Sensus communis as a foundation for men as political beings: Arendt’s reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment
Annelies Degryse Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
Philosophy Social Criticism 2011 37(3): 345
Arendt's late reading of Kant proposes a connection between aesthetics and politics that, among other innovations, offers a new way to think about judgment through a connection between the individual and group reflection. Annelies Degryse of Leuven University breaks down this conception of judgment into two constituent parts and connects it to Kant's "community sense."
Picking up on the argument by Ronald Beiner that Arendt "detranscendentalizes" Kant, Degryse describes how this move to a plurality of spectators can be understood as an "empricalizing" Kant. She helpfully highlights two moments of judgment in Arendt. First, a person perceives through imagination, a specific faculty that moves from a physical to a mental instance. Second, in reflection, one achieves a distance from the original representation that further distances oneself from it. Indeed, here Arendt speaks of the "proper distance, the remoteness or uninvolvedness or disinterestedness, that is requisite for approbation and disapprobation, for evaluating something at its proper worth" (Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, 1992: 67). Judgment proper occurs in this second step, where one takes a stand on one's first impression in terms of a value assertion.
The first moment of judgment occurs within the mind of the individual. It does not even necessarily need to take the form of words but could occur entirely at the private level. In the second moment though, one needs recourse to language as an instrument of communication. Arendt says that Kant's reference to sensus communis should thus best be translated as "community sense" rather than "common sense." Degryse emphasizes the "common" here as the key to moving to judgment through language. It allows us to go beyond our own limited mode of thinking. In other words, language knows more than any individual person, and in framing a judgment one takes this greater knowledge into account. This is one way to understand what Arendt means by thinking with "an enlarged mentality." Degryse links the use of language in judgments to Arendt's "detranscendentalization" of Kant: "Arendt stresses, with Kant, that we can lose our faculty of enlarged thinking without communication and interaction with one another. (353)" Judgment for Kant is only a faculty of the mind but for Arendt it depends on actual interaction with others.
Degryse sees Arendt's Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy as explicitly developing the role of spectators that was already implicit in the Human Condition. After all, speech and action need to be received by someone. Drawing on another aspect of Kant's terminology to make this connection, Arendt emphasizes that taste, not genius, constitutes the public realm. The genius can start something new, but in order to communicate it, this novelty must be described in terms that others can perceive. Interestingly, for Arendt, even the genius must himself have at least some access to taste to get his point across. Shifting to the political realm, Degryse notes that Arendt provides the example of the French Revolution: she sees its true impact in the many public responses to the event rather than the acts of the event itself. (One thinks here of the publications of Burke in the England, Paine in the U.S., and Schiller and Hegel in Germany, among many others.)
As a contrast, Degryse says that the philosopher risks losing touch and supporting tyranny because, as per Plato's famous parable of the cave, he does not want to return to the realm of shadows and captivity with others after having ascended alone to the realm of truth. Spectators, always plural, can never lose touch in this way.
In Germany, the Romantics and Idealists worshiped the genius. Even today, taste is often considered a relic of subjectivism. Even though Arendt returns to Kant's aesthetics in a manner reminiscent of the great Idealists Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, one key contribution of Degryse's article is that it shows how Arendt moves in the direction of plurality rather than the self-positing subject.
Critical thinking is possible only where the standpoints of all others are open to inspection. Hence, critical thinking, while still a solitary business, does not cut itself off from ‘all others.’ To be sure, it still goes on in isolation, but by the force of imagination it makes the others present and thus moves in a space that is potentially public, open to all sides; in other words, it adopts the position of Kant’s world citizen. To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.
-Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, 43
Arendt’s appeal to the “enlargement of the mind” of Kantian judgment is well known and is often discussed in relation to Eichmann’s failure to think and recognize the world’s plurality. To the extent that we find lessons in these discussions, a prominent one is that we might all be vulnerable to such failures of judgment.
While recognizing how easy it is for us to not think, especially in the bureaucratic structures of the contemporary world, I want to focus here on the moments of thinking and judgment that do occur but fail to garner recognition.
