Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics

Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics

by Russ Castronovo (Editor)


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For the most part, democracy is simply presumed to exist in the United States. It is viewed as a completed project rather than as a goal to be achieved. Fifteen leading scholars challenge that stasis in Materializing Democracy. They aim to reinvigorate the idea of democracy by placing it in the midst of a contentious political and cultural fray, which, the volume's editors argue, is exactly where it belongs. Drawing on literary criticism, cultural studies, history, legal studies, and political theory, the essays collected here highlight competing definitions and practices of democracy-in politics, society, and, indeed, academia.

Covering topics ranging from rights discourse to Native American performance, from identity politics to gay marriage, and from rituals of public mourning to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the contributors seek to understand the practices, ideas, and material conditions that enable or foreclose democracy's possibilities. Through readings of subjects as diverse as Will Rogers, Alexis de Tocqueville, slave narratives, interactions along the Texas-Mexico border, and liberal arts education, the contributors also explore ways of making democracy available for analysis. Materializing Democracy suggests that attention to disparate narratives is integral to the development of more complex, vibrant versions of democracy.

Contributors. Lauren Berlant, Wendy Brown, Chris Castiglia, Russ Castronovo, Joan Dayan, Wai Chee Dimock, Lisa Duggan, Richard R. Flores, Kevin Gaines, Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, Michael Moon, Dana D. Nelson, Christopher Newfield, Donald E. Pease

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Materializing Democracy is an excellent and exciting collection of essays by a group of distinguished scholars who together address both the promises and limits of current and historical practices and theories of American democracy. This book will appeal to scholars and students across the disciplines who are interested in the intersection of culture, politics, national identity, and citizenship.”—Amy Kaplan, coeditor of Cultures of United States Imperialism

“The editors of Materializing Democracy have a vision—an activist vision—that, combined with rigorous analysis and scholarship, imparts an unusual energy and excitement to this volume.”—Priscilla Wald, author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822329381
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/21/2002
Series: New Americanists Series
Pages: 442
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

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Materializing democracy

Toward a revitalized cultural politics
By Russ Castronovo

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2938-7

Chapter One

DONALD E. PEASE Tocqueville's Democratic Thing; or, Aristocracy in America


In its February 2, 1998, issue the New Republic published an essay, titled "Tocqueville and the Mullah," in which the editors expressed their concern about an interview that CNN had broadcast with President Mohammed Khatami of Iran. They described the interview as posing a significant "threat" to the U.S. policy of "dual containment." The dual containment policy operates on two separate but intertwined levels, which interconnect the national geography governed by state policymakers with the civil society inhabited by U.S. citizens. As an official foreign policy, dual containment implements the state's substitution of Iran and Iraq for Russia and China as the representatives, in the wake of the cold war, of the fundamental threats to the national security. In substituting Islamic terrorism for world communism as constituting a pervasive menace to the American way of life, the post-cold war policy conjoins the totalization of danger in the external realm with a reorganization of civil society internally.

"Tocqueville" and the "Mullah" act as condensed signifiers for the operations that produced both the threat and the territorial and civic spaces whereby the policycontained the threat. The enactors of containment as an official foreign policy invoked "Tocqueville's" description of the exceptional standing of the United States in the history of nations to authorize the securing of its territorial borders against threats posed by the "Mullah's" Islamic terrorists. Citizens found in "Tocqueville's" Democracy in America a representative account of U.S. civil society. "Tocqueville" described civil society as a social arena in which citizens can exercise their rights of voluntary association and free and open discussion as a consequence of the state's protection of its contours against the menace posed by the "Mullah's" civic violence and linguistic terrorism.

But the threat that the editors characterized as posed by Khatami is neither that of the Muslim terrorist who justified the state's foreign policy nor that of the Islamic fundamentalist whose "incivility and irrationality" consolidated the contours of U.S. civil society. The greatest threat that Khatami posed to the editors grew out of his having declined to appear threatening. Khatami's carefully articulated refusal to identify either himself or Islam as a menace to U.S. democracy thereafter endangered both levels of the policy of containment which, as we have seen, depended on these negative representations of the Mullah for their effective operation.

Khatami gave expression to his refusal to ratify this negative representation in three separate but interconnected articulations: he refuted the claim that the Islamic Republic constitutes a threat to U.S. territorial borders; he proposed similarities between the religious cultures of the United States and Iran; and he declared the dual containment policy a violation of internationally agreed-on codes of civility and a threat to democratic cultures worldwide.

