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Fatal Forgiveness: Euripides, Austin, Cavell, Arendt

Bonnie Honig, Brown University,

October 26, 2023 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 101 Friend Center

University Center for Human Values

The Moffett Lecture Series aims to foster reflection about moral issues in public life, broadly construed, at either a theoretical or a practical level, and in the history of thought about these issues. The series is made possible by a gift from the Whitehall Foundation in honor of James A. Moffett ’29.

Abstract: Are today’s “Oath Keepers” descendants of Euripides’ Hippolytus, whose titular hero is himself an oath keeper extraordinaire? This lecture explores classical and contemporary connections between oath-keeping and masculinity, attending to the politics of sex/gender in connection with Hippolytus and Phaedra, and reading the Hippolytus as noir. The Hippolytus is all about words, and it is a veritable treasure trove of performativity, featuring not only oaths, but also vows of silence taken, promises made, and sentencing delivered. The most important of these is Hippolytus’ final forgiveness of his father, Theseus, for a lifetime of wrongs, which—like the play as a whole—spans performative utterance, as theorized by J.L. Austin, and the passionate utterance with which Austin’s student Stanley Cavell supplemented the work of his teacher. Might Hannah Arendt’s account of forgiveness in The Human Condition help clarify the status of forgiveness as performative, passionate, both, or neither? The lecture concludes by returning to Euripides, to consider the possible fatality of forgiveness, and its implications for ethics and politics.

Bonnie Honig is the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor, Political Science and Modern Culture and Media (MCM), and co-director of the Democracy Project, Brown University; she is an affiliate at the American Bar Foundation, Chicago. Honig’s work in democratic and feminist theory studies the cultural politics of immigration (Democracy and the Foreigner, Princeton, 2001), emergency (Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy, Princeton, 2009), mourning (Antigone, Interrupted, Cambridge, 2013) and refusal (A Feminist Theory of Refusal, Harvard, 2021). Her book Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair (Fordham, 2017) came out days after Trump’s 2017 inauguration and her first piece of public writing about that presidency, “The President’s House is Empty,” appeared on that inauguration day in the Boston Review. A collection of her public writing, Shell Shocked: Feminist Criticism After Trump, appeared with Fordham in 2021. In 2023, her first book, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, was re-published as a 30th-anniversary edition by Cornell University Press.

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