'Nostalgia Doesn't Speak to Me, History Does': Astra Taylor on Her New Film and 'Reaching Toward' Democracy


Earlier this month, I met up with the filmmaker Astra Taylor at her coffee shop of choicean intimate spot in Brooklyn with a no laptop policy so encouraging of public discourse that shortly before Taylor arrived I overheard two women spoil multiple plot points of The Sopranos. The tables were set close enough together that our conversation at times felt more like a group exercise than an interview. It was an appropriate setting: We mostly spoke about her new documentary, What Is Democracy?, a film so ambitious, carefully wrought, and radical that it makes the question feel unfamiliar again. This, Taylor tells me, was intentional, for the film—constructed from shards of democratic thought (in its conservative, liberal, and more radical forms) and glimpses of its everyday critics—builds to a work more imaginative than it is authoritative. “I wanted to do something that had a looser form and I wanted to do something that had an emotional component,” Taylor tells me, “because we think and we feel, and I actually think that intellectual engagement is an emotion.”

Unlike her previous two films Zizek! (2005) and Examined Life (2008), for which she interviewed philosophers (such as Judith Butler, Martha Nussbaum, and Peter Singer), What Is Democracy? asks a much wider representation of the social body to participate. The film weaves together interviews with politicians and activists, a worker’s collective in Miami and theorists (Wendy Brown, Silvia Federici, Efimia Karakantza among them), plus students, asylum-seekers, and doctors.

What Is Democracy? opens at the IFC Center in New York City on January 16 and will roll out to select cities after that (you can see the full list of screenings here). The film can be booked locally—in your neighborhood, at your your college, in your community group—if you reach out to the distributor. It will become available on select digital platform, probably sometime in the spring.

In addition to making films that rip philosophical thought off the page and make it wildly accessible to viewers, Taylor is also the author of two books: The People’s Platform, released in 2014, is a fascinating analysis of the ways in which the democratic promise of the internet and social media has been absorbed, absconded with, and picked over by corporate and technocratic interests. Her new book Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, a companion to the film, will be published May.

This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and to exclude the man at the communal table who repeatedly interrupted our discussion with his own questions, like did we really mean “all men” and had we switched seats.

JEZEBEL: How are you doing today?

ASTRA TAYLOR: My day’s going well, actually. I have a lot less to do this week than I’ve had in previous weeks because I put the finishing touches on the companion book to the film called Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, a place where I could flesh out all of my thoughts and bring to the surface all of the concepts that I was wrestling with while making the film, but that couldn’t be explicit in the film or it would be totally weighted down. I’ve never met a deadline that I actually believed in. This book was due so long ago, and it took me many months more than I anticipated to finish it, and of course I got more obsessed and the book got way longer than it was supposed to be.

I liked the characterization of deadlines as believable or not. I also feel this way.

Cause the word is threatening, right? Deadline.

Like what happens at the end of that? What happens after?

I remember one time I tried to interview Studs Terkel—the famous lefty conversationalist—and he was, like, 90 years old and he said “I’m too busy. I’ve got a deadline that I can’t avoid.” And he meant that he was at the end of his life and really prioritizing things.

Sounds like he was looking to be quoted one day. I wanted to ask you about something you say in the first scene of the film:“Democracy is not something that’s ever actualized but always something that’s in motion—a kind of ideal we’re reaching toward.” In American mythological language, the kind often deployed by politicians and centrist media, democracy is framed as something we need to “protect” or “defend,” the assumption being that we already have it. How does this interpretation of democracy structure your film?

I think you’re exactly right. There is a whole school of thought that basically says we had democracy starting at the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy was triumphant and democracy means certain things. It means periodic elections, and legal equality, and free markets. Therefore, democracy is something that can be measured—you get these democracy ratings, and you can measure to a very precise degree how much democracy a country has or whether it’s sliding into authoritarianism. I see things differently. I see democracy as something we’ve never had in my ideal form. We’re so far from equality in our society.

