- A Politics of Interruption: Honig’s Antigone, Interrupted
Bonnie Honig’s Antigone, Interrupted makes three major contributions to political theory, any one of which would recommend it but which taken together should make the book required reading for all political theorists interested in historically-engaged political theorizing, democratic theory, and radical politics. First, Honig intervenes in contemporary reception studies, showing how interpreters of Sophocles’ Antigone take for granted the frames and genres of interpretation they deploy, thereby depoliticizing the politics of reception around the play. Second, Honig crafts her own “conspiratorial reading” of the play, finding moments of political possibility through an attentive and imaginative dramaturgical reconstruction of Antigone; this introduces a radical hermeneutic fecund for envisioning new languages and forms of political solidarity. Finally, Honig develops the concept of interruption for both politics and political theory. This concept extends Honig’s agonistic approach to democratic theory while also providing a lens for understanding the politics of mourning today.
Whereas work in the history of political thought has long worried about problems of interpretation, Honig changes the conversation by introducing reception studies into political theory.1 Reception studies essentially flips the question of interpretation. Rather than starting with the work to talk about its meaning, we must start with ourselves: How have we adapted this work to fit our times? How then might we resist these adaptations and win something new from the work? Fidelity consists not so much in recovering buried truths but rather revivifying the work for the present. We must avoid, to paraphrase Nietzsche, arranging the ‘Eroica’ Symphony for two flutes for the entertainment of drowsy opium smokers.2 Instead, history must be for action and for life; receptions should speak to the present.
Situating herself within receptions of Sophocles’ Antigone, Honig challenges the dominant frames and genres of interpretation in the name of “decaptivation and, ultimately, recaptivation” (2)3 — disabusing us of the inherited approaches to the play in order to revitalize it for democratic life in the twenty-first century. Foremost among these inherited approaches stands what Honig calls the “Antigone versus Oedipus” frame, which has held special influence within feminist theory. Breaking with the Oedipal frame for theorizing politics, Jean Bethke Elshtain and Judith Butler have both used Antigone to authorize and politicize feminism against the state, taking Antigone as an exemplary lamenter who stands for a universal ethics of humanism. Yet as Diane Taylor has pointed out, Antigone is not the perfect script: the universalization of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for example, has led them to be placed above or beyond politics; Antigone framed as a lesson on universal maternal fragility thus depoliticizes lamentation and mourning.
The depoliticizing consequences of a humanist frame for reading Antigone appear especially in the work of Judith Butler. While in Antigone’s Claim Butler had seen Antigone as “the occasion for a new field of the human” (49), by Precarious Life Butler loses her emphasis on contesting regnant structures of intelligibility (and its concomitant quest for sovereignty). Instead, in Precarious Life Butler shows how lamentation points away from sovereignty and toward vulnerability and mortality, common traits that limn a more general conception of the human. Ironically, Antigone pulls thinkers like Butler and Elshtain away from politics despite the initial attraction to Antigone’s efforts to claim sovereignty against Creon.
To “decaptivate” us from this approach, Honig shows how humanism is implicated in the political divisions it claims to transcend, arguing that “an ethics of mortality and suffering is no adequate replacement for a (post)humanist politics with agonistic intent” (17). Mortalist humanism focuses on shared mourning rather than shared feasting, but Antigone acts in ways that promote life and not just death: she plots, conspires, and maneuvers; she is “embroiled in burial, kinship, and polis politics” (21). Moreover, because of its entrapment in the “Antigone versus Oedipus” paradigm, the mortalist frame can only see Antigone as a lonely heroine and thus remains blind to the politicality of lamentation, the way in which the work of mourning is intertwined with a quest for sovereignty. Antigone’s...