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       mf : At the beginning of your book, you speak of the two major historical forms of civil disobedience: in the times of Emerson and Thoreau it was understood as “the sovereign expression of the perfectionist desire to be in agreement with the best part of oneself”, while later it has come to name “a political gesture” that leads individuals to associate in order to contest, by refusing to submit to them, the legitimacy of certain legislative or regulative measures. However, you also affirm that, in modern democracies, these two modalities of disobedience “do not by any means constitute an antinomy”. In our opinion this claim raises, and acutely so, the question (also central in the later Foucault) about the relation between the ethical and political dimensions of practices of resistance. How do you understand this relation? Is it always necessary, in your opinion, to experience a perfectionist desire in order to perceive injustices and gather the courage to oppose contemporary governmental logic? In short, is it possible to separate the “ethical” motivations that urge us to disobey, from the concrete “political” act of disobedience?

       S. Laugier, A. Ogien : Philosophically, we started out from the importance of the idea of voice, and of claim, in the thought of Wittgenstein, as well as in Emerson’s. When Wittgenstein says that humans “agree upon the language they use”, he appeals to an agreement that is not grounded on anything other than the validity of a voice. In Must we mean what we say[1] Cavell, taking up Kant, defines the rationality of the appeal to ordinary language, following the model of aesthetic judgment, as the claim to a “universal voice”: to be grounded in oneself in order to say what we say. This claim is the basis of agreement, and the community is therefore, by definition, something that is claimed, and not something foundational. It is me – my voice – that calls for the community, not the other way around. To find my voice is not to find agreement with all, but to raise a claim. One could also say that in Cavell and Wittgenstein community can only exist in its constitution by an individual claim and by the recognition of another’s claim. Therefore community cannot be presupposed, and it makes no sense to resolve moral disagreement or political conflict by referring to it. It is not a solution to the problem of morality: it is rather a displacement of the problem, and of the foundation of communitarian agreement, towards self-knowledge and self-vindication, and towards perfectionism.

The voice is necessarily dissident, against conformism. In this context the idea of disobedience is preferable to that of emancipation. Dissent is proper to democracy and the type of conformism generated by democracy, the kind that Emerson deplores when calling for “Self-Reliance”. To think disobedience in a democracy is as much as to think the reversal of conformism. It is connected to the very definition of a democracy, of a government of the people, which is to say by the people, as clearly stated in the American Declaration of Independence (to which Emerson and Thoreau wished to remain faithful against the deviations of the Constitution and, later, of its implementation by Jackson): a good democratic government is ours, mine – a government that expresses me and which I can express. The question of democracy is very much that of the voice. I must have a voice in my history, and recognize myself in what is said or shown by my society; therefore, in some way, I must lend it my voice, accept that it speak in my name. Disobedience is the solution required in case of dissonance: I no longer hear myself, in a discourse that rings untrue, as can be experienced by each of us every day (and for oneself as well, since for Emerson the conformism one must hunt down is in the first place one’s own).

From this point of view the question of democracy is linguistic: it becomes the question of expression. The illusion is that if my society is free and democratic, my dissent need not be expressed in a radical form: as if I had granted my consent to society in a minimal way, so that my disagreement may be reasonably formulated within these bounds. But which consent have I given? Radical democracy wishes to continue the conversation by arguing that in fact I have not given my consent: not to everything. Radical critique is at the very foundation of democracy, it is not a degeneration or an internal weakness. The very idea of civil disobedience is, in the first place, an American take on democracy, at a time when democracy was trying to reinvent itself on American soil, and in the context of a disappointment with a democracy that had become conformist and commercial. However, disobedience is characteristic of these moments in which one despairs of democracy, when it degenerates into conformity, full of discourses that are either empty or flat-out repugnant, as in Sarkozy’s France. This path of dissent is of particular importance in the tradition of American culture, and it was found again in the minority movements of opposition to Bush. One could even imagine that through a detour it has led to political change and a return to democratic power, corresponding to this important sign: that the country of slavery should elect a president who is half-black.

Emerson and Thoreau refused the society of their time for the same reasons that America had sought independence, and they reclaimed the rights of liberty, equality, the pursuit for happiness. They took the declaration of independence literally: “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. My assent to society is settled here and now, each day; I have not somehow granted it once and for all. It is not that my assent is conditional: it is, however, constantly under discussion, or in conversation – it is traversed by dissent. In Civil disobedience[2] Thoreau declares: “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually”. If the state refuses to dissolve its union with the slave owner, then “let each inhabitant of the state dissolve his union with it”. “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also”, says Thoreau. We are all slaves and our word rings untrue. Rather than raising a claim on behalf of slaves, thus keeping them in silence, they prefer to claim the only rights they are able to defend, their own. Their right to have a government that speaks and acts on their behalf, which they recognize, to which they lend their voice.

We understand in this way see the actuality of self-reliance against conformism, and of democratic despair. The model of disobedience reappears not as a manifestation of revolt, but of hope, against all this despair.

[1] S. Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1969.

[2] H.D. Thoreau, Civil Disobedience [1849], http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil.html.


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