I RECEIVE REGULAR emails from the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Many contain instructions on where to gather for a rally or march against police brutality, events that make present the discontent, the pain and exhaustion, the demands of a political community in the physical form of popular assembly. People gather and become something more than the sum of their parts. They become an inexhaustible, irreducible, and ever-renewing source of political authority. They render material the Constitution’s clearest declaration of popular sovereignty, the booming authorization of a government from “We the People.”
But these assemblies do not just contribute to a contemporary movement for racial, gender, or economic equality. They participate in a deeper history of politics. This is the story that political theorist Jason Frank tells in his perceptive and engaging book The Democratic Sublime: On Aesthetics and Popular Assembly, in which he sets out to “recover democracy’s dormant or ‘sleeping’ radicalism” and explore the “surprisingly persistent power of the politics of popular assembly,” spontaneous and unrehearsed gatherings of “the people” outdoors.
Frank hopes that readers will come to see our own democratic crisis through fresh eyes. For democracy is “neither a self-evident norm nor a ruse and deception, neither a universal aspiration nor an empty platitude.” It is a process — a project ever in the making.
Through historical and theoretical explorations, The Democratic Sublime shifts our focus away from democratic institutions and norms (voting, representative assemblies, political parties) and toward the uniquely aesthetic-political problem of how to envision the people’s will as the source of the government’s authority. Frank’s historical reflections center on the long Age of Revolutions (c. 1776–1848), an expanse of time to which historians often look for the origins of modern democratic politics.
Replacing monarchs with the people as the center of political gravity presented thinkers with some major dilemmas. After all, who are the people? They have no clear or obvious physical form. We cannot point to a group of individuals and cry triumphantly: “There! Those are the people!” How can we attribute sovereignty to something that has no defined existence? And as bearers of sovereignty, how do the people act? In grappling with these questions, political thinkers, writers, philosophers, and artists turned visions of popular assembly into a centerpiece of the democratic imagination as they sought to make sense of the transition to government “by the people” and the creation of “citizens” out of former “subjects.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), for instance, argued that popular assemblies allowed individuals to experience and understand themselves as part of a sovereign collective, “the people,” as such. Popular assemblies turned the people, an otherwise imaginary source of sovereignty, into a tangible reality. Crucially, assemblies were not just sites for citizens to express what Rousseau famously called their “general will.” Rather, they “produce the very sovereign people whose will is there to be voiced.” Witnessing themselves gathered as a popular assembly (in silence, by the way) enabled the people to comprehend their role in democratic politics. Subject-citizens required a “spectacle of collective self-regard” to begin to see themselves as “the people” and the bearers of sovereign authority.
But Rousseau’s was but one voice amid a flood of others, and an uncharacteristically dour one at that. The Age of Revolutions brimmed with new visions of radical democratic sociability, most of which were more exuberant and unruly.
Take the insurgent drama of the barricade, 19th-century Europe’s most powerful and fluid “living image of the people.” The “poetics of the barricade,” as Frank calls it, offered another means for representing the sovereign people as a political actor rather than a political fiction. The many historical, literary, and pictorial accounts of the barricade that circulated Europe throughout the 19th century gave physical shape to the authorizing power of the people. Though less dignified and far noisier than Rousseau’s assemblies, barricades, too, offered a repertoire of political-aesthetic strategies through which individual citizens forged their identity as the people. At the barricades, singular citizens amassed and made themselves into the very sovereign body they sought to defend. The physical construction of the barricade marked “the victorious appearance of popular sovereignty in the age of democratic revolutions.”
But the people’s physical appearance, whether in quiet assembly or at the barricade, raised some thorny issues. The people are never quite real. They are a fictive entity on whose behalf individuals and collectives claim to speak and act — do Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez really speak for the same people? The claim invents the people for whom it’s made.
How then can the people be both the cause and effect of democratic politics? How can any single assembly be understood as speaking on behalf of a much larger, though forever hidden, collective known as “the people”? And while Frank never phrases the problem in quite this way, how can they remain the source of a government’s legitimacy — the body who authorizes its very existence — if they willingly delegate the exercise of power to representatives?
One standard answer: In a modern democracy, the people are the ultimate source of sovereignty. But in practice, the entire populace cannot assemble to legislate for themselves (imagine the kind of building that would demand). For this reason, the people delegate their sovereignty to a smaller group of individuals who will represent them in government. But they always retain their original sovereignty, which they can exploit if their representatives stop governing in their interests (Richard Tuck’s famous “sleeping sovereign”).
Yet political theorists have devoted fewer words than one might expect to exploring the extra-institutional role of the people and the precise ways that they retain their power beyond any single assemblage of citizens and the claims they make. Indeed, if this were not the case, to end a demonstration would, logically, end the people.
Enter “the democratic sublime.” Philosophers and artists have traditionally invoked “the sublime” in reference to an overwhelming experience that transcends the capacities of reason and eludes description. (Imagine, for example, trying to describe what it feels like to listen to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, or to stare out over the Grand Canyon.) It is what the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard famously called “the presentation of the nonpresentable.”
Frank argues that popular assemblies do not directly express the sovereignty of the people — they do not fully embody the general will. Rather, they manifest “a surplus of democratic immanence.” The popular assembly’s unique potency comes from its power to make apparent the gap between the singular and extinguishable collective of citizens and the inexhaustible source of authority they simultaneously create and represent. And it is recognition of this inexhaustibility that gives rise to sublime awe. To stop a crowd is not to stop the people. The people are always more than they seem.
Given Frank’s emphasis on the people’s “appearance,” he might have attended more to the material realities of popular assembly. Some of the book’s most compelling sections are those attuned to the responses that objects and physical things elicited in radically democratic spaces. Victor Hugo’s literary account of the massive Saint-Antoine barricade that “ravined, jagged, serrated” and “snarled” in Les Misérables; Frank’s engagement with Hugo’s “frenzied assemblage” that threatened to “outrun his own prodigious efforts of description” are some of the book’s most absorbing passages.
Readers might also wish that Frank had pushed his analysis even deeper. By the book’s end, it can be difficult to know exactly how Frank’s analysis adds up. Yet this also contributes to the book’s power. Through readings of figures as disparate as Alexis de Tocqueville and Carl Schmitt, Edmund Burke and Auguste Blanqui, Rousseau and Glenn Ligon, each chapter offers a world of conceptual possibilities for future political thought. The book eludes capture like the popular assemblies that constitute its subject. It outpaces any single summary, any single reading, which may contribute to its long shelf life.
But for anyone experiencing protest fatigue or questioning the value of their participation as but a single member of the people in the streets, Frank’s most resonant lesson may simply be the persistent power and possibility of radical democratic assembly — for popular assemblies can wield extraordinary power that “emerge[s] from within the simple fabric of our everyday lives.”