Still from What is Democracy? (2018) | Zeitgeist Films

Wrestling with the Demo(n)s

A new documentary examines just how democracy has come to . . . this

Still from What is Democracy? (2018) | Zeitgeist Films
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“It must be there, concealed in the broth of unbeing.”

–B. Catling, The Vorrh

I’ve never been to the Acropolis of Athens, never climbed the steps to the Parthenon, never stood in the Theater of Dionysus wondering what it smelled like—and whether bugs sang in the grass—when Greek Tragedy was born. During the opening credits of Astra Taylor’s new documentary, though, I get to watch others doing it for me. Nameless tourists trot along the sun-dried bones of history—they stop, they gaze, they point, they take pictures. They sweat. They are the eyes and hairy ears of the present.

In the background, a cello is playing. Shot after shot passes away into nothing. Under the shade of olive trees, a couple plods listlessly up some steps while an army officer glides towards the screen. A man in a white cap does some stretches among the rubble of two-plus millennia while a woman in a white cap looks at a brochure. It’s all incredibly pallid and, I dunno . . . disturbing.  

There’s something very familiar about it, too. On the surface, this whole opening montage harkens back to just about every grainy tape every civics teacher ever played to their class when it was time to have a serious talk about the D-word. If you strip away the higher production qualities, that’s exactly what it feels like. What Is Democracy?, the title sequence asks, as your eyes are guided through what you’ve long been told are the ancient remnants of its glorious birth. Yes, this is where it all began. Drink it in, kids.

As with any democratic encounter, you’re being given a choice here. Over the next hour and forty-seven minutes, Taylor—a Baffler contributing editor—will take you back and forth across the Atlantic, between Greece and the United States (with the occasional layover in Italy). The contrast is baked in: on one side, trembling with an almost divine aura, we have the real, historical traces of capital-D Democracy, an idea that changed the world; on the other side, we have us, now. We have this. We have pain and anger, greed and power, division and want—life amid the daily roar of some rough beast that has devoured democracy and now wears its skin. Taylor’s documentary comes across as a collection of such contrasts, and you are given the choice to take this as the ultimate, definitive one—she’s not going to coerce you. We never do get a clear answer to the question posed in the title, after all. Still, it is painfully tempting to watch the film and imagine that, whatever democracy is, it’s something we’ve lost—some secret held within these ancient Athenian ruins, some beautiful corpse lying way down there, unable to answer us from beneath the frozen sea of history. It’s tempting to see it as a documentation not of what is, but what was. It has all the trappings of an autopsy.

On one side, trembling with an almost divine aura, we have the real, historical traces of capital-D Democracy, an idea that changed the world.

But underneath all of this—or rather, above it—there’s another, starker contrast that animates, I think, the soul of the question Taylor is asking. It’s not a contrast between then and now, one place and another, one system of governance and another, one set of philosophical principles and another. The contrast is there, in the opening credits, striking viewers from the outset—in a single geographical site overlaid with juxtaposing traces of democratic possibility and soul-sucking boredom. It’s in every history textbook, every ceremonial rendition of the national anthem, every class field trip to Washington, D.C., every blinking, screaming American warhead sawing the sky open. It’s the eternal contrast between democracy as an artifact, a territory, a thing to be put under glass, preserved, and patrolled, and Democracy as a way of being in the world, a striving to be better, a thing to be lived and fought for every day, over and over again. A thing that that is no-thing, that does not exist, will not exist, will recede back into the dark broth of historical unbeing, if left unattended, if not tenderly and ferociously and endlessly midwifed into existence by the hands and hearts of the people.

This is the real power of Taylor’s documentary. She propels her investigation into the Big Question by approaching it with a fragmentary quality. If you let it, this fragmented and necessarily incomplete account of democratic possibility will tell you everything you need to know, everything that is gestured at but never fully said by anyone onscreen. If you stop trying to weigh up each scene—each time, each place, each people—in comparison with the others, if you halt your natural impulse to impose some stenciled narrative symmetry connecting everything, something else begins to emerge. If you let go of them, these fragments begin to float and burn and glow with a sense of latent fullness that connects them to each other—and to you, no less than the static on your television connects you to the stars in the sky.

But letting go is not easy. It takes gentleness; it takes patience. Jumping from that ancient then to our burning now, from there to here, from them to us, you start to get frustrated, and then you get even more frustrated. As scene after scene piles up, it’s increasingly difficult to hold together what seemed at first to be the clear, guiding purpose of these apparent contrasts. Your sense of what one side was meant to tell you about the other starts to dissolve. Whatever heuristic power that democratic past was supposed to give us to better interpret our decidedly un-democratic present turns to salt in your hands. Whatever particle of truth you had isolated and catalogued as native to one place in time suddenly shows up in another. Everything is contaminated. Then you start to think, well, perhaps, you’re testing for the wrong things. Perhaps there’s a reason nothing seems to . . . fit. What you thought were puzzle pieces appear, instead, to be shards of glass, pieces of some great broken thing that was never whole to begin with.  

