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Sounds of Democracy: Performance, Protest, and Political Subjectivity

By Laura Kunreuther

Cite As:
Kunreuther, Laura. 2018. “Sounds of Democracy: Performance, Protest, and Political Subjectivity.” Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 1: 1–31.


This article asks a deceptively simple question: what does democracy sound like? Democracy is commonly associated with various forms of voicing—political speeches, shouting protesters, filibusters in the halls Congress, or heated debates in teashops, salons, and newspapers around the world. Voice thus often functions as a metaphor for political participation and representation. Political metaphors of voice are usually disembodied, and are rarely invoked in reference to the other forms for political utterance, sound, or even noise that make up the many practices of participatory democracy. In such contexts, the notion of voice depends not on a single speaker but on a mass collectivity to make any message heard. The South Asian term āwāj refers explicitly to both the sonic and metaphorical meanings of voice, which this article uses to provincialize more commonly used global metaphors of voice. I consider what democracy sounds like by following the pathways of āwāj through two examples of participatory democracy on the streets of Kathmandu: a performance art piece and a political protest called Occupy Baluwatar. Āwāj and the sonic motifs I explore in these performances offer a conceptual rubric for breaking open the discourse of voice used in global human-rights organizations, humanitarian discourse, and liberal understandings of the public sphere, bringing forward a political subjectivity based on both intention and affect in a transmission of sound that is at once mass-mediated and acutely embodied.


voice; democracy; sound; noise; affect; protests; political subjectivity