Forgetting How to Fail. A Conversation with Roger Bernat

by Joseph Pearson

31 March 2017

Many narratives spun by the news cycle are worthy of scepticism (is the far right really posed to sweep the continent? Are we really living in a constant state of war against terror?). Nonetheless, the news media’s emphasis on conflict frames the debate. One old chestnut, recurrent since the Brexit and Trump debacles, is whether important decisions about governance should be left up to citizens. Are they well-enough informed? Aren’t they ill-fed information in the echo-chamber of social media and »fake news«? Aristotle warned us of the democratic mob, but he could not anticipate how electronic media might allow mob mentality to flourish. Is this not the origin of nefarious populism, dubbed the great danger to our democratic societies? Talking to Barcelona-based director Roger Bernat, director of »Pending Vote« (»Pendiente de Voto«) at Schaubühne’s FIND 2017, one begins to think differently about citizens and their democratic engagement.

»Pending Vote« might be called immersive theatre, but Bernat prefers the term »emersive« theatre – he is more interested in what emerges from his experiment. In the production, the Schaubühne’s Globe Theatre acts as a parliament (and Bernat tells me the space is perfect for his purposes). The audience are the political actors given voting machines; they discuss issues of the day, and their democratic choices are registered via a computer language (»developed in China«, with a platform of Powerpoint operated by remote control). The piece has already played in more than two-dozen countries and in many languages. At the Schaubühne, this parliament will have three sessions: two in German, and one for an English-speaking public.

Talking to Bernat is a playful activity. He is very deft and constantly finding unusual positions on questions. I ask him what it is like to direct a piece with no actors, for example, and he corrects me. There are plenty of actors in his production: as many as can fill the Globe Theatre.

Roger Bernat: It’s not that I don’t have actors; it’s rather I don’t have spectators. And so the experience is bizarre, because I use actors who have never rehearsed the piece before. For this reason, the piece is more of a device than a play, because we don’t have time to rehearse it... The device finally allows us to imagine more political relations with others than what we normally experience in a bar or on the street or at home. We battle with the 150-200 other people who have come out that evening, and the group relations are linked to a political view of what it means to be together.

Joseph Pearson: Would you say that this exploration [quite Athenian in its set-up] is more of direct democracy or of representative democracy?

In fact, the piece initially derives from many of the paradoxes of direct democracy, and then moves towards many of the paradoxes of democratic assemblies. The piece works strongly on the pitfalls of democracy.

Could you tell us about some of these pitfalls?

Maybe it’s not in the order of the play, or its parts, but nevertheless one of the issues of the play is the public’s relationship to topics that are not directly related to the usual, daily, political agenda. These make the public confront questions that they have not so easily pinned down. If we are asked to talk about abortion or gay marriage, we know how we are supposed to reply if we are on the left or the right. But if we are asked to discuss issues that are not clearly linked to those agendas, then all of a sudden there is a demand on personal ethics, for something to emerge from the link between those ethics and politics. That is interesting, and many spectators come to me after the performance confessing that they are much more to the right than they normally thought. This often happens in the theatre, because the audience of the Schaubühne in Berlin, like the audience in Barcelona, is normally a left-wing, politically engaged audience. And nonetheless behind the Bible of the left, there are often political positions that are very questionable.

I am now thinking of the expression »confirmation bias«: that people have a predisposition to interpret information in a way that confirms preconceptions. This might even be cognitively programmed. Is your piece dedicated to attacking these foundations, to changing the minds of those who are already convinced?

If everything goes well in the piece, it becomes clear just how easily people change their minds if their usual points of reference [»repères«] are no longer clear. If there is no political party, no leader, to direct the way to march, it’s very easy to find oneself in a place that much more confusing than we are normally used to confronting.

And so Europeans are finding their political dimension by following populist leaders?

I would argue precisely the opposite. I would say that to be a political being, it is to accept being lost. If we do not want to accept the anguish of being lost – the anguish we feel before each issue that demands that we take a position and then act – and we think politics means being guided, then we lose a necessary human dimension. In order not to lose it, we need to be ready to take a position ourselves. The populism that we now see in Europe is a demonstration that people want to have a political dimension not permitted to them by traditional politics.

Populism is presented very negatively, even by the left-wing news media, as the »bête noire« of our times, one roused by social media such as Facebook. Even someone like myself – and I would describe myself very much to the left and democratic – finds himself even briefly entertaining anti-democratic feelings because of my fear of populism.

There is this anti-democratic impulse, but I think because traditional parties have not wanted to share political practice with the population. And when the population feels completely outside political processes, they begin to take on attitudes that fall outside traditional politics. But, happily, there is this return of populism, because it is an opportunity to re-politicize the population. Thankfully Trump won the American elections, because it provides an opportunity for the whole population to re-politicize.

But it is it necessary to tread through the quicksands of populism – Trump, Le Pen, Wilders – to emerge hopefully better educated politically? Or is there another way to achieve this?

Listen, we have had thirty-five years of representative politics without really a need to share politics with the population. This has brought us to the present situation. I’m not sure we need to pass via Trump, but I would not make Trump voters guilty for the situation where we are now. It is a way to reclaim the presence of a whole population that was erased from the political process of democratic states.

But here we are working on the presumption that we need to take account of everyone’s political voice. Let’s take a polemic position for a moment – that taken by Aristotle – that giving voice to the »mob« is precisely the problem. Following this line of argument: only certain people, who are educated in a particular way, should be allowed to make decisions for the mass. For this reason, we have elections for representatives who are more capable than we are. Ideally. Because, of course, we know that this is not the case –

No, it’s not.

Still this line of argument – taken by many people at least privately – articulates the dangers of a democracy decided by inexpert voices, by a public not capable of making important decisions, and that makes decisions perhaps on selfish grounds, or preconceptions: based on what I had this morning for breakfast, or because I don’t feel well today, or because this is good for me and my family but not for others. It takes a certain amount of idealism in the capacity of humanity to give the vote to the public, don’t you think?

It’s true that the public is not capable –


And the fact is that they repeat arguments that they read this morning in the newspaper or online. But to say they are not capable does not mean that will not be capable. It is necessary to say: yes, it is worth losing this battle to continue to fight. That’s to say: the modern project is one that fails each time, but it is an interesting project, the idea of permanent emancipation. The problem is that, for a few years now, this project has been downright forgotten, left to one side. Because – it’s funny – we no longer permit ourselves to fail. The economy of the last thirty years, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has not given space to other discourses. There has been just one economic discourse, and others have been described as useless. It’s not been permitted to say that perhaps we would like to imagine other solutions. Perhaps they are bad ones, but ones worth trying.

Conversation in French, translated by Joseph Pearson.

Pendiente de voto

by Roger Bernat/FFF (Barcelona)

Premiered on 8 April 2017