Ibid., p. 19.


Marchart, Post-Foundational Political Thought (as note 34), p. 93.


Ibid., p. 101.


Clark, Painting in the Year Two (as note 3), p. 51.


Ankersmit, Aesthetic Politics (as note 23), p. 53.


Claude Lefort argues that what characterises democracy as a social form and differentiates it from the Ancient Régime is exactly the fact that «democratic society is instituted as a society without a body, as a society which undermines the representation of an organic totality.» [42] The impossibility of representing popular sovereignty as totality results from democracy being «instituted and sustained by the dissolution of the markers of certainty» [43] and the missing ground of the social. As a consequence, society’s non-identity with itself will always require a form of self-representation, or as Oliver Marchart sums it up: «No society without a quasi-representation of itself.» [44] Lefort accentuates that there is no society without a symbolic dimension and that no society is identical with itself since its very essence is what he calls a «self-division». The achievement of the democratically institutionalised society is the acknowledgement of this self-division and «the fact that, at the place of society’s ground, the only thing we discover is an abyss.» [45]

According to Clark, the encounter with the abyss obtains a prominent position in David’s portrait of Marat. The ambiguity of the depiction of Marat’s body and its dual function as historic martyr and representative of the people does not refer to an already existing political reality but addresses the question of representation and the new image of power itself. Whereas the body of Louis XIV in the portraits by Rigaud and Le Brun embodies the endpoint of all signification, the ultimate signifier so to speak, the body of Marat represents the collapse of any ultimate signification. This means, the signifying ambiguity of his body, oscillating between the individual person and popular sovereignty, cannot ultimately be determined. This is where Clark’s interpretation of the upper half of the picture comes into play. He relates it to «the concept’s emptiness» [46], the empty notion of ‘the people’, which is the exact phenomenon that Lefort describes as the defining criterion of modern democracy: «Power was embodied in the prince, and it therefore gave society a body. And because of this, a latent but effective knowledge of what one meant to the other existed throughout the social. This model reveals the revolutionary and unprecedented feature of democracy. The locus of power becomes an empty place. [Le lieu du pouvoir devient un lieu vide.]» [47]  The constant attempt to fill this empty place of power, to find an adequate image to represent the sovereign can be understood as the quintessential task of modern democracy. However, the ongoing search for the adequate representation of the people also problematises the very concept of popular sovereignty as depicted in The Death of Marat. The empty space of power in David’s painting demonstrates that, in the words of Frank Ankersmit, «political power has its origin neither in the people represented nor in the representative but in the representation process itself.» [48]

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