While the editors found in the fact that the CNN interview with Khatami had taken place at all evidence of Iran's unwarranted reintegration within civil society, they were particularly vexed about Khatami's citations from Tocqueville's Democracy in America to justify Iran's change of status. Khatami had adapted his understanding of Democracy in America (a book he was "sure most Americans have read") to the task of formulating this complex repudiation of the dual containment policy. Proposing that the devotion to liberty of U.S. citizens was itself cultivated in the rites and traditions of what Tocqueville had described as a national civil religion, Khatami drew the conclusion that the U.S. civil religion was not altogether different from Iran's religious nationalism, which also "calls all humanity irrespective of religion and belief, to rationality and logic."

Khatami's deployment of Tocqueville's text to dismantle the containment policy should be understood as a reversal of the usages to which policymakers had previously put it. From the time of its initial publication in 1835, Democracy in America supplied the concepts, generalizations, and categories out of which U.S. citizens were encouraged to experience and make sense of U.S. democracy. Its system of representations anchored the presuppositions out of which citizens and politicians formulated their opinions. Democracy in America was reproduced, perpetuated, and transmitted through such discursive practices. Because it was reputed to have codified the governing norms and assumptions that undergirded U.S. democracy, political commentary on Tocqueville's Democracy in America elevated the text into a transhistorical representation of U.S. democracy's unchanging transcendental essence. It was as a consequence of the text's standing that the governmental officials responsible for the dual containment policy invoked the norms and rules informing Tocqueville's categorical understanding of U.S. democracy as politically authorized criteria for deciding that the United States and the Islamic Republic were absolutely opposed political formations.

Insofar as Islam represented the political formation out of whose exclusion U.S. civil society had established its integrity, the political effectiveness of U.S. civil society might be described as having depended in part on Islam's ongoing negative valuation of its workings. Indeed, the "universal" value of the model of noncoercive communication underpinning U.S. civil society was produced out of its differential relation to its putatively negative valuation in Islamic countries. Consequently, when President Khatami quoted from passages in Democracy in America as evidence of the similarities between Islamic nationalism and U.S. civic associations, he transgressed the borderline between the two political orders that "Tocqueville" had formerly delineated, and removed both cultures from the relationship of mutual exclusion in which they had been contained. When he constructed equivalences between the political aspirations of Iranian and U.S. citizens, however, Khatami accomplished more than the disruption of the policy's capacity to sustain the mutual antagonism between Americans and Iranians.

Khatami's invocation of Democracy in America to express his refusal to subject himself to its powers of containment transformed the policy itself into a matter for political deliberation. On materializing a common ground out of these homologies, Khatami deployed Democracy in America to open a place for Islamic fundamentalists within the U.S. democracy from which "Tocqueville" had prohibited them access. And in his CNN interview, President Khatami suggested that his heterodox reading of Democracy in America might become the basis for a free and open conversation between the two cultures.

When the editors subsequently quoted passages from the interview, however, they did not engage in a discussion of either the merits of President Khatami's reading of Tocqueville or the similarities between the two political cultures. The editors instead resorted to acts of verbal aggression and name calling that were apparently designed simply to annul Khatami's rights as an interlocutor within international civil society. The editors' symbolic violence involved the imposition of terms (e.g., "ayatollah," "mullah," "jihad") the connotations of which cohered around the signifier of Islam's unchanging equivalence with international terrorism, whose meaning Khatami had adamantly refused. Furthermore, when the editors did quote from the interview, they attributed to Khatami's statements significations that reversed their declared meanings and were designed to prove his colossal ignorance of democratic norms. After quoting Khatami's remark that "supporting peoples who fight for the liberation of their land is not, in my opinion, terrorism," for example, the editors interpreted this statement as evidence that Khatami had simply "resorted to the old semantics of revolutionary mischief." After thus substituting for Khatami's statement a signification that was precisely the reverse of the meaning that Khatami had declared, the editors proposed their substitution as proof of his failure to conceal his continued allegiance to Islamic terrorism.

The violence that the editors acted out in the process of removing President Khatami from the environs of the U.S. public sphere might be explained as a defensive reaction to his having proposed equivalences between the two orders. His production of this symbolic common ground trespassed the imaginary border that delineated each culture's totalized negation of the other. However, in aggressively projecting onto Khatami the identity of "menacing terrorist" that he had so adamantly repudiated, the editors also violated the norms of civility and noncoercive communication organizing the civic contract. Exactly why Khatami's interview should have provoked in the New Republic's editors the threatening behavior and civil violence that the containment policy had formerly restricted to Islam requires some further consideration of the social work that the policy performed and the role of "Tocqueville and the Mullah" in its construction.

