Artifice and Agency

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Next Week

I'm deep in reading and grading at the moment, so I'll be brief. We're a bit behind, but I'm not willing to get off-track from our syllabus, especially since I think the really rewarding discussions are in the texts ahead of us. And so, I want to make sure everybody has definitely read well the final two sections of Chapter V. "Action," on forgiveness and on promising. These sections are crucial and presumably you already read them in preparation for class last Thursday even though we didn't get to them. Otherwise, finish up the book and I'll discuss the arguments and themes that remain as best I can. For Thursday I'm switching things up a bit. I've decided just to get copies of the Daniel Harris argument on "Futurity" directly into your hands for next Thursday. It's a design-centric argument and I think it will be a nice change of pace before we turn back into theory a bit. See you Tuesday -- blog comments are on their way presently. Hope your weekends are going well.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Derrida pressed to talk about love

About a minute and a half in, Derrida poses the question of who and what. Perhaps more interesting is the painful awkwardness of the interview.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Marxian State: Common World or Public Realm

In The Human Condition, Arendt embarks, at least peripherally, on a critique of Marx. She seeks to show that Marx’s philosophy destroys the public sphere, precluding freedom as she conceives it. Most often her critique is well supported; however, there are moments in the text when Arendt’s claims lose their argumentative strength. Specifically, she claims that Marx’s philosophy and its unhampered development of the productive forces of society withered away the public realm. However, Arendt is inconsistent in her usage of terminology in the distinction between the common world and the public realm. In moments like this, Arendt overstretches her argument against Marx, undermining the claim she tries to make.

Arendt uses two words, each with its own idiosyncratic usage, to describe the political realm: common world and public realm. When Arendt refers to the common world, she refers to the realm of human artifice and institutions that predates and extends after the each man’s brief sojourn on the earth. (55) Conversely, the public realm is the space in which people can experience freedom and be political, that is, expressing their individuality while being seen by others of the body politic. (50) These two terms refer to distinct ideas and, like most Arendtian terms, are not interchangeable.

This strict usage breaks down momentarily in Arendt’s critique of Marx. Under scientific socialism’s cooperative labor premise, Marx predicted the withering away of the state, the institution of government that administers matters between the upper and lower class. However, Arendt incorrectly claims that Marx predicted the “withering away of the public realm” under the conditions of the unhampered development of the “productive forces of society.” (117) If we examine her assignment of the public realm to Marx’s state, its clear that Arendt is not being consistent in her own usage of her terminology in her reading of Marx. Marx’s withering away of the state, the unnecessary institutions of government, should be assigned the term, common world, the world of artifice and institutions, and not public realm, the space of political appearances. Following this logic, the common world should be the identity that is withered away not the public realm.

Some may argue that the destruction of the Marxian state precludes the possibility of politics by destroying the institution of government that provides the space for political experience. However for Arendt, being political--in the Greek sense of acting out--does not assume or specify any particular institution of government. People simply need a space, like the polis, to speak out and perform their individuality.

Although most of Arendt’s critique of Marx is argumentatively (and historically) well founded, in moments such as this, Arendt tries to stretch her arguments to do more work than they can. She momentarily departs from her strict differentiation between the common world and the public realm in an attempt to make her argument against Marx more convincing. This move, however attractive it may be, undermines the claim she tries to make about Marx.

Arendt's Tangent On Pain

In section 15 of The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt goes on a somewhat mysterious tangential discussion of pain and "absence of pain" in the human body. Why? The digression emerges out of her analysis of the privacy of property and wealth, and is apparently intimately connected with this concept of privacy.

Before she digresses into the discussion of pain Arendt posits the body as "the very quintessence of property because it cannot be shared". "Nothing", she says, "is more securely shielded...from the public realm"(112). What is Arendt up to by equating the body with property?

I think she is discussing the body because it exists in the realm of labor. Labor is the work of our body, which labors in its continuous cycle in order to mantain itself. By linking labor with the body can make the claim that "the privacy of one's holdings, that is, their complete independence from the common could not be better guaranteed than by the transformation of property into appropriation or by an interpretation of "the enclosure from the common" which sees it as the result, the "product", of bodily activity(112).

Arendt then introduces the concept of pain because pain, she claims, is the most private of human experiences. She spends two pages making some confusing claims about the difference between pain, absence of pain, and the release from pain which I will not cite here.Finally, on page 115 Arendt makes her leap, and I am able to see where she has been going with this progression:

"The only activity which corresponds strictly to the experience of wordlessness, or rather to the loss of world that occurs in pain, is laboring, where the human body, its activity notwithstanding, is also thrown back upon itself, concentrates upon itself, concentrates upon nothing but its own being alive, and remains imprisoned in its metabolism with nature without ever transcending or freeing itself from the recurring cycle of its own functioning"(115).

So, finally, i think, "aha! I understand how she is tying the body,labor, and private property together effectively rendering property as a wordless commodity". It seems a very Marxian notion to equate property with the body, which is exactly why Arendt chooses to lure the reader into this confusing and bizarre digression. To me, it seems that her stylistic digression performatively echoes what she sees as the confounding tenets of Marx's theories. She takes the reader into this bizarre, wordless realm of the proletariat and makes a questionable conclusion. While you're asking, "huh?" she then smashes the whole premis and says that this is not at all the way that private property [for Locke] works.

To me, although she never denounces Marx outright in this section, it seems that if she does have a thematic aim it must be to try to take us into the strange realm of Marx only to deliver us into a more sane and worldly realm where property has a public aspect.

world, 123, as you do

I intend to fill this blog post with my own tristinction, which specifically concerns three planes of Arendt's use of the term "world" throughout what we have read so far (I ought emphasize so far). I do warn you that I spent a period thoroughly entrenched in the artifice of Heidegger's Being and Time and am willing to recognize false assumptions of Arendt's meanings inspired by his infectious language. (Certainly I see a point of encounter between these two thinkers in their hermeneutic method, which seems well-described in the notion of discovery through the seeking of linguistic authenticity.)

The limb on which I seek to blithely go out is this: both vita activa and Arendt's specific discourse inevitably and always are confronted by 'world' (which may appear like God by the time this blog post is done). The confrontational world does three things: 1) it provides a context for things to take place, 2) it animates the tangible duration of those places, and 3) it empowers our language with the power to reach out of the present. (The question of whether the world actually 'does' these things, or whether suggesting this is purely demonstrative, seems to me answered in the notion that the world and the human agent are mutually dependent. We are the world's only object, and the world is our object only after we are subject to it).

Here are the coordinates for the following tour of the 'world': 1) my own read of the world's capacity to turn the physical universe into a context, 2) Arendt's notion of the human world as one of tangible things in common, and 3) Arendt's embracing of world as structuring language, and thereby providing the possibility of illuminating projects like her own.

1) The world of significance meets you in every physical location. This omnipresence of the world implies its capacity to be in multiple places at once: past, present, and future. It also implies the necessary interrelatedness of all that takes place within it: multiple places can be in one place. Humans tend to the being of these multiple multiple-places. Their worldliness seizes the world's capacity for meeting and therefore the possibility that new things may take place within it. The universe is therefore a context, or a space for contexts, insofar as humans are there to meet the world waiting at the universe's multiple localities.

2) I must be clear that the previous section is purely my own edifice. I mean only to articulate the context that I give Arendt's use of the term "world" when she relates it to the human artifice. At one point, she states that "To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common" (52). The "it" of this sentence is of ambiguous origin, and for good reason. "It" may mean "the world", in which case the statement implies that there is only one "world of things" within "the world". Or "it" may mean "a world of things", in which case the statement implies there are various "worlds of things" within "the world". Truly, it seems to suggest both, and illustrate in its ambiguity that humans' experience of their openness to "world" depends on the extent to which they maintain and consider the multiply determined physical human artifice "world of things".

In other words, humans are both always worldly in the phenomenal sense of 1), and in constant danger of losing their worldliness in a material sense. This loss is the retreat or overshadowing of the public realm, the realm which Arendt tells us "signifies the world". [As I write on this plane-ride back to Oakland, the in-flight entertainment is currently broadcasting a CNN report on the "Face of OCD". The subject of the report does many things with her foot in her household].

I wonder as a side note to this about the notion that a public act is only public if it takes its place within the human artifice, where it is given duration through its materialization in tangible things created by work. Is it possible that the activity of labor, or the activity of work even, can make political suggestion, and have effect within the artifice, if not strictly materialized within it? Perhaps as you draw seeds from the ground, you announce of each its signifying of a specific architecture of relations, and randomly Mr Peanut the free citizen walks by and hears this and goes on his way to writing the most wildly self-reflexive address to yet hit the Free Sandwich Islands?

3) It strikes me, perhaps with undue excitement, that this text is filled with terms of spatial relationships. A great deal of Arendt's "thinking what we are doing" seems to rely on a mapping exercise, or, if not a mapping exercise, then an illumination of coordinates. In fact, why not say it is both of these: Arendt is both locating each activity of the vita activa within a framework, and attempting to reveal how the natures of these activities have affected historical judgments of where they should be enacted, in public or private (78). In any event, Arendt is taking human activity and constructing a world of terms through which to think its differences.

She considers this a natural outgrowth of examining the nature of each human activity: "each...points to its proper location in the world" (73). The fact that labor, which by nature is private, points to its proper place _in the world, and does not point to its exclusion from the world, points itself to the worldly potential of each human that toils in private. Furthermore, the fact it is through a spatial metaphor that we understand the private as a privation of the public signifies the worldly character of language. Arendt linguistically illuminates the coordinates through which our activities operate. This forms the artifice in which her denaturalizing of our understanding of historical events, her sketch of the present, and her expectations of the future take place (forgive me the attempts to condense).

I cannot help but compare Arendt's mapping of three terms with Freud's consideration of the human psyche as an apparatus with a threefold spatial arrangement (interestingly, Freud tells us that the apparatus is formed as we meet the bitterness of the world):

So far as I am aware, no attempt has yet been made to divine the construction of the psychic instrument by means of such dissection. I see no harm in such an attempt; I think that we should give free rein to our conjectures, provided we keep our heads and do not mistake the scaffolding for the building. (The Interpretation of Dreams)

Or I think of Ishmael's warning that the skeleton of the sperm whale gives no sense of the Leviathan, and that poor few paintings have come close to capturing its worldly being. Yet a great deal of Moby Dick is made up of his obsessive (awesome) expositions on the anatomy of the whale, and one perusal of its skeleton from the inside.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Arendt’s distrust of the modern state is understandable, as she was coming from a time where there was no greater evil than the all-powerful, normalizing social state. But nowadays we have an even more prevalent evil: that of neoliberalism and its threat of unleashing complete and unmitigated corporate rule throughout the entire globe. And, interestingly enough, a commonly prescribed antidote seems to be a full embracement of the state and especially it’s ability to provide social services to its citizens, which is the very housekeeping that Arendt so distrusts.
There are a number of reasons why we should be more concerned with tempering neoliberalism than the repression of the social state. The first is that, at the very least, governments (theoretically) offer some level of transparency and accountability that is completely lost in corporate governance. In a democracy, decision makers are held accountable by voters and replaced when their decisions either do not reflect the will of the public or at least make a big public mess. Governments also can be (and have been) overthrown. Not only do corporations answer to no one, not only are their organization and decision-making processes completely opaque, but as entities they are constantly shape shifting. You never know what you’re dealing with, and consequently can never “think what we are doing” (5).
There is also the issue of what the two entities’ designated purposes are. While the housekeeping state serves the public and exists to ameliorate hardship for the majority of its citizens, corporations exist for the sole purpose of generating profit. At least with even the most tyrannical or dysfunctional of states basic needs are being met, whereas neoliberalism doesn’t even make that basic promise. In fact, it even goes as far to expressly forbid many states from providing social services, killing thousands in the process. Neoliberal policies cause massive unemployment, uproot and displace thousands of farmers from their land, and even make access to basic, essential natural resources a privilege instead of a right.
Furthermore, upstaging the housekeeping state’s “tak[ing] over the public realm” (68), neoliberalism destroys both the public and private realms. By trumping any and all governmental laws, neoliberalism completely ignores and debilitates the public realm as a political entity. When the sole focus is increasing profit margins, people are nothing more than consumers; they aren’t even seen as individual consumers, but rather as “markets”, or masses of purchasing bodies. Not even the private realm is safe, as corporate creation and advancement of data mining programs and the accumulation of all personal information makes even the most personal and intimate aspects of life a public affair.

Private vs. Public Realms as a Means of Exploring Anti-Life and Non-Life

In her distinction of public and private realms, Arendt’s The Human Condition demonstrates how both worlds coexist instead of opposing each other while pointing to a connection between anti-humanity and non-humanity. In this discussion, she also prompts the reader to explore whether anti-humanity and non-humanity are opposites.
Arendt counters the public and private realms by saying that the private world is rooted in deprivation from realizing, interacting, and sharing common objects with others. She highlights apathy as a quintessential quality of a private lifestyle saying, “privacy lies in the absence of others…without interest to other people” (Arendt 58). Initially, the reader would believe that the private person is responsible for his own withdrawal from society, opting to not interact with others. What are the effects of privacy? According to Arendt, loneliness is a sentiment that one inevitably experiences in their private life. She states that, “deprivation of a reality guaranteed through [objective relationships with to others] has become the mass phenomenon of loneliness, where it has assumed the most extreme and most antihuman form” (59). Thus, she names privacy as a gateway leading into an antihuman state-of-being.
Arendt also introduces the idea of the private and public worlds co-existing (not necessarily opposing each other) as she demonstrates how the public realm perpetuates the existence of a private one. Private man and society even agree to not acknowledge each other, so it becomes a matter of not only him keeping himself private, but also the public man (who feels the consequences of others) also voiding him from public perception. “Whatever he does remains without significance and consequence to others, and what matters to him is without interest to other people” (58). This underlines the mutual understanding of privacy that the public holds, which is necessary to continue it.

Arendt conversely characterizes the public realm as that which one enters by forfeiting their private property. Thus, people cannot inhabit both worlds simultaneously, and must furthermore choose one or the other almost as if they are opponents. She acknowledges the belief that private property (that which enables one to inhabit the private world) has been a “self-evident condition for admission to the public realm” (64). Upon admitting one’s self into the public world, he becomes “free” essentially because he is contributing his possessions for the common use and consumption of the public (64). Therefore, the publicly recognized man no longer can lay claim to his personal belongings, and in fact has none. According to Arendt, this end-result would cause one to “have no private place of one’s own {like a slave}” and consequently “to be no longer human” (64). Hence, Arendt highlights how man inevitably becomes non-human in the public realm.
In essence, the reader explores the distinction between anti-humanity or non-humanity. To do so, he must first understand the difference, as framed by Arendt. Anti-humanity occurs when one willingly alienates his private life and property from the access and recognition of others. This state-of-being seems to reserve individual rights that one has as they can choose to transcend into the public world or not. Non-humanity implies a state of being imposed on those in the public realm, as they lose personal access to themselves and their “belongings”, which has become common property. After publicly announcing their assets, people in the public realm can choose to become political or to remain public, but cannot choose to revert to the private realm. Thus, the reader sees more of a linear transgression when exploring the private and public realms, not necessarily an opposition.

More on Arendt and The Move From Universality

Arendt places herself in a delicate position during the first three chapters of The Human Condition when discussing the lengths to which man can, must, and should associate with mankind. Her statements, while ranging in topic from solitude to an excess of networking, often use sweeping and vague generalizations of human nature and reflect a movement by her to condition her praise and suggested potential for the public sphere. These passages do reflect the tenuous and working status of Arendt’s projected ideas, being only halfway through The Human Condition, but also bring up interesting points about Arendt’s accuracy in describing the consumer nature of society when looking at the state of the modern Internet and peer-to-peer software.

In the opening paragraph of Chapter II, Arendt states, "No human life, not even the life of the hermit in nature's wilderness, is possible without a world which directly or indirectly testifies to the presence of other human beings.” (p. 22) This assertion is pivotal to Arendt’s introduction of the ideals of the Greek polis and the public sphere. But Arendt later places constraints on the amount of interaction that should occur in a healthy society. “… [In] society, where the natural strength of one common interest and one unanimous opinion is tremendously enforced by sheer number, actual rule exerted by one man, representing the common interest and the right opinion, could eventually be dispensed with.” (p. 40) Again, in Chapter II, Arendt notes, “Large numbers of people, crowded together, develop an almost irresistible inclination towards despotism, be this the despotism of a person or of majority rule…” (p. 42) Arendt goes on to claim that group conformism and a mass disposition to tolerate non-behavior are partially responsible for her theories.

Arendt makes these generalizations that involve sweeping assumptions about human nature in an effort that seemingly reflects a desire to distinguish the championing the public and her intent to move away from both the extremes of the spectrum. In the context of Arendt’s experiences between, during, and after the two World Wars in Europe, the argument makes a certain amount of sense. It could be suggested that Arendt is looking for a happy medium – that she is just as concerned of man without men as she is of large groups of people. However, Arendt does not qualify what a “large number” is, or what her happy medium might be.

There are many parallels between these passages and those found in the proverbial heart of Arendt’s criticism of Marx in the end of Chapter III, in which Arendt asserts that the notion of the liberation and emancipation of the working class might decrease violence, but it would not necessarily yield the freedom that has been placed on a pedestal and promised by Marxist thinkers for work towards more important activities. “A hundred years after Marx we know the fallacy of this reasoning; the spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier and more craving his appetites.” (p.133). In the same way that Arendt stands against too much interaction between man for fear of rioting, Arendt is concerned about too much liberty being given to the laborer class for fear of the destruction of work to a waste economy. It also brings up an interesting question: does Arendt's freedom eventually approach a zero-sum situation, where one person's freedom takes away from that of another?

Arendt’s seemingly conflicting ideas interact very interestingly with the advent of the Internet and its popular use today. The potential for online communication is nearly limitless, and although there may not be the ability to have a physical mob, the same dynamic could develop with millions of people obtaining their information from a limited number of sources. In peer-to-peer software sharing, files are often found through torrent library sites or centralized locations, giving implicit powers of control to the managers of those portals. Additionally, the ideas of Arendt’s consumer society and waste economy are not hard to find in the modern Internet. A large percentage of peer-to-peer sharing and Internet usage is not related to the exchange of information, but rather the proliferation of Jessica Simpson singles in mp3 files and low-density video files of Jenna Jameson in sexually suggestive positions. File-sharing and pornography websites could be seen as distracting from the true proper use of the Internet, wasting valuable bandwidth space on servers, slowing web traffic, and leading to a cyber-based waste economy.

It is still early in The Human Condition, and there are over a hundred unread pages for Arendt to clarify some of the questions raised by the dichotomy of her arguments. But, in a certain way, the tenuous structure of this aspect of her book is a metaphorical representation of the topic itself, leaving the reader at a point where he or she needs to determine that balance individually. The grey areas also encourage questions as to whether or not Arendt’s statements reflect more of a correlation than causation. Do large numbers lead inevitably do mob rule? Or will the factors that brought those numbers together in the first place be a more important factor? Arendt may not necessarily address these concerns, but they are essential to the discussion of the practical applicability of her theories.

Freedom & Violence

In “The Human Condition,” Hannah Arendt expresses almost nostalgic admiration for what seems, to modern sensibilities, the rather unjust power hierarchy of ancient Greece. The slave was compelled by force to labor for his master, and was viewed not as human but as something akin to a tame animal. Arendt notes regretfully that the emancipation of slave labor did little for human progress toward freedom. She’s much more worked up about the loss of freedom for a select few than she is about violence inflicted on many. Is Arendt an insensitive elitist who believes that freedom is the privilege of few and that the rest of us are out of luck? Perhaps Arendt believed that freedom was simply impossible without violence.

Inscribed into Arendt’s definition of freedom is the necessity for violence. For Arendt, to be free is to be unique and unrepeatable, but we exist in an environment where uniqueness and repetition are elemental features of nature. She describes nature as endlessly cyclical, a formidable force that swallows up its inhabitants into eternal repetition. Among the animals, there are no individuals—only species. Nature is anti-individuality, and thus anti-freedom in the Arendtian sense.

She imagines nature as imprisoning in the necessities it imposes on the human body. Humans have no choice but to toil away at the earth—we devote our valuable time and energy to producing food, protecting our artifices against wind and rain and rust. She characterizes life as “a process that everywhere uses up durability, wears it down, makes it disappear, until eventually dead matter, the result of small, single, cyclical, life processes, returns into the over-all gigantic circle of nature herself, where no beginning and no end exist and where all natural things swing in changeless, deathless repetition.” (96)

But an “end” does exist for humans—humans die. Arendt distinguishes human “life” from this life of “changeless, deathless repetition” as one that is engaged in violent struggle with nature. Birth and death are not parts of the natural life cycle but human-construed events of violence. From the perspective of nature, they are hardly events at all. The twin concepts of birth and death sever human life from species life, making freedom possible. Arendt would argue that slaves don’t inhabit this singular, alternatively defined “life.” They don’t die, because dying is something that only an individual can do. Their life is the natural life. It is a life that offers “sheer bliss,” but it is a dumb and animal bliss, a feeling that comes from “happy and purposeless regularity.”

When the laborer enters the public realm, he loses this sense of life’s sheer joy. There is not enough labor to keep connected to life’s processes, and he complains of unhappiness. Arendt distinguishes the true “free” man from this animal laborans by noting that he never even “demanded to be ‘happy’ or thought that mortal men could be happy.” (134) The free man is not “happy” but “satisfied,” and it is his freedom—won through violence—that brings him this satisfaction of victory and achievement. It is the laborer’s demand for happiness that reveals his very non-humanness. He craves the life-affirming feeling of hard work, pain, and subsequent consumption, rest, and relief. His longing for happiness should not be confused with a desire for freedom. Arendt would not call herself an elitist because this thing the laborer longs for is not freedom. We cannot, as Marx imagines, emancipate man from labor, because to do so would rid humanity of the violence that sustains freedom.

(Lindsay Meisel)

work of the mind, work of the many

In the Prologue Arendt starts with the launch of Sputnik and writes that this event is, "second in importance to no other". Today reading this I feel like the launch of a satellite is no big deal. Perhaps the answer to why it was such a momentous event rests in the fact that the launch represents the historical desire, from antiquity on, of humans’ beings to break the ties of our earthly (not worldly) existence. A world created by the genius “work” of the privileged elite. This desire represents an aspiration to live in a world produced from the work of the mind; this theme is the most important in the text.
However, Arendt concedes following; human creative power, explicitly our scientific prowess, has diminished our political/communicative capacities. That is, "The trouble concerns the fact that the 'truths' of the modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought. ... It could be that we .. will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do." (p.3) Are we now slaves to the things we know how to do but do not understand?
This got me to start thinking about the class as a whole and the initial question what are we to make of the “political” in a world of design objects. Modern communication because “meaningful political life”, is inextricably tied to the objects we create. Computers, the internet and the digital world of communication are bringing humans in closer contact than ever before. And the discourses operate o a global level. "Men in the plural, ..., can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves." The medium allows us to “make sense to one another” and gives us a taste of the political possibilities of design—I think this is of great political significance and quite revolutionary. Whether or not all forms of digital communication be they intellectual or voyeuristic is beneficial to man [sic] is debatable. As a side note, the impact of the fairly recent additions to our digital democracy/ public space, such as Myspace and the Facebook (neither of which I am a part of; no judgment), I’m not sure what to say about them other than my personal disregard. Perhaps it is too early to tell what they have in store for the body politic.
Arendt also laments society because she claims it is a culture of subsistence; that we are void of creation and contemplation and we have reduced life to an animal existence of labor. This concerns Marx's idea of man [sic] as “the laborer”. What facilitates this trivial life and generates a world of laborers, is the dilemma Arendt answers when she prompts us to "think what we are doing." (p.5).
Her argument is provocative, but from reading the text I feel as though her criticisms and solutions attempt to establish social hierarchy as well as overlook the positive aspects of LABOR-- humans working hard to prosper as solitary beings. Labor was never, and has not become a microcosm for what is wrong with humanity. I think that laboring for your stake and laboring for your subsistence is honorable. It helps to make society better. I draw upon the sociological notion that man inherently seeks to outdo his counterparts as a means of reaping the greatest amount of benefits from society. In doing so, we reveal that competitive spark which is universal to all of mankind. Arendt claims that not all can have a share at the advantages, but I believe we all have the same right to them. Each member of society tries to increase for themselves their usefulness because we must compete with each and all our eagerness is equally strong.
This is a testament to work and the work of the mind. We all labor and work and share in the trials and tribulations of it. There is no separation; it’s all connected and to think that the many must labor so the few can contemplate is ridiculous. There can be no such thing. We all contribute to the beacons of humankind; whether it be the launch of a satellite into space or digital public space.

In The Human Condition, Arendt criticizes Marx’s conception of ‘labor.’ Her use of the tristinction of labor, work, and action demonstrates a coinage of terms that will most work for her argument, but not necessarily for Marx’s discourse. She demands that labor and work must be considered separately, but are two necessary components of the vita activa. She then discredits Marx’s argument on that basis that he coins his own terms in order to best serve his argument (102). We must consider, however, whether Arendt’s condemnation really discredits Marx’s claims.
Arendt argues that her categories are more accurate than Marx’s, but it seems that she has simply broken up Marx’s ‘labor’ into her own ‘labor’ and ‘work.’ This splitting allows her to claim that labor is a natural, cyclical activity, while work is an unnatural, worldly activity with an end and a beginning (98). Although this distinction is key to her description of public and private life, it is not the Platonic truth she makes it out to be. One could further break down her categories in order to stage a different argument, showing that classification is arbitrary, and only serves a particular set of claims.
Arendt specifically cites the contradiction in Marx’s celebration of labor as “the supreme world-building capacity of man” (101). As for Marx, labor, for Arendt is natural and resides in the natural life cycle. But ‘world-building,’ for Arendt, occurs only in the realm of the unnatural, man-made artifice, rendering Marx’s claims contradictory. In the context of her discourse, his definition of labor may fail, but I proffer a sympathetic reading of Marx that suggests that both of Arendt’s terms are encapsulated in Marx’s single term.
Arendt’s set of terms, by itself, does not fight Marx’s ideas. For Arendt, both labor and work are essential aspects of the human condition. In setting out a more specialized definition of labor, she only moves some of the information that Marx identified with labor into the category of work. Marx’s labor is a metabolic process that results in a finished product that can be consumed. Arendt, on the other hand, places consumption in the realm of the unnatural. For Marx, consumption does not represent a break from the natural; it constitutes a division of the cycle of production.
The battle that Arendt stages against Marx hinges on the idea that consumption does not fit into the cyclical processes associated with nature. Consumption, however, does not necessarily break down Marx’s definition of labor. Marx’s argument is easily validated in that consumption could be called the fueling of the laborers, and therefore, incorporated into the cyclical process production. Consequently, we can break down Arendt’s criticism of Marx, using her own strategy of defining our terms so that they work in the way that we need them to: the same performance for which she criticizes Marx.
In further considerations of the role of consumption, Arendt’s assertion that consumption exists only in the world of artifice begins to break down. She uses the term in such a way that suggests that it contributes to the cyclical pattern of the natural. Instead of describing it as a temporary aspect of worldly things, she gives an overwhelming account of the inappeasable character it imputes onto the people it affects. She warns that Marx’s hopes for free time will lead to insatiable appetite and, therefore, annihilation of the earth’s resources (134). Perhaps this exaggerated description is simply a scare tactic to further discredit Marx.
We could fight back against Arendt, using the same tactics she employs to attack Marx. If we broke her terms down into more easily workable parts, we could prove that these distinctions are arbitrary. For example, the private realm could be broken up into a familial private realm and an individual private realm. For her purposes, however, we can see how she is able to collapse them into one term. Although Arendt’s distinction clarifies the labor-work process, she would never take only one or the other as an aspect of the human condition. Arendt’s contentions, therefore, might clarify Marx’s terms, but his terms do not go as far as to contradict themselves.

The Human Condition in the Public Realm

Hannah Arendt, in Human Condition, draws a distinction between the public and private realm after criticizing the emergence of society which has blurred a clear division between the two in the modern age (28). For Arendt, the rise of society indicates disintegration of public realm in which individuality is guaranteed through their achievements among peers (41). This loss of individuality particularly concerns her about the modern age because people become just the number of voters needed to make a public decision. This concern can be seen in her definition of society as “the form in which the fact of mutual dependence for the sake of life and nothing else assumes public significance and where the activities connected with sheer survival are permitted to appear in public” (46). In other words, the issue of sustaining life, which matters to most people, brings people to act together in the form of society. Arendt sees this emergence of society as a sign of people being delimited into laborers. According to her, laborers are people whose only concern is to satisfy his/her biological needs; thus, they are involved with only one aspect of human conditions. Arendt draws political attention to the public realm which guarantees human condition by explaining human existence in relationship to this realm

Arendt focuses on the openness and the world of the human artifacts the term “public” signifies, showing the importance of sharing basic ideas from which reality springs forth. According to Arendt, this reality comes from different perspectives people have about the same object (57). Therefore when people can no longer discern the sameness of the object among each other, she argues that destruction of the common world is unavoidable. After noting this consequence, Arendt poses mass society, where people have the same point of view, as another cause of such destruction. The public realm prevents the destruction by providing a space where people can communicate what they see together. Arendt notes that people see and hear everything that appears in the public. This access to perception, according to Arendt, assures people of the reality around them. After noting the nature of the public realm, Arendt argues that public realm brings people together and separates them at the same time around what they created. For example, she mentions a table around which people gather around. They are also distanced from each other by the table. This example shows that people have their presence, but their perceptions come from different locations. Together, they will be able to build the reality as it appears from different points of views.

The public realm, according to Arendt, sustains human artifacts beyond life cycles of their makers, giving other meanings to their lives. One characteristic of the public realm is its permanence over past, present, and future generations. This realm is what people have in common with people of different generations. Because of this nature of the realm, men can leave behind artifacts that come into people’s views in the future; thus hunger for immortality can be indirectly satisfied. Arendt notes the famous passage in Aristotle where he states that man “[has] the possibility of immortalizing” (56). The public realm offers a space in which this immortality is possible. From this space, there comes other type of food people hunger for: public admiration. Arendt notes peoples’ desire to make their presence known among other people for this food. However, it is the public admiration which sustains human artifacts and not desire for this admiration.

By offering her understanding of the public realm, Arendt sets a framework in which she can discuss “three fundamental activities” and distinguish each activity from each other. This effort connotes her emphasis on action among other activities.

Preservation and Creation of Truth

Artifice and Agency

The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors. Human life, in so far as it is world-building, is engaged in a constant process of reification, and the degree of worldliness of produced things, which all together form the human artifice, depends upon their greater or lesser permanence in the world itself.

On pages 95-96 of The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes about how the process of preserving human memories, actions, events, and speech creates the human artifice. To her, the act of this preservation creates the world that we live in, our political and social worlds would not exist without the preservation of these intangibles; they are the myths and morals of our society, creating the values that determine the rules for our society.

But why do we do this? Arendt does not mention why we feel the need to make the events of our lives outlast the moments when they are made and sometimes outlast ourselves. Making temporary things permanent involves the assumption that we can and must learn from the past, otherwise there would be no sense in preserving it. How we decide what is worth preserving is the beginning of the formation of our relationship with a world other than our immediate surroundings, or what would be the human artifice. Through the creation of this artifice, we begin to have a certain amount of alienation from our immediate lives, while we are busy preserving the past, we are no longer paying attention to the present, or thinking about the future. We are also losing a certain amount of potential knowledge from our own lives, by learning from the preserved accounts of others’ lives.

The human artifice allows us to shift our focus from our own personal experiences to the collective memory of what is preserved by the human artifice, giving people the chance to create an artificial shared history through binding together disparate groups across nearly any physical boundary, so long as they are within reach of the artifice itself they can then pass it on and be included in the culture it creates.

In contemporary times the chief artifacts of the human artifice seem to be the various forms of mass media that create truth through the news, and create/critique social values through advertising, sitcoms, and other programming. The power of advertising in creating and shaping the human experience and psyche is well known, with companies spending enormous sums of money on psychological research into the best ways to influence potential customers. The pervasive influence and power advertisers have is seen best in the correlation shown between eating disorders in girls and advertising centering around female body image.

Until recently, the power of the average citizen to participate in the creation of the human artifice and reach a mass audience was limited to those with enough money to pay for advertising or to involved in the print, TV, or movie industries. With the Internet, the ability of the average citizen to reach a large audience and thus shape part of the social/political/economic discourse rose immensely. Now the only barriers to potential mass audiences are one’s access to technology, and ability to use it. As seen from the rise in the popularity of blogging, literally anyone has the potential to be read and talked about by a nearly limitless number of people.

If language creates truth, whoever has access to the forums preserving accounts of every day life is in a position to create truth for their audience. This creation of truth is the way that we build the world we live in, the human artifice is a set of ideological values that determine how we act and react. This is not to say that the human artifice is universal, people create their own personal artifice through whatever truths they believe in. This is the reality and reliability of the world.

The Bored and the Wretched

In The Human Condition, Arendt argues that “There is no lasting happiness outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration, and whatever throws this cycle out of balance, -- poverty and misery where exhaustion is followed by wretchedness instead of regeneration or great riches and an entirely effortless life where boredom takes the place of exhaustion and where the mills of necessity, of consumption and digestion, grind to an impotent human body mercilessly and barrenly to death—ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive.” (108) This component of boredom resonates within our consumer culture and ultimately defines our place in the world. Unable to contribute to our own sustainability we become lost in an artificial reality, which fails to fulfill our most basic needs.

Arendt’s fears are realized when a society is so bored it develops plagues of neurological disorders to which are all vulnerable. Although we may have the ability to engage with each other in the political realm, we are so overwhelmed by pressure to create and perpetuate our dominance that we are rendered numb. We have lost our connection to nature and our role within it. We are unable to feel the pain associated with labor and thus the happiness experienced when that pain is lifted, so we turn to drugs to create a false euphoria.

Meanwhile, everyone else falls into the wretchedness that is the developing world. Devoid of any of the joys of labor, their citizenry must toil away in order to survive. Akin to the slaves in Ancient Greece, these slaves of globalization become dependant on their invisible masters. The diplomat escapes persecution by hiding within either the bureaucratic machine or the trans-national corporation that maintain our freedom through exploitation. The images from television give them the only glimpse into our hearts and minds. Their hatred is dissolved into awe for our reckless nihilistic contempt for life. For if they were born into our position they would no doubt perform similarly.

Arendts’ passage above is indicative of the relationship between both the poor and the elite. Their pains are woven together creating the symbiotic relationship that maintains the hierarchical structure of this world. A happy medium has yet to be found. Perhaps the socialist state would not destroy individualism as Arendt suggests, but rather allow us to persist shamelessly knowing that our existence is not ensuring the misery of someone else. But like the Greeks, the majority of our society is able to revel in our “democracy” while the rest sweat outside the white pillars of our freedom.

What About Social Welfare?

Originally, I was quite happy with Arendt’s trimeric distinction of the vita activa. She introduces the provocative categories of labor, work, and action in order to describe man’s condition on earth, and outlines the importance of our commitment to “think what we are doing.” However, as Arendt’s argument unfolds, particularly within her criticism of Karl Marx, I find that her distinctions function to facilitate a rather narrow argument. Arendt uses Nietzsche’s argument justifying the domination by few elite individuals as the basis for her criticism of Marx. She assumes the nature of the laboring class to lack any potential for excellence, and therefore discourages the emancipation of man from labor. Consequently, with the possibility of technological liberation from labor, Arendt warns her readers of the possible unbalancing of our human condition. To me, this preoccupation with preserving the division between social classes is problematic, as it allows Arendt to acknowledge social welfare issues without offering any solutions.

Arendt deeply criticizes Marx’s desire for socialization. Marx engages in a project that aims to liberate the laboring class of their labor as a means to achieve an equality of the classes and subsequently alleviate the misery of society’s lower classes. Arendt clearly indicates that she finds this notion deplorable, and that socialization would upset the human condition. She describes the trouble of socialization as resulting in “universal unhappiness, due on one side to the troubled balance between laboring and consumption and, one the other, to the persistent demands of the animal laborans to obtain a happiness which can be achieved only where life’s process of exhaustion and regeneration, of pain and release from pain, strike a perfect balance”(p133). Arendt is defining the human condition as if it were a state of equilibrium where some men must exist as laborers so that others may distinguish themselves as individuals. She further establishes that the ability for individuals to distinguish themselves requires a freedom from the necessities that are by definition satisfied through labor (p12). To Arendt, the preservation of individuals and their contribution to the world are indispensable. Individuals perform the work that constitutes the man-made world we live in. Consequently, Arendt is troubled by Marx’s call for socialization.

It is within Arendt's criticism of Marx that I detect a type of Nietzschian discourse. In Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche disparages any associations between a “doer” and a “deed.” Instead, he suggests that a man’s actions are not so much a choice, but a result of his nature. That is, if one man excels above another, it is not because he is a bad man that has willingly oppressed other men for his own purposes; it is because he is naturally dominant and therefore free of blame. I feel as if Arendt adopts a similar position to Nietzsche when she indicates the naturalness of some men as laborers and others as individuals. I, however, believe that her commitment to preserving this condition is unjustified.

In her prologue, she acknowledges that technology has made it possible for all men to retire from their labors. “Automation,” or the use of man-made machines to fulfill our necessities would allow for all men to experience free time, yet Arendt responds saying “What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse” (p5). Arendt deeply doubts that emancipation from labor could render freedom to all. Instead, she believes that laborers are only ever able to consume. “The spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier his appetites. That these appetites become more sophisticated, so that consumption mainly concentrates on the superfluities of life, does not change the character of this society, but harbors the grave danger that no object of the world will be safe from consumption” (p133). Arendt fears that a laboring class without labor would be unproductive, but she makes this assumption without much justification. Man, as a whole, has never experienced complete emancipation from labor, yet based on her assumptions she has decided to deny the animal laborans of possible freedom.

For Arendt, freedom would be the ability for man to achieve excellence. However, as she notes, this can only occur so long as man has the time and the recognition of others. “Excellence itself has always been assigned to the public realm where one could excel, could distinguish oneself from all others”(p49). With this understanding of excellence, it is difficult to understand Arendt’s opposition to socialization. The admittance of all animal laborans into the public realm should not affect the ability of those individuals who have miraculously shed the title of animal laborans to continue to exist as useful contributors in the world. Despite this likelihood, Arendt dismisses that possible alleviation of social welfare saying, “And what else, finally, is this ideal of modern society but the age-old dream of the poor and the destitute, which can have a charm of its own so long as it is a dream, but turns into a fool’s paradise as soon as it is realized” (133). Arendt acknowledges the problem of poverty, but offers no solution. Instead, she criticizes Marx for his naïve idealism, and affirms Nietzsche’s defense of the elite.

In the prologue to the Human Condition, Hannah Arendt utilizes the historical event of the launch of Sputnik as a vehicle to propel her discussion of the human condition in relation to earth and human labor, work, and action. She claims that the launch of Sputnik was the single most important event in mankind’s history, even greater than the splitting of the atom. This claim is justified in that it fits with her larger project, in which she seeks to discuss the human working condition and its effects on technology and society. In this context, Sputnik represented the “escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth,” however more importantly it represented the disparity between man’s creations in terms of technology and man’s actual state of being. For Arendt, she sees Sputnik as the embodiment of man’s urges outpacing technological developments to their detriment.

Moreover, she sees Sputnik, technological developments, and man’s desire to escape from earthly chains as misguided efforts. In her description of Sputnik’s launch, she mocks man’s dream of belonging in space. “To be sure, the man-made satellite was no moon or star, no heavenly body which could follow its circling path for atime span that to us mortals, bound by earthly time, lasts from eternity to eternity (1).” In this single sentence alone, she dramatically emphasizes the man made nature of the satellite by juxtaposing it against the stars and moon which are seen as powers greater than humans. She emphasizes “man-made” by continually calling it “no moon” or “no heavenly body.” Furthermore, she stresses man’s mortality in comparison to the eternity of nature. In doing so, she cleverly foreshadows her discussions on labor and the human condition in that man seeks to live linearly in an eternally cyclical world. Man’s attempts to gain immortality seem futile in the face of nature’s powerful forces as man is “bound by earthly time.”

Interestingly, Arendt depicts man’s futile attempts to control their environment as that of a rebellious child. The father figure being the “Father of men in heaven” and the mother figure being “an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky.”
This depiction of man’s attempts to leave the earth further suggest its misguided nature. The viewing of the earth as a prison by modern science may not necessarily be a positive thing. As “the earth is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly nature, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without artifice (2).” In this regard, earth is a giant natural space suit. However in seeking to “escape” from the earth, man must fashion its own artifice to move about and survive. This turning away from the earth and mother nature, is rooted in man’s desire to master his environment and create and earth in his own image under his control. She questions the wisdom this exchange of the human existence on earth, “a free gift from nowhere…for something he has made himself (3).”

Arendt’s goal is not necessarily to discuss the wisdom of space travel, or even the wisdom of escaping the confines of the earth. Rather, Arendt uses Sputnik as a tool to bring the focus onto society and its understanding of humanity. More specifically, she wants to bring the focus to labor, technology, and its effects on the human condition. Sputnik may seem to be a digression as she explicitly states that she will not even discsuss the “modern world,” however Sputnik remains highly relevant as it is the result of the human condition.

In her discussions of labor, work, and action she traces the roots of this development. Labor plays a crucial role in that animal laborans, merely faceless members of the human species, lack distinction. In their striving to become individuals, these members of the human species must be able to prolong their existence. In this manner, it is parallel to man’s attempts to break free of the earth and join the eternal orbiting satellites. Man as a species, is locked into an eternal cycle of birth, reproduction, and death necessery for the continual existence of the species. In their daily activities of providing substinence to continue to exist, man has become a faceless animal in the same manner as a dog or a cat. However in striving, to create individuals, man must be able to distinguish themselves individually and preserve that memory in the minds of others. Their primary means to do so, is through the creation of man-made worlds in which they can artificially preserve their existences. In this manner, the launch of Sputnik is one in the same, as man attempts to break free of the bonds of natural existences and join nature in its eternal existence. However men seek to become more than nature, men seek to become immortal gods by subjugating even the earth and eventually the stars to their technological know-how. In doing so, they will have mastered their surroundings and will have fabricated an environment in which they may forever prolong their memories. This is Arendt’s primary critique as she believes it is wholly misguided and man’s efforts will have significant negative consequences.

Public, Private…Google realm?

Like others have said, the prologue to The Human Condition stands out as a bit different from the chapters that follow…to say the least. Man’s eagerness and achievement of exploring areas outside of the earth is pronounced as his greatest accomplishment and basically due to the modern scientific world we will eventually become “thoughtless creatures” enslaved to the usage of our high tech gadgetry. Cool, sign me up, time to read on. Wait, now speech is involved? The relevance of speech promotes a political life in mankind…public and private realms…labor/work/action...what happened to the technology and alienation and the new age of not having to do labor? I want more of that! Enter, internet.

The internet did not become a public venture until the 80s and thus was a bit beyond Arendt’s time. Considering her emphasis on the satellite, it would be interesting to see what she thought of the current wave of technology and how it is affecting our public and private realms. Arendt does give a warning at the end of her prologue that states her intentions are with the modern age, not world, and thus will focus on the human condition, from its origin. So while The Human Condition focuses on the past to her present, it seems as if there would be just as much change from her present to ours currently. She claims her modern world to be one of “alienation” (6) it would be interesting to hear her reaction to our world today, living in the belly of the internet every day after day. Posting my homework online? *gasp* I like it!

For me it was impossible to read Arendt without relating it in my mind to the current world I live in. What the internet gives us in this day in age is a combination of both a public and private realm to interact within, and many of Arendt’s theories, in regards to both the public and private still apply. The internet can give man his privacy to fulfill his own selfish necessities but at the same time offer a society that can promote and increase the process of common wealth. It seems as if the internet is providing an endless source of public wealth, offered to a public that consists of the entire world.

Ardent states that “privacy lies in the absence of others” (58) and because of this, the person in private does not appear and thus does not seem to exist. Going against “action” means going against being what it is that separates us from animals. The internet introduces a way however in which man can interact with others, by action, but interestingly enough through privacy. While being secluded from the society around him, man can interact with others or create/expose information for others to see and experience themselves.

I switch my punctuation from stern, proud periods to timid, scared question marks as this little rant progresses because it still confuses me a little. It seems as if this makes it possible to have your freedom (in both senses; being an individual distinct from everyone else and while at the same time sharing an “equality”(33) in the sense of being connected with others in the same way online and free from the inequalities of the world, aka you’re just a screen name on the blog post like everyone else posting), as well as give to the common good/wealth of the society (through the sharing of knowledge or actual communication) .

The internet could just be a large example of the “social realm” (28) of Arendt’s modern time, neither public nor private. Would the internet act as its own society, a social realm in which anybody could live outside of their public/private life, or has the internet become simply another example of the private realm? She does state that in the modern world the two realms constantly overlap and mix with each other, however the massive growth of the internet and how it changes the way in which we interact and proceed in labor, work and action seems to deserve more of an individual definition than merely a combination of public/private/social realms.

The social realm that she speaks of is a realm that has taken over the public and private, the internet seems to be its own gateway into a new realm that depends on an independent social realm to create and maintain it, yet offers its own realm separate from the world to actually exist within. It’s as if it is another planet or a place outside of earth in which we inhabit. Does this eliminate the need for “societies” and “nations” or does it create its own new society that can coexist without privacy or politics, merely just the sharing of information? I’m not sure if that’s even possible. Society is a collection of families economically organized into a group, and a nation is the political organization within, but really both of these are contained within the internet at the same time, what seems to be in the same sphere, but also are disregarded due to the openness (for lack of better words) and freedom of it’s open web policy. It’s pretty much a “Come on in and do what you like, it’s your world” type of deal.

Time to go research on Google…

Friday, September 15, 2006

Artifice and Agency

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is forthcoming with regard to her work and its relationship to that of Karl Marx; much of Condition finds itself in dialogue with and engaged in a critique of Marx’s efforts towards mitigating and eventually abolishing the ignobility of biological necessity. Broadly speaking, while the work of both figures is concerned with securing a new type of freedom in the whole of worldly existence, Condition argues that the standardization of care for essential human needs, and that labor that is required to fulfill such needs, would subsume and annex the spaces of radical individuation from which individuals glean their worth and purpose. For Arendt, the work of Marx is problematic, if not misguided, as it fails to account for the crisis of identity which may arise from lifting the partitions between ‘work,’ ‘labor,’ and ‘action.’ As Arendt writes: “Within a completely ‘socialized’ mankind... the distinction between labor and work would have completely disappeared; all work would have become labor because all things would be understood, not in their worldly, objective quality, but as results of living labor power and functions of the life process” (pp. 89). (‘Labor’ being that toil which is solely for the purpose of sustaining the metabolic process, ‘Work’ being that which produces objects and artifacts onto the artifice of the World.)
Lurking beneath this critique (physically speaking--it comes smuggled in the form of a footnote) is a curious underworld, that of the beehive. Through an image evoked in the footnote that not only runs under the aforementioned quotation, but which reoccurs, perhaps unwittingly as a labyrinthesque, metaphorical subarchitecture, Arendt argues that, for Marx, “The ideal society is a state of affairs where all human activities derive as naturally from human ‘nature’ as the secretion of wax by bees for making the honeycomb; to live and to labor for life will have become one and the same...” (pp. 89). Furthermore, for Arendt, to standardize and minimize labor and the needs that it provides for is to strip the bees of their beehive, to demolish the theater of their collective individuation, only to leave the workers raw, exposed, and without direction.
That standing as it may, Arendt’s critique of Marx makes a number of problematic distinctions which reveal a bias of occupation, if nor morals. When Condition states that the Marxian freedom from labor is essentially a sort of existential quagmire, Arendt betrays the latent hierarchy of activity which largely structures her argument : that the work which humans may find themselves engaged in as a result of a windfall of time is somehow inferior, or frivolous compared to the ‘noble’ work of base, metabolic provision. Yet the question remains: how and why does the former activity fall out of the bounds of human necessity? Is art, or the viva contempletiva, somehow situated in merely ornamental manner, or are they as inseparable from human survival as the equalizing force of labor?
As Arendt recapitulates, again in a footnote, Marx was convinced that “Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason a silk worm produces silk” (pp. 100). It seems fair to speculate, then, that if humans were to, at the very least, be alleviated of even a very few of those things which bind their time and energy, they may find the space to manifest a Paradise Lost which otherwise would have been neglected or unthinkable. The catacombs of experience, the beehive of the World and of the human artifice, are comprised of individual cells which from a larger structure. What Arendt seems to neglect is the possibility that labor, work, that which cuts across human existence and that which could only be spun by a single individual, are as indistinguishable and indispensable as the cells of the bee’s honeycomb.
This is not to suggest that Arendt’s project is without merit or unaware of human nature; the aim of The Human Condition and the work of Marx rest next to each other in the hive of human artifice in a way that is autonomous and deeply interrelated. Both figures are seeking a way to provide an environment in which individuals would have the freedom to discover and emulate the most fully realized iterations of themselves by way of a new consideration of the manner in which labor effects the human condition. However, while Arendt seeks this freedom by both a distinguishing of labor and a shackling of human intelligibility to it, Marx looks towards an even surface in the heights of a branch, elevated in the growth of human progress, upon which individuals may spin their work.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Reminder: Arendt and Marx/Engels Today

We'll be completing the "Labor" chapter of The Human Condition today, and I would like for us to dwell on the question whether or not Arendt gets Marx "right" in her critique of him. Be sure to have read the passage in The German Ideology which I had you read for Tuesday. For the link, scroll down a few posts. Those of you who happen to have the Marx, either the book or a copy you have made from the online version, do please be sure to bring it to class this afternoon. See you soon.

Monday, September 11, 2006

If I'd been asked a few weeks ago whether a) Sputnik or b) the splitting of the atom were a more historically significant event, I'd have said B. I didn't live through it, nor was I really conscious enough about current events as a toddler to know that I was born into the end of the Cold War, but John Hersey's little book on Hiroshima was pretty frightening to me when I read it early on. A Simpsons episode about Springfield's nuclear power plant nearly melting down (d'oh!) gave me nightmares when I was 8. Hiroshima, Mon Amour has a few scenes so gruesome that I still can't watch them without turning away.

So I must admit, then, that when I read the Prologue to Arendt's The Human Condition a few weeks ago, I was dubious how Arendt could choose A. I mean... Sputnik 1 did what exactly? Hovered around the Earth for a few months? Sputnik 2 shot a dog into space, and while dogs in space is a pretty hilarious—if mildly inhumane—concept, 60,000 people died as a result of the bomb in Hiroshima; in Nagasaki, 75,000 more. I speculated she might have been making outrageous claims for the sake of selling books.

Bear with me here, there's an argument to come.

What I've come to realize, with patience and with a bit of reflective thought, is that the way in which Hannah Arendt considers the major events of the 20th C is very different than the way in which the press reports them. Though the central thesis of this text is primarily to show how these events—Sputnik or nuclear power, for example—are the result of technology catching up to a sense of world alienation that has existed since the polis days of Athens, I get a sense from reading Arendt that she would be the first to acknowledge that this isn't enough to understand them.

For Arendt, the significance of the first Sputnik isn't that Soviet scientists solved some complex calculus that would enable a chunk of metal to orbit the earth. Historical context could link this achievement to a long-running discourse on the subject of outgrowing or escaping the earth, but that alone is not the reason that Sputnik is the platform from which The Human Condition jumps into its ambitious project. Sputnik is important for what it foreshadows: there are allusions to the clamoring world superpowers which attuned to its radio broadcast with a peculiar mix of both awe and fear (which I think is a pretty distinctively 20th C concept); conversations about immortality reëmerge with this glistening spectacle; automation of human labor starts to seem less like a dystopian (or utopian) work of fiction and more like the potential headlines of some future decade.

Sputnik was a conversation starter. It revived old discourses and initiated new ones—not just about the political circumstances in which it was enmeshed, but about the possibilities of the future. And if it were possible to automate labor or live immortally, should we? When using our ever-increasing knowledge to enable what had previously been only in the realm of thought, will humankind ascend to Good? Or is the human condition in such a state of irreconcilable alienation that it will knowingly or unknowingly destroy itself? I've seen these questions debated with unbelievable ferocity lately.

It's in this context that I realized how much of a conversation killer atomic power is. All this talk of undoing ourselves and the dichotomy of knowledge and thought and the uneasiness of this dichotomy—this all accompanies atomic power, too, but unlike Sputnik, it's too sinister to foreshadow anything but annihilation. The only question that atomic power could ever really raise is basically 'will we all kill ourselves with it, or won't we?' Christ, what a depressing issue to debate.

It was only once this all sort of gelled earlier this evening while I was pensively BARTing that I actually contextualized the great temporal leap that she makes between current events and what they foreshadow in the Prologue and the polis-life of Athens in the Public and Private Realm and Labor: political entities thrive as a result of active conversation, and Sputnik was one of those great conversation starters that happens only perhaps a few times in a millenium that actually enables thought to develop at the pace of technology. There's still a dichotomy there, but what I think is so tremendously exciting is that we're witnessing an equilibration of the two in the wake of Sputnik and the technological hyperdrive we've since reached. Technology has shed much of its sinister connotations, and instead is showing signs of enlightened good. You see: here we are posting to a blog and reading a blog that is enabled by technology for the purpose of accelerated thought, action, and discourse. Surely I don't think Arendt could have envisioned a more noble use of technology than this.

Section 12 Question

I'm confused about what exactly Arendt is talking about on page 93 when she says that Marx's understanding of labor's productivity "is measured and gauged against the requirements of the life process for its own reproduction; it resides in the potential surplus inherent in human labor power". What is the surplus that she is talking about, and how is all that directly opposed to measuring labor in terms of "the quality or character of the things it produces"? Are there parts earlier or later in the text that provide illumination/definitions that I'm forgetting?

Arendt's Happy Medium Of Interaction?

We touched on this briefly in class, but I think the topic raises interesting questions when discussing the applications of Arendt.

At the beginning of Chapter II, Arendt states, "No human life, not even the life of the hermit in nature's wilderness, is possible without a world which directly or indirectly testifies to the presence of other human beings.” (p. 22)

Arendt, however, places constraints on the amount of interaction that should occur in a healthy society later in . “… [In] society, where the natural strength of one common interest and one unanimous opinion is tremendously enforced by sheer number, actual rule exerted by one man, representing the common interest and the right opinion, could eventually be dispensed with.” (p. 40) Again, in Chapter II, Arendt notes, “Large numbers of people, crowded together, develop an almost irresistible inclination towards despotism, be this the despotism of a person or of majority rule…” (p. 42) Arendt goes on to claim that group conformism and a mass disposition to tolerate non-behavior are partially responsible for her theories.

While it may not seem like the language necessarily contradicts, it seems like Arendt is not so much moving towards championing the public, but moving away from the extremes. In the context of Arendt’s experiences between, during, and after the two World Wars in Europe, the argument makes a certain amount of sense.

But a question must be asked: where is the happy medium that Arendt is looking for? Arendt may be just as concerned of man without men as she is of large groups of people, but Arendt does not qualify what a “large number” is (whereas solitude is somewhat more self-evident). Arendt does not mention how to keep this happy medium, or really how to tell when either society or the public is approaching a danger zone.

Arendt’s theory is also complicated with the advent of the Internet and its pervasive use today. The potential for online communication is nearly limitless, and although there may not be the ability to have a physical mob, the same dynamic could develop with millions of people obtaining their information from a limited number of sources. In peer-to-peer software sharing, files are often found through torrent library sites or centralized locations, giving implicit powers of control to the managers of those portals.

Finally, it must be asked whether or not Arendt’s statements reflect more of a correlation than causation. Do large numbers lead inevitably do mob rule? Or will the factors that brought those numbers together in the first place be a more important factor? Arendt does not necessarily address these concerns, opening up more questions to how the theories will continue to interact with a world arguably much different than the one in which The Human Condition was written.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Next Week's Reading and Discussion

As I mentioned already, next week we will be tackling Chapter 3 of Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition.

This is the "Labor" chapter in which Arendt engages in a provocative and sometimes quite idiosyncratic critique of Marx made possible by her own distinction of labor from both work and action. For Tuesday, we will be discussing the first four sections of the "Labor" chapter (hopefully this reading is already well underway), pp. 79-108; and then for Thursday we will be reading the final three sections, pp. 109-135.

In addition, I think it is a good idea to read at least some of the actual Marx with which Arendt is presumably in conversation here. And so, I am assigning the text you will find if you follow this link.

This will take you to Marx and Engels' The German Ideology, which Arendt cites very regularly in her discussion. The link will take you to Part I., Chapter 1, Section 2 "First Premises of Materialist Method," and I want you to be prepared to discuss this section and the next two as well, "History: Fundamental Conditions" and "Private Property and Communism," which essentially means reading from where the link takes you to the end of that section of the online document.

By the way, people, I want to hear more from you on the blog! Questions, comments, concerns, criticisms! And remember that your first assigned paper will soon be due. You will generate a 2-3pp. reading of a section or problem or figure or theme or what have you in the Arendt or in the Marx I have assigned so far, up through next week. Another possibility is that you might find an interesting argument by following one of the links on our blogroll into campaigns of environmental and network design. If you choose to write about something you find online, you need to let me know first so I can talk to you about it a bit.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

In class today, someone (I'm sorry for forgetting your name) suggested that Arendt is, by way of historical/phenomenological analogy, acting out Freud's 'Fort-Da' game as a means of somehow compartmentalizing or smoothing over history to suit her own theoretical framework. While I can see why one might see it that way, I'd like to offer that if Arendt is participating in the revisiting or recounting of wide-reaching and traumatic historical events, she is doing so in order to re-open time, to de-naturalize events and repercussions which have been made to seem, at the very least, inevitable. This is where she would appear to be openly in dialogue with Foucault's work, which was largely concerned with projects of reevaluation and repoliticization. In other words, it's possible that Arendt is not acting out a convoluted episode of talk therapy, but is arching back across political memory (starting from a contemporary vantage point) so as to position said events in new lights with new significance.