"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?
This question may appear curious if not ill-formed. Many of us certainly associate prisons with the minute and pervasive exercise of power over the inmates who inhabit them, but we are also more accustomed to using “totalitarian” to describe dictatorial governmental regimes and sociopolitical movements. As a result, we may be inclined to think that the term is not of the same category as the institutions that, in this instance, it purports to describe.
At the height of the Cold War, however, a number of scholars posed the question of prisons’ totalitarian character in all seriousness and with considerable urgency. And not uncommonly they answered it in the affirmative. One of these was the Princeton sociologist Gresham Sykes, who conducted archival and field research at the New Jersey State Maximum Security Prison in Trenton in the early and mid 1950s. The book that resulted, The Society of Captives (1958), is one of the classics of modern criminology.
Sykes has the following to say about prisons near the beginning of his treatise:
The detailed regulations extending into every area of the individual’s life, the constant surveillance, the concentration of power in the hands of a ruling few, the wide gulf between the rulers and the ruled—all are elements of what we would usually call a totalitarian regime. The threat of force lies close beneath the surface of the custodial institution and it is the invisible fist rather than Adam Smith’s invisible hand which regulates much of the prisoner’s activity. The prison official is a bureaucrat, but he is a bureaucrat with a gun.
The combination is a fearful one, for it is the basis of the calculated atrocities of the concentration camp and the ruthless exploitation of the Soviet lager. It is true that the American maximum security prison is different from these in terms of the nature of the tasks which the prison seeks to perform, the characteristics of the officials who direct these tasks, and the matrix of the democratic community in which the prison is embedded. The prison is not planned with an eye to annihilating its captive population—either physically or psychologically—nor is it designed to wring the last ounce of effort from an expendable labor force. Instead, it pursues an odd combination of confinement, internal order, self-maintenance, punishment, and reformation, all within a framework of means sharply limited by law, public opinion, and the attitudes of the custodians themselves. None the less, attempts to exercise total social control through the use of a bureaucratically organized administrative staff would all seem to be cut on much the same pattern and the prison appears to offer many clues to the structure and functioning of the new leviathan (pp. xiv-xv).
In formulating his argument in this manner, Sykes takes a stance on prisons that resonates with the ideas of another noted sociologist, Erving Goffman. Goffman’s work on “total institutions,” much of it collected in his 1961 book Asylums, also likens psychiatric hospitals, boot camps, and prisons to Nazi concentration camps.
Significantly, Sykes bases his characterization of totalitarianism on articles by Norman Polanski and David Riesman as well as the 1954 volume Totalitarianism edited by Carl Friedrich. He also makes reference to Bruno Bettelheim’s work on the social psychology of the concentration camp. Yet in the entirety of his book, Sykes never refers explicitly to Arendt, although his comparisons practically beg for some consideration of her writing. This omission is telling, for Arendt was deeply skeptical of any effort to apply the concept of totalitarianism to superficially similar practices and institutions in other historical contexts. By her lights, such extrapolation denied the distinctive, indeed unprecedented nature of concentration camps under the Nazi and Soviet regimes, just as it banalized totalitarianism’s departure from other modes of tyrannical and authoritarian rule. Sykes’ qualifications (“It is true that…”) were not minor caveats that could be quickly passed over (“None the less…”), but fundamental objections that vitiated his argument. It was precisely this kind of conceptual and historical imprecision that, for Arendt, fatally compromised the bulk of social science scholarship. (For more on Arendt’s objections, see my post on Peter Baehr’s book Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences here.)
But Sykes’ argument can be questioned not merely on these broad theoretical grounds, for his own empirical material and close analysis challenge the notion that prisons wield “totalitarian” power. First, the efforts of prison staff to exercise control are undermined by the contradictory imperatives to which they must respond. Penal institutions are commonly justified on the basis that they punish convicted offenders and (ostensibly) deter potential criminals, but since the nineteenth century they are also supposed to rehabilitate inmates so that they forego crime and productively rejoin society at large. These tasks, as Sykes notes, are “not easily balanced in a coherent policy” (p. 12), and they tend to result in inconsistent procedures and practices.
