Democracy and the Political Unconscious

Democracy and the Political Unconscious

Noëlle McAfee
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Democracy and the Political Unconscious
    Book Description:

    Political philosopher Noelle McAfee proposes a powerful new political theory for our post-9/11 world, in which an old pathology-the repetition compulsion-has manifested itself in a seemingly endless war on terror. McAfee argues that the quintessentially human desire to participate in a world with others is the key to understanding the public sphere and to creating a more democratic society, a world that all members can have a hand in shaping. But when some are effectively denied this participation, whether through trauma or terror, instead of democratic politics, there arises a political unconscious, an effect of desires unarticulated, failures to sublimate, voices kept silent, and repression reenacted. Not only is this condition undemocratic and unjust, it may lead to further trauma. Unless its troubles are worked through, a political community risks continual repetition and even self-destruction.

    McAfee deftly weaves together her experience as an observer of democratic life with an array of intellectual schemas, from poststructural psychoanalysis to Rawlsian and Habermasian democratic theories, as well as semiotics, civic republicanism, and American pragmatism. She begins with an analysis of the traumatic effects of silencing members of a political community. Then she explores the potential of deliberative dialogue and other "talking cures" and public testimonies, such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to help societies work through, rather than continually act out, their conflicts.

    Democracy and the Political Unconscious is rich in theoretical insights, but it is also grounded in the practical problems of those who are trying to process the traumas of oppression, terror, and brutality and create more decent and democratic societies. Drawing on a breathtaking range of theoretical frameworks and empirical observations, Democracy and the Political Unconscious charts a course for democratic transformation in a world sorely lacking in democratic practice.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51112-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: The Sociosymbolic Public Sphere
    (pp. 1-10)

    This book aims to make sense of a pathology unleashed on September 11, 2001—a pathology that had certainly been at work for millennia but now became a more overt threat to peoples around the world. Bizarrely, one of the weapons this pathology wielded was “democracy,” not the real thing but an ersatz form in the guise of “democratization,” a process of repetition that is anything but democratic. For “their” sake, we invade a people’s homeland and root out enemies of democracy, people who “hate our freedoms.” The events of September 11 have many old and tangled roots, but one...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Political Unconscious
    (pp. 11-27)

    I began writing this book on the day of the Madrid bombings of 2004, when it seemed that the clash of civilizations between East and West was suffering a repetition compulsion, with each side promising to annihilate the other and both sides vowing to kill rather than ever talk. Why not talk? I wondered. Why this thought that talking with perpetrators was a kind of caving in, a submission, a negotiation (as in, “we do not negotiate with terrorists”)? Why the terrible apprehension about engaging the other? What was going on, to put it boldly, in the world’s political unconscious?...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Modernity’s Traumas
    (pp. 28-47)

    Modernity’s traumas are many, more than can be recounted in a book, much less a chapter. The war correspondent Chris Hedges gives his quick and dead-on count:

    Look just at the 1990s: 2 million dead in Afghanistan; 1.5 million dead in the Sudan; some 800,000 butchered in ninety days in Rwanda; a half-million dead in Angola; a quarter of a million dead in Bosnia; 200,000 dead in Guatemala; 150,000 dead in Liberia; a quarter of a million dead in Burundi; 75,000 dead in Algeria; and untold tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the fighting...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Targeting the Public Sphere
    (pp. 48-66)

    The last chapter charted the traumatic birth of the modern and ended with the choice trauma presents: either to work through it or to cover it over with denial. For the most part, modernity has chosen the latter. Maintaining denial, given the enormity of some of these traumas, requires major defenses. We saw some of these in the last chapter, enumerated in Anna Freud’s list: “regression, repression, reaction-formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self, and reversal” (Rycroft 1995:32). To what extent are these defenses tied up with the meaning of modernity itself? Charles Taylor describes modernity as a...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Repetition Compulsion or the Endless War on Terror
    (pp. 67-81)

    I have been arguing for understanding the public sphere as a space that people create as they use semiotic modes to participate in a world with others, to coordinate action and produce outcomes; a space in which public employments of semiotic structures, discursive and otherwise, construct meaning, identity, purpose, and political direction. By “public” I mean what John Dewey meant in The Public and Its Problems: an array of people who are related by common interests or concerns. As Dewey put it, “The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Recovering Community
    (pp. 82-107)

    Analyzing the problem to this point is easy compared to what comes next: trying to fathom how a people and peoples can work through these traumas so that they are not doomed to continuously act them out. There are many people focusing on these issues, from international conflict resolution and sustained dialogue efforts in various regions of the world to the work of new citizen media in the developing world that allows those who have not been able to voice their concerns to do so.

