Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

Doing Democracy Otherwise

This was not meant to be shared, it was just something I had to get out of my system, to clear my thoughts, but now I put it here (as the joke goes, this is exactly the place to put things to avoid people reading it). It’s hastily written and polemic, no references, no nothing, but obviously, I am informed and inspired by lots of brilliant people who are way ahead of me, paving the way for other possible worlds.

When I started the PhD project I am now trying frantically to finish, I had two ambitions: I wanted to explore other ways of doing democracy (“in the small”) because it might A) allow more people to participate and B) cultivate new imaginaries of possible worlds.

I expected that one way of doing democracy otherwise would be to move beyond the too firmly rooted ideals of disembodied autonomy and rational discourse. Inspired by new materialism and other strands of thinking beyond the human, I suggested the “junk playground as agora”. Maybe by allowing democratic participation to also consist of non-verbal, bodily engagements, other “voices” could come forth, and other imaginaries could be felt? It was and is a very small contribution, but for me, the journey has turned (almost) everything upside down.

One ambition – inclusion – was normative, following the democratic principles of equality and inclusion. The other was more instrumental, suggesting that to address the problems we are facing and to develop better ways of living together, we need more diverse and richer imaginaries.

These two ambitions are still with me, and I still consider them important.

However, along the way, I realized that (at least) two risks were embedded deep in those aspirations.

First, if the epistemological underpinnings of my contributions were to remain rooted in Western Modernity, then how can I hope to hold spaces for other ways of being, knowing and living?

Second, if my conception of democracy continues to insist that “demos” only allows me to include (certain) humans in the equation, then how can we possibly develop more just and livable worlds?

To be succinct, I don’t think it is ethical to perpetuate conceptions of democracy that marginalize and oppress both humans and non-humans alike, not now, not ever (but this is, I’m embarrassed to say, a very recent realization on my part).

Everything that is not considered human – including many humans – have traditionally and routinely been excluded from democracy. It must be evident by now that even for those of us on the privileged side, this cannot continue. The stubborn insistence on human exceptionalism will only serve to demonstrate how we are not all that exceptional after all, and it will, eventually, be the end of humanity. We are killing everything to sustain our gross ways of living, yet we are also, inevitably, killing ourselves.

I cannot fully grasp the implications of this, even theoretically, and I have no answers, no solutions. There is no perfect democratic ideal, only the mess, the swamp, the making of life in the ruins, but is this not the point, exactly? We have tried for so long to maintain the illusion that there is such a thing as an ideal democracy, for everyone, everywhere, and while it has never manifested itself, we have held strong. If only such and such conditions were different, if only those bloody citizens were smarter, if only our systems were more efficient, if only…

In a combination of both good and bad intentions, we have maintained that, roughly, there is only one way to be democratic, and not being democratic is also not accepted. Be democratic, but be democratic the way we tell you to.

Now it feels like we’re at an impasse, a dead end, where we humans try to hold on to our own exceptionalism, while we’re killing each other and everything else. Something has to give (and it must be us).

At this point, I would say that if democracy cannot evolve into new forms that are more ethically and functionally appropriate, we would have to leave it behind in search of other ways of pursuing collaborative survival. In the end, democracy is not important. The possibility of worlds where everything might thrive, however, is.

I have hope, still, that democracy can help us, we just need to find ways of being democratic together, across all the divides we have artificially created, with humans and non-humans alike, with modesty, humility, and respect. The hard part? Humans are not exactly humble as a species, but maybe we can evolve?


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