Month: March 2016

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, “Vita Activa and the Modern Age”

[I have been posting my recent lectures on Arendt’s political philosophy. A previous lecture on Part I and II of The Human Condition can be found here and here is another on the crucial chapter “Action.”]

“Vita Activa and the Modern Age”

16 March 2016

This last section of The Human Condition is the most wide ranging and often quixotic of the book. By this point, we have seen the triumph of animal laborans and the corollary rise of the social, which has upset the previous boundaries between labor, work, and action, which made politics in the West possible in the first place. The chapter is best framed between the twin phenomena of “world alienation” and “earth alienation.” Inasmuch as the world is the spacing of plurality among and between humans in the plural, world alienation is another word for the “homelessness” marked out in Origins of Totalitarianism, a homelessness that is endemic to the idle chatter of mass man, the utter loneliness of human beings in the age of capitalist urbanization, and the creation of statelessness that is the political story of the twentieth century. Earth alienation is marked by conquering the globe through its surveillance and measurement and mirrors the view that it is something to be made through experimentation, industry, and the work of homo faber. The first is a political problem par excellence, but no doubt in the latter we can see the problems of ecology whereby the earth is not something out of which we appear, but is that which we make appear through our instruments of coordination (GPS, satellites, latitude and longitude, etc.). World alienation is the result of the rise of the social while earth alienation is the “hallmark of natural science” (HC, 264). She writes:

What ushered in the modern age was not the age-old desire of astronomers for simplicity, harmony, and beauty…[but] the discovery, due to the new instrument, that Copernicus’ image of “the virile man standing in the sun…overlooking the planets” was much more than an image or a gesture, was in fact an indication of the astounding human capacity to think in terms of the universe while remaining on the earth, and the perhaps even more astounding human ability to use cosmic laws as guiding principles for terrestrial action. Compared with the earth alienation underlying the whole development of natural science in the modern age, the withdrawal from terrestrial proximity contained in the discovery of the globe as a whole and the world alienation produced in the twofold process of expropriation and wealth accumulation are of minor significance….Under the sign of earth alienation, every science, not only physical and natural science, so radically changed its innermost content that one may doubt whether prior to the modern age anything like science existed at all. (HC, 264)

In this way, we have alienation of world and alienation of the Earth, the domain out of which the world as such appears. But in these pages, one cannot help but get lost as Arendt ranges from Christian views of life to the quantification of the universe to consumerism to Cartesian doubt, and so on and so on. It is easy, then, to lose the thread of the narrative that Arendt is portraying here. Let’s see if we can pull them together, perhaps isolating them and then discussing the ways in which Arendt’s account can be made coherent, or at least be seen not to be running off the rails at the end in this last chapter:

✦  We have already mentioned world alienation, which is clearly at the heart of Arendt’s claims in this book. As we have seen, homo faber as man the maker gives some form of solidity to the vita activa and the endless processes of both labor (life as zôê) and action (life as bios). Homo faber builds a world, or rather produces that in which a world, by way of action, can appear through the web of relations of humans in the plural. As we have noted, with the loss of the private and the public, humans have lost “their place in the world” and capitalism was made possible with human beings’ “naked exposure to the exigencies of life,” which “created both original accumulation of wealth and the possibility of transforming this wealth into capital through labor” (HC, 255). Arendt’s claim is that the alienation of modernity is not that of human beings from their “species-being” or from the products of their labor, as Marx argued, but from the world as such, the place in which reality is what appears. The accumulation of wealth, the switchover from previous forms of economy to commodity capitalism and its “wealth accumulation” is “possible only if the world and the very worldliness of man are sacrificed” (HC, 256). Arendt marks out three major stages in this “world alienation”:

