Spectating and Acting: a Workshop Report

On June 20, 2014, Mathias Thaler (University of Edinburgh) organized a workshop dedicated to the tension between spectating and acting in democratic politics. The event drew an engaged audience of about 40 participants, both from Edinburgh and from outside Scotland. Apart from Law School and School of Social and Political Science staff (such as Zenon Bankowski, Christine Bell and Jonathan Hearn), the event also attracted academics from farther abroad (like Phil Parvin from Loughborough University, Cara Nine from the University College Cork and Audra Mitchell from the University of York). Furthermore, many PhD students attended and contributed to the workshop.

The initial plan was to bring together various positions that would speak to each other in constructive and unexpected ways. The vibrant discussions during each session proved that this goal was fortunately achieved. The first speaker, Jeffrey Green (University of Pennsylvania), made the case for an Epicurean cure to the “plebeian” suffering many citizens need to endure in our mass democracies today. Starting from realist assumptions about politics, Green pointed out that the strains of being a spectator to the democratic process must be remedied by temporal, “extra-political” (as opposed to a-political) withdrawals from active citizenship. Mathias Thaler responded to this proposal that, if the argument was that Epicureanism served as a remedy, measures would have to be in place to induce citizens to return to the political forum at some later stage. During the question period, various members of the public raised insightful issues about the power asymmetries within the Epicurean garden, the role of political theory in relation to the ideological status quo, and offered constructive suggestions to overcome the limits of Green’s theoretical model.

The next speaker, Carol Gould (City University of New York), started from radically different premises when she tried to demonstrate that democracy could be understood as a form of human interaction. By engaging with examples of successful connectedness, such as varieties of workplace democracy and transnational social movements, Gould managed to outline a vision of democracy that was deeply embedded within the practices of people cooperating with each other. Rowan Cruft (University of Stirling) objected that Gould’s view was perhaps too optimistic as regards people’s ability and willingness to actually work together. The debate that followed revolved around issues of political efficiency, the democratic impact of social media and Gould’s use of case studies to illustrate her analytical observations.

The third speaker, Mihaela Mihai (University of York), delineated a novel understanding of artistic denunciations of past injustices: as disclosing new perspectives of what it means to live together in a democratic community. Her two case studies comprised the Argentinian escraches – non-violent performances through which perpetrators of the Dirty War were faced with public exposure and condemnation – and the Austrian playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard, whose piece Heldenplatz caused enormous controversy due to its provocative depiction of Austrian society as essentially unchanged since the end of World War II. Philip Cook (University of Edinburgh) called into question the suitability of denunciations for democratic politics and pointed out that strict limits should be placed to keep denunciations within democratic boundaries. The audience was divided between two camps: moral philosophers were worried about the dangers associated with denunciation, while critical theorists questioned the radical nature of the denunciation. Christine Bell suggested that such acts should always be analyzed within their historical-political context and in relation to moments of constitutional opening/closure.

The final speaker, Andrew Schaap (University of Exeter), compared the interpretations of the “people”, and its constitution, in the work of Carl Schmitt’s and Jacques Rancière respectively. Affinities and differences were explored in much detail and with great care. Both Schmitt and Rancière, Schaap showed, acknowledge democracy’s dependence on the people for its legitimacy – and its incapacity to permanently capture it. The differences emerge when we analyze the goals of their theoretical enterprises: whereas Schmitt is essentially interested in the stability of the constitutional order, Rancière pleads for its continuous politicization. Neil Walker (University of Edinburgh) offered an excellent commentary that challenged Schaap’s choice of authors and highlighted an alternative way of looking at constitutional moments. Walker also helpfully drew all the presentations together and discussed the upcoming Scottish referendum as an illuminating occasion for scrutinizing the spectacle of the people. This triggered a heated and insightful controversy, involving all the presenters and members of the audience.

Funding for this workshop was provided by Thaler’s Marie Curie grant (JUDGEPOL) as well as by an IIF from the Global Justice Academy. The event also benefitted from the administrative assistance of Eirini Souri (School of Social and Political Science). Videos of the workshop’s sessions will in due time be posted on the project website.