In 1964, an interviewer asked Hannah Arendt the following question:
“Does not man, as a politically active being, need a commitment to a group? A commitment which they can to some extent be called love? Do you not worry that your attitude could be politically sterile?”
Can we be politically active with or without groups? What would ‘individual politics’ even look like?
On the 21st of August, the Malta Broadcasting Authority cancelled Xarabank. Now, 8 months later, Friday nights are replaced with a standard American-import late-night talk show interviewing celebrities and subsequently embarrassing them. Life goes on, but at what cost? Have we lost anything?
No other show has ever been as embedded in Maltese culture. For all its pitfalls Xarabank was raw. Like the Maltese bus whose namesake it inherited, the 2-hour ride entailed a host of different people tugging at their own desired destination. It was noisy, ugly, and rude. In short, authentic. Where else could and can one watch theological battles between atheists and priests? Arguments between architects and activists? Quarrels between parliamentary members and the public?
Of course, these debates are still alive but barely. Talk-shows and Facebook comment sections pick up what Xarabank left behind. Motives, points, and arguments are now more stray than ever lacking the definitive ritual, time and place of a scheduled television programme. Like meaningless babbles hundreds of comments emerge on thousands of posts, ununified, singular, and lacking an audience to develop them.
To make matters worse, confrontations are Covid-sterilized: they occur digitally via skype or as texts behind screens. Most of the time they appear within a variety of technical jargon, far from accessible and pedestrian discourse. The political stage Xarabank provided has been dismantled. Now people must build their own at a price.
Granted, not all of Xarabank’s episodes were theoretically gripping. Neither were they all bearable to follow. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the deep-rooted relationship with the public the show created. It not only pervaded public discourse but households themselves. On Friday night we did something collectively. We consumed Xarabank as an event.
Like Summer on the island, it was a time of anti-structure: life itself is put on hold. Often it was to review some superficial business such as Eurovision or some collective hallucinogenic nostalgia trip around an event in the last century. But for those few Friday nights a year we could tune into a lively, moderated, and unbounded discussion on pressing matters.
In a sense transforming life itself (from the implicit to the explicitly political) into entertainment safeguarded our consciousness of them.
We can only begin to speak of the social conundrums the programme unearthed in its 23-year career, binding the common issues to the general status of the island. From drugs to tragedies, illness, murders, religion, and pressing socio-political matters. Xarabank provided a contained space for uncontained discussions, a fire-proof bunker for incendiary debates from which they could spread.
If Covid-19 has taken something important away from us it is certainly any form of collectivity. Xarabank was one of the last signs of political life for inhabitants of the Island. Less popular, but equally provocative shows stand on solitary outposts.
We are increasingly diving into the Matrix plot. There is the choice of the red pill or the blue pill. You can choose how to see the world, which one to love: either as a total utopia or an utter hellscape. But neither pill transports you back to your daily life nor shows you “how deep the rabbit hole goes”. There is no ugly reality, no “desert of the real” to be awkwardly unveiled. Both of which sedate us in either a picturesque world on the verge of destruction or vice versa. None of which allow any other alternative to make sense.
Ever-increasingly we must take sides. We have to participate in politics through official means in messages on desolate digital domains. All of which render it increasingly inaccessible but even more spacious for those already in possession of a loud voice. The rest of us must choose an established mouth or shout.
But can we do things any differently? We can return to Arendt’s answer to the original question:
No, I’d say the other is politically sterile. […] To belong to a group, in the first place, is a natural condition. You belong to a group by birth, always. Now, to belong to a group in this second sense, that is, an organized group, that is something entirely different. […]
The direct personal relationship in which one can speak of love, it exists, of course, first and foremost in actual love, and it exists in friendship too. Here [in politics] a person is directly addressed independent of their relation to the world. So we can say that people from quite different organizations can still be personal friends.
But if one confuses these things, if one brings love to the negotiating table, to put it rather bluntly, I find it absolutely fatal.
Xarabank was one antidote to this confusion. As Arendt points out, it is not a lack of ‘commitment to a group’ that sterilizes politics but such a devotion itself.
The mixing of love and politics, the explicit politicization of politics is counter-intuitive.
In explicit politics, there is no point in articulating a common ground, no motivation towards the shedding of identities in favour of some mutual struggle. No need for negotiations beyond coercion. No need for opinions beyond those of the party with whom the individual shares a “relation to the world”.
We are losing space for public discussions in which we are not bound by love or a commitment to a group, independent of the world we choose. Love has entered “the negotiating table” where it doesn’t belong. Like Magritte’s Lovers, encounters occur through asymmetrically official political veils. Blindfolded, fantasy is the only recourse.
It would seem that without groups political discourse is even more present. Within the very opposite of politics proper—the raw debates like those on Xarabank—lied implicitly the real effective debates. In the ordinary, emotional, somewhat spontaneous discussions Xarabank made room for, there was the beginning of real political action.
What more will we lose in the name of neutrality, management, and re-organization? What will be politically castrated next?
Written by: Nikolai Debono