Circles upon Circles: Tautology, Form, and the Shape of Democracy in Tocqueville and Melville


Two of the nineteenth century’s most significant and prolific thinkers on the idea and practice of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville and Herman Melville both invoke the shape of a circle to foreground the representational challenges of a self-originating and self-defining political form. In this, they identify democracy with the tautologies of absolute sovereign power, but they also find in the circles of democracy a form and an art of common action through which democracy might be transformed. The circles that first appear in Democracy in America and Moby-Dick as figural responses to the tautology of self-grounding authority provide both a history and a corrective to recent political theory that tends to describe democracy as reducible to sovereignty. By casting the problem of representing democracy as a formal one, Tocqueville and Melville identify it with artifice and art as well, imagining alternative possibilities for democratic political action, while revealing how fully the formal structures of their own works are implicated in the art of democracy.