The Democratic Sublime
On Aesthetics and Popular Assembly
Oxford UP 2021
Political Theorist Jason Frank, the John L. Senior Professor of Government at Cornell University, has written a new book, The Democratic Sublime: On Aesthetics and Popular Assembly (Oxford UP, 2021), that explores the concept of “people out of doors” and how we think about demonstrations by citizens in the streets, popular assemblies, and other configurations of the voice of the people. The idea of “the people” is a key component of democratic thinking and democratic theory, and Frank’s analysis examines these concepts and ideas as they have also evolved over the years since the Age of Revolution. Historians and sociologists have spent time researching and writing about popular assemblies and the role of the crowd, but political theory, as a discipline, has not provided much work on these concepts. The Democratic Sublime: On Aesthetics and Popular Assembly is an attempt to at least open the conversation in political theory, integrating some of the analysis by major political thinkers where they have confronted these concepts of the “people out of doors” and how they have responded to this important and understudied area of democratic theory.
The issue of the people, in the streets, demonstrating, at the barricades, protesting, is part of our understanding of democracy, and it is the actual visual presentation of the power within democracy. This is part of Frank’s discussion of the aesthetic in democratic theory. He notes that aesthetic considerations are essential, this is how democratic people imagine and experience themselves as a people, as a form of government, as the power of the state. The Democratic Sublime: On Aesthetics and Popular Assembly is an interdisciplinary examination of the move towards democratic politics in the Age of Revolution, integrating analysis of work by Alexis de Tocqueville, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Edmund Burke along with visual iconography, paintings and artistic renderings of the people as political body, and poetic and fictional works that dive into this same discussion. The Democratic Sublime examines the basis of democracy not so much as the constitutional frameworks or political institutions that came to replace so many monarchies or colonial powers, but as the much more ephemeral assembly of the people themselves, and how the people see and understand themselves in this context.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @gorenlj.