- Recovering the Political
Much of Western political theory has been predicated upon what now can be recognized as an ungrounded teleological assumption. Thinkers as diverse as Plato, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, and Marx have relied, explicitly or implicitly, on the belief that there is some set of political and social arrangements most conducive to the maximization of human well-being and happiness. With the discovery and installation of these arrangements, each individual member of society would be able to experience the freedom, community, social harmony, material well-being, and opportunities for self-realization that are inscribed as possibilities or teloi upon the human condition. The enterprise of political theory thus became a struggle to craft an ideal blueprint for achieving such a society, the practical possibility of which is vouchsafed by some additional hypotheses about what a human being is and how the world works. These additional hypotheses are variously expressed in the form of philosophical truth, [End Page 700] science, faith, natural law, laws of economics, the nature of human rationality, laws of history, and so forth, depending on their substantive source, apparent self-evidence, and potential enforceability to the theorist in question.
Bonnie Honig’s illuminating and disquieting book provides an acute and much-needed analysis of some of the consequences and implications of this teleological assumption for contemporary political theory and, more generally, for the ways in which people tend to conceive of politics. Indeed, Honig argues that politics itself, at least insofar as it entails or expresses ultimately irreducible conflict, dissonance, resistance, and agonal struggle, has largely been displaced from or written out of political theory. Other writers, notably Benjamin Barber, John Gunnell, John Dunn, and William Connolly have expressed somewhat similar concerns, 1 but no one has pursued this particular line of analysis quite so far or so well as has Honig.
“Virtue theories” of politics, as she calls them, attempt to confine or reduce politics to “the juridical, administrative, or regulative tasks of stabilizing moral and political subjects, building consensus, maintaining agreements, or consolidating communities and identities” (27). This transformation of politics produces unfortunate consequences on at least two levels: Those elements of society that do not quite fit, and would tend to disrupt, the desired pattern of social harmony, the Derridean “remainders” ill-suited for living according to the blueprint in question, typically must be expelled, marginalized, criminalized, cured, corrected, educated, or otherwise contained. Various repressive mechanisms become necessary to enforce and safeguard the prevailing order from those who do not fit. On the individual level, those rogue impulses, qualities, and aspects of the self that are incompatible with the desired form of subjectivity must be constantly monitored and disciplined. Each blueprint requires and specifies a particular type of building material; through various disciplinary techniques and self-surveillance, all properly socialized individuals conform to accepted and ultimately homogeneous modes of subjectivity. Those who cannot or will not conform become the largely excludable remainders that are dealt with on the social level.
For Honig, it is precisely this concern with fittedness, alternately assumed and enforced, that is depoliticizing. In contrast, “virtù theory” (as exemplified by Nietzsche and, by means of a somewhat more selective reading, Hannah Arendt 2 ) is acutely aware of the inevitable tendency of the human organization of life to produce remainders. No political or social [End Page 701] system will perfectly accommodate the dreams, yearnings, impulses, aspirations, and resentments of all those who live under it. In much the same way, no stable, sedimented identity can adequately express or contain all the facets and qualities of the underlying self. Organization enables forms of life that could not otherwise exist, but it also requires repression by its very nature. And this repression is a quintessential source of human suffering and resentment.
The great virtue of virtù theory, so to speak, is that it does not seek the sorts of closure that repress otherness. Politics and identity formation are better conceived as fluid, ongoing processes. Subjects and societies are always in a state of becoming...