Visionary Pragmatism: Radical and Ecological Democracy in Neoliberal Times

Visionary Pragmatism: Radical and Ecological Democracy in Neoliberal Times

by Romand Coles

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822360643
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/26/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Romand Coles is Frances B. McAllister Endowed Chair and Director for the Program for Community, Culture, and Environment at Northern Arizona University and Research Professor at the Institute for Social Justice at Australian Catholic University. He is the author of several books, including Beyond Gated Politics: Reflections for the Possibility of Democracy and Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations between a Radical Democrat and a Christian (with Stanley Hauerwas).

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Visionary Pragmatism

Radical and Ecological Democracy in Neoliberal Times

By Romand Coles

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7466-4


The Neuropolitical Habitus of Resonant Receptive Democracy

It is early in the evening, and dozens of people are beginning to pack a classroom in San Francisco de Asis Catholic School in Flagstaff, Arizona. As the circle of chairs fills, people begin to gather behind them — standing, sitting on tables, propped on windowsills, leaning against walls — wherever we can squeeze ourselves in. Our bodies are shifting frequently as we wait for the meeting to begin. Some people are making eye contact; some are avoiding it altogether. Some are conspicuously outgoing, while others are trying to fold their bodies into shadows of anonymity. There is that palpable mix of solidarity, giddy courage, uncertain hope, and trepidation that characterizes the outset of many political meetings where grand aspirations engage age-old suffering across entrenched axes of power. At last the police chief and one of his officers walk in. As promised, they are without their badges and here to listen.

Most of the people in the room are either undocumented immigrants or people who are in familial, friendship, or political relationships with them. For months we have been organizing in one-to-one meetings, house meetings, and action team meetings leading up to this event, gathering stories, developing a frame for our work, cultivating our networks, strategizing about how to tackle the problem of racial profiling and harassment of people who look to police like they may come from south of the border. The problem is intense: youth walk the streets with their eyes to the ground as if they could avoid the police — yet still get stopped; people are pulled over and interrogated for no apparent reason; people are arrested, sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and deported — leaving behind families that are separated and desperate. Frightened people are refusing to call the police when real crimes occur and better modes of policing might be useful.

Yet this evening the feeling in the room is remarkably not that of people trembling before the arbitrary forces of the law and lawlessness. There is a sense of emergent democratic power: people coming together to publicly tell their narratives, render their accounts of an intolerable situation, and act in ways that begin to address discrimination and tend to the abused commonwealth. One after another, people stand up and speak in detail — some in English, some in Spanish — about how they or their loved ones and friends have been repeatedly harassed. Some step forward and hover over the seated chief of Flagstaff's police as they speak powerfully and at full volume, even as they remain respectful. People in the room embrace and amplify the words of those who speak with affirmative nods, attentive postures, sighs of compassion, and expressions of collective frustration. Importantly, people are attentive across lines of difference that have frequently shut down receptive relationships and solidarities. Not only are they listening across lines of race and class, but Hispanics whose families have been residents for generations are listening to and working with recently arrived Latino/as, and though people are assertive and firm with the police chief, they listen to him when he speaks, and many sense that he is actually listening to them (a sense borne out when his testimony later convinces the Flagstaff City Council to lobby in Phoenix against the infamous anti-immigrant bill, S.B. 1070). There is a vibe in the room, a receptive and powerful resonance that starts to shake the foundation of the house of "dry hate" that Arizona has built. The vibe travels across and opens political time — from sparks of illumination and enthusiasm in meetings past, into this meeting, through ongoing political action and potent senses of possibility continuing over the years, to the moment I write — even as the problems remain huge. Moreover, the vibe has traveled across myriad issues of a growing democracy movement in Northern Arizona — from immigration, to schools, to green energy, to LGBTQ rights, to water, to cooperative economics, to composting.

Around the same time that this resonant work and action were happening, I was biking to Killip Elementary School in the Sunnyside neighborhood (where some of the worst police abuses frequently take place) to discuss a grassroots democracy education project that we had recently launched there. On the way, I was hit by an suv that hurled me twenty feet and then slammed into me again. Luckily, only my knee suffered serious injury. Nevertheless, during the following months I found myself spending a fair amount of time in medical waiting rooms subjected to FOX and other news stations prior to the surgery and many appointments that followed the accident. Though I was, of course, familiar with many intellectual critiques of media misinformation, the affective degradation of the culture industry, and the ways in which the resonant practices of the virtual sphere are integral to contemporary power, the visceral experience was nevertheless overwhelming. There were scary portrayals of Mexicans creeping across the Arizona border; angry sheriffs and politicians claiming they were coming to do "us" harm; far-right pundits furious about how liberals and even moderate Republicans were failing to protect us; conjured images of dirty mothers who were seeking to plant "anchor babies" on our soil; law enforcement glorifications of militarized police raids; early accusations from Tucson School Board members and legislators that those who taught ethnic studies were engaged in a tribalist plot to de-Americanize our country. This drumbeating about "illegal aliens" created a rhythm that insinuated itself into inane commentary on insidious communist climate scientists lying to us about global warming in order to destroy our way of life and freedom. The continuous audiovisual resonance of loud voices, angry faces, mad gestures, and scary portrayals of creeping brown people contributed to a powerful affective undertow across the state whose surface effects could be seen as voters and elections began an extreme rightward shift. The pulsating fury of these audiovisual performances appeared to be shutting down human capacities for paying attention, receptivity, and curiosity and tarrying with the complexities of different people's lives.

