Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
18Oct/131

Where are the Public Spaces?

ArendtWeekendReading

What are the public spaces of modern life? This is a central question raised in Hannah Arendt’s work since Arendt insists on the importance of public spaces for the flourishing of the human condition. To be human, Arendt writes, is to be free in public, which means to act and speak in ways that matter in the public world. Public freedom requires spaces where our actions are attended to, considered, and taken seriously enough to merit a response. Such spaces—the Greek Agora, the Roman Senate, the town square, the New England town meeting, the French debating societies, the Russian Soviets, the American jury, and all those civic institutions that spring up to give the power of collective action to individual citizens—are the pre-political and yet necessary conditions of democratic politics.

public

The problem today is that such spaces are ever more rare and in decay. Town hall meetings are largely gone or ceremonial. Local governments have ceded all real power to state or federal authorities. And even democratic elections—the most sickly form of political participation, has been corrupted by both money and size so that voting has come to be seen as so meaningless and ineffectual that few people bother to do so. As Albert W. Dzur writes in a recent essay in The Boston Review, we lack the public spaces that call us to attention and encourage our engagement in a collective civically minded world:

In our time of late modernity, the public is even more scattered, mobile, and manifold. Zygmunt Bauman and other leading social theorists write of contemporary social structures that, paradoxically, destructure common life, distance us from each other, and make it increasingly hard for us to interact with others in anything but a partial, superficial, and self-selecting fashion. Absent are the places that, in the past, helped us realize who we are as a public, as Tony Judt has illustrated in sketching the lost civic world of his childhood. We lack sufficient means today for calling ourselves to attention, for sobering ourselves up to our responsibility for the world all around.

Dzur offers a remedy for our diseased democracy. We need, he writes, to re-think the spaces and places of modern democracy.

Democracy, he writes, is usually thought a political movement and participatory democracy points to public involvement in protests, plebiscites, and public action aimed at governmental change. But democracy may also be thought of as a way of life focused on individualism and respect for the power and judgment of each person. Might it be, Dzur wonders, that the space of democracy is shifting from governmental to professional institutions?

The spaces of democratic participation Dzur has in mind are schools, prisons, hospitals, and other institutions of government bureaucracy. Such institutions too often, he writes, adopt rationalist and rule-bound ideologies that insulate them from the very people they are supposed to serve. What is needed, he suggests, is a new vision of the democratic professional administrator.

Democratic professionals in schools, public health clinics, and prisons who share their load-bearing work are innovators who are expanding, not just conserving, our neglected democratic inheritance. … Democratic professionals adapt the formal rationality of institutions to appreciate and act upon substantive contributions that lay citizens can make to a reflective legal judgment, a secure environment, or a stimulating education. And, importantly, democratic professionals bring citizens together who had not planned to be together.

In short, Dzur argues for a new vision of the professional administrator or bureaucrat, one inspired by intelligence, flexibility, and a willingness to replace rationalist bureaucratic rules with a determination to do justice by attending to particular individuals and persons.

Dzur’s vision of the new professionals who inhabit new democratic spaces is, whether explicitly or not, related to the insights of the recently popular French thinker Pierre Rosenvallon. It is always difficult to keep up with academic fashions and I only recently learned of Rosenvallon from one of our Arendt Center Fellows Jennifer Hudson, who is finishing up an excellent dissertation that addresses Rosenvallon’s vision of an intelligent and adaptive bureaucracy. In a nutshell, Rosenvallon addresses what is typically referred to as the crisis of legitimacy in representative democracy, the widespread sense on both the left and the right that government simply has become too big, too distant, and too impervious to citizen change. Rosenvallon’s answer is to empower government administrators—what we usually call the bureaucracy—to act more autonomously and freely outside of set rules and solve problems with more attention to local and individual conditions.

box

Dzur takes a similar approach in what is now promised to be a new series about participatory democratic politics in the typically administrative spaces of schools, offices, and courtrooms, Dzur generalizes about those who are engaged in this kind of "trench democracy":

[Democratic professionals] take their public responsibilities seriously and listen carefully to those outside their walls and those at all levels of their internal hierarchy in order to foster physical proximity between formerly separated individuals, encourage co-ownership of problems previously seen as beyond laypeople’s ability or realm of responsibility, and seek out opportunities for collaborative work between laypeople and professionals. We fail to see these activities as politically significant because they do not fit our conventional picture of democratic change. As if to repay the compliment, the democratic professionals I have interviewed in fields such as criminal justice, public administration, and K-12 education rarely use the concepts employed by social scientists and political theorists. Lacking an overarching ideology, they make it up as they go along, developing roles, attitudes, habits, and practices that open calcified structures up to greater participation. Their democratic action is thus endogenous to their occupational routine, often involving those who would not consider themselves activists or even engaged citizens.

The attraction of Dzur’s embrace of administrative democratic legitimacy is clear. At a time when public democratic institutions are broken, it is tempting to turn to professional administrators and ask them to solve our problems for us, to not only make the hospitals work better but also to revitalize democratic attention. There is the hope that intelligent and flexible administrative rule can not only make the trains run on time, but also make the train schedules more responsive to the needs of their riders and the trains themselves more comfortable and inviting. In short, democratically inclined professionals can make our public institutions more open to citizen feedback and energy.

The turn to what might be termed an administrative or executive democracy, however, comes with potential costs. In empowering professionals, administrators, and bureaucrats to revitalize and improve democratic participation, we turn attention away from the political concern with a public world and focus, instead, on the technocratic aim of efficient administration. Given the seeming incompetence and obstructionism of elected officials in the United States and around the world, taking refuge in professional administrators is tempting. And yet, it carries the seeds of a technocratic turn that will further weaken the participation in more traditionally political institutions and activities that turn us away from our parochial self-interests and toward a common political world. In short, the worry is that the shift from democratic politics to democratic administration will trade the rarefied human activity of forming meaningful political communities with the everyday desire for institutions that work.

Dzur’s essay is well worth attending to. We will be following his future inquiries as well. For now, enjoy Dzur’s “Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places.” It is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
21Jan/130

Violence, and Thinking With Others

“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”

- Hannah Arendt, Thinking

In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t).  There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall.  The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it.  There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction.  Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use?  Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine?  What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not?  There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.

The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether.  I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason).  Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult.  But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought.  Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.

One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time).  The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself.  A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.

If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.

There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself).  But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work.  Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.

Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can.  That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation.  When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.”  In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought.  We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.

It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility.  On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power.  On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved.  It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).

What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live.  Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it.  Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us.  If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse.  This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond.  In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself.  When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap.  And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.

Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers.  Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible.  When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task.  It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.

-Ian Storey

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.