A Representative Problem
The current fixation on “representation” is not just a superficial aesthetic fad; it arises out of a basic structure of our political theory.
A recent perusal of Google’s news feed revealed discussions of the following: Asian-American representation after the Oscar success of Everything Everywhere All at Once; LGBTQ+ representation in cartoons; disability representation in television commercials; female representation among athletes; and black representation among video game characters.
Representation, it is safe to say, is a thing.
Though not all of these sources define it quite the same way, the basic idea might be expressed as follows: It is desirable for people to see others like themselves reflected in media and other imagery, with whom they might identify and feel a sense of belonging in whatever domain they appear. (There tends to be some ambiguity as to whether representation is merely designed to more accurately reflect certain social realities or in fact to produce them).
Nor is this phenomenon confined to media and pop culture—it has become a staple of educational instruction, mandated corporate training, criminology, and healthcare. It has become an increasingly central and heated topic of discussion in the beleaguered publishing industry. And, perhaps inevitably, it is rife within academia.
Of course, “representation” is hardly unique as an academic buzzword that has seeped into wider popular discourse. We have plenty of those, after all: “problematize,” “interrogate,” “decolonize,” “intersectional,” and so many more. What is rather noteworthy about the concept of representation is how, unlike so many other terms of this sort, it already holds a place in our ordinary political lexicon. After all, it is not incidental that we use the term when referring to our elected public officials, or that the lower chamber of our national legislature is called the “House of Representatives” (cf. Article 1, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution).
To think properly about why “representation” already holds the place it does in our collective understanding, it is necessary to zoom out a bit in both time and space. For therein lies a tale.
In historical terms, the idea of representation is a latecomer to the political scene. As the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau nostalgically remarked, “In ancient republics and even in monarchies, the people never had representatives; the word itself was unknown.” In the ancient Greek polis, for example, citizens (whether democratic or oligarchic) made their wishes known through direct political engagement, casting their own votes on matters of war and peace. They did not operate through representative institutions, which did not exist anyway.
At the other end of the political spectrum, classical empires featured vast systems of centralized and hierarchical authority that ruled over a multitude of peoples without, however, claiming to represent them. Much the same was true on a smaller scale of kingships and principalities up to the modern period, wherein dynastic rulers pursued policies of diplomacy and war according to the interests of the ruling family. They did not represent the people living under their estates as a modern executive does.
What unites these otherwise very different political forms is that they are all examples of relatively direct government. The ancient Greek citizens ruled themselves, and the emperors and monarchs ruled others, but in both cases ultimate political authority was to be found in the person or persons who wielded it. Such rule is in some sense personal.
By contrast, our own form of government—which is the dominant one throughout the world today—is essentially impersonal. It is exercised through the institutions and offices of the modern state, which have some claim to represent us, the citizens of that state. But it was not until the early-modern era that this now-ubiquitous concept of representation became significant.
Perhaps no single figure was so instrumental in this transformation as Thomas Hobbes, who made representation a central conceit in his new political science. This is Hobbes’ innovation: though we will still be ruled, it will not be by a prince or warlord, but by a sovereign who stands at the head of the vast impersonal mechanism of government that we call the “state.” And it is we who collectively embody this state, which through its offices and functions represents our interests. He is the Walrus, we are the egg men, goo goo g’joob.
By being thus representative, this state is beholden neither to the dynastic power struggles of feudal monarchies nor the civil conflicts that roiled the ancient Greek and Roman cities (this latter is a recurring concern in The Federalist as well). While political representation in this sense need not be democratic in practice (the Chinese Communist Party relies on it as surely as the British Parliament does), one can see how it became the basis for modern democracies. In large states, governmental power is exercised through literal representatives as well as vast public bureaucracies that claim to represent the people as a whole.
This shift toward representation was enormously successful both in centralizing and rationalizing political power and in maintaining civil order (Hobbes’s greatest concern) by disassociating political practice from either the whims of the people or the ambitions of princes. Indeed, we are by now so used to assuming the value—indeed the necessity—of being properly represented that it no longer seems novel or strange to us. Yet this way of conceptualizing the political community had some important limitations, given how it abstracts from normal human experience.
