Considering the question “What constitutes a democratic style?” is a tricky proposal. Although Robert Hariman has done well to categorize various political styles—realist, courtly, republican, and bureaucratic—it is unclear that “democracy” operates in an analogous fashion.1 What if democracy cannot be delineated in much the same way as realism, monarchism, republicanism, or bureaucratism? What if democracy is understood as empty or devoid of positive political content? In such a case, democracy may be more comparable to “the law” in that it is a conceptual or ideographic label that encompasses varied sets of political and aesthetic commitments. Just as Hariman turns to various styles of politics and Pierre Schlag turns to various “aesthetics of American law,” so too must we be careful to articulate not a single democratic style but multiple, intersecting, and sometimes competing democratic aesthetics.2 As such, we should be attentive to deliberative, pluralist, liberal, republican, progressive, and other styles that function as particular instantiations of the aesthetics of American democracy.
Approaching the question of democratic style from the perspective of radical democratic theory, I argue in this essay that a radical democratic style is best defined in the negative. If political style is, according to Hariman, “a coherent repertoire of rhetorical conventions depending on aesthetic reactions for political effect,” then the marker of a radical democratic style is anticonventional conventions.3 Put differently, a radical democratic style’s rhetorical repertoire is contingent to such an extent that, once it is nailed down as a concrete set of practices, it ceases to be radically democratic—which is, itself, a particular kind of aesthetic marked by tradition, hybridity, and intersectionality. In what follows, I explore these dimensions by first expanding on my initial analogy with the law, then explaining three features of a radical democratic perspective that confounds stylistic analysis, and finally turning to the Young Lords Organization as one possible example of a radical democratic aesthetic in practice.
“Democracy” and “The Law”: An Analogy
In a provocative legal commentary published in the Harvard Law Review in 2002, Schlag begins with the observation, “Law is an aesthetic enterprise.”4 The different ways in which we come to understand, discuss, and perform the law [End Page 459] each constitutes competing aesthetics made up of the “the forms, images, tropes, perceptions, and sensibilities that help shape the creation, apprehension, and even identity of human endeavors.”5 In this sense, Schlag’s argument is similar to Hariman’s about political style. Rather than constituting one style of politics, there are several, each representing specific sets of forms, images, tropes, and so forth—repertoires of rhetorical conventions, in Hariman’s terms—informing and reflecting particular political commitments.
Although one could very well treat democracy as a particular stylization of politics, it may be tempting to represent only one type of democracy in such a formulation. It may be more productive for theorist-critics to conceptualize democracy as a higher-order abstraction, more similar to politics or the law than to republicanism, realism, or the like. Just as there are multiple legal aesthetics or political styles, so too are there multiple, competing democratic styles. Tropes such as deliberation, representation, consensus, and contestation all mark potentially different stylizations of democracy in the same way that the grid aesthetic, the energy aesthetic, the perspectivist aesthetic, and the dissociative aesthetic represent different stylizations of the law for Schlag. Argues Schlag, “Legal aesthetics are important because they help constitute law and its possibilities in different ways.”6 Similarly, different aesthetics are central to constituting the possibilities of democratic politics; therefore, delineating a single democratic style risks foreclosing rhetorical possibilities and misunderstanding democracy as it is theorized and practiced.
The Aesthetics of Radical Democracy
It is important to note the incomplete and contingent status of democracy from a radical perspective. If we attempt to concretize and operationalize a definition or particular institutionalization of democracy, if we attempt to fix its meaning and enactment, it loses what makes it strong: its ability to change, adapt, and move with “the people.” In drawing attention to the contingency of democratic style as opposed to asking what it is, I begin by aligning myself with Ernesto...