"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?
"The human condition comprehends more than the condition under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers."
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958, p. 9
The human condition is the context or situation we, as human beings, find ourselves in, the implication being that human life cannot be fully understood by considering humanity in isolation from its environment. We are, to a large degree, shaped by our environment, which is why Arendt refers to us as conditioned beings.
We are conditioned by phenomena external to us, and this may be considered learning in its broadest sense, that is, in the sense that the Skinnerian conditioned response is a learned reaction to external stimuli. It follows that any form of life that is capable of modifying its behavior in response to external stimuli is, to some extent, a conditioned being.
On a grander scale, natural selection, as it is popularly understood, can be seen as a conditioning force. Survival of the fittest is survival of those best able to adapt to existing external conditions, survival of those best able to meet the conditions of their environment. The fittest are, quite naturally, those in the best condition, that is, the best condition to survive. Whether we are considering the effects of natural selection upon an entire species, or individual members of a species, or what Richard Dawkins refers to as the selfish gene, the environment sets the conditions that various forms of life must meet to survive and reproduce.
Such views are inherently incorrect insofar as they posit an artificial separation between the conditions of life and the form of life that is conditioned. An ecological or systems view would instead emphasize the interdependent and interactive relationships that exist, as all forms of life alter their conditions simply by their very presence, by their metabolism, for example, and through their reproduction. Darwin understood this, I hasten to add, and the seeds of ecology can be found in his work, although they did not fully germinate until the turn of the 20th century. And Skinner certainly was aware of the individual's capacity for self-stimulation, and self-modification, but a truly relational approach in psychology did not coalesce until Gregory Bateson introduced a cybernetic perspective during the 1950s.
In the passage quoted above, it is readily apparent that Arendt is an ecological thinker. In saying that, "the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers," she is saying that we create the conditions that in turn condition us. We exist within a reciprocal relationship, a dialogue if you like, between the conditioned and the conditions, the internal and the external, the organism and its environment. The changes that we introduce into our environment, that alter the environment, feedback into ourselves as we are influenced, affected, and shaped by our environment.
The contrast between using tools and techniques in the most basic way to adapt to the conditions of the environment, and the creation of an entirely new technological environment of great complexity that requires us to perform highly convoluted acts of adaptation was portrayed with brilliant sensitivity and humor in the 1980 South African film, directed by Jamie Uys, entitled The Gods Must Be Crazy. A good part of the documentary style opening can be seen on this YouTube clip:
The story of the Coke bottle, although fictional, follows the pattern of many documented cases in which the introduction of new technologies to traditional societies has had disruptive, and often enough, disastrous effects (the film itself, I hasten to add, is marvelously comedic, and quite often slapstick following the introductory quarter hour.)
The understanding that we are conditioned by the conditions we ourselves introduce was not unknown in the ancient world. The 115th Psalm of David, in its polemic against idolatry and the idols that are "the work of men's hands," cautions that "they who make them shall be like unto them; yea every one that trusts in them." Along the same lines, the Gospel of Matthew includes the famous quote, "all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword," while the Epistle to the Galatians advises, "whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap." A more contemporary variation of that maxim is, "as you make your bed, so you shall lie on it," although in the United States it is often rendered in the imperative and punitive form of, "you made your bed, go lie in it!" During the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau notified us that "we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us," while Mark Twain humorously observed that, "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." More recently, we have been told, "ask a silly question, get a silly answer," to which computer scientists have responded with the acronym GIGO, which stands for, "garbage in, garbage out." Winston Churchill said, "we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us," and former Fordham professor John Culkin, in turn, offered, "we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us," as a corollary to Marhsall McLuhan's media ecology aphorism, "the medium is the message."
All of these voices, in their varying ways, are pointing to the same essential truth about the human condition that Arendt is relating in the quote that begins this post. And to pick up where that quote leaves off, Arendt goes on to argue,
In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things.
The "conditions" that we make are used to create a buffer or shield against the conditions that we inherit, so that our self-made conditions are meant to stand between us and what we would consider to be the natural environment. In this sense, our self-made conditions mediate between ourselves and the pre-existing conditions that we operate under, which is to say that our conditions are media of human life. And in mediating, in going between our prior conditions and ourselves, the new conditions that we create become our new environment. And as we become conditioned to our new conditions, they fade from view, being routinized they melt into the background and become essentially invisible to us.
