Sound of Democ­ra­cy. Blog, Pod­cast and Inter­view Project

This blog post is a con­tri­bu­tion by a team of lin­guists at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bre­men, name­ly Prof. Dr. Ingo H. Warnke and two of his doc­tor­al stu­dents, Chris­t­ian Bär as well as Hagen Stein­hauer, who is also a mem­ber of the Research Group on Soft Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, which is direct­ed by Shali­ni Ran­de­ria, who holds the Excel­lence Chair at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bremen.

Engag­ing with the metaphor of sound describ­ing democ­ra­cy, one might imme­di­ate­ly asso­ciate icon­ic moments in his­to­ry. One might think of the peace­ful rev­o­lu­tion in Leipzig and Berlin in 1989 and their spe­cif­ic sound, the crowd chant­i­ng and cheer­ing while tear­ing down the Berlin Wall. Or, a more recent and less spec­tac­u­lar but nonethe­less icon­ic sound—John Bercow as speak­er of the British House of Com­mons, try­ing to main­tain “order!” in often chaot­ic Brex­it debates.

These two asso­ci­a­tions indi­cate the spec­trum of dif­fer­ent sounds that have made their way into cul­tur­al mem­o­ry. The first one stand­ing for a moment in time unprece­dent­ed and lib­er­at­ing, in con­se­quence lead­ing to the fall of the Iron Cur­tain and the decline of the Sovi­et Union. The oth­er one being the reac­tion to a chaot­ic and con­fus­ing sit­u­a­tion; the Brex­it quar­rel is still unre­solved to this day. It was induced by delib­er­ate dis­in­for­ma­tion, pop­ulist pro­pa­gan­da, and pop­u­lar resent­ment of what was framed as for­eign rule. Nev­er­the­less, it is demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly legit­imized by a major­i­ty of the electorate.

It is strik­ing how the point of ref­er­ence of sound as metaphor for democ­ra­cy is het­ero­ge­neous, unclear, and some­times messy. Whose vision of democ­ra­cy are we refer­ring to? Can democ­ra­cy sound like the attempt to bring order to a par­lia­men­tary process that stands on illib­er­al grounds? And what do we make of the appro­pri­a­tion of the icon­ic phrase “Wir sind das Volk!” by the anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic and xeno­pho­bic move­ment PEGI­DA? Can for­mer­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic sounds become undemocratic?

Can democ­ra­cy sound like the attempt to bring order to a par­lia­men­tary process that stands on illib­er­al grounds?

Our approach to Sound of Democ­ra­cy is to chal­lenge these points of ref­er­ences to the metaphor and their lin­guis­tic or activist expres­sions. We aim to be sen­si­tive to our own pre­sump­tions with­out let­ting illib­er­al and author­i­tar­i­an actors claim demo­c­ra­t­ic sounds to their ends. At the same time, try­ing to reach a broad­er pub­lic in order to pro­voke and encour­age feed­back, inter­ac­tion, and par­tic­i­pa­tion, the chal­lenge will be to cre­ate an acces­si­ble and attrac­tive debate.
Attempt­ing to meet these com­mu­nica­tive require­ments and demands for method­i­cal thor­ough­ness alike, we will address the pub­lic in three dif­fer­ent modes. A pod­cast as the aur­al medi­um of artis­tic sound­scapes, son­ic or musi­cal instal­la­tions, but also as a medi­um of inter­ac­tion and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry out­reach will be the first pil­lar of our inquiry into Sound of Democ­ra­cy.

In order to place the project on empir­i­cal grounds, we are plan­ning a Euro­pean inter­view project ask­ing the ques­tion “how does your democ­ra­cy sound like today?” Informed by lin­guis­tic and ethno­graph­ic inter­view meth­ods, our inter­est is to elic­it metaphors and styles of speech that form the Euro­pean dis­course about democ­ra­cy today.

Not least, a blog will be launched in which the ques­tion and metaphor of sound and democ­ra­cy will be reflect­ed by dif­fer­ent voic­es and from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­pli­nary per­spec­tives. Con­tain­ing inter­ven­tions by experts and their com­ments on the state of democ­ra­cy, the blog will be the medi­um of crit­i­cal reflec­tion and schol­ar­ly reasoning.


Hagen Steinhauer

Hagen Steinhauer is a doctoral Researcher at the University of Bremen. In his PhD project he focuses on authoritarian and illiberal shifts in the French public discourse.

Christian Bär
Ingo H. Warnke