Claude Lefort has located one source of the editors' anxieties in what Tocqueville had called democracy's "limitless social power," a power that might be understood to underwrite the containment policy itself. Lefort draws the following descriptions of the immense dimensions of this power from the following passage from Tocqueville's L'ancien regime et la revolution: "It is the role of the State not merely to govern the Nation, but to shape it in a certain fashion; it is the task of the State to shape the minds of its citizens in accordance with the model that has been proposed in advance; its duty is to imbue their minds with certain ideas, and to inspire in their hearts such feelings as it judges necessary. In reality, no restrictions are placed upon its rights, and there are no limits as to what it can do; it does not simply reform men, it transforms them; and if need be, it will simply create other men."

What Tocqueville discovers in this passage is that it is democracy's "limitless power" itself that constitutes the greatest threat to the democratic order. In the wake of the French Revolution, Tocqueville designated the centralized state and the people as the two agents that democracy had historically empowered to exercise this terrible power. In its recodification of the limitless powers that Tocqueville feared, the dual containment policy transformed the text through which Tocqueville had managed his fear into one of the instruments through which it produced an internal as well as an external limit to the exercise of this power.

The policy produced each of these limits out of a threefold operation. The policy alienated democracy's limitless power from its putative origins within the democratic people and the sovereign state, it divided this power into protective and aggressive manifestations, and then it externalized power's threatening aspects onto two substitute formations-the antidemocratic forces of foreign as well as domestic terrorists. After it displaced what Tocqueville had found threatening about the state's limitless power onto the menace posed by Islamic fundamentalism, the policy repositioned the source of the state's limitless power as a violence external to the nation. The policy's projection of the state's excess force onto the violence the "Mullah" directed against its citizenry produced a symbolic limit to the state's power. This imaginary boundary line between state violence and its externalization inscribed a limit that legitimated the state's use of force. This limit also enabled U.S. citizens to manage their fear that the state might direct its limitless power against them.

In addition to this external limit, the containment policy inscribed a limit to the democratic people's power that was internal to each individual citizen. The policy produced this internal limit out of the division of the citizen's potential expression of democracy's power into regulatory and menacing aspects. According to exponents of the containment policy, citizens exercised the regulatory aspect of their power when they redefined popular movements for democratic change as constituting threats to democratic governance akin to that of Muslim terrorists. The policy thereby managed the citizenry's own limitless power to effect democratic change when it recast collective democratic movements as themselves posing a threat to the democratic state.

"Tocqueville" and the "Mullah" thus named the condensed signifiers whereby the dual containment policy produced and managed the citizenry's fear of the limitless powers posed by the state and radical democratic movements. When President Khatami refused to identify with the position of the "Mullah" through which the policy had inscribed the external and internal limits to democracy's limitless powers, he quite literally brought the containment policy to its limits. Without containment's powers to externalize this threat, the editors of the essay came face to face with a quite literally unlimited democratic force. Unable to subsume Khatami within any of the already constituted positions within the containment policy, the editors performed the acts of civic violence that violated the distinction between "Tocqueville's" civility and the "Mullah" terrorism on which the dual containment policy had been founded.

Although the editors' aggressive actions may have seemed to violate the policy's founding prohibition of civic violence, these acts of incivility had in fact reestablished the distinction between "Tocqueville" and the "Mullah" on which the policy had been founded. In reestablishing the containment policy at the site of Khatami's annulment of its already constituted positions, the editors exercised what might be called the surplus power of containment.

By containment's surplus power I mean to indicate the excessive power required for the installation of the dual containment policy. As the tour de force that produced the founding distinction between "Tocqueville's" civility and the "Mullah's" terrorism, this inaugural event could not be sorted either within civil society or within the realm of Islamic terrorism out of whose ongoing negation the civic order achieved its coherence. The act that was responsible for the inscription of the policy, that is to say, could neither be subject to the rules and norms through which "Tocqueville" regulated the democratic order nor could it be represented within the system of representations through which the "Mullah" threatened that order.

Because this act was responsible for the production of the relation of mutual exclusion organizing the integrity and coherence of both realms, it necessarily surpassed the powers of containment of each. When the policy subsequently subsumed all acts of civic violence under the aegis of the "Mullah," it also tacitly proposed that the founding act of discrimination whereby the policy had irretrievably excluded Islamic fundamentalism from civil society had also designated itself as the single act of (civic) violence that constituted an exception to the "Mullah's" rule. As we have seen, President Khatami had compelled the editors to invoke this exception to the rule prohibiting them from performing acts of civic violence when he deployed "Tocqueville" to refuse the containment policy's suturing within the position of the "Mullah."


Excerpted from Materializing democracy by Russ Castronovo Excerpted by permission.
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