From edition

Review: Political representation

Frank Ankersmit

Stanford: Stanford U Press, 2002

By Peter Csigo

In this book review, my aim is to present Frank Ankersmit’s aesthetic theory of democratic representation, as it has been deployed in his book ‘Political Representation’. The reason why I have undertaken the unconventional task of reviewing a seven years old work is my conviction that Ankersmit’s great book has triggered far less reflection in cultural and political research than it would be qualified for by its very virtues and its (so far, neglected) critical potential.

Ankersmit theorizes the intimate ties between aesthetic and political representation, arguing that political representatives stand for their constituents with the same free-spirited loyalty that is typical to artists’ relation to the piece of reality they portray. This aesthetic core of political representation, Ankersmit suggests, allowed representative democracy (between the late 19th and late-mid-20th century) to develop into a most sophisticated, almost-optimal political system. At the first sight, such an aesthetic theory of political style and representation may offer a rather limited contribution to critical theory. Indeed, in our era of increasingly mediatized and aesthetized politics, an aesthetic approach to politics may seem to miss the (critical) point. What critical insights an aesthetic theory of democratic politics may offer in an era when it is especially the intense process of aesthetization that seems, for many, to endanger democracy?

The first step I propose to take is cutting the too easily assumed link between the aesthetization of politics and an aesthetic approach to politics. The latter should not be mistaken as a necessary reflection or rectification of the former. Such a conflation of today’s aesthetized politics and aesthetic theory would distort Ankersmit’s project. It would disregard the fact that Ankersmit’s aesthetic theory has been inspired by representative democracy, which is not a contemporary political system. In Ankersmit’s view, we are not any longer living in representative democracies (119-125[1]). Ours is an era of ‘plebiscitarian democracy’ which degrades voters’ political engagement to four yearly plebiscites driven by ephemeral feelings of general well-being. Ankersmit has explicitly stressed his aversions toward contemporary (post-representational) politics, and, as a cure, urged the reinvigoration of democratic representational machineries.

Ankersmit’s aesthetic approach to political representation is not a theoretical rectification of today’s aesthetized politics, but an endeavour aimed to grasp representative democracy in its historically existing form, and to distil from its existing (aesthetic) machineries a set of normative measures to which today’s politics can be critically compared. Seen from this point of view, it would be hard to miss the fundamental kinship between Ankersmit’s project and Habermas’ classical critical inquiry into the democratic public sphere (Habermas, 1989). In the case of Habermas, it was the historical analysis of the deliberative practices typical to the bourgeois public sphere that allowed for a normative model of power-free deliberative communication to emerge. Sharing the same spirit of historically grounded theory building, but heading towards very different conclusions, Ankersmit is seeking for normative principles to distil from the representational practices typical to the – decreasingly ‘bourgeois’ and increasingly ‘massified’ – representative democracies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Similarly to the tensionful love story between Habermas and the bourgeois public sphere, Ankersmit’s deep (but troubled) sympathy to representative democracy is unmissably apparent throughout the whole book. As we shall see, Ankersmit’s sympathies stem from his assumption that political representation is a relatively autonomous practice which, due to its aesthetic autonomy, provides the system of representative democracy with a unique – although often severely compromised – potential of self-amelioration and inclusivity.

The aesthetic autonomy resides in the existing power imbalance between representatives and constituents: the fact that the former are relatively free to represent (and indeed, construct) the latter’s will. This power imbalance cannot be eliminated. In line with the standard arguments for political representation, Ankersmit rejects as illusionary all theoretical efforts toward ensuring a free and direct expression of existing social identities, interests or values. Assuming the necessity of existing power imbalances between power elites (experts, bureaucratic networks, decision-makers) and citizens, Ankersmit propagates the democratic significance of interaction between the two spheres. It is in the sphere of this interaction that the relatively autonomous and liberating practice of political representation takes place. In order to support this thesis, Ankersmit turns – in a rather unexpected way – to Machiavelli’s political theory, of which he concludes that “freedom should not be exclusively located in or associated with either the nobles or the people; freedom rather requires a specific form of interaction between the two and can only come into being between them instead of having its exclusive location in the people (as the believers of popular sovereignty always argue)” (190, italics in original).

As we shall see, the above idea of ‘in-betweenness’ is central to Ankersmit’s theory. However, at the first sight, it may not be imminently apparent whether and how this ‘in-betweenness’ transcends the standard, elitist conception of electoral representation, and especially its inclination with the idea of ‘balance’. According to the standard argument, “electoral representation enable(s) a dynamic, if often fractious, balance between the rule of elites and the social and political democratization of society.” (Castiglione – Warren cited by Urbinati-Warren, 2008: 389) This idea may open the way towards an elitist division of labour, where popular will expresses itself in electoral voting, while elite competence makes its own way in decision-making. In spite of its overlaps with this conservative approach, Ankersmit’s work would be entirely mistaken if seen as a mere aesthetic ornament of the standard and elitist, ‘balance’ view of electoral vote and power delegation. Seen from Ankersmit’s viewpoint, the standard approach is complicit with today’s plebiscitarian systems, as proven by the fact that it still qualifies them as ‘representational’ democracies – which is an unacceptable claim.