Meanwhile, this resonance machine was having profound effects in the largely Hispanic, Latino/a, and Native American Sunnyside neighborhood where Killip Elementary is located. Undocumented parents were working two or three jobs, often beneath the radar suffering miserable working conditions and illegally low wages, and barely able to support their families. Some fled inside their homes when they saw me — a white man — walking door-to-door in the neighborhood to discuss voter registration and political organizing. The NAU students who were "coaching" kids in the arts of grassroots democracy were increasingly seeing tears on the faces of students whose parents had been taken away in the middle of the night by ICE and panic among those who feared that their parents would be next.

Yet there were more hopeful sorts of resonance emerging as well, such as those I described around immigration organizing. Parents often volunteered together to improve the infrastructure of the school, and their bodies manifested a certain collective confidence and pride in their work. When a group of fourth- and fifth-grade students led adult members of the Killip Elementary community before the Flagstaff School Board in a successful defense against threats to scrap the year-round school calendar that worked best for the community, the stories of that meeting buzzed for a long time: the excitement of children enacting powerful citizenship; the sense of hope and utter amazement on the part of the adults who witnessed and stood in solidarity with them; the enthusiastic affirmations of the dialogical organizing processes that led up to the action. When brown, black, red, and white people from the Sunnyside neighborhood began listening to each other and working together in response to problems they faced, one could sense different energetic connections emerging. Maybe it was something like what the NAU coaches reported that they sensed in the elementary students as they facilitated grassroots democracy teams on issues that mattered to the children. Maybe it was like what faculty sensed when talking with the NAU coaches. Faces were lighting up; faces and bodies were manifesting vital signs of democratic receptivity with each other — leaning forward, twisting, turning, tilting, in ways that seemed to manifest energies of opening. It wasn't just individual bodies, it was something that seemed rooted in vibrant relationships among them, and I became obsessed with trying to understand this phenomenon that appeared to be elusive yet indispensable to energetic democracy.

* * *

Democracy — as the gathering of people across differences to contest arbitrary and damaging inequalities; to respond to new movements, events, and situations; and to cocreate responsive, complex, and dynamic forms of commonwealth — hinges upon radical receptivity. By radical receptivity, I mean the difficult arts of moving with responsive creativity in the face of entrenched and blinding challenges and unfamiliar opportunities. These are arts we cultivate through practices of learning to pay full-bodied attention, listen deeply, exercise hospitality, dwell with patience, and potentially shift our being at very deep levels in the midst of others, events, and barely emergent possibilities that may be unwonted, unwanted, and disturbing because they trouble our more stubborn obtuseness, misperceptions, and assumptions about order, justice, and power. In a rapidly changing world on the brink of collapse, where people of different traditions, new movements, and emergent experiences are tossed together more frequently and need to generate democratic power together in order to address problems, it is difficult to think of a more important ethical and political art. It is crucial because it is the basis for cocreative democratic solidarities and dynamic political visions that are necessary for navigating the shifting terrains and tiny crevasses of possibility through which we need to pass if we are to generate pathways and powers beyond the catastrophes of the present.

Yet as these discrepant vignettes suggest, our receptive capacities may be, variously, profoundly shut down or enlivened by resonant sounds, images, expressions, postures, movements, interactions, and other intensities amid which we live. In the examples of both corporate media resonances and democratic resonances of collaborative work and political action, we see that power — whether radically democratic or steeply hierarchical — can in different ways amplify, diminish, or inflect our receptive capacities in markedly different ways. This would suggest that at very deep, practiced, interbodily, and visceral registers we may become more or less democratic — in the sense of how well we are able to stretch ourselves receptively across differences and newness with which we are unfamiliar to seek possibilities of commonwealth we had not imagined.

As I shall explore in this chapter, contemporary neuroscience suggests that our capacities for conscious reflection and even perception are greatly shaped, oriented, limited, and propelled by resonant relationships among our bodies. Our mirror neurons "fire" preconsciously in relation to other bodies (or don't) in small fractions of a second, transmitting vast amounts of information (or not). It turns out that these relationships are profoundly intertwined with the practices in which we engage. Our capacities to perceive and think, thus, are intertwined with corporeal relationships that precede and greatly condition our perception and thought, and this conditioning influences our abilities to reflect on and modify these practices themselves.

