Abstract

This essay examines the centrality of voice and presence in liberalism’s relation to suffering, and sees this manifested in proclivities of liberal politics, ethics, and aesthetics in the face of suffering in different situations and of varying magnitudes. I argue that beyond worrying about who speaks for whom in liberal and postmodern identity politics, democratic theory must address why it demands what it does from sufferers in exchange for promises of justice understood through the dominant ideal of inclusion. In the inherited negotiations between democracy and liberalism, voice in and of itself can no longer be considered a democratic haunting or trump—and we must address the liberal sensorium that renders suffering the object of its politics by designating representational imperatives to mediate its presence in the political. Given the reach of the ideals of speech and voice, liberalism’s role in determining the nature, form and limits of this empowerment cannot be minimised. These “goods” must be vetted for how they ultimately shape the possibilities of democratic existence, engagement, and desire; and they must be interrogated for instituting and affirming a sensorium which, in desperate encounters with suffering, actually silences and dishonours it. I suggest a turn toward a materialist understanding of the political that holds suffering as subject of its method: constituted by, and not speaking for or about, those ordinary and ubiquitous experiences of suffering—even the experiences of subjection to an economy of representation and inclusion en route to liberal justice—that risk obliteration even by many well-meaning victim-centered politics.

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