APPEARANCE

 

illustrations-political-space-19

Political space sets a stage for political actors.

The speaker is always in the centre of attention. Customarily, debates allow only one speaker at a time who, for the moment, is the focus point of everybody around. The speakers are of course aware of the situation and they will usually choose their words carefully.

Arendt would say that the speakers “appear” in front of others. These appearances are not accidental but dedicated to an audience. Humans and all living beings are “possessed by an urge toward self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness” (LM: 21). In contrast to other living beings, humans do not just appear physically but “men also present themselves in deed and word and thus indicate how they wish to appear, what in their opinion is fit to be seen and what is not” (LM: 34). We can influence our appearance, for example by choosing our words, our gestures and facial expressions, but also our company, the space of appearance etc. Still, nobody can fully control who appears on the stage of the world because humans do not make themselves; and nobody can fully control how s/he appears because we do not appear to ourselves in the same way as we appear to others.

“Such choices are determined by various factors; many of them are predetermined by the culture into which we are born – they are made because we wish to please others. But there are also choices not inspired by our environment; we may make them because we wish to please ourselves or because we wish to set an example, that is, to persuade others to be pleased with what pleases us. Whatever the motives may be, success and failure in the enterprise of self-presentation depend on the consistency and duration of the image thereby presented to the world.” (LM: 36)

Many people mistrust appearances in the political realm. Politicians are often accused of lying, of being pretentious and of deceiving each other and most of all the public. It is true that, since actors can influence what appears and since whatever appears can only be perceived in the modus of it-seems-to-me, “pretence and wilful deception on the part of the performer, error and illusion on the part of the spectator are, inevitably, among the inherent potentialities” (LM: 36). Hence we do have reason to be sceptical towards appearances. But, on the one hand, this scepticism should test not only the honesty, integrity and truthfulness of those who appear, but also our own perception and what we make of it. On the other hand, careful examination of appearances is not the same as general mistrust which, in its most extreme version, leads to an allencompassing unwillingness to accept any appearance as genuine. We should not forget that “[s]emblances are possible only in the midst of appearances; they presuppose appearance as error presupposes truth. Error is the price we pay for truth, and semblance is the price we pay for the wonders of appearance” (LM: 38). In order to avoid deception and illusion the spectators should have the chance to examine appearances closely – which, among other things, means that they must not drown in a flood of appearances -, their perception should be trained and the actors should appear regularly so that it becomes possible to identify irregularities.

Further, many of us believe that what appears is superficial; that appearances are merely distortions of an actual reality or supreme truth which (unfortunately) always remains hidden in darkness. But Arendt argues that “our habitual standards of judgment […] according to which the essential lies beneath the surface […] are wrong, that our common conviction that what is inside ourselves, our ‘inner life,’ is more relevant to what we ‘are’ than what appears on the outside is an illusion” (LM: 30). She claims that it is the outside appearance that matters because if “this inside were to appear, we would all look alike” (LM: 29). Not only our inner organs but also our emotions like anger, happiness, love, fear etc. (in contrast to thoughts which articulate raw emotions and which, even when they are still inside our heads, always appear in the form of words) are very similar in most people.

To act politically means to appear. It is our appearance and not a hidden reality or an inner self that makes us who we individually are. We can influence how we appear, but we cannot fully control our appearance. Deception and misperception are possible but they are the exception rather than the rule. Political space sets the stage for the appearance of political actors. There is no room, in other words, for anonymity.

 

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