Mind the Gap. When Lefort Met Hans Christian Anderson: The Two Aesthetics of Democracy

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In this chapter I lay out for the first time my concern that democratic theory has for too long been distracted by the importance of the crowd or assembly for democracy, leading post-foundational theory to prematurely celebrate the value of the crowd without considering more carefully the precise relationship between popular manifestations of popular power and democratic forms of rule. Thus, despite much discussion of the value of the crowd, assembly, or somehow associated people, by thinkers such as Judith Butler, Jodi Dean, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Ernesto Laclau, there is a common too quick assumption of a congruence between the crowd and popular sovereignty, leading to a blind spot concerning the way that the identity of the democratic sovereign people is not a literal identitfy but an aesthetic operation which operates on and transforms democracy understood as a regime or a form of state sovereign power. This operation both opens up a gap in our common sense, at the same time as it proposes a new way to fill it in – both legitimating and opposing democratic state sovereign power as it does so. Staging a return to Lefort via Rancière’s theorisation of ‘the sensible’ and Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, I propose that democratic theory has been captivated by a damaging interpretation of democracy characterized by lack, which in some ways seems to indicate an inauthenticity or problem that democracy has to confront – always seeking to justify how democracy, and the people of democracy, can be founded, bounded and in some way legitimized, in spite of their indistinction. This has led post-foundational theory to respond with an overemphasis of the value of the crowd in resisting the oppressive dangers of democracy as a(understood as state sovereign power), and an increasingthe celebration of politics as aesthetic, without reflecting more carefully on how the spirit of resistance that is understood to be embodied in the crowd might be made more or less effective depending on the design of democratic institutions already in existence. Far from a problem to be solved, I return to Lefort to develop his recognition that the empty space at the heart of democracy is the secret to its success. The art of democratic politics requires the invention and exploitation of a gap, which, contra Lefort, is not an ordinary feature of democratic power, but something that needs to be conjured and reconjured using aesthetic strategies which play on the senses, via absurd and disorienting experiences that, in making it impossible to continue as normal, force us to transform our world.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Aethetics of Populism
EditorsLeszek Koczanowicz
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2023

Bibliographical note

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  • Lefort
  • Ranciere
  • democratic theory
  • aesthetics
  • post-foundational democracy


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