Theses Doctoral

Rethinking Democratic Subjectivity in the Digital Age

Conover, Anna C.

As social media platforms and the internet have become an integral part of our civic and political lives, many questions about how to approach digital politics and civic engagement have emerged in the past few years. This project attempts to address some of those questions, specifically how we may think about civic education in the digital age. I begin with the premise that in the digital age, education for democracy must focus on its epistemic aspect. While proponents of aggregative forms of democracy consider vote to be the main form of citizen participation, forms of epistemic democracy such as deliberative democracy seek to contribute to social knowledge through communication amongst citizens, civil society, market players and state institutions. I initially ground my inquiry within the American context by highlighting the participatory character of the American democratic ethos. For this, I evoke John Dewey’s view of democracy as involving collective inquiry that allows both individual growth and the enrichment of collective life. Then, by examining Jürgen Habermas’ deliberative and Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic models of democracy against the backdrop of increasing digital mediation of civic and political discourse, I problematize democratic subjectivity in the digital age and suggest using Etienne Balibar’s notion of transindividuality, which he develops from 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. While Habermas demonstrates that certain communication conditions are necessary for legitimate political action, Mouffe reminds us that taking into account the importance of collective affective drives can help us take seriously the plurality of our contemporary democracies. However, I argue that in the digital age the strengths of these two approaches must be adapted to the evolving materiality of the environment in which people’s lived experience takes place rather than merely kept for instances of communication that occur within state institutions. For this, Balibar’s suggestion to think of the process of freedom of speech as a public good allows us to ground discourse in the material context in which it is produced and maintained, and provides a generative way of thinking of the role of education in our times.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Thesis Advisors
Vasudevan, Lalitha M.
Laverty, Megan
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
August 27, 2019