This essay traces a conceptual through-line from the twenty-first century crisis of democratic institutionality, explained as an effect of contemporary neoliberalism, back to the eighteenth-century discursive origins of free-market capitalism. On both ends of this temporal bridge, we find an emphasis on the radical horizontalization of political subjectivity and power against perceived hierarchies of institutional control. The discourse of laissez-faire—and sometime democratic—horizontalization turns on affect as an organizing principle (i.e., morality, sentiment, emotion) and locates control within the self as one entity among equals; verticality, in contrast, is linked to rationality and locates control in an asymmetrical relationship of superiority and inferiority that is decried as tyranny. I offer a comparatist interpretation of these concepts in aesthetic play in Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat (1793) alongside Vik Muniz's Marat/Tião as depicted in the documentary film Waste Land (2010) as evidence of the epistemological continuity between the laissez-faire and neoliberal political landscapes of the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, respectively. The takeaways from this temporal through-line are the possibility that the twenty-first-century symptoms of institutional crisis are the ultimate epistemological expression of affectively inflected horizontal laissez-faire culture and that the reach of this epistemological paradigm extends far beyond political structure and into the deepest cultural imaginings of self and world.

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