The elitist concept of representation does not fall closer to Ankersmit’s position than the ideas of direct or genuine representation do. The two approaches share a basic assumption that is unacceptable for Ankersmit: Namely, that in the ordinary, routine practice of existing democratic politics, the distance between representation and represented is frozen and unbridgeable. This assumption suggests that citizens have no substantial means to influence neither their representatives, nor the symbolic representations they produce. This ‘common denominator’ of standard elitist and critical anti-representational approaches is perhaps the best measure compared to which Ankersmit’s efforts may best be understood. For, he has mobilized a large theoretical apparatus for refuting that the one-time existing practice of representative democracy had elected impermeable walls between citizens and representatives. This diagnosis may apply well to today’s post-representative democracies, but misjudges their predecessor.

Ankersmit has built his vision of representative democracy on a dynamic understanding of the distance between represented and representative/representation. He has conceived of the distance as necessary and inerasable on the one hand, but also ephemeral and flexibly bridgeable on the other – and praised this duality as substantial to the healthy functioning of democracy. This idea of a distance that is bridgeable but non-erasable may allow us, Ankersmit suggests, to acknowledge that the everyday practice of democracy feeds a permanent outflow of flexible, non-identical correspondences between citizens and their political representatives, between social constituencies and their representations. These imperfect correspondences – half genuine, half imposed – stand in the centre of Ankersmit’s aesthetic theory of political representation. As he argues, all political representations and representatives are doomed to the indeterminate levitation between antagonistic poles: illusion and reality, sameness and alienation, acceptance and coercion, individual and public interest, domination and compassion, status quo and upheaval. However, the inherent ‘incorrectness’ of representations is not a burden, Ankersmit suggests. On the contrary, representative democracy was able to develop into “the most successful and subtle political instrument ever invented by mankind” (119) just because it institutionalized the above indeterminacy and in-betweenness.

Had I to define Ankersmit’s project in five words, I would say it is an aesthetic theory of democratic representation’s ‘in-betweenness’. Ankersmit constructs a model of political representation in analogy to aesthetic representation – which analogy needs to be addressed before any further step into Ankersmit’s universe. Relying on existing theories of ‘aesthetic substitution’ (eg. that of Danto), Ankersmit argues that, contrary to common knowledge, when an aesthetic representation like a picture claims validity, it does not do it by asserting itself to be a ‘mimetic’, direct reflection of the represented object. Instead, it presents itself as a substitute that ‘stands for’ the given object, expresses and emblematizes the object’s inner nature, and invites the viewer into its own particular representation-game. The substitute status of aesthetic representations dooms them (and their authors) to an in-between position between total dependence and full independence with regard to the represented object. The reason for this is the basic democracy of representational art, the fact that it depends too much on the goodwill of its (expert and lay) audience. It has to fully respect the fact that viewers approach a picture with two hardly compatible expectations. First, they are interested in what solution a particular still life or Golgota can offer to the same aesthetic and moral problem that has occupied the minds of a whole tradition of still life and Golgota painters. At the same time, viewers are also curious about how the painting relates to the ‘real’ flowers and rocky hills, as they have experienced them outside the museum. Caught between these incompatible expectations, representations can neither attempt to be fully ‘mimetic’ reflections of their object (which would simply catapult them outside the artistic tradition), but nor they can become fully voluntaristic products, taking artistic tradition as their only reference point, and rejecting any connection to an ‘outside’ reality (if they do this they leave the terrain of representational art). Representational art is doomed to the in-between tightrope walking between direct mimesis and the voluntaristic fulfilment of elitist aesthetic projects.

This aesthetic tightrope walking might be brought closer to the world of politics with the example of a painter and her model. As long as artists insist on painting after a model, they are caught in the dilemma described above. They have to be faithful to the model’s identity, while also filtering it through an aesthetic texture that express their own identity and unique position in a self-containing artistic universe. Similarly, as long as political actors act as representatives of a social group (that serves as its ‘model’), they need to do it in an in-between modality: they cannot trick the group’s inner identity, but also need to adjust it to other representational (and expert) claims which populate the field of political professionals. Such an understanding of political representation as aesthetic reinvention delineates a terrain of flexible adjustment, halfway between direct representation (or ‘mimetic representation’, rejected by Ankersmit as an illusory misunderstanding) and elitist, formal electoral representation (which is typical to today’s democracies, but is also “an infringement on what representative government used to be” [p. 123]). The in-between position of political representation is relatively easy to illustrate, for example, with the figure of a trade union leader who cannot increase the wage claims to a level which, in the best understanding of the situation, would push the company to the verge of collapse. The ‘representations’ – concerning trade union members’ interests and future – that are created in this context, will reside ‘in between’ those positions that would have been taken by workers and management in lack of representational mechanisms.

