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.