by Bonnie Honig. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009. 218pp. Cloth. $26.95/£18.95. ISBN: 9780691142982. eBook format. $26.95. ISBN: 9781400830961.

Reviewed by William Corlett, Department of Politics, Bates College. Email: wcorlett [at] bates.edu.


Addressing legal scholars, political theorists, local activists, and other stakeholders in democracies, this remarkable book explores the paradoxical rhythms of progressive change and resurgent conservatism. Building upon her earlier work, especially POLITICAL THEORY AND THE DISPLACEMENT OF POLITICS (1993) and DEMOCRACY AND THE FOREIGNER (2001), in ways that encourage living hospitably among strangers, Honig’s “linked essays” (p.10) supplement our understanding of “universal human rights, the agency of law, [and] faith in progress” (p.140).

Readers just beginning to recognize Bonnie Honig as a “must-read” scholar at the crossroads of legal studies and political theory will find an opportunity to catch up. Readers already familiar with Honig’s work will find a consolidating position on “overliving” (p.10), living life beyond bare necessity, as she prepares to “take us back to the Greeks” (Derrida, 2000:73) in her forthcoming ANTIGONE, INTERRUPTED. And, because Honig always brings new people to the table, all readers will benefit from her notable addition here of Moses Mendelssohn and Franz Rosenzweig to a discussion of what living more democratically can require of progressive lawyers, administrators, social movements, and other political agents.

Honig asks how we live with ourselves and others after making the impossible decisions sometimes required by emergency situations, especially when survival is it stake. Drawing on her earlier work, Honig resists the starkness of choosing between the needs of life and the added benefit (overliving) made possible by a politics she associates with Arendt (p.10). Honig develops a “doubled meaning of survival,” inspired by Derrida’s “sur-vivre.” Derrida distinguishes merely extending life (“plus de vie”) from that “something else” (“plus que vie”) that can attend a struggle to survive (Derrida, 1985: 25).Derrida recalls this distinction when asked about the survival of his work, sometimes through translation, especially in the United States. In this interview, he points out that a translation of his work can do so much more than extend the life of his corpus because “all sorts of other texts” are required to produce a translation. The survival of his work amidst critics (plus de vie) in France, for example, differs from and yet relates to the survival of his work in translation (plus que vie), in the United States. Honig finds Derrida’s distinction useful for drawing together the life and death struggles that we associate with everyday practices, on one hand, and the “surprise extra” that comes from extraordinary political activity when we get it right, on the other. She wants us to keep everyday needs in the picture as [*115] we pursue our political goals in an “agonistic mutuality of mere and more life” (p.11).

Honig uses the “mere life- more life” distinction to announce the central paradox of the book: folks who are so often asked to be “we the people” (more life) are also always necessarily a “multitude,” a sometimes heap of disaggregated, if not unruly, interests (mere life). In other words, the just-getting-by (not dead yet) that we associate with everyday life is necessarily imbricated with the “surprise extra” required by politics in its best Arendtian sense. Honig approaches the “daily” recurrence of this paradox from a “tragic perspective” (p.16), so as to remind readers of “our noncentrality in the universe” (p.11). “Overliving” is never all about us; it always already carries a remainder.

Honig would have political and legal theorists live with this “paradox of politics” by addressing it critically, as opposed to devising ways of overcoming it. She distinguishes her agonistic approach from two well-known attempts to transform the unruly multitude into a deliberative citizenry. The “democratic legitimation” (p.16) approach, which would require citizens to develop a more general will out of their everyday particularistic wills, tempts Seyla Benhabib to seek a universal “moral standpoint,” according to Honig. And the “constitutional democracy” approach tempts Jürgen Habermas to seek a “thin constitutionalism,” one which views “rule of law” and “popular sovereignty” as “mutually constitutive, not antagonistic,” because they make each other possible in time (p.31). Honig writes against these “solutions” on the grounds that they mask the “impurity” (p.38) of even the most successful political experiments. Impurity, infelicity, and undecidability are always in play in Honig’s “emergency politics.” Building on the work of William Connolly, she seeks to acknowledge “the remainders of all forms of life by actively but not uncritically supporting the efforts of new identities to come into being without prior guarantees about the rightness or justice of their claims” (p.39). This leads her to analyze the “emergent rights claims” readers might associate with LGBT rights, the right to doctor assisted suicide, and animal rights.

The two chapters that work through these claims are framed by the work of Moses Mendelsohn’s critique of so-called Enlightenment “progress.” Resisting Kantian cosmopolitanism, Mendelsohn argues that advances are always attended by setbacks. By extending new life to Mendelsohn’s counter-Kantian text, Honig shows how everyday materials at hand – the excess mentioned above – often complicate the universal pretensions that she associates with even the more critical forms of deliberative democracy, such as Habermas’s. Framing this chapter entitled “Emergence” with Mendelsohn’s sobering reflections as “a Jew living in Berlin under Frederick the Great” (p.42), Honig urges a distinction between “right-as-symbol” (which offers formal inclusion) and “the actual behavior of a right” (p.55) (which often spells exclusion). But – and this is her point – just as inclusionary gestures, such as Kantian Enlightenment progress, exclude, so can those excluded insist upon inclusion. Honig props open the door to law and politics by reminding us [*116] that people claiming odd new rights that do not seem to fit are part of how rights actually operate. In her phrasing, “New events can occur in all their overliving novelty because the right-as-symbol is an ideological one . . . not an accurate representation of a right’s behavior (p.56). The companion chapter, “Decision,” illustrates this potentiality in a vivid discussion of emergency politics, including fascinating work with the politics of the legal technicality, which honors the discretionary acts of U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor, Louis Freeland Post, when he released detainees locked up after the Palmer raids.

