A pilot project funded by the Faculty of Social Sciences Research Development Fund, 2019–2020
What is the relation between listening and democracy? Today we are witnessing, on the one hand, increasingly implacable demands to be heard and, on the other, paradoxically both a dearth and a surplus of listening. The themes of listening and democracy have been more or less tightly interwoven in political philosophy since Plato, but there has been no sustained study of how aurality, participation, representation, and the people are bound together as these concepts evolve in the continental philosophical tradition. The contemporary global situation, with the resurgence of anti-system politics and the turn within neoliberalism towards nationalist variants, throws this nexus into the spotlight and calls for a fresh analysis of the current crises of democratic representation specifically as a crisis of listening.
This project is a pilot piece of research, funded by the Research Development Fund at Warwick, in preparation for a larger research project that will address these questions from an innovative, transdisciplinary perspective, combining the tools of political philosophy alongside the practice of sensory ethnography, specifically field recording. The large-scale project will cover three main sites—France, the UK, and the US—building on my own research expertise and working with a network of international collaborators. While there are striking differences, in all three countries democratic representation has been grounded in an historical dominance of two main parties and a neoliberal consensus that led to the weakening of the centre left and fuelled the rise of populist movements. There are also interesting exchanges and debates between actors in these sites about tactics of resistance and the promotion of democracy at local levels. The pilot will focus on the contemporary situation in France where the trajectory of the gilets jaunes offers a particularly rich example. While the larger project will examine how the concepts of voice and listening have been imbricated in accounts of democracy since Plato through 18th- and 19th-century European political philosophy to recent French thinkers, the pilot will focus on a chapter in this history. Derrida’s work on nationalism is an ideal pilot study because of the singular attention he pays to voice and listening and because his analysis of nationalism in the European context illuminates the current amalgam of anti-EU sentiment and appeals to a pseudo-democratic notion of the people.
The first strand of the pilot involves in-depth archival study of Derrida’s largely unpublished and unexamined seminars on nationalism delivered in 1984–88 at EHESS and an extended set of unpublished interviews from the same decade on the topic of silence in relation to political responsibility and complicity. The second strand of research uses field recording to address the role of listening in democratic action, asking how it can be used as a method to investigate changing conditions and practices of listening and democratic participation and what can it tell us about typographies of resistance in social movements and other forms of activism. Building on my earlier fieldwork in the Parisian banlieue where long-standing issues of (post)coloniality and police violence mix with the far-right threat, the pilot will focus on the tensions and possibilities for convergence between the gilets jaunes movement and activists in the quartiers populaires, taking listening as both object and method of enquiry better to understand its risks, challenges, and opportunities for building intersectional coalitions and collectively formulating democratic demands.