Performing representative democracy: Deconstructing the theater metaphor

Lasse Thomassen, Queen Mary University of London


In the 1990s, the social sciences saw a performative turn with an increased focus on practice and on doing, and on how these constitute our political world. Politics was increasingly seen as a kind of performance, among other things as a kind of theatricality where politics is framed, staged, mise-en-scรจne. The theater metaphor is often used as a way to make sense of the role of citizens in representative democracy; the theater metaphor is useful in this regard because it highlights the relationship between active and passive, participant and observer, actors and spectators, as well as the staged โ€“ some would say manipulated โ€“ character of representative politics, all of which are central issues in democratic theory. This paper uses Jacques Derridaโ€™s deconstruction of representation to shed new light on the role of the citizen. I do so by engaging with Derrida as well as theorists who have written about theater and politics. First, I show how the deconstructive view of representation takes representation to be constitutive, performative and a two-way relationship between represented and representatives. This places my deconstructive approach within the constructivist turn in political representation. I show this by analyzing Derridaโ€™s writings on Antonin Artaud art, including his theater. Second, I turn to Augusto Boalโ€™s theater and his notion of the spect-actor as well as to Jacques Ranciรจreโ€™s view of the theatricality of politics. I show that, while both Boal and Ranciรจre take representation to be performative and open up the complexity of representative politics in its theatricality, they nonetheless hold on to a problematic ideal of moving beyond representation. Through the critical engagement with Derrida, Artaud, Boal and Ranciรจre, I argue for a view of politics as theater where representation must be understood as an ongoing relationship between representative and represented. In order to show what this means for how we think about the role of citizens in representative democracy, I turn to Jeffrey Greenโ€™s The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship. Green provides a useful foil for my purposes because his argument for the citizen-spectator seeks to go beyond representation, at least in the sense of channeling the voice of the people. With the deconstructive conception of representation developed in the paper, I argue that Green is unable to move beyond representation, as it were, and that his spectator democracy cannot account for the ways in which representative democracy is staged, that is, its theatricality. Above all, his theory of spectator democracy takes spectatorship to be simply passive, and he does not account for how the people is constituted through representation in the first place.