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2020 Call for Papers: Democratic Representation: Acts, Aesthetics, Institutions

Democratic Representation: Acts, Aesthetics, Institutions

CSPT Annual Conference

Cornell University, May 15-16, 2020


The political crisis of our time—sometimes described as the international “populist explosion”—is often attributed to a systemic crisis of political representation.  Prominent symptoms of this crisis include the breakdown of traditional political parties, the paralysis of legislatures, the degeneration of systems of electoral accountability, the proliferation of extremist micropublics, and the rise of authoritarian leaders claiming to speak on behalf of the “real people.”  Political theorists have responded with a renewed interest in the normative and institutional underpinnings of political representation in constitutional democracies.  Moving beyond what Hanna Pitkin described as the “mandate-independence controversy,” recent scholarship considers not only how political representation can best reflect already constituted preferences, interests, constituencies, or identities, but also how different forms of political representation give shape to, mobilize, or enact those interests, preferences, and identities. 


The 2020 CSPT conference will explore these issues by elaborating the theoretical, historical, and empirical dilemmas internal to the idea of democratic representation. 


Democratic representation poses distinctive difficulties arising from the fraught nature of its constituent subject – the people – as well as from the concept and practice of representation itself.  Associated with direct and equal rule in the ancient Greek context, democracy seems unavoidably undermined when elected representatives become the primary actors in political life.  Recent challenges to the sharp historical and normative divide between direct and indirect democracy, however, have recovered the representative function of various ancient institutions and renewed debate about the democratic purpose and potential of modern electoral institutions.


We invite papers that explore the diverse challenges of democratic representation along three interdependent dimensions—acts, aesthetics, and institutions—that together articulate a complex and dynamic ecology of democratic representation.


Acts: In recent years, democratic theorists have emphasized the importance of political entities—from crowds to NGOs to emergent constituencies—to speak and act in the name of the people beyond official representatives in parliament or executive office.  How do we assess and evaluate the democratic legitimacy of such formally or legally unauthorized actors and claims?  What makes some of these actors more democratically viable than others?  What historical conditions can we identify that sanction some unauthorized political actors as “democratic” while delegitimizing others? 


Aesthetics: Aesthetics has been an important, if fraught and contested, resource for democratic politics.  Unlike resemblance or verisimilitude, representation and its characteristic organizations of truth, including narrative, image, and metaphor, make present what is absent.  Mediated and from a distance, representation brings to appearance and therefore into politics what, under existing regimes of intelligibility, is unseen and/or unheard.  This exemplifies its democratic possibility.  Creativity, as well as distance, also, however, endanger democracy by de-emphasizing participatory politics and opening the way to representation’s manufacture of a “people” through deception and illusion, a concern that led Walter Benjamin, among others, to associate aestheticized politics with fascism.  Through what aesthetic forms does democratic representation bring a people into being?  How do democratic representatives re-present the desires, perceptions and experiences of their constituents?  How should they?


Institutions: The dominant institution of democratic representation – the competitive selection of leaders based on universal suffrage – has been subject to complaints of elitism, failure, and manipulation.  In what competing ways can democratic representation be institutionalized?  One longstanding alternative that has attracted renewed attention is sortition or selection by lot.  Whether in the form of citizen panels or legislature by lot, what are the most powerful arguments for or against sortition as a viable democratic instrument?  What other historical and contemporary models of aggregation and deliberation, from referenda and plebiscites, to rotation and randomization, and plural and non-territorial constituencies, might be available for institutional reimagination, renovation, and experimentation?


Please send paper proposals of no more than 1000 words along with a short CV to with the subject line “CSPT 2020 Submission” by October 15, 2019. Notification of acceptance will be sent in November. Accepted papers are to be submitted by April 1, 2020 and will be pre-circulated to all participants.  CSPT and Cornell University will cover travel and accommodations for all panelists.

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