This would appear to put us in a potentially impossible bind that impedes democratic freedom, or perhaps reveals it to be an illusion altogether. This problem is further compounded by the fact that these intercorporeal resonances are not innocent of inequalities and the toxic politics of (in)difference but rather are themselves targets and products of modes of power invested in dampening, orienting, and limiting our receptive and reflective capacities. This has likely always been true, but in present times the relationship between our capacities for intercorporeal resonance and contemporary practices of power is particularly salient and intense due to the ways in which such power is enmeshed with and borne by audiovisual political technologies of resonance that proliferate inequality, domination, and exclusion. In other words, contemporary modes of power operate upon and through what neuroscience increasingly reveals to be elemental registers of our cellular being. Moreover, they do so by deploying instruments, relationships, and strategies that are at once sophisticated, intense, amplified, and nearly ubiquitous in "developed" societies.

Does this mean that radical and receptive democracy is merely an illusion? If this were the case, rather than beings capable of becoming freer — individually, collectively, dialogically — we would be thoroughly engendered by what Pierre Bourdieu calls our habitus, or the coarticulation of our perceptions, thoughts, dispositions, and improvisational capacities with daily practices through which our lives are integrated into larger institutions and systems of power. "Freedom," then, would become the name for our highly limited and programmed capacities to improvise in ways that fulfill the functional requirements of our orders; and, where there are "democracies," it would also serve an ideological function that simultaneously legitimates and conceals the dense and dominating operations of power. If we are much more corporeality than consciousness, and if bodies are ensconced in practices saturated by power, would we not be trapped in ways that are nearly ontological?

In contrast, I shall argue that the paradoxes of receptive democracy and the daunting challenges we face in relation to resonant techno-practices of power need not lead us to despair. Instead, I venture here that recent work on mirror neurons helps illuminate the character of our capacities for a politics of resonant receptivity in ways that suggest indispensable possibilities for ethical and strategic modes for organizing a powerful radical democratic movement. In so doing, neuroscience simultaneously contributes to our understanding of the possibility and importance of a more durable (less fugitive) radically democratic habitus. While the trope "radically democratic habitus" may seem oxymoronic in light of Bourdieu's extensive rendering of "habitus" in a nondemocratic key, I suggest that research on mirror neurons discloses ways in which iterated practices and dispositional structures are crucial for democratic freedom. Indeed, the evidence suggests that bodily practices can open and enhance biocultural powers for receptivity, reflection, and radical democratic engagement, even as such powers are most often incorporated into practices of the sort that Bourdieu describes. In what follows I explore this possibility in multiple and intersecting modes — from the cellular level, to reflections on corporeal practices, to participant observations in the democracy education movement at Northern Arizona University and Flagstaff, to theoretical formulations of possibilities for a radical democratic habitus. Each register of reflection and practice both illuminates and offers support for what is most promising in the other registers. Together they disclose what I take to be promising pathways and possibilities.

In the next section, I set pertinent aspects of the political stage with an overview of what William Connolly has insightfully coined the "evangelical-capitalist resonance machine." The following section explores research on mirror neurons in order to better illuminate the phenomena of intercorporeal resonance. This exploration opens onto the third section, where I examine neurological dimensions of compulsive political closure and consider how more receptive and generous democratic initiatives might open beyond such dispositions. In the fourth section, an engagement with Pierre Bourdieu allows us to see how an alternative habitus might — somewhat paradoxically — be cultivated so that dynamic democratic openings and resonant receptivity could be rendered at once more powerful, creative, and durable. In the final section, I gather together the threads of participant observation that are interwoven in this chapter in order to further explore ways in which a radically democratic and resonant habitus might be given textured prefiguration in a series of democratically engaged pedagogical initiatives in which faculty and students at NAU are organizing with a variety of partners in broader communities in Northern Arizona.


Excerpted from Visionary Pragmatism by Romand Coles. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction: Theorizing from and Traveling toward a Radical Democratic Habitas  1

1. The Neuropolitical Habitus of Resonant Receptive Democracy  31

2. From Mega-circulatory Power to Polyface Flows  71

3. System Dynamics and a Radical Politics of Transformative Co-optation  115

4. Shock Democracy and Wormhole Hope in Catastrophic Times  161

Epilogue  193

Notes  197

Bibliography  211

Index  219

What People are Saying About This

Aversive Democracy: Inheritance and Originality in the Democratic Tradition - Aletta J. Norval

"It is rare that one has the opportunity to read a book that is inspiring, yet carefully argued; that covers difficult theory and articulates innovative new lines of inquiry, yet in a manner that is accessible and engaging; above all, a book that gives parity of esteem and treatment to the development of theoretical arguments and the treatment of political practice, showing how serious engagement with local practice may enrich theory. Visionary Pragmatism is such a book."

David Schlosberg

"Romand Coles has long been a voice of creativity, engagement, and hope in radical democratic politics—one uniquely receptive to the concerns, critiques, and practices of social movements and activists. The focus here is the crucial and fertile intersection and integration of theory, practice, and environment in the development of a 'radical democratic habitus.' Coles demonstrates the incredible power and potential of creative political praxis in response to democratic deficits, ecological detachment, and their combined impacts on everyday life. This is powerful, engaging, and necessary writing."

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