The nonhuman condition: Radical democracy through new materialist lenses

Contemporary Political Theory (Online first):584-615 (2023)
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Abstract

Radical democratic thinking is becoming intrigued by the material situatedness of its political agents and by the role of nonhuman participants in political interaction. At stake here is the displacement of narrow anthropocentrism that currently guides democratic theory and practice, and its repositioning into what we call ‘the nonhuman condition’. This Critical Exchange explores the nonhuman condition. It asks: What are the implications of decentering the human subject via a new materialist reading of radical democracy? Does this reading dilute political agency? Or should this be seen, on the contrary, as an invitation for new voices and demands to enter into democratic assemblages? How might engagement with the more-than-human disrupt or extend theories of radical democracy? Hans Asenbaum and Amanda Machin discuss the human democratic subject both through radical democratic and new materialist lenses. They suggest that a new materialist decentred subject does not lose agency but further gains political responsibility in radical democracy. Jean-Paul Gagnon highlights the possibility of becoming through loss. In losing our anthropocentric arrogance—our understanding of being other and better than animal—we become more connected and discover our place in human-nonhuman assemblages. Melissa Orlie agrees that something can be gained through renouncing dominant human fantasies and presents a ‘radical democratic naturalism’. By renouncing land violence and acknowledging nature’s subjectivity, we can further nonexploitative radical democratic politics. This is where the notion of ‘tidalectic’ processes introduced by James L. Smith is helpful. Focusing on water and the Indigenous knowledges around rivers, he considers how democracy and community can be reimagined as plural, cyclical and attentive to the nonhuman with which the human is inevitably entangled. Diana Leong offers a different approach. Considering the nonhuman from the perspective of Black Studies demands an awareness to how blackness has long been constituted as non- or partially human.

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