I was recently involved in a discussion about educational and other support programs in prisons around the country. During the conversation, someone made the observation that these programs seem to appeal especially to women. It was the case that each of the women in this conversation had been involved in some prison program, either as an attorney or an educator. But the observation was intended, of course, to go beyond this relatively small group.
I don’t know whether it’s true that many more women than men are involved in programs like Bard’s Prison Initiative or the Innocence Project or any number of such programs. But what struck me about this conversation was that despite no one claiming to possess any knowledge beyond his or her personal observations, many seemed relatively certain about the possible explanation about this phenomenon (or non-phenomenon): that women might have a greater capacity to empathize with others, not because we are innately sensitive beings, but because we can more easily recognize the suffering of others and respond to that suffering.
Many readers of Arendt will immediately react to this description with Arendt’s critique of empathy in mind. For Arendt, empathy destroys critical thinking to the extent that it tries to “know what actually goes on in the mind of all others” as opposed to the comparing our judgment with the possible judgments of others (Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 43). In trying to feel like someone else, empathy makes it impossible to respond politically, as it destroys the distance between individuals that makes a response to another as other possible.
But if not empathy, what might better describe those, whether they are women or men, who are open to the sufferings and injustices of others? The answer, I submit, is critical thinking.
For Arendt, critical thinking is necessarily imaginative, as it requires that the thinker make “the others present.” The presence of others is not achieved by imagining what goes on in each of the minds of these imagined others. Rather, this presence is what allows one imaginatively to construct a public space in which one’s actions are visible to other people.
Critical thinking thus most importantly lies not in the ability to compare our judgment with the possible judgments of all others, which is what is often stressed in discussions of Arendtian judgment, but rather in the adoption of the position of Kant’s “world citizen.” Adopting such a position is less about imagining others as such and more about recognizing that one is always putting oneself out there for others to judge. Insofar as it is necessary to construct the audience to which the thinker presents herself, the imagination of others is the first step to critical thinking, but only the first step. Critical thinking is, as Kant writes in “What is Enlightenment?,” “addressing the entire reading public” such that that one presents oneself for judgment by this learned group of which one purports to be a member. Like a politician or a writer or an actor, the critical thinker acts with the understanding that she will be judged not just by friends, lovers, or like-minded compatriots, but by an entire learned public whose judgments are tempered neither by love nor even self-serving support.
The space in which women moved has always been “public” to the extent that women who acted always did so with the knowledge that they are opening themselves up to the judgment of others. Thus acting takes courage and a true living of the motto of the enlightenment “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!” (Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”).
But acting also necessarily engages critical thinking in another sense: one’s actions are always public to the extent that in acting one presents oneself for judgment to the world and discloses oneself. The thinking of women might, in this way, have been “forced” into the realm of the critical, for as solitary as the activity of thinking necessarily is, it occurs in a space in which the others are present by not only the “force of imagination,” but also the force of history. Thus, if certain professions, causes, or activities do draw relatively more women than men, part of the explanation might be that women think more critically. The world that one sees, with all its injustices and its suffering, does not move one to action or service. But this world is not the world in which one thinks or acts. Rather, one moves in and responds to the imagined one in which what one does is meaningful because one’s actions are being judged and because as vulnerable as one might feel in being judged, judgment brings along with it the implicit recognition that what one does is visible to others and, quite simply, that it might matter.
Arendt’s understanding of judgment is closely tied to Kant’s Critique of Judgment for a good reason: she herself builds her ideas directly on Kantian judgment. But reading Arendtian judgment through Kant’s shorter piece, “What is Enlightenment?” opens up to us aspects of the former that have previously been obscured. And it opens us up to acts of thinking, judgment, and courage to which we are often blind. Again, I don’t know that more women than men engage in work that supports prisoners and advances the cause of prisoners’ rights. But I don’t think it is controversial to say that the perception that they do exists and that women’s ability to empathize with others, whether because of their backgrounds or simply because they are women, is frequently an accompanying discourse. This could be the right explanation. But it could also be an expression not only of prejudices of what women are, but also of an insufficiency of our conceptual vocabulary to capture what it is that is going on in a way that does not simply reassert these prejudices.
