Democracy

Democracy is the name that has been assigned to a dream as well as to certain already existing realities that are lived, by many people, as a nightmare. The dream is of government by the people, government in which the common people hold sway; in which the dispensation of the commons—“the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange” that Karl Marx called wealth—is collectively determined; in which the trace of any enclosure of the commons is an object of the severest vigilance, since such dispensation will have been understood as ending not in tragedy but in romance (Marx [1858] 1993, 488; Hardin 1968). This is the fantasy of democracy as fantasy, as the contrapuntal arrangement of the many voices of the whole. The materialization of this dream will have been real democracy.

Authority in democracy can be exercised directly, in the immediate participation of each member of a given polity, or it can be ceded to representatives of the people, mediated not only by an individual person but also by whatever persons, codes, forms, and structures constitute the mode in which a representative is chosen. Every element that intervenes between the commons and authority carries with it a danger for the democracy to come; every idea and procedure that limits or circumscribes common participation is, similarly, a danger. And of the myriad ways in which the democratic dream is deferred and direct participation eclipsed, the most important are those in which the consent of the governed is manufactured by governors and boards of governors in the name of saving already existing democracy. When considering “democracy” as a keyword in culture and cultural studies in the United States, one must come to grips with the severity of the difference between what exists and what is yet to come under the name of democracy while inhabiting a state that constantly announces itself to be democracy’s very incarnation.

It is partly by way of the shrill ubiquity of such celebratory announcements that we become aware that democracy in the United States has always been in crisis. This fact is indexed by constant contradictory assertions that the United States is democracy’s unique and solitary home and that the nation has the right and duty to export violently what it calls democracy. What it has meant to be a part of the intellectual cohort of the US ruling class, at least in part, is to have participated in the ongoing identification and amelioration of that crisis. The constant crisis of democracy in the United States—something recognized with clarity in the normative national intellectual formation from James Madison to Samuel Huntington, something whose proper management is celebrated every four years, with every presidential inauguration, in what is often reverently and uncritically described as a ritual of continuity, a series of spectacles in which the abortive nature of repetitive beginning is everywhere present, though almost nowhere remarked, as exclusion—is precisely that democracy constantly threatens to overflow its limits, to emerge from the shadows in the outlaw form of an excluded, denigrated middle. It is not that which is given but that which invades, as it were, from an alienated inside, from the interior that it has been the business of already existing democracy, throughout the long history of its devolution, to expunge and criminalize (whether in the form of a duplicitous speaking for that middle by the ones who call themselves conservatives or in the forms of abandonment and dismissal, of condescension and mischaracterization, of that middle by the ones who call themselves progressives). Thus US democracy is, on the one hand, what exists now as crisis management and, on the other hand, the acts, dispositions, improvisations, collectivities, and gestures that constitute and will have constituted the crisis.

Noam Chomsky, who has had much to say about what Huntington calls “the crisis of democracy,” is fond of invoking John Dewey as a kind of conceptual antidote to Huntington (Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki 1975). Early in the last century, Dewey already recognized that “politics is the shadow cast by big business over society” (Chomsky 2005). We could expand on this now by saying that US democratic politics is a mode of crisis management whose most conspicuous and extravagant rituals—elections and the inaugural celebrations and protests that each in its way confirms them—operate at the level of the demonstration. Elections in the United States are meant, finally and above all, to demonstrate that an election took place—a central consideration for structures of authority that depend on the eclipse of democratic content by the ritual reanimation of supposedly democratic forms. We might examine, along with Chomsky and Edward Herman, the history of the US-mandated demonstration election that is a central element of US foreign policy in the “American Century” while emphasizing the fact that such demonstrations were first enacted domestically (Chomsky and Herman 1979). We operate within a long history of the self-nomination of the elect and their restriction of elections and, more importantly because more generally, a long history of antinomian political voicing that, as poet and critic Susan Howe (1993) points out, goes at least as far back as Anne Hutchinson. Straining against pseudodemocratic formality is a question whose utterance defines alternative membership. Where will democracy—which is to say the democracy that is coming—have been found? The answer remains on the outskirts of the American polis.

