It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.—Pericles's Funeral Oration, in Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Everyone's equal. Same chances of getting hit. Equal in the eyes of the rocket.—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
When Public Culture was founded in 1988, the challenge seemed to be the emergent global diaspora of the very idea of the public sphere, and multiple forms of modernity that this global journey was beginning to produce. We were keen to use observations of emergent modernities to engage with Jürgen Habermas, Stuart Hall, and Benedict Anderson, who shaped then-dominant views of such qualifiers as “mass,” “public,” and “popular” in our definitions of culture.
In light of what has happened in the thirty-three years since, these debates seem both innocent and utopian. The expansion of publicity has shrunk democratic participation. State failure seems to be an organized strategy of the neoliberal order. Elections have become occasions for the rejection of democracy. Popular culture goes hand in glove with right-wing populist culture. And the global proliferation of alternative modernities, counter-publics, and insurgent cultural forms seems to have been a flash in the pan.
There are many elements to this story and to the lessons we might draw from it. But the one that best fits with a long-standing interest among the editors and authors of Public Culture is the effort to disaggregate the fused elements of the dominant Enlightenment narratives. So, we consider when and under what conditions categories like freedom, the people, the public sphere, and civil society can support one another. We observe situations where they run free, and even amok, as they circulate along global paths that are neither isomorphic nor asymptotic. We note pursuits of freedom through anti-democratic methods and of democracy by repressive means. What might have been a matter of periodic caesuras in the past seems now to be a recurrent aporia.
There are a few default answers for why we may have arrived at this pass. One is a very old answer, with roots that go back at least as far as Plato, reminding us that democracy was never meant for the great unwashed, and that the opening of its doors to the masses was, as Friedrich Hayek put it, “the road to serfdom.” Another default answer targets the golem of digital technology, which is blamed for promoting surveillance and machine tyranny in the Trojan horse of various tech utopias. A third such answer is that democracy has always been an instrument of exclusion and was never really meant to be universal, whether in Plato's Athens, Jefferson's America, or de Gaulle's France. In this last view, Erdoğan's Turkey, Bolsonaro's Brazil, and Modi's India are just the newest examples of the bonfires of the Enlightenment's vanities.
There is something to each of these available narratives. But they seem a bit too general and a bit too comforting in their ease of application. In this issue of Public Culture, we do not propose a one-size-fits-all candidate to compete with or replace the existing stories. Rather, we do what we have always done, which is to publish essays and artworks that seem to us—intuitively—to be significantly symptomatic, and then to invite our readers to consider what the trigger of these symptoms might be.
The issue opens with cover art by Nettrice Gaskins. Gaskins collaborates with artificial intelligences to generate digital portraits. These works, while born digital, draw on physical sources such as cloth to lend a textural complexity to the handmade algorithmic. Gaskins is a theorist of techno-vernacular creativity, and her work reminds us that artificial intelligence can be an expressive medium. Tools and technologies of calculation and automation can be used to deny people their agency, individuality, and imagination. But they can also be engaged as means of adding vibrancy to the human condition by enhancing our recognition of personhood through an image of a face.
Allen Feldman contributes the Forum essay “The Front, the Frontier, Police Anarchy, and the Solidarity of the Shaken.” Feldman draws attention to the spectacular incoherence of twenty-first-century executive power. Institutions of enforcement are so shifting, inconsistent, and ill-defined that the state appears headless. “State frontality,” he posits, “no longer maintains borders; rather, the errant border, external and internal, maintains the frontage of the state” (13). A state is no less dangerous for being disordered and leaky, but how to articulate the topology of that danger?
When Allen Feldman (1994) wrote about “cultural anesthesia” almost thirty years ago, he was analyzing the topology of this danger. He drew our attention to the ways violence, close-up and at remove, could be folded together until suffering disappears from view. In 1991, people huddled around televisions to watch the United States invade Iraq. Patriot missiles tracing lines across the sky were narrated as signs that America could deal death accurately and at distance, with almost no casualties of its own. Only two months later, Americans were once again riveted to their televisions by a display of state violence. This time it was not distant traces of military power, but police brutality in gory, intimate detail. Rodney King was arrested and beaten by five Los Angeles police officers and the incident was captured on Sony Video8 Handycam by George Holliday, who was watching from his apartment window.
Footage from King's arrest should have been a watershed moment in public understanding. The arrest video was shown repeatedly during the trial. It was slowed down, sped up, freeze-framed, chopped, and voiced over, until King's body was evacuated of personhood and his very being, it seemed, “prejustified state violence” (Feldman 1994: 413). That ten years later the United States again invaded Iraq and that justification was offered through grainy satellite images should give us pause. That this year Darnella Frazier was awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize for recording the murder of George Floyd indicates that consumer electronics in the hands of bystanders still constitute a frontier edge in the pursuit of justice. Have the contours and topology of public culture changed?
Feldman picks up here, in these conditions where post hoc and prejustified rationales for the use of force generate a sense of groundlessness and totality. Feldman intervenes with an innovative expansion of Jan Patočka's concept of “solidarity of the shaken” predicated on scars, injuries, and meaninglessness. Video footage of violence at the hands of the state plays and replays on countless devices circulating through media networks and activating past traumas while proliferating trauma anew. We need means of conducting political life in these conditions lest we cede the future to a “fractal fascism” of a paranoid security state.
