There are good reasons to consider resistance a central element in any definition of democracy. Nojang Khatami invites us to look outside familiar Western experiences for resources of dissent
In a striking political statement in his 2015 film Taxi, Iranian director Jafar Panahi dramatises a conversation with prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh about the prospects of democracy and freedom of expression in Iran:
When you go against the authorities in this country, they are quick to imprison you; and even when you escape that physical confinement, you find that the society you’ve stepped out into is itself a larger prisonnasrin sotoudeh, in jafar panahi's 2015 film taxi
But Sotoudeh is far from despairing. Out of the bouquet of flowers she carries for her incarcerated client, she leaves one rose for Panahi’s young niece and another for devotees of cinema.
Sotoudeh knows what Panahi is trying to do with his films. And she, too, continues the struggle to defend the voices of the political prisoners she represents. Theirs is a message of democracy as dissent.
Democracy is a laborious pursuit. In the face of domineering authorities, it is a costly battle. Panahi and Sotoudeh have paid for their nonconformity with numerous prison sentences. The outbreak of protests sparked by Mahsa Jina Amini's murder last September may have reached a crescendo two months later. But the struggle is far from over.
When we think of the myriad meanings of democracy, as Jean-Paul Gagnon prompts us to do, it can be helpful to underline the common feature of resistance as crucial to its cultivation and survival. We can thus define democracy as a set of discourses and practices against domination. I believe we should examine democracy through a lens that sees beyond its common elaboration as a regime type given shape by the Western tradition of political thought. Viewing it this way may help us to appreciate more widely the shapes democracy can take.
What might resistance look like, and why is it vital for democracy? To tackle these questions in tandem, we can take a cue from Jacques Rancière’s elaboration of dissent. This involves processes that disrupt the juridical order by introducing new forms of appearing, thinking, and acting against it. Rancière conceptualises dissension as a way of expressing difference and otherness to intervene in the 'distribution of the sensible,' or what a totalising regime tries to circumscribe as acceptable thought and behaviour.
In this sense, dissent is synonymous not only with democracy but with the meaning of politics itself. Accepting static forms of governance handed down from above would be antipolitical. Against these, resistance takes on numerous aesthetic forms. These include artistic interventions through poetry, literature, music, visual art and cinema, as well as corporeal interventions through protests, strikes, and other modes of appearance and publicity.
There are at least two good reasons to remember the centrality of resistance for democracy. One would be, as Simone Chambers urges us, to fight to save democracy in the face of crisis and backsliding. This involves drawing on the thriving field of democratic theory and using its many insights to help solve real-world problems. At the same time, as Michael Hanchard reminds us, various forms of exclusion and inequality are inherent in nominal democracies. Any attempt to idealise democracy should not lose sight of these contradictions.
We should uphold democracy, but it is also essential to question what its pursuit entails
Hence the double imperative of upholding democracy but also always questioning what its pursuit entails. It is here that resistance proves vital: as a means of challenging both authoritarian governance and debilitated democratic regimes that remain plagued by internal problems of domination. And it is also here that attention to contexts outside the Western experience, beyond the focal point of theorists like Rancière, can be instructive and inspiring.
One exemplary facet of the kind of resistance we're seeing in Iran is the use of aesthetic expression as democratic interruption.
A longstanding function of art in any society is to disrupt the ways its members see, hear, and conceive politics. The democratic impulse of art can help sustain practices against domination through concerted efforts between artists and ordinary citizens. These practices – co-constitutive and mutually reinforcing – keep the possibility of democracy alive. Panahi, for instance, knows about the legacy of resistance in modern Iran and, together with Sotoudeh, calls for further action. Viewers recognise this call among other catalysts to praxis, and continue to organise themselves against the regime.
As the anonymous author of a remarkable piece based on her involvement in Iran’s latest protests wrote:
these protests are not crowd-centered but situation-centered, not slogan-centered but figure-centered. Anybody, and I really mean anybody, ‘can’ create an unbelievable, radical situation of resistance by themselves, such that it astonishes the viewer. Belief in this ‘I can,’ this ability, has spread very far. Everybody knows that they are creating an unforgettable situation with their figures of resistancejadaliyya.com, 5 october 2022
Participants in these acts bravely bring their bodies into spaces of appearance to protest and reclaim the public realm. Together, they artfully disrupt and resist the authoritarian scheme.
Such collective pursuits constitute democracy in action. They intimate a definition of democracy that does not rely merely on conceptualisations in Western political theory. Rather, it manifests itself in the disruption enacted through organic collective empowerment.
It is tempting to universalise definitions. Yet we must remember that struggles for democracy take a variety of forms, and draw on discourses and practices sprouting from particular contexts. Emergent conceptions of democracy don’t have to conform to existing teleological or liberal systems; we should appreciate their specificity.
We may learn something valuable from practices against domination in contexts outside the Western experience. These acts of enduring resistance are crucial for the people shaping nascent democracies into new forms, and they can serve as inspiration for revitalising ailing democracies in the West.