Archive for Democracy

Chapter from my dissertation: The Declaration of Future Democracy

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 3 March 2013 by Ben

Another text from the archives, a more complete and wide-ranging version of the MLA paper I posted last week. This was the dissertation chapter form which that paper was culled. This was the third chapter in the diss, following from a long discussion of Octavia Butler’s Kindred in chapter one (published in somewhat different form in Science Fiction Studies) and a discussion of politics and science in the context of Stuart Kauffman’s theory of complexity in chapter two (published in Configurations–my first ever publication! Thanks Jim Bono, Hugh Crawford, and Mark Hansen!). Chapter four dealt with the problem of the monster and offered a conceptualization of wonder.

For the most part, I don’t like my dissertation as a dissertation. It’s all over the place, and this chapter is sort of a microcosm of that all-over-the-placeness (it’s a word). I do like a lot of things I say, and I do like my attempt to draw together theories of democracy and violence from Agamben, Schmitt, Benjamin, Deleuze, Derrida, and others with literature by DeLillo, Coupland, Gibson and others. Also here is Battle of Algiers and Syriana as well as Robert Baer’s See No Evil, upon which Syriana was based. Oh, also: Thoreau and the Declaration of Independence.

I appear to myself, six or seven years later, a much less mature writer. So many block quotes here, which appear to me now as a mask for misunderstanding. I could not discuss or deploy these texts effectively, so I let them speak for themselves far too often and only addressed what I wanted to. In any case, not sure my readings of these texts hold up under scrutiny. Rather, I am pretty sure that my readings of individual texts hold up (simple as they are), but that these texts don’t play as nicely with each other as I might want them to, or believe them to. I am not sure how I feel about that now. I find being RIGHT so uninteresting, and abhor debates about what so-and-so REALLY means a waste of time. As such, if these texts don’t play well together, on some deeper level that only a proper close reading can find and address, then I am not sure I care.

The Declaration of Future Democracy

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, begun at a distinguished period and pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government.1

—The Declaration of Independence



In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau reiterates Jefferson’s claim that when the situation warrants, citizens have the right to change their government: “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable” (389). However, what Thoreau is able to accomplish in his essay is not simply an affirmation of the right to revolution, but an expansion of Jefferson’s argument. For Thoreau, while political processes must include revolution (or at least its possibility), he also understands that not all decisions involve the dissolution and recreation of government. Thus the right to revolution becomes for him the right to make political decisions, specifically the right to decide upon slavery and the Mexican-American War. The problem, of course, is that while “all men” might recognize the “right to revolution” cum the “right to decide,” they will not all agree upon the proper moment for such decisions or even what decisions should be made and how.

To overcome this problem, democracy asks citizens to express their desires first in deliberation and then through their vote, with the majority awarded the right to make decisions (or the majority’s decision being enforced). However, for Thoreau, the ends reached via this method (what Kaufmann would call consensus) are not satisfactory:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. (386-87)

The important aspect of Thoreau’s claim is not the notion of “might makes right” (what Jacques Derrida calls “the reason of the strongest”2). Thoreau does not mean here simply that a majority of citizens can forcefully execute their will upon a minority, as in a physical confrontation. What is important in Thoreau’s argument is the implicit claim that decisions cannot be rightfully made on the basis of the deliberation and agreement of the majority, but through an appeal to conscience. In that conscience is for Thoreau only found in the individual and never in groups (unless the groups are comprised of conscientious individuals acting in their capacity as conscientious individuals), the decision making process he advocates is, it would appear, fundamentally undemocratic. It is the purpose of this chapter to explain what Thoreau means as well as to explain the necessary non-democratic aspects of the democratic process.

We should not misinterpret what Thoreau means by “conscience,” or, rather, underestimate such a faculty. While conscience here retains its common meaning of a “moral sense” by which we determine right from wrong, it is not relativistic. The last line of the above passage informs this reading. There Thoreau seems to state that obligations are taken on through a choice, well-informed or otherwise. However, in the previous sentence he contrasts “law” with “right.” If we understand “right” in the context of chapter two, as a power coextensive with its exercise, then we must also understand that such rights are not simply taken on or left aside through a choice, but are obligations in the strongest sense of the term. So to follow conscience, or more appropriately to have a conscience, is to always do what one thinks is right. More specifically, to have a conscience is to use that conscience to the extent that one cannot do anything but what is right.

