Rethinking Democratic Agency: Race, Gender, Sexuality, Autonomy
Fri, September 4, 2:30 to 4:00pm, Nikko, Carmel I
This panel asks what can be recovered in the concept of individual agency in the face of doubts about traditional liberal notions of autonomy. More specifically, the point is to examine the relationship between various conceptions of agency and the justification of democracy as a political and social regime.
In her paper (“Agency without Optimism: Afro-Pessimism and Queer Negativity”), Annie Menzel brings two recent theoretical strains into conversation around these questions. The first, Afro-pessimism, posits that, in the US at least, black people are ontologically excluded from the realm of the human, an exclusion rooted in chattel slavery but still evident in the contemporary disposability of black lives—rendering aspirations for democratic participation within our actually existing society a cruel delusion. The second, a queer critique of optimism/celebration of failure, is a call for the structurally oppressed to let go of the fantasies that tether them to the very conditions that preclude their flourishing: aspirations to mastery, future happiness, and conventional notions of the good life. Menzel argues that queer negativity’s emphasis on affect—in contrast to the former’s foregrounding of political ontology—may underestimate the specificity and immediate existential threat of antiblack violence, and the structural differentiation of the conditions and consequences of refusal. Nevertheless, read together, the two strains’ respective refusals of the violence of what is, and reconsiderations of political temporality, offer crucial guidance on questions of whether, how, and what kinds of agency might be recoverable in our ongoing moment of crisis, and what their relationship to democracy might be.