‘Acts must take place in settings’, as Edelman observes. And many political actions – meetings, speeches, ceremonies – take place in monumental settings: large, imposing, often superhuman or inhuman in scale. They afford a sense of solidity and durability. They compensate, that is to say, for the contentiousness and contingency, the uncertainty and lack of clarity which marks many of those actions.
Helen Schwartzman begins her book on the meeting: ‘Consider a room’. Even before the meeting, there is the space in which it happens. We need special places for politics: democratic politics must take place in spaces where it can be seen, and where people are used to looking. To advance a cause, a claim must be made in a space where it will be seen and heard, while the process by which it is debated and decided upon must also be transparent. Democratic politics must be visibly so: it must take place in some place where it is subject to scrutiny.
The principal spaces of democracy are parliaments, and the spaces close to them: the parks, streets and squares of capital cities. These spaces of assembly comprise three principal elements: a chamber, for debate; precincts, with offices and rooms for work and other kinds of interaction; a perimeter or periphery in which what goes on in the assembly and its precincts is open to external challenge. These are the spaces in which definitions of the situation are formulated, advanced and contested: they include large spaces where people gather and can be seen to gather and smaller spaces where people confer and make decisions, and where those decisions are investigated and interrogated in their turn.
We talk of the parliamentary arena, enjoying the way the metaphor makes an association with gladiatorial combat. The metaphorical association is inescapable, but shouldn’t obscure the extent to which the description it contains is true. The arena is centrally positioned in the city, but also clearly demarcated from it. What goes on there is communicated to the outside, perhaps by the shouts of the crowd, or perhaps by being broadcast. It has a limited number of seats: not everyone can attend, while everyone who does has his or her own seat. They come for a specified period of time, led by the promise of excitement. What the audience sees is not only the action, but the fact of its being witnessed by others like themselves.
Nirmal Puwar wanders through Westminster in the way Benjamin wandered through the Arcades, alert to its countless quirks, its accretions of what she calls its ‘archi-texture’. Still visible are the remains of the church, the palace and the court it once was, for it has had multiple functions, the balance between them changing over time. ‘How buildings learn’, as Stewart Brand puts it, is a marker of changing human interests and purposes, a reflection of the way the system of the building and the activities it contains has responded to its changing social and material environment. By the same token, the Houses of Parliament are a fusion of different sets of distinctions: of ways of dividing Lords from Commons, men from women, actor from spectator, and likewise of combining the spectacular (entrance and debating halls) with the mundane (office and committee rooms).
When the Estates-General met for the first time at Versailles, they did so in converted halls in the wings of the palace. The six hundred deputies of the Third Estate, now calling themselves the National Assembly, met in the Jeu de paume, a racquet court. Once they had relocated to Paris, a radical group began to meet in an empty Dominican monastery known as the Jacobins in rue St Honoré. That is to say that there was no readymade ‘republican space’, waiting for republicans to use it. The revolution was made in repurposed, renamed and reimagined spaces; indeed, it consisted in large measure in renaming, repurposing and reimagining space and how it might be used. And as it progressed, it became clear that Paris simply didn’t have enough of the meeting rooms, administrative facilities, courts and prisons the revolution would require.
Parliamentary chambers tend to be set out in two standard forms, the square and the semi-circle, the one said to express a binary, competitive if not antagonistic politics, the other a range of positions, and concern for more consensual decision-making. In debates at Westminster, participants speak from their seats (though they stand to do so); members of the government sit on the front benches, and speak at a table in the middle of the floor between the two sides. Participants on one side speak to or at the other, even while formally acknowledging the speaker. In semi-circular arrangements, by contrast, participants usually speak from a raised podium which forms the central focal point of the room, and address the assembly as a whole.
Before 1789, parliaments formed in the shape of a square or rectangle, the king occupying one side, the first and second estates – the clergy and nobility – along the perpendicular sides to his right and left, and opposite him the third estate, composed mostly of representatives of towns and cities and sometimes large landowners, comprising a nascent bourgeoisie. This was the body politic: the basic constitutional-political metaphor of the feudal period: the king its head, the estates its limbs. This entailed a distinction between the body natural of the king in person, and the body politic of the constitutional order.
After 1789, the arrangement of parliaments represented a shrinking of the position of king, clergy and nobility, and a widening and broadening of the representative mass opposite them. Members of the assembly themselves now represent the authority formerly invested in the king and the estates. This notion of the body politic hasn’t disappeared, but it is realised and represented differently. It’s not that parliamentarians are elected representatives and then assemble to deliberate, but that they represent in assembling, forming a body which represents the wider, metaphorical national body.
Where there is no parliament building, people have used a theatre. After the First World War, the German National Assembly met in the National Theatre in Weimar to draw up a new constitution. During the Velvet Revolution in Prague at the end of 1989, the Civic Forum met in the Magic Lantern theatre. The theatre is big enough to hold the crowd, and it offers positions from which to speak, and to be seen and heard. It is a place of drama, of performance, a place where people give accounts and make representations of the world around them and how it might be.
A rostrum is a special site for speaking: a small platform which requires a speaker to stand, and to stand in a certain way; it raises a speaker above those he or she is speaking to, and separates him or her from them; it elevates. It enables him or her to see and be seen and heard. To the extent that all speakers in a debate or other event use the rostrum, they all speak from the same position, which renders them – and what they have to say – at least formally equivalent to each other.