Reassuring Democracy

Sylvette Babin
Or perhaps capitalism, modern democracy’s nonidentical birth twin and always the more robust and wily of the two, has finally reduced democracy to a “brand,” a late modern twist on commodity fetishism that wholly severs a product’s salable image from its content.
— Wendy Brown

The idea of democracy is reassuring. It evokes a sense of justice and helps give the impression that citizens are an integral part of power, that their voices are heard, and that their rights and freedoms are represented. Reality, however, shows us that far from belonging to the people, power rests in the hands of a few CEOs and owners of corporations. In Democracy in What State?, a multi-authored collection of essays published in 2011, Wendy Brown reminds us that “if corporate power has long abraded the promise and practices of popular political rule, that process has now reached an unprecedented pitch.”1 1 - Wendy Brown, “We Are All Democrats Now…” in Democracy in What State?, Giorgio Agamben et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 46. Five years later, the American presidential election and the methods of the new government have amplified this reality even further.

In the face of the great upheavals of democracy, can art still play a critical role? By formulating the question, we are obliged to consider the eventuality of a negative answer or at the very least to reflect on the validity of artistic attempts to prevent the erosion of democratic values. For if capitalism “has finally reduced democracy to a ‘brand,’” it may be that culture, also subject to market logic, faces setbacks. Marc James Léger opens the feature section by asking whether art has become an aspect of neoliberal governance or whether the aesthetic resistance to capitalism has simply died out. Konstantinos Koutras puts forward the idea that critical art is based on pedagogical motives that are incompatible with democracy, since despite the objectives of social equality, pedagogy reproduces the hierarchical relationship of the master — student dynamic. While these assertions reveal a certain skepticism with regard to art’s power to bring about societal changes, our intention is not to invalidate art’s critical or subversive potential. On the contrary, by bringing together multiple, open, and possibly divergent positions, the feature section addresses the urgent need to better understand art’s role in the current political context in order to potentially foster a desire to participate in a new democracy. One cannot engage in such thinking without calling into question the neoliberal hegemony reproduced by political and cultural institutions and, by extension, becoming aware of the various forms of systemic discrimination. This is what Justine Kohleal proposes by addressing the phenomenon of (white) spatiality, namely the existence of an invisible centre that, despite the attempts made to include racialized persons, contributes to serving the values of whiteness. These ideas are further explored outside the feature section in a review of Amandine Gay’s film Speak Up/Make Your Way.

Speaking out is certainly a key element of a functioning democracy, sometimes to the detriment of listening. Lamenting politicians’ lack of a dialogical ethics, Anik Fournier analyzes the interdependence of speaking and listening by relying on works and artists who make active listening a central concern. Along the same lines, Didier Morelli’s critical analysis of the reperforming of Lygia Pape’s 1968 work Divisor (Divider), which was created in the context of Brazil’s military dictatorship, explores the notions of community and the march as a “kinaesthesia of protest.” The re-enacting of this march on Madison Avenue in New York, along a contained and supervised route sponsored by the Business Improvement District, clearly raises questions about reclaiming political works for the benefit of spectacle. Yet the idea of the rally inherent in this action, this “choreographed collective movement” that suggests eventual revolt, persists. This is connected to the concept of the swarm, which Georges Didi-Huberman explores at the end of the feature section: “As a model of collective intelligence without hierarchy, the swarm offers a model for revolt and, even more importantly, for all types of urban guerrilla warfare.” Admittedly, the author subsequently reminds us that this model is possibly an illusion, that the swarm as a formation (in the military sense of the term) has been taken up as a strategy even by major contemporary industries, and that it is difficult to apply it to the notion of community. However, we could choose to believe that all concepts and metaphors belong to those who employ them and that, ultimately, the strength of our rallies, revolts, and democracy rests, above all, in our willingness to act. After all, in the words of Didi-Huberman, “life belongs to us if we succeed in constituting or, rather, “self-instituting” the we as such: as a relationship between subjects that is founded on a freely chosen with.”

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

This article also appears in the issue 92 - Democracy

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