Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Death and the Public Realm


"There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity."

-Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition,

Hannah Arendt was one of the first to remark upon the loss of the public realm, or what Jürgen Habermas called the public sphere.  As indicated by the terms realm and sphere, along with related phrases such as public space and public sector, we are referring here to a kind of environment, or as Arendt puts it, "the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it" (p. 52). The private realm, the subject of a previous post of mine (The Deprivations of Privacy) is defined in relation (and opposition) to the public, but both are differentiated from the natural environment according to Arendt.  Both are human artifacts, human inventions:

To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it: the world like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time. (p. 52)

The table is an apt metaphor, as it has the connotation of civilized discourse, and a willingness to sit down for peaceful negotiation. Indeed, it is much more than a metaphor, as the table does create a shared space for individuals, a medium, if you will, around which they can communicate. But the table also keeps individuals separate from one another, establishing a buffer zone that allows for a sense of safety in the company of individuals who might otherwise be threatening.  Sitting at a table restricts the possibilities of sudden movement, providing some assurance that the person seated across from you will not suddenly spring at you with sword or knife in hand, especially if both parties keep their hands visible on the table top. No wonder, then, that as the practice of sitting around a table for a meal emerges in the Middle Ages, it becomes the focal point for what Norbert Elias refers to as the civilizing process.


The table is a medium, an in-between, as Arendt puts it, and each medium in its own way serves as a means by which individuals connect and relate to one another, and also are separated and kept apart from one another.  In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan expressed the same idea in saying that all media, meaning all technologies and human innovations, are extensions of some aspect of individuals, but at the same time are amputations.  As I have explained elsewhere, the medium that extends us into the world comes between us and the world, and in doing so becomes our world. Or as I like to put it, with apologies to McLuhan, the medium is the membrane.

The public realm then is a shared human environment, a media environment. As Arendt explains,

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. (p. 50)

Paul Watzlawick has argued that our reality is constructed through our communication, rather than mere reflected or represented by our messages. And this means that our reality is shaped by our means of communication, our media.  It is through publicity that we create the public realm.  And for the public realm to exist, there must also be the possibility for some communication to take place privately, in a context where it cannot be seen and heard by everybody, where there are barriers to people's perception and their access to information, what Erving Goffman referred to as the back region.

The public realm is not a media environment we typically associate with tribal societies, where the distinction between public and private is, for the most part, non-existent.  Rather, it is strongly tied to the city as a human environment (and a medium of communication in its own right).  Lewis Mumford insightfully observed that cities are a type of container technology, indeed the container of containers, and what they contain includes great concentrations of population.  As settlements evolved into the first urban centers in the ancient world, they gave rise to the first true crowds and mobs, and also to audiences made up of people who do not necessarily know one another, or have strong social ties to each other.

These new kinds of audiences required a new form of communication:  public address.  They required new kinds of physical environments:  the agora, the forum, the marketplace.  And they required new forms of education:  the art of rhetoric.

The invention of writing is intimately bound up in all of these developments.  Without reasonably well-developed systems of notation, human populations were not able to handle the complexity of large populations. In tribal societies, as population increases, groups split up in order to keep their affairs manageable.  Writing, as a container for language, whose primary form is the spoken word, develops side by side with the city as container, and allows for the control and coordination of large populations and diverse activities.  And writing, in allowing language to be viewed and reviewed, made it possible to refine the art of public address, to study rhetoric and instruct others in the techniques of oratory, as did the Sophists in ancient Greece.  It is no accident that the introduction of the Greek alphabet was followed by the first forms of study, including rhetoric and grammar, and by the first forms of democracy.

Writing also has the peculiar effect of introducing the idea of the individual, of breaking people apart from their tribal, group identity. The ability to take one's thoughts, write them down, and observe them from the outside, made it possible to separate the knower from the known, as Eric Havelock put it, which also separated individuals from their traditions.


Written law, beginning with Hammurabi and Moses, took judicial matters out of the concrete realm of proverbs and parables, and reasoning by analogy, opened the door to the view that everyone is equal, as an individual, before the law.  The fact that literacy also facilitated increasingly more abstract modes of thought also was of great importance, but the simple act of reading and writing alone, in isolation, had much to do with the genesis of individualism.

