In political space we respond to worldly events.
A debate is a series of responses. Participants mostly reflect on and respond to what others have said before them. Ideally, each response does not only refer back to the previous course of the debate but also gives it a new twist. Questions too can be understood as a form of response.
Arendt emphasised time and again that to act essentially means to begin something new; and most of her critics have focused on this aspect of action. Still, we should not overlook that Arendt also highlighted that every act falls into an existing constellation of human relations and stories that are already unfolding in the very moment when the new beginning is made. The point of the matter is not only that all our actions are influenced by whatever else is going on, but that (almost) all our actions have worldly reference points; they are related to the existing world into which they fall. We may thus characterise them as responses to what is going on in the world. This responsive character of action is, so to speak, the flipside of its inherent quality to make new beginnings.
Patchen Markell points out that “Arendt’s account of beginning […] shows us that action, as a response to events, is, you might say, always a second step rather than a first” (Markell, 2010: 80). Markell’s discovery (which really deserves to be called a discovery since it has been overlooked by many other commentators before him) has far-reaching consequences for our understanding of political action. A response always arises from and refers back to what has been said or done before; it aims to influence the course of events or of the conversation; it anticipates further response. Hence in order to act politically, we have to understand worldly affairs as something that we can respond to. We have to understand worldly affairs so that they can become meaningful reference points for our actions, we have to believe that our responses to them will actually make a difference and that others will, in turn, respond to us and to what we have said and done.
From “an Arendtian perspective”, Markell continues, “the most fundamental threat to democratic political activity lies in the loss of responsiveness to events: the erosion of the contexts in which action makes sense” (Markell, 2010: 79). Ronald Beiner, another one of Arendt’s commentators, supports this assumption: He argues that the “real danger in contemporary societies is that the bureaucratic, technocratic, and depoliticized structures of modern life encourage indifference and increasingly render men less discriminating, less capable of critical thinking, and less inclined to assume responsibility” (Arendt, 1982: 113). Whether or not we see in political affairs something that we can respond to depends on a number of variables; among them, according to Markell, the “contours of the built environment” (Markell, 2010: 81).
What is more, to describe political action as a form of response helps us to realise that it needs practice. It is not easy, after all, to respond, and not just to repeat; to open rather than to block the way for further conversation; or simply to ask a good question. Above all, we have to learn to listen carefully before we can even think about possible ways to respond.
Political action responds to what is going on in the world. Political space attracts, processes and emits responses. It gives us the opportunity to practice the art of responding to worldly events.
*Markell, P. (2010) ‘The Rule of the People: Arendt, Archê, and Democracy’ In: Benhabib, S. (Ed.) Politics in Dark Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.