From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part One)

Not long ago, I was asked to blurb an exciting new book, From Voice to Influence: Citizenship in a Digital Age (Edited by Danielle Allen and Jennifer S. Light). Here’s what I had to say:

“From #blacklivesmatter to the DREAMer movement, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, recent social movements have raised questions about how networked participation and civic expression are shaping what counts as politics in the 21st century. From Voice to Influence assembles a multidisciplinary mix of key thinkers to ask hard questions about the shifting nature of the public sphere, the values of deliberation and expression, the continued importance of disinterestedness and cosmopolitanism, the nature of civic agency, and the impact of new technologies of media production and circulation. Each contribution here is original, provocative, thoughtful, and grounded, and each helps us to understand more fully what it means to come of age as a civic agent in today’s media landscape.”

The book is another outgrowth from the work of the Youth and Participatory Politics Network, a multidisciplinary rout of scholars, helmed by Joe Kahne from Mills College, and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, which is seeking to better understand the political lives of contemporary American young people.  I have gotten to know this book’s co-editor, Danielle Allen, through her involvement in this research collaboration, which has also informed the development of my team’s forthcoming By Any Media Necessary book.

Allen is a political philosopher who moves fluidly from attending to insights from Classical Philosophy and the work of America’s founding fathers (she just published a short but wonderful book looking at the continuing impact of the Declaration of Independence ) to responses to contemporary civil rights movements. She recently published a smart op-ed piece for the Washington Post, which dealt with the protests in Baltimore and another with fellow YPP network member Cathy Cohen on “the new civil rights movement”. She is perhaps best known for her book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education, which offers some reflections on the nature of “political friendship” across racial lines and gives us some core insights about what it might mean to be an effective and ethical ally in today’s struggles over racial justice. As a political philosopher, she is surprisingly and consistently attentive to media or channels of communication, from the role of news photography in the civil rights movement (Talking to Strangers) to the role of text (Why Plato Wrote) and print (Our Declaration), so there’s much here that people in my home field should be engaging with.

All of this is to say that Allen is wickedly smart, a generous collaborator, someone whose insights I have come to trust on a great many of the most pressing issues of our time. You will get a taste of her thinking in her responses to the interview questions below.

Let’s start with the book’s title, “From Voice to Influence.” How are you and your contributors defining the core terms, “voice” and “influence” here? To what degree has the rise of networked communication shifted expectations about the relationship between the two? What are some of the core challenges that we need to confront before the expressive capacities of everyday citizens is effectively translated into greater influence over public affairs?

Voice was the easy concept for us. It captures any human effort at self-expression. In that regard, it’s metaphorical. Sometimes people express their voice by doing things like die-in’s in city streets. One can be completely quiet, marching in a silent protest, and still be expressing voice. Human beings are remarkably inventive as communicators, and we really intend the concept of voice to capture the role range of human communication.

While there is probably an infinity of different types of human communication, any speech act is connected in some fashion to a speaker. The relationship between a speech act and the authentic, autonomous self of the speaker is extremely complex. Not every speech act is as directly expressive of something authentic. Nonetheless, we’re throwing the whole kit and caboodle in under the concept of “voice” and then trying to see how to sort out the different types of voice.

Influence was the hard concept. The rise of digital media and social media have brought an explosion of “voice” in the public sphere–communications from ordinary people about whatever it is they feel like communicating about that are easily accessible to all of us. There has been a lazy assumption in a lot of commentary about the impact of new media on politics that more voice in itself changes political life and is a good thing.

We thought that assessing that view required more clarity about when expressions of voice are “influential” and when they are not, that is, more clarity about when they make a difference beyond the existential experience of the speaker. This required us to think about the relationship between communicative actions on the part of a speaker and the different levers that can be pulled to change socio-political institutions or broadly impactful socio-political forms.

We came to distinguish between forms of influence that operate mainly on specific communities of discourse (a neighborhood, a social media network, etc.) and those forms of influence that operate on the level of a whole polity. To achieve an understanding of influence, we had to look at how speech acts can pull levers within political institutions, in relationship to the many organizations of civil society and the corporate world, through the work of social movements, and by effecting cultural change. The chapter by Archon Fung and Jennifer Shkabatur toes a terrific job of anatomizing how particular speech acts come to be influential in one, or several, of those domains.

The rise of networked communications has, indeed, as you say, shifted expectations about the relationship between voice and influence, but we think those shifts in expectation are themselves likely to be subject to evolution. In the early stages of the digital media transformation, voice was pretty loosely assumed to translate straightforwardly into influence.

This idea was captured by the notion that gatekeepers were being overthrown everywhere. The thought was that without gatekeepers controlling what got into the media or on the legislative agenda, anyone could immediately have a direct impact on our collective life.

But this soon gave way to greater realism. The dramatic increase in the volume of participation in digital and social media means that many voices are just drowned out. As Ethan Zuckerman points out in his chapter, there is a finite quantity of human attention, so securing attention share becomes a challenge. And influence requires attention share.

