Demos21 Inaugural Lecture Asks: What Is Engagement?


On Friday, December 11, 2020, the Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS) – a research center at The American University of Paris dedicated to promoting the practice, study and life of the democratic – hosted the inaugural lecture in its year-long upcoming event series, Demos21. Throughout 2021, lectures, workshops, roundtables and readings have been scheduled, with the aim of analyzing the role of the “demos” – a word originating in Ancient Greece and referring to the common populace – in the 21st-century. Demos21 aims to explore how we may build political and social solidarity within and beyond the nation in order to confront today’s essential challenges – be it climate change, racial injustice or radical inequality.

The inaugural talk invited French philosopher Étienne Balibar as a guest speaker. Balibar, addressing an audience via video link from AUP’s Combes Student Life Center, discussed the fundamental question: “What is engagement?” The lecture was organized in partnership with the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory (IFDT) at the University of Belgrade and the Center for Advanced Studies – Southeast Europe (CAS SEE) at the University of Rijeka. Prior to the talk, Étienne Balibar received IFDT’s annual “Miladin Životić” award for critical engagement, which was presented to the philosopher by IFDT director Gazela Pudar Draško. Professor Stephen Sawyer, director of CCDS, commented, upon welcoming the event’s worldwide audience: “I cannot think of a more fitting topic to honor the memory of Miladin Životić and to launch our shared reflections on the transformations of the demos in the twenty-first century.”

Balibar began his lecture by stressing that the French word “engagement,” to which he would refer throughout his talk, was a concept that translates in English as both engagement and commitment. “To speak about engagement is inevitably to speak, reflect, meditate or ruminate about oneself,” he explained. “One’s history, one’s life, one’s actions, one’s achievements, one’s errors, one’s failures and one’s mistakes.” Balibar’s focus was on the partisan activity of intellectuals who had decided to defend, illustrate and support some kind of political, social or moral code and who, therefore, found it necessary to join some kind of movement. Aiming to provide a broad, introductory overview of his response to the evening’s principal question, Balibar drew on the works of thinkers such as Jean Paul Sartre, Theodor Adorno and Karl Marx to explore how engagement can be defined in the context of intellectualism.

Following the talk, an audience discussion was moderated by Professor Philip Golub (AUP) and AUP alumna Zona Zaric (IFDT).