Thomas Levin of Princeton came to Bard Tuesday to give a lecture to the Drones Seminar, a weekly class I am participating in, led by my colleague Thomas Keenan and conceived by two of our students Arthur Holland and Dan Gettinger. Levin has studied surveillance techniques for years and he came to think with us about how the present obsession with drones will transform our landscape and our imaginations. At a time when the obsession with drones in the media is focused on their offensive capacities, it is important to recall that drones were originally developed as a surveillance technology. If drones are to become omnipresent in our lives, what will that mean?
Levin began by reminding us of the embrace of other surveillance devices in mass culture, like recording devices at the turn of the 20th century. He offered old postcards and cartoons in which unsuspecting servants or children were caught goofing off or insulting their superiors with newfangled recording devices like the cylinder phonograph and, later, hidden cameras and spy satellites. The realization emerges that we are being watched, and this sense pervades the popular consciousness. In looking to these representations from mass culture of the fear, awareness, and even expectation that we will be watched and listened to, Levin finds the emergence of what he calls “rhetoric of surveillance.”
In short, we talk and think constantly about the fact that we are or may be being watched. This cannot but change the way we behave and act. Levin poses this question. What, he asks, is the emerging drone imaginary?
To answer that question it is helpful to revisit an uncannily prescient imagination of the rise of drones in a text written over half a century ago, Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees. Originally published in 1957 and recently reissued in translation with an introduction by science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling, Jünger’s text centers around a job interview between an unnamed former light cavalry officer and Giacomo Zapparoni, secretive, filthy rich, and powerful proprietor of The Zapparoni Works that “manufactured robots for every imaginable purpose.” Zapparoni’s secret, however, is that he instead of big and hulking robots, he specialized in Lilliputian robots that gave “the impression of intelligent ants.”
The robots were not powerful in themselves, but they worked together. Like drone bees and drone ants—that exist only for procreation and then die—the small robots, or drones, serve specific purposes in industry or business. Zapparoni’s tiny robots “could count, weigh, sort gems or paper money….” Their power came from their coordination.
The robots “worked in dangerous locations, handling explosives, dangerous viruses, and even radioactive materials. Swarms of selectors could not only detect the faintest smell of smoke but could also extinguish a fire at an early stage; others repaired defective wiring, and still others fed upon filth and became indispensable in all jobs where cleanliness was essential.” Dispensable and efficient, Zapparoni’s little robots could do the most dangerous and least desirable tasks.
In The Glass Bees, we are introduced to Zapparoni’s latest invention: flying glass bees that can pollinate flowers much more efficiently and quickly than natural bees. The bees “were about the size of a walnut still encased in its green shell.” They were completely transparent and they were an improvement upon nature, at least insofar as the pollination of flowers was concerned. If a true or natural bee “sucked first on the calyx, at least a dessert remained.” But Zapparoni’s glass bees “proceeded more economically; that is, they drained the flower more thoroughly.” What is more, the bees were a marvel of agility and skill: “Given the flying speed, the fact that no collisions occurred during these flights back and forth was a masterly feat.” According to the cavalry officer, “It was evident that the natural procedure had been simplified, cut short, and standardized.”
Before our hero is introduced to Zapparoni’s bees, he is given a warning: “Beware of the bees!” And yet he forgets this warning. Watching the glass bees, the cavalry officer is fascinated. He felt himself “come under the spell of the deeper domain of techniques,” which like a spectacle “both enthralled and mesmerized.” His mind, he writes, went to sleep and he “forgot time” and “also entirely forgot the possibility of danger.”
Jünger’s book tells, in part, the story of our fascination and subjection to technologies of surveillance. On Facebook or Words with Friends, or even using our smart phones or GPS systems, we allow our fascination with technology to dull our sense of its danger. As Jünger writes: “Technical perfection strives toward the calculable, human perfection toward the incalculable. Perfect mechanisms—around which, therefore, stands an uncanny but fascinating halo of brilliance—evoke both fear and a titanic pride which will be humbled not by insight but only by catastrophe.”
The protagonist of The Glass Bees, a former member of the Light Cavalry and later a tank inspector, had once been fascinated by the “succession of ever new models becoming obsolete at an ever increasing speed, this cunning question-and-answer game between overbred brains.” What he came to see is that “the struggle for power had reached a new stage; it was fought with scientific formulas. The weapons vanished in the abyss like fleeting images, like pictures one throws into the fire. New ones were produced in protean succession.” Victory ceased to be about physical battle; it became, instead, a contest of technical mastery and knowledge.
The danger drones pose is not necessarily military. As General Stanley McChrystal rightly said when I asked him about this last week at the New York Historical Society, drones are simply another military tool that can be used for good or ill. Many fret today about collateral damage by drones and forget that if we had to send in armies to do these tasks the collateral damage would be much greater. Others worry about assassination, but drones are simply the tool, not the person pulling the trigger. It may be true that having drones when others don’t offers an enormous military advantage and makes the decision to go to kill easier, but when both sides have drones, we will all think heavily between beginning a cycle of illegal assassinations.
Rather, the danger of drones is how they change us as humans. As we humans interact more regularly with drones and machines and computers, we will inevitably come to expect ourselves and our friends and our colleagues and our lovers to act with the efficiency and selflessness of drones. Sherry Turkle worries that mechanical companions offer such fascination and unquestionable love that humans are beginning to prefer spending time with their machines than with other humans—who make demands, get tired, act cranky, and disappoint us. Ron Arkin has argued that robot soldiers will be more humane at war than human soldiers, who often act rashly out of exhaustion, anger, or revenge. Doctors are learning to rely on Watson and artificially intelligent medical machines, who can bring databases of knowledge to bear on diagnoses with the speed and objectivity that humans can only dream of. In every area of human life where humans once were thought to be necessary, drones and machines are proving more reliable, more capable, and more desirable.
The danger drones represent is not what they do better than humans, but that they do it better than humans. They are a further step in the human dream of self-improvement—the desire to overcome our shame at our all-too-human limitations.
The incredible popularity of drones today is partly a result of their freeing us to fight wars with ever-reduced human and economic costs. But drones are popular also because they appeal to the human desire for perfection. The question is, however, how perfect we humans can be before we begin to lose our humanity. That is, of course, the force of Jünger’s warning: Beware of the bees!
As drones appear everywhere around us, you would do well to put down the newspaper and turn off You Tube and, instead, revisit Ernst Jünger’s classic tale of drones. The Glass Bees is your weekend read. You can read Bruce Sterling’s introduction to The Glass Bees here.
My girlfriend and I walked by a clothing storefront and noticed the print on some of the t-shirts at the lower right corner of the window and went in. She had mentioned this Imaginary Foundation (IF) before. They make print t-shirts.
I went to school at an expensive liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley—everyone there makes print t-shirts. It is like a business you start as a college sophomore as a way to convince yourself that you are a ‘creative entrepreneur’ before you enter the corporate world (or, alternatively, as a penance for inherited culture and comfort) the not-for-profit world.
Often, I cannot stand them —the print t-shirts. There is something out of shape about them, as if the juxtaposition of body/shirt/image, sets askew some intrinsic agreement in the marriage of fashion and identity. And yet, the IF designs spoke to me. There is something dreamy and yet sincere about these prints. If le petit prince was looking for a print t-shirt, he would buy one of these.
It just so happened that the owner of the company was visiting this Seattle distributor and was in the store. He was awkward, skittish and European. I liked him, and before we left I told him that I blog for a thinking and humanities institute out east and may want to write about his brand. That’s how I got into the Imaginary Foundation.
The shirts are not exactly ‘pretty,’ or ‘fashionable,’ rather, their attraction is a gesture beyond themselves -- a rare feat in a culture that positions branding as the apex of success. I’ll describe one shirt and if interested you can invest your own time in the Imaginary Foundation.
