Today’s Bright Idea comes from Professor Bonnie Honig. Professor Honig, also Senior Research Fellow at the American Bar Foundation and appointed (courtesy) at Northwestern Law School, is Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Political Science. Professor Honig’s work has appeared in the American Political Science Review, Political Theory, Strategies, Boston Review, Social Text, Social Research, and Triquarterly Review. She has written several books including, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Cornell, 1993; awarded 1994 Foundations Best First Book Prize), Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton, 2001), and Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton, 2009) which is the topic of today’s post. In short, Professor Honig challenges us to think about the interplay between democracy and emergency politics. Princeton has made the introduction available here as a pdf. In short, Professor’s investigation grew to encompass questions regarding “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.” She drew on Moses Mendelssohn, Franz Rosenzweig, and other Jewish thinkers to provide a way for us to think about these problems. Here is Professor Honig sharing some of her ideas about emergency politics and how the book evolved.
Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy
Emergencies isolate people and make them afraid. Democracy, more than law, postulates courage and collectivity. More to the point, it is not as if we can separate law and democracy, as critics of majoritarianism like to do. What is done in the name of law or its suspension also depends upon the (de)mobilization of democratic energies.
My aim in writing Emergency Politics was to give a more democratic rather than liberal perspective on emergency, to acknowledge the importance of law to the emergency situation (as a resource in combating political violence, as a protector of rights in times of political difficulty) but also to point out that the turn to law, while necessary, is not adequate to respond to the demands of emergency politics.
One of the framing ideas of the emergency politics literature comes from Carl Schmitt, the German legal theorist who became a Nazi jurist. Schmitt talked about emergency situations as a state of exception. This is not a lawless situation, he argued, but rather a paradoxical situation of lawful lawlessness, one in which ordinary law is lawfully suspended. Yet, as Clinton Rossiter points out in his book, Constitutional Dictatorship, most major democracies have such emergency provisions.
Emergencies are temporary by their nature, Schmitt argued, and the suspension of ordinary law will eventually end, also lawfully, and normal law restored. But the decisionistic structure of sovereignty is always there, in the shadows. One of the things centrally important to Schmitt is how in the extraordinary moment of emergency the real architecture of sovereignty becomes visible and the decision (sovereign discretion), always a factor in political life, is laid bare.
As I investigated Schmitt’s ideas, I noticed that Schmitt analogized his idea of the legal suspension of law to theology’s miracle. Miracle, he said, is the suspension of nature’s normal order by the god who created it. In miracle, god’s decisionistic power is revealed for all to see. Miracle interrupts the ordinary causal world but does not destroy it. The normal pattern of nature returns in miracle’s aftermath. While this is indeed a familiar view of miracle, it is not the only one. Other contending views of miracle have put pressure on this one. One contender comes from within the Judaic tradition. It was developed by Franz Rosenzweig, who, it turns out, was writing at the same time as Schmitt.