The difficulty for democracy, according to Thoreau, is that while individuals can and do make use of their consciences, groups of people, taken in total, lose their ability to distinguish between right and wrong, a fact that is demonstrated during voting procedures.

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote. (392)

That there is an election day once per year does less to afford right action than it does to obfuscate the structuring of action in a specific form. Along with Thoreau, thinkers as historically and politically diverse as Alexis de Toqueville, Carl Schmitt, and Derrida have made clear that voting is not what is important for democracy. What is clear, and here we must extend Thoreau’s discussion of this issue, is that voting, while necessary, is action in a form dictated by the state. It is rationality applied to human action, the naturalization of what Thoreau calls conscience. In that it is the design of a group rather than an individual, it is not guaranteed to be in the right. In that it operates according to juridical structures, it is manipuable in the manner of the history described in chapter one. I do not mean to suggest that elections can be bought or that elections are fraudulent (although both cases are sometimes true). Rather, what I would like to consider is the manner in which the juridical impinges upon the natural, how law (and the representations surrounding it) constrains right.

Most importantly, what I would like to offer is an analysis of the manner in which right must be brought to bear in the name of law, how juridical structures, how democratic institutions, can only ever be effectively democratic by allowing that which is not democratic to influence their behaviors. This statement is no doubt one that will cause concern, and I would like to be able to address it immediately. However, in order to do so effectively I will first turn to a further discussion of right in the context of democracy in order to demonstrate the tenuous legitimacy of democracy itself as well as the problematic legitimation it affords.

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MLA 07 Paper: Sameness or, the Declaration of Futuristic Democracy

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 24 February 2013 by Ben

Another one from the vaults. Although I am certain that I am making mistakes in my readings of the various thinkers I engage here, I am nevertheless rather proud of this paper, which was easily the most well-received of any paper I have ever given. It is also much more coherent. I must have put a lot more effort into conference papers back then.


My plans for this paper initially included a formulation of a theory of declaration, a means by which to break the Sameness of the endless present, a means of destroying extant relationships, especially those that involve asymmetrical power. In fact, this declaration was to posit a means by which asymmetrical power can become symmetrical, much in the manner that Thoreau claims that a single just man can stand up to the power of the state and disrupt its hegemony. However, what I discovered in my thinking was that, far from interrupting Sameness, declaration, as it is understood historically and in the context of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, far from being that which interrupts Sameness and inaugurates the future, is that which produces Sameness. It is thus, in my argument, an agent of the futuristic, a false future that is merely an extrapolation from the present. This paper is about this issue.

Throughout his work Giorgio Agamben returns to Aristotle’s conception of the ground, that formulation through which things are categorized. As he puts it in The Open, in reference to a passage from De anima, “Here we see at work that principal of foundation which constitutes the strategic device par excellance of Aristotle’s thought. It consists in reformulating every question concerning ‘what something is’ as a question concerning ‘through what something belongs to another thing’” (14). Following from his attention to the Aristotelian ground, Agamben is concerned in much of his work on biopolitics with the question of inclusion and exclusion and the role it plays in the modern nation-state.

Similarly, Carl Schmitt turns to Aristotle in the preface to the second edition of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, where he first notes that the notion of government by discussion, parliamentarianism, belongs not to democracy but, rather, to liberalism, a concept that Schmitt distinguishes from democracy. Writes Schmitt, cribbing from Aristotle’s Politics, “Every actual democracy rests on the principal that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity” (9). Building upon his claim, Schmitt populates this equation with what, for Agamben and this paper, are problematic terms when he states that a “democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity” (9). Schmitt would elaborate this distinction between the interior that is equal and the exterior that is not in The Concept of the Political, where he claims that the primary political opposition is that between friend and enemy. Agamben’s work marks a decisive turning away from Schmitt’s categories characterized by a reading of Aristotle that demonstrates the primacy of the formulation of the ground rather than the appearance of any particular instantiation of that formula. The significance of this turning away will become evident in the course of this paper.

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