Becket Mingwen

As a conceptual tool, democracy seems overly familiar, hardly explanatory—epiphenomenal. Still, it has on recent occasions surprised us, as if it now needed explanation itself. With the rise of right-wing populism and dramatic electoral outcomes in the United States and Europe, one wonders what’s going on with democracy. A forgotten aunt lost in senility suddenly stands up and smashes all the china.

Democracy is a bit banal. It has the blandness of a metonym, as in the headline “How democracies perish,” or the phrase “advanced democracies.” It comes to stand for an entire social, economic, and political structure, rather than a form of popular empowerment; as such, its emancipatory and egalitarian potential seems dimmed. It stands for so much more than democratic ideals and so falls far short of them. But it is in this very metonymic quality that we find its efficiency. It totalizes disparate technical apparatuses, like a trope or figure—a “device.” It is a device constituted by devices, from technological networks to the “technologies of the self.”

In this series, I aim to collect a number of videos that examine some specific ways that democracy operates to construct “the people.” Technology co-constitutes its subject, inventing what it presupposes, and so democracy can be understood itself as a tool that both expresses “the people” but also creates “the people,” complicating any simple notion of government as an “instrument” of popular will. “The people” are themselves traversed by technologies, including surveillance, mass culture, and communications. Not so much a collection of citizens, the population emerges as a field of pre-dividual flows of affect; as sets of data operated on by computational media; and as a network of flexible logistical subjects. Democracy is the “face” of this body politic worked over by apparatuses of biopower, its means of expression and point of legibility.

At the same time, “the people” is also constituted as an abstraction of almost spiritual power, the boundaries of which are aggressively policed. Nationalistic and racial discourses work over democratic systems, identifying “the people” with an ethnic majority. Biopolitics works on this body of “the people” as well as the population, as discourses of care for the body politic dovetail with calls for racial distinction, purity, and “biodiversity.” Flowing below and floating above the citizen, “the people” remains distant from a collection of liberal subjects.

Rather than sharing common positions, the videos on this list form a series of interlocked debates. Beginning with the relationship between democracy and its various techniques, Darius Rejali’s work demonstrates that there is a democratic “tradition” of torture that evolved to operate underneath visual regimes of public scrutiny, and was spread historically through colonialism. Moving from the body of the prisoner to the social body, Tony Cokes’ video “Evil.12” deploys an essay by Brian Massumi on the United States’ color-coded alert system, which taps into the social nervous system ahead of rational reflection. Jodi Dean reveals that democratic participation is used by “communicative capitalism” to simulate rather than enact popular demands, even when we maintain full possession of our affective and intellectual capacities.  Stefano Harney posits that this democratic participation is solicited by apparatuses of governance prospecting for potential sources of value: democracy as a form of management strategy.

From here, we can begin to approach the concept of “the people,” which is never fully identical to the population, and the struggle over its boundaries in democratic politics. Chantal Mouffe, the prominent theorist of agonistic pluralism, debates Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the populist La France Insoumise, about how “the people” is formed from a mass movement and how it gains a political consciousness. Eric Santner establishes that the gap between “the people” and the population is both a question of symbolic investiture and of real exclusions, an inheritance from what remains of the politico-theological sovereign in modern “popular sovereignty.” Lastly, Achille Mbembe outlines the many challenges to democracies globally, focusing on the eroding foundations of the liberal humanist subject and visions of the future. However, his attempt to “rethink democracy beyond the human” is also a call to hopeful invention beyond the European revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps we can still find new forms of democratic life and democratic futures. “Democratix” denotes democracy and technics, but also democratics, a plurality of democratic possibilities.

Becket Mingwen

Becket Mingwen (née Flannery) received his MFA from the University of Southern California in 2014 and attended the Rijksakademie residency program in 2016-2017. His work spans text, image, installation, and sound. His recent work has focused on the relationship of speaking to the production of the self.


January 22, 2018