I think it’s fair to say we live in an oligarchy, there’s incredibly concentrated wealth. I mean even former President Jimmy Carter said we have an oligarchy, right? And yet it’s also more complicated than that, because we have made tremendous democratic progress. As two women sitting here today, we wouldn’t have been in the demos not too long ago—we have expanded democracy and we’ve made it more robust. I wanted to concisely articulate both the problems with the word “democracy,” but also its promise. It’s not a promise that the powerful make and then they betray us, it’s a promise that we as individuals have to work together to fulfill. It’s not just this vague, co-opted word, it’s this powerful concept that we can take in a radically new, more egalitarian, socialist direction, if we rise to the challenge. At one point in the film set in Miami, the poet Aja Monet says, “Why ask ‘What is democracy?’ There’s never been a democracy for black people.” And that’s right. I think this is a rebuke to the school of thought that’s just focused on norm erosion. If we could just go back to 2014, 2015—it’s like this liberal version of Make America Great Again, it’s this nostalgia. As a politically radical person, and as a woman, nostalgia doesn’t speak to me. History speaks to me, past struggles speak to me. I think we have to have a really long sense of time. But nostalgia is deadly in its conservative and its liberal forms.

As a politically radical person, and as a woman, nostalgia doesn’t speak to me. History speaks to me, past struggles speak to me. I think we have to have a really long sense of time. But nostalgia is deadly in its conservative and its liberal forms.

That’s a really interesting point. The more privilege you have in a society, the farther back you will want to look, the farther back you will want to go.

Yeah, and the film also demonstrates that in a way with fluid interviews, because it’s essentially asking: Who’s an expert in democracy? Who can really see? Can the Harvard professor obsessed with norm erosion really see how truly unjust and inadequate our political system is?

Right! Probably my favorite scene was the one where you interview the schoolchildren in Miami, at the youth center, and what I noticed was: first of all, that you were more physically present in that scene than in others. You definitely got them to open up. And they revealed themselves to be experts on power at a very young age. They knew so much more than the white adult Miami residents who, like, didn’t want to be taxed on their 150,000th dollar.

Yeah I have so many thoughts on those kids. The other day I Skyped into a Q&A and a woman, who said she loved the film, said she was troubled by that scene because, according to her, elders know stuff the kids don’t know. She thought it was a dangerous proposition, this idea that these kids might have a role to play in the governing of their school. And my response was, well, did you listen to them? As you said, they have a very astute analysis of power relations. They’re not simply saying the teacher is mean to me. They’re saying we actually in theory have the right to exercise our free speech and to have a voice, but in practice what happens is that the whole structure of the school, and the teachers, and the administrators, and the county, and the state, and then up to Washington, D.C.—there’s all these structures that inhibit our ability to have a say in this environment.

And then they’re also asking: Why are the grown-ups doing this? Why are the grown-ups trying to disempower us and make us feel like we’re small? To me that scene represents two things, mainly. One is just the tremendous capacity of regular people that’s being squelched. We like to tell ourselves that education is the solution to the problems in our democracy and it’s like, hold on, what education? What if the curriculum is actually geared towards telling people to know their place. The other thing—and I make this explicit in the book—but children have actually played a really powerful role in democratic progress. Who desegregated schools during the Civil Rights movement?

Curiosity doesn’t have to be this frigid, disembodied thing on the page. I mean that’s not how I live. I think it’s a very masculine idea. There’s definitely a gender component to it.

Exactly. Look at these young kids going on strike for the climate. I’m not saying they should have equal rights with adults, or should not be socialized, but I think that they often have a lot of insight.

Or they’re participating in the political process in a different way. Not by voting, but by learning. How long were you working on the film and how did its question come about? It seems to me that democracy is something that’s been in your work the whole time, whether it’s your 2008 documentary Examined Life or your 2014 book The People’s Platform.

I know, I didn’t know that though, it’s really odd how one has that subconscious focus. I had a feeling in mind for the film I wanted to do. Democracy seemed like the right topic. It’s almost an embarrassingly simple question “What is democracy?” But it’s actually rich because you can invite so man people to reflect on it. Once I settled on it I was pretty committed. I wrote the first email to my producer in 2013, and then started filming at the end of 2015. The last shoot week was that of the American election. And then editing is the hard work in a documentary because that is where you have to filter all your material and see if what you’re imaging actually works and makes sense. There are so many things associated with democracy that I don’t show. I don’t show people voting, I don’t show the White House. Why make a film that’s really timely and newsy? I think the biggest challenge of editing the film was how to make it resonant with this moment, but not so of the moment that it would be pointless, because we just have so much access to news. So that was the challenge: How to push the film into this more timeless and philosophical mode. You have to ask yourself: Why make anything in this moment? There’s so much stuff.

I found that when your non-academic interview subjects are discussing politics, they often rely on an affective vocabulary: “There’s never been a democracy in my mind,” or “I feel this is not a democracy,” or “This isn’t what democracy feels like to me.” I find myself doing this some of the time as well. I’ve often thought about these words as a kind of placeholder, but they also seem like a completely legitimate response, and in fact an impulse toward true democracy. A way of self-governance, maybe, by saying your story holds up against the government’s. How important is that feeling?

I love that you’re picking up on this because it’s actually something I’ve thought about a lot and no one has asked me about. For me that comes into focus when Delaney Vandergrift—the 19-year-old woman in Charlotte—she says something like: “This isn’t what democracy feels like to me. It doesn’t feel like being scared for my life. It doesn’t feel like punishment for nonviolent crimes for my family members. It doesn’t feel like the stress of debt.” And I loved her comment because it also begged the question: What would democracy feel like? A lot of things would just be the relief of, right? The relief of anxiety, of uncertainty. And we know feelings are a part of democratic discourse. We know fear is a major driver of democratic discourse. Philosophers since Plato have framed emotions as the unruly passions. Suppress them, they say, and then let’s have this reasoned deliberation. If we could just debate among intelligent people with no emotional lives democracy would work—which isn’t true. We are emotional, affect is real. The film tries to get over that binary of head and the heart, or the mental and the menial, and that intellectual pleasure is a real thing. An epiphany is an emotion, a sensation. Curiosity doesn’t have to be this frigid, disembodied thing on the page. I mean that’s not how I live. I think it’s a very masculine idea. There’s definitely a gender component to it.

There are various strategies in the film and we have to employ them all. We have to find new ways of building collective power. We have to think about education, we have to think about ideology, our own psychologies. And we have to engage in street protest, and riots, and other forms of escalation when appropriate.

I agree. And speaking of men, I was very happy that the film was punctuated three times by Cornel West, because this seems to be his jam. He speaks of philosophy with a lot of knowledge but also a lot of passion and feeling. I like his line about the holy fools, and the civic responsibility to to be a little bit ridiculous, a little stripped down.

Rebecca Solnit has this line from her book Hope in the Dark and it’s something like “cynicism is this cool leather jacket that everyone looks good in, but hope is this pink frilly dress that shows your knees.” There’s something about making that leap of faith that’s risky. There’s so much evidence that human beings are nasty, and not capable, and ignorant. But, again, there’s also all this evidence that people from below have come up with the very best ideas that have changed the world. So which side are you on? Better to wear the pink frilly dress.

It’s a great image, and a great way to counteract this pessimistic idea that’s come down through certain strains of philosophy that hatred and violence are the only unruly passions worth considering when it comes to political life.

Efimia Karakantza is an expert, she’s a classicist, in the film she’s there telling us about the origins of democracy. And it’s very important to me that there’s a scene in the film that takes place at her home where you realize that, first of all, she is a human with a domestic life, but also that her life has been impacted by the financial crisis in Greece. Her daughter has been forced to emigrate; 400,000 Greek people left and they were mostly young and educated because there was no economic opportunity.

Setting much of the film in Athens was so smart. Can you talk about that and about those two periods in Greek history?

So the film mostly plays out in the United States and in Greece, and then there’s a through-line set in Siena, Italy. Originally, when I was writing in the proposal in 2013, I was thinking about places that had been swept up in the democratic movements in 2011, so I was thinking of Turkey, and Egypt, and even Quebec where there was the 2012 protest around student fees. But then once the rise of Syriza and the Greek sovereign debt crisis started playing out, it became clear that that would be a really rich place to go. Even though we’re still living in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it’s a bit distant now, but the reverberations were still being felt there, so I knew that it would put economics front-and-center, and questions of austerity and capitalism. When I arrived it was also the peak of the refugee crisis, it was right before the E.U.-Turkey deal in March, 2016. So between that and the resonance with the past, it just seemed like the perfect place to film. The film is framed by Plato’s Republic, which is the founding text of political theory, and, of course, it’s an anti-democratic text. But I think it’s a very interesting piece of work, because it evokes a lot of the problems that we’re feeling in this moment, namely that the divide between the rich and the poor cuts the social body in half, and unruly passions, and the rise of demagogues. Plato didn’t provide a blueprint for an acceptable world, but I respect the questions that he was asking, and there’s actually a lot of rich, weird stuff in that text.

What about setting the film in the United States, and in Siena?

I chose the United States because it’s a place I know about, it’s the place where I grew up, and to show the intertwined legacies of economic and racial inequalities. And then Siena represents one of the origins of financial capitalism, it’s one of the places where modern banking emerged in the 1400s. It was a city-state run by merchants and bankers. Those scenes center on the painting “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, which was painted in 1338 and 1339. It’s an excuse to ruminate on the ways that finance has gotten out of control and gotten global while also showing shots of this beautiful painting. But, I mean I could have filmed anywhere. Why didn’t you film in China, in Turkey, in the U.K.?—that’s a valid critique of the film. I tried to approach scenes as if they were parables so it doesn’t get bogged down in detail. It’s not meat to be exhaustive, or definitive. It’s meant to raise certain challenges that we see all over the place.

The film mentions—but doesn’t necessarily endorse—some strategies by which a democracy might be realized or strengthened. Some that I picked up on are a robust, non-dysfunctional public education, desegregating voting interest groups, political participation and the desire to govern oneself. What do you think of these strategies, would you add to them?

So I think there are other ones that are in the film, and they’re implicit. Silvia Federici mentions this: How do we have power over people who exploit us? In Siena the 1400s, people who exploited you—they lived next-door, it’s just a tiny city. And so we see an attempt to gain that power through protest movements. There’s also the example of the worker’s collective in North Carolina. There are various strategies in the film and we have to employ them all. We have to find new ways of building collective power. We have to think about education, we have to think about ideology, our own psychologies. And we have to engage in street protest, and riots, and other forms of escalation when appropriate. The film is born of me being an activist and being a little frustrated with films that end with a kind of romantic vision of a protest, because we live in really complicated times, and strategically it’s not clear what to do. I think Greece is really interesting because they protested, rioted, occupied, built a political party, won elections, they did everything that I aspire to do as an activist and more, and the point is that because of transnational forces they were subverted, austerity was still invoked. I think you were right to bring up the issue of elections. It’s not just about elections— as in let’s vote. The film is saying we need to think about how we structure our democracy and why elections are considered the apex of democratic participation. Are elections even democratic in a world where rich people and celebrities have a massive advantage?

And I think women, and people in different identity categories, tell a more complicated story about democracy, because it’s a more conflicting thing when you’ve been excluded. It’s a richer analysis because of that.

In all the weeks I spent writing, and reading, and suffering about the Kavanaugh hearings, there was so much commentary all the time, but the disagreement was often taking place within a narrow set of possibilities. People were arguing whether or not this undermines the democratic nature of the court. Cornel West mentions in your film “The court is a fundamentally counter-majoritarian institution.” How radically do we need to rethink and reimplement justice in order to achieve democracy? I’m also thinking about the Afghani English teacher who said that democracy, to him, meant justice. That seemed right.

I mean, your question is really epic, and the Supreme Court is definitely a counter-majoritarian, undemocratic institution. Now I personally think that checks and balances are a good thing, but it’s also, like, how does the check work? How is it implemented? Why do judges have lifetime appointments? Why? But I think we don’t have to fetishize it. When the Supreme Court is dominated by liberal jurists making the kinds of decisions I agree with, then I’m for it, but that’s not in its DNA. Cornel West’s point is that if we had waited for the majority to come around to end segregation it wouldn’t have happened.

Look, for example, at Switzerland. It has a system of direct democracy and popular initiatives and referenda—when did women get the right to vote in their society? 1971, that’s when they finally decided to give women the right to vote. My distributor recently put out a really interesting movie, The Divine Order, which is a dramatization of how women had to go on strike to get men to fucking vote to give them the right to vote. So I think the Supreme Court issue is complicated. One reason is because justices do follow popular sentiment. What Cornel West says in the film is a simplification because those judges were responding to public pressure, to the Civil Rights movement, and also to pressure from without. They were responding to the context of the Cold War and the fact that the existence of Jim Crow was making America look bad. So the Court responds also to changing circumstances and changing times. I do think the Court and the Senate are radically undemocratic in America today and should be reformed. Why not have one of the two houses be run by sortition and not by elections at all? We should change the way votes are weighted, we should get rid of lifetime appointments to the court, but democracy still needs to be structured.

Athenians had some good ideas about how to implement democracy. These ideas came out of a society that enforced slavery and didn’t allow women to participate in political life. What would you recommend to a reader looking for a contemporary, feminist masterpiece on democracy.

Oh my God, so I wrote a piece for Bookforum complaining about how books about democracy—at least geared toward a general audience—are not feminist, and how women have been left out of the genre, and there’s this whole illusion that democracy is a male business. Just if you read the popular tomes. But if you look past those, there’s so much good stuff. On the Greek side I’ve been very influenced by the Marxist scholar Ellen Meiksins Wood. She is a total radical and she’s really interesting on ancient Greece because she says, yes, there were all these problems with Athenian society, but what it did was open up politics for the poor in a way we can learn from today. She’s got some epic histories of political theory, she’s got a book called Peasant-Citizen and Slave, I would list all her books, she’s amazing. Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch is a classic. It’s about the position of women when capitalist enclosure happened, and women’s resistance, and the role of reproduction, and control of reproduction during the period when capitalism emerged. Angela Davis’ Freedom Is a Constant Struggle is great, as is her book Abolition Democracy. Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty is a really relevant book right now. It’s basically about how walls are these hysterical, compensatory delusions. They destroy people’s lives but they’re also political theater, and she presents a history of the wall in the Southwest, and reminds us that this was also a big-D Democratic initiative going back to Bill Clinton. There’s all this great work and it’s a question of who gets seen, who’s taken seriously as an expert. And I think women, and people in different identity categories, tell a more complicated story about democracy, because it’s a more conflicting thing when you’ve been excluded. It’s a richer analysis because of that.

And I think the word “democracy,” has become weirdly synonymous with “patriotism.” If I was going into a bookstore, and I was going to buy a book about democracy, there would be all these white books with, like, red and blue accents, written by guys, and on the cover would be a serious looking guy or a picture of the White House.

Yeah and that’s why in the book I’m like: Hey, guys, all you men who rushed out books after the 2016 election and are now experts on the crisis. How can you be experts on the crisis when you didn’t see this coming?

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