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  • Imagining "Sensate Democracy":Beyond Republicanism, Liberalism, and the Literary
  • Shelley Streeby (bio)
Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler. Harvard University Press, 2015.
Fictions of Mass Democracy in Nineteenth-Century America, Stacey Margolis. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States, Dana D. Nelson. Fordham University Press, 2016.
Divided Sovereignties: Race, Nationhood, and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century America, Rochelle Raineri Zuck. University of Georgia Press, 2016.

In her 2015 book Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler emphasizes the disjunction between the political form of democracy and the principle of popular sovereignty. It is important to keep them apart, she insists, in order to understand how "expressions of the popular will can call into question a particular political form," thereby creating flashpoints in which "political orders deemed democratic are brought into crisis by an assembled or orchestrated collective that claims to be the popular will" (2). Although Butler focuses on the present and recent past, she ranges backward and forward in time, exploring and connecting recurrent tensions in democratic theory. For "the issue is at once ancient and timely," she reminds us. In the wake of the eighteenth-century revolutions, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and other early theorists of democracy worried over "whether democratic state structures could survive unbridled expressions of popular sovereignty"; they "feared 'the mob'" even as they affirmed the significance of "expressions of the popular will" (1). In an introduction and six chapters based on the Mary Flexner lectures she delivered at Bryn Mawr as well as other recent talks, Butler makes an important contribution to debates over democracy and popular sovereignty by theorizing how "acting in concert can be an embodied form of [End Page 355] calling into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning notions of the political" (9). To that end, she centers the collective, performative dimensions of political struggles and the bodily acts that animate social movements. Calling attention to how today many demonstrations and movements "take precarity as their galvanizing condition" precisely through "the social modality of the body (9, 153), Butler provocatively suggests that the "republican ideal is yet to give way to a broader understanding of sensate democracy" (207).

Three recent books in American literary studies also address this disjunction between popular sovereignty and the political form of democracy and speculate on the connections between late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tensions in democratic theory and the present. They all diverge from Butler, however, in privileging literature, variously understood, as illuminating other ways of thinking about these tensions and connections. In Fictions of Mass Democracy in Nineteenth-Century America (2015), Stacey Margolis suggests that what she calls nineteenth-century "network fictions" experiment with ideas about how "the public is organized not only by explicitly political discourse" but also by "diffuse, informal, and largely disorganized social networks" (2). She considers her book "a prehistory of our networked age, in which political participation has been expanded and transformed by the rise of a digital public sphere" (1-2), though she does not see this as something to be celebrated and foregrounds fiction that expresses anxieties about it. In Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States (2016), Dana D. Nelson uses the political novels of the early nation to argue for the significance of what she calls "vernacular" or "commons democracy," which she claims "presents some interesting alternatives to its companion and competitor, liberal democracy" (9). Indeed, she argues that the commons is "a better lens for this part of history than contending notions of representation, or republicanism and liberalism" (22). Nelson, too, links this early Anglo-American literary history to our present and the "modern commons, enabled by an Internet," but makes a more forceful case for its contributions to the "vitality . . . of collective, local practices of democratic power, the power of what theorists then and today call 'the multitude': local self-constituting societies not organized by or subordinated to the nation-state" (3, 14). Finally, in Divided Sovereignties: Race, Nation, and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century America (2016), Rochelle Zuck centers the concept of "politically divided sovereignty—either in the form of two sovereign...


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