Jason FrankAug 27, 2021
The Democratic Sublime
On Aesthetics and Popular Assembly
Oxford University Press 2021
The transition from royal to popular sovereignty during the age of democratic revolutions—from 1776 to 1848—entailed not only the reorganization of institutions of governance and norms of political legitimacy, but also a dramatic transformation in the iconography and symbolism of political power. The representational difficulties posed by the replacement of the personal and external rule of the king, whose body was the tangible locus of authority, with the impersonal and immanent self-rule of the people, whose power could not be incontestably embodied, went beyond questions of institutionalization and law into the aesthetic realm of visualization, composition, and form. How to make the people’s sovereign will tangible to popular judgment was—and is—a crucial problem of democratic political aesthetics.
Jason Frank’s The Democratic Sublime: On Aesthetics and Popular Assembly (Oxford UP, 2021) explores how the revolutionary proliferation of popular assemblies—crowds, demonstrations, gatherings of the “people out of doors”—mediated and gave tangibility to the people manifesting itself as a collective actor capable of enacting dramatic political reforms and change. During the age of democratic revolutions, popular assemblies became privileged sites of democratic representation because they at once claim to represent the people while also signalling the material plenitude beyond any representational claim. They retain this power in part because popular assemblies make manifest that which escapes representational capture; they rend a tear in the established representational space of appearance and draw their power from tarrying with the ineffability and resistant materiality of the people’s will. During the age of democratic revolutions, popular assemblies became the locus of the democratic sublime.
Tejas Parasher is Junior Research Fellow in Political Thought and Intellectual History at King’s College, University of Cambridge.