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I am speaking of democracy as something yet to come. That which now calls itself democracy differs from older forms of government solely in that it drives with new horses: the streets are still the same old streets, and the wheels are likewise the same old wheels.—Have things really got less perilous because the wellbeing of the nations now rides in this vehicle?

             -Nietzsche, “The Wanderer and his Shadow” 239

What counts is the question, of what is a body capable?…we don’t even know of what a body is capable

             -Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza

As liberal democracies around the world face the challenges of populism, constitutional crisis, and data-engineering, the rhetoric of a “democracy in danger” is ever-present. Recent critiques have perceived democracy to be either under attack (Howard 2019; Mounk 2018), weakened and in need of care (Honig 2016), or requiring urgent renewal (Hooker 2017). Within this climate, existing definitions of democracy — as a system in which community members take collective actions, or as a mode for securing common interests through direct or indirect participation in community decision-making — no longer seem fit for purpose (Laclau & Mouffe 1985; Cohen 1989; Dahl 2000; Crick 2003). Increasingly we find ourselves asking: Do we still know what democracy is? Moreover, would we necessarily recognize it if we saw it?

Laboratories of Democracy proposes starting off “on the ground,” investigating a set of case studies that may help us reframe debates about democracy’s nature, orientation, and capacities in the twenty-first century. Connecting research in political theory, environmental anthropology, pre-modern history, and cultural studies, the project will focus on a series of marginal experiments in autonomous communal living, each separated from the “outside world,” either geographically or ideologically. These cases will include: a set of intentional communities in the contemporary US; a commune of authors and activists in late-twentieth-century France; multispecies households, shared between humans, animals, and spirits, in present-day Southern Siberia; hunting communities in seventeenth-century Russia; and a constellation of monastic communities in twelfth-century England and Italy. While occupying disparate points in time and space, these experiments articulate an intriguing set of parallels in their vision of what communal living should be, and what it might do. As “laboratories of democracy,” they test the limits of an anti-political autonomy in isolation, simultaneously exposing potential fault-lines for mapping the democratic challenges of the century ahead. 

We propose to analyze these case studies as a “nexus of intentionalities” (Gell 1996: 29), or as “architectures of relationships/socialities,” in which shared living spaces act as contact zones between community members. Our aim is to investigate how community members sustain their collective living through mutual entanglements and adjustments, and how — through these practices — they correspond to the outside world. We are also interested in analyzing how these entanglements of interests and intentionalities transform the shared living spaces we focus on. While not attempting to offer a solution for today’s challenges or to suggest a unifying model of communal living, we do seek to provide empirical material for thinking about the connections formed between community members as they adjust to each other’s practices, or as they unite their interests and, in doing so, build a shared space together.

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