The Sublime Dance of Mende Politics: An African Aesthetic of Charismatic Power:

William P. Murphy

In this ethnography of politics, the theory of the sublime is used to clarify the aesthetics of power among the Mende of Sierra Leone. A key formal dimension of this aesthetics is the dialectic of extraordinary visible effects caused by powerful hidden means, which is analyzed through the cultural analogy of dance and politics. This dialectic is also shown to link the aesthetics of the sublime with the politics of charisma as expressing similar logics of expressive power. Aesthetics is treated as an ethnographic heuristic for understanding political power and agency. The Mende political sublime raises broader questions for social theory about the relationship between aesthetics and agency as modeled by the opposition in aesthetic theory between beauty and the sublime. It also addresses the implications of this aesthetic opposition for the typology of agency found in the period ization of premodern, modern, and postmodern social conditions, [the sublime versus beauty, aesthetics of power, charisma, West African political culture, premodern versus postmodern agency]