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  • What is a Political Event?
  • Iain MacKenzie (bio)

One of the central, and well understood, tasks of political theory is to debate the meaning of political events by incorporating them within competing interpretive frameworks. This implies a more fundamental, though not well understood, task; namely, establishing the nature of political events.1 It is more fundamental on two grounds: a) if we do not understand the nature of political events then we can not be sure that the phenomena we are interpreting are, in fact, political events and, b) there is a danger of misconstruing the relationship between political events and the meanings they generate if we do not understand the nature of the former. What is required, in other words, is an account of political events qua events. This account demands that the analytical light is shone, initially at least, on the ‘event-ness’ of political events rather than on the epiphenomenal meanings that such events acquire by virtue of being interpreted. There is good reason, therefore, to ask: ‘what is a political event?’

Given this, it is intriguing that it is a question that has not preoccupied political theorists, at least not until very recently.2 One reason for the neglect of such a fundamental question may be that for many political theorists the discussion of political events qua events is treated, implicitly, as a subset of debates regarding the nature of ‘the political’. The presumption is that a political event is simply something that happens in the political realm such that we must prioritize our analyses of the political qua political if we are to understand what happens within it and why certain events should count as political or not.3 In the following, this presumption is not questioned as such; rather, it is extended. Accepting that analyses that prioritize ‘the political’ over ‘the event’ are indispensable to the study of the nature of political events it is further presumed that if this is the only way that political theorists approach the study of political events then their analyses will be hampered by virtue of being partial. Although it is only the argument itself that can justify this additional presumption, one can see its force by considering that definitions of ‘political authority’ are greatly enriched both by discussion of ‘the political’ and by discussion of ‘the nature of authority’. Without both aspects, in other words, our grasp of political authority would indeed be a partial one. The argument below, therefore, is seeking to establish a broader, richer analysis of ‘political events’ by considering their nature from the perspective of the event.4

How is the analysis of the ‘evental’ nature of political events to be carried out? Given the paucity of resources within political theory itself, we need to turn to cognate disciplines that have considered ‘the event’ to be a foundational concept. While one could profitably turn to literature, sociology or perhaps some theology in this regard, by far the most obvious discipline to turn to is philosophy. However, the idea of an event is so intricately entwined with some of the fundamental and timeless questions of philosophy – ‘why do things happen?’, ‘what is the nature of change?’ and so on – that any attempt at a full survey of the role played by the event in philosophy would almost be tantamount to a history of philosophy itself. That said, recent philosophy has seen an upsurge of interest in the nature of events, in both the analytical and the continental traditions. Since the 1960’s, Anglo-American analytical metaphysics and post-Heideggerian, especially French, speculative ontology have both witnessed the return or re-emergence of the event to the centre stage of philosophical discussion. So, while accepting that one could delve more deeply into the Western philosophical tradition5 and into contemporary debates themselves,6 there have been a number of important recent contributions that allow for the construction of an argument concerning the general nature of events; an argument that can be used to shed light on the particular nature of political events. Although the list is by no means exhaustive, these contributions can be associated with four very different philosophers: Donald Davidson, Paul Ricoeur, Alain...

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