  1. First there is the loss of the “twofold protection of family and property” in early modernity, wherein the labor “market” was produced on the backs of the mass misery and “material wretchedness.”  This matches Arendt’s claims about the rise of “superfluous” men and labor in early capitalism, which was necessary for incipient imperialism. That is, the first step is the expropriation of a “private share in the world,” that is, the oikos in which one took care of life’s necessities.
  2. The second phase is when one was to be a member of a “social class.” The rise of the social, as Arendt calls it, “replaced the protection previously offered by membership in a family” (HC, 256). Where the family’s well-being was indexed to the spaces of the home, social well-being was indexed to the “territory of the nation-state,” which “offered all classes a substitute for the privately owned home of which the class of the poor had been deprived” (HC, 256). This would end in the era of nationalism just prior to “racism”–which had no boundaries, according to Arendt in Origins–and was premised on a thinking of a “homogeneity of the population” and “rootedness in the soil of a given territory,” which as we know was for her one of the historical conditions of possibility of totalitarianism. We will come to this again in the sections on the social in On Revolution and we have covered, I hope, the rise of the social enough for this to be clear.
  3. The third stage of this alienation is when there is the decline of the nation-state system and there is the transformation of humanity from an abstraction into a “really existing entity whose members at the most distant points of the globe” are joined in a common project that we would today call globalization. In short, we have won the globe and lost the world, which Arendt certainly seems to think requires what we’d dub the local: “men cannot become citizens of the world as they are citizens of their countries” (HC, 257). Marxists has long averred that despite the misery of imperialism and globalization, at the least human beings would not be separated by arbitrary borders, which had the upshot of shielding those with the same class interests from seeing past their national (and bourgeois) interests. Arendt had previously called for a right to have rights, where human beings have been “deprived not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion” (OT, 296). In this way, humans were not to be “depriv[ed] of a place in the world that makes opinions significant and actions effective” (OT, 296). Hence when Arendt calls for a “right to belong to some kind of organized community” (OT, 297) she does not mean a “world community” or some such, which would, I believe, for her require such a distance from where laws are made and the rule of no-one in the technocracy of a world economy (the European Union is a good example of this) that one would effectively be without spaces of actions. If Arendt, then, is a critic of the nation-state, we should not take her to think that the world need encompass the earth, which for her was equally spurious. Perhaps, to put a spin on her phrase that in politics it is “not man but men in the plural who inhabit the earth,” while resisting both universalism and nationalism, Arendt is arguing that in politics it “not a space but places in the plural that inhabit the earth.” As we have seen, Arendt highlights in her work crucial examples of spaces of action in her work: the Greek polis; revolutionary America and the council systems of participatory democracy, which we will see discussed in On Revolution; the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1956 Hungarian revolution, which operated in forms of participatory democracy that she held of supreme value. These offer direct modes of engagement, whereas representative democracy, such as in Canada but perhaps no longer in the E.U., replaces spaces of action with the handover of “power” to bureaucracies where there is the “rule of no-one.”

These, then, are the three stages of “world alienation.”

✦ This brings us to the “subjectivism of modern philosophy” (HC, 272). This subjectivism is well known. Arendt makes clear that philosophy does not make history, but nevertheless “it would be folly to overlook the almost too precise congruity of modern man’s world alienation” and this subjectivism. Arendt discusses most broadly Cartesian doubt, which as we know is the starting point of his Meditations and Arendt does not take us through to his certainty of bodily existence at the end of the sixth meditation. Nevertheless, she finds that this certainty from within the self comes at a cost. She writes:

Man, in other words, carries his certainty, the certainty of his existence, within himself; the sheer functioning of consciousness, though it cannot possibly assure a worldly reality given to the senses and to reason, confirms beyond doubt the reality of sensations and of reasoning, that is, the reality of processes which go on in the mind (HC, 280).

While mentioning Descartes, it’s more clear in the case of Kant (not least since in Descartes, I would argue, that there is no theory of the subject, which is founded in the latter thinker). The metaphor Arendt uses throughout this last section is Archimedes’s point, which was a place from which one could move the whole of the world. This point, Arendt claims, has been moved “into the mind of man,” where he can be “freed from given reality altogether–that is, from the human condition of being an inhabitant of the earth” (HC, 285). The reason she mentions Descartes is because he offers the double-sided mathematization of nature and the isolation of the cogito from that nature. In any event, we can recognize that Arendt is saying something tragic happened in Kantianism, which split existence between the phenomenal (that which appears) and the noumenal (reality beyond its appearances in itself). As most of you know, we can have certainty about what appears since they are guided by the concepts of the understanding, but Arendt argues that this certainty comes at the cost of a sensus communis, a common sense or common spacing of meaning that is nothing other than the world in Arendt’s view. Let’s look at two different quotations:

The very ingenuity of Cartesian introspection, and hence the reason why this philosophy became so all-important to the spiritual and intellectual development of the modern age, lies first in that it had used the nightmare of non-reality as a means of submerging all worldly objects into the stream of consciousness and its processes. The “seen tree” found in consciousness through introspection is no longer the tree given in sight and touch, an entity in itself with an unalterable identical shape of its own. By being processed into an object of consciousness on the same level with a merely remembered or entirely imaginary thing, it becomes part and parcel of this process itself, of that consciousness, that is, which one knows only as an ever-moving stream. (HC, 282)

Here, Arendt argues that modernity split appearance and reality, which as we all know, is the central axiom of Platonic philosophy. We will come back to this point, but in politics, in spaces of action and indeed, I think, in Arendt’s philosophy overall, being is appearance. The mathematization of nature discussed a bit further below splits us from the world as it is, since obviously our eyes deceive us at the level of Newtonian physics, let alone quantum mechanics and relativity theory where, as is often said, common sense is as much a help as a net is to collecting water. Now to the second quotation:

For common sense, which once had been the one by which all other senses, with their intimately private sensations, were fitted into the common world, just as vision fitted man into the visible world, now became an inner faculty without any world relationship. This sense now was called common merely because it happened to be common to all. What men now have in common is not the world but the structure of their minds, and this they cannot have in common, strictly speaking; their faculty of reasoning can only happen to be the same in everybody [my emphasis]. The fact that, given the problem of two plus two we all will come out with the same answer, four, is henceforth the very model of common-sense reasoning. Reason, in Descartes no less than in Hobbes, becomes “reckoning with consequences,” the faculty of deducing and concluding, that is, of a process which man at any moment can let loose within himself. The mind of this man-to remain in the sphere of mathematics-no longer looks upon “two-and-two-are-four” as an equation in which two sides balance in a self-evident harmony, but understands the equation as the expression of a process in which two and two become four in order to generate further processes. (HC, 283)

Again, this is less Descartes than Kant, since the last lines refer to a priori synthetic judgments, which are the heart of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and allows Kant to make reason creative of judgments previously disallowed by dogmatic metaphysics. Arendt then is making, I think, the claim that all attempts to divide being and appearance are politically disastrous. For Arendt, “man is the measure” or relativism is the result of reducing being to its measure, which goes along with a conjoined subjectivism about appearances: what appears to you is different than what appears to me, and so on, since these are things that cannot be, as appearance, but under a measure. In a common world, there is a circulation of sense and meaning such that there is no “me” per se that is opposed what is outside of it; this is what we should make of her claims for action not being the power of sovereign individuals but a web of relations. In this way, plurality does not lead to relativism but back to a common world in which sense circulates and creates meaning in the first place.

✦ This brings us to the mathematization of the universe. We saw above that this dovetails with Arendt’s claims about subjectivism. But Arendt’s claim is more broad and aligns with Martin Heidegger’s discussions in The Question Concerning Technology. There, Heidegger argues that since around Descartes we have seen a technological “enframing” (Gestell) in which all, including human beings, are quantified and are to be made efficient as a resource or standing-reserve. He writes that there is a “challenging [that] gathers man into ordering. This gathering concentrates man upon order the real as standing reserve” (QCT, 19). This clearly influences Arendt’s account of earth alienation. First, this occurs, Arendt claims, through the replacement of previous forms of reasoning with calculative reason or what she calls above “reckoning with consequences,” which is at the heart of “utilitarian” approaches to existence critiqued in this book’s last pages. For Arendt, mathematics allowed science to “look upon nature from a universal standpoint,” not from within a given place, and in this way the human replaces God as having “mastery over her” (HC, 268).

In this way, modern science removes any sense of place and based in algebra and beyond, it doesn’t even relate to space as geometric mathematics previously did. This is a crucial point and connect well to Arendt’s claim above about the world. Contemporary philosophers of place, such as Jeff Malpas and Edward S. Casey argue that there have been devastating effects of modernity’s “placeless” thinking–that thinking as such should be without a place. Arendt presages these claims by looking to the quantification of the world and the subjectivism that both had the effect of effacing each one’s relationship to his or her place in or as the world. She writes:

Under this condition of remoteness, every assemblage of things is transformed into a mere multitude, and every multitude, no matter how disordered, incoherent, and confused, will fall into certain patterns and configurations possessing the same validity and no more significance than the mathematical curve, which, as Leibniz once remarked, can always be found between points thrown at random on a piece of paper.

