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  • Bowling Blind: Post Liberal Civil Society and the Worlds of Neo-Tocquevillean Social Theory
  • Michael J. Shapiro (bio)

More Americans bowled than voted in 1994—but membership in bowling leagues dropped by 40 percent in the past decade

—Robert Putnam

Can you feel, what I feel? Can you hear, what I hear? Can you see what I see? When ma feet hit the streets What chu know? What chu know? About Sesame Street?

—Goodie Mob

Introduction: Reinstalling The Nineteenth Century Gaze

Alexis de Tocqueville’s treatise on America is undergoing a significant revival. Academicians and journalists, concerned with the contemporary state of civic life, are reaching back to find ideas in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America that will help them explain what they describe as the current malaise, a retreat from the public to the private sphere, a growing passivity which they regard as threatening to the American democracy. 1

Tocqueville was keenly sensitive to differences in spaces of association. In the “America” of the nineteenth century, he witnessed the result of a radical deterritorialization; he attributed the vibrancy of civic activity to America’s departure from the ground plan of Aristocracy, the estate-based society, under siege but still significant on the European Continent. 2 The democratic proclivities that Tocqueville ascribed to America were enabled by a more open model of space, an opportunity for circulation and place-making not afforded by the European system of social boundaries, land tenure and inheritance structures. Tocqueville recognized that the new land entitlement practices contributed to a social egalitarianism (among Euro-Americans) that shaped American civic life. While he displayed significant failures of insight with respect to spaces of otherness (an issue treated below), he is justly credited with articulating important insights about the new spaces of sociability and their political implications. 3

Tocqueville’s insights are not wholly irrelevant for assessing contemporary forces that encourage or discourage practices of civic association and political engagement, but to apply them to the present, it is necessary to treat them in the context of contemporary territorial dynamics, to recognize, among other things, the significant alterations of social space and modes of association created by media and communication technologies. As in Tocqueville’s time, altered territorialities are creating different modalities of civic engagement. 4

The traditional liberal discourse on politics, within which Tocqueville’s insights are being appropriated, is largely insensitive to modernity’s spatial alterations. This discourse tends to efface spaces of difference and aggregate the social domain with a unifying grammar. Those invoking Tocqueville of late, for example, inquire into the relationship of social solidarity and civic-mindedness to a nation’s democratic performance. 5

There are significant alternatives, which operate within different spatial and temporal imaginaries. Spatially, contemporary post-liberal discourses delineate spaces of difference and register rifts and disjunctures, aspects of dissociation engendered by forces emanating from the operations of power, surveillance and exchange. 6 Temporally, while the traditional liberal discourse tends to point to the past as a basis for a model of vibrant civic life, post-liberal discourses are occupied with the present forces of social and political containment and the counter-forces of resistance. Seeking to locate the present in an array of contending civic impulses rather than as an epoch of decline from a prior and exemplary mode of civic engagement, they construct civil society as both “the institutional infrastructure for political mediation and public exchange,” and the arena for the deployment of “the functions of discipline and exploitation that are inherent in and inseparable from these same structures.” 7

The provocation for this essay is the recent resurgence of the liberal discourse’s romantic engagement with its Tocquevillean roots. My purpose is both to stage a confrontation between neo-Tocquevillean and post-liberal thinking and to map some of the contemporary terrain of civic engagement within American society, much of which has resulted from the impact of new technologies. I want to demonstrate the blindnesses in the neo-Tocquevillean insights, which ignore the respatializing implications of new technologies and are predicated on the same spatial model that Tocqueville assumed. And I want, more specifically, to indicate what is unavailable to a perspective that treats new technologies...

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