When Citizens Judge

My first book project, When Citizens Judge: Democratic Judgment in the Courts and the Theater of Athens, develops a novel theory of democratic judgment as a situated political practice. I do so through a comparison of judgment in the popular courts and in the theater of democratic Athens. I examine 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 institutional settings in which citizens reflected upon and reconstituted their common project; at the same time, I challenge the perceived unity of the Athenian public sphere. The 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 legal and political judgment elsewhere. 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 courts and in the theater. 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.


Actors on the Political Stage

I have begun research for a second book, tentatively titled “Actors on the Political Stage: A Genealogy of the Theater Metaphor in Democratic Thought.” This project builds upon my work on ancient democracy and the relationship between ideas and democratic practice, but it shifts from a single historical case to a multi-period study. In “Actors on the Political Stage,” I will argue that theater metaphors including “mask,” “stage,” “actor” and “audience” constitute a primary lens in western political philosophy 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 the rule of law; and 3) publicity and the public sphere. My study will begin in ancient Athens, where the distinction between a politician speaking frankly vs. performing first emerges. I will then investigate 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 examine how exposing the theatrics of monarchy was key to opening up space for alternative, popular conceptions of political power and authority. And finally, I will consider the new vision of citizen as “spectator” that emerges in revolutionary France, at the dawn of mass politics.

The book’s concluding chapter will bring these findings to bear on the 21st century resurgence of populist politics, with a focus on “post-truth politics” in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the American context, analysts and ordinary citizens employed a host of theatrical metaphors to clarify Trump’s success and his distinctive presidential performance: some criticized Trump’s “political theatrics,” accused him of wearing deceitful masks, and urged citizens to distinguish between spectacle and substance on the political stage (e.g. Allen 2016). At the same time, the president chastised opponents for being “fake,” produced spontaneous and unfiltered tweets that conveyed immediacy and intimacy, and preferred to go “off script.” This chapter will disentangle and clarify the ideas about truthfulness and transparency, sincerity and spectacle that underwrite how analysts and citizens deploy theatre metaphors to distinguish the “real” from the “phony” in a “post-truth” era. It will do so by restoring to these ideas their historical dimensions and thus casting into sharper relief their utility (and limitations) for navigating our contemporary context.