ABC Interview: Jason Frank on “The Democratic Sublime”
In our ABC interviews, we ask an author of a newly published book only three questions:
- about themselves and their intellectual trajectory (A = Author),
- about the book’s thesis (B = Book)
- about its intervention in broader debates (C = Context)
Today, we interview Jason Frank about his book The Democratic Sublime: On Aesthetics and Popular Assembly, which was published last year.
T21: Why did you choose to write this book?
Jason Frank: I started thinking about The Democratic Sublime around twelve years ago, which was a time that saw the emergence of a remarkable international cycle of political protest. The wave of pro-democracy and antiauthoritarian protests collectively described as the Arab Spring had begun in 2010, and the movements of the squares, which included Occupy in the United States, the anti-austerity protests in Greece, and the Indignados in Spain, among others, had exploded in 2011. I participated in some of the Occupy events in Manhattan, and was in Barcelona during the 15-M demonstrations there. These protests were followed by many others, often related in one way or another to the cascading consequences of the international financial crisis of 2008. In the midst of this collective protest, and building on some of the theoretical questions I explored in my earlier books Constituent Moments and Publius and Political Imagination, I started thinking in a more sustained way about how central the politics of popular assembly—that is, the politics of crowds, assemblies, gatherings of “the people-out-of-doors”—have been to the history of modern democracy. Why does popular assembly figure so centrally in the political imaginary of democratic politics across so many different contexts? What is it that makes popular assembly such a distinctive and distinctively powerful form of political representation in democratic or democratizing contexts? The book pursues these questions both theoretically and historically as they emerge from the distinctive problem space opened by the modern history of popular sovereignty.
T21: What are the major contributions of this book?
JF: The Democratic Sublime approaches the politics of popular assembly through an episodic history of democratic enchantment, exploring the sustaining fictions that enable democracy and give it life. Democratic theorists have usually neglected the question of democratic enchantment, in part, because democracy has for so long been associated with the disenchantments of the modern age. The overthrow of monarchal rule and sacred kingship during the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, we are often told, involved a simultaneous rejection of the mystifying pomp and ritualized power of royalism. If the king’s passive subjects were what Catharine Macaulay called an “image doting rabble,” democracy’s active citizens were a ratio-critical public. The iconoclastic disenchantments of modern democracy have been loudly proclaimed by its most eloquent critics (e.g. Burke and de Maistre) and its most ardent admirers (e.g. Paine and Habermas), from the 18th century to the present day.
Arguing against this democratic disenchantment thesis, the book explores how democracy places entirely new pressures on the collective imagination, unprecedented enticements of collective fantasy. At the heart of modern democracy’s fantasy space lies its enigmatic constituent subject: the people. Unlike the king standing at the center of royalism’s political cosmology, the people that are the living source of democratic authority are never visible; the sovereign voice proclaimed in the revolutionary slogan vox populi, vox dei is never distinctly audible. As the personal and external rule of the king was supplanted by the impersonal and immanent self-rule of the people, representational dilemmas emerged that not only impacted familiar normative questions of political legitimacy, or questions of political institutionalization, but also aesthetic questions of visualization, composition, and form. Because the people has no clear form, it could assume multiple and competing forms. The book argues democratic theory should explore these different figurations of the people, their different modalities of appearance, alongside its usual focus on the norms that sustain democratic legitimacy or the various ways in which the people’s will might become formally institutionalized. Imaginary investments of peoplehood mediate the people’s relationship to their own political empowerment—how they understand themselves to be a part of and act as a people.
I elaborate this basic idea in the book by exploring the people as what I call a problem of popular manifestation. Popular manifestation focuses on how this authorizing entity, the people, publicly appears, how it makes itself visible and tangible, how the people takes shape as a collective actor when no formal rules and procedures for identifying popular will exist, or when these rules and procedures are so deeply contested as to be effectively deauthorized. How to image and envision the people as a collective actor is an aesthetic-political problem that I explore across the book’s seven chapters, from the entangled political and aesthetic theories of Rousseau to the iconography of royal and popular sovereignty, from the revolution controversy spurred by Burke’s attack on the French Revolution to the nineteenth century poetics of the barricades, from Marx’s demystification of the myth of peoplehood to Tocqueville’s religious terror in the face of expanding democracy, from Schmitt’s theories of acclamation and constituent power, to Ranciere’s theory of democratic appearance over democratic visibility. The book explores how and why emergent democracy would come to generate not only imaginary investments in who the people are but, beyond them, demands for the people’s direct public appearance and manifestation. Crowds, assemblies, gatherings of the people out of doors became an essential way that these imperatives of collective tangibility and visibility—making the sovereign people present to the senses – were navigated in the period of revolution I focus on in the book and beyond.
T21: Where does your book fit in the field?
JF: Historians and social movement scholars have made important contributions to the study of the politics of crowds and the repertoires of contention in the democratizing contexts of the 18th and 19th centuries. I engage with this work at some length in the book. But there is very little work exploring these questions from the perspective of democratic theory, with some important exceptions, most especially from scholars working in the tradition of theoretical reflection on democracy initiated by Claude Lefort. If democratic theorists, following Habermas’ lead, have focused a great deal of attention on how a ratio-critical public emerged out of growing networks of print capitalism, coffee houses, reading publics, and so on, they have focused less attention on how the proliferation of popular assemblies gave tangibility to the people manifesting itself as a collective actor capable of enacting dramatic political reforms and change. “The most magnificent of all spectacles is that of a great people assembled,” Robespierre once proclaimed. The people must see themselves assembled in order to feel their power.
The book also intervenes in contemporary debates around political representation, especially those centered on the contemporary crisis of political representation. I argue that popular assemblies are privileged sites of democratic representation because they claim to represent the people while also signaling the material plenitude beyond any representational claim. The distinctive power of popular assemblies as a form of democratic representation is engendered in part from their internal reference to the materialization of that which lies beyond it. Assemblies rend a tear in the established representational space of appearance and draw their power from tarrying with the ineffability and resistant materiality of the popular will. Democratic representation enlists both an abstraction—the people—and an insistence on particularity and collective concreteness beyond the existing representational regime. This double demand generates a dynamic tension and lends popular assembly its distinctiveness and power in the complex ecology of democratic representation. In looking back at the history of the ubiquitous figure of “the sublime people” from an earlier age, the hope is that we can view our own time of democratic crisis in a new light. Democracy appears in the book as neither a self-evident norm nor as a ruse and deception, neither a universal aspiration nor an empty platitude. Democracy is an inherently enigmatic concept and practice the history of which conveys dilemmas that we continue to wrestle with concerning the very foundations of our political life.
Jason Frank is the John L. Senior Professor of Government at Cornell, where he teaches political theory.
Previous interviews in our ABC series include:
- Christina B. Carroll on The Politics of Imperial Memory in France, 1850-1900
- Ester da Costa Meyer on Dividing Paris: Urban Renewal and Social Inequality, 1852–1870
- Joan S. M. Meyers on Working Democracies: Managing Inequality in Worker Cooperatives
- Léonard Burnand sur sa biographie de Benjamin Constant (en français)
- Joshua Zimmerman on his biography of Jozef Pilsudski