Bonnie Honig on the Promises of the Paradox of Politics, Linear Time, and Re-interpellation

I was introduced to Bonnie Honig‘s (Professor of Political Science, Brown University) work through Helene Slessarev-Jamir and the required readings for my religion and politics doctoral exam.  I’m using her writing in a presentation that I’ll be giving at AAR this year, in which I will relate her notion of paradox to the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Soren Kierkegaard (see my proposal here), and will also be incorporating some of the concepts below into my final dissertation chapter on “Neighborliness and Resistance.” Here is quote from her 2011 book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy:

emergency politicsIn order for there to be a people well formed enough for good lawmaking, there must be good law, for how else will the people be well formed? The problem is: Where would that good law come from absent an already well-formed, virtuous people?  But the seeming quandary of chicken-and-egg (which comes first, good people or good law?) takes off and attaches to democratic politics more generally once we see that established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names. Every day, after all, new citizens are born, others immigrate into established regimes, still others mature into adulthood. Every day, established citizens mistake, depart from, or simply differ about their visions of democracy’s future and the commitment of democratic citizenship. Every day the traces of the traumas of the founding generation are discernible in the actions of their heirs. Every day, democracies resocialize, recapture, or reinterpellate citizens into their political institutions and culture in ways those citizens do not freely will, nor could they. Every day, in sum, new citizens are received by established regimes, and every day established citizens are reinterpellated into the laws, norms, and expectations of their regimes such that the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time.

Indeed, the first thing to go, when we face the chicken-and-egg paradox of politics, is our confidence in linear time, its normativity and its form of causality. What is linear time’s normativity? Belief in a linear time sequence is invariably attended by belief that sequence is either regressive (a Fall narrative) or progressive. In both regressive and progressive time, the time sequence itself is seen to be structured by causal forces that establish meaningful, orderly connections between what comes before and what comes after (Decline and Rise), such that one thing leads to another rather than forming, as plural temporalities and tempos do, a random assemblage or jumble of events. All these elements — linearity, its normativity, causality — are thrown off balance by the paradox of politics in which what is presupposed as coming before (virtue, the people, the law) invariably comes after (if at all), and what comes after invariably replays the paradox of politics that time was supposed to surmount.

It might seem that acknowledging the vicious circularity of the paradox of politics must be costly to a democracy, or demoralizing: If the people do not exist as a prior — or even as a post hoc — unifying force, then what will authorize or legitimate their exercises of power? But there is, as we shall see, also promise in such an acknowledgement. Besides, denial is costly too, for we can deny or disguise the paradox of politics only by suppressing or naturalizing the exclusion of those (elements of the) people whose residual, remaindered, minoritized existence might call the pure general will into question. From the perspective of the paradox of politics, unchosen, unarticulated, or minoritized alternatives — different forms of life, identities, solidarities, sexes or genders, alternative categories of justice, unfamiliar tempos — re-present themselves to us daily, in one form or another, sometimes inchoate. The paradox of politics provides a lens through which to re-enliven those alternatives. It helps us see the lengths to which we go or are driven to insulate ourselves from the remainders of our settled paths. It keeps alive both the centripetal force whereby a people is formed or maintained as a unity and the centrifugal force where its other, the multitude, asserts itself (pp. 14-15).

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