Endre’s fifth post

A Parliament can be regarded as a centre of calculation in a liberal democracy, but it’s a rather strange one at that: on most days it’s completely empty, and even when it is full of politicians, one has the feeling that the debates that take place in the richly decorated chambers are mere perfomances. At least this is what a journalist told me once, complaining that all the decisions on the Hungarian National Assembly’s agenda had already been made somewhere else — in party meetings, closed committee sessions, or one of the proverbial smoke-filled rooms of politics. He said he felt cheated whenever he had to report on a plenary sitting, and when he learned about my interest in the material practices of political representation, he immediately thought I was on a mission to find out what was going on behind the curtain, in the backstages of the Parliament.

Sometimes it was a bit like that, but now — more than three years after the beginning of my fieldwork  — I think it’s more appropriate to say that I was interested in staging processes, rather than the front-stage and the backstage(s) of democratic politics as such. Let me unpack this.

On Monday, 31 March 2008, which was incidentally the first day of my fieldwork in Budapest, the parliamentary faction of the Alliance of Free Democrats announced that it wanted the party to quit the socialist-liberal coalition, which by then had been governing the country for six years. The main reason for this was that two days earlier the socialist Prime Minister unilaterally decided to sack the liberal Minister of Health, blaming her (and her party) for a failed healthcare reform. Being the smaller partner in the coalition, the Alliance of Free Democrats was suddenly confronted with a dilemma: either they swallowed the insult, stayed in Government, and risked becoming politically irrelevant, or they joined the Opposition, and lost whatever power they still had in various ministries and other public institutions. The parliamentary faction believed the latter to be the better option, and this was supported by the party’s Executive Committee. However, the decision to quit the governing coalition could only be made by an exceptional party congress, which was quickly convened for 27 April 2008.

This was a full-blown government crisis, and I was right in the middle of it. In the end of March 2008 I travelled to Budapest to examine how political representation worked in practice by shadowing a Member of Parliament for three-four weeks. The MP who agreed to participate in this strange exercise happened to be the deputy faction leader of the Alliance of Free Democrats, whom I knew from early undergrad times — we studied sociology together at the Eötvös Loránd University. In 2002, the same year I finished my degree, he became one of the youngest MPs in the Hungarian National Assembly, and in 2006, the same year I began my PhD in Lancaster, he was re-elected. He was the only person I knew in the Parliament at the time, and so I was incredibly happy when in the end of 2007 he agreed to become part of my research. Neither of us would have thought back then that the shadowing period would be so intense.

How much biographical detail is required to make my story interesting and credible? Should I disclose the MP’s name, age, and place of birth? His marital status? His favourite hobby? His view on religion, human rights, and climate change? I don’t know. STS has not been very good at dealing with persons — after all, doing away with ‘great men’ narratives has been one of the most important aims from the outset. One of the few — and often misinterpreted — examples for how a person could be analysed as one of many entities is Bruno Latour’s work on Louis Pasteur, which is about a drama that took place on several stages. (The reference here is not necessarily The Pasteurization of France, but Chapter 4 of Pandora’s Hope) The first (part of the) drama was an ontological one: a nonentity had to be turned into a character. The second was an epistemological one: Pasteur had to  claim the authority to make claims about that character. As Latour says, the experiment was

‘a story tied to a situation in which new actants [underwent] terrible trials plotted by an ingenious stage manager; and then the stage manager, in turn, [underwent] terrible trials at the hands of his colleagues, who test[ed] what sort of ties there [were] between the first story and the second situation’ (p. 124).

While the stages Latour focuses on are laboratories and academic settings, I think the concept of staging works really well in the realm of conventional politics. (For a similar argument see Lisa Disch’s fascinating paper here.) It is possible to say that in the spring of 2008 the Alliance of Free Democrats faction — including the MP I was shadowing — conducted an experiment that took place on several stages, including TV studios, street demonstrations, the party headquarters, and the Parliament. Their task was simultaneously to make liberal voters distinguishable from socialist voters, and to make the claim that the liberal party was their true representative in the National Assembly. Although the experiment ended with a single decision — at the exceptional party congress about 80 percent of the delegates voted in favour of quitting the coalition — it could not be reduced to a single moment. None of the stages were irrelevant to the other. The reason why the Parliament could be thought of as the front-stage of democratic politics was not because the performances in the debating chamber were more important than in other places, but because between the elections in 2006 and 2010 it was the only place where the sovereign could be seen.

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3 thoughts on “Endre’s fifth post

  1. Peter: you’re right about the limits of experiment as a metaphor. At the same time, I think it’s worth further questioning the boundaries between science and politics, not only by pointing out that experiments have always been political devices, but also by showing the experimental characteristics of politics (e.g. the socialist experiment in Central and Eastern Europe). .Just how generative this questioning can be is nicely illustrated by Andrew Barry’s work on the double meaning of demonstration.

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  2. Pingback: Endre Dányi and EASST | Installing (Social) Order

  3. Pingback: Guest blogger: Endre Dányi for one time only | Installing (Social) Order

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