Political Assembly

Podcast 'Anthropology of Political Assembly'
This monthly podcast, Anthropology of Political Assembly, convenes conversations with anthropologists and ethnographers whose work engages questions concerning notions of the political collective... more

Members of this working group are interested in the material and semiotic enactment of political assembly, starting with key modes such as the people, the population, the crowd, and the public. We respond to the significant ways in which an emphasis on collectivity has defined political life in recent times – resurgent “populisms”, mobilizations around racist violence and environmental catastrophe, illiberal democracies, religious revivalisms. But we also take up these concerns in light of long-standing debates in social and political theory over the puzzle and pressure of the collective, among them arguments about sovereignty and popular will, charisma and authority, and the very possibility of meaningful representation. Our inquiries explore the conceptually distinct but practically intertwined and temporally recursive relations at four key points of focus which cross diverse sites and scales:

First, we explore institutionalized representations and conceptualizations of assembly, including those generated within apparatuses of “states” as well as those of trans-state actors (e.g., transnational institutions, developments projects) within global circuits of capital, authority, and aspiration. How are key modes of assembly – people, population, crowd, public – made legible, tangible, or otherwise sensible (discursively, visually, numerically) through various “official” or authoritative media and materials? We track, for example, the production of official statistics, censuses, survey maps, planning documents, policy frameworks, regulations and rules.

Second, we explore representations and conceptualizations of assembly that are less institutionalized and less officially empowered. This includes, for instance, the idioms, imaginings, and images that emanate and circulate in popular discourses and everyday talk, in transregional and cross-border articulations, in music, poetry, theatre, and performance, and in quotidian interactions and exchanges. Attending to such noninstitutionalized – so-called “informal” – representations means attending as well to the question of what counts as an “institution” (when, where, and by whom), and to the practices and processes by means of which certain discourses and images might become naturalized and institutionalized or challenge received, hegemonic representations and conceptualizations of assembly.

Our third point of focus attends to the concrete materializations in space and time of representations and conceptualizations of human assembly. What is entailed in the material-practical work of actually producing assembly – whether such assembly is conceptualized as people, population, crowd, public, or something else? We focus here on activities that concentrate bodies in time and space – activities as wide-ranging as door-to-door organizing, the procuring of permits from local government and police, and the hiring of cash-compensated crowds. Moreover, we are interested here not only in the real-time materialization of assembly in the fleshy time-space of public appearance, but also in the wider circulations of material representations of assemblies and gatherings in spreadsheets, in social media, in mass-media clips, and in charts, graphs, and surveys.

Fourth, we are interested in the recursive ways in which all of three of these concerns shape and reshape one another in the context of political life. That is, we trace the interactions among representations and conceptualizations of both institutionalized and non-institutionalized assembly, along with their material-practical forms and media. We take up this concern at moments of overt political contestation as well as in the muted struggles of everyday life. We focus especially on the ways in which this happens in the context of electoral democracy and bids to political representation – that is, in bids to inhabit and wield the authority of elected offices where political democracy is formally institutionalized and empowered. This recursive attention to various representations and materializations of political forms of assembly – people, the population, the crowd, and the public – allows for an account of how they come to be empowered and materially instantiated in time and space, and also of how they change.

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