The fact that in a representative democracy social groups and interests interact via their imperfect and distorted ‘substitutes’ (representatives) pushes the system towards the highest possible level of resilience, and at the same time stabilizes the system as a whole. In other words, the aesthetic nature of representation turns representative democracy into a permanently reformed political system. This is further triggered by the fact that, beyond its core function of mediating between state and citizen, the practice of representation penetrates the whole body of democratic politics. Throughout his book, Ankersmit refers to a multitude of sites where aesthetic political representation opens a middle ground between antagonistic positions. He argues that representation mediates between the existing and the ideal, working in a space of “indeterminate limbo between what is already and what is not yet reality” (158). Representation creates a fragile balance between capitalist status quo and socialist utopia, and allows the welfare state, this major achievement of representational democracy, to emerge (210). Representation adjusts the pagan virtue of striving for power and the Christian aesthetic virtue of compassion (167-8). Finally, in political decision making, representation creates an – always contextual – modus vivendi between values of freedom and equality (172), egoism and common interest (145), perceived moral rectitude (‘us’) and perceived moral insanity (‘them’) (146).

Given the multiplicity of these antagonistic positions, political representation has to operate in a multiple and over-determined space. Its practice could be best described as the elaboration of aesthetic ‘proposals’ (219) which are expected to create a ‘narrow optimum’ between the represented and all the alternative claims present at the messy field of representation. How to form ‘proposals’ that may successfully meet these expectations? Ankersmit offers an unexpected role model for the politician: the historian, who has to handle her fragmented and ambivalent source material with the highest level of open-mindedness and self-restrain, and who, at the same time, needs to resist all forms of empty relativism and invest all energies into establishing a characteristic viewpoint which allows for a clear and conclusive understanding of history. No overall rules about how to find this ‘narrow optimum’ can ever be established. The struggle to find it restarts from ground zero in every single attempt to represent a piece of history – or a piece of society. And this is exactly where historical and political representation collide: “[O]ur only alternative is to decide for each individual case where we should situate the narrow optimum between … mutually exclusive options. The talent for finding this optimum is what distinguishes good politicians and historians from their less gifted colleagues” (194).

In Ankersmit’s view, representational democracy was optimized to triggering, in its everyday operation, a ceaseless aesthetic production of the above ‘narrow optimums’. By eliciting these in-between ‘optimums’ to arise, representational democracy established unparalleled standards of inclusivity (respect) and innovativity (creativity). It promoted respect, because it urged representatives (and their constituents) to adjust themselves to concurrent, often radically discrepant perspectives (214-233). It promoted creativity, because it pushed actors toward inventing a modus vivendi between the incommensurable representational claims (193-214). The compound of mutual respect and creative compromise allowed for a continuous parallel development of social actors’ identities, what Ankersmit theorised as their dialectical ‘metamorphosis’. Metamorphosis is itself an in-between category “consisting in the combination of remaining as close as possible to one’s original position with the greatest possible transformation of that original position” (209). In Ankersmit’s view, neither direct representation, nor formal electoral representation allows for the above permanent ‘metamorphosis’ of social actors.

In this dialectical spirit, we may conclude that representative democracy enabled the continuous development and mutual adjustment of social groups (values and interests) along the actual ‘narrow optimums’ that had been offered by representatives’ aesthetic proposals. By denying social groups to express their identity outside these ‘half-genuine’ proposals, representative democracy deprived these groups from the power of direct self-definition, but also from that of debunking their antagonists (their ‘others’) with the same un-ambiguity. Representative democracy promoted a perspectivist sense of truth, and as a consequence, unfreezed existing power imbalances and allowed for their dispersal to places where representations were negotiated. As a consequence, from the dense interplay of incommensurable representational claims, an almost Foucauldian web of dispersed and productive power emerged. In a representative democracy, power was less ‘possessed’ by rulers and ‘suffered’ by the ruled (118), than complicitly utilized, played upon and redefined by all – regularly interacting – actors of the social hierarchy. It is exactly this dispersal of power that has been mostly endangered due to the decline of representative institutions in today’s ‘plebiscitarian’ democracies.

Ankersmit’s account on representational democracy is not an abstract political theory, but is itself an ‘aesthetic proposal’, halfway between utopia and historic reality. Its indeterminate status, however, should not overshadow this book’s argumentative force, theoretical innovativity and, indeed, political necessity. For, if it did, we would also have to write off another aesthetic proposal, very similar to this one, without which – we already know – it would be hard to keep going in political research. I am thinking here of Habermas’ account on the bourgeois public sphere, this immensely inspiring and fertilizing proposal. Ankersmit’s aesthetic model of representative democracy would take its due place in academic research if it became part of scholarly common sense the same way as did the concept of Habermas. Its historical grounds, normative claims and critical potential make Ankersmit’s aesthetic model of representation an indispensable asset in the contemporary intellectual Zeitgeist, which is marked by a major interest in reinvigorating representation (Urbinati-Warren, 2008), breathing life to an old concept that still has a potential to ‘repair’ our increasingly emptying political systems.


[1] References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).


Habermas, J. (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Urbinati, N., Warren, M.E. (2008) ‘The concept of representation in contemporary democratic theory’, American Review of Political Science, 11: 387-412.

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