Bonnie Honig, Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science, Interim Director of the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women
The three Flexner Lectures will take place on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. in College Hall at Bryn Mawr College.
- Oct. 30: Inoperativity: Relaxation as Refusal — Bacchaes, with Agamben, Deleuze and Guattari
- Nov. 6: Inclination: Postures of Refusal — Antigones, with Cavarero
- Nov. 13: Imagination: Regicide as Refusal — Moby-Dick and the Bacchae, revisited, with Arendt and Foucault
Professor Bonnie Honig's precis: Theaters of Refusal
In a 1970 essay on “Civil Disobedience,” Hannah Arendt distinguishes the civil disobedient, who cares for the world and is willing to put herself at risk on its behalf, from the conscientious objector, who cares for her own conscience and withdraws from the world in order to avoid implication in evil or injustice. The former joins with others in collective action and acts to build the more just or more equal world they would like to inhabit. The latter acts, or does not act, alone: “The rules of conscience hinge on interest in the self. They say: Beware of doing something you will not be able to live with.” But the good man of conscience cannot provide the basis for a politics. “Good men become manifest only in emergencies,” which force them out into the open: “they suddenly appear as if from nowhere in all social strata. The good citizen, on the contrary, must be conspicuous.” Arendt proposes that civil disobedience should be de-criminalized and recognized, constitutionally, as part of the checks and balances of American democratic self-governance. For some critics, this shows how remediative rather than radical civil disobedience is.
Questions about the radical versus remediative nature of dissent are echoed in the new literature on “refusal” which refuses to engage (often citing Melville’s Bartleby who famously says he would “prefer not to”), arguing that giving reasons, seeking understanding, or accepting recognition — all practices of deliberation, exchange, or negotiation — merely absorb dissent back into dominant frames of thinking, representation, and power.
Can refusal be the basis of a politics that is less adamantly rejectionist? In my lectures, I look at an ancient Greek Tragedy, the Bacchae, in connection with three different contemporary political theoretical concepts of refusal: inoperativity (Agamben, with Deleuze and Guattari) inclination (Cavarero), democratic regicide (Arendt with Foucault). All three play a role in Euripides’ Bacchae, which has not yet been fully appreciated as a contribution to the canon of refusal. This connection is made more pronounced when we approach the Bacchae with other texts, dramas, and films, among them “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and A Question of Silence (Lecture One), Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex (Lecture Two) and Melville’s Moby-Dick (Lecture Three).
The lectures look at what happens when groups of ordinary (non)citizens challenge the status quo, seeking to exit, democratize, repair, or transform the current partition of the sensible. In all the texts, dramas, and films looked at in the lectures, a figure that stands for unquestioned obedience to law, order, or authority is challenged, killed, or overturned. This refusal is not always presented or intended as “democratic” but we may approach all these examples as parables for democracy which, as such, invite us to think through the dependence of democracy on leisure (lecture one’s work refusal), care (lecture two’s heterotopia), and aggression (lecture three’s regicide).
In the Bacchae, the women refuse work, abandon their city, Thebes, and establish a gynocentric heterotopia on a nearby mountaintop where they (i) relax and sleep (ii), adopt field animals in place of their children, left behind, thus rendering inoperative the binding strictures of (re)productivity, and (iii) murder the King. Lecture One focuses on relaxation as a kind of refusal, via Agamben’s account of inoperativity and via a reading of the Bacchae by Victoria Wohl that enlists Deleuze and Guattari. Lecture Two looks at heterotopias as a kind of refusal, via Cavarero’s account of inclination, which embraces the power of feminist separatism, maternity, and care. Lecture Three looks at regicide as refusal via Arendt’s and Foucault’s critiques of sovereignty and Melville’s account of its possible democratization in Moby-Dick.
One reason for my interest in the Bacchae is that the agency of refusal in the play is specifically female and diverse: the Theban women join up with bacchants who are said to come from the East. The women of the Bacchae act together, as actors in concert, to use Arendt’s term. But they are said to do so drunkenly, under the hypnotic spell of a foreign god, and so their agency is often dismissed. Alternatively, their uprising is depoliticized: when Agave returns to Thebes, she is reinterpellated into the roles she left behind — wife, mother, daughter — and the radical regicide that was led by her is thereby recast as a tragic filicide. (The murder of Pentheus, the King, is led by Agave, his mother, and his aunts, Ino and Autonoe. Pentheus is also Agave’s son). Thus, the crime against the King is made personal, not political. One of my interests in what follows is to track the myriad ways in which critics and interpreters of the texts that might make up the canon of refusal undermone women’s agency and refusal — via such personalization, but also pathologization, medicalization, and more.
These lectures honor Bryn Mawr’s distinguished history of performance and classics. In the 19th century, incoming freshmen had to have learned classical languages in order to gain admission. In the ritual Lantern Night, sophomores welcome freshmen with a song in Greek that praises Athena as a goddess of learning and initiation. This is all part of a 19th century tradition of Ladies’ Greek, traced by Yopie Prins in her book by that name. Euripides’ Bacchae is my central text in what follows and, when I deliver these lectures in the fall of 2017, I am aware I do so on a campus that hosted in 1935 a production of the Bacchae as part of the college’s 50th anniversary celebrations.