On the Space of Appearance

Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless;
once they had left their state they became stateless;
once they had been deprived of their human right
they were rightless, the scum of the earth.

— Hannah Arendt

Fundamental to the human condition, according to Hannah Arendt, is the ability to act together to confront the world and construct a more livable future. The potential for this concerted action occurs in what she calls the “space of appearance,” which is not bound to any particular location, but is nevertheless a place for the governance of society, where the formulation and implementation of laws, policies, and decisions that affect the public occurs or, on the contrary, might be retracted and changed. Written in response to Judith Butler’s seminar, “On the Justification and Limits of Legal Authority,” presented at The European Graduate School in October 2022, the purpose of this essay will explore Hannah Arendt’s notion of the space of appearance in relation to a politics of visuality, where photography and architecture are inextricably linked and might be used to confront and expose violence toward those who exist at the limits of visibility.

The space of appearance is political. In The Human Condition, Arendt describes the space of appearance as the public sphere, but its condition for existence is precarious. As such, for Arendt, this space is one of potentiality. She writes, “The space of appearance comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action . . . Wherever people are gathered together, it is potentially there, not necessarily and not forever.”1 Most simply, it is “the space where I appear to others as others appear to me…” — which could very well be a definition of the encounter that occurs in the act of photography.2 In this political realm, performative speech and action are key as the ability to speak and act in concert with others for a common purpose is precisely what gives rise to power, and power is that which keeps the space of appearance in existence. For Arendt, this space does not always exist. Indeed, one can even be deprived of it. In The Life of the Mind, she revisits the topic of appearance and, at least in what follows, makes no mention of its potentiality, perhaps implying that the space of appearance simply is wherever there are people:

The world men are born into contains many things . . .  all of which have in common that they appear and hence are meant to be seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled, to be perceived by sentient creatures endowed with the appropriate sense organs. Nothing could appear, the word “appearance” would make no sense, if recipients of appearances did not exist — living creatures able to acknowledge, recognize, and react to — in flight or desire, approval or disapproval, blame or praise — what is not merely there but appears to them and is meant for their perception. In this world which we enter, appearing from a nowhere, and from which we disappear into a nowhere, Being and Appearing coincide. Dead matter, natural and artificial, changing and unchanging, depends in its being, that is, in its appearingness, on the presence of living creatures. Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator. In other words, nothing that is, insofar as it appears, exists in the singular; everything that is is meant to be perceived by somebody. Not Man but men inhabit this planet. Plurality is the law of the earth.3

The space of appearance, the public sphere, the political, is the space where “being and appearing coincide.” While this excerpt is particularly interesting when considered in terms of photography, it falls short in the sense that it fails to account for those who can’t appear — the stateless, the displaced, those who have no choice but to remain invisible. Following Arendt, Judith Butler explains that “to be precluded from the space of appearance, to be precluded from being part of the plurality that brings the space of appearance into being, is to be deprived of the right to have rights.”4 Of course Arendt was writing from personal experience, having herself been stateless and a refugee, though she despised the term. Nevertheless, Ariella Azoulay expands Arendt’s notion of the political space of appearance by adamantly rejecting her assertion of potentiality, and suggests instead that “wherever human beings exist together with one another, whether in private or in public space, whether in open or closed spaces amenable to, or hidden from, the surveillance of others, their being together constitutes political existence.”5 For Azoulay, the space of appearance is inherently political in each and every encounter one has with another. Additionally, she touches on the aforementioned concern in making reference to those “hidden from the surveillance of others” whose being together still constitutes a political existence.

Taking leap from Arendt, this space of appearance is itself a sort of political mise en scène, which is quite literally the action involved in “putting onto the stage” — implying a political performativity — and comprises all the elements involved in a single shot (whether film or photograph), including the subjects, setting, etc. The photographer then serves as the metteur en scène, which means director or “one who sets the stage.” There is a sense in which the photographer could be said to maintain a certain responsibility as the one who directs the gaze and makes use of framing devices, deciding what or who should be included. Arendt identifies action with the political realm — could photography be just that, an instantiation of the political? As Butler questions elsewhere: “Is there a Levinasian undercurrent in this moment of having to listen to the voice of someone we never chose to hear or to see an image that we never elected to see?”6 There is a certain encounter in this space of appearance between the photographer and the subject(s), and later between the photograph and spectators whose proximity and distance far surpasses that of the originary encounter.

In many ways, a theory of performativity unfolds throughout Arendt’s work. For her, the way of the world is always in the process of being made. One of the ways this is made explicit is in her work on the concept of freedom, which I’d like to explore in relation to photography. She links freedom with a kind of making, an aesthetic exercise of bringing something new into the world for the first time or in a new way. It is a “performative theory of freedom” as Butler calls it, though it is worth noting that not all actions are free, but only those that enact or manifest freedom.7 Arendt links freedom with what she refers to as the sheer “capacity to begin,” which is a uniquely human action. That is, what it means to be human is to give form to something new and she goes so far as to suggest that this freedom interrupts automatism. As Butler explains, freedom is something that happens between us, or among us, but it is also clearly something Arendt believes is the foundation of our laws, and even the justification for our consent to following the law.8

If freedom is linked to the power or capacity to give form to something new — that which, according to Arendt, appears in the “guise of a miracle” — how might this understanding of freedom be useful when considered in terms of photography, which also gives form to something new?9 It could be suggested that photography bears this Arendtian potential that accompanies the space of appearance, giving form to freedom by exposing violence or making proximate a human face without which we could more easily disregard. Azoulay reminds us that humanity has always had a certain relation to the visible, but especially since the invention of photography, the gaze distinctly runs parallel to action. One’s gaze does not exist in the singular. No one person has sole ownership over their own gaze — it belongs just as much to the others present: “every gaze is always exposed to the gaze of the other and its sense changes in accordance with their reactions.”10 In a similar manner, Arendt’s notion of freedom is not a state but an exercise. Freedom is not personal liberty. There is no freedom that isn’t shared. Indeed, freedom must be shared to be freedom at all. And yet, there is another side of this potential, as Butler notes: “sometimes the people, or some people, are confined or absent, or outside the purview of the street and the camera — they are the uncapturable, though they may well be captured in another sense.”11 Or further, those who risk exposing themselves to be present in the space of appearance put themselves at risk, where being photographed could mean that their image could be used against them. Like the space of appearance, the civil potential inherent in the photograph is unequivocal.

The space of appearance is also architectural, despite Arendt’s claim that it is not bound to a physical location. She writes, “The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.”12 While she is correct that the space of appearance is not bound to any particular location, it nevertheless occurs somewhere. As Butler affirms, “if politics is oriented toward the making and preserving of the conditions that allow for livability, then it seems that the space of appearance is not ever fully separable from questions of infrastructure and architecture, and that they not only condition the action, but take part in the making of the space of politics.”13 Further, Arendt does not say ‘public sphere,’ but ‘space of appearance.’ Which is to suggest that it could be any number of architectural platforms, whether the public square, streets, bus stations, airports, or to stretch Arendt’s original claim, even within one’s home, in closed spaces hidden from the surveillance of others. Wherever this action takes place, wherever people exist together, that is the space of appearance. Moreover, this architectural foundation involved in the space of appearance is inseparable from the photograph. According to Azoulay: 

Once the presence of photographed subjects is brought into consideration, it is hard not to see that the space where the image is created, like the space from which it is viewed, is indeed a plural one. Even where a photograph is devoid of people, the surroundings in which it was shot will always consist of surroundings that people created to inhabit; surroundings they crafted and within which they operate. Whereas the space within which people act is, as we have stated, always a political one, the photograph is not political in itself except to the extent that people make it exist among themselves, in plurality, in public.14 

While Azoulay does not explicitly name architecture here, the implications are clear in her use of terms such as ‘space,’ ‘surroundings,’ and ‘created to inhabit.’ Within the space of appearance, there is an architectural problem of law that must be taken into account. As aforementioned, there are those who can’t appear, or those who are excluded. It is the problem of who is inside or outside this architectural space within which the question of justice is said to emerge. A point Butler raises in the seminar is that this space of appearance is contradictory or even paradoxical. That is, how can you be both inside, even entrapped by the law, and yet be outside the law? How can you be outside the law, perhaps even pushed out by the law, and yet still be in a state of detention or waiting, determined by the very law that excludes you. As Butler suggests, the question of justice emerges precisely at the site of entry.15 The question of whether one is or is not allowed in is itself under an architectural complexity of the law, as are structures such as prisons, courthouses, or centers for indefinite detention. This question of justice is also often bound to notions of home, of having or owning a home, of one’s home being demolished, of being expelled from one’s home, of being homeless, stateless, or displaced. In the words of Arendt, “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life.”16 Thus, the question of what constitutes a livable world is inextricably architectural as well.

Building upon Arendt’s ideas, what we are tasked with is the call for a new space of appearance, one that is transformative and makes room for those who exist at the limits of visibility, where photography and architecture might be utilized to confront and expose violence as fields of knowledge and modes of interpretation. To act with others necessarily is acting, in her view, in the name of the future of the world. But we have to ask, what kind of world? And then we must work together to interrupt by any means necessary the politics and  construction of a future world that continues to exclude, displace, and disproportionately affect entire segments of society that remain hidden or unwelcome from our spaces of appearance. A different world can and must be constructed. 

1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 199.
2. Arendt, The Human Condition, 198. 
3. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (Boston: Mariner Books, 1981), 19.
4. Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 59.
5. Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography, trans. Louise Bethlehem (New York: Verso, 2015), 101.
6. Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 101.
7. Judith Butler, “On the Justification and Limits of Legal Authority” (seminar, The European Graduate School, October 2022).
8. Butler, “On the Justification and Limits of Legal Authority.”
9. Arendt, The Human Condition, 178.
10. Azoulay, Civil Imagination, 68. 
11. Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 165.
12. Arendt, The Human Condition, 198. 
13. Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 127.
14. Azoulay, Civil Imagination, 54.  
15. Butler, “On the Justification and Limits of Legal Authority.”
16. Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in The Jewish Writings (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 264.