a mother and her offspring can be different.” (You think?) I suggested the relationship between mother and fetus, in the context of a wanted pregnancy, is best seen as “coalitional” in Reagon’s sense, agonistic in mine. Thus, agonism rejects Arendt’s purism (her purely performative founding and her purified natality) on behalf of her action in concert among equals, and it tracks how, as Beltrán points out, difference is remaindered by every effort to expunge it.
Second, I would nuance further my discussion of Arendt’s turn to writing in order to escape the inescapable paradox of founding. I welcomed deconstruction’s critique of the ontology of presence, which takes writing rather than orality as exemplary of language, and highlights writing’s play of iteration (Derrida) rather than the stability of its “permanence” (Arendt). I preferred Derrida to Arendt on this point but still, with this argument, I participated in settler societies’ historical privileging of the written over the oral, which displaces and deprivileges the indigeneity that Arendt, who otherwise follows Tocqueville, never mentions. The privileging of writing as literacy over orality as illiteracy helps support the official story of the American founding as an “In the beginning” story (like Arendt’s), which Michael Oakeshott contrasts with the more British conservative option of timeless beginning: “Once upon a time.” The latter, it is worth noting, is associated with oral storytelling. To these two, in any case, I would add as a further contrast the most American option of all: “And then this happened” (as in: “I wasn’t there and anyway it was a long time ago”).15
Arendt’s silence on the genocidal displacements of indigenous peoples and her erasure of the impact of slavery’s legacy on the American republic are enabled by her rather unagonistic embrace of the new, and this is supported by her signing on to the myth of an immigrant America, one of the carriers of the idea of natality as an “In the beginning” rebirth or new start. This was a central reason I turned in my next book, Democracy and the Foreigner (2001), to the politics of immigration and its intersections with gender (ch. 3) and race (ch. 4).
…imagine someone whose only pleasure is to count blades of grass in various geometrically shaped areas such as park squares and well-trimmed lawns. He is otherwise intelligent and actually possesses unusual skills, since he manages to survive by solving difficult mathematical problems for a fee. The definition of the good forces us to admit that the good for this man is indeed counting blades of grass…Naturally we would be surprised that such a person should exist…Perhaps he is peculiarly neurotic…But if we allow that his nature is to enjoy this activity and not any other…this establishes that it is good for him (1971, pp. 432–433).
Is the grass-counter’s pastime a mere “pleasure” that fails to make good on the promise of justice as fairness or is it a proper “conception of the good”? This is Rawls’ question.
In the book, I focused on what this example might tell us about the normalizing politics of Rawls’ ideal political order and the remainders of tolerance. I would add now a focus on how Rawls’ contrast between pleasure and good distracts us from inoperativity and its power. For Rawls, the grass counter is just privative, all pleasure, no conception of the good. But his quirky pleasurable pastime could also be seen as a refusal practice that rejects social demands for perpetual (re)productivity and the attendant norms of individual investment, achievement, progress, and ambition that, since 1971, have taken shape as a now familiar ethos of neoliberalism.
liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers. He had a favorite spot out in the pasture under a cork tree…and he would sit in its shade all day and smell the flowers. Sometimes his mother, who was a cow, would worry about him. She was afraid he would be lonesome all by himself. “Why don’t you run and play with the other little bulls and skip and butt your head?” she would say. But Ferdinand would shake his head. “I like it better here where I can sit just quietly and smell the flowers.” His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy” (Leaf, 1936)16
Ferdinand’s mother accepts that her son’s pleasure just is his good. But persuasively turning pleasure into a good of its own, as Ferdinand and his mother do, and as Maxwell seems to recommend, risks concealing what may be a useful agonistic tension between them.
