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Abstract

This dissertation addresses the difficulties in analyzing contestatory movements as a form of participation in the business of government. I argue that available theoretical frameworks enable scholars to treat instances of contestation as expressions of anger or discontent, as demands for recognition and redress, or as symptoms of an antigovernmental orientation, but not as attempts to contribute politicized judgments on what governmental bodies should do or what policies they should adopt. By contrast, I ask how people work to contribute to governmental processes when they are not recognized as having the requisite qualifications to do so. I outline the distinctive political rationality of practices of contestatory participation by which activists persist in intervening in activities widely believed to be beyond their involvement and in engaging unresponsive institutions or dismissive elites on the substance of what the latter are doing. I reconstruct the misunderstood logic of sociopolitical movements—like those of 1870s American suffragists and 1980s AIDS treatment activists—whose members act as if they have a seat at the proverbial table. Three of my chapters lay out reasons why contemporary political theory’s dominant paradigms neglect the contributory work some contestatory movements undertake. I do this through close readings of Hannah Arendt, Seyla Benhabib, Michel Foucault, Chantal Mouffe, and Philip Pettit. First, I diagnose and question what I call the framework of mutuality; this is the widespread premise within democratic theory that it is only viable to act upon one’s participatory aspirations insofar as one is embedded in relations of mutuality with cooperative interlocutors and responsive institutions. In particular, the presence of such relations is seen to be necessary for people to be competent to engage in participatory action and for their practices to be taken up by others. Second, I argue that we should refrain from resolving at an ontological level these two predicaments that disqualified actors face, namely doubts about their competence and a lack of uptake for their claims. I contend that we should pay attention instead to how particular movements negotiate in practice the uncertainty as to what they can do and why they would bother doing it. Three other chapters construct a historical and conceptual framework that makes sense of a neglected form of activism, one that people enact in the face of perceived limits on their participation. I show how pursuing uninvited interventions into the business of government challenges social expectations as to one’s lack of qualification. I work out this framework by offering new readings of Frederick Douglass and Jacques Rancière’s political thought and by studying two instances of contestation whose stakes I believe have been misconstrued: American suffragists’ constitutional claims in the 1870s, and ACT UP activists’ technical recommendations on AIDS research in the 1980s. I argue that, in the course of adding contributions to the very governmental processes from which they are disqualified, people can put the propriety of their participation to a public and contentious test. In particular, I demonstrate the value of investigating what it means to be competent for a task by experimenting with the adequacy of alternative divisions of political labor; and I highlight political and rhetorical strategies with which movements work for their contributions to be taken up by even dismissive audiences.

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