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On the Democratic Sublime

In democratic societies political leaders serve (and derive their legitimacy from) a collective master. In U.S. style liberal-democracies the collective, legitimizing sovereign force goes by the name of “We the people …” Of course, “the people” is a metaphor for the “body politic,” itself an abstraction which lacks any objective material reality. Lacking objective material reality however, does not mean that it lacks influence or force; following the terms of the metaphor, that influence is typically cast as “the voice of the people.” And so the problem for political leaders who want to retain their legitimacy to serve/rule is to be able to claim to be the material embodiment of “the people,” literally to speak for “the people.” I call this a problem, but of course it is as much an opportunity as anything, for since “the people” lack an objective material reality it is difficult to countermand a duly elected leader’s claim to speak for “the people” in any objectively verifiable or decisive way. Think, for example, of how difficult is was to contest President Nixon’s claim to speak for the “great silent majority.” Of course, being difficult and being impossible are two different things.

The photograph below made me think about this political dynamic:

It appeared above the fold on the front page of the NYT as part of a story concerning popular protests against recently elected South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s decision to “resume imports of American beef.” The image is an aerial view of “thousands of South Koreans” massed along a major avenue in Seoul. Shot at dusk and from both a long distance and an acute, high angle, no individual person is identifiable in any sense at all. What we see instead is a vibrant and speckled mass—later described in the accompanying article as “South Koreans with candles”—that appears almost to pulsate with its collective energy as it surges like flood waters between and among the buildings for as far as the eye can see. And indeed, what appears initially to be a beautiful expression of unity resonates as well as a sublime, natural force totally beyond control. 1 or 100 or even 1,000 protestors might be seen as malcontents or perhaps as a small minority whose concerns will be duly noted before being ignored. But hundreds of thousands of individuals (the estimates range from 100,000 to 700,000) collected in one place, appearing to be animated by a common cause, make it much harder—and far more dangerous—for a leader to discount or ignore. And so it should come as no surprise that Lee’s newly appointed cabinet members offered to resign in recognition of their failure to meet the needs and expectations of “the people” (or whatever the comparable moniker is for the collective sovereign source of political legitimacy in South Korea).

What is particularly interesting here is how the above photograph operates as an allegory for the democratic process. On one hand it helps to create the illusion that we can see “the people” as an objective material reality—a collective body with mass that is not easily reducible to the individual, even though the flickering candles call attention to the fact that the individual is in there somewhere. On the other hand, it serves as a reminder that however beautiful such a representation can be, nevertheless, “the people” can be a sublime democratic force and leaders who toy with its will or interests do so at their own peril.

Photo Credit: Dong-A Ilbo/AP


On the Democratic Sublime


7 Responses

  1. Grant Suhs says

    There’s an interesting juxtaposition in the photograph as well, in that the hundreds of thousands of protesters are carrying candles against the backdrop of neon and fluorescent lights in signs and skyscraper windows. The aesthetic recalls the larger issue under consideration. The South Korean president’s decision to import American beef resulted from the economic benefits of the decision – as the resumption of imports falls under the umbrella of the larger South Korean/American free trade agreement KORUS FTA, see:

    However, popular opinion remains ardently opposed toward American beef due to concerns over Mad Cow disease. The picture seems to represent the two conflicting interests in polarized fashion – with the members of the vox populi holding candles (perhaps a more authentic source of light) against the more artificial and modern neon and florescent lighting of the buildings and signs that respectively house and advertise the businesses that stand to gain from the agreement.

  2. Tom White says

    When protests on such a vast scale truly show how many people care enough about issues to take to the streets it saddens me to think that these many voices are drowned out by the few that are in control. This is why ‘the people’ have to gather in in such large numbers to be heard. The trouble is that rarely do their elected representatives ever listen.

    This photograph reveals to me how fragile the position of the majority is. Sure they can stop traffic for a few hours, cause a couple of headaches, but pretty soon it will be business as usual again. The South Korean Cabinet has not yet resigned and the Trade agreement is still in place…

    I truly wish it were otherwise and that an image like this would cause for more than a brief celebration of the power of people.

  3. Mona says

    I love this picture and I keep coming back to it. All the candles appear like a stream of lava – a part of the sublime indeed.

  4. caraf says

    Some context about the candlelight vigil itself might be helpful here. Candlelight vigils like this one have been taking place in South Korea since 2002, when thousands of Koreans first gathered nightly for several months to protest the deaths of two Korean girls run over by a U.S. military vehicle. The vigils began after the soldiers were acquitted by a U.S. court martial, and were an extremely important locus of political engagement for teenagers and college students. Today people are a bit more cynical about them. The candlelight vigil has become the go-to form of political performance in South Korea, used for a variety of reasons – even support for Korean scientists accused of falsifying human stem cell research data. When something happens, the joke goes, “of course” you have a candlelight vigil. As a result, there is much debate in Korea about whether vigils are really the sublime expressions of the democratic people, as you and the commenters suggest. Jiyeon Kang, a graduate student of mine at the University of Illinois, has written a marvelous dissertation on this new form of political performance in Korea. Examining the vigils in the context of Korea’s complicated position as a post-Cold War society still embedded deeply in Cold War politics, Kang cautions us against too easily embracing the vigils as idealized performances of democracy. She suggests, instead, that they should be understood more as temporal eruptions of collective agency rather than a uniform expression of the will of “the people.” But while they may not necessarily have lingering impact beyond the performances themselves, she argues (based upon ethnographic work with former vigil participants) that they are still important for the way that they have shaped young people’s experiences of politics.

  5. Lucaites says

    Cara: Point well taken. But note that all you/your student write assumes that the picture is for the South Koreans. When it shows up on the front page of the NYT above the fold I think it is safe to assume that there is a different (or at least multiple) audiences. And for the west, which knows precious little about SK candle vigils (and, sad to say, probably cares less), I’m betting the image resonates differently … or to equivocate a bit, has the potential to do so.

  6. expressions photography…

    I love posting comments to sites like yours; a real pleasure to visit. I suggest you bring along the “outsiders” with future content, and I enthusiastically recommend your site!…

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