what does democracy sound like?

in an earlier post during the 2012 elections, i asked this question as sound trucks passed by my residence; and now, with a local election finished not too long ago, i want to pose this question again: are there sounds that we might think of as indices of democratic politics?

we might first need to ask what we mean by democracy. the sounds of the “people’s microphone” and consensus making meetings during the occupy movements of 2011 differ greatly from sounds of town meetings and election rallies. my discussion here will thus focus on the sounds of representative democracy in the making, sounds surrounding elections: are there key features of election soundscapes that might tell us something about how representative democracies function?

this question might give us some critical purchase on how democratic publics have been represented in philosophy. those of you with some reading in political or social philosophy have likely read jurgen habermas. truth be told, i’ve always found his notion of the public sphere far too cerebral. rather than a lively space of passionate debate, he has given us an impossible public of bloodless, linguistically and ethnically unmarked citizens, cool, disembodied denizens of a quiet coffee shop.

of course, habermas’s notion of the public sphere is an ideal type. and yet, the notion that a truly democratic polity will be one in which systematic distortions to communication have been removed seems fine if one expects democracy to be an entirely rational affair conducted in a perfectly homogenous society. but what about linguistic and other diacritics to which members of a public might be personally committed? (i’m not a fan of identity politics, but habermas’s conception seems unable to admit any difference into the public sphere). moreover, as i’ve argued in part of “heat and noise”, the first chapter in taiwanese pilgrimage to china, habermas’s quiet, rational coffee shop needs to be supplemented with an image of the raucous market festival or lively tavern (as celebrated in bakhtin): indeed, habermas’s public seems impossible to emerge without the embodied, noisy life of public debate. empirically, we might be able to make ethnographic arguments about democratic publics by closely observing, documenting, and analyzing such publics in action. and so i’ve taken my mics out to the street to record protests, talk about politics at betel stands, and elections

in the u.s., we tend to lean toward a habermasian vision of well-ordered town meetings–except when one turns to the radio or television dial. similarly, in taiwan, many disparage the renao 熱鬧 (hot and noisy) quality of elections here as a symptom of the island’s democratic immaturity. it is true that the movement of election trucks does have a local inflection. the processions do resemble popular religious practices: firecrackers as the processions commence and return, visits to individual households (sometimes also accompanied by firecrackers), and people gathered to watch the noise and heat on the street all resemble religious processions. perhaps taipei people have a problem with that. but in many ways, the practices of popular religious life in taiwan do provide means for gathering and representing publics. that this is also the case in indigenous districts, where most of the population belongs to a christian denomination, probably also says something about how such means of representing publics become hegemonic

the local elections here shared features with the national elections, but placed three features of the election into higher relief: (1) the notion of a multilingual public composed of several represented communities; (2) local inflections of mainstream practices; (3) civility in the midst of factional and party politics. i’d like to discuss how all of these enter the taiwan’s democratic soundscape

first, election soundtrucks and processions to visit voters (拜票 bai piao) are multilingual. the soundtrucks passing through ‘atolan played recordings and amplified voices that sang and spoke in mandarin, hoklo, and sowal no ‘amis. although one might consider public multilingualism a question of effective communication, it is also a feature of hailing and representing citizens as members of administratively and legislatively recognized ethnic communities (compare, for example, to the sounds of train and subway announcements on taiwan). public multilingualism highlights the replacement of a forced standardization of language and public representation (i.e., as chinese) under the KMT oligarchy with the denationalized and multicultural modes of public representation that are dominant on taiwan today. whatever our personal take on identity politics, taiwanese public multilingualism does sonically pose questions about the formation of democratic polities and their relationship to nationalism

election sound trucks reinforce or index public multilingualism through their soundtracks, which even for ethnic chinese candidates had to include taiwanese indigenous music on their playlists. sometimes, these musics might miss the mark: for example, an ethnic chinese candidate played “we are all one family” (我們都是一家人)on his soundtruck, which only irritated the more strident members of the indigenous community in ‘atolan, who saw the song as opportunistic pandering

(for a link to this song, click here, but be warned: this song is sickening. so, also turn to an ‘amis parody of the song)

the playlists for the trucks included many songs marked with a particular class status, as well, such as the hoklo songs “i am your brother” or “got to fight to win,” which have strong working class associations. so far, this performance of a democratic public amplifies rather than attenuates communal identities. rather than seeing this amplification as a weakness, however, i need to point out that taiwanese multiculturalism is the product of the island’s move away from authoritarianism: the sound of local languages on taiwan indexes the end of the KMT oligarchy. how might we employ such a finding in critical studies of democratic polities?

second, many of the sound trucks played locally inflected versions of speech making and electioneering songs. one candidate for village mayor ran a sound truck that played a parody of “indigenous people look different,” a popular song by the early 1990s band, beiyuan shanmao (北原山貓)

the lyrics of the parody version sang the name and registration number of the candidate. overall, the song both underlined that this candidate was “different” from the others–he was the only indigenous candidate for village mayor. but it was also an inside joke for ‘amis voters, who would have recognized the song as a humourous indigenous anthem. similarly, a few other soundtrucks featured singers improvising lyrics about the candidate to traditional songs. these local features of the soundtrucks point out not just that this was a local election. i think that they also amplify an understanding that democracy is an affair of local organizing and mobilization, most evident in the processions of cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians–the “activists” or “exercisers” miondoay who follow alongside candidates and visit individual households

(i might add in this regard that voter turnout in taiwan is much higher than in the united states)

finally, the soundscape of taiwanese elections tells us something about the relationship between democratic publics and civility. the reason for this is not that taiwanese party politics are milder or more civil than that in the united states. in fact, taiwan is famous for the freestyle free for alls that happen in its legislature:

taiwan’s party and factional politics are poisonous, particularly given the set of issues surrounding national identity that politicians mobilize; taiwan is also one of the few places where outrageous claims about politicians and even calls for violence against them are tolerated on mainstream airwaves. so the civility of election processions differs from the day to day gladiatorial spectacle in parliament or the media. partially, a ban on advertisements, mobilization, and even candidate buttons or other gear on the night before and day of elections ensures a civil process of voting. yet election trucks also perform a kind of civility. election truck processions will pass one’s door on several occasions the week before the election. and here is my own personal lesson in civility and neighborliness. even if i detest one of the candidates–and living in the same small town i might have personal reasons to despise him or her–i still must greet the candidates as they pass by my residence or elsewhere and shout them greetings: good luck! 加油! sa’icelen!. if, as is likely, i must walk by one of the election headquarters, it’s also necessary to shout greetings to them or even sit down for a drink. otherwise, one comes off as unneighborly. one will wish the candidates luck, even if one is opposed to their party or political positions

even more interestingly, there are several of my neighbors who wear a baseball cap designed for tsai ying-wen’s ill fated 2012 run for president. they didn’t vote for tsai (well, at least they would never admit to it in this very blue, or KMT leaning, county) but a well-designed hat is a well-designed hat! elections highlight how civility remains in tension with polarization and conflict, perhaps forming two poles of public life in democracies. this tension or polarity is performed and registered sonically. thus, further analysis of the sound of democratic publics might tell us more about these publics than philosophical speculation. in other words, ethnographic sound studies offer a way to theorize public life. although i’m not a comparativist, i do wonder what a similar study in india, the united states, or norway might tell us about the sound of democracy

for a sample of these sounds, listen to my podcast on soundcloud:

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