Let us return now for the conclusion of the passage from The Human Condition:
Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence. This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings. Whatever enters the world of its own accord or is drawn into it by human effort becomes part of the human condition. The impact of the world's reality upon human existence is felt and received as a conditioning force. The objectivity of the world—its object- or thing-character—and the human condition supplement each other; because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.
This last point is quite striking. It is we, as human beings, who create worlds, which brings to mind the moving commentary from the Talmud: "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." We create worlds, in the sense that we give meaning to existence, we attribute meaning to phenomena, we construct symbolic as well as material environments. Each one of us, in our singular subjectivity, creates a world of our own, and therefore each one of us represents a world unto ourselves.
But these individual worlds are links, nodes in a social network, interdependent and interactive parts of an ecological whole. The term condition, in its root meaning is derived from the Latin prefix com, which means together, and dicere, which means to speak. And our ability to speak together, to engage in discussion and deliberation, to enter into symbolic interaction, constitutes the means by which we collectively construct our intersubjective, social realities, our worlds.
As human beings, we are conditioned not only by our labor, the ways in which we obtain the necessities of life, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, to which Marx sought to reduce all aspects of society, a position that Arendt severely criticized. We are conditioned not only by our work, which Arendt associated with artifacts, with instrumentality and technology, with arts and crafts. We are conditioned most importantly by action, which in Arendt's view is intimately tied to speech and the symbolic, and to processes rather than things, to relations rather than objects.
In the end, Arendt reminds us that the human condition is itself conditional, and to be fully human requires not only that we take care of biological necessity, nor that we make life easier through technological innovation, but that we cooperate through speech and action in collectively constructing a world that is truly blessed with freedom and with justice.
Last week I attended a public lecture at Fordham University given by Richard Bernstein, a philosopher on the faculty of the New School, the subject of the lecture being "Hannah Arendt on Power and Violence" and the sponsor being Fordham's Philosophy Department.
The lecture began with some discussion of who Hannah Arendt was, e.g., German-Jewish intellectual, had an affair with Martin Heidegger when she was an 18-year-old student and he was a married professor in his 30s, wrote her dissertation on St. Augustine, escaped from Nazi Germany before things got really bad, met and became friends with Walter Benjamin in Paris, unlike Benjamin was able to escape to the United States, and famously wrote about totalitarianism, and the trial of Adolf Eichmann (architect of the Nazi concentration camps) and the banality of evil (which sums up my own previous encounter with Arendt's thought). Of course, that's just a cursory summary of a rich and eventful life.
I joined a few of my colleagues from the Philosophy Department at Fordham and met with Bernstein prior to the lecture for some discussion, and he mentioned that, although Arendt was not a practicing Jew, at the end she asked that someone say Kaddish for her at her funeral.
Admittedly, it's not all that unheard of for folks to suddenly get religion when the end is near (no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes), and for individuals who have been disconnected from their traditions to suddenly want to reconnect. But what I found poignant about this request is that she asked for someone, rather than someone specific, which I take to be a sign of isolation in that typically it would be the immediate family who would say the prayer. No doubt, there were many who said Kaddish on her behalf, not the least on account of her significant work during and after World War II on behalf of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and in general as a political philosopher with a strong sense of social justice.
And that brings me back to Bernstein's lecture, the main part of which was a summary of an influential essay that Arendt wrote for the New York Review of Books back in 1969, entitled, "Reflections on Violence". And if you haven't read it already, I do recommend it. It's clear that Arendt wrote the essay in response to the escalating violence occurring in the United States during the late 1960s, which included increasingly more violent antiwar demonstrations, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the rise of militant movements especially within the African-American community, and rioting in inner city slums, which caused harm especially to African-American populations. No doubt, the escalation of violence bore some similarity to the rise of Nazism in Germany, motivating this essay.
I won't reproduce this rather lengthy essay in its entirety here, but I do want to note some salient points.
To begin with, Arendt thinks it's important to distinguish between violence and power (as well as force and strength). Violence, unlike power, is technological in nature--violence "always needs implements" so that:
The revolution in technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the question of means and ends, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means, which it both justifies and needs. Since the end of human action, in contrast with the products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.