Moving to the world stage, “Orientation” turns to Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig as a counter-text to Carl Schmitt on the “state of exception.” Schmitt’s approach to sovereignty sparks debates which normally include Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben. But Honig’s emergency politics takes exception to the State as the ultimate “decider” of exceptions. Current debates are versed in the language of developing norms and viewing sovereignty as the right to make exceptions. But Honig, countering Schmitt’s take on the “miracle” of state sovereignty, offers the (counter) “miracle” presented by Franz Rosenzweig as displacing the norm-exception binary. When discussing the miracle of Bilaam’s “talking ass,” the animal who reveals human cruelty in NUMBERS 22:28, Honig cites Rosenzweig explaining that “All the days of the year...Bilaam’s talking ass may be a mere fairy tale, but not on the Sabbath,” and then explains more fully on her own the conditions under which this miracle might be said to occur:
that the hearer be in synagogue, on the Sabbath, on the specific Sabbath in which the portion of the Torah that is supposed to be read is the one containing the story of Bilaam’s ass, that the hearer be one of at least ten community members, in a community of similarly oriented hearers, that the reading not be theatrical, citational, or ironic, and so on and so forth. If these conditions are met, miracle may happen, which is to say, an event may be staged in which the human encounters the divine. If not, the hearer hears what can only strike him as . . . a fairy tale. (p.106)
Honig’s riff on the Rosenzweigian “miracle” resonates along and across cultural boundaries to include, for one of many examples, William Connolly’s suggestion of how a “militant electorate” might have interrupted everyday life at work and in the streets after BUSH v. GORE (p.108). Against “decisionist” approaches to state sovereignty, Honig issues this reminder: “the people when bound together can arrogate to themselves the rights of states” (p.111).

This possibility means, then, that for Honig there is no “doer behind the [sovereign] deed” (p.108), a move which makes “we the people” a potential force, but one which is at the same time entwined with the demands of everyday life. Honig gathers the threads of these carefully arranged chapters to distinguish her position on the international stage from Benhabib’s neo-Kantian cosmopolitanism. In this final chapter, entitled “Proximity,” she develops Rosenzweig’s duty of neighborly love in the direction of Derridian hospitality.

Derrida (2000:77) distinguishes, as an antinomy, unconditionally accepting unknown strangers and being more [*117] mindful of political boundaries (“conditional hospitality”). For Derrida, the law of unconditional hospitality reminds us that all borderlines mark the violence of their inscription, whereas the more familiar laws of conditional hospitality signify the necessity of drawing these inside-outside lines. His work addresses the “insoluble,” “non-dialectizable” and “antinomic” relation of these forms of hospitality.

Alerting us to the “heterogeneity” of these kinds of hospitality, Honig achieves a creative blend of Rosensweig and Derrida to build a case for “full hospitality to refugees and other nonimmigrant border crossers simply because they are here” (p.130). This requires taking a “both-and” approach to the (mere life) of democracy’s universal rights, agentic law, and faith in progress, on the one hand, and the (more life) infelicitous impurities of its counter-politics, on the other. Neither option – patrolling or ignoring borders – is obviously the right one, but under the right conditions keeping both options open carries the promise of a “miracle.”

And yet what happens to the “and” in the “both-and” relation of mere life and more life? Citing her award-winning earlier work, which also benefits from Derrida’s discussion of the “nuclear traits” of writing in general, Honig emphasizes what she calls “the force of rupture” (1993:95). But here we might ask if by privileging rupture on the horizon of meaning, Honig does not distract us from the violence of inscription which attends so much of our world-making, including neighborliness. Her work with “overliving” should be, I think, more attentive to all that exceeds the tension between mere life and more life. For example, when the hospitable Levite butchers his concubine in JUDGES 19:23-30 (cited by Derrida, 2000:154-55), does her violent death not haunt the “agonistic mutuality of mere life and more life” going on among the men? The double meaning of “survival,” designed to avoid stark contrast between mere life and more life, should not be exchanged too easily for the antinomic double meaning of hospitality. In other words, Honig’s work with Rosensweig and Derrida draws our attention to treating undocumented residents as citizens “because they are here.” But her inspired plea for hospitality must not allow us to forget possible violence on the part of citizens. Examples might include heteronormativity, imperialism, or overconsumption; in many cases, these forms of violence drive the newly arriving people from their homes in the first place.

Honig stands nevertheless in an enviable position to explicate the possibility of “miracles” and other “surprise extras” that can come from political life. Her wide reading, intellectual commitment to cross-cultural negotiation, and marked ability to explain her position clearly, combine to transform these “linked essays” (p.10) into a sustained argument for retrieving democracy. EMERGENCY POLITICS builds a compelling case for the twin motion of rupture and maintenance in any political experiment. Honig’s careful work enriches our understanding of democratic politics and asks us to remain vigilant after apparent political victories, while reflecting and perhaps acting upon what it means to look away when faced with impossible choices. [*118]

Derrida, Jacques 1985. “Deconstruction in America: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” edited by James Creech, Peggy Kamuf, and Jane Todd, CRITICAL EXCHANGE 17 (Winter 1985). Pp. 1-33.

Derrida, Jacques. 2000. OF HOSPITALITY. Standford University Press.

Honig, Bonnie. 1993. POLITICAL THEORY AND THE DISPLACEMENT OF POLITCS. Cornell University Press.

Honig, Bonne. 2001. DEMOCRACY AND THE FOREIGNER Stanford University Press.

Honig, Bonnie. Forthcoming. ANTIGONE, INTERRUPTED.

BUSH v. GORE 531 U.S. 98 (2000).

© Copyright 2010 by the author, William Corlett.