The “Being There” shirt has three anonymous human heads (one of the cloud suit, one of the water suit, and one of the fire suit). The heads are in peripheral view and are aligned, with a slight skew (allowing us the view of all three faces), as they break through a wall, the veil of the universe.
Other shirts handle concepts of psychosis and love “Love Science,” science and discovery in a reach towards heaven “Reach,” and other such concepts widely considered esoteric or cliché within the lens of our popular culture. But, we no longer understand what a ‘cliché’ is. I have long held the view that a cliché is a truth, or a point of interest and perspective insight, that has simply been worn out by overexposure. But who has worn it out? How have we taken the liberty and quiet pleasure of the private sphere (the realms of reflection, contemplation, meditation as it is thought of in the Greek terms), out of our living cycle, our consciousness, our daily existence? Why is the call for private contemplation no longer a necessity of existence? It seems we should have more time then ever for such practices. So many of our daily chores, our basic needs, are met through the economic matrix. I no longer have to chop wood for warmth, hunt a boar for food, trek down to the river for a water simply, etc... Why shouldn’t I spend more time in private contemplation, or even public conversation on these more subtle topics of the human necessity? Why shouldn’t I be making something in an effort to communicate those private necessities? The actualization of the humanist requires space for such a practice. And yet, anything that requires a slowing down of, a calling for the work of the mind and private reasoning, is now, quite often immediately, labeled a cliché.
In The Human Condition Arendt writes “The emancipation of labor and the concomitant emancipation of the laboring classes from oppression and exploitation certainly means progress in the direction of non-violence. It is much less certain that it was also progress in the direction of freedom.” She is not saying that laboring classes should not have been emancipated. Rather, that the humanist goal has been blurred by some glitch. Instead of moving towards freedom from wasteful labor (a waste of human power -- physical, mental, spiritual) we instead have emancipated labor. Most of us have become imprisoned in a non-sustainable cycle that for the continuation of its forward motion requires an ever-increasing consumption and waste. This waste can be seen in terms of power. The core power of the human psyche originates in the liberty of free private thoughts—a psychological space for contemplation. A mapping of one’s stillness that is only possible in the acquisition of free time. Free time is a result of freedom from labors necessity. What Arendt’s thoughts gesture towards is that the set of basic necessities that we have been freed from, have been replaced by another, far more complicated and disguised set—the necessity to perpetuate a system that is moving much faster then us; a necessity to consume and continue consuming. To be ‘a part of‘ is, today, to be a consumer—to take ones place in the labor of waste.
Oh right, I wanted to tell you about a product...
“IF” is a creative project. It gains the viewers attention and borrows the imagination. This is a beginning. It does not steal, it borrows. It suggests the prospect of resonance rather than ownership.
I checked out the company website. The “about” page describes the development of the Imaginary Foundation: “a think tank from Switzerland that does experimental research on new ways of thinking and the power of the imagination. They hold dear a belief in human potential and seek progress in all directions.” The page is dotted with black and white images from the sixties, shaggy haired men and turtle-neck clad women engaged in contemplative, laissez-faire, light spirited dialogue. The imaginary director of the foundation is described as a “70-something uber-intellectual whose father founded the Dadaist movement.” The foundation is imaginary. It is a base, a canvas, for the products (the t-shirts) and the ideas behind them.
The blog section of the site imagines a list of contributors: Isadore Muggll, Kamilla Rousseau, etc. These architects, as is the back story, are too imaginary. “IF” is a fictional foundation for the product. But the product is real and engaging.
What is captured here goes beyond the tangible properties of the product (t-shirts). It is about what the product delivers—the wonder of creativity and science, the archetypes of the IF. Imagination IS the foundation of this product.
The blog itself is a venue for artists who marry technology and art, as well as other thought provoking materials. The image I use at the head of this article is taken from the blog. Cloud, idea, light, community, play—IF: all these are represented in the Cloud installation. This art installation is a discovery I am brought to by the Imaginary Foundation.
