By Alex Prior
I’m a symbol. I’m a symbol of the human ability to be able to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives.
Kris Kringle – Miracle on 34th Street
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
Roy Batty – Blade Runner
Taking into account the growing individualisation among the UK population (particularly younger generations) and the accusations of self-interest that are often directed towards mainstream politics, there is a vital role to be played by institutions and concepts that facilitate affective connections. The affective relates to the presence of personal feelings; it is distinct from ‘emotions’ in that the latter is more causal and immediate, and typically a response to direct stimuli. The affective is a broader umbrella term for the ‘irrational’ mindset that encompasses emotions, attitudes and moods, acting as an alternative lens to ‘rationality’ when interpreting political actions and motives. ‘Narratives’ are an area of key interest for me; specifically the ways in which humans establish patterns across isolated data (even where no patterns may exist) and interpret that information as a narrative. In relation to parliamentary studies, narratives are a means for organisations such as Parliamentary Outreach to engage people in democratic participation. In emphasising the importance of narratives as a topic of study, I will demonstrate their relevance to democratic participation by showing their appeal to affect, and their prospective links to symbolic representation.
Symbolic representation and affective attachment
Symbolic representation is distinct from other forms of representation in that, as described by the political theorist Hanna Pitkin, symbols cause something to become “present by their presence, although it is not really present in fact” (1967, p.93). Symbolic representation, and the ‘symbolic’ in general, entails an open-ended correspondence, rather than representation per se, which involves a two-way equivalent relationship (x represents y – one entity stands for another). In Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle hints at an open-ended symbolic relationship between the figure of Santa Claus and what it represents. These associations could never be fully accounted for, since a symbol will hold a meaning, or a set of meanings, that is personal to the viewer. Standard representation, by contrast, requires a meaning that is objective; even mathematical. As Hanna Pitkin points out, there is no such thing as mis-symbolisation (i.e. there is no ‘wrong answer’ as far as symbolisation is concerned), though mis-representation is always possible (1967, p.99).
Examining the literature on representation from a Parliamentary perspective, there is an increasing emphasis on its symbolic qualities, from academia (Loewenberg, 2011, pp.25-34), and within Parliament. In the case of the latter, an interviewed Parliamentary official recently demonstrated a symbolic conception of Parliament through describing it as “an abstraction, a kind of fiction”, while emphasising a fundamental “obligation to posterity” (Leston-Bandeira, 2015, p.18). Citing ‘posterity’ – the notion that Parliamentary officials give consideration, as they work, to Parliament’s (ongoing) legacy – presents Parliament as an interwoven narrative of (1) historical significance, (2) modern-day functionality and representation, and (3) prospective legacy, with each consideration informing the others. The case of Parliament is one of convergence between symbolic representation and narratives, both constituting an affective appeal. As the philosopher Agnes Heller notes, “[r]eferences to a shared tradition are not just cognitively understood but also emotionally felt, without footnotes, without explanation or interpretation” (2006, p.257). Symbolic representation facilitates a similarly affective connection; as argued by Pitkin, symbolic representation “suggests the role of irrational belief” (1967, p.111). This ‘irrational belief’ connects the viewer to a site of symbolic representation, just as it connects them to a narrative.
The content of the Blade Runner speech also displays a convergence between narratives and symbolic representation, showcasing the affective impact of both. Neither ‘C-Beams’, nor the ‘Tannhäuser Gate’, are mentioned at any point during the film (or in any other work of science fiction). They are, in a sense, pure context since they rely on the viewer’s engagement with the film up to this point. However, they are also seemingly non-contextual since they are not an identifiable component of the film’s mythology or language. They do not represent anything; rather, they symbolise the unknown and the inconceivably mysterious. The emotional impact of this encounter with symbolic representation, and its broader narrative, can be surmised from the reaction of the Blade Runner film crew, many of whom broke down in tears when they witnessed this monologue. This potential for emotional resonance is of considerable relevance when considering the current landscape of “politicised ethics” (Manning, 2013, p.28), advocated by citizens who want to feel a direct, ethical and personal connection with politics, in accordance with their own sense of identity.
Parliamentary Outreach and the narrative of ‘democratic heritage’
The reliance of Parliamentary Outreach on narratives can be seen in its attachment to ideals such as ‘democratic heritage’. Last year’s celebration of two significant anniversaries – the sealing of the Magna Carta, and the first meeting of the De Montfort Parliament – showed democratic heritage as a key element of parliamentary communication. Outreach’s rhetoric of ‘evolution’ and ‘living heritage’ presents UK democracy as a narrative; a rich tradition that has evolved over time to remain effective and relevant. ‘Democratic heritage’ and ‘evolution’ are aspirational terms; ‘democracy’ is often accepted automatically as an absolute good that all should pursue. ‘Heritage’ is often invoked as an anchoring point, a means of establishing a compelling narrative through links to the past and expectations for the future. Through its focus on the evolution of Parliament, rather than just its history, Outreach encourages a conception of democracy (and engagement) as a truly continuous process, rather than being illustrated by (and therefore reliant on) elections.
However, much of the literature on representation warns against a wholesale uncoupling of democracy from its electoral basis. Electoral democracy provides the opportunity to gauge predictions and reactions over relatively long intervals; the political theorist Nadia Urbinati argues that this is a more desirable system than direct democracy, for example, which “renders each vote an absolute event”, creating “punctuated sovereignty” (2006, p.28). Direct democracy entails a more frequent, issue-by-issue voting process, rather than the more occasional ‘landmarks’ provided by electoral voting; theorists such as Urbinati contend that the former would encourage a punctuated landscape of political ‘snapshots’ with few points of reference between them. Outreach’s conception of democracy as ‘not just something that happens every five years’ should not be misinterpreted as a call for direct democracy. Nonetheless, both concepts downplay elections as the dominant ‘lens’ through which to view the democratic process; in other words, precisely the ‘lens’ that Urbinati maintains is intrinsic to democracy as we (should) understand it, through which points of reference are linked together into an ongoing narrative.
The political philosopher Iris Young echoed this point when citing Derrida’s “idea of the trace, a movement of temporalization that carries past and future with it” (2000, p.127), describing her own conception of representation as “a cycle of anticipation and recollection…in which discourse and action at each moment ought to bear traces of the others” (2000, p.129). This relates back to Urbinati’s advocacy of electoral, rather than direct, democracy; the former being a means through which “opinions create a narrative that links voters through time and in space” (2006, p.28). What is interesting is that both viewpoints (the Outreach view of democracy as a narrative despite the periodical nature of the electoral system, and the representational view of democracy as a narrative because of this system) share an attachment to narrative as a lens through which to interpret and understand democracy. Whereas Outreach stresses the importance of an engagement narrative that transcends sporadic involvement during election time, many academics claim that this narrative relies upon elections as temporal landmarks; points of reference for the past and future, without which the concept of a democratic narrative would unravel.
Conclusion – symbolic short-cuts and narrative attachments
Symbolic representation, affective connections and Parliamentary Outreach all demonstrate the significance of narratives in forming a sense of ‘connectivity’ with Parliament; the notion that an input, such as voting, will produce a visible outcome. The quotes that I have used for illustrative purposes both highlight crucial points; firstly, the fact that symbolic representation is subjective and open-ended. Secondly, symbolic representation and narratives both offer an affective connection even when there is no frame of reference provided. These points hold considerable import for discussions within parliamentary studies; for example, questioning the conception of engagement as a linear, sequential process, requiring information and frames of reference in order to facilitate connectivity (Leston-Bandeira, 2012, pp.418-19). Narratives are simultaneously a means of understanding the political world and a device for making people understand and connect to it. It remains to be seen whether narratives prove central in strengthening engagement, but it is a topic that I will be pursuing with great interest.
Heller, A. 2006. European master narratives about freedom. In: Delanty, G. ed. Handbook of contemporary European social theory. Abingdon: Routledge.
Leston-Bandeira, C. 2012. The pursuit of legitimacy as a key driver for public engagement: the European Parliament case. Parliamentary Affairs. 67(2), pp.415-436.
Leston-Bandeira, C. 2015. [Forthcoming]. Why symbolic representation frames Parliamentary public engagement. British Journal of Politics and International Relations.
Loewenberg, G. 2011. On legislatures. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Manning, N. 2013. ‘I mainly look at things on an issue by issue basis’: reflexivity and phronêsis in young people’s political engagements. Journal of Youth Studies. 16(1), pp.17-33.
Pitkin, H.F. 1967. The concept of representation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Urbinati, N. 2006. Political representation as a democratic process. Redescriptions: Yearbook of Political Thought and Conceptual History. 10, pp.18-40.
Young, I.M. 2000. Inclusion and democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Image taken from Wikipedia, available here.