Pleasure has the power to disturb the scene of social (re)production, a point explored in Euripides’ Bacchae, a focus of my current work on refusal. Euripides’ bacchants are also farnientes. Refusing work’s demands, the women leave the polis to celebrate the god, Dionysus, outside the city on Cithaeron. They may not count the grass, but the bacchants, bovine, and bullish, pleasure-seeking and empowered, loll on the ground’s leaves and pine branches, commune with nature, and become animal. They contest every received idea of gender, sexuality, race, foreignness and the human and reject every habit of compliance. The whole episode on Cithaeron is partly a mother–son agon that begins when the women (including the King’s mother) defy King Pentheus’s order to return to their looms. Pentheus thinks Dionysus is at fault for “introducing a new complaint amongst our women, and doing outrage to the marriage tie.” But the women have ideas of their own and outraging patriarchy’s marriage tie is definitely one of them.
That marriage tie, a.k.a. the “monogamous family,” is one of the “major social institutions” on which Rawlsian justice depends along with “competitive markets and private property in the means of production” (1971, p. 7). Rawls even casts the subjects of justice as fairness as heads of families or households. This is in order to provide the intersubjectivity and intergenerationality that liberal theorists otherwise have a hard time accounting for. But Rawls’ reliance on the head of household figure also subtly displaces the agon between pleasure and the good, sublimating the former into the more predictable, less disruptive passion called a “conception of the good.” It is like Hegel’s transmutation, via kinship, of the unreliable eros between lovers into the adamantly non-incestuous and therefore stable affection between brother and sister (modeled, incredibly, on Antigone and Polynices (Hegel, 1977). Indeed, the Hegelian transmutation is suggested when Rawls refers to the “monogamous family” – an odd locution since it is usually the marriage and not the family that is said to be monogamous.
The grass counter, who insists on his pleasure, forcing Rawls to treat it as a conception of the good, can be seen to resist such transmutation when he is paired with Bartleby and the other farnientes. (Bartleby’s proximity to grass is noted by Agamben: “…the walled courtyard is not a sad place. There is sky and there is grass. And the creature knows perfectly well where it is” [quoted in Keeling, 2019, p. 48]). Rawls’ grass counter is part of a broad, queer resistance to the normalization and moralization of (re)productivity’s demands. He is a spanner in the works of an otherwise “well-ordered society.” This may explain why Rawls takes pains to describe the grass that grips the grass counter as “geometric” and “well-trimmed.” Can the grass’s adjacent straightness somehow quarantine the queerness of its (gay) blades? Even Rawls seems vulnerable to the contagion, though. “Is the family to be abolished then?” he asks later. (He is worried about how the family introduces inequality to a social order determined to lessen it [Rawls, 1971, 511]). Of course not, he replies. But by floating the idea, Rawls has put it into circulation. Think of how Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” ultimately infects the whole of the office where he works. Maybe that is why Rawls confined the grass counter to well-trimmed spaces and the straight lines of urban geometry: it is not the first time the power of enclosure has been enlisted to contain contagion.
In The Life and Death of Latisha King, Gayle Salamon observes that many experience trans people’s “gender expression … as a form of sexual aggression.” Violence against their mere existence is heteronormatively justified by “characterizing non-normative gender as itself a violent act of aggression and reading the expression of gender identity as itself a sexual act.”17 Similarly, inoperativity is often interpreted as a form of aggression, too, a willful assault on society’s (re)productive commitments.18 In A Theory of Justice, Rawls’ imagines the threat, and responds to it by remoralizing the social commitment to reproduction to give it more force and by insulating the good from the tumult of pleasure that is often coded female. (Just ask the bacchants.) New restrictions on abortion in the U.S. may surely be seen in this light. For anti-choice activists, life begins at conception (of the good) and pleasure is a danger to be punished.19 It is a task of agonism to contest such enclosures and their moralizations on behalf of their remaindered forms of life and pleasures, and for the sake of the more egalitarian worlds to which they might one day give birth.
Thanks to Lida Maxwell for organizing this forum and the contributors for participating in it. And I am grateful to Maxwell and Lori Marso for comments on earlier drafts.
And not only equality but also, as I have since argued, public things (Honig, 2019).
Infiltration and occupation are “conspiratorial” strategies. On conspiracy, see Antigone, Interrupted (Honig, 2013).