The origin of the public realm is closely tied to the medium of the written word, in highly significant but limited ways. Script gave us the civic public, rooted in rhetoric, but it was the printing revolution in early modern Europe that made the public intro a national, mass phenomenon. As McLuhan noted in his preface to The Gutenberg Galaxy,

Printing from movable types created a quite unexpected new environment—it created the PUBLIC.  Manuscript technology did not have the intensity or power of extension necessary to create publics on a national scale.  What we have called "nations" in recent centuries did not, and could not, precede the advent of Gutenberg technology any more than they can survive the advent of electric circuitry with its power of totally involving all people in all other people. (p. ii)

A reading public is quite different from a listening public, as readers are separated in time and space from one another, and this form of mediation also had the effect of making individualism a ruling ideology.  And yes, Habermas did place a great deal of emphasis on people gathering in public places like coffee shops to discuss and debate the issues of the day, but they did so based on what they read in print media such as newspapers, pamphlets, and the like. Moreover, historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explained in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, the printers' shops were the first places that people gathered for such intellectual exchanges, long before they gravitated to the coffee shops and taverns.  The point is that the content of these discussions were based on typographic media, the mindset of the discussants was shaped by print literacy, and both were situated within the print media environment.  Within such an environment, a population of individuals could gain common access to ideas and opinions through print media, which in turn could provide the basis for political action; in this way publics came into being.

Publics were formed by publicity, and publicity was achieved through publication.  As much as books, pamphlets, catalogs, calendars, periodicals, and all manner of ephemera were the products of the printing press, so too, as McLuhan observed, was the reading public.  Print technology gave us our first form of mass communication, characterized by wide and relatively rapid dissemination of multiple, identical copies of the same text, a democratizing process, as Walter Benjamin observed.

But printing also created a new sense of immortality, of the author's words living on through the ages, and of posterity as the ultimate judge.  Elizabeth Eisenstein explains that the very multiplication of texts, however perishable any single copy might be, established what she referred to as the preservative powers of print far beyond anything previously known.  This idea of immortality goes hand in hand with the rise of a new kind of historical consciousness, which also emerged out of print culture.

Eternity, by way of contrast, is situated outside of historical time, within what Mircea Eliade calls sacred time. It is a time that looks back towards the moment of creation or a golden age. Through ritual, we can step out of the profane time of everyday life, and in enacting the myth of eternal return enter the sacred time that intersects with all of history—in this sense always a part of it and yet at the same time apart from it.

Traditional cultures look backward to creation or the golden age as a time superior to the present, a time they strive to reclaim.  Oral cultures are particularly associated with a cyclical understanding of time.  The invention of writing makes possible first chronology, then historical narrative, and this opens the door to the idea of progress. The shift begins with the biblical narrative in ancient Israel, and the secular history writing of ancient Greece and Rome.  But a complete reversal in orientation from looking to the past as the ideal towards anticipating the future as a continual process of getting better, perhaps culminating in utopia, is closely associated with the printing revolution and the modern world it gave rise to.  This is, in turn, superseded by a present-centered orientation brought on by the electronic media, as I have discussed in On the Binding Biases of Time.  The instantaneity and immediacy of electronic communication not only moves our focus from history and futurity to the present moment, but it translates the remembered past and the anticipated future into the present tense, the now of the computer program and digital simulation.

Arendt's insight that the loss of a concern with immortality is intimately bound up with the loss of the public realm implies a common denominator, specifically the electronic media environment that has superseded the typographic media environment. If literacy and print go hand in hand with citizenship, civics, and the public realm, what happens when these media are overshadowed by electronic technologies, from the telegraph and wireless to radio and television now to the internet and mobile technology?


We still use the word public of course, but we have seen a great blurring of the boundaries between public and private, the continuing erosion of privacy but also a loss of the expectation that dress, behavior, and communication ought to be different when we are in a public place, and that there are rules and obligations that go along with being a part of a public.  And we have experienced a loss of our longstanding sense of individualism, replaced by an emphasis on personalization; a loss of citizenship based on equality, replaced by group identity based on grievance and all manner of neo-tribalism; a loss of traditional notions of character and personal integrity, replaced by various forms of identity construction via online profiles, avatars, and the like; the loss of separate public and private selves, replaced by affiliations with different lifestyles and media preferences.

As consumers, members of audiences, and participants in the online world, we live for the moment, and we do so with disastrous results, economically, ethically, and ecologically.  Arendt suggests that, "under modern conditions, it is indeed so unlikely that anybody should earnestly aspire to an earthly immortality that we probably are justified in thinking it is nothing but vanity" (p. 56).  Along the same lines, Daniel Boorstin in The Image argued that the hero, characterized by greatness, has been replaced by the celebrity, characterized by publicity, famous for appearing on the media rather than for any accomplishments of historical significance.  Heroes were immortal. Celebrities become famous seemingly overnight, and then just as quickly fade from collective consciousness. Heroes, as Boorstin describes them, were known through print media; celebrities make up the content of our audiovisual and electronic media.  These are the role models that people pattern their lives after.

Arendt explains that a public realm " cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life span of mortal men" (p. 55). And she goes on to explain,

It is the publicity of the public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men may want to save from the natural ruin of time. Through many ages before us—but now not any more—men entered the public realm because they wanted something of their own or something they had in common with others to be more permanent than their earthly lives. (p. 55)

Without this concern with a public realm that extends across history from the past into the future, what becomes of political action based on the common good, rather than private interests?

With the loss of any concern with immortality, have we witnessed not merely the erosion, but the irrevocable death of the public realm?

And perhaps most importantly of all, without the existence of a public, can there still exist, in something more than name only, a republic?

-Lance Strate


Arendt & Gun Control

In The Stone yesterday Firmin DeBrabander references Hannah Arendt to buttress his argument for gun control in the wake of the tragic massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve wanted to avoid turning a true tragedy into a political cause, but DeBrabander’s thoughtful essay merits a response.

The thrust of DeBrabander’s reflection is that the presence of guns in society does not promote freedom. He is responding to the pro-gun argument that, in his words, “individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty.” In other words, guns make us independent and give us the power to protect ourselves and thus the freedom to take risks and to live boldly. Against this view he enlists Arendt:

In her book “The Human Condition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that “violence is mute.” According to Arendt, speech dominates and distinguishes the polis, the highest form of human association, which is devoted to the freedom and equality of its component members. Violence — and the threat of it — is a pre-political manner of communication and control, characteristic of undemocratic organizations and hierarchical relationships. For the ancient Athenians who practiced an incipient, albeit limited form of democracy (one that we surely aim to surpass), violence was characteristic of the master-slave relationship, not that of free citizens.

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand parts of this argument. First, yes, “violence is mute.” Arendt does insist that violence cannot create conditions of political power. Power, on the contrary, has its roots in speech and action, by which Arendt means that any political regime lives upon the continuing support of its people, something that only persists amidst freedom. Political support does not issue from the barrel of a gun.

DeBrabander’s last point that guns chasten speech is also suspect. Revolutionaries have long found guns helpful, not only because they can kill, but because they command attention. When weaker elements of society have been overlooked or overheard, they have traditionally found weapons and guns a useful megaphone. There are of course other megaphones like civil disobedience. I may prefer the latter to the former. But that doesn’t erase the fact that guns can equalize an unequal political playing field and can, and often are, symbolically important. Political support may not issue from the barrel of a gun, but attention for one’s platform might very well.

But what does any of this have to do with gun violence like what happened in Newtown last week?  The muteness of violence in politics that DeBrabander highlights does not mean that Arendt thinks it possible or right to exclude all violence from society. Contra DeBrabander, violence can be associated with freedom. The human fabrication of the natural world—man’s freedom to act into and build upon nature—is a kind of violence. And violence is, at bottom, an often justified and positive human emotional response to injustice. As Arendt writes in just one instance:

In private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this will permit us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or by finding another substitute. The point is that under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd striking dead the man who bore false witness against him is the classic example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.

I am not sure why DeBrabander wants to employ Arendt to oppose violence itself. That is certainly not her point.

What Arendt opposes is the reliance on violence in politics. The massacre in Newtown is not, at least so far as I currently know, an example of political violence. Arendt’s distinction between power and violence and her assertion that mere violence is politically mute seems, quite simply, out of place in the discussion of gun violence.

But Arendt does have something to offer us in our thinking about the excessive dangers of powerful guns. In her essay “On Violence,” Arendt considers the rise of extraordinary new weapons like nuclear and biological weapons and robot warriors. These super-powerful weapons threaten to upend the usual relationship between power and violence. If traditionally the more powerful and hence more free nations were also better able to marshal the implements of violence, the existence of weapons of mass destruction mean that small, weak, and irresponsible nations can now practice violent destruction well beyond their relative power. In short, the existence of excessively destructive weapons elevates the impact of violence over and against power.

The same can be said of the kind of automatic and semi-automatic guns used in the Newtown massacre and other recent attacks. In each of these cases, loners and crazy people have been able to murder and kill with a precision and scope well beyond their individual strength or capacity. Whereas killing 27 people in a school would at one time have required the political savvy of organizing a group of radicals or criminals, today one disturbed person can do outsized and horrific damage.

What might be an Arendtian argument for gun control is based upon the dangerous disconnect between strength and violence that modern weaponry makes possible. When individuals are capable of extraordinary destruction simply by coming to possess a weapon and without having to speak or act in conjunction with others, we are collectively at the mercy of anyone who has a psychotic episode. It is in just such a situation that regulating weapons of mass destruction makes sense (and that is what automatic weapons are).

As for DeBrabander’s larger point about freedom and guns, carrying a gun or owning a gun may at times be a legitimate part of someone’s identity or sense of themselves. It may make some feel safer and may help others feel powerful. Some are repulsed by guns, others fetishize them. I have little stake in a debate about guns since they aren’t part of my life and yet I respect those who find them meaningful in theirs. We should not reject such freedoms outright. What I worry about is not people owning guns, but their owning automatic and semi-automatic weapons capable of mass executions.

Let’s concede that the vast majority of gun owners are good and responsible people, like Adam Lanza’s mother seems to have been. Why in the world do we need to allow anyone to own automatic weapons with large clips holding dozens of bullets? If Adam Lanza had stolen a handgun instead of a semi-automatic, the trail of terror he left would have been shorter and less deadly. We cannot prevent all violence in our world, but we can make political judgments that weapons of mass destruction that put inordinate power in single individuals should be banned.

What Arendt’s thoughts on violence actually help us see is not that we should expel violence from society or that guns are opposed to freedom, but that we should limit the disproportionate and tragic consequences of excessively violent weaponry that dangerously empowers otherwise powerless individuals to exercise massive injuries. We can do that just, as we seek to limit biological and nuclear weapons in the world.



Is College Worth It?

Student debt is suddenly spurring the once unthinkable debate: Is college necessary? Of course the answer is no. But who needs it and who should pay for it are complicated questions.

Arendt herself had an ambivalent relationship to academic culture. She never held a tenure-track job in the academy and she remained suspicious of intellectuals and academics. She never forgot how easily professors in Germany embraced the rationality of the Nazi program or the conformity with which Marxist and leftist intellectuals excused Stalinism. In the U.S., Arendt was disappointed with the "cliques and factions" as well as the overwhelming "gentility" of academics, that dulled their insights. It was for that reason that she generally shunned the company of academics, with of course notable exceptions. A free thinker—she valued thinking for oneself above all—she was part of and apart from the university world.

We plan to keep the discussion about college and debt going on the Arendt Center blog. Here are a few thoughts to get the debate going.

First, college is not magic. It will neither make you smart nor make you rich. Some of our best writers and thinkers somehow avoided writing five-page papers on the meaning of Sophocles. (That of course does not mean that they didn't read Sophocles, even in the Ancient Greek.) And many of the most successful Americans never graduated or attended college. On the other hand, many college grads and Ph.D.'s  are surviving on food stamps today. Some who attend the University of Phoenix will benefit greatly from it. Many who attend Harvard squander their money and time. Especially today, college is as much a safe path for risk-averse youth as it is a haven for the life of the mind or a tasseled path to the upper classes.

Second, College can be a transformative experience. As I prepare to say goodbye to another cohort of graduates at Bard, I am reminded again how amazing these students are and how much I learn from them every year. I wrote recently about one student who wrote a simply stunning meditation on education. Today I will be meeting with two students about their senior projects. One is a profound, often personal, and yet also deeply mature exploration of loneliness in David Foster Wallace, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger. The other is a genealogy of whistleblowing from T.E. Lawrence to Bradley Manning, arguing that the rise of whistleblowing in the 20th century is both a symptom of and a contributor to the lost facts in public life. Both are testaments to the fact that college can inspire young adults to wrestle meaningfully and intelligently with the world they must confront.

Third, Most students do not attend college because they want to. Of course some do and I have enormous respect for those who embrace the life of the mind that college can nurture. I also respect those who decide that college is not for them. But the simple fact is that too many college students are here thoughtlessly, going through the motions because they are on a track. College has become a stepping stone to a good job which is a stand in for a good life. Nothing wrong with that, but is it really worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and four years of your time simply to get a credential? College students are young and full of energy. Too often they spend four of their most energetic years studying things they don't care about while they sleep late, drink a lot, and generally have a good time.  This cannot be the best use of most young people's time.

Fourth, it is not at all clear that college is a good investment. There is no limit of students who tell me that taking out debt for an education is always a good investment. This is usually around the time they want to apply to law school or graduate school. And I can only repeat to them so many times that they are simply wrong. Finally, the press is catching up to this fact, and we are treated to a daily drumbeat of stories about the dangers of student debt. College debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1 Trillion, more than credit card debt (although far smaller than mortgage debt).  The problem is widespread, as 94% percent of those who earn a bachelor’s degree take on debt to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993. And the problem is deep: The average debt in 2011 was $23,300.  For 10% of college graduates, their debt is crippling, as they owe more than $54,000. Three percent owe more than $100,000.

The most egregious debt traps are still the for-profit colleges, which serve the working classes who cannot afford more expensive non-profit colleges. These schools prey on the perception, partly true, that career advancement requires a college degree. But now even public universities and private elite colleges are increasingly graduating students with high debt loads. And then there are law schools and culinary schools, which increasingly graduate indebted and trained professionals into a world in which does not need them.

he result is as sad as it is predictable. Nearly 1 in 9 young graduate borrowers who started repayment in 2009 defaulted within two years. This is about double the rate in 2005. The numbers vary: 15% of recent graduates from for-profit schools are in default. Also 7.2% of public university graduations and 4.6% of private university graduates are defaulting. Each of these groups requires a separate analysis and discussion. And yet overall, we are burdening way too many young people with debts that will plague them their entire lives.

Fifth, to defend college education as a good investment is not simply questionable economically. It also is to devalue the idea of education for its own sake and insist that college is an economic rather than an intellectual experience. One unintended consequence of the expansion of college to a wider audience of strivers is that a college education is decidedly an economic and bourgeois experience, less and less an intellectual adventure. Was college ever Arcadia? Surely not. For much of American history college has been a benefit reserved for the upper classes. And yet to turn education into a commodity, to make it part of the life process of making a living, does further delimit the available spaces for the life of the mind in our society.

Sixth, college is not necessary to make us either moral or enlightened citizens. College education does not make us better people. There are plenty of amazing people in the world who have had not studied Aristotle or learned genetics in college. The United States was built on the tradition of the yeoman farmer, that partly mythical but also real person who worked long days, saved, and treated people honorably.

Morality, as Hannah Arendt never tired of pointing out, is not gained by education. Or as Kant once pointed out to a certain Professor Sulzer in a footnote to his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, morality can only be taught by example, not through study. Arendt agreed. She saw that many of those who acted most honorably during WWII were not the intellectuals, but common people who simply understood that killing neighbors or shooting Jews was inhuman. What is more, it was often the intellectuals who provided themselves and others with the complex and quasi-scientific rationalizations for genocide. To think rationally, and even to use a current buzzword, to think critically, is no barrier to doing evil. Critical thinking—the art of making distinctions—is no guarantee of goodness.

Seventh, college cannot and should not replace a failed primary and high school system. Our primary schools are a disgrace and then we spend a fortune on remedial education in community colleges and even in four-year colleges, trying to educate people who have been failed by their public schools. We would do much better to take a large part of the billions and billions of public dollars we spend on higher education and put them towards a radical restoration of our public grammar and high schools. If we actually taught people in grammar schools and pushed them to excel in high schools, they would graduate prepared to hold meaningful jobs and also to be thoughtful citizens. Maybe then a college education could then be both less necessary and more valuable.

Bard College, which houses the Hannah Arendt Center, has been engaged for years in creating public high schools that are also early colleges. The premise is that high school students are ready for college level work, and there is nothing to prevent them from doing that. These Bard High School Early Colleges are public high schools staffed by professors with Ph.D's who teach the same courses we teach at Bard College. In four years, students must complete an entire four-year high school curriculum and a two-year college curriculum. They then receive a Bard Associates Degree at graduation, in addition to their high school diploma. This Associates degree —which is free— can either reduce the cost of graduation from a four-year college or replace it altogether.

Early colleges are not the single answer for our crisis of education. But they do point in one direction.  Money spent on really reforming high schools and even primary schools will do so much more to educate a broad, racially diverse, and economically underprivileged cohort of young people than any effort to reform or subsidize colleges and universities. The primary beneficiaries of the directing public money to colleges rather than high schools are Professors and administrators. I benefit from such subsidies and appreciate them. But that does mean I think them right or sensible.

We would be much better off if we redirected our resources and attention to primary and secondary education, which are failing miserably, and stopped obsessing so about college. Most college graduates, wherever they go, will learn something from their four or more years of classes.  But the mantra that one only becomes a full human being by going to college is not only false. It also is dangerous.