Friday, October 07, 2011

What is representation

The LD happily announced that he is working on a book on “the political thought of Pope Benedict XVI”, clearly going back to its ripening in Joseph Ratzinger.

By the way, what does this change of name means?

We are not used to change names anymore. It was the case for women when they got married, or for people entering in religion. Often now days women are prone not to do it, preferring to keep their name as single, so authorizing also men not to feel invested by the meaning of that change, which actually meant a change for them too, the same name not covering now just him, a single one, but two. We rather stress this way the continuity of the “I”, that enables us to tell life stories as lived by us: the risk though, with this stress on continuity, is that, because nothing happens to break it, nothing really happens worthy telling, there is no true story. Change of names means just this, that something happened, so that I have a story to tell: of how the one I was before with the old name died, to be born again with the new name. So man and woman die as single to be born again as couple and family. So the man entering in religion dies to be born again with the new name. So a cardinal, say “Ratzinger” dies, and a Pope, say “Benedict XVI” is born.

In short, names tell who we are in relation to others, or, in other words, what we represent for them.

Here we are to the theme raised by the LD, and tossed to me.

What makes so remarkable the Reichstag speech, it isn’t just the intrinsic value of the arguments, by itself very high, but the fact that it wasn’t given by Ratzinger – the priest, university professor and in the end cardinal – but by Benedict: i.e., the Pope.

With great finesse, after the official greetings, Benedict recalls it:

At this moment I turn to you, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, not least as your fellow-countryman who for all his life has been conscious of close links to his origins, and has followed the affairs of his native Germany with keen interest. But the invitation to give this address was extended to me as Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, who bears the highest responsibility for Catholic Christianity

This means that as Bishop of Rome he doesn’t speak in his own name, but in that of Catholic Christianity. However, who is the Bishop of Rome? The successor of saint Peter: he represents for Catholic Christianity the person put in charge by Jesus Christ “to feed his lambs”, and who, to do it, followed him all the way to the cross.

The first lesson coming from the Reichstag speech concerns then the person of the one giving it. In more general terms, it regards the nature of what we call in English “representation”.

We have just seen in the papal person two different meanings of the word, which, if we translate it into another language, let’s say German, become evident, because it gives us two different words: Vertretung and Vorstellung. The Pope represents the Church, because he is, we’d say, her “representative”, in German her Vertreter: literally “someone who steps in (for someone else)”, meaning that he can take the place of another or others, acting in their name. At the same time, the Pope represents for the Church something that is not just himself as defined by the older name, meaning that he plays a part in a representation – in German Vorstellung.

It might seem then that German has gone further than English in differentiating meanings, actually also in English held separate in current use, by different words. But word differentiation is a tricky business, because we risk by it to lose sight of the connections which the use of same word makes perceptible. Acting and speaking in behalf of others can appear simply as a task of which one has been entrusted by them, independent by any ground that justifies such entrusting; while a common ground of trust is looked for in representations which are simply Vorstellungen, like a spectacles “put before” one’s eyes.

We can say, instead, of a person that is representative, because the representation works to ways: one can represent others in as far as they recognize themselves in what he represents.

So electoral competitions are all plaid on persuading people that one really represents what they hold dear, which can then make him capable to represent them. Obama, for example, was elected as representative of the American people because of the persuasive claim to represent what had made them one, against all racial and partisan divisions. Too bad that rarely there has been a greater gap between the image given in election time by the presidential candidate and the action of the elected president. Racial conflicts have been rekindled, and partisanship is more scorching than ever.

Now, back to the Pope’s speech, we could say that partisanship threatening democracy because of the majority rule is precisely the question addressed by it. Most remarkable then is that the Bishop of Rome, in speaking as representative ad extra of Catholic Christianity, addressed himself to the common ground of representation, not speaking of religion in a sectarian sense, but giving a great lesson of political and juridical theory.


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