Political action according to Tassin: A reactualization of Hannah Arendt for Activists

1Etienne Tassin’s project is to reactualize Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy. To do so, he uses several tactics. First, he develops a reading of Arendt with overtones of Jacques Rancière and even of Etienne Balibar – occasionally of Deleuze and Claude Lefort – by drawing on a few instances of Arendt’s thinking that lend themselves to a contemporary terminology directed toward notions such as singularity, plurality, the process of subjectification, and the refusal of the state or of any political organization. Second, this reading helps the author outline a realm of conceptuality for political activity that differs from the dominant framework in political philosophy, that of normative, liberal juridicism (p. 117-122, p. 182). Third, at the pragmatic level of the book’s intended audience, Tassin develops a philosophy of political action destined not for the politician, but for the contemporary activist involved in a struggle for some form of justice. But what underlies these three tactics, what grounds the book and its thirteen chapters (all previously published) is a much larger project: to construct a phenomenology of political action. Tassin’s approach is to derive all of the key concepts of his vision of politics from a conception of the phenomenality of action taken for the most part from Arendt’s The Human Condition. In other words, he reimagines the political subject (chapter 4), citizenship, the public sphere (chapters 6 and 9), political violence (chapter 8), human rights (chapter 9), revolution (chapter 10) and domination (chapter 11) as just so many emanations, epiphenomena or perversions of political action. Thus the conditions of possibility for any political institution or practice not only draw from the prior existence of a plurality of political actions, but the very being of these institutions and practices consists in an assemblage of these actions. We are therefore dealing with a kind of monism of action. As a result, one of the characteristic approaches of Tassin’s book is the ontological reduction of each phenomenon or status – citizenship, the public space, etc. – to the status of an epiphenomenon of action.

2However, there are two operations that are prerequisites to this ontological reduction: first, one of differentiating action from other concepts of human activity, such as production or behavior; second, an attempt at a positive definition of action. Before revisiting Arendt’s three-part distinction between labor, work, and action, Tassin carries out his own preliminary differentiation: action is not mechanical reaction or behavior; action is not the creation of products or works, action is not a kind of instrumental operation assembling means for an end, and finally action is not a way to manage, appropriate or organize society (p. 27). On the other hand, providing a positive definition of action is not so simple: one cannot draw up a list of properties or qualities, or identify action through the construction of its ideal subject, all the more so given that Tassin proceeds by rejecting the traditional categories – intention, will, consciousness, deliberation, decision (p. 63). To construct a concept of action, Tassin’s tactic, following Arendt, is to focus on two aspects of what action does: natality and plurality. We could easily say that these two concepts – natality and plurality – are the keystone to Tassin’s project.

3What Tassin means by "natality" is action’s ability to conjure up the "who" of its own subject, manifesting itself and distinguishing itself beyond any attempt to assign a "what" to this subject, i.e. an identity or a sociological type. With Arendt, action is no longer considered an effect of its author: the subject of the action is understood as a cause. Action must be grasped as what gives birth to its actor (p.34, p. 64). This is the first ontological derivation: the actor is produced by their own action. Despite the second chapter, which attempts to explain that production through a series of analogies with theater, its nature is not entirely clear. The identification of an agent could be explained by using Locke’s nominalist approach for interpreting the action of the other: attributing a nature to an action, and an intention to its subject, depends upon the sociolinguistic context of its addressee or its judge. But Tassin has found his way by following Arendt, not Locke: moreover, he tries to differentiate the question of the manifestation of action from the question of its interpretation or its intention, lending more weight to the determination of the meaning and principle of an action (p.37-8).

4What Tassin means by "plurality" is the interrelationship between actors through action. He presents his second ontological reduction: "action gives birth to a community of actors, but this community does not preexist in this form – its form born of action – to the action itself" (p. 35). In other words, each political action creates its own community of actors. But one could object that on the level of its motivation or intention, an action presupposes the prior existence of a political community. We note that the key warning – "this community does not preexist in this form – its form born of action" – allows Tessin to sidestep the objection that any political being thereby evaporates. He doesn’t say that no community preexists a given action, but that its particular form does not exist before the action in question. If, on the other hand, the entire existence of the actor, the public space, the citizen or the community depended on the prior and primordial existence of action, in a place where there was no political action anymore but just administration or strategic, instrumental operations, these phenomena would no longer exist and neither would the means of envisioning the duration (of an organization, a movement, or a tradition) in politics. This risk of evaporation is what lies behind Tassin’s distinct taste for invoking a revolutionary essence of political action in modern times, a revolution that must always begin anew in order to reestablish, or rather bring to light, the community of actors and its public space (p. 40, p. 189).


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    Etienne Tassin, Pour quoi agissons-nous?, Éditions Le Bord de l’eau, 2018 [Translator’s note: the title could be translated as "Why Do We Act? Questioning Politics with Hannah Arendt"]