Second, prisons are simply unable to discipline inmates in any exhaustive way, even as they impose heavy restrictions and deprivations on the people subject to their regulation. On the one hand, prisoners do not typically regard prison guards and other staff members as figures of legitimate authority, and the staff members lack an effective system of rewards and punishments that might encourage inmates’ conformity in the absence of a felt duty to obey. On the other hand, the very conditions of prison life—the severe limitations on inmates’ autonomy, the absence of physical security, the material impoverishment, the curtailment of heterosexual relations—tend ironically to encourage behavior that defies institutional rules and norms. As a result, “the prison official…is caught up in a vicious circle where he must suppress the very activity that he helps cause” (p. 22).
And third, prison guards in particular are in close contact with the inmates they supervise, and they are subject to a variety of pressures that inhibit their ability and willingness to exercise power as fully as they might. In order to manage their everyday duties, Sykes finds, they commonly refrain from reporting infractions they have witnessed, neglect basic security requirements, and even pass forbidden information to inmates (about, say, upcoming searches for contraband). In the end, most corrections officers can “insure their dominance only by allowing it to be corrupted. Only by tolerating violations of ‘minor’ rules and regulations can the guard secure compliance in the ‘major’ areas of the custodial regime” (p. 58).
Based on my admittedly limited insights as a Bard Prison Initiative faculty member, I find much to commend in Sykes’ analysis of the structural tensions that define American penal institutions. Judging from my interactions with incarcerated students, many of his observations remain relevant to present-day correctional facilities in New York State. But it is precisely Sykes’ insights on these matters that lead me to doubt the notion that American prisons represent total(itarian) domination. As his detailed analysis of “prison argot” indicates, prisons do not destroy inmates’ sense of personhood, spontaneity, and collective solidarity, and his closing account of rioting highlights how they can mount serious opposition to prison authorities.
All of this might lead us to wonder why Sykes and other social scientists even entertained the question of prisons’ potentially totalitarian character. What were the circumstances that made such an inquiry intelligible? On this count, we would do well to recall the Cold War context in which Sykes’ book was written. For many Euro-American commentators in the 1950s and ‘60s, totalitarianism was the overriding problem of their time, and one that was all the more disturbing because it had seemed to emerge so abruptly and unexpectedly. There was thus a keen interest in attempting to comprehend what totalitarianism was or at least might be. This interest led a fair number of scholars to seek out cases that could illuminate the concept, including ones that ranged beyond the paradigmatic instances of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
At the same time, totalitarianism was widely perceived as a mortal hazard to Euro-American liberal democracy and Western civilization as a whole. As Carl Friedrich suggests in his introduction to Totalitarianism (1954), however, the perceived threat could come not merely “from without,” but also “from within” (p. 3). His implication was that the U.S. and other “free” societies could harbor their own forms of brutality and terror—and that the line separating them from “totalitarian” states was not as bright as often presumed.
I would suggest that Sykes turned to the concept of totalitarianism, in no small part, to lend moral and rhetorical force to his critical analysis of American penal institutions. Even as he professed that he sought to avoid value judgments, he also admitted that like other skeptics, “I too believe that attempting to reform criminals by placing them in prison is based on a fallacy” (p. vii). We might therefore read his recourse to totalitarianism in the light of the subversive questioning of American ascendancy that was beginning to coalesce in the U.S. in the late 1950s. Such recourse is all the more striking given that “totalitarianism” became one of the chief weapons that conservatives used to denounce leftists and other critics as “pro-Soviet” sympathizers. In the end, then, Sykes’ book speaks not only (and directly) to the nature of prison as a modern institution, but also (and more obliquely) to the wider cultural and political ferment that defined Cold War America.