Everything that is, must appear, and nothing can appear without a shape of its own…
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
The book is under attack. A recent article in The New Atlantis begins by calling the book “modernity’s quintessential technology,” but reports that “now that the rustle of the book’s turning page competes with the flicker of the screen’s twitching pixel, we must consider the possibility that the book may not be around much longer,” and asks “If it isn’t — if we choose to replace the book…what does it tell us about ourselves that we may soon retire this most remarkable, five-hundred-year-old technology?” The book’s future at the university is also uncertain. Even as student surveys consistently show preference for the “real thing,” a shift of emphasis towards the e-text is discernible in library catalogs and, increasingly, basic course requirements. Since 2009, roughly thirty major universities have joined a pilot program requiring the purchase of e-text in lieu of textbooks for select courses.
The challenge for those driven to distraction by these developments is to articulate, in reasonably urgent and suitably political terms, what might otherwise seem a vague and idiosyncratic sense of loss—loss of depth and of a world—in an age of digital information. To this purpose, Christine Rosen in the aforementioned article quotes Hannah Arendt: “The printed book is the ‘transformation of the intangible into the tangibility of things,’ as Hannah Arendt put it; it is imagined and lived action and speech turned into palpable remembrance.”
The quote comes from a section of Arendt’s The Human Condition called “The Thing-Character of the World.” There Arendt distinguishes the products of labor, work, and action in their distinct roles in the making of the world. What distinguishes the first two—the products of labor and work—is that while the former (e.g. “a bread”), being “needed by our bodies…but without stability,” are destined to “appear and disappear” through “incessant consumption,” the latter (e.g. “a table”), “Viewed as part of the world…guarantee the permanence and durability without which a world would not be possible at all.” Though the products of work “wear” over time through use, they do not regularly “disappear”—indeed, Arendt says later in The Human Condition that without their stability the human artifice “could never be a reliable home for men”; that without the fabrication of houses, chairs, tables, tools, bridges and the like—the world would assume “the sublime indifference of untouched nature,” and our dwelling within it (to the extent that such a term would be appropriate) would mean substantially less.
The products of work, in turn, bear a special relationship to “the ‘products’ of action and speech, which together constitute the fabric of human relationships and affairs.” Because the latter “do not ‘produce,’ bring forth anything…In order to become worldly things…they must first be seen, heard, and remembered and then transformed, reified as it were, into things—into sayings of poetry, the written page or the printed book, into paintings or sculpture, into all sorts of records, documents, and monuments.” Human remembrance of action and speech may sustain the “factual world of human affairs” for a short while, but ultimately “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent,” things which survive long after the act and actor.
Seeing all this, the problem of books remains a perplexing one—for on one hand, if the written word simply compensates for the frailty of human remembrance, might a digital text serve the same purpose? On the other hand, if standard mass produced books hardly qualify as singular “works of art” (which Arendt calls “the most intensely worldly of all tangible things” because they endure both despite and because they have no use value) our only alternative is to accord books the same status as Arendt’s “chair,” a worldly artifact which stays in the world not only because it is durable, but because it is useful. This, however, only begets the original question of why use the book in the first place, rather than a digital copy? Absent any rare or singular artistic value to a particular volume, there seems no clear reason to preserve the book. To exit this conundrum, it seems one must explain why reification of the word in particular into a tangible thing is important.
In a recent article in Philosophy and Literature Jonathan Brent offers one answer. He writes that “‘Content’ is not simply ‘content.’ It has a form and a wrapper. If we do not recognize this, we risk making a fundamental mistake.” Books, says Brent, with their “spines, headbands, prefaces (and sometimes postfaces), appendices, running feet, footnotes, headnotes, shoulders...heads…[and] tails,” are not only “‘content’ but…unique embodiments and transmitters of a life beyond themselves[.]”
