Intellectuals and Democracy: Ambivalence, Sovereignty, Translation

  • John Michael


Nothing is so distinctive of our historical moment as the fervor with which intellectuals on both the right and the left of the political spectrum champion democracy as a touchstone for political virtue and a goal of political activism. Yet, I believe that if intellectuals would be completely frank, they are far more ambivalent about democracy than they will admit. Simon During, for one, makes his reservations clear. He argues in Against Democracy that the virtues of democracy and its worthiness as a goal are increasingly difficult to discern or defend.1 But in most public discourse, democracy has become globally compulsory and nearly universal in precisely the degree to which it fails to oppose the impositions and depredations of the neoliberal state capitalism with which it is increasingly identified, and which continue to erode the lives of communities, those social organisms upon which democracy ultimately depends. As Jean-Luc Nancy puts it at the beginning of The Inoperative Community, “a kind of broadly pervasive democratic consensus seems to make us forget that ‘democracy,’ more and more frequently, serves only to assure a play of economic and technical forces that no politics today subjects to any end other than that of its own expansion.”2 The absence of alternatives to the current play of economic and technological forces makes the promises of democracy seem hollow. We have long assumed that the intellectual’s critique of the existing order contributes to the definition of more positive alternatives.


Critical Distance Great Book Public Intellectual Democratic Politics Critical Work 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Works Cited

  1. Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Apter, Emily. The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.Google Scholar
  3. Bauman, Zygmunt. Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Post-Modernity, and Intellectuals. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.Google Scholar
  4. Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London and New York: Verso, 1977, 1990.Google Scholar
  5. —. Refections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York and London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch, 1986.Google Scholar
  6. —. Illuminations: Essays and Refections. Ed. Hannah Arendt and trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schoken Books, 1969.Google Scholar
  7. de Benoist, Alain. “What Is Sovereignty?” Trans. Julia Kostova. Telos 116, Summer 1999: 99–118.Google Scholar
  8. —. “Qu’est-ce que la Souveraineté?” Éléments 96, November 1999: 24–35.Google Scholar
  9. During, Simon. Against Democracy: Literary Experience in the Era of Emancipations. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Eagleton, Terry. The Significance of Theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.Google Scholar
  11. Felski, Rita. The Uses of Literature. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Halliwell, Stephen. The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.Google Scholar
  13. Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.Google Scholar
  14. James, C. L. R. Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways. New York: Allison and Busby, 1953.Google Scholar
  15. Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick, or The Whale. Chicago: Newbury Library, 1988.Google Scholar
  16. Michael, John. Anxious Intellects: Academic Professionals, Public Intellectuals, and Enlightenment Values. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Miller, Toby. Blow Up the Humanities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012.Google Scholar
  18. Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. Trans. Peter Conway, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.Google Scholar
  19. Nussbaum, Martha. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.Google Scholar
  20. Pease, Donald. Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writing in Cultural Context. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.Google Scholar
  21. Plato. The Republic. Trans. Desmund Lee. New York and London: Penguin Classics, 1955, 1987.Google Scholar
  22. Rancière, Jacques. La haine de la démocratie. Paris: La fabrique editions, 2005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Said, Edward W. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.Google Scholar
  24. Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985.Google Scholar
  25. —. The Concept of the Political Expanded Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, 2007.Google Scholar
  26. Scott, David. Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Strong, Tracy B. “Forward.” In Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Trans. George Schwah. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985.Google Scholar
  28. Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2007.Google Scholar
  29. Ward, Ian. “Democracy after Secularism.” The Good Society 19, 2010: 30–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Weber, Samuel. “‘Te Principle of Representation’: Carl Schmitt’s Roman Catholicism and Political Form.” Targets of Opportunity: On the Militarization of Thinking. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Weigman, Robin. “The Ends of New Americanism.” New Literary History 42, Summer 2011: 385–407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© John Michael 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Michael

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations