THEATRE

 

illustrations-political-space-21

Political space accommodates judging spectators.

Debates are usually staged events. The participants often stand or sit on a stage that is prepared only for them and when they speak they address not only each other but also an audience.

“Nothing could appear, the word ‘appearance’ would make no sense, if recipients of appearances did not exist – living creatures able to acknowledge, recognize, and react to – in flight or desire, approval or disapproval, blame or praise – what is not merely there but appears to them and is meant for their perception.” (LM: 1)

To speak in a debate always means to speak to others and a debate without a public would be pointless. The audience constitutes a public realm which, according to Arendt, is necessary for appearances to attain “the shining brightness we once called glory.” (HC: 180) She defines glory as “the specifically human possibility of immortality.” (PP: 46) In that sense it is obvious that no deed can be glorious that appears only in the privacy of the household and no actor can become famous who is only seen by friends and family. To be sure, not everything that is said or done in public is glorious. Only truly exceptional deeds can become immortal and this selection is a result of human judgment, which is rendered by the spectators and not by the actors themselves. Consequently, political actors and the dignity of the public realm as such are highly dependent on the presence of judging spectators.

“Fame comes about through the opinion of others. For the actor, the decisive question is thus how he appears to others [..]; the actor is dependent on the opinion of the spectator” (KL: 55)

While it is natural that spectators judge everything they see and hear, it is also natural that the participants try to make a good impression in front of their audience. The desire to please, to appeal and to convince is natural and it can be found wherever people live together. Obviously, the pursuit of fame and glory is more distinct in some than it is in others. And just as with other personal qualities, some political actors seem to be gifted while others obviously lack talent. The point, at any rate, is that political actors try to stand out from the masses and to be better than others. But this “agonal spirit, the passionate drive to show one’s self in measuring up against others” (HC: p. 194) is directed towards distinction and not, at least not primarily, an attempt to defeat or to dominate others. If victory and rule were the true goals of political actors, then their greatest success would be the end of politics altogether and thus self-defeat, because the greatest political actor would no longer be a political actor at all.

In any case, the distinction between actors and spectators reminds of theatres, concert halls and perhaps football stadiums. Arendt highlights in various instances that the “performing arts […] have indeed a strong affinity with politics. Performing artists […] need an audience to show their virtuosity, just as acting men need the presence of others before whom they can appear; both need a publicly organized space for their ‘work,’ and both depend upon others for the performance itself. Such a space is not to be taken for granted wherever men live together in a community.” (BPF: 152) Politics to us seems of course much more serious and momentous than any theatre play could ever be. Nonetheless, we should not overlook or try to do away with the obvious similarities between political action and artistic performances. To accentuate them does not diminish but increase the political character of our actions and of the spaces we use to act politically.

Political action is theatrical: actors try to make a good impression and spectators judge everything that is going on in front of their eyes. The greatest reward that spectators can offer is praise, and what the actors can hope to attain to is glory. Political space thus accommodates both actors and spectators; and in many cases it will remind us of a theatre.

 

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