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.
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Reviewed by Craig Hannaway, University of Durham (email@example.com)
Bonnie Honig’s Antigone Interrupted shows how central Sophocles’ play is to recent and current philosophical, political, cultural, psychoanalytical, and gender theory debates in Europe and the USA. The book is not primarily an analysis of these debates (though one learns a great deal about them along the way), but an attempt to make a striking intervention in them. Honig critiques a recent development in philosophical and political thought, which she calls ‘mortalist humanism’, a position which bases its political agenda on our shared finitude and vulnerability as human beings, and which is also a reaction to the state violence and divisiveness of the Bush-era, post 9/11. Honig worries that a ‘politics of lamentation’, emerging from mortalist humanism, easily slides into a ‘lamentation of politics’, which merely mourns the violence of the powerful (sovereignty) rather than dealing with it. On the contrary, writes Honig, sovereignty is something which must be countered, not merely lamented, in order to effect political change, and in this cause she attempts to dismantle the conventional image of Antigone, deeply involved in these debates, as an icon of mourning and familial piety, which has been evoked in the context of political protest groups such as the Madres of the Plaza in Argentina and the ‘peace-moms’ in the USA.
The critical tool that Honig employs, and in which she is most interested at a political level, is interruption. In the course of her argument she interrupts the concepts and narratives of philosophers, film-makers, critics, cultural theorists, feminists, gender theorists, and political campaigners. According to Honig, our reading of Antigone is always already determined by the history of its receptions, which, made into natural, consensual readings by their iteration, prevent us from seeing its other, politically creative possibilities. In the service of this idea she is also prepared to interrupt herself on occasion, changing direction or strategy, making an alternative reading, or even a complete reversal.
In Part One, ‘Interruption’, Honig attempts to reconfigure Antigone within an alternative political and philosophical narrative which she terms ‘agonistic humanism’: which she sees as the third option between anti-humanism and the new ‘mortalist’ humanism. As well as grief, she writes, there is pleasure; it is physical pleasure which eventually ‘interrupts’ grief, or ‘persuades’ us (Freud’s word) to leave it behind. The agonistic relationship between grief and pleasure (or gastêr and thumos, as she puts it) for Honig has political implications, and influences her reading of Antigone. There is a danger, she writes, that the mortalist humanists who look to the universalized, mournful Antigone as an exemplary figure are smoothing over competing political viewpoints: there are arguments we need to have, and arguments about Antigone we need to have. Conversely, she also wants to rescue the humanity of Lacan's interpretation of her as a death-obsessed sacred- monster of pure desire. The reader will need to be familiar with the history and terminology of the intense nineteenth and twentieth-century debates on Antigone, from Hegel to Irigaray, in order to make sense of Honig's argument. Miriam Leonard's Athens in Paris would be a good primer for Honig, as well as being an important book in its own right. 1
Part Two, ‘Conspiracy’, is devoted to Honig’s own reading of the play, setting her reading within her political argument about the need to put the politics back into lamentation. Putting the play into historical context, she relates the struggle between Antigone and Creon to the civic struggle over funerary practice in fifth-century Athens. She tries to resolve Antigone’s irreconcilable commitment to both the uniqueness of Polynices and the equality of the dead by relating it to the concepts of phônê and logos. She advocates conspiracy in
Introduction to Part I
feminist theory and the turn
the directors agon in Germany
Introduction to Part II
Antigones conspiracy with language