[First published by the Canadian Journal of Political Science, this review essay began with an idea inspired by the work of Roberto Esposito which is that a self (a person) can hold or practise multiple forms of citizenship.]
Referencing guide: Gagnon, Jean-Paul. 2017. “Grandiose Citizenship and the Dialectic of the Citizen and the Self”. Canadian Journal of Political Science | Revue canadienne de science politique, 50 (2): 625-629.
The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization
Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 256.
Creative Rebellion for the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Public and Interactive Art to Political Life in America
Basingstoke UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 222.
The Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal
Cambridge UK: Polity, 2012, pp. 200.
Democracy depends on a competent citizenry. Individuals composing the citizenry, for instance, need to have the knowledge, skill set and disposition that will allow them to professionally engage their elected representatives, to deeply understand the characteristics of their polities, to meaningfully participate in the public sphere and, overall, to collectively embody a shared life observable to others as being democratic in its nature. Yet we are confronted with the realization that an institution of the citizenry, as here expressed, is not observable in any democracy. This reflects badly for practised democracies today. If anything it brings their democratic credentials into doubt.
What might be interfering with the realization of the citizenry as an institution in practised democracies? An inquiry led by three books, The Triumph of Emptiness (Alvesson, 2013), Creative Rebellion for the Twenty-First Century (Boros, 2012), and The Third Person (Esposito 2012), explains that citizenship suffers from grandiosity but that there is remedy to this condition.
Mats Alvesson’s The Triumph of Emptiness contributes in critical fashion to the debates on shallowness in the institutions and practices found in today’s wealthy societies (for example, Sweden, the USA, Canada, UK). One of his monograph’s redeeming features is its explanation of how and why individuals, businesses, and governments gild the lily. Alvesson succeeds in demonstrating how facades, characterized by their empty insides, have come to supplant substance.
That institutions and practices ring hollow has to do with an intentional narcissism which serves power and is expressed through grandiose claims. The use of superlatives brings value to an object. At the level of institutions,
stylizing an object that is central to an institution as “the greatest” is done to secure and grow the institution’s power. Governments, for instance, beat the drum of ideal democracy to ensure that their power is perceived as a legitimate one. And the individuals these governments govern tend, as a consequence of this drum beating, to style themselves as democrats living in the greatest democracy. Yet despite this and as critical philosophers have long maintained, there is actually little democratic substance on offer in these situations.
In certain “real existing democracies” (Schmitter, 2011) politicians use illusion tricks to establish their façade. Somehow a candidate’s looks in a televised debate convince electors that she is more able to perform the tasks of her office than the other. The speaker of polished platitudes and mantras, perfect for sound bites but offering little in substance, gains advantage over the other as he works through a complex argument. This reminds us of the USA’s presidential election in 2000 which saw Al Gore run against George Walker Bush and Gore’s publication of The Assault on Reason (2007) after his election defeat.
Alvesson’s book interrogates a range of sociological phenomena which partly directs the reader to the grandiose, but ultimately empty, promises made by politicians. Individuals excited by such promises are left unsatisfied after the electoral contest is over. The grandiosity built when the politician made her promises generates frustration and dismay in those electors that tried to consume it. I write “tried” as there is actually nothing for individuals to consume. The politician’s promises are hollow. Such is the tragedy of grandiosity and the triumph of emptiness.
Alvesson’s thesis extends past the examples used within his book. Grandiosity and emptiness lend themselves well as a heuristic to thinking about the ways that governments mediate citizenship. What is meant here is the way that governments signal, often in real time, to their citizens what is expected of them, that is, how “selves” should behave as “citizens”.
Corrective signals are directed at citizens through mediated communications like published policy documents on citizenship, changes to existing laws or the creation of new laws, politicians’ speeches on how the citizenry should behave, altered directions in compulsory curriculum, social advertising, tax incentives and constant news cycles.
Brown and Baker (2012), however, troublingly show that signals sent by governments to selves in “neoliberal” countries are ones that stress unrealistic behaviours. To be a good citizen the self must assume more responsibility for her own welfare. One should be less reliant on the treasury for financial support when looking for work. One should pay a fee when visiting their doctor. And one should assume the responsibility for the cost of their education by saving money or entering into an arrangement with a private creditor like a bank.
These signals, which governments use to try to define and control the meaning of citizenship, are grandiose. This is because the government’s adjusted meaning of citizenship in the neoliberal example is both difficult
for many individuals to reach in practice and often at odds with how selves already perceive their duties as citizens. Selves thus become frustrated by being unable and often unwilling to conform to the ideations of citizenship defined by the governing power.
The grandiosity of citizenship is differently reflected in Diana Boros’ book Creative Rebellion for the Twenty-First Century. Whereas Brown and Baker (2012) explain grandiose citizenship to be a way of living politically that is both out of the reach of selves and out of touch with the sentiments of selves, Boros argues grandiose citizenship to be one that does not provide selves with a means to participate in politics. Instead of stressing that governments are demanding too much from individuals she stresses that governments are demanding too little from them.
