#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #30 Sophie Bond

I have never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Bond, but I did very much enjoy her manuscript in Planning Theory when it came out a bit ago. She is a lecturer in Geography at the University of Otago, New Zealand. The manuscript I am discussing is:

Bond, S. (2011). Negotiating a ‘democratic ethos’: Moving beyond the agonistic – communicative divide. Planning Theory, 10(2), 161-186. doi:10.1177/147309521038308

This is a very nice article that takes up Habermas and Mouffe, two of my favorite thinkers, who are often portrayed in a theoretical opposition. Habermas’s public reason, in which individuals deliberate and make sense of a shared problem conflicts with Mouffe’s (and others) in their emphasis on agonism, conflict or, as Bond phrases it, antagonism. The idea that rationality emerges from deliberative discourse flattens out (by force or convention) or at least obscures what really has to occur in politics and, by extension, planning: a conflict based on divergent interests that might more fully inform a radical change in how things get done or goals for public life if we pursued those conflicts rather than trying to shut them down or negotiate them away too soon.

Schaap (2006) describes this difference as that between modernism and postmodernism. While others may not define the two theorists’ positions in quite those terms, the differ-ences between them have been largely situated in Habermas’s recourse to a universal communicative rationality and an essential faith in the enlightenment project (Schwandt, 2000), in contrast to Mouffe’s anti-foundational understanding of the social as contin-gently and historically constituted through the operation of discourse (Howarth, 2000; Laclau and Mouffe, 2001; Torfing, 1999).

Bond’s project here is to look at the points where Habermas and Mouffe might have sufficient ground in common to serve as a bridge for understanding both conflict and reason as means to aid planners understand how politics can inform practice. She can’t synthesize, as she notes. The theories are too different. She notes, then, that build between them, she has to base her approach on one and then pull from the other. She chooses Mouffe, which I think is right: that beginning point allows her to avoid falling into Habermas’unworkable ideal procedures while drawing from his idea that public reason occurs, and that it can occur through planning even as groups come into conflict. To wit, both theories share the idea that democracy occurs via public dialogue, whether ideal or agonistic.

From there, Bond develops a ‘democratic ethos’ that captures agonistic pluralism to be more workable in planning theory to understandhow urban governance involves both possibilities for consensus and dissensus. There are points here in the description of the ethos where I become rather lost in the theory in my first read-through, as I am 1) not terribly familiar with Derrida’s concept of undecidability, which appears to be important, and 2) I am not sure exactly in what sense she means signifiers here. Thus I’ve gotten myself lost.

Nonetheless, she leaves us with a set of questions that strike me as quite sensible for practice, given the foundation she set up:

  • What discourses interact and how?
  • What relations of power are revealed by the operation of those discourses?
  • What hegemonic projects are mobilized within the undecidable space and how?
  • What signifiers are elevated to a universal position such that they become empty or floating master signifiers and how are they reinscribed into discourses in this particular space-time?
  • What possibilities are foreclosed in the taking of a decision? What is the effect of this foreclosure?
  • Who is advantaged or disadvantaged? What has been overlooked or considered less important? What alternative trajectories are available and why were they superseded?