RESEARCH

Current Book Project

When Citizens Judge: Democratic Judgment in the Courts and Theater of Athens

In When Citizens Judge, I compare judgment in the popular courts and in the theater of democratic Athens, examining how citizens reflect on questions of inclusion, political identity and the public good in these alternative sites. My project proceeds along two tracks simultaneously: I argue that both the courts and the theater were spaces in which citizens reflected upon and reconstituted their common project; at the same time, I challenge the perceived unity of the Athenian public sphere. A dominant view is that Athenians learned vital lessons at the theater (about the excesses of empire, the instability of civic boundaries, or the tragic limits of human agency), and that these lessons informed their political judgment in the popular courts and in the Assembly. My research challenges this view both at a historical level and by rethinking the theory of judgment that undergirds it. I draw attention to the disunity of the Athenian public sphere, and in particular the dissonance between judgment in the theater and in the courts. Instead of theorizing judgment as a faculty or capacity that one develops in one site and then exercises in another, I argue that we should theorize judgment as a situated political practice. This requires attending to what I call “institutional charge,” including the political and institutional pressures placed on the judge, the required outcome or telos of a given judgment, the institutional constraints on narrative, and the civic role and relationship between the judges and those judged. Theorizing judgment in this way helps to explain the puzzle of the Athenian public sphere and is a resource for studying judgment in the contemporary context.

Second Project

Actors on the Political Stage: A Genealogy of the Theatrical Metaphor in Political Thought and Practice

I am also beginning research on a second book-length project. This project builds upon my work on democracy and the relationship between ideas and political practice, but it shifts from a single historical case to a multi-period study. Entitled “Actors on the Political Stage,” the book will provide a genealogy of the theatrical metaphor in democratic thought. Specifically, I argue that theater metaphors including “mask,” “stage,” “actor” and “audience” constitute a primary lens in western political thought and practice for thinking through three fundamental elements of democratic governance: 1) politics based on speech, wherein political actors must garner support through persuasion; 2) representative government; and 3) publicity and the public sphere. My study will begin in ancient Athens, where the distinction between a politician “acting” vs. speaking frankly first emerges. I then consider the ancient Roman conception of a political or legal “persona” (theatrical mask in Latin), which paved the way for modern theories of representation. Turning to Elizabethan England, I will show how exposing the theatrics of monarchy opened up space for alternative, popular conceptions of political power and authority. Finally, I examine the new vision of citizen as “spectator” that emerges in revolutionary France, at the dawn of mass politics. Today, theater metaphors are commonplace in political discourse: clarifying and connecting the particular historical debates from which this vocabulary emerges gives us a deeper understanding of what is (or should be) at stake when we use this language to describe our contemporary political landscape and to promote democratic norms.

This research is supported by a two-year SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University, in the Dept of Government.