Boros goes further to say that “the definition of citizenship…today has devolved to mean little more than someone with the ability to vote for the offices of government” (2). Voting is made out, especially in the United States, to be a sacred and effective action, the epitome of citizenship. It is precisely because of such overblown claims that a government can say what it likes about citizenship but unless it offers avenues for selves to lead “a sincere democratic life” (1), then there will be little to no citizenship happening under its nose.
The way that governments adjust the meaning of citizenship is a problem. Grandiose claims hollow out citizenship because selves see no possible substance in them. That means that selves see little to no substance in citizenship. This cheapens citizenship. It makes it feckless and adds to the ongoing malaise that the representative form of democracy is presently experiencing. As a consequence of grandiosity Boros argues that citizenship is “simplified and sterilized of both [its] natural emotional force and…uniqueness” but that it may also “cease to exist” (3).
Boros’ book offers one response to this problem, one way of avoiding the shallowness and tepidity that has come to define today’s democratic spirit (3). Public participatory art focusing on political issues creates a space where selves can explore one or more issues that are central to their society. In this respect they are acting as citizens if citizenship is defined by an individual taking an interest in a public issue and acting on it with other individuals in public.
Rebellion for the Twenty-First Century captures and describes a number of participatory, public and political art performed mainly in New York City. Boros differentiates art from the commissioned to uncommissioned (that is, state-sponsored art versus graffiti art) and participatory to conceptual (that is, people can touch or physically engage the art versus people are asked to imagine the political issue that the art is emphasizing). The book makes a substantive contribution to the link between art and the spirit of democracy. Importantly, it advances a compassionate argument full of irony for how and why we should be trying to reinvigorate the democratic life in democracies.
But the book suffers from limitations. Public art is not sufficiently practised, it is typically found only in urban environments, and it is underfunded. Because of this its impact is not as great as it could be. Indeed, Boros’ book appears to confront this issue and succeeds in acting as a justification for why we should be promoting public art; it does serve to invigorate the public sphere and can be a site for selves to act as citizens. But in itself public art is unable to create the institution of the citizenry. That will take more than public art alone.
A more comprehensive answer to the problem comes from The Third Person (2013) by Roberto Esposito. In this book about the philosophy of the “person,” translated by Zakiya Hanafi, Esposito encourages us to think of ourselves in the neuter, as objects. In other words we should not think of ourselves in terms of “he/she” or “I/me,” but in terms of “it.” What this emphasis on the neuter does is create a dialectic space between the self and the citizen. As a person thinks of herself as an object, “the citizen,” a space appears between the person as a self and the person as a citizen. This space allows the person to think of herself as a citizen in a more objective, impersonal, way.
From Esposito’s ontology a person can imagine herself performing different actions or interacting with different modes of citizenship. This process can begin an internal dialog about why a person is this kind of citizen and not that kind of citizen, about why a person’s idea of citizenship contributes to the greater good, about how other selves are being citizens and how that relates to this person’s ideas of citizenship, and so on. Citizens, especially in Western liberal democracies (Rapeli, 2013, 2014), are usually not in the habit of thinking this way.
In his successful deconstruction of the subjective person Esposito stresses two things. The first is that there is a space between the self and the citizen, a space that we can use to explore the relationship between our personal self with our citizen self (the object). And the second is that our conceptual work in this space between self and citizen emphasizes that there are varieties of citizenship, many different ways a self could conceive of being citizen and of how that might contribute to the common good.
As Esposito writes, “the impersonal does not negate the personal frontally, as a philosophy of the anti-personal would; rather, the impersonal is its alteration or its extroversion into an exteriority that calls it into question and overturns its prevailing meaning” (14). I argue then that the pathway to the institution of the citizenry is grass root and bottom up. This is contrary to the norm which is top down. Selves in a society must take ownership of what it means to be a citizen. They have to decide about what “mask” (11) of citizenship it is that they will wear on their face; they have to think about the distance between the mask and their face; they need to consider how that mask will be characterized; and that there are many masks that one can wear.
It is hoped that fostering a personal relationship with one’s self as a “citizen” will erode the grandiose nature of citizenship as espoused by governments and replace it, instead, with substance, a realistically practicable, action-oriented, socially relevant, and variable style of citizenship built by individuals living within a democratic state.
Brown, B. J. and S. Baker. 2012. Responsible Citizens: Individuals, Health and Policy under Neoliberalism. New York NY: Anthem Press.
Gore, Al. 2007. The Assault on Reason. International: Penguin Books.
Rapeli, Lauri. 2013. The Conception of Citizen Knowledge in Democratic Theory. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rapeli, Lauri. 2014. “What Should the Citizen Know about Politics? Two Approaches to the Measurement of Political Knowledge.” Democratic Theory 1(1): 58–93.
Schmitter, P. 2011. “The Future of ‘Real-Existing’ Democracy.” Society and Economy 33 (2): 399–428.
Citation guide: 2017. JP Gagnon. “Grandiose Citizenship and the Dialectic of the Citizen and the Self”. Canadian Journal of Political Science | Revue canadienne de science politique, vol 50, iss 2, pp. 625-629.