Dissertation Project: Mortal Democracy: Confronting Death in Political Life
My dissertation, “Mortal Democracy: Confronting Death in Political Life,” elaborates several different political accounts of death as a part of political life. Within liberal thought more generally, there is also a sense that death’s meaning should be kept strictly private, ‘quarantined’ from political life; either from a desire to separate deeply felt convictions from the application of state power, or from the belief that the instrumental bargaining of politics should not enter into the valuation of life and death. Yet whether we are comfortable with the idea or not, attitudes about death form a powerful part of how individuals engage in political relationships, and understand the broader meaning of their political practices. I therefore argue that a more textured, nuanced political vocabulary of death could allow us to be more attentive to our political capacities in conditions of extreme vulnerability, and better enabled to resist dangerous political dynamics we might otherwise overlook. My dissertation thus challenges a tendency in recent political theory to treat the experience of mortality as grounds for a broad, pre-political ethic, or a transcendent, post-political humanism.
Through a dialogue between ancient and modern sources, Mortal Democracy develops three accounts of death drawn from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, and Hannah Arendt. I read each alongside an interlocutor from ancient Greek literature or political thought—Homer, Thucydides, and Aristotle, respectively. Through these conversations I demonstrate that how we think about death radically shapes how we imagine and perform the relationships that constitute political life. I ultimately argue that death’s plural and contested meanings need not be quarantined from public life, but rather the polity should inoculate against death’s excesses through a deliberately inclusive, open-ended accommodation of death developed through a critical reading of Plato’s Apology. The aporetic statement of “mortal ignorance” at the heart of Socrates defense, I argue, provides a critical vantage point from which we might acknowledge death’s plural, contested place as a part of political life. Doing so, we stand to more fully recognize those distinct political capacities and responsibilities that we have in conditions of existential vulnerability. We also gain powerful tools for resisting those extremist and violent politics which have traditionally leveraged death’s meaning for political ends, and which pose an increasing threat to democratic political practices in our contemporary world.
Dissertation Chapter Titles:
Introduction: A "denial of death."
Chapter One: “The Wisdom of Silenus: Friedrich Nietzsche and The Politics of Death.”
Chapter Two, “A Vocation Unto Death: Max Weber, Modernity, and Soldierly Politics”
Chapter Three “Death on the Stage: Hannah Arendt and the Disappearances of Death,”
Chapter Four “Mortal Ignorance: Socrates' Apology for Death.”
Conclusion: Mortal Democracy.
An electronic copy of the entire text can be accessed here.
New Research Projects: Heroic Politics
Much attention has been given to the ways that tragedy and tragic theater informed the political sensibilities of the classical Athenian polis. These plays have been used as a lens to enliven our understanding of democratic politics and conflicts, adding texture and depth to the way we think about Athenian political practice—sometimes illustrating, other times undermining, the core claims and categories of democratic politics. Some theorists, such as Peter Euben and Simon Goldhill, have therefore asked what the lack of a similarly tragic outlook might mean for our world today. Building from this conversation, I am interested in the ways that recent literary and political narratives of heroism could provide a political lens similar to that offered by tragedy, one equally capable of illuminating or undermining contemporary political questions.
Heroism and heroes have alternatively been treated with longing or distrust by political theorists as diverse as Plato, Rousseau, Carlyle, and Lincoln. They are understood as models for civic emulation, or dangerous, disruptive social agents in need of constant redirection and restraint. Heroes, also, are often depicted as responses to a world in crisis, one that lacks the overarching direction or purpose of a utopian or historical narrative of progress. I therefore ask if the tremendous popular fascination with heroes, reflects a deeper political orientation of ‘heroic exceptionalism’ one defined by narratives of chaotic times and democratic political quietism; or if heroic culture, like tragic culture, might not also provide positive resources for rethinking democratic agency, responsibility, and action in contemporary political life. This project draws on classical reception studies, particularly as classical myths have been taken up in literature and film. Within political theory, I engage a robust literature examining “sovereign exceptionalism,” and extra-legal justifications of power that also make use of a specific worldview that is chaotic, and in need of heroic response. I am particularly interested in the reception of classical political themes in popular American heroic narratives, with a special emphasis on the iconic comic book heroes in the United States, their historical use as part of WWII propaganda, and their recent omnipresence.