Notes on Republican Speech

What kind of government does the United States have? Arguments can be made that we live in an oligarchy, an aristocracy, even a kakistocracy–but the debate primarily rages around the more common terms “democracy” and “republic,” since both words contain elements of each other in their definitions. While in a “pure” or “direct” democracy, decisions are made by majority vote, the bulk of governing in the US is carried out by representatives who act on the people’s behalf–a representative democracy. The framers of the Constitution understood “democracy” as “representative democracy” and recommended representative government as a practical defense against factionalism (as James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers). The United States also invests power in its Constitution, which wields power of its own by instructing the courts. Perhaps the most thorough characterization is that the United States is a constitutional federal representative democracy, a system to which both the Democratic and Republican parties can claim loyalty.  

Any of the recorded thoughts of James Madison and other Old Timey White Men should be complicated by voices of people to whom they did not grant representation. Historically, the US has explicitly denied voting rights to the poor, women, people of color, and Indigenous people. Even though these groups have technically now been enfranchised, their levels of access vary. Other groups are still excluded from representation, like children, resident non-citizens, and people convicted of felonies. So the vital question remains: who, of all of us, has the right to representation? Who can speak? And how?

We took as our starting point for this issue, Republican Speech, a passage from German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829):

Poetry is republican speech: a speech which is its own law and end unto itself, and in which all the parts are free citizens and have the right to vote.[1][2]

Poetry is perhaps the most democratic of speech types, language stripped down to its most essential parts, with words equally weighted against each other. Republican Speech aims to explore the words that sometimes get lost in the democratic fray, from poetry, to visual art, to signs: a semiotics of the republic.

In “Approach,” Jessica Smith responds to Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture “Mother with her Dead Son” with an ekphrastic poem. The statue, a bronze enlargement of Kollwitz’s original sculpture, occupies the Neue Wache in Berlin. A former royal guardhouse, the building was redesigned in 1931 as a memorial to those who have died in war and under dictatorship. Smith considers this 20th century pietà in a 21st century light, as children continue to be taken from their families by governments and by borders.

In “The Loud Silence of Monuments,” Dr. Courtney R. Baker, too, considers what monuments communicate. Her semiotic analysis explores Civil War and colonial monuments as speech acts that not only call forth the past, but continually speak anew the United States’ history of racialized exploitation and oppression. Far from stagnant memorials, these monuments uphold a social order that their erectors intended to be permanent. Dr. Baker proposes that the sites of fallen monuments, like the “Silent Sam” statue at UNC Chapel Hill and the Beauregard statue in New Orleans, are areas of semiotic play in which artists can speak back to that history, specifically through the register of scale. She discusses several artworks that have used an inflated scale or forced perspective to flip what is considered historically important, including the work of Sanford Biggers, Ti-Rocke Moore, Chris Barnard, and Tatzu Nishi.

Christine Elliott’s quiz, “He Said, She Said,” also deals with historical speech: specifically, well-known, ostensibly verified quotes that are actually fabrications or misquotes. All you have to do is answer a few questions about campaign slogans, Republican talking points, and Trump tweets, and you’ll matched up with a prime example of a bogus quote. How you ultimately use this information is up to you; we assume pedantry will be involved.

From a quiz to a listicle: Randall Szott, a (former) social practice artist and a legislative member of the Vermont General Assembly, shares “6 Kinds of Publics” he encounters as a big-D Democrat but a small-r republican (specifically, a “decentralist communitarian republican”). How do public culture, public work, and public philosophy intersect? Ultimately, Szott finds the art of citizenship in the locus of these realms, proposing the work of governance as a “social poiesis.”

Where Szott considers the legacies of republican ideas that provide the framework for governing, Aram Han Sifuentes moves to dismantle the narrative of US history and build a new, generative framework using voices that, historically, have not been considered canonical. In “For Those Who Talk Back,” Han Sifuentes engages with the voices of scholars and poets like Audre Lorde, Grace Kyungwon Hong, Gloria Anzaldúa, and bell hooks, simultaneously exploring and demonstrating how we build on the speech that has come before us. Their words form the scaffolding from which she makes her own speech, the “wild tongue” that is her survival, which she then offers to her fellow immigrants as a stepping stone. Han Sifuentes’s exhibition “To Ward off Authorities and To Protect My Neighbors,” held this winter at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, displays in bold text the rights of those who are threatened by the police and ICE. What speech belongs to us? What speech is acceptable?

In #CrowdedField, artist and programmer Roopa Vasudevan shows us what people are saying about our newest crop of potential representatives, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Vasudevan performs algorithmic language analyses that scrape Twitter for the most common “regular expressions” that people tweet when discussing a particular candidate. She then integrates those phrases into replicated campaign signs for each candidate, rendered here as gifs. The candidates’ official talking points are usurped by the opinions of regular voters; slogans disappear under a wave of democratic speech.

These elements have all been thoughtfully illustrated by Ellen Dubreuil, who has taken The New Yorker style of illustrated quips and made them slightly fuzzier (and in a couple cases very scary). We hope that these parts of speech create a conversation about how we talk to each other, and that the lexicon of our republic gains new and louder citizens.



[1] Friedrich Schlegel, “From ‘Critical Fragments’ (1797)” in Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 242


[2] Schlegel, it bears saying, is otherwise a terrible philosopher, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.