In this context, of course, the opportunity is ripe for a re-emergence of gate-keepers who gain their authority by helping people know where to focus their attention in a very chaotic media landscape. Take Facebook and its rules for participation as an example of a new gatekeeper. Jennifer Light does a great job of showing how, historically, historical revolutions in communciations technology that are experienced initially as liberatory have a way of being coopted by traditional power holders.

We think there’s a lot of room in media studies for developing a more refined understanding of the relationship between voice and influence, by studying why one speech act joins the discursive flows that move the waterwheels of socio-political change and why other speech acts don’t. And we think scholars ought to be paying attention to where gatekeepers are re-emerging, both in order to understand that re-emergence and to seek paths along which we can preserve the liberatory force of that initial moment of transformation.

 

You describe the book as “making technology the backdrop rather than the subject of analysis,” This is an important distinction. What becomes the foreground, then, of your analysis of contemporary political participation?

The foreground of our analysis of contemporary political participation is what we call civic agency. Civic agency consists of the effort to deploy voice for the sake of influence. Between voice and influence there exist a whole host of activities: from organizing to civic engagement, from symbolic protest to running for political office, and so on.

In earlier work, some of the contributors in this volume were in the habit of talking using the concept of “citizenship” to capture this idea. Citizenship is, of course, an old concept from the Latin word for city and for members of a city. While in contemporary politics we have come to focus on the concept of “citizenship” as a legal category of membership, in an older tradition of political thought that membership category was closely connected to an idea that the best way for each person to protect his or her own safety and well being was to exercise political power. There is a sense of responsibility and duty connected to the concept of citizenship, but also an element of empowerment.

As we’ve been working on this project, though, we’ve come to see the importance of separating the concept of legal membership in a given political unit from the more fundamental idea of the capacity of human beings to contribute to shaping the world in which they live with others. We settled on using the phrase, “civic agency,” to designate this capacity.

We consider it fundamental for thinking about politics in a world where there are no longer any territorial zones outside of nation states, yet it is still possible for some people to be “stateless,” to have no formal membership in any state, despite habitating on one or another actual piece of ground. Cristina Beltran’s chapter on Dreamactivism is really important on focusing on the civic agency of undocumented youth.

Equally important is the fact that political problems and the effects of political action do not track the geographical boundaries of states but frequently exceeed them; consequently, transnational activism is of great importance in our contemporary world. My chapter with Angel Parham takes up some of the issues that emerge in that context.

The concept of “civic agency” permits us to do a better job of tracking the efforts of people–from across the full diversity of possible formal statuses–to help steer the world in which we live. Technology is the backdrop to this story of civic agency because, as I have suggested above, civic agency starts with voice or communication. The exercise of civic agency traces the arc from voice to influence, through a variety of mediating practices. Anything that changes the fundamental methods of and opportunities for communication will have an impact on civic agency. We start and finish with civic agency in order to re-situate thought about media technology within the context of at least one of the “human things” that it has emerged to enable.

 

Your book proposes a reconceptualization of the public sphere, from one focused on physical geography to one focused around patterns of circulation. What do you see as the benefits of this reworking of the classic public sphere model?

Ultimately, it is impossible to separate flows from space. Flow, after all, is about the temporalities of movements through spaces. Yet I think the question of which metaphorical lens one uses as one’s starting point for thinking about public spheres has a meaningful impact on what one is able to see.

Spatial models of the public sphere, as in Habermas’ early work, tend to end up focusing on a bunch of formal political spaces–assemblies, legislative halls, courtrooms–or on architecturally salient adjacent spaces, for instance coffee houses, that are in some sense directly connected to those spaces of forrmal political institutions because the same group of peoplel functions in both.

The trouble with this is that the architecture of our public spaces has exclusions built into it, which are then carried over into the analysis. Habermas has, of course, been routinely criticized for prioritizing the communicative experiences in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries of white bourgeois men.

If one seeks instead to figure out who is talking to who, when, and how–in other words simply to find flows–one finds spaces that weren’t previously visible–for instance, the black churches of the Civil Rights movement–but one also finds networks of communication that never become grounded in a single space–for instance, the flows of discourse linking Beltran’s Dreamers again or the flows linking the hip hop community. Tommie Shelby’s chapter on hip hop as dissent is just fantastic.

In other words, I think the “flow” metaphor just helps one see a lot more politically meaningful discourse than one would otherwise spot. And then by bringing a broader field of discourse into consideration for public sphere theory, the flow metaphor forces us to re-consider just how different types of discourse do or do not support legitimate public action.

The Habermasian picture ends up focusing excessively on deliberative modes of speech or rhetoric. The broader picture requires us to see the value in prophetic speech (think MLK, Jr. or Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter) and also in adversarial forms of discourse (think of the strategies used by the Industrial Areas Foundation organizers to hold public officials to account; on this subject, Jeff Stout’s book, Blessed Are the Organized, is excellent). Recognizing that prophetic and adversarial forms of speech are necessary and legitimate modes of public sphere discourse introduces a further challenge: one needs to develop ethical frameworks for their use. And this work, too, takes us beyond the ethics of deliberative democracy. In place of that, the shift to flows supports work toward developing ethical frameworks for “egalitarian particpatory democracy.’

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.