Democracy, de Tocqueville, and ENDA
I have been and perhaps will always be interested in democracy, either as a set of political institutions arranged such that a so-called collective will is represented and instantiated into a set of juridical norms–or, even more so, democracy as a set of associations—a collective of human networks, of bodies, each possessed of creative capacities, coming together, acting together, recognizing shared experiences, or fate, of differences, or of repetitions.
I am writing this entry because, as I am rereading Democracy in America, I think of Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social—or others who have considered democratic associations as hinged upon, to a certain extent, the notion that individuals are constituted by their actions-in-relations. Certainly we can all think of Marx, and his Grundrisse in this regard, as humans in ‘concrete relations’. But I also think of Michel Callon, and his book Acting in an Uncertain World. These contemporary analyses suggest that individuals are not mere products of the decidedly linguistic turn of post-structural analysis, where discourses invade our ‘souls’ and make us subjects—but rather constituted by the intra-actions of subjects—in spaces, and interactions with (nonhuman) objects.
We might say that democracy exists upon a continuum, not mutually exclusive at all, if we are to trust de Tocqueville’s suggestion—that on one end of this spectrum lies the civil society in which egalitarian action instantiates a set of democratic affect and on the other, the constraining features of a representative set of juridical institutions. I don’t believe that de Tocqueville or any others have established an actual definition of the contours of a ‘real’ democratic society. I don’t believe we have ever really seen one on the whole, but rather only in its pieces.
I do believe that democracy such that it is cannot exist without a degree of interaction within a space, in which Latour’s actants (or, according to Karen Barad, an enactment of agency) occurs on the part of subjects coming together, of relating. If we are to criticize, then, contemporary methods of understanding democracy, it would be to open up a dialogue about the available spaces for the purposes of these gatherings, this entrances to a collective of discussion—the instantiation of a collective. Should we not take into account that space, either as a geometrically defined unit, self-contained, either private or public—or as ephemeral, cyber-like, the Internet—exists for all kinds of purposes that ought to have democratic ends? But really, should we not think about space in the construction of our definitions of democracy? So much time has been spent, so much exhausting intellectual labor (fruitful, generative as it is) about the who, but not enough about the where.
The who, in itself, has been brought under a tighter scrutiny by social theorists who argue that the privileging of humans within spatial settings is a symptom of our rather anthropocentric way of rendering the world around us. Can’t we, or shouldn’t we, think about the ways in which space and matter come together, and act on us in space—where we, and the objects around us, bleed on one another, as mutually constitutive? In the process of identifying how individuals come together for the purposes of developing community—and here I mean discursive and biological commonalities, and many of these are inter/intra acting communities—won’t we as social theorists be judged by our failure to see that objects act upon us, engage us, and force us to think in ways that are generative of what it means to be human in a growingly technological age.
I don’t believe Susan Stryker herself was aware that, as she expressed so beautifully the concept of ‘transgender rage’ that the tearing and rending of flesh through biomedical processes, that these processes was acting upon her body not by and through discourse alone. It was bodies, transgender bodies or not, pushing back on those discourses as well. To be, to act, to do, is something that is not entirely left to the actant merely because of discourse, but the actant in relation to matter around hir and the discourse around matter. In the construction of her/hir/ze, the matter becomes part of the gendered discourse, becomes sexed, but pushes back in enraging and engaging ways—gives Stryker her ‘dark power’ to indict Nature. But by indicting Nature, Stryker doubly indicts herself—for she must construct out of the intra-actions of a organic collective that is her own body a thing that she can embrace. A person who I most certainly embrace—the monstrum of beautiful things that are, and those things to come. If this is too abstract, let me be concrete.
With the (hopeful) passage of the trans* inclusive ENDA, can this be considered a victory for democracy? Does this inaugurate the inclusion of trans* people within that democratic emblem I have called association? Is it so that trans* people may now enter public spaces freely, and engage in the democratic egalitarianism envisaged in this (oblique) essay? Or rather, is its a victory for the inclusion of people into private assays of economic and capital gains; for the privatization of space in which a trans* person does not construct themselves by and through action of association, but by and for the owner of the work they do/produce? Does a trans* inclusive ENDA, instantiating protections for those to come out of the closet of norms, as it were, and enter the private apparatuses of industry as dutiful workers mean that democracy has somehow won a foothold in the progressive battle for LGBT rights? I do not believe so. At best, it signifies the work of myriad activists to have the name trans* uttered on the lips of representative institutions is productive ways; it shows that hard work through the democratic representative process can amount to the creation of ‘protective’ law; it places trans* politics on a footing that may contend with LGB silos of activism. But at worst, it represents that trans* people (living in poverty) may now go to those low wage jobs and work; it does little to destabilize the documentation processes by which state and national authorities mark sex (change) and gender; it does not protect a gender-nonconforming man or woman from being asked to don the appropriate attire of their gender/sex identity (see an irony?). It merely says they can now go to work, but are nevertheless acted on by the space(s) that regulate in order to ‘be’ this way or that.
With this (not so simple) issue as a mere example, in what direction should we go with analyzing democratic gains and legislative ‘representativeness’ contemporarily? Perhaps de Tocqueville’s call for a new democratic science to understand the complex ways our society, as a fluid and unfixed assemblage of moving parts, is coming together/undone is perennial. If he can make such a call over a century and a half ago, then perhaps we need to as well.