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  • Unsettling Democracy – Honig’s Emergency Politics
  • Jill Stauffer (bio)
Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2009. $22.95 (paper), $39.95 (cloth). 197 pp. ISBN: 0691152594

Bonnie Honig wants a miracle, and she wants it now. It’s not that she’s impatient, but rather that, as she argues in Emergency Politics, identifying miracles and showing how to act on their behalf is the task of democratic theory. A miracle is a rupture in the present moment that makes a better future possible. Our job—if we care about democratic theory and democracy—is “to identify such breaks where we can, explore the conditions of orientation and preparation by way of which [it is] best to receive or agitate for them, diagnose the reasons for our frequent unavailability to such breaks when they do occur, and work to prolong them and make them part of our everyday life” (140). Honig exhorts us to accept the risks that come with plurality, take up the responsibility democracy entails, and act together with others to make politics responsive and meaningful—and she does this in various ways. A collection of essays rather than a single-topic argument, Emergency Politics takes on theories of democratic legitimation, emergency and sovereignty, bureaucratic and judicial discretion, deliberative democracy and cosmopolitanism, all in a brisk and engaging 140 pages.

She begins by exploring possibilities opened to us if the term “emergency” does not take its meaning from Schmitt or Agamben. The Schmittian term leads those who inherit it to think about emergency in ways that focus on “mere life”—survival—and for good reason, perhaps, as emergencies sometimes are life-and-death situations. After survival, political theory and legal practice tend to approach emergency in terms of justification: what kind of response does this emergency justify? Can and should law be legally suspended, torture authorized, infringements on liberty normalized, countries invaded, and so on? The questions are important. And yet, that approach, Honig reminds us, can solidify an account of sovereignty that we might also aim to modify. When we take a problem to court, we speak of rules and procedures for emergency, addressing our arguments to judges and administrators. But, Honig advises:

When we treat sovereignty as if it is top down and yet governable by norms we affirm, we help marginalize rather than empower important alternatives, such as forms of popular sovereignty in which action in concert rather than institutional governance is the mark of democratic power and legitimacy


The view of sovereignty as top-down is even prone to experiencing “the political” itself as crisis (because political life just is made up of contingencies—emergence), and then responding to political situations in crisis mode (emergency), when a different view of sovereignty would approach the same situation with measures appropriate to the plurality and agonism of democratic politics.

Meanwhile, the justificatory mode, of seeking to determine in conclusive fashion what response emergency authorizes, writes in black and white a scene of infinite grey. Honig argues that most emergency situations are tragic in the sense Bernard Williams develops in his moral theory: there is no unqualified right answer, but something must be done, as even not-acting leaves one responsible. Here the difference between “mere life” and “more life” that runs throughout Emergency Politics asserts itself. For Honig survival is not merely about harming others to save the self; it is about choosing, out of differing regrettable options, the one that the self is most able to live with without losing itself. If survival is not about “mere life”—simply staying alive—but rather is about “more life,” a life lived well, then our idea of survival must incorporate what comes next: living on after the decision is made. That matters because choices, made by selves, also produce selves by defining them in the wake of a decision. The ticking time bomb scenario assumed in many emergency decisions asserts a false dilemma: we must either torture someone to locate a bomb or be destroyed. But human and political relations rarely offer a field made only of two stark alternatives. Honig points out: “governments often claim to have no choice when the facts...

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