Bonnie H. Honig Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science

Bonnie Honig is Nancy Duke Lewis Professor in the departments of Modern Culture and Media (MCM) and Political Science. She is author of Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Cornell, 1993), Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton, 2001), Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton, 2009) and Antigone, Interrupted. (Cambridge University Press, 2013). She has edited or co-edited: Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt (Penn State, 1995), Skepticism, Individuality and Freedom: The Reluctant Liberalism of Richard Flathman (Minnesota, 2002) and the Oxford Handbook of Political Thought (Oxford, 2006) and her work has been translated into Swedish, Spanish, Italian, French, Greek, and Japanese.
She is currently at work on a new project called Public Things

Brown Affiliations

research overview

Public things' role in politics and public life. This interest is occasioned by the contemporary neoliberal impulse to privatize everything and the difficulty, in such a context, of preserving public things and of articulating the importance of public things to democratic life.
Where so many democratic theorists focus on the importance of the demos to democracy, theorizing the terms of inclusion, identity, or nation, I am drawn more to the idea of the importance of objects to democracy.

research statement

Public Things
I am interested in thinking about things and their role in politics and public life. This interest is occasioned by the contemporary neoliberal impulse to privatize everything and the difficulty, in such a context, of preserving public things and of articulating the importance of public things to democratic life.

Where so many democratic theorists focus on the importance of the demos to democracy, theorizing the terms of inclusion, identity, or nation, I am drawn more to the idea of the importance of objects to democracy. AS we know from D.W. Winnicott, subjectivity itself postulates objects, it emerges in relation to objects which enable the transition from one developmental stage to another, from private to public and from self to other. What if democracy is rooted in common love for, and contestation of, shared objects?

Antigone, Interrupted
Sophocles' Antigone is a touchstone in democratic, feminist and legal theory, and possibly the most commented upon play in the history of philosophy and political theory. Bonnie Honig's rereading of it therefore involves intervening in a host of literatures and unsettling many of their governing assumptions. Exploring the power of Antigone in a variety of political, cultural, and theoretical settings, Honig identifies the 'Antigone-effect' - which moves those who enlist Antigone for their politics from activism into lamentation. She argues that Antigone's own lamentations can be seen not just as signs of dissidence but rather as markers of a rival world view with its own sovereignty and vitality. Honig argues that the play does not offer simply a model for resistance politics or 'equal dignity in death', but a more positive politics of counter-sovereignty and solidarity which emphasizes equality in life.

This book intervenes in contemporary debates about the threat posed to democratic life by political emergencies. Must emergency necessarily enhance and centralize top-down forms of sovereignty? Those who oppose executive branch enhancement often turn instead to law, insisting on the sovereignty of the rule of law or demanding that law rather than force be used to resolve conflicts with enemies. But are these the only options? Or are there more democratic ways to respond to invocations of emergency politics? Looking at how emergencies in the past and present have shaped the development of democracy, Bonnie Honig argues that democracies must resist emergency's pull to focus on life's necessities (food, security, and bare essentials) because these tend to privatize and isolate citizens rather than bring us together on behalf of hopeful futures. Emphasizing the connections between mere life and more life, emergence and emergency, Honig argues that emergencies call us to attend anew to a neglected paradox of democratic politics: that we need good citizens with aspirational ideals to make good politics while we need good politics to infuse citizens with idealism.

Emergency Politics:Paradox, Law, Democracy
Honig takes a broad approach to emergency, considering immigration politics, new rights claims, contemporary food politics and the infrastructure of consumption, and the limits of law during the Red Scare of the early twentieth century. Taking its bearings from Moses Mendelssohn, Franz Rosenzweig, and other Jewish thinkers, this is a major contribution to modern thought about the challenges and risks of democratic orientation and action in response to emergency.

Democracy and the Foreigner
What should we do about foreigners? Should we try to make them more like us or keep them at bay to protect our democracy, our culture, our well-being? This dilemma underlies age-old debates about immigration, citizenship, and national identity that are strikingly relevant today. In "Democracy and the Foreigner, Bonnie Honig reverses the question: What problems might foreigners solve for us? Hers is not a conventional approach. Instead of lauding the achievements of individual foreigners, she probes a much larger issue--the symbolic politics of foreignness. In doing so she shows not only how our debates over foreignness help shore up our national or democratic identities, but how anxieties endemic to liberal democracy themselves animate ambivalence toward foreignness.

Central to Honig's arguments are stories featuring ''foreign-founders, '' in which the origins or revitalization of a people depend upon a foreigner's energy, virtue, insight, or law. From such popular movies as "The Wizard of Oz, Shane, and "Strictly Ballroom to the biblical stories of Moses and Ruth to the myth of an immigrant America, from Rousseau to Freud, foreignness is represented not just as a threat but as a supplement for communities periodically requiring renewal. Why? Why do people tell stories in which their societies are dependent on strangers?

One of Honig's most surprising conclusions is that an appreciation of the role of foreigners in (re)founding peoples works neither solely as a cosmopolitan nor a nationalist resource. For example, in America, nationalists see one archetypal foreign-founder--the naturalized immigrant--as reconfirming the allure of deeply held American values, whereas to cosmopolitansthis immigrant represents the deeply transnational character of American democracy. Scholars and students of political theory, and all those concerned with the dilemmas democracy faces in accommodating difference, will find this book rich with valuable and stimulating insights.

Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics
In this book, Bonnie Honig rethinks that established relation between politics and political theory. From liberal to communitarian to republican, political theorists of opposing positions often treat political theory less as an exploration of politics than as a series of devices of its displacement. Honig characterizes Kant, Rawls, and Sandel as virtue theorists of politics, arguing that they rely on principles of right, rationality, community, and law to protect their political theories from the conflict and uncertainty of political reality. Drawing on Nietzsche and Arendt, as well as Machiavelli and Derrida, Honig explores an alternative politics of virtù, which treats the disruptions of political order as valued sites of democratic freedom and individuality.