The inter-est between us: Ontology, epistemology, and the failure of political representation

Contemporary Political Theory 22 (1):46-69 (2023)
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Abstract

In recent decades, theories of representation have undergone a constructivist turn, as many theorists no longer view the represented subject as prior to but rather as an effect of representation. Whereas some critics have claimed that lacking an ontologically pre-given subject undermines the theory of representation, many democratic theorists have sought to reconceptualize representation and its democratic possibilities by turning away from ontological questions altogether. By focusing instead on how representatives come to know the public interest, many scholars now contend that an epistemological account best explains how political representation can foster democratic participation. Yet, theorists of representation have not assessed whether this turn to epistemology has overcome the ontological problems that initially motivated it. This article tracks epistemological defenses of representation to outline two models of political representation that attempt to tackle the epistemological problem of constituent interest without positing a foundational ontology of the subject. I argue that both theoretical tendencies ultimately remain caught in the problems of ontology, thereby undercutting their normative aspirations to foster political participation. Turning to Hannah Arendt’s comments on public interest and her writings on council democracy, the article retheorizes the concept of political representation to avoid the ontological problems that beset current accounts.

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