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Book Project

Democracy does not necessarily make us happy. Instead it keeps producing a number of distinct kinds of frustration. My dissertation project, On Frustration: An Inquiries into Democratic Perseverance, examines democratic frustration as a defining experience of ordinary citizens and seeks to explicate the ways in which to better understand and come to terms with such an experience. 

Joseph Beuys, "Demokratie ist lustig" [1973]

Joseph Beuys, "Demokratie ist lustig" [1973]



It was one winter day a couple of years ago. I was visiting Manhattan and had some extra time, enough time for a short trip to the MoMa nearby. Among a number of extraordinary exhibitions that provided me much inspiration during that short visit, one photographic art that arrested my immediate and sustained attention. It was a work by Joseph Beuys (1921-1986).

 

Beuys was a German avant-garde artist, co-founder of both Free International University and German Green Party. He was often remembered as a member of Fluxus, an international network of artists and composers founded by George Maciunas in 1960. Fluxus housed notable creative minds such as Dick Higgins, Allison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, and Beuys.

 

In 1972, Beuys was an art professor at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and he got involved into a serious feud with the Kunstakademie administration over its policy of limited admission. Regarding the policy as profoundly undemocratic, Beuys intentionally over-enrolled his classes in protest. Their conflicts mounted rapidly, which ultimately ended with his dismissal.

 

Ernst Naninga, the photographer, captured the moment when Beuys was escorted out of the secretariat of the Kunstakademie on October 10th, 1972, after his sit-in protest with his students. Beuys walked out smiling. So did the man right behind him. The low resolution of the image notwithstanding, his grin seems to suggest a kind of cheerful mood. That is definitely not a self-satisfied smirk at the moment of triumph. His protest was broken up by the entry of the police.

 

But one could still say that the photograph shows, albeit dimly, his simper of superiority with composure against the grave and overbearing atmosphere. Later, Beuys inscribed three words on the photograph, which eventually turned it into an inspirational artwork: Demokratie ist lustig or democracy is merry.

 

Beuys's "Demokratie ist lustig" struck me more because I was writing the very first chapter of my dissertation on democratic frustration. It appeared to me that the theme of this artwork might be in line with that of my work, both the overarching theme of the project as a whole and the particular themes confined to each individual chapters on democratic communication, democratic people, and democratic time.  

 

 

My Talk: "Is Democracy Merry?"

My Talk: "Is Democracy Merry?"

Click on the link below for my talk on the connection between my dissertation project and the Beuys's artwork mentioned above. I delivered this talk at the annual Grad Ben Talks at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Is Democracy Merry?"

Through a Lens Clearly

Through a Lens Clearly

As a whole, my project offers a threefold framework through which we can better articulate and understand frustration as a defining mood and feeling of democracy. I call the overarching framework a trifocal approach because of its analogy to trifocals.

Trifocals are a pair of glasses that have three regions that correct for near, intermediate, and distance vision. The lenses with different focal lengths remind us of what it means to have good vision—being capable of discerning objects visually at a short, medium, and long distance. It is plain and simple, but we are not always conscious of our tripartite capacity. We rather hold a holistic view (twenty-twenty or not) unless we come to suffer from presbyopia or other clinical problems that demand for this kind of correction.

Likewise, democratic aspirations, which serve as a critical backdrop against which democratic frustration arises, have different reference points. Just like trifocals that offer a three-part compartmentalization of lenses, I shall reduce my considerations to three dimensions of democratic life: communicative, symbolic, and temporal. In each of the three dimensions, a particular mode of democratic subjectivity takes shape — citizen-partisan, citizen-sovereign, and citizen-becoming, respectively.