Moreover “The characters, of which words are made, are not a graven image but engraved images made originally with an instrument that in Greek was called a kharakter.” Thus the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants—a sentence—“cuts into us at the point where the flesh and word become one.” In the same spirit, one might add, did God give unto Moses “two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”
For Arendt, the reification of words serves a purpose less reliant on the rugged idea of kharacter, and more on Brent’s colorful sense of “form and wrapper.” Indeed, for Arendt it is precisely the “form and wrapper” which give the ordinary products of work—the useful but otherwise expendable artifacts of the world—a far more profound and ultimately political importance:
“The man-made world of things,” Arendt concludes Section 23 of The Human Condition (“The Permanence of the World and the Work of Art,” and the last section of the chapter on “Work”), “the human artifice erected by homo faber, becomes a home for mortal men, whose stability will endure and outlast the ever-changing movement of their lives and actions, only insomuch as it transcends both the sheer functionalism of things produced for consumption and the sheer utility of objects produced for use.” In other words, notwithstanding that the durable objects of the world first exist, and then persist in the world largely because of their use value, in appearing before humans they also achieve a value and meaning independent of instrumental concerns—a value and meaning in and of themselves. Arendt prepares this point some lines earlier: “Everything that is,” she writes, “must appear, and nothing can appear without a shape of its own; hence there is in fact no thing that does not in some way transcend its functional use, and its transcendence, its beauty or ugliness, is identical with appearing publicly and being seen. By the same token, namely, its sheer worldly existence, everything also transcends the sphere of pure instrumentality…are judged not only according to the subjective needs of men but by the objective standards of the world where they will find their place[.]”
Here Arendt, in a manner not as apparent in her later appropriation of Kant (where she attaches judgment to the sense of taste), suggests a direct connection between the possibility for political judgment and the sense of sight. The appearance of product of work in public not only establishes the thing as thing, but engenders an aesthetic quality that transcends its use value, thus giving the world itself a firmer grounding than mere utility. Moreover, the appearance of the thing in public functions like Arendt’s famous “table” which at once relates and separates humans, not only in space, but also (as Arendt’s own desk continues to do in the classroom at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center) across time. In the case of books, it is not only the physical binding that appears in public, but just as importantly the great words and deeds contained within in which, through the tangible presence of the book, also enter the everyday world of appearances.
Hannah Arendt, as is well known, was a student of Martin Heidegger. In his essay “The Thing” Heidegger wrote that “the Old High German word thing means a gathering, and specifically a gathering to deliberate on a matter under discussion, a contested matter.” Furthermore “thing or dinc…is suited as no other word to translate properly the Roman word res, that which is pertinent, which has a bearing,” as in res publica which means, “not the state, but that which, known to everyone, concerns everybody and is therefore deliberated in public.” In this context Heidegger warned that while “Thinging is the nearing of the world,” the “frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness.” The abolition of all distances fashioned by modern technology, in other words, threatens to eliminate the minimal distance required for things to appear in public in a manner that is both in-between and connecting of individuals. Thus, Heidegger warned, at a time in which “All distances in time and space are shrinking,” and man receives “instant information” and witnesses “the abolition of every possibility of remoteness,” the paradoxical result will be “the failure of nearness to materialize in consequence of the abolition of all distances[.]”
Such passages evoke a famous moment in The Human Condition previously alluded to, where Arendt writes that “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.” Books—old-fashioned, time faded, coffee-stained books—are part of that world of things that, like Arendt’s table, constitute the in-between that relates and separates men. Seen through the lens of Heidegger and Arendt, the problem facing the digital age—of which the vanishing of books is but one exemplary form—is whether the world itself, and the worldly in-between with its attendant plurality mediated by things that appear and endure, can itself endure; or alternatively, whether a world is still possible, and if so what kind, among humans related and separated no longer by things, but by pixel screens and antennae.
Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a "love of the world." When writing about education she argues that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?
The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.
In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.
In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.
In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.
How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?
This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen's essay "House For Sale," about his return to his mother's house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother's house.
This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item "Decide about the afterlife" and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.
Franzen offers us a house in many valences.
It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother's house. Later he writes that the house was "my mother's novel, the concrete story she told about herself." In this house she "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas." It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And "she wanted you to want to stay."
The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother's house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with "sturdy and well made" furniture that "my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want." He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.
If Mrs. Fanzen's house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son's house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:
I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else's apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I'd spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy's apartment.
House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.
I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen's essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play "House For Sale" is based on his essay by the same name.
It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen's essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can't recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.
Or, if you simply can't get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen's book of essays in which "House For Sale" originally appeared. It is your weekend read.