Democracy in the Flesh

Sharon Krause’s recent article in Political Theory, “Bodies in Action: Corporeal Agency in Democratic Politics” is, in my estimation, one of the most timely and important essays in political theory published in a number of years. In this essay, Krause, who authored the equally interesting book, Civil Passions (2008), introduces us to recent transformations in the conceptualization of agency taking place across a number disciplines, collectively described as  a ‘new materialism’, and illustrates how this shift can be deployed to revitalize our thinking about democratic politics and citizenship. Referring to developments in Actor Network Theory (ANT) and to the work of theorists like Diane Coole, Davide Panagia, and Jane Bennett, Krause discusses how research on the affective, embodied, and distributed nature of agency offers an important and promising departure from both traditional rationalist and classical materialist (e.g. Marxian) visions of political life.

Materialism has either faded or become somewhat arcane since the political shifts of the late-80s and Krause offers a refreshing corrective. Whereas Marxian analysis posits relations of production as the explanatory grounds for interpreting institutions and action, the new materialism expands its vision beyond production to the myriad corporeal, phenomenological, relational, and environmental elements that enable and constrain human agency. As expected, it becomes vulnerable to familiar accusations of functionalism and determinism. Most significantly, in taking agency to be distributed, rendering it more diffuse as opposed to locating it solely in a sovereign subject, the approach threatens to dissolve the subject and individual responsibility completely. Such a radical materialism, according to Krause, “threatens to eviscerate the grounds for holding persons responsible,” and accordingly, “cannot sustain a model of agency that is viable for democratic politics” (317).

Normativity, and more specifically the normative order of democracy, entails a subject who takes responsibility for her actions. Thus, as Krause explains, we must ensure that in our models of political life we maintain a “close connection between agency and a sense of selfhood that is individuated, reflexive, and responsive to norms” while acknowledging that this is not the whole story (300). Likewise we must recognize that responsibility, “like agency itself, is not an all-or-nothing affair but admits of degrees” (315). Krause dispenses with the excesses of postmodern appeals to difference, which  struggle to describe our everyday experience of selfhood, observing that the very notion of subjective experience presupposes some phenomenological stability: “There is no confusion in my mind about who I am or how I got here, as there would have to be if nothing about us were continuous in any measure, if selfhood were thoroughly unstable” (302). Many of my experiences in life may prove unstable, but they are always my experiences, the experiences of this body as opposed to just any body, as Wittgenstein observed.

Krause agrees with political theorist Diane Coole in holding that the political life of an embodied agent is primarily a communicative affair: “our bodies affirm our distinctive subjectivities through concrete action” especially in communication, such that “our ability to affect the world in ways that affirm our subjective existence depends significantly on the efficacy of our communicative gestures, many of which are unintentional” (305). I would add that we should not think of intentional and unintentional acts in binary opposition. If we wish to capture the range of experiences of agency we are better off conceiving of them as poles on a continuum of critical intellection. This allows us to acknowledge that action in the absence of fully reflective deliberation is still a mode of agency, and that it may even be a critical mode of agency.

Krause rightly argues that “the distinctiveness of human materiality as reflexive and norm-responsive is crucial to sustaining the sense of responsibility required for democratic citizenship and an ethical life” (312). And it is with reference to this feature of bodily norm-responsiveness that Krause points to a new way of thinking about democratic participation and political agency. Echoing Foucault’s later work, Krause describes how we are both agents and the subjects of power on a “corporeal register” (305-6). Agency is alive in our most habituated acts, in the disjunctures experienced in the enactment of power: “The dissonance that arises for those whose sensations run counter to prevailing norms of materialization thus can generate forms of agency that emerge through prevailing relations of power but also break with them” (314). Thus, “corporeal agency is by no means intrinsically conservative but has the potential to generate new ways of being and new forms of collective life.” (314). To  locate agency in the animate body is to recognize the body as inherently norm-sensitive and therefore how it is – how we are – inherently critical.

Caring Ethos of Democracy
The main reason I am so fond of Krause’s article is perhaps a little selfish. I think that the call to re-conceive agency in light of the bodily experience of dissonance in the enactment of norms invites a further consideration that the body itself might be a primordial source, rather than just a site, of normative understanding. Perhaps, one might suggest, the dissonances we experience have no normative conditions themselves and simply reflect the random collision of competing habits or sensibilities. But this approach seems to me inadequate for many reasons, not the least of which is that it side-steps the problem of how habits and sensibilities are generated and sustained in the first place. It is not enough to casually observe that human life is inherently norm-guided. A robust account of human agency and responsibility, one that abjures strong relativism, would need to make sense of how and why norms take hold of us. Moreover, it would have to provide some sense of why some norms are chosen over others, especially if we going to turn that account into a story about civic agency.

Naturally, I have my own views on this. Early existential phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, offer, to my mind, the most favourable candidate for understanding the structure of normative life in the notion of ‘care’, variously interpreted and taken up by a growing number of feminists and social theorists (see the excellent work of Maurice Hammington, for example). We see more practice-based visions of care and the the grounds of normative life in the work of Gandhi and Foucault, and its application to democratic thinking in the work of Fred Dallmayr. Following these thinkers, in my own work I argue that care is to the new materialism what the more limited notion of ‘species being’ was to the more limited classical materialism we find in Marxian analysis. In being human we attend to the needs of others and ourselves and this provides the motivating dynamic for the establishment, contestation, and modification of norms. Without something like care at work, our experiences of agency, alienation, and dissonance appear arbitrary and inexplicable, and responsibility once again dissolves into a postmodern excess.

Democracy, I would add, is a political arrangement founded on intuitions that direct us to secure and institutionalize an ethos of care. Care is the driving force behind the traditional focus in political theory on speech and ‘voice’, for deliberation and discussion are indeed vibrant examples of attending to the needs of others. To that end, however, I suggest that the oversight which plagues the history of political thought, and most notably our many conceptions of democracy, is a failure to recognize that the communicative encounter is only an instantiation of democratic life, not its definitive moment. The scholarly preoccupation with discourse represents, in the words of Geoffrey Harpham, an academic fetishization of language, the projection of human agency into a mere function of that agency. Empirical work in democratic studies likewise suffers from a chronic operational confound according to which the work of myriad interactions of caring are attributed to the semantic or pragmatic content of utterances that accompany those relations. We see a tacit recognition of this in the work of agonistic theorists who promote a public discourse that is more open and diverse, and most convincingly in the communicative democracy articulated by the late Iris Young.

The point I wish to conclude with is that Krause’s article, in positing the body as norm-responsive and agential, provides a rare bridge between traditional, critical approaches to conceiving political life and a new embodied paradigm, a framework from which a view such as the one I have just outlined can help realize the promise of democracy in an era when democracy appears unable to fulfill its promises.