Democracy Unfolds Through the Aesthetic Podcast #37

Kajri Jain
Kajri Jain joins the Democracy Paradox to discuss the relationship between democracy and the aesthetic. Her recent book Gods in the Time of Democracy explores the implications of the construction of large religious statues in India. The conversation explores ideas of the aesthetic, religion, Hindu Nationalism, Dalit identity, and the ways art shapes democracy.

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We don’t pay enough attention to the sensory aspects of what it means to be equal. That’s what it fundamentally is. That’s the presupposition of democracy. Not the goal. The presupposition is that we are equal, but does our comportment reinforce that or does it re-institute hierarchies.

Kajri Jain


On June 21st I published a short monologue about Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. At the time, my thought was to offer an audio version of my blog. But as I read it out loud, I realized I had to make so many changes that it was easier to just rewrite the whole piece from scratch.

Those who have listened since the beginning know how much this podcast has changed over the past 37 weeks. After every show I ask myself what can be done to make this better and reached out to others for advice.

Among the most helpful has been Jenna Spinelli, host of the Democracy Works podcast. She is also the founder of the Democracy Group, a network of podcasts focused on the study and support of democracy. The podcasts in the network feature many well-known names in the study of democracy and political science as guests. Some of the podcasts are hosted by well-known names like Politics in Question with Lee Drutman, Julia Azari, and James Wallner. Recently, I accepted an invitation to join the network. I consider this another milestone for the Democracy Paradox project.

Like those shows, I have tried to feature what I consider big names for those interested in discussions on democracy. But occasionally I find guests who are relative unknowns to democracy scholars who blow me away with ideas I haven’t come across before. This is one of those conversations.

Democracy and the Aesthetic

This week’s guest is Kajri Jain. She is an art historian from the University of Toronto and the author of Gods in the Time of Democracy. Her work is well known among scholars of contemporary Indian art. But I doubt many political scientists have come across her work.

Our conversation explores politics in India through the construction of massive statues that are sometimes the size of the Statue of Liberty or taller. It’s a completely novel way to examine Hindu Nationalism, Dalit identity, and religion in India.

But the conversation also explores the ways we communicate political ideas and create an inclusive democracy. Art is ultimately a form of communication, but it is largely neglected by scholars of democracy. We might discuss what people say about art, but rarely how the art interacts with us. This is a conversation I could only have with an art historian. But not just any art historian, but one who is also a philosopher and a religious scholar. An art historian who examines people affected by art more than the art itself. This is my conversation with Kajri Jain…


Kajri Jain, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.


Thank you, Justin. It’s a pleasure to be here.


Well Kajri, your work is about art, but I find that it does not focus so much on the art itself. It’s almost more about the people and their relation to the art. You discuss the artists who create it and the observers who interact with it. Your work even discusses the patrons who fund it. So, I think it makes sense to begin with this question. ‘What does the art of India teach us about the people of India?’


What the art of India teaches us about the people of India is that India is huge, diverse, ancient, and very complex. Because there are all kinds of images that we see in the environment, in and out of museums, there’s ancient art in temples that are still functioning today where people still worship. There’s the most contemporary art that you see in galleries. There’s mass culture, there are regional variations, so it’s an immense complicated situation and that reflects the nature of people there. There’s immense diversity of religions, of languages, of cultures.

I mean, think about this, that each state in India is about as different from each other as the countries of Europe. They have their own cuisine, kinds of dress, architecture, art, and certainly language, because language was the basis on which the States were organized. And in fact, the States are still being reformulated today. States are being carved out of other ones. They are fissuring. So, it’s an ongoing process that demonstrates some of that complexity.


Your work focuses a lot on the religious imagery within the art. Why is India drawn to religious imagery? And does it reflect how Indians, especially Hindus practice religion?


Well, India is not unique in its use of religious imagery. If you think of Europe, pretty much all the art until the modern period was religious. It’s just a matter of the emergence of a secular notion of the aesthetic, which happens kind of around the Renaissance when the values that we attach to art or images go from being primarily religious to more about how something is done.

