1 People doing politics 1 People doing politics

Landscape with figures

Scenes from an election year.
Nora Schoeller: The Political Landscape, 2016, © Nora Schoeller

Nora Schoeller’s study of The Political Landscape was part of a wider national project to document Austria in 2016. She set out to capture the unspectacular and everyday elements of politics in action, including demonstrations and meetings, voting and speech-making, though in the event Austrian politics that summer was unusually tense, as the presidential election was annulled and rerun against the backdrop of the refugee crisis.

There are twenty-two photographs in Schoeller’s series. There’s an empty room in an institutional building with a polished floor and a neat row of tables, each with a ballot box on it and two chairs behind it. A woman leans back in her chair at an NGO meeting, talking while other participants look down or straight ahead, listening. A demonstration crosses a square at dusk, the marchers wearing yellow stickers, some of them carrying banners and others flares, creating a haze of pink smoke. A clean-cut and newly-elected party leader poses for a selfie with a young woman conference delegate, against a backdrop covered with the party’s initials. Party members talk around a café table strewn with election posters, phones, notepads and pens, coffee-cups and beer glasses. One party’s district meeting is held in front of glass walls on modern, matching red sofas and chairs; another party gathers at an open-air restaurant, some of its supporters standing on tables and holding up scarves, the way football fans do. At a polling station in a primary school (coloured paper squares hung on the wall spell ‘welcome’), election officers sit at a table marking ballot slips while the supervisor, the local mayor, stands expectantly at a large white box. A policeman watches nervously as protestors wrap themselves in a banner; other protestors cast shadows as they stand with flags in the evening sunshine. One of the election posters fixed around trees in front of the parliament is torn. A young woman at a flip-chart facilitates a meeting on a market square; stall-tents are pitched at a party festival in a park. A party anniversary is celebrated in a parliamentary reception room, a speaker at the front behind a lectern, attendees seated in rows in front of him and camera crews lined along the walls. An older man addresses a party’s youth wing in a café, on one side of him a party banner and the other the young chair, looking at him attentively. A presidential candidate’s final platform appearance is seen through a forest of cameras and against an enormous image of the candidate himself, projected onto a screen. Young women staff lay out papers on long tables for a meeting of one of the parliamentary parties; a residents’ association meets a district councilor at a small table with a cloth, a stove beside it and a dog beneath it. People gather in small groups at a local party’s final election meeting. A demonstration spreads across a street, at the front of it marchers pushing trolleys each with a capital letter spelling out their message, and behind them flags, placards and an oversize puppet. At a rally, a participant seen through banners and balloons sits to one side, a placard between his knees, watching. Graffiti on the corner of a building plays on the German for ballot-box (‘Urne’): ‘Choose life, not the urn’.

Action is the way in which human beings exist in the world.

Hans Joas, in conversation with Claus Otto Scharmer, 1999

There’s nothing cold or distant about these photographs, but there’s nothing intimate, either; Schoeller is simply observing, recording, showing us something to look at. Monika Faber’s accompanying commentary is titled simply ‘Hey, look what he’s doing!’. Faber explains that Schoeller had permission to shoot where and when she did, indicating the extent to which the scenes she captures are highly ordered and controlled, carefully and deliberately staged. Yet, at the same time, there is much in them that escapes that control, that is contingent, unintended, open to closer examination and interpretation. ‘Hey, look what he’s doing’ is a phrase taken from an election poster which appears incongruously behind the heads of a party group in discussion.

Schoeller’s scenes are full of people, usually several, often tens, sometimes hundreds of people. Only two are empty, and even they testify immediately to human activity (an election poster and some graffiti). Whatever politics is, it seems to be something people do together, in interaction with each other, and often in an institutional, public setting, in meeting rooms, in cafés, streets and squares. For the most part they are engaged in talk of various kinds, though we can’t know what they’re saying; we must look at what they’re doing. This is politics with the sound turned off, even if its many banners and placards seem to shout at us silently. And if people aren’t talking they’re walking – or often both – going somewhere together as though they had something to show or prove as well as to say, demonstrating.

The social ‘totality’ is composed of an interaction of social elements that, unlike interacting billiard balls, do not remain the same; they change not only their positions but also their character. The social system must be seen as a historical product, as a thing made and fashioned by men as active ‘subjects,’ as continually remade and daily enacted by the ongoing doings of men, and hence as capable of being undone or redone by their future actions.

Alvin Gouldner, review of George Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 1971

There’s a tension in Schoeller’s photographs, as Faber notes: people’s expressions are serious, thoughtful, reflective, sometimes angry, invariably purposeful. This tension suggests that much is at stake, though it speaks perhaps also to an uncertainty about what’s going on, about what should happen and how things will turn out. Her political landscape is no single image but a series, a succession of scenes played out in different circumstances but somehow in relation to each other. Each testifies to a shared sense of collectivity, a more general process behind or beyond the operations of any given meeting or demonstration, which may be the way a social issue is articulated and accounted for, or the manoeuvrings of an election. Every action in a scene, and each scene in its turn, is meaningful only in relation to others.

Schoeller’s series shows us much, but it’s all of a particular world, seen from a particular time and place. Her scenes document the way that world presented itself to her and her camera, and her photographs say no more – and no less – than that ‘this happened, here, at this moment’. It’s the world of an election in an established liberal democracy, or perhaps more accurately a political world seen at election time.

The election period is a time of disruption, when some ordinary kinds of political activity – the work of parliaments, councils and governments – is suspended, and other kinds – the engagement of representatives with publics – intensified. It is a period of ‘routine exception’, on which the legitimacy and logic of everyday politics depends.

We sense, in these scenes, the existence of ‘worlds within worlds’: what actually happens in parliament, in the park, in the polling station? What goes on there? What do people do? To what extent is what they do and what goes on in each place similar to, or an extension of, what is done and what goes on in the others? Or are they essentially different? The next sections of this chapter explore the worlds of the activist, the administrator and the representative in turn.

We are confronting a universe marked by tremendous fluidity; it won’t and can’t stand still. It is a universe where fragmentation, splintering, and disappearance are the mirror images of appearance, emergence, and coalescence. This is a universe where nothing is strictly determined. Its phenomena should be partly determinable via naturalistic analysis, including the phenomenon of men and women participating in the construction of the structures which shape their lives.

Anselm Strauss, Continual Permutations of Action, 1993

Political worlds

The term ‘world is a central one in the philosophical vocabulary Heidegger began developing in Being and Time. There he portrayed human beings as thrown by historical destiny into a coherent realm of activity, language and thought he called a ‘world’… for Heidegger, whatever being is, it only comes to light in relation to human ‘worlds’.

Mark Lilla, The Reckless Mind, 2001

The notion of a ‘political world’ is taken from Anselm Strauss, who uses the term ‘social worlds’: there are many intersecting and overlapping such worlds, and together they form what one of Strauss’s students, Adele Clarke, describes as a ‘mosaic’. Social worlds comprise ‘groups with shared commitments to certain activities, sharing resources of many kinds to achieve their goals, and building shared ideologies about how to go about their business’. Strauss himself emphasizes a primary activity, and a site or space for that activity supported by a technology.

A typical feature of a social world is a degree of internal discussion or conflict about its boundaries, and by implication about the nature, scope and purpose of its core activity. ‘Taking a social world perspective on governments’, for example, ‘means refusing to assume homogeneity in any government or governmental agency, expect perhaps only around certain issues and then probably not for very long’. A social world is not an institution, though it may consist in large part in arguments about institutions. ‘Social worlds are not social units or ‘social structures’ but a recognizable form of collective action’.

Three kinds of political world seem important: those of protest and other kinds of public action, those of bureaucracy and administration, and those of electoral representation: that is, doing politics outside the state, inside the state and in relating between the two.


Nora Schoeller’s Political Landscape series appears in Iglar, R and Mauracher, M FacingAustria 2016, a project supported by the Chancellor’s Office. 21 images are captured in the screenshot used here, and a further one, of the empty interior of a polling station showing a neat row of tables, chairs and ballot boxes, appears on the project home page.  Monika Faber’s commentary accompanies the photographs.

‘Action is the way…’: Claus Otto Scharmer, ‘Conversation with Professor Hans Joas‘, Freie Universität Berlin, September 21, 1999

Gouldner’s review of Lukács appeared in the New York Times, 18 July 1971, and is cited by Peter Hall (1972) ‘A symbolic interactionist analysis of politics’, Sociological Inquiry 42 (3-4) 35-75

‘We are confronting…’: Anselm Strauss (1993) Continual Permutations of Action, New Brunswick: Transaction, p 19; on worlds, see Strauss, op cit, pp 209, 212, 219, 223 and Mark Lilla, The Reckless Mind. Intellectuals in politics, New York: New York Review Books, 2016 edition, p 26