    I want to point to what I think is a significant resource: the international society...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Deliberative Democracy
    (pp. 108-124)

    In chapter 1, in discussing the public sphere, I began to describe what I mean by democratic politics. As noted there, democracy takes place in this public realm where public meaning and purpose are created, ultimately the meaning and purposes that steer a political community. A true democracy begins early and deep, in the abilities of all members of the polity to feel themselves members of a common public space with a hand in shaping its contours. Democracy takes place in the assembly and the town meeting, not merely in the private space of a voting booth. A democracy is...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Feminist Theory, Politics, and Freedom
    (pp. 125-140)

    In this chapter I use feminist theory and politics as a case study for showing how a deliberative approach can help move people through trauma and repetition. In the span of recorded history, as far as we can tell, fully half of the human race has undergone some kind of repeated trauma. Women nearly universally are considered second-class citizens, if citizens at all. Still today, they are victims of degradation and violence. Much of the feminist consciousness that has risen to counter this history itself bears the marks of this trauma, visible through its language of oppression. Here I unpack...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Public Knowledge
    (pp. 141-156)

    In chapter 5 I discussed the role of narrative in working through trauma. I noted that the “truth” that emerges from witnessing to trauma, from the stories that are told, lies somewhere between phronesis and sophia. It folds what happened into a scheme of what should not have happened and what might possibly happen, if we are fortunate enough, in the communities we are trying to create anew.

    In this chapter I focus on the idea of public knowledge in the broader context of democratic practice. My hope is to show the quality of publicly generated knowledge and the ways...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Three Models of Democratic Deliberation
    (pp. 157-172)

    By now it should be clear that my ideas of deliberative democracy depart considerably from those of Habermas and company. What I am sketching is more compatible with poststructuralist notions of subjectivity and discourse. The thread that runs from that kind of continental philosophy to this kind of democratic theory is the practice we call talk, which political leaders and traumatized body politics shudder at engaging in. How are we to talk with the other who seems so unreasonable? How are we to talk when we still cannot fathom what has befallen us? In this chapter I aim to sharpen...

  14. CHAPTER 10 The Limits of Deliberation, Democratic Myths, New Frontiers
    (pp. 173-186)

    As the previous chapters have explored, public talk can accomplish much. In the truth and reconciliation commissions that serve to help nations recover from brutal pasts, it can help survivors of trauma reclaim their title as citizens; help the people of a nation fathom the depths of the wrongs that were committed; and help past perpetrators, at least those who mourn their deeds, find reconciliation in a new society. In the deliberative forums of more developed democracies, it can “de-colonize” the public sphere (Habermas 1987), giving the public a way to help develop a public will that can guide public...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Media and the Public Sphere
    (pp. 187-204)

    This final chapter describes opportunities for sublimation in a world of new media technologies that allow people to speak for themselves and farflung people to speak with each other. Effective sublimation may make it possible for people to “find themselves” in a public sphere, as members of larger political projects, in a way that only the ancients could have hoped for. I go here cautiously, somewhere between technological determinists who think that all new media are liberating and skeptics who worry about the loss of face-to-face communication and the ironic isolation that occurs when everyone is a blogger and no...

  16. Epilogue
    (pp. 205-206)

    The times we are in are truly momentous. Not only are we still reeling from and acting out the traumas that accompanied the birth of modernity, we are in a time that allows for sublimation on a scale never before seen. We can work through our troubles. Even in a world where realpolitik still reigns, we have a new politics of deliberation and civil work emerging. Even as genocide still haunts the earth, we have a global movement for truth and reconciliation. Even as the cult of expertise still has its grasp, we have a world where people are beginning...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 207-218)
    (pp. 219-226)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 227-246)