So, I think we need to look historically at the processes that did and didn’t occur in a place like India or when they occurred. So, I think it’s safe to say that a sort of secular notion of art, only comes in with British colonialism and the founding of art schools by the British and a kind of inculcation of these sorts of values of fine art. But at the same time, it’s not as though, even in Europe or America, images are not approached in a religious fashion.

We still have art in churches. We have popular prints.  Think of televangelism, I mean, after all, that is the use of images. These are televisual images, but very popular uses of images in religion. So, it’s more a kind of a story that modernity tells itself that the West became secular. And that the category of art then comes into, in a sense, reinforce that secularism.


Well Kajri, it makes a lot of sense to me the way you’re describing art and religion as having a connection within multiple cultures. I grew up as Catholic. My wife is Catholic. My children were raised Catholic. Both my parents grew up Catholic. So for me art, as a part of religion, has always been connected in a way that I don’t even think about it. Crucifixes are oftentimes created in a way that is highly visual and very in tune with the sense of the aesthetic. The church that I go to today has a brilliant crucifix that that was brought over from Eastern Europe and constructed by very skilled tradesmen.

I mean, it just blows you away with how much it brings out the sense of agony within Jesus and always the churches are always filled with tons of art. And it’s the sense that the art brings together te sense of spirituality and that’s the way how I’ve always understood it. So, I can, I can relate to that. Do you see parallels between Christian religions like Catholicism and Orthodoxy and religions in India such as Hinduism?


Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m glad you brought that up because I think that’s the easiest entry point for people to start to understand what is often called a polytheistic religion, Hinduism. But in fact, if you think about it, Catholicism is in some sense just as polytheistic in that there are many, many saints who intercede between a kind of monistic notion of God and mortals. So, we might think of the different incarnations of the gods in Hinduism as equivalents of saints in Catholicism.

So, these are just kind of figures through which to access a much more universal or abstract notion of the divine. So really, the thing is that these distinctions between monotheism and polytheism, or even actually the construction of Hinduism as a religion have to be seen as part of a colonial knowledge formation where you’re trying to make sense of the other in relation to the self, but also in distinction to the self. Because after all, those in the colonies were pagans and heathens because they didn’t subscribe to Christianity. So, they had to be seen as more other than in some senses they were.

So that the emphasis has been on the differences rather than on the similarities. You know, the crucifix is an interesting case because once the crucifix becomes stripped back to just the cross without the figure that inspires all of those emotions, those devotional emotions, it starts to disappear. And with Protestantism and the separation of church and state, increasing secularization in the public sphere, the cross turns into what seems like a neutral symbol.

And so, it’s quite interesting that in France, where there are all these debates around laïcité and a kind of vilification of overt religious symbols, like the hijab. In Quebec, for instance, these debates were being carried out around visible public use of religious symbols, like the turban or the hijab in a parliament building with a cross on the wall. Right? So, the cross in a sense had disappeared as a religious symbol or it wasn’t seen as religious anymore, but as cultural or something like that. So again, the boundary between what we think of as religious and what we think of as secular, you know, the construction of that boundary becomes evident when we start to look at images.


You have a term in your book, iconopraxis, and it took me some time to really understand it. But as I began to think about it more and more, I felt  somewhat of a recognition through my own practice of Catholic faith. Can you describe iconopraxis?


Sure. Well, iconopraxis, if you just break it up, icon means image. Praxis is practice. So, iconopraxis is simply practices to do with images. So it needn’t be religious icons. It could also be art, right? And there are kinds of iconopraxis that we engage in when we go to museums. For instance, you know, there is a particular kind of bodily comportment that is appropriate to the museum space. You have to stay far away from the image. You usually can’t make too much noise. Although, you know, I’ve been to museums with my child’s school and it’s gorgeous to see the kids, like looking at things upside down. You know, excitedly chattering about what they’re seeing. But you know, that’s okay for kids. But grownups are not supposed to.

So that’s just a very, everyday example of the ways in which we engage in iconopraxis. So, I use this phrase because, I feel as though when we’re looking at images, actually anywhere, but certainly the images that I’ve been looking at in India that are primarily religious. I feel it’s really important to factor in that full-bodied experience. It’s important to factor in the regimes within which that bodily comportment needs to unfold. So, whether it’s the regime of art and the aesthetic or a religious regime. There’s a kind of overarching system within which we are expected to approach images.

Art history has tended to focus on our visual engagement with images and a sort of reading of the messages embedded within them. But actually, if you think about the situation of devotion, often we’re standing in front of an image with our hands folded and our eyes closed. So, is this visual? Not necessarily. Because, you know, if you look at Hindu formulations of what makes an icon powerful, it’s often to do with the fact that the image itself is a kind of housing or receptacle for the divine. So, it’s like a divinity takes up residence within the image. That means the image itself as an object is powerful.

It’s not about whether you see it or not. It’s about being in its presence. So that its effects can kind of flow onto you. So that’s a very different relationship to what we’re used to in art history or visual studies in general. I’m interested in looking at the object, the image as an object, and that means looking at what we do with images, what images do to us. Right? Iconopraxis is not just a human thing. It’s also about the efficacy of the image and of course iconopraxis can change. One image can be used in very different ways at different times in different spaces. So, an alter that was used for worship in the 15th century might be in a museum in the 21st and elicit a very different response.

We don’t typically kneel and pray in a museum. We’re not supposed to. So, I think it’s really important to factor in those kinds of broader contexts of practice in thinking about images in that power. And so I use iconopraxis to supplement the kind of standard operating practice of art history which revolves around iconography and iconology, as they’ve been called.


There’s a brilliant description of a monument within your book where it’s placed on an Island and people had to wade through the water during low tide to approach it originally. But since then, a bridge was built to make it more accessible. But your point was that the journey is oftentimes part of the experience itself. How does transportation and setting change how we interact with these monuments or pieces of art?


Right. And again, I think we need to clarify that monument is not always the best term because monument in its secular sense implies remembering something that’s in the past whereas these are absolutely alive in the present. And again, they have to do with housing or providing access to a deity that is conceived of as eternal, right? So, the temporality of these spaces is very different from that we usually associate with a monument, which is about keeping alive something that was in the past.

Here it’s not an attempt to keep something alive. It is already alive. So anyway, that said, you know, the monument that you’re talking about, that I describe in the book, is actually an ancient temple. And so visiting it was, and actually still is, part of a pilgrimage circuit that people do to Shiva shrines. Pilgrimages have traditionally involved some kind of hardship or penance. Think of the Pilgrim fathers even, their hardship is part of the mythology of America. And so that added to the power and mystique of the sacred destination, what the great German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin called it’s aura.

And yes, absolutely, the physical journey was also a religious or spiritual experience in and of itself. A time and space dedicated to devotion, but also to communitas or fraternity with your fellow traveler, fellow devotees. So you know, this kind of ease of access to pilgrimage sites, being able to drive right up to them and park outside, it arguably defeats a large part of the purpose. But things change a little. When you think about the fact that in India, a large constituency of people, the Dalits, formerly known as outcasts or untouchables were forbidden access to temples as their presence was seen as kind of inauspicious or polluting. And the same incidentally goes for menstruating women, even now, as you know. These kinds of exclusions are now illegal, but they actually still kind of inform social behavior and attitudes.

So, you can see now how these questions of access to space are deeply political, because they involve inclusion and exclusion of whole swathes of people. The rise of monumental statues as publicly visible icons has to be seen as part of a growing recognition of these kinds of issues of access and kind of ongoing attempt to bring Dalits back into the Hindu fold. And I see this as part of a Hindu majoritarian agenda that certainly characterizes the current BJP regime, the Bharatiya Janata Party, but it actually has far deeper roots in the kind of Hindu nationalism that characterized certain strands of the anticolonial nationalist movement, you know, when Indians were fighting for independence against the British.

And so part of that was, and still is, an exclusionary majoritarian agenda directed against minorities like Muslims and Christians. But also, an attempt to include others within the Hindu fold. We don’t talk that much about this. There’s been a lot of talk about, Islamophobia, among Hindus, but the flip side of that is this attempt to incorporate within Hinduism religions like Sikhism and Jainism and even Buddhism, which many Dalits converted to as an attempt to escape, actually, the Hindu caste system and so all of that is being done in order to boost Hindu numbers. So again, this mobilizes the kind of numbers game of electoral democracy.

So, it’s a very modern phenomenon. It’s not some kind of ancient fundamentalism that we’ve inherited from way back. It has to do with anti-colonial nationalism. And then within that, the politics of numbers. And so, in the book, I argue that the the rise of monumental religious icons is actually a response to Dalit initiatives to seek a separate, non-Hindu political identity by converting to Buddhism following the important leader B. R. Ambedkar and in order to claim this identity to claim recognition and to stake claims to visibility and the occupation of space. Dalits started to use very small statues of the Buddha and of Ambedkar in public spaces. And my argument is that this is what puts statues on the table as part of the political vocabulary from about the 1980s and 1990s onward.


So to bring us back to the idea of Hindu majoritarianism, cause I was really interested in how you’re talking about how these sites become a sense of inclusion as well as exclusion in different ways. I find it fascinating how complex Indian politics is, because the rise of the BJP and Narendra Modi in particular, sometimes political science scholars overlook the fact that he’s part of the Other Backward Classes, the OBCs. Whereas the Indian National Congress is led by the Nehru-Gandhi family that is historically a Brahman family.

And so, Modi has oftentimes been able to play the caste dimension in his favor to be able to win support from people that, for a party that has traditionally been a Brahman upper caste party, has won a significant support of Dalits and OBC and Schedule Caste and other groups that traditionally wouldn’t be supporting a party that has historically defined itself as being aligned with the Brahman caste or at least upper castes.


Yeah, but that’s the genius of the BJP in particular in its articulation with the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is, it’s kind of the paramilitary wing, if you will of the Hindu right, who really have been doing grassroots work in the communities, since the late colonial period in the early 20th Century. So, they are there in the neighborhoods and the communities and they know exactly what the very local politics are in each constituency. And they play that game of pitting one Muslim sect against another or the OBCs against the scheduled castes or, you know, whatever it takes at that micro micro level. So, I think that that is often overlooked. So, I mean, we think in broad strokes and ideological, kind of terms about politics, but it’s not really just about that. Politics is not as wedded to ideology, as we might think.


I want to talk about the Statue of Unity because it symbolizes to me the intersection between art and politics. Can you describe what it is? Because I’ll be honest, I didn’t keep know about it before I read your book.


It’s so interesting that the Statue of Unity is actually the tallest statue in the world, but only Indians really seem to recognize that fact or be excited about it. So, the Statue of Unity is a 597 foot, that is 182-meter-tall figure of India’s first home minister and deputy prime minister, Sardar Patel, again, somebody who people outside of India are unlikely to have heard of. And the statue was inaugurated on Sardar Patel’s birthday, October the 31st in 2018. So I should talk a little about the importance of Patel within the domestic or within the BJP’s scenario. So after India became independent from Britain in 1947, Patel was the person who was responsible for persuading over 500 princely States to become part of the new nation. So, he’s often called India’s Bismark.

And in fact, he’s also referred to as the iron man as Bismarck was. So Patel’s role in integrating India’s territory is why the statue is called the Statue of Unity. And, of course, the name Statue of Unity deliberately echoes the Statue of Liberty, in part to remind people that this statue is nearly twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. So the statue was first announced in 2010 by India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi. But at that time, he was still the chief minister of the state of Gujarat in Western India. And the statue was announced as a celebration of 10 years in power as chief minister. And importantly Sardar Patel was also from the state of Gujarat.

So, it was thought of as a tribute to an important Gujarati who united the nation. Now statues have often been used in an allegorical way to represent civic values.  Liberty itself is a prime example, but here it’s kind of significant that unity replaces liberty as a national value. So, the message of unity implies that there is some kind of threat to the nation’s integrity without spelling it out. It’s an implicit message and so, as you know, Modi’s party is the BJP which rose to power with a kind of double headed strategy of development on the one hand and on the other a Hindu Nationalism that vilifies and scapegoats minorities, particularly Muslims.

So, this appeal to unity, actually to my mind, recalls the imagery of the fascio, which is Italian for a bundle of sticks, which gave the name to fascism. And so, it just shows the difference between the Statue of Liberty and the value of freedom and this appeal to unity, which has another message altogether to my mind. So, it’s doing this work of uniting the nation, the nation conceived as Hindu, as against the other implicitly conceived of as Muslim.

On the other hand, the statue is doing a lot of secular work. It’s clearly a demonstration of developmental capacity and infrastructural prowess. It’s the tallest structure of its kind. And this is consistent actually with other high-tech projects that Modi has showcased in Gujarat like a high-speed railway. So all of this has worked to put Gujarat on the development map and shore up Modi’s popularity in his home state, as well as actually, in the Indian diaspora. You know, particularly in the U.S., Gujaratis are a sizeable, I think that 20% of all of the Indians who are in the U.S. are Gujarati.

So, you know, really what Modi is doing with this statue is leveraging his popularity in Gujarat to prime himself for a bid to prime ministership at the national level. And in that national context, what Sardar Patel allows is for the BJP to reappropriate him by virtue of being Gujarati, as an anti-colonial nationalist leader aligned with their vision, even though he’d actually been part of the Congress party, because you know, the BJP wasn’t around during the independence struggle.  So, they couldn’t claim that kind of moral superiority as the Congress did, ‘We had so many leaders and martyrs to the cause of the nation in nation building.’ So in Patel, the BJP is fielding through its reappropriation, an alternative nationalist leader to Nehru.

But it’s also tracing its ancestry to an alternative Gujarati figure than Gandhi. Gandhi also came from Gujarat, but his sympathy for India’s Muslims is of course anathema to the BJP. So, he’s not the right Gujarati to claim ancestry from unlike the Iron Man, Sardar Patel. And this has, you know, this also buys into the kind of machismo that Modi personally sort of banks on, you know, he has famously boasted of his 56-inch chest. And so, you know, the size of this statue and all of these other connotations shore up Modi’s particular brand of. macho Hindu Nationalism.


There’s so much to unpack in the idea that it’s called the Statue of Unity. It’s a secular statue at a time when many of the other statues are explicitly of Hindu gods and goddesses. It’s put forward by Narendra Modi in a state that had riots from Hindu Nationalists against the Muslim minority. But they called the statue, a statue of unity, when they have a tremendous amount of disunity within the state that he governs. There’s so much going on there. Now Hindu nationalism is taking off at the same time that these statues are starting to come to prominence. And many of the statues, like I just said, are of gods and goddesses. What’s the tie between the two? Is there a connection, is there a correlation between the rise of Hindu nationalism and the rise of these monuments that are explicitly Hindu?


I would say yes and no. In that the BJP is not the only party that has put forward monumental statue projects. In fact, one of the very first was a massive granite statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. It’s actually spectacular. It’s on a tiny Island at the very Southern tip of India in a place called Kanyakumari. And that was a project of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Tamil Dravidian regional party that has been very powerful in Tamil Nadu. So  you know, and this is a Tamil poet, so you know, it plays into the politics of language and regional identity, not so much religious identity.

But, you know, I mean, of course, there’s a much longer story there about how actually, you know, it was built next to a religious monument. A memorial to the neo-spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda, who was also part of a kind of reappropriation by the RSS. And so, the statue form or the icon form is not specific to Hindu nationalism and to the BJP, but what has happened is that because of the reasons I was explaining earlier which have to do with the rise in Dalit assertions and backward caste assertions.

And that the way that statues were put on the table as part of the political vocabulary, in that context, I think there was a kind of added impetus to Hindu statue building as a way of kind of reappropriating the conversation, of taking over that form to reassert Hindu majority presence in the face of these very modest, but highly proliferant claims through statues on the part of Dalits’ claims to public space.

And there’s one figure in particular, who kind of turns the tide in my account at any rate. And that is the first Dalit chief minister of a state Kumari Mayawati who comes to power in India’s most popular state. Uttar Pradesh in the 1990s. And she’s in and out of power until the 2000s. So, what she does as soon as she comes in is to start this massive program of monument building to Dalit icons as they’ve been called. And this project just got up people’s noses and this is across the board from left to right. So, the left, of course, wanted her to spend money on much more sort of socially useful projects like hospitals and schools. The right just couldn’t stand this Dalit upstart.

And, of course, they use the same logic. Everybody was like, you know, why is she spending state money on these symbolic projects when there’s so much else she could be doing with the money. And they accused her of corruption and, you know, subjected her to misogynistic and castist slurs, the works, you know, and the media across the board were up in arms against her. And you know, that, when the opposition, when everybody in the public sphere from right to left is united in opposition to somebody, something really important is going on. There’s a deep symbolic upheaval that goes to the heart of the current consensus. And in this case, it was the caste consensus that has informed both the Hindu nationalists and the so-called secular Congress, because as you pointed out earlier, they too are completely, you know, Brahmanical in their makeup.

And so Mayawati was doing this really important work of giving it back to the powers that be, the status quo in the very terms on which Dalits had been oppressed, that is the terms of visibility and occupation of space. She came in and she said, ‘We are here. We have not been recognized for thousands of years. We’ve been made invisible. We’ve been excluded from public space. We’re here now and we’re here to stay.’ So, she builds in marble and stone and bronze, you know, not concrete, which is actually not a very durable material. And she doesn’t do landscaping. Because landscaping will turn into jungle the minute that she is out of power, which in fact she is now, and that’s kind of happening.

But what she did was she paved these spaces with stone so that they would be really difficult to destroy. So, there’s a kind of logic at work there, a logic of vulnerability, which informs these massive monuments that she builds. So, what that does on the one hand is it gets up everyone’s noses, but it really puts Dalits out there in the public sphere. She says, ‘You have to recognize us.’ And people do. And the other parties start to woo Dalits by building statues of Ambedkar and the Buddha and so on. So, they do that too, but they also start to build their own huge statues of Hindu icons of regional figures and so on, people like Sardar Patel, just to reassert who actually calls the shots. So, the piece about Dalit assertion is a really important part of this story.

And that’s, you know, we can’t just make an instant connection between Hindu nationalism and the rise of Hindu monuments without factoring in that piece that gave it some impetus. Otherwise, you know, why would they bother? Why would this particular form come to prominence so significantly? You know, they could have been building temples. These are very, a very interesting form that enables a negotiation. A kind of slippage between religion, culture, and heritage, kind of secular notion, and tourism. So, it’s a sort of Trojan horse through which ostensibly secular governments or political parties can play to their largely religious constituencies or as we call them in India, vote banks.


There’s a quote in your book that encapsulates what you just described, “For the mainstream media and its public putting India on the global map was laudable and worthwhile. But putting Dalits on the Indian map was an abominable waste.” It reminds me a lot of the controversies over monuments within the United States and within Europe right now. The question of what do they stand for? Is it a monument to something like slavery that we have abhor? Or should we be constructing monuments to civil rights leaders? And if we do, what does that mean for the community itself? It’s fascinating how these same conversations are happening in India in different ways, in different contexts.


No, that’s exactly right. You know, in a sense, the politics around monuments is a global phenomenon and I think that kind of has to do with partly the rise of identity politics, you know. The ways in which liberal democracies have leveraged identitarian projects and I was just speaking about vote banks, you know. I think people have realized that identity is something that evokes enormous passion and it’s a kind of easy way into political contests. An easier way than older forms like class. And of course, these things are as we call it, intersectional, but you know, I do feel as though certainly in liberal multicultural democracies, identitarianism has become a kind of pernicious safety valve in some senses to deflect attention from other questions of class.

It’s part and parcel to my mind of the fallout, both the strategy and the fallout of neoliberalism and the withdrawal of the sort of welfare state. I think political struggles are absolutely aesthetic in character. Politics is about who we can hear, who we can see, who we will allow into our space or who gets to occupy space and how? These are very fundamental sensory things and it’s obvious that in liberal democracies for the longest time, and maybe even today, women are not heard and seen in the same ways as men. People of color, indigenous people and so on are just not thought of when, are not the image that comes to mind when we think of citizen.

So that of course has to change. And that’s where I think of politics, not so much in terms of political parties and their ideologies, but this very basic sensory work. Why do these things take so long? It’s because they are about practice iconopraxis, sensory practice. How we see and feel and make sense of the world. And that takes generations to change. It’s not going to come in with a new law or a new monument, or not one new monument. It has to be a host of new monuments. It has to be a new hegemonic order.

It has to be a new regime of the senses. And that will not take, you know, a little bit of fiddling around the edges. It will not take, just like, let’s include this one here and take down that monument there. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. So, I mean, which is all to say that monuments are really important because they are both a vehicle and an index of fundamental symbolic upheavals in our sensory political regimes, but we can’t stop there.


In your book, you write, “Democracy, like religion, necessarily unfolds in and through mediation, through the aesthetic.” It’s a brilliant line. How does the aesthetic contribute to the mediation of interests in a democracy?


So, when I say mediation here, I’m literally thinking of the media. I mean, not necessarily the mass media, but any kind of means of expression or communication, but also more fundamentally anything that we sense or perceive. Again, any form of the aesthetic in that Greek sense as sensation, anything we sense. And so of course we know that media, in the broadest sense, put frames around things. They present things to our view or our understanding whether they’re people or places or issues. Media adjudicate what occupies our spaces, literal physical spaces, our headspace. Whether it’s actual like workplaces, parliaments, universities, or virtual spaces, like our screens that we’re speaking on just now, or our devices. So media, either amplifies or silences things, it makes them visible or it makes them invisible. And so that goes directly to the question of political representation in a democracy. And again, I’m not talking about electoral mechanisms. I’m talking about actual participation in the public sphere.


Deliberation. I’ve had numerous conversations about deliberative democracy and it always feels as though it’s based on conversation. The way that they describe it, it’s based on linguistic skills. But what you’re saying right now is, to be able to be truly deliberative, to bring everybody into the conversation, we need to approach it from multiple perspectives and angles. And sometimes the communication some people do best will be through the visual media. And it brings in new ideas to the public sphere,


Right. Not just new ideas, but new ways of being. It’s not… I’m glad you said that because it’s not just about ideas and language and communication. It’s about being and sensing and how we are with each other. Are we standing in the same space, literally? How do we touch each other? Is it violent or is it welcoming? So, we don’t pay enough attention to the sensory aspects of what it means to be equal. That’s what it fundamentally is. That’s the presupposition of democracy. Not the goal. The presupposition is that we are equal, but does our comportment reinforce that or does it re-institute hierarchies.

That’s what I’m interested in, in relation to mediation images, the work of the aesthetic. So freedom and diversity of the press media, art-making protest that’s why all of these things are so crucial in a democracy. It’s not just about getting several sides of a debate it’s about who gets to debate in the first place. And what gets on the table to debate. What isn’t present to our senses. Our senses, both as hearing, seeing, smelling, you know, touching, but also making sense of things. Whose sense of sense is being deployed. That’s really the question to me.


Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I feel like this is a difficult conversation and concept to be able to bring to political science, but it’s a necessary one. And it expands the realm of what we think about within political theory. So, thank you so much for taking the time.


Oh, well, thank you. I mean, that’s, that’s a great observation and I’m glad that I’ve persuaded you of the need for this approach. I mean, this is not actually, I have to say, I mean, let it be put on the record that this is not my idea. I’m working with the ideas in particular of the philosophers, Jacque Ranciere, who has been very influential for many of us thinking about, you know, the politics of images.

I don’t agree with everything he says, but I have taken the bits that I needed to make sense of the particular images that I look at in India, and I’m realizing that those issues of touch and space that I have found so useful to think with in relation to India can actually be brought back to spaces like ours in North America to think about the politics of race where again space, exclusion, inclusion.

These are things that we think about when we think about visual media and again, I mean, this is where, if I’m trying to make an intervention, I mean, if you acknowledge there’s an intervention here in political science, this is the kind of way in which I want to push art history is to start paying much more attention to the other senses than the visual which have so dominated our idea of images.

Key Links

Gods in the Time of Democracy

Statue of Unity

Kajri Jain at University of Toronto

Key Content

Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue are Worried About Severe Polarization

Yael Tamir on Nationalism

Thoughts on Jürgen Habermas’ The Inclusion of the Other

More Information

Democracy Group

Apes of the State created all Music

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