I once taught a course on the development of contemporary advertising, heavily focused on Edward Bernays and the peripheral route of persuasion. Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Woodrow Wilson’s image advisor, the father of the term "Public Relations," and the architect of the torches of freedom (Lucky Strikes) campaign, among many others. His theory, though terribly simplified here, was that the modern consumer does not purchase with his mind; rather, he defers to his emotions in most choices. The rational-actor is a fiction. If consumerism became god, branding became its religion.
Ad campaigns have become remarkably creative, and even, at times, beautiful. Have you ever felt the urge to cry during a Jeep commercial? Many have. I think I have. The central conceptual premise of the AMC show Mad Men, depends upon this tension: between art and consumption; the rendering from black and white, to color; the effective marketing and selling off of the human experience. In question is the art aspect of advertising. It is at the core of Don Draper’s motivations, and the one that despite his many character failings keeps endearing him to us. Ultimately we are asking, will he reconcile his artistic urge (his private motivation) with his office at the homunculus of the consumerism model (his role in the corporate arena). Exposed is a manipulation, an incongruence, an infidelity in the marriage of advertising and art. Where as art points towards something beyond itself, beyond even the image and the medium, the ad campaign points only to one purpose—back into itself. No idea behind it. Nothing living. It consumes.
Advertising is like the Ouroboros, the dragon that swallows its own tail; having entirely swallowed itself, the modern advertising campaign defies the laws of balance, it is only the un-relentless, hungry serpent head of consumption -- devoid of the body of life. The only urge driving it is to possess.
It is the difference between the work of Egon Schiele and Penthouse, the writings of Georges Bataille and a godaddy.com super bowl campaign.
Seduce ->consume. This is the current mandate of the ad campaign. But this relationship is only sustainable through incompletion. It requires continual doses. Seduce -> consume -> feel a lack even in the possession of product (contract unfulfilled) -> be seduced again -> consume. Ad infinitum. A terrible loop.
How can consumerism and individual consciousness (the most private sector) be made sustainable? Is it possible for a product to speak beyond itself? To fulfill the promise of its persuasion? And if it could, what would that mean for us?
Here I position the word sustainability to face two directions. In part it refers to what Arendt terms as “worldly,” the creation produced through work and not labor, something that has the potential to last beyond the productions of time, something that maneuvers into the arena of the eternal. I also want to posit the word in terms of its evolving contemporary potential. The one sector of the public, and political sphere that allows for the platform of this conversation is the environmental movement. It is where we have begun to contemplate the world beyond the shortsighted view of individual lifetimes. We speak of the sustainability of our planet; we are considering new ways to move our habits from wasteful and consumptive, towards lasting and sustainable power. It is a fairly new conversation and the word “sustainability” is evolving with each new perspective we bring to it.
Sustainability goes beyond consumer awareness. It is about the awareness of the product, how a brand gains consciousness. I need to explore here a definition of “consciousness.”
I have come to understand definitions as ever evolving in accordance with society and the pressures put upon it by the conditions of the time, the fractals of our world (more simply put, the culture stew).
Consciousness is the expanding of space into which one can resonate. To learn of the world around us, to acknowledge it, to consider its multiple dimensions, is to become more conscious -- to create space into which we can move by the will of our imagination and invention.
The Imaginary Foundation is an example of this bridge. It acknowledges itself and its fiction. It allows for play. It is a small company that uses the fabrication of its narrative to bring the consumers attention to the mimetic principles behind its product. Revealing the architects conceit brings me (the consumer) into co-authorship of the story. It endears itself to me. We do not only consume the product. We consume the narrative of the product. Even if I do not purchase, if I am thinking about it, I am talking about it, I have bought in. If it generates new ideas and deeper order thoughts, then I have begun to take ownership of the product. I consume the myth, I begin to co-author it -- I don it in the neural network of culture. And thus the product has gained consciousness, has begun to be carried beyond the object -- it resonates.
My study of this product is limited. I am not encouraging anyone here to purchase a shirt. I have not purchased a shirt. What I think this opens up is a table for negotiations between the current consumerism model, and individual consciousness—an opportunity to examine sustainable consumerism in all implications.
“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.