Now what she's saying here is very much in keeping with the intellectual tradition known as media ecology, the type of approach associated with scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman. Whereas McLuhan said that "the medium is the message," for all intents and purposes, Arendt here is saying that the means is the message!
Arendt goes on to note that traditionally, violence has been seen as an instrument of power, but that technological advances in warfare (she mentions the possibility of robot soldiers!), weapons of mass destruction (especially biological weapons that can be used by small groups rather than large states), and guerrilla warfare (and what we now call terrorism) have led to a reversal of that relationship. In many ways, this is a very prescient observation:
What all these very uncomfortable novelties add up to is a reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers. The amount of violence at the disposal of a given country may no longer be a reliable indication of that country's strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power. This again bears an ominous similarity to one of the oldest insights of political science, namely that power cannot be measured by wealth, that an abundance of wealth may erode power, that riches are particularly dangerous for the power and well-being of republics.
Arendt also goes on to make a similar point about the use of violence for revolutionary aims. Noting the leftist leanings of the baby boomer generation (e.g., the hippies), she points out:
This is the first generation that grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb, and it inherited from the generation of its fathers the experience of a massive intrusion of criminal violence into politics - they learned in high school and in college about concentration and extermination camps, about genocide and torture, about the wholesale slaughter of civilians in war, without which modern military operations are no longer possible even if they remain restricted to "conventional" weapons.
But noting the then recent shift to militancy within "the movement" (as it was known), she again invokes a key critique of the technological environment and its discontents:
Their behavior has been blamed on all kinds of social and psychological causes… Still, it seems absurd, especially in view of the global character of the phenomenon, to ignore the most obvious and perhaps the most potent factor in this development, for which moreover no precedent and no analogy exist–the fact that, in general, technological progress seems in so many instances to lead straight to disaster, and, in particular, the proliferation of techniques and machines which, far from only threatening certain classes with unemployment, menaces the very existence of whole nations and, conceivably, of all mankind. It is only natural that the new generation should live with greater awareness of the possibility of doomsday than those "over thirty," not because they are younger but because this was their first decisive experience in the world. If you ask a member of this generation two simple questions: "How do you wish the world to be in fifty years?" and "What do you want your life to be like five years from now?" the answers are quite often preceded by a "Provided that there is still a world," and "Provided I am still alive."
That sense of pessimism became very much characteristic of the 1970s, and continued into the 1980s, eventually dispelled by Reagan's rhetoric of optimism, economic recovery, and the fall of the Soviet bloc, but also coincided with the revolution in personal computing that in turn led to the rise of the internet. Has that sense of pessimism returned anew, in the post 9/11 decade where concern about terrorism, warfare, and the loss of liberty are still present, and especially in light of the financial disaster of 2008 that continues to affect the global economy? Are movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street leading the way to increased freedom and justice both in the world? Or are they a prelude to increased violence?
I think Hannah Arendt at least helps us to formulate some important questions, and reminds us that however unpredictable the ends may be, we would do well to pay close attention to the means being employed.
There is also some further common ground between Arendt and McLuhan (a point first brought to my attention by my old classmate Paul Lippert, who was also in attendance at Bernstein's lecture). For Arendt, violence requires technology. For McLuhan, technology is a form of violence. The relationship between the two is certainly worth considering, even in relation to the seemingly benign technologies we refer to as new media. What is the violence that they do, to our political arrangements, our economic and financial arrangements, our social organization and way of life?
To return to Arendt's essay, her essay was primarily concerned with the differences between power and violence, which she argues amounts to an almost diametrical opposition. Arendt notes that most scholars and intellectuals see violence as a manifestation of power, perhaps its ultimate manifestation. But they're wrong. And noting the connection between power and rule, Arendt makes a rather interesting aside about bureaucracy in discussing the traditional equation of power with violence:
These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man - of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.
Now, I'm not sure I would agree with her about bureaucracy being the most tyrannical of systems, but I would note that bureaucracy is what James Beniger referred to as an invisible technology, and what Lewis Mumford viewed as a type of machine, in some instances a megamachine. Bureaucracy is a reflection of machine ideology, inhuman and inhumane, and inorganic as well. So I think Mumford probably agreed with her point when he read the essay, as I assume he did, back in 1969.
