Recap: Bonnie Honig's Moffett Lecture "Fatal Forgiveness: Euripides, Austin, Cavell, Arendt"

Feb. 28, 2024

Bonnie Honig, the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science at Brown University, delivered the Fall 2023 James A. Moffett '29 Lecture in Ethics on "Fatal Forgiveness: Euripides, Austin, Cavell, Arendt."

What could J. L. Austin’s theory of performativity, Hannah Arendt’s account of political action, and Euripides’ Hippolytus ever have in common? That is precisely the question that Professor Bonnie Honig, Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science at Brown University, sought to explore in her riveting 2023 James A. Moffett ’29 Lecture in Ethics. Responding to the queer theory criticism that Austin’s account of performativity extolls a masculinist, heteronormative and sovereigntist form of subjectivity, Honig turns to Arendt’s account of political action as well as to Austin’s citation of Euripides’ Hippolytus in order to argue that a non-sovereigntist reading of Austin, one founded upon the speech-act of forgiveness, is indeed possible.

For Arendt, Honig argues, political action is action that appears in words, a definition that perfectly tracks Austin’s understanding of performativity. Unlike Austin, however, Arendt maintains that all manner of public actions can never be sovereign, insofar as they are riddled by unpredictability and contingency; often forcing individuals to reform these actions in front of plural others, even in front of those to whom certain promises have been made. As such, the release brought about by forgiveness becomes essential, as it allows society to go on despite broken oaths and promises. And while it is true, Honig admits, that Austin never explicitly discusses the speech-act of forgiveness or the (non)sovereign character of performativity, she argues that it is nevertheless possible to infer an invitation to do so from Austin’s citation of Euripides’ Hippolytus.

Central to the latter claim is Honig’s re-reading of Euripides’ Hippolytus, one that finds in the final scene of the play, against Bernard Knox’s classic interpretation of this scene as a performance of forgiveness that leads to “an affirmation of purely human values in an inhuman universe,” a “sad performative misfire of would-be forgiveness,” where father and son are incapable of escaping the transactional nature of their relationship. This re-reading, Honig tells us, is inspired in important ways by John Sahl’s classic film noir “Leave Her to Heaven,” starring Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent. Honig sees in Ellen Berent a Phaedra-type character that seeks to make herself intelligible to others; however, unlike Phaedra, Ellen never seeks respectability, or to live under the dictates of conventional femininity.

Forgiveness thus constitutes the process that alleviates the sovereignty effects of Austin’s speech act, democratizing it and rescuing it from queer theory critique. In this sense, for Honig, the turn to Arendt evokes the relationality that is inherent in all speech acts and that works against performativity’s sovereigntist impulses. A point that, Honig argues, while not explicitly acknowledged by Austin, is definitely hinted at in his citation of Euripides’ Hippolytus, which describes the scene that takes place between the nurse and Hippolytus, where the latter prods the former to share Phaedra’s secret with him. The nurse does so on the condition that Hippolytus agrees not to tell his father. Upon learning the secret, however, Hippolytus immediately disposes to take his word back arguing that while his tongue might have sworn his heart did not; a statement that motivates Austin to ask: “Are promises vacated if we didn’t mean what we said?” He immediately proceeds to eviscerate the possibility, arguing that it would imply treating speech acts as if they only described inner states, no longer doing anything. “Better to go with our word is our bond,” he concludes; an assertion that is eerily evocative, Honig contends, of Arendt’s claims on the relational character of speech acts.