It remains possible and necessary, then, for anyone who aspires to do cultural studies in the United States to consider and to participate in what Chomsky (2005, 35) calls the “public attitudes that are kept in the shadows.” When one dreams, along with C. L. R. James (1956), of the government of cooks, of the government that cooks or swings in ways that belie facile identifications of the music that cooks and swings with what is called, or what already exists under the name of, American democracy, when one imagines the common and fantastic counterpoint and countertime that moves in perpetual disturbance of the American exception and the imperial acquisitiveness and domestic predation, the ongoing endangering of internal and external aliens, that exception is supposed to justify, then one could be said to move in as well as toward the outskirts and shadows—which are, in fact, the social essence—of the polis. Intimations of this city, which is not on a hill but underground, are given in those occult forms where participation and mediation, participation and representation, interact by way of linkage and articulation rather than eclipse: for instance, in the paramusical, intervallic space where Ray Charles’s voicing and phrasing submits itself to the force of an exteriority that comes, paradoxically, from his own, alien interiority, or in speculative-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s paraliterary excursions into the diffuse origins of the city and of writing, where he extends his continuing invocation of what one of Delany’s critics, fellow novelist Joanna Russ, calls “the subjunctivity of science fiction” in order both to illuminate and to inhabit that excess of the mundane that characterizes (the politics of) everyday life in the shadows (Russ 1995; Laura Harris 2005).

Such illumination, such theoria, such fantasy, links Delany and Charles, because in both, it is enabled by their placement in the tradition of black radicalism, a tradition of alternative vision predicated on the enabling inability to see (which is to say the capacity and curse of seeing through) the glaring light of already existing democracy and its demonstrations. Something Al Sharpton once said of Charles—that his blindness is the condition of possibility of a rendition of “America the Beautiful” that is at every moment infused with phonographic insight and foresight—helps us understand how Delany’s documentary writing on Times Square is given only through the lens of submerged cities and fragmentary texts of lands that have never, or have not yet, been (Charles 1972; Delany 1994, 2001). Charles and Delany see shades of red and blue that are wholly outside the spectrum of intellectual and pseudointellectual democratic management. Moreover, Sharpton, against the grain of his own obscurantist tendencies, makes clear what must be understood, at least in part, as the Afro-diasporic constitution—and invasion (the incursion of what Cedric Robinson [(1983) 2000] conceptualizes as the eternal internal alien, the metoikos)—of a problematic Greek revival, the violently suppressed and nevertheless ongoing work that W. E. B. Du Bois ([1935] 1998) called the “black reconstruction of democracy in America.”

Reading and rereading works such as that of Du Bois sharpens our awareness that the United States is the land of formal democratic enclosure and, moreover, the land in which critical analysis of such oxymoronic forms is relegated to the shadows. Such analysis occurs in nonstandard languages and styles; at the same time, whatever democratic energy that remains in the practically empty interior of our democratic forms makes itself manifest as dissatisfaction with those forms. Of course, the irregularity of common cries and common dreams is manifest as both mourning and optimism at the very outset and from the very outskirts of the polis. Recent analyses of the constitutive irruption of the outside (and the outsider) in Athenian democracy bear this out while providing transcendental clues regarding the constant irruptions into the democracy that now exists of the democracy that comes (Loraux 1998; Butler 2000). At the same time, democrats of the outside, the partyless democrats who like to party, who rock the party, recognize that the presence of that future prompts a constant and total mobilization against, moves as if in regulation of, such irruption (Hanchard 2006). Democracy is the rupture of any exclusion, however common that exclusion might appear to be, the recalibration of the polis, of the city, by and according to the most irregular measures. In the United States and in every place subject to US authority, there are multitudes who work to discover it.

2007/2014

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