Writing these words in the time of Covid-19, there is something at once nostalgic and newly vivid about all these crowd stories. The pandemic’s most palpable effect on the political has, after all, been a clampdown on voluntary assemblies, a thwarting more comprehensive than any totalitarian fantasist could have desired. The crowds that nevertheless areforming are either involuntary or their very gesture is a refusal of the lockdown. Collective effervescence is seeking new forms at a time when many (but not all) of those who have the luxury of shelter turn inward and away from public spaces. Social energies are all askew: attenuated and dispersed, awkwardly bunched up. A good time, then, to press pause and think about figurative publics.
Figurative: a word containing etymological traces of both the emblematic and the metaphorical. This is the double function of the totemic sign: both to be and to stand for. Participation and representation. And that is what this compelling series of commentaries all circle around: the problem of how the people may at once be manifested and signified—hopefully, triumphantly, desperately, violently, or all of these at once. Looking back now, the populist wave appears as The Previous Contagion, displaced and overshadowed by the virus. But as Nusrat Chowdhury points out in a recent piece, contagion was understood to be a characteristic of ideas and images—a crowd dynamic—centuries before it was recognized as a property of microbes.
Stefan Jonsson observes that the word populism is as intensely normative as it is empirically elusive. But it does seem to involve a reliable symptom: a crisis of representation. You don’t represent us, chant the crowds that some call populist. Existing institutions have slipped out of alignment with the popular will. Return political power to the people; this is the populist demand, as Jason Frank notes. But who and where are the people? How and when do they act as the people—as opposed to, say, a demagogue’s trucked-in rent-a-crowd, a religious community, or an ethnic group? If there is a crisis of representation, then the solution would seem to be a more participatory democracy. A more hands-on political process. More autonomous, more decentralized. Grassroots, engaged.
But there is something else going on with this representation/participation dyad. Something that is not just about accountability, transparency, and all those other numinous-but-numb nostrums that civil society activists like to prescribe. Something that has more to do with affect and energy. We get a hint of it in Jonsson’s piece, when he invokes those moments when existing institutions struggle to “handle political passions.” And in fact the question pops up all over this forum. A sense that it is not just that people do not feel represented. Perhaps more fundamentally it is also that representationitself is in crisis.
So perhaps the populist provocation is not so much a crisis of representation as a crisis in representation? Which is to say, a reminder that representation is not self-sufficient. Images and discourses that work—images that not only speak but also breathe—have to be supervalent. Lauren Berlant: “A supervalent thought is a thought whose meaning resides not only in its explicit phrasing, but in the atmosphere of intensity it releases that points beyond the phrase, to domains of the unsaid. It’s a pressure. A supervalent thought produces an atmosphere, disturbs modes of apprehension, consciousness, and experience. It wedges things while inducing leaking. It’s a resource and a threat.”
My proposition here would be that a (more or less) disavowed supervalency is always at work in any compelling figuration of the people. This is why, for example, a flag is more than an embroidered piece of cloth and why it can be a crime to deface a photograph of an ostensibly secular head of state. As Chowdhury neatly notes in her introduction to the current forum, “democracy bears its own talismans.”
When things are bumping along more or less smoothly, we are able to forget that the images that organize our sense of ourselves are more than representations. We can use a phrase like “rights-bearing citizens” and largely ignore that these words explain nothing about the investments, attachments, and anxieties that give these rights affective/effective force and make them feel like rights one could claim rather than, say, something one shoulders as an ironic joke or as a pale abstraction. But when things slip out of true, when there is a crisis of and in representation, we suddenly confront a different feeling, a feeling of trouble and—perhaps—opportunity. That’s when, to follow Jonsson and Frank, the work not just of reinscribing but also of reenchanting democracy kicks in.
The interventions collected here invoke many versions of this work. Singing, praying, artmaking, rioting, provisioning, all kinds of effervescing. Jonsson suggests, via his invocation of migratory aesthetics against fascist rigidities, that cultural production in a literary and artistic space has the capacity, precisely because of its quasi-autonomy from the political, to revision democratic imaginaries. Madhava Prasad situates image-work at the very heart of Indian populisms, but also draws a distinction between a populist politics that relies mainly on the suturing work of images and one that is also grounded in regional and linguistic life-worlds. The larger point is that the question of figuring the people is always a vital question. It is a question of how to generate and how to sustain not just an image of the people but also—to invoke another one of Frank’s phrases—a living image of the people.
It is not accidental that the problem seems most readily intelligible in the vicinity of signs and words that we tend to think of as religious. For ever since democracy started displacing divine kingship, as Claude Lefort so influentially noted, the place of the people has been empty. Popular sovereignty lacks a body. Which also means that this empty place has constantly and restlessly been populated with images that, by definition, cannot quite amount to a popular body. Images whose supervalent energy is also, paradoxically, a symptom of their insufficiency and instability.
So it is not so much that theology offers a handily adjacent language for politics. Rather, it is that secular democratic sovereignty inherits a theological demand that it both must and cannot refuse: the pressure of what Eric Santner calls the royal remains. The intensity with which movements called populist try to presence, to body forth the people is only the current iteration of this demand. No wonder it is so often greeted with disgust, dismissed as irrational and regressive. No wonder, too, that the defensive reaction to this dismissal is so often an insistence on the spontaneous and authentic—“leaderless” and “immediate”—credentials of popular protest.
It is one thing to consider this problem at a general, abstract level. It is quite another to confront the radically different relations to opportunity and suffering that it may involve. Take, for example, the contrast between Justin Tse’s praying publics in Hong Kong, and the way that Sharika Thiranagama (interestingly and perhaps not accidentally the only intervention here written in the first person, singular and plural) describes the traumatic lamination of religious identification onto collective injury and ambient fear in Sri Lanka. In one case, signs recognized as religious seem largely detachable from confessional identification and resentment; in the other, there is no such freedom. In both cases, though, the supervalent atmosphere of these religious signifiers is palpable; it is what invokes something more than merely contingent claims. That is why, too, there is something so symptomatic about Tse’s police officer yelling at the protest crowd singing Christian songs: Ask your Jesus to come down and see us! It is hard to address the supervalent unless you can cut it down to size; it will not play your language game or sit down in your drawing room. By the same token, though, it often hovers as an uneasy intimation of intolerance, just as patriotic claims to belonging do in Zahra Ali’s and Sonia Lam-Knott’s discussions.
Robert Samet draws our attention to the difference between US norms of journalistic neutrality and the truth-telling commitments of the journalists with whom he worked in Venezuela. Rather than speaking from nowhere, his interlocutors on the crime beat assume the ethical responsibility of speaking the truth. To speak in public, here, presumes that one cannot be neutral, since the public field is always already structured by injustice. The form of the denuncia amounts to a wager on the activation of public energies under the sign of ethical citizenship. This is another kind of people-building work: what is mobilized is less a mass of bodies in public space (although that might happen too) than a collective commitment to justice.
Samet is right to stress that we need to push back on the habit of reducing populism to the actions of charismatic leaders. But one might argue that the work of the denuncias is itself charismatic, insofar as it provokes (calls forth) and activates a public that, in its very indignation, exudes an atmosphere of justice that exceeds any literal claim. This work of provocation and activation does not, of course, happen in a vacuum. It depends, as several of the pieces collected here suggest, on an archive of collective experience. An archive that comprises both trauma and possibility. Sometimes that provocation relies on the violent demonization of an enemy other; sometimes it breathes new life into what Robert Musil once called “unused heavenly fuels.” Needless to say, the work of naming charismatic wagers as one or the other is itself perspectival; it depends on where one stands.
All this amounts to recognizing that the work of figuring the people is performative. Performative both in the more technical sense of bringing into being what it names and in the colloquial meaning of being theatrical. The dawn-of-democracy disagreement between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine was in part, as Frank notes, about the delicacies and decencies of disclosure under the merciless ray of Enlightenment reason. But it was also, and centrally, an argument about whether theatricality should be understood as indispensable to the making of social life. Enlightenment thinkers from David Hume to Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant were centrally concerned with the aesthetic and affective foundations (sympathy, taste) of rational judgment, not least in a society of strangers where nothing about others’ inclinations and dispositions could be presumed. But the disagreement over theatricality was, quite overtly, articulated in terms of a phallogocentric worry about the self-sufficiency of reason as a ground of public life. For Paine, Burke was like one of those effete courtiers “who get their living by a show,” whereas Paine’s preferred republican vigor “requires no belief from man beyond what his reason can give.” Indeed, Enlightenment allowed “the human faculties [to] act with boldness, and acquire, under this form of Government, a gigantic manliness.”
We might well giggle. But Paine’s castration anxiety remains very much with us. It is there in the pinched distaste with which mainstream political theory dangles populism from its fastidious fingertips, rejecting and abjecting the vital fictioning work of popular passions. Thankfully, no such scruples inhibit the contributors to this lively forum.