Back to the point, Arendt argues that power is not simply about domination, that obedience and command go hand-in-hand, so that individuals who are willing to obey are also willing to give orders to others, and vice versa, and conversely individuals who resist obedience to authority also resist being placed in a position of authority over others.
But more importantly, she stresses the role of consent of the ruled, or governed, the centrality of cooperation to the establishment of power. This is consonant with Kenneth Burke's view that rhetoric is not about conflict, but rather about identification, about establishing, maintaining, and increasing common ground. This also falls in line with Jacques Ellul's arguments about the role of propaganda in technological societies, especially integrative and sociological propaganda, where the main goal is to establish and reinforce the legitimacy of the society, and keep people from questioning or acting in ways that work against the effective functioning of the social machine.
Some may also note the similarity of Michel Foucault's views on power, but then there's the question of whether he was aware of Arendt's work and just didn't acknowledge her influence (as he didn't acknowledge the influence of others, e.g., Erving Goffman). But let's take Jean Baudrillard's advice, and "forget Foucault" and stick with Arendt (and I would venture to predict that by the end of the century Foucault will largely be forgotten, and Arendt's thought will still be discussed).
Anyway, all this is not to say that power minus violence is necessarily a good thing, as Arendt explains:
Indeed, it is one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence relying on instruments up to a point can manage without them. A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable indeed in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation of dissent without any use of violence. Undivided and unchecked power can bring about a "consensus" that is hardly less coercive than suppression by means of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same.
Consensus may be tacit, and can continue as long as the power structure is not challenged. That is how a single master can control many slaves who outnumber him and could otherwise overpower him. That's how political systems in decline can still cling to power, as long as no one internally, or externally, challenge their rule. Now, let's hear some more of what Arendt has to say:
To switch for a moment to conceptual language: Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification through something else cannot be the essence of anything. The end of war – end taken in its twofold meaning – is peace or victory; but to the question, And what is the end of peace? there is no answer. Peace is an absolute, even though in recorded history the periods of warfare have nearly always outlasted the periods of peace. Power is in the same category; it is, as the saying goes, "an end in itself." (This, of course, is not to deny that governments pursue policies and employ their power to achieve prescribed goals. But the power structure itself precedes and outlasts all aims, so that power, far from being the means to an end, is actually the very condition that enables a group of people to think and act according to means and ends.) And since government is essentially organized and institutionalized power, the current question, What is the end of government?, does not make much sense either. The answer will be either question-begging -- to enable men to live together -- or dangerously Utopian: to promote happiness or to realize a classless society or some other nonpolitical ideal, which if tried out in earnest can only end in the worst kind of government, that is, tyranny.
Arendt does acknowledge that power needs legitimacy, which brings us back to consent, and which she differentiates from justification. Is there a difference that makes a difference here? Perhaps. Justification requires some sort of rationale, some logic, some explanation. Legitimacy is merely a matter of agreement, of assent on the part of the group, or the majority. In this sense, legitimacy works on the relationship level of communication, as a form of metacommunication, whereas justification works on the content level of communication, to use the terms developed by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues, based on the systems view of Gregory Bateson.
Given that violence is different and distinct from power, Arendt notes that violence has the potential to disrupt and overcome power, and to do so quite easily:
Violence, we must remember, does not depend on numbers or opinion but on implements, and the implements of violence share with all other tools that they increase and multiply human strength. Those who oppose violence with mere power will soon find out that they are confronted not with men but with men's artifacts, whose inhumanity and destructive effectiveness increase in proportion to the distance that separates the opponents. Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.
So, violence can destroy power, but it cannot create power. When governments resort to violence, it is a reflection of their loss of power. And the use of violence to maintain or gain power has unwanted, often unanticipated effects (typical of technology, after all), boomerang effects. Arendt notes, "the much-feared boomerang effect of the 'government of subject races' (Lord Cromer) upon the home government during the imperialist era meant that rule by violence in far-away lands would end by affecting the government of England, that the last 'subject race' would be the English themselves." Or as Edmund Carpenter (and Marshall McLuhan) put it, drawing on the Book of Psalms, they became what they beheld.