That’s what this documentary consists of: pieces. Bits. Slices. Instead of a single narratorial voice, for instance, we get scraps of Plato written on the screen. Instead of authoritative, sweeping definitions of democracy, we get fragments of discussions with thinkers like Silvia Federici, Wendy Brown, and Cornel West. We watch them reach into the dark, trying to wrap their brains around it, trying to articulate the most burning questions of democracy’s rise and decline—Is democracy synonymous with majority rule? Can it exist without excluding some group that doesn’t belong? What if most people don’t actually want democracy?—in the hopes that doing so will perhaps bring us closer to its feeble light. It feels like everyone is trying to draw a suspicious animal out of some dark, infinite forest.

We get more, piece by piece. We get chunks of scenes and shreds of voices from a Moral March in Raleigh; a barber shop in Miami; a self-managed, volunteer-run Greek health clinic; a worker-owned co-op in North Carolina that employs predominantly Mayan immigrants from Central America; a hospital trauma ward in Miami; a protest in the wake of police officer Brentley Vinson’s killing of Keith Lamont Scott; a port in Greece where Syrian refugees disembark daily from slow-floating hulks.

It’s in this way that Taylor—quite masterfully—cinematographically supplements all that is said and implied about democracy by luring out into the open a sense that everything you are seeing contains the democratic seed of what could and must be. Even in scenes that lay bare the vile work of avaricious demons hellbent on dividing and destroying and subjugating the demos, everything trembles with urgency and unknowing. There’s urgency in the sense that whatever residues of democratic life we may have inherited are rapidly becoming desiccated and hollowed out. There’s unknowing as we look fearfully and try to make out what ominous shadows are on the horizon. And this, we begin to sense, is when it is most possible to finally circle around the truth of democracy. Because for the future to be known, possibility must die, and democracy is nothing if not possibility—the possibility that we can live more democratically. As Taylor makes painstakingly clear, that possibility will recede if we do not feel it, and act on it, urgently. Because the need for us to lend our hands and aid in the birth of a more democratic way of being only ever disappears when—by force, choice, or fatigue—we abdicate our role in making the world; that is, when we hand the world over to others.   

Perhaps nowhere is this felt more painfully—and more urgently—than in a scene where Taylor is talking with a table of students, all black, at a school in Miami. It’s made immediately clear that they have learned about democracy in ways that are functionally no different from learning about different categories of invertebrates. Democracy is, for them, an artifact, an abstract term for government. Democracy as a way of life, a way of acting and living together, has never been part of the curriculum.

“The idea of democracy is that the people rule,” Taylor says to the them. “And, so, that’s what I wanted to talk to you guys about . . . how do you feel? Do you feel like have a say in your school? Is that a place where you feel like you have any say over how things go?”

If Taylor’s documentary communicates one thing, it’s that there is no “back.”

You know what their answer is going to be. And you feel almost as incredulous as they are that Taylor would even ask the question. That is why it’s so damn important to ask it. Of course they don’t feel like they have a say in how the school is run. And that’s not even the half of it. The students detail how it is standard practice for their wants and needs to go completely ignored, or worse. When they broach the question of collectivizing and exercising some semblance of democratic consensus-making on the issue of lunches not being served cold, the students quickly point out that they are routinely punished for such things. “If you try to go against them, they take away something we like,” one student says. “Same here,” another chimes in. “We said we wanted better lunch and they took away the vending machines.”

For the rest of their lives, when these now-students reflect on that elusive question—What Is Democracy?—what lessons from their formative years do we think will stick? How and where will they have learned to live democratically? And what about us? Can we honestly say that we live much differently?

In the same queasy mood of uncertainty evoked by the civics-class-video aesthetic of the opening credits, we are left stewing in some gross, unnerving sense that democracy, whatever it is, is something we are conditioned, always, to look for elsewhere. In ancient Athens, in the events and times and places listed in our history textbooks, behind the closed doors of some government office far, far away. We are always looking away, looking back. 

If Taylor’s documentary communicates one thing, it’s that there is no “back.” There is no democracy and never was. There is only struggle—here, now, always. Only from afar, only in the rearview mirror, only when time has torn the bones of history from the living tissue of what was once a messy, conflictual, not-democratic-enough present—only then does the fiction emerge of a democracy that can exist somehow, sometime, somewhere outside of the never-ending fight for a more democratic life. Such a notion of democracy was as fictional then as it is now. And now—as with every now captured in Taylor’s documentary, as with every now that ever is, was, and will be—is a time of struggle. Now is a fleeting possibility. Now is a momentary site of democracy’s potential emergence, an urgent chance to bring it forth, to fight for it, to midwife its eternally dying light from the jaws of unbeing. And time is running out—it always is.

Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. He received his BA and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago in 2009.

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