Rethinking the Commons and Politics in the Democratic Public Sphere

Seminar Organizer: Ross Elfline, Associate Professor of Art History

“Democracy” has emerged, once again, as a popular term in the cultural imaginary. From populist insurgencies on both the left and right of America’s political spectrum to open-source software; from participatory performance art to Uber, Airbnb, and other players in the “sharing economy”; from Bitcoin to CBS’s Big Brother: we are led to believe that these new forms of interactivity and inclusion make for a more egalitarian society. In short, “democracy” is having a moment.

But if these various cultural forms are meant to index a revived space of democratic possibility, then what is the operating logic of this public sphere? Are heightened interaction, new forms of digital connectivity, and popular participation actually more “democratic?” Or rather, beyond a simplistic idea of popular consensus, might a truly participatory democracy instead invite discord and antagonism?

These are some of the questions that animate the Humanities Center/GEI’s faculty seminar for the 2017–18 academic year devoted to the topic of radical democracy and the public sphere. The seminar takes as a guiding premise the notion that, in our age of neoliberal reason, democratic possibilities are increasingly crowded out. For our purposes, neoliberal reason can be defined as a dominant form of knowledge that sees every aspect of quotidian life as guided by market-like decision-making. As such, as we all seek to maximize our own personal “market share,” we have come to care less and less about the common good, a state of affairs that has led to heightened division and animosity, in addition to economic precarity. Under this operating logic, we also see a renewed emphasis on consensus building, “buy-in,” compromise, and unanimity, which leads to further questions: In an age of imposed consensus, how might we confront cultural difference? Does the rise of various religious fundamentalisms thrive on the diminishment of the public sphere? What other institutions might also appear in its wake? With such fundamental and pressing questions as these, humanistic inquiry is as necessary as ever.

The negative effects of neoliberalism on the democratic public sphere demands that humanists and social scientists think critically about alternate ways to imagine and practice radical democracy—an understanding of democracy that has at its center the remaking of what we could envision as the commons. In brief, might we begin to imagine micro-utopian enclaves—both literal and figurative—that serve as incubators for democratic activity? Imposed consensus and corporate “buy-in” are rejected in favor of discursive discord among members of a diverse community. Here, sharing is taken as a given. A key feature of the commons is that they do not merely exist; they are produced through an active process of “commoning.” Therefore, the task of creating spaces of sharing, of productive antagonism, and of democratic possibility is the responsibility of a diverse citizenry.

For the purposes of the seminar, we can further propose that this task of rethinking democratic life, its people, its institutions, its subjective organization, its publics, its social antagonisms, and its cultural expressions are the responsibility of many different disciplines. This seminar invites engaged scholars from across the humanities and social sciences to think through the possibilities of how actually existing democracy can be imagined in our times, not only at the macroeconomic level or that of the nation state, but rather at all levels of our commoning experiences: on the city street, in the church congregation, on the cooperative farm boardroom, in the classroom, and in the bedroom. As these sites of insurrection proliferate, the interpretive lenses we use to understand them multiply as well.

The key terms of the seminar—radical democracy, demos, public sphere, the commons, and insurrection—intersect with each other in complex ways and at different levels of social, political, economic, and artistic analysis. The seminar cannot possibly be comprehensive, but it will provide participants with an opportunity to develop their research on aspects of the configuration of radical democratic life from their own disciplines while sharing in the reading of recent theoretical literature on the configuration of the seminar terms.

Faculty Fellows

Palmar Álvarez-Blanco, Associate Professor of Spanish, will study how certain cultures of care in post 15M Spain are linked to the experience of the commons, and how they contribute to processes of political subjectivation specific to new social movements emerging out of the new conditions of precarization in contemporary capitalism.

Wes Markofski, Assistant Professor of Sociology, will work on his study of progressive evangelicalism and ethical democracy in America, a project that seeks to deepen our understanding of the strategies evangelical communities use for engaging the public and the poor, and how they function as reflexive imperatives in ethical democratic practice.

Anna Moltchanova, Professor of Philosophy, will be investigating collective self-awareness and disagreement from the point of view of social ontology to understand better how democratic groups function.

Annette Nierobisz, Professor of Sociology, will work on her study on job loss among a group of older workers who are conventionally presumed to be protected from the financial crisis created for a large swath of the U.S. population.

Juliane Schicker, Assistant Professor of German, will work on her project on how micro-utopian enclaves serve as incubators for democratic activity. Her case study is the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, which, under the direction of Kurt Masur, created a space for political dialogue otherwise restricted in the former German Democratic Republic.

Kathryn Wegner, Visiting Assistant Professor of Educational Studies, will analyze how neoliberal rationality informs school reform and school choice and how it impacts communities, the public good, and democratic life.