In keeping with the Arendtian approach, I think it's correct to say that violence is not war, and I would say that there can in fact be war without violence. A state of war can exist without any battles actually taking place. This has been the case in the Middle East between Israel and various Arab states since Israel declared its independence. And of course it was the situation we referred to as the Cold War. War, as Kenneth Burke pointed out, requires a massive amount of cooperation within each society at war, and a certain amount of agreement on the ground rules for war (e.g., the Geneva Convention). Indeed, terrorism can be distinguished from war insofar as terrorists do not play by any rules, and do not seek any form of agreement on how to conduct hostilities. War is violence constrained by rules, therefore akin to a game, whereas violence itself knows no rules, and is no game. McLuhan observed that war is a very effective form of education. Violence, on the other hand, teaches us about nothing except itself. Violence only teaches us to be violent, or to avoid violence.
Arendt also differentiates between violence and terror: "Terror is not the same as violence; it is rather the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control." Of course, this concept of terror is an older understanding of state-produced terror, the "reign of terror" as it were. But perhaps we can base a more contemporary understanding of terrorism based on this view, with the idea that terrorists seek to destroy power, and to exert a form of control without actually taking power. This perhaps would be a way to distinguish between terrorists and genuine rebels and revolutionaries.
So, Arendt summarizes the distinction between power and violence in this way:
Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.
Arendt also discusses the role of rage as a cause of violence, and this leads her to consider "black rage" as it was known in the 60s, the anger expressed by African-Americans and the violent acts that stem from that anger, notably the riots that occurred in Harlem, Watts, Newark, and elsewhere. This leads to an interesting comment on expressions of "white guilt" as a collective phenomenon:
Where all are guilty, however, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are always the best possible safeguard against the discovery of the actual culprits. In this particular instance, it is in addition a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions: The real rift between black and white is not healed when it is being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. It is racism in disguise and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality.
A controversial comment, to be sure, but one that is quite thought-provoking. And it is an altogether basic point, coming from a Marxist perspective, that one way that those in power maintain power is via a strategy of divide and conquer, and nowhere has this been more apparent in US history than in the division between black and white in the lower classes (as well, between the German working class and German Jews that was encouraged and capitalized upon by the Nazis).
Arendt also criticizes those scholars who argue for the inherent naturalness of violence as a biological imperative, and therefore its inherently irrationality. Instead, she notes that "violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals."
I can't help but note the interesting result if we substitute technology for violence in this quote: "technology being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, technology can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals."
The danger of introducing violence bring us back to Arendt's implicit take on McLuhan's medium is the message, that the means are the message, which is to say that the means become the ends.
Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.
Interestingly, Arendt suggests that "the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence." This returns to the point of bureaucracy as technology, that it is impersonal and dehumanizing, that you cannot question it or argue with it. Thinking about it, what Plato criticizes about writing in the Phaedrus applies to bureaucracy quite well, at least on those two points. Otherwise, in regard to Plato's 3rd major point about writing, we could modify the original critique and note that bureaucracy gives the appearance of a knowledgeable and accountable government, but in fact represents the complete absence of those qualities.
In his lecture, Bernstein stated that what people want is the freedom to act, to participate. That is what the exercise of power by bureaucracy, power without accountability, without responsibility (the key to responsibility being response as Martin Buber has insightfully stated), resists and essentially prevents.
Power based on participation is the formula for a just and stable society. Can technology, which is arguably inherently violent, actually increase genuine participation in the establishment of a legitimate order and power structure? Proponents of new media, such as my friend and colleague Paul Levinson, believe the answer to be unequivocally yes. There is no question that new media are undermining existing power structures all around the world, and here in the US. But can they form the basis of a new political order? Arendt's arguments cast some doubt on the possibility (and Neil Postman would undoubtedly agree), and should give us pause, as we ought to recall the unpredictability of the ends, and the overwhelming "power" of the means.
Arendt's essay also made me think about the close association that Marshall McLuhan made between violence and identity. According to McLuhan, violence is a response to the loss of identity, and constitutes an attempt to regain identity. In his final television appearance, with Mike McManus at the end of 1977, McLuhan stated,
All forms of violence are quests for identity. When you live out on the frontier, you have no