Bonnie Honig


Bonnie Honig

Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science

Mike Cohea/Brown University
Bonnie Honig’s work in media and modern culture draws on cinema, religious studies, law, classics, gender studies, and lots of other areas. Political science was her original discipline, and she stays in touch.

In practice, it’s a coherent, focused, and engaging scholarly enterprise. On paper, it’s an unusually broad set of interests that connects spaghetti westerns, the theology of miracles, immigration law, political theory, Sophocles’ Antigone, Slumdog Millionaire, gender studies, and more.

Where does all of that find a home?

“Many departments at universities have their own theoretical wings, but MCM was described to me as the hub of theory at Brown,” said Bonnie Honig, professor of modern culture and media and political science. “When I was asked what departments I wanted to be affiliated with, MCM seemed like the perfect place to do all the things I want to do — but without giving up on political science, which is my original discipline. I have a continuing loyalty there; those are the people I write for, contribute to, argue with.”

Her first academic position — teaching political science at Harvard — opened an early interest in film studies. “Trying to explain to undergraduates the idea of the law giver in Rousseau’s Social Contract made me reach for the genre of westerns, especially the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s,” Honig said. “A town is caught in factional politics and irresolvable conflict. A stranger arrives, and because he is an outsider he is able to return the town to justice – whether because he has an outsider’s perspective or because he has prowess with firearms, or both. These examples showed students they had a familiar way in to arguments like Rousseau’s. That is how it started and that led me later to incorporate film in more theoretical and scholarly ways in my work.”

Her 2009 book, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy, connected theories of sovereignty and political emergency with theological perspectives on miracles: political theology. One of the most prominent scholars in the field was Carl Schmitt, a jurist in Germany during the first half of the 20th century, who advanced the idea that states of exception — periods of war, natural disaster, martial law, when government temporarily assumes total control — actually reveal the true nature and substance of sovereign power.

“To deal with emergency politics, one has to deal with [Schmitt],” Honig said. “I was interested in finding other sources that could de-center Schmitt so that he wouldn’t be the only go-to person on emergency politics.”

Schmitt had drawn an analogy between states of exception and the theology of miracles — points in time when natural law is suspended and divine power is revealed with superb clarity. Honig found another view in the work of Franz Rosenzweig, a 20th-century Jewish theologian with whom Schmitt’s work was in dialogue. Rosenzweig held that divine power did not need to create an exception or violate laws of nature but was a constant presence, seen more intensely at times but not necessarily through a suspension of natural law.

“We have the option to analogize differently,” Honig said. “I suggested that if we had a different way of understanding the miracle, we might have a different way of understanding emergency politics.”

Her interests in gender studies, feminist theory, and the politics of civil disobedience came together in her recent work on Sophocles’ Antigone, a classical text that remains a law-school staple. Law had run amok in ancient Thebes, where the new ruler, Creon, had declared Polyneices a traitor and ordered his dead body to remain unburied. Antigone, niece of Creon and sister of Polyneices, chooses to violate Creon’s law and suffers the consequences.

“Because it’s a play in which a woman stands up to a male law giver, it’s a go-to text in feminist theory, and because it’s given a fairly extended treatment in Hegel’s Phenomenology, it’s also a founding text of Continental philosophy,” Honig said. “So it has a rich afterlife.”

That afterlife is central to the growing interest in reception studies among classics scholars. “To engage with the play is to have a sense of its efficacy in different disciplines and times,” Honig said. “How was it read in the different centuries? Why does it become popular at given moments? Reception studies is also interested in the play’s appearance in film and popular culture.”

While Honig is beginning her work at Brown this fall, she has a fairly long history with the campus. When she joined the Harvard faculty as a new political theorist (Ph.D., Johns Hopkins, 1989), Brown’s Pembroke Center’s conferences, seminars, and networking were valued supports to her interests in gender studies and feminist theory. She met Brown faculty and several postdoctoral researchers who are now valued colleagues.

And though it didn’t come up during her interviews, her association with Brown goes back even farther. As an undergraduate at Concordia University in Montreal, Honig had quite a bit of success in parliamentary debate. “In my last year there, my partner and I broke a record by winning three big tournaments in a row. I believe Brown was the third one. I still have my trophy. So I’ve had a positive relationship with Brown for a ridiculously long time.”

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