Volume 21, Issue 2, Spring 2017
How to Perform a Democracy
A Genealogy of Bare Voices
This paper explores a type of poetry, music, and theater that is said to be responsible for the birth of participatory democracy. While Aristotle and Nietzsche briefly mention a similar genealogy of democracy in their work, Book III of Plato’s Laws archives a remarkable history of how participatory democracy emerged in Athens’s theater. After connecting Plato's account to a participatory style of music and poetry that is associated initially with the term polyphōnia, I consider a line of philosophical commentary on this type of music from Plato to Rousseau to Derrida. For these philosophers, I claim, polyphōnia disrupts the political hierarchy of those with and those with bare voices and encourages equal participation. If the phenomenon of polyphōnia is indeed behind Plato’s historical account of democracy in the Laws, then it may tell us how democracy was first performed in the theater and how it was initially critiqued by philosophers.