The Essays section opens with “The Ambient Politics of Affective Computing,” by Angela Xiao Wu. Affective computing has emerged as a domain of interest amid the frenzy of surveillance capitalism and algorithmic governance discourse. It promises that emotions can be recognized and classified and that models can be built for generating content that can influence people's feelings and perhaps even their actions.
Whether or not such technologies ever could work (they can't), critics and proponents alike base their analyses on a liberal subject whose depths can be plumbed for authentic emotions. “At its heart,” Wu writes, “this essay seeks to reorient theorization of affective computing away from individualized and interiorized subjects to shared conditions for collective agency and sociality” (24).
The Xi administration does not add “like” buttons to government content because tracking “likes” offers some fundamental insight into the hearts and minds of Internet users. “Likes” are a thin indicator of approbation, and this thinness gives the data value. Ambiguity lends these expressions a certain interpretive flexibility. “Likes” fit zhengnengliang, or positive energy discourse of maximized effects through circulation. Online engagement can be read as political support. Affective computing isn't about precise emotion detection, it is “ambient politics” operating within a history of sentiment expressions and markets for leveraging crowd imaginaries to influence political outcomes.
In “‘Your Life Is One-Hundred-Percent at Risk’: The Caravan of the Mutilated and the Internationalism of the Vulnerable,” Eric Vázquez details transborder-solidarity work carried out by the Asociación de Migrantes Retornados con Discapacidad, or Association of Returned Migrants with Disabilities (AMIREDIS). Through video testimonios, AMIREDIS members narrate experiences of vulnerability that come from living with instability. The Honduran national economy depends on remesas (remittances), yet the risks involved in securing these flows is borne by individuals and their families. Migrants wager their bodies and their lives for the opportunity to be surplus labor in a foreign land. As more than seven hundred documented cases of injury, mutilation, and death attest, journeying north is a “savage risk.”
AMIREDIS members collectivized their demands for recognition and redress as la caravana de los mutilados, or the caravan of the mutilated, an organized march to the United States border. As Vázquez writes, “One may reinterpret migrant caravans as interdependent assemblies who venture after restitution for over a century of economic and military interference in their national affairs” (56). They substantiate a political claim to transnational mobility as part of the “internationalism of the vulnerable” (49).
In “‘Hindustan Is a Dream’: Urdu Poetry and the Political Theology of Intimacy,” Anand Vivek Taneja brings us to protests in the wake of the December 2019 passage of the Indian Citizenship Amendment Act, which marked a new stage of state-sanctioned exclusion of Muslims from full belonging to the nation. Taneja asks, “How do people learn the ethical and affective stances to be the kind of self who lives—and desires to live—with different communities, and diverse and challenging others? If nationalism is necessarily exclusionary, how do you perform belonging in a different mode?” (77).
Taneja draws our attention to a pluralistic political vision articulated in opposition to right-wing rule and Hindutva purity ideology. This dream of Hindustan as watan, or homeland, grounds belonging in a diversity of places and intimate relations. It grounds a critique of Hindu nationalism in everyday reservoirs of culture and filiality. Urdu poetry enjoys extraordinary popularity. Mothers and grandmothers lead protests. Friendships and alliances are made in the streets and online, in public sites and private gatherings. People experience a “heterogeneity of the self” as they remake relations and practice forms of care (76). Watan involves knowing that damage was done yet repairing relations all the same.
In “Democracy's Dislocations: Spaces of Protest and the People of Hong Kong,” Sony Devabhaktuni and Joanna Mansbridge bring us to a call for revolution. Drawing on Chantal Mouffe's agonistic model of democracy, they read protesters’ adversarial use of the city as a means of disrupting the grounds of elite interests. In a global city built by two imperial powers to preserve commercial and financial flows, millions of people employed a stunning range of techniques to repurpose infrastructure into barricades and tactical positions. Calls for full electoral participation for Heung gong yan, or Hong Kong people, aligned with a certain liquidity. To protest “one country, two systems,” the people must, as one protest slogan goes, “be like water.” In Hong Kong, the future is open. What remains to be seen is how much space for pluralism, and therefore antagonism, can be sustained.
Finally, Daniel Agbiboa contributes “The Checkpoint State: Extortion, Discontents, and the Pursuit of Survival,” an ethnography of truckers, drivers, and transportation workers in northeast Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin. With the rise of Boko Haram, the state is highly invested in security checkpoints along major routes. But a checkpoint state is a disordered state and the security apparatus proliferates insecurities. Every stop is an occasion for risk analysis. Who must be submitted to, who can be disregarded, what terms can be negotiated, and when might resistance prove lethal? Drivers might encounter soldiers, militia, police, machete-armed youth, state informants, or insurgents. They must try to discern which checkpoints are real and which are not, lest they become little more than “ATM machines” for security men. Is it any wonder that truckers regularly consult with marabouts before setting out on their way?
In volume 34, Public Culture will continue to curate content by means of oblique strategies. We are alert to the open questions and emergent forms of collectivity arising to contest nationalist imaginaries. In the issues to come, we draw together cultural analysts interested in transcultural strategies for new freedoms and diverse ways of being across many social worlds.