For these reasons, place is removed in the name of abstract space and no doubt we can also denote the specter of a future time in which human beings are treated as no more than points or numbers on a page. This mathematics, via calculus, gives us a thinking of the infinite, but Arendt details the ways in which we must not lose the importance of “earth-bound experience” and our finite relation to being in the world (HC, 265). It’s not clear, though, why this creation of “earth alienation” should be worse than the “world alienation” that she says is of “minor significance” in comparison (HC, 264). Let’s follow her a bit further:

For whatever we do today in physics whether we release energy processes that ordinarily go on only in the sun, or attempt to initiate in a test tube the processes of cosmic evolution, or penetrate with the help of telescopes the cosmic space to a limit of two and even six billion light years, or build machines for the production and control of energies unknown in the household of earthly nature, or attain speeds in atomic accelerators which approach the speed of light, or produce elements not to be found in nature, or disperse radioactive particles, created by us through the use of cosmic radiation, on the earth-we always handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth. Without actually standing where Archimedes wished to stand (dos moi pou stô), still bound to the earth through the human condition, we have found a way to act on the earth and within terrestrial nature as though we dispose of it from outside, from the Archimedean point. And even at the risk of endangering the natural life process we expose the earth to universal, cosmic forces alien to nature’s household. (HC, 262)

I’d surmise several reasons why this “earth alienation” is “far worse”:

(1) first, the mathematization of the universe gave us all sorts of natural determinisms, where calculative reasoning had “to leave out the unexpected, the event itself, since it would unreasonable or irrational to expect what is no more than ‘infinite improbability’” (HC, 300). Nothing is more foreign to Arendt’s philosophy than one that disallows a thinking of the event and the birth of the new that is the mark of freedom.

(2) Arendt in these pages argues that in the modern age there was a reversal of the vita contempliva and the the vita activa. That is, at the beginning of the modern age, homo faber came to the fore and the world was “instrumentalized” (HC, 305). In this way, homo faber’s “reckoning” or calculative reason replaced the contemplation of existence–so useless for production, so damn inefficient to university accountants–and with it a vital aspect of the human condition. However, once happiness came to the center, it was life itself (animal laborans) that was the privileged mode of the vita activa (recall the the vita contempliva is theoretical thought; the vita activa is the tripartite life of labor, work, and action). That is, life became the highest good and human beings themselves could fall under the “reckoning with consequences.” As Arendt argues, “the trouble with modern behaviorism,” the science that would quantify psychological reactions to phenomena, “is not that they are wrong but that the could become true [my emphasis], that they are the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society” (HC, 322). No doubt, as iphone apps and such quantify our intakes of calories and medications and graphs our outputs in terms of exercise, we don’t need to be told about the goals of this quantification and the efficient machines we make of ourselves. “It is quite conceivable,” Arendt continues, “that the modern age–which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity–may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known” (HC, 322). Arendt is clear that this “behaviorism” is itself a distantiation “from our own human existence” (HC, 323). As such this quantification at the heart of “earth alienation” leads to the quantification of any “self.”

(3) This earth alienation as such is the condition of possibility for any world alienation, since it leads to the destruction of that out of which one creates the latter.

(4) Arendt argues that earth alienation has ended with human not just quantifying nature, but acting into it. No doubt, she has in mind the atomic bomb and the beginning of ecological catastrophes that are the daily background of the modern condition. In this way, we can see quite literally how we are threatening the destruction of any world in which action takes place through an earth alienation that is another name for its destruction. Kelly Oliver summarizes this nicely:

What Arendt calls earth alienation is caused by the scientific worldview symbolized by Einstein’s “observer who is poised freely in space” (HC, 195, 273). The view from the universe gives us the illusion that we are not earthbound creatures but universal citizens who can leave earth. …With science, we think that the given world is man-made or can become man-made. We think that we create the earth and its raw materials…In a sense, earth alienation is the result of scientific hubris and the disavowal of the limits of the human condition. (Earth and World, 98)

Here, in another work written not long after The Human Condition, Arendt pulls these many of these threads together and summarizes the powerful critique of the entirety of her book:

The modern age, with its growing world-alienation, has led to a situation where man, wherever he goes, encounters only himself. All the processes of the earth and the universe have revealed themselves as either man-made or as potentially man-made. …This two-fold loss of the world–the loss of nature and the loss of human artifice in the widest sense, which would include all history–has left behind it a society of men who, without a common world which would at once relate and separate them, either live in desperate lonely separation or are pressed together into a mass. For a mass-society is nothing more than that kind of organized living which automatically establishes itself among human beings who are still related to one another but have lost the world once common to all of them. (BPF, 89-90)

