”Engagement” is often used as a term synonymous with political protest, new social movements or civic activism. At the same time, engagement can be conceptualized as one fundamental type of human action, even as the most basic mode of human existence (as in the phenomenological tradition of conceptualizing human existence as “engagement with the world”). The fruitfulness of the concept of engagement lies precisely in this potential to bridge different levels of abstraction within our reflection on social reality – from social ontology and philosophical anthropology to social movement studies and the analysis of novel forms of political action – and thus to transcend disciplinary boundaries. Any reflection on “engagement” seems to inherently press us toward developing a holistic perspective on contemporary social reality, one that needs to simultanously address a continuum of questions: what type of action does the term engagement refer to; how is group (collective) engagement possible in light of the irreducible idiosyncrasy of individuals; is engagement inherently intersubjective, is it always “engaging” the beliefs, intentions or affective states of others, whether they are physically present or not; what is the relationship between engagement and social change?
The above line of inquiry gradually opens up a whole horizon of political- and social-theoretic questions: could engagement, for example, be theorized along the lines of the social actors’ reflection on the existing norms and rules of social action; can actors reflect on norms of conduct only as citizens in the public sphere, or could they also be reflexive as bearers of institutionalized social roles (professional or other); does engagement need to have a vision, i.e. are comprehensive visions of the good society indispensable for any kind of engagement, or does it suffice to simply focus on concrete societal problems; are institutions with “built-in” engagement possible; to what extent does engagement have to entail any kind of violence; to what extent is it still fruitful today to differentiate between “progressive” or “emancipatory” forms of engagement and those that are “reactionary”, “apologetic” or “pseudo-emancipatory”, ones that produce new forms of social injustice, exclusion and violence while targeting existing ones? At every level of reflection on the phenomenon of engagement, we thus encounter what might be termed the conceptual mirror-image of engagement in terms of complexity and analytical potential: namely, the concept of domination.
While engagement is often equated with civic activism or political protest, domination frequently becomes the synonym for oppression, exploitation or the existence of societal inequalities. Yet the concept has an equal potential as that of engagement for bridging different levels of abstraction and sparking a holistic reflection on social reality. The broadly defined tradition of critical theory in particular testifies to the analytical potential of “domination”: from Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin to Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth and Judith Butler, critical theorists have theorized domination as both a systemic property of social reality and a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Within these perspectives, “domination” bridges the gap between the macro-level of systematic power asymmetries (economic exploitation, political authoritarianism, technocracy, systematic patterns of cultural discrimination) and the micro-level of human subjectivity caught up in the webs of everyday social interaction, since domination, understood most broadly as the repression of one or another form of human potentiality (agency, reason, mimesis, potentiality of social freedom, etc) plays within critical theory a constitutive role in the process of the socially shaped self-formation.
In this year’s Annual Seminar of the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, we explore the conceptual and empirical interimbrication of engagement and domination. Making use of the analytical potential of both concepts for articulating a nuanced and multidimensional analysis of phenomena such as the crisis of liberal democracy and the resurgence of authoritarianism, deepening societal inequalities in contemporary capitalism and the emergence of new forms of civic activism and protest, we address questions such as the following: can domination be fruitfully conceptualized as neutralization of engagement, of the human capacity for reflecting on the existing norms and rules of social action; what does it mean to be engaged for non-domination, i.e. for overcoming all forms of domination, and can there be collective engagement without one or another form of domination that is constitutive for the very collective that is engaged; what type of “added reflexivity” is needed for any form of engagement to escape the danger of reproducing forms of domination, both within the engaged collective and in the broader social reality; could a thoroughly “non-authoritarian” engagement still successfully challenge and dismantle the most complex forms of domination in contemporary capitalism (those that require some form of “diagnosis” or “uncovering”, and thus also a degree of epistemological privilege on the part of the engaged collective); and are we today witnessing “complex” regimes of domination (Luc Boltanski), in which the very reproduction of institutionalized forms of domination (systematic power asymmetries between social actors and repression of human potentialities) unfolds in the form of a constant invitation to actors to “get engaged”?