Manuscript Project: Mortal Democracy
How can democratic politics better accommodate death? In recent years political theorists of tragedy, mourning and loss, as critics and as supporters of liberal paradigms, have turned to mortality as a political and ethical resource. These authors argue that an awareness of death occasioned by loss, tragedy, or our own sense of finitude can provide grounds for disrupting the increasing slide into exceptionalist, extra-legal politics by the sovereign state, or the hubristic confidence of the liberal, “sovereign” subject. Yet many of these accounts nonetheless adopt a view of death shared with the sovereigntist tradition they critique: death as a negation of life, a fundamentally humane experience which provides the basis for a pre-political or post-political community that transcends division. I argue that adopting more robust, explicitly political vocabulary of death could more effectively disrupt sovereigntist logics that treat life as fungible or disposable, and awaken us to democratic resources in even the most extreme conditions of political vulnerability.
Mortal Democracy thus makes two interventions. First, it argues we should attend to the ways a “common sense view of death” as an occasion of inherent vulnerability and powerlessness is politically ‘naturalized’ rather than natural. By examining alternative political treatments of death developed through a dialogue between ancient and modern authors, I show how distinct conceptions of death shape the kinds of political relationships and capacities persons can imagine and enact. For this task I turn to the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, and Max Weber, showing how for each death shapes their political conclusions in ways that can enable or suppress the conditions of democratic political agency. I develop these accounts against a common historical counter example: Ancient Greece. The Greek, and particularly Athenian, notions of democratic citizenship are highly attuned to death as an active, productive part of democratic political life. Each chapter of Mortal Democracy thus pairs a modern author with a classical interlocutor: Homer, Thucydides, and Aristotle, respectively. By generating a sense of distance and dissonance with an ancient past, I argue these different accounts provide productive grounds for theorizing the political life (and death) in contemporary times. What is at stake in these movements between past and present is the creation of an alternative perspective from which some critical purchase might be developed for thinking, and re-thinking, contemporary problems.
Second, Mortal Democracy argues for a political orientation capable of accommodating diverse treatments of death as a contested part of political life. The final chapter of Mortal Democracy thus inverts this ancient/modern structure, building a democratic orientation towards death from Socrates’ aporetic statement of “mortal ignorance” that lies at the heart of Plato’s Apology. My return to Socrates coincides with my reasons for returning to the example of Athenian life throughout the manuscript as a whole: to create a deliberate sense of estrangement with received political treatments of death and the modes of politics these support. Through an examination of the ways Socrates critiques the plural vocabularies of death active in the ancient polity I suggest we should strive to foster a kind of Socratic aporetic orientation towards death I term ‘mortal ignorance.’ This orientation could dislodge well-worn political expectations about civic capacities and responsibilities towards others in the face of mortal vulnerability. Such dislocation could productively open us to the kinds of alternative narratives of death found in authors such as Nietzsche, Weber and Arendt, while simultaneously supplying a critical vantage from which we might evaluate these mortal politics.
Introduction: “Deathly Politics.”
Chapter One: “The Wisdom of Silenus: Friedrich Nietzsche and The Politics of Death.”
Chapter Two, “A Vocation Unto Death: Max Weber and Soldierly Politics.”
Chapter Three “Death on the Stage: Hannah Arendt and Mortal Publics.”
Chapter Four “Mortal Ignorance: Socrates' Apology for Death.”
Conclusion: “Mortal Democracy.”
An electronic copy of the dissertation text can be accessed here.
Secondary Research Project: Heroic Exceptionalism
Since 1930 there have been roughly 90 superhero movies made with Marvel or DC properties; 70 of these have been made since September 11th, 2001. The political backdrop of the recent popular fascination with superheroes has thus been a growing sense of international political uncertainty and crisis. At home and abroad, questions of the proper limits of sovereign authority, and possibility of democratic action in conditions of seemingly unbridled state power have defined a political world which, simultaneously, has become saturated with superheroic narratives. More than simply mirroring the societies they emerge from, narratives encountered on screen bleed back into political discourse, shaping the affectual responses of political actors and supplying frameworks for understanding themselves within the political landscape they navigate. It is therefore important to ask what kinds of politics, and what kinds of citizens, superheroic stories imagine—and whether they might be leveraged for democratic ends.
In this project I how the tremendous popular fascination with heroes might contribute to a political orientation of ‘heroic exceptionalism’ one defined by narratives of chaotic times, heroic states, and democratic political quietism; or if heroic culture, like tragic heroic culture in the classical polis, might not be leveraged for positive resources of democratic agency, responsibility, and action in contemporary political life. Drawing on classical reception studies, contemporary arguments about melodramatic discourse, and theories of sovereign exceptionalism, I take particular interest in the ways that founding narratives and classical examinations of political power in democratic life are taken up by contemporary ‘heroic’ narratives in print and film. This project engages a robust literature examining how political narratives can bolster extra-legal justifications of power (following Schmitt and Agamben) by reinforcing a worldview where chaotic, overwhelming reality requires a heroic, sovereign response. I argues that Superhero films of Marvel and DC provide useful presentations of contemporary political desires and anxieties about the exercise of sovereign power, and a desire for democratic innocence, agency, and legitimacy. Still in its preliminary stages, I have presented work towards this project at the annual meeting of the 2018 meetings of the Western Political Science Association and at the American Political Science Association, and regularly teach courses on the politics of heroism and the intersections of literature, film, and politics.