No doubt, the language is apocalyptic: we are looking at no less than the end of the world. The French word for globalization is mondialisation, which can be considered as a “making of the world [monde],” a making of the world in the image of a global capitalism, which would hardly be a world at all. We know the stakes–politically, ecologically–of this mondialisation and Arendt’s Human Condition offers an earth-bound, all too worldly, if not mundane, accounting of how to think the world differently.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, “Action”

Political Philosophy

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition


[I have been posting my recent lectures on Arendt’s political philosophy. A previous lecture on Part I and II of The Human Condition can be found here.]

“This space does not always exist,” Arendt writes about the spaces of action, “and although all men are capable of deed and word, most of them-like the slave, the foreigner, and the barbarian in antiquity, like the laborer or craftsman prior to the modern age, the jobholder or businessman in our world–do not live in it. No man, moreover, can live in it all the time” (HC, 199). But though it is perhaps uncommon or indeed rare and rarefied, this space is all important for Arendt: “To be deprived of it means to be deprived of reality, which, humanly and politically speaking, is the same as appearance. To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all” (ibid.) Today we take up the all-important chapter on Action in The Human Condition, which offers her positive account of the political over and against her writings understanding the death of politics in totalitarianism. We have come to this section after reviewing two other modes of the vita activa, the life of labor (zôê on Arendt’s rendering), which is cyclical and indicative of our common animality, and the life of homo faber, the solitary figure who produces art and homes, shoes and crosswalks, in short, the artificial world in which we live. While often discussed as celebratory of action–there is little doubt that her account at times has a literally religious fervor–she is clear about the courage action takes and the fact that with action comes with sorrows, as the epigram from Isak Dinesan that opens the chapter shows, that “can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them” (HC, 175). The passage also points to the importance of narrative in Arendt’s account and she seems to be pulling together different, interpretively related claims: (1) human beings and not a human being inhabit the earth and this plurality is a specific mark of what is peculiarly human; (2) Human beings do not have a shared essence and though public spaces are not always available for action, when they are available, politics is an end in itself and should never be a means to a further end beyond it; (3) Action always produces a a “who” found in the narration of events; (4) the action of each person is akin or a replication with the public space of the event of natality, which produces something new in the world irreducible to the chain of causes and effect; (5) the political tradition has had a myopic wish to replace action (praxis), because of its unpredictability, with making (poiêsis), which has led to all manner of utopian thinking that wishes to do away with political plurality in order to re-make the world. Despite or because of the holes of oblivion she had written about in Origins and other earlier texts, Arendt still believes in miracles, though they are always miracles of this world in her precise meaning:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.” (HC, 247)

I could circle around this passage endlessly, given her resurrection, as you have read, of Jesus of Nazareth as an important political and not as a religious figure and not as someone whose followers would end up trying to make all politics subservient to something beyond (e.g., Augustine’s City of God). Natality is the central term in this chapter, marking a principle or archê of beginning that ontologically roots all action. We do not have faith and hope in another world, but in what we do in this world, through the creation of deeds and the speaking of words that performs the freedom and equality that is fully spatialized in the web of relations described by Arendt. As she notes throughout this chapter, where there are sovereignty and self-mastery, there is no freedom, and freedom and natality are premised on being among others in unpredictable sets of circumstances. In this way, Arendt does not think freedom as a personal capacity, nor as something the merely follows from what laws do not disallow, that is, the freedoms we supposedly enjoy in our homes.

Nowhere, in other words, neither in labor, subject to the necessity of life, nor in fabrication, dependent upon given material, does man appear to be less free than in those capacities whose very essence is freedom and in that realm which owes its existence to nobody and nothing but man. It is in accordance with the great tradition of Western thought to think along these lines: to accuse freedom of luring man into necessity, to condemn action, the spontaneous beginning of something new, because its results fall into a predetermined net of relationships, invariably dragging the agent with them, who seems to forfeit his freedom the very moment he makes use of it. The only salvation from this kind of freedom seems to lie in non-acting, in abstention from the whole realm of human affairs as the only means to safeguard one’s sovereignty and integrity as a person. (HC, 234)

The reason for this is that in a web of relations, one sets of chains of events for which one is responsible and is always responding in ways completely unpredictable, as if one had no control over a given situation. If Arendt is first and foremost a thinker of responsibility it is because ontologically one is always born in such a way as to be responding to others, and thus to be taking on deeds that one did not begin and sending them along through more actions whose results are limitless. The political tradition, Arendt avers, privatized freedom, brought it out of the web of relations of human beings in the plural, and premised it on one’s self-mastery, which she argues, is always a fiction in any case. She continues from the above:

If we leave aside the disastrous consequences of these recommendations. (which materialized into a consistent system of human behavior only in Stoicism), their basic error seems to lie in that identification of sovereignty with freedom which has always been taken for granted by political as well as philosophic thought. If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth-and not, as the tradition since Plato holds, because of man’s limited strength, which makes him depend upon the help of others. All the recommendations the tradition has to offer to overcome the condition of non-sovereignty and win an untouchable integrity of the human person amount to a compensation for the intrinsic “weakness” of plurality. Yet, if these recommendations were followed and this attempt to overcome the consequences of plurality were successful, the result would be not so much sovereign domination of one’s self as arbitrary domination of all others, or, as in Stoicism, the exchange of the real world for an imaginary one where these others would simply not exist. (HC, 234)

Arendt argues that action is always opposed to violence, which ends it, and tyrants always look to dissolve the public realm. But it is political philosophy since Plato that has always been anti-political, substituting making for acting, which has always been the claims of efficiency and order that “the more consistently and better reasoned it is, will turn into an argument against the essentials of politics” (HC, 220). That is, we replace action, an end in itself, for making, for producing a given eidos or idea just as an artisan produces the form in his mind by breaking up the world. This means we separate means and ends, which Arendt argues always ends up meaning that any means can be sanctioned for the greatest end, a point that all manner of utopian politics and their violence seem to lend credence. Indeed, she argues, we must never give into the belief that politics is about making:

We are perhaps the first generation which has become fully aware of the murderous consequences inherent in a line of thought that forces one to admit that all means, provided they are efficient, are permissible and justified to pursue something defined as an end…As long as we believe that we deal with ends and means in the political realm, we shall not be able to prevent anybody’s using all means to pursue recognized ends. (HC, 229)

We build our castles in the sky and given this idea’s supposed greatness, all manner of means are sustainable for this end. But there is a stronger point to make: rather than seeing the persuasion, plurality, and frailty of action as leaving all manner of “ends” up to those operating “democratically” within a given public realm, the philosopher always want to give to the public realm its proper and perfected shape, cutting off the rabble in their discussions and frail actions, which for Arendt is precisely the performance of freedom and equality that adheres to human dignity. Arendt’s claim is that Plato and a whole slew of philosophers after him took the earlier Greek notion of archê, which Aristotle used to mean ruling principle, and transformed it from something like “leading” into “ruling”–thus all the talk in Aristotle, as we saw, on the relation, even democracies, of ruling and being ruled (archein and archesthai) by turns (kata meros). The result is that politics came to be seen less as a space of action than a top-down ruling the obviated the need for persuasion and such. By looking at the pre-polis experience of the Greeks, Arendt is not laying down her own eidos for what politics should be, since that too should be up to the come what may of any given set of relations. Rather, she wants to show a counter-tradition, another thinking of the political than available in the contemporary period or in the political tradition. She is not blind to the problems of Athenian democracy–her diagnosis of slavery and precisely what was lost in it is among the best on a horrific topic–but wants to show how mutual persuasion and being-together, how a frail web of relations was betrayed by the philosophers forming schools (Plato and Aristotle) on grounds not far from these spaces of action. Arendt also argues that the tradition’s trepidation over political action was matched in her analyses of totalitarianism and the rise of the social in the modern world, where places of civic freedom and responsibility were shuttered while other parts of the human condition, notably the life processes of labor, moved to center stage. Thus in the U.S. and Canada one thinks of freedom as freedom from politics, while in the social democratic states of Western Europe, freedom is seen to result from the bureaucratic administration of the life processes. Arendt calls this a “world alienation” from spaces of appearance in the modern age (HC, 209). She writes:

This, however, is not to say that they are free to dispense with a public realm altogether, for without a space of appearance and without trusting in action and speech as a mode of being together, neither the reality of one’s self, of one’s own identity, nor the reality of the surrounding world can be established beyond doubt. The human sense of reality demands that men actualize the sheer passive givenness of their being, not in order to change it but in order to make articulate and call into full existence what otherwise they would have to suffer passively anyhow. This actualization resides and comes to pass in those activities that exist only in sheer actuality. The only character of the world by which to gauge its reality is its being common to us all, and common sense occupies such a high rank in the hierarchy of political qualities because it is the one sense that fits into reality as a whole our five strictly individual senses and the strictly particular data they perceive. It is by virtue  of common sense that the other sense perceptions are known to disclose reality and are not merely felt as irritations of our nerves or resistance sensations of our bodies. A noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world. (HC, 208-9)

In short for Arendt, with the rise of the social, we have the mistaken emphasis on the life processes and the immemorable and superfluous emphasis on any but great words and deeds, or the creation of something beyond the “normalized behavior” of “mass man” producing his “idle chatter.” This era is also one of profound loneliness, Arendt claims, where sameness rules, excellence is leveled out, and spaces for being different are rare.

But this is not to say that space for action have completely disappeared, and therefore places of responsibility are not activated. For Arendt wherever human beings in the plural exist, there is action, and the myth of the strongman who rules over all is just that. In this way, I think, there is only rarely a zero degree of action, of mutual persuasion and the doing of deeds, which one finds in the camps. But if sovereignty is a myth and human beings always have the capacity for creating something new in webs of relations with others, this also means that while we are ever fragile, we are also always responsible for how we act when we acquiesce to the strong man, give comfort the strong, and turn away when holes of oblivion begin their (non)appearance. For Arendt, there are means, such as social contracts, for making promises, i.e., frameworks or institutions, that give predictability to the public realm, but we should never accept these means of lawmaking as a replacement for the action of politics:

The danger and the advantage inherent in all bodies politic that rely on contracts and treaties is that they, unlike those that rely on rule and sovereignty, leave the unpredictability of human affairs and the unreliability of men as they are, using them merely as the medium, as it were, into which certain islands of predictability are thrown and in which certain guideposts of reliability are erected. The moment promises lose their character as isolated islands of certainty in an ocean of uncertainty, that is, when this faculty is misused to cover the whole ground of the future and to map out a path secured in all directions, they lose their binding power and the whole enterprise becomes self-defeating. We mentioned before the power generated when people gather together and “act in concert,” which disappears the moment they depart. (HC, 244)

For Arendt this is power, which wilts quickly in the face of violence, which brings necessity into a space of freedom. There are many contemporary thinkers looking to “unwork” our notions of politics–Giorgio Agamben and Jean-Luc Nancy comes quickly to mind–which for them means not reducing the spacing of difference and plurality in the name of an overarching work that the politics is to get done. And despite the bureaucratized spacing of our geographies, and despite all that the tradition has meant to shut down in terms of the loud and chatty spaces of persuasion, and despite all that violence has wrought in the last century and before, there is action wherever a few look to persuade others, to remake the world in another image, to contest the homogenized spaces produced by neoliberal economics. We see such spaces open when Black Lives Activists comes together to persuade each other and others, or when masses gather to protest a brutal regime in Tahrir Square in Cairo, or, to cite Arendt’s examples, the Danish resist the Nazis, the U.S. Civil Rights Movements changes a whole nation’s thinking about race, the activists take on their Soviet government during Hungarian Revolution of 1956, people stand against the Vietnam war in the 1960s, and on and on. At each point, Arendt notes, quoting René Char, it is as if a situation is faced without previous testament: actions must be taken where there is perhaps only hope for a miracle. And no doubt all of these movements had larger political goals, and yet it is the movement of these actions themselves, of their performance of freedom and equality, that gives me hope and faith, as in Arendt, here and now, for another world, where politics is not about what work is to be done.


Harman on Latour on God and Metaphysics


Graham has a post up on Latour and metaphysics. I’m doing a reading course with a PhD student on Latour’s work this semester and Graham’s take is largely true: he’s a metaphysician at times, not when he’s about to be trapped, or perhaps better put, he doesn’t accept the dominant model of truth of Western metaphysics. In May, I’ll give a lecture in French in Montreal at a two-day workshop on Latour where I’ll look at this more closely (and get a chance to hear others working more thoroughly through Latour in other disciplines), since I want to underline a certain notion of truth that Western metaphysics has in the main disavowed (since it wants to be a third party on the scene), which some have called Sophistic but is even earlier in terms of Homeric notions of the trial. I’ll post a link to that program when it’s online, but here’s the abstract:

Dans son cours de l’année 1970-71, Michel Foucault a identifié deux conceptions fondamentales de la vérité. Premièrement, il y a la notion de vérité qui a produit la philosophie, ce qu’on déclare comme si par un tiers qui juge objectivement et ne participe pas à ce qui est étudié. Mais en revanche, Foucault a aussi identifié une conception de la vérité dans les textes d’Homère et  d’autres figures de l’époque archaïque de la Grèce antique. Cette autre conception de la vérité fut  produite d’une situation de contestation, dans un espace  d’argon. Cette notion de vérité, nous
 le savons bien, ce trouve chez les Sophistes. Le but de cette présentation est de démontrer la façon dont Bruno  Labour travail à partir d’une conception de la vérité qui précède la naissance de la philosophie occidentale, tel que Foucault nous la identifié. L’objet n’est pas de dénoncer Latour comme sophiste, dans le but d’éviter l’étude de son oeuvre. Plutôt, j’aimerai démontrer l’importance et la rigueur desa pensée, et non seulement en ce qui concerne les sciences, comme se fait trop souvent d’ailleurs, mais aussi pour analyser sa philosophie en ce qui a trait à la sémiologie et la réalité matérielle des signes. 

This brings me to Graham’s other point:

Another point to consider… Latour is a practicing Roman Catholic. This entails belief in God, and such belief normally entails belief in a real omnipotent entity that exists outside the mind. Yet this is not Latour’s concept of God. His concept  has nothing to do with the mode of existence he calls [REF], a scientific mode that enables us to link actors in such a way as to approach the strange and the distant. Instead, Latour’s concept of God is a purely immanent one (as far as I can tell), a God that does not exist outside the processions and rituals that make God present. Now, this is a pretty huge sacrifice to make in comparison with mainstream religious belief: denying the very existence of a God-in-itself outside all networks. What could possibly lead Latour to adopt such a position? A mere methodological devotion to empiricism? Hardly. The reason is that he simply does not think that anything could exist in a non-relational sense.

It turns out that in May, again, I’ll be presenting on Latour’s theology with that same PhD student doing the reading course at MUN’s annual religious studies conference. Graham’s “as far as I can tell” is about as far as I’ve gotten but that’s a couple of months off.

Source: on Bruno Latour and metaphysics | Object-Oriented Philosophy

The Biopolitics of Birth: Michel Foucault, the Groupe Information Santé and the Abortion Rights Struggle – in Viewpoint Magazine | Progressive Geographies

“The Biopolitics of Birth: Michel Foucault, the Groupe Information Santé and the Abortion Rights Struggle” – in Viewpoint Magazine (open access). This is an edited excerpt from th…

Source: The Biopolitics of Birth: Michel Foucault, the Groupe Information Santé and the Abortion Rights Struggle – in Viewpoint Magazine | Progressive Geographies

Events at MUN this week

Tuesday starts a busy week at 4:30 with the Philosophy Colloquium. Patrick Renaud will be giving a paper entitled, “Some Remarks on Quentin Meillassoux’s Divinology.” (SN 2098)

At 8:30 pm, the Public Lecture Series in Philosophy continues at the Ship Inn. PhD Candidate Kyla Bruff will be speaking on “‘Everone gets a B’: What’s the Point of an Education in the Humanities if I Can’t Fail?” Y

On Thursday at 4 pm, The Future, the Arts, and Ecology begins, with Professor Heather Eaton giving a keynote address in the Great Hall of Queen’s College. The title of the talk is  “Earth Democracy: Ecology, Ethics, and Spirituality for a Viable Future.” Dr. Michelle Rebidoux will give a response, followed by a wine and cheese reception. This portion of the three-day event is co-sponsored by Philosophy and Queen’s College (Faculty of Theology). 

Friday at 9 am in the Junior Common Room, the Philosophy Department will host a special lecture as part of a day long workshop dedicated to interdisciplinary ecology. Dr. Antoine Guggenheim (Bernardine College, Paris), will give a talk entitled “Creation as Relation: Cosmos, Unity, and Diversity in Aquinas.”

Many other events are planned, including especially an evening with Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue in the Rocket Room Thursday at 7 pm. The event closes with presentations, performances and a reception at the Rooms on Saturday evening from 5 pm to 7:30 pm. This will include a remembering of the Future of Nature Gros Morne (with a short film of the event being shown). 

The full schedule of events is here: