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Reading Democracy

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Organizer: Alessandro Giammei

Co-Organizer: Pieter Vanhove

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21st century international politics and media have been dominated by the notion that “democracy” can (and should) be conceived as an absolute object, transportable and adaptable across cultural and national boundaries. Arguably rooted in the universalism of late trans-Atlantic human(itarian)ism, and encouraged by the apparent outcomes of the Cold War, this concept of democracy as an exportable, viral, intrinsically preferable, and teleological idea, system, or practice is immediately challenged when one looks at the word that identifies it in its textual substance. This seminar proposes to overcome the political monolingualism, positivism, essentialism, anthropocentrism, and colonialism of democratic thinking as well as question the notion that democracy is purely a Western notion by reading democracy through the literary perspectives of translation and (un)translatability, criticism and post-critique, philology and etymology, as well as new forms of critical (post)humanism.

The term “democracy” itself needs to be interrogated beyond its Greek-rooted, Anglophone appearance of cosmopolitanism. Along the lines of what Butler recently did with the term “gender,” we aim to investigate the translatability, rather than the transportability, of democracy (or, adopting Apter’s rejection of market-driven optimism around concepts of world literature, to contemplate democracy’s situated stillness, intransitivity, and resistance to translation). Considering Derrida’s syntagm “democracy to come,” we also invite to think about the futurible restlessness of democracy as a forever deferred ethical imperative rather than placing it in an archaeological past—in other words, to extract the etymological roots of the term, and to explore the viability and interactions of its components: people and power.

We welcome hypotheses of democratic criticism inspired not only by modern but also pre- or early modern reasonings around those components. One of our guiding voices in conceiving this seminar is that of Said’s last book, which mobilizes Vico’s notion of “sapienza poetica” in order to “fashion a different kind of humanism that was cosmopolitan and text-and-language-bound in ways that absorbed the great lessons of the past […] and still remain attuned to the emergent voices and currents of the present, many of them exilic, extraterritorial, and unhoused.” At the same time, we welcome attempts to queer democracy and exercises of “reparative reading” of it inspired by the latest developments of Sedgwick’s epistemology. In general, our goal is to arrange an up to date theoretical and literary dialogue around democracy at a time in which the urgency of democratic thinking (in response to global climate and humanitarian crises, recrudescences of fascism, military enforced and propagandistically debased elections, and various direct challenges to democratic sovereignty) does not seem to be felt in the realm of comparative literature.

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