The advances of agonism are to the credit of a wide range of scholars, followers and fellow travelers of what Stephen White here calls “the Hopkins School.” William Connolly and Richard Flathman advised the dissertation that became the book under discussion. Crucial too was the parallel rise of cultural studies, black studies, and interdisciplinarity – this last a hallmark of graduate study at Hopkins early on.
Seyla Benhabib has recently turned to Arendt’s Jewishness and argues that Arendt cannot be an agonist because her “much neglected Jewish Writings,” are “hard to reconcile with the agonistic paradigm.” The Jewish writings have not been “much neglected” for a while, and there is nothing inherently contradictory between agonism and the Judaic sources (Benhabib, 2018).
This needs to be noted lest we confuse White’s claims with Dana Villa’s critique, which contrasted Nietzsche’s “excessive agonism” with Arendt’s more “tame” variety, and produced what I took to be misleading readings of both Nietzsche and Arendt (Honig, 1993).
But the old readings of him as merely disruptive survive: see Benhabib (2018).
The prosecution and imprisonment of Crystal Mason by the State of Texas is particularly outrageous: see Pilkington (2018).
Others, not mentioned in this Reply, from whose work I have learned since publishing the book, include George Shulman, Juliet Hooker, Tina Campt, Kevin Bruyneel, Christina Sharpe, Jane Bennett, Glen Coulthard, Jason Frank, Melvin Rogers, Ainsley LeSure, Jarius Grove, and Kara Keeling.
James Martel has also recently noted Arendt’s “resort to fables and distortions,” which, he says, help her “to produce the kinds of resistance that are necessary for [an] anarchism” he finds invited by her work, if not necessarily approved by it (Martel, 2011, p. 154.)
Hortense Spillers, in a reading of Clotel, beautifully shows how the novel “juxtapos[es] ‘one little solitary, tempest-tost and weather-beaten ship,’ the Mayflower, and ‘a low rakish ship hastening from the tropics, solitary and alone, to the New World,’ ‘on the last day of November, 1620’” (Spillers, 2011, p. 19). Thanks to Ariella Azoulay for calling my attention to Spillers’ essay. Hartman’s recent work of fabulation, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), is a focus of the third lecture of my “Give me glory!”The Bacchae's Feminist Politics of Refusal (forthcoming, Harvard University Press: The Flexner Lectures, 2020/2021).
See my Emergency Politics (2009) for how the American new beginning succeeds, on Arendt’s own account, only because it had begun long before, in colonial practices of self-governance indifferent to British sovereignty.
Reagon does not in fact leave intact the binary of safe, conflict-free home versus dangerous or agonistic coalition. “The irony with which she characterizes the womb or an infant’s bottle unsettles her assumption that home is essentially a site of nurturance, free of difference, violence, conflict, and death” (Honig, 1994, p. 582).
This was Mitch McConnell’s sentiment in June 2019 when, deflecting questions about reparations for slavery and its aftermath, he referred to slavery and its bloody aftermath as “something that happened 150 years ago.” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magnificent response to McConnell should be the required reading material (or viewing) in every American high school as should the reading list that informed it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=140&v=vO1yqOWfjbQ&fbclid=IwAR2Nd45Ae9FKHxJ7VkqtIv6BnYfDIm3aVU7_op9DprHGRlPDvF2S0V5-0O8. On the importance of narrative in this context, see Bryan Stevenson: “The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war (Morgan, 2019).
The comparison to Bartleby is made by Handy (2017).
Thanks to Lida Maxwell for calling this book to my attention.
Rebecca Schein notes how “the removal of homeless people from public space is justified on the grounds that their presence deters shoppers and tourists” (Schein, 2012, p. 335).
In no way should this be taken to suggest that Rawls would endorse anti-choice legislation. Moreover, though I have here identified inoperativity with pleasure, this need not be the case; it just follows from the grass-counter example. And finally I note that developing this line of argument further would require attending to Rawls’ critique of utilitarianism, that social theory that takes pleasure seriously but also renders it operative via the felicific calculus.
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