First, by making representation the price of citizenship in a well-ordered state, it also diluted the meaning of citizenship. As Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield puts it, in this situation:
[We] must ask political questions in an indirect form. The direct political question is whether the law or the command by an officer of the law that a citizen encounters is decent, good or useful. Instead of this question, or before it, citizens under representative government must ask whether the law or the command is truly representative, that is, whether in some manner it comes from themselves.
Second, it raises without providing any theoretical answer to the important question: “Just who is the state representing anyway?” Indeed, this became one of the most fraught political questions of the past two centuries. The immediate answer—all of us—has rarely proven satisfying in practice. If you look at the famous frontispiece of Leviathan, the tiny people that comprise its body are identical—indeed literally faceless. But most people do not tend to think of themselves as members of an undifferentiated mass that has authorized the state to represent its interests.
Thus, while internationally, representation has emerged as an unchallenged principle under the form of self-determination (enshrined in Article I of the United Nations’ charter), this nonetheless produces contests over representation in the form of competing national claims. Sometimes these take the form of territorial disputes between established nations; other times we see nations seeking their own representation: Palestinian, Tibetan, Kurdish, Basque, and so on.
Meanwhile, at home, it was only a matter of time before different citizens began to find “we the people” to be an inadequate account of their situation and to identify more granular and specific forms of identity requiring political representation. As the demographic character of the United States changed—gradually, then suddenly—throughout the 20th century, a growing array of ethnic groups came to think (not unreasonably) that the political class should reflect the larger population of which they were a part.
This is the implicit ethos at work in the famous opening scene of The Godfather: the public institutions and their representatives cannot work for us; they represent and serve the interests of heritage Americans, not arriviste Italians, and thus the mafia is a viable alternative for protection and justice. Of course, as the example of The Godfather might indicate, there is a thin line between legitimate representation in the political process and cynical rent-seeking—i.e., the belief that democratic politics is fundamentally a spoils system that one accesses through participation in a given interest group.
At the same time, operating both alongside and sometimes in opposition to this dynamic were the longstanding claims of black Americans who argued, also not unreasonably, that representation or the lack of it was closely tied to their systematic disenfranchisement in both social and economic domains. This, even more than the immigrant model, arguably became the standard for other identity groups today.
Suffice it to say, over time this phenomenon of increasingly fragmented representation has migrated from the political sphere to the cultural one, where some of the same fundamental problems remain.
Hobbes, in his wisdom and profound understanding, introduced another novel insight: that it is only through being represented that the people comes into existence at all: “A Multitude of men, are made One Person, when they are by one man, or one Person, Represented; so that it be done with the consent of every one of that Multitude in particular. For it is the Unity of the Representer, not the Unity of the Represented, that maketh the Person One.”
Though we pretend, in other words, that representative government acts on behalf of a preexisting nation, in our Hobbesian tradition that nation itself is a fiction—nothing more than a loose aggregation of millions of individuals until the moment that the government itself takes form. “We”—in the sense of the American or French or British people—don’t really exist at all outside of the state that represents us. Of course, Hobbes’s is not an exhaustive account of the nation, but it does indicate how some version of nationalism or identity politics is unavoidable for liberalism broadly conceived.
Get daily emails in your inbox
But seeing the proliferation of demands for representation in ever more niche media properties by ever more marginal identity groups, I have come to wonder whether something like this anxiety—however unconsciously—lies behind this contemporary impulse as well. That there is an apprehension, in other words, that it is only in seeing ourselves represented in movies, in television, in graphic novels, and so on, that we can be said to meaningfully exist.
Consequently, perhaps—to return to Mansfield’s point—just as our primary political question is no longer “Are our leaders prudent and wise?” but “Do our leaders meaningfully represent us?” so too our primary aesthetic question is increasingly not “Is this work of art good or beautiful?” but “Does this work of art represent its intended audience?”
This cultural tendency, then, while regrettable, cannot simply be considered another offshoot of “wokeness.” It is in many ways an organic outgrowth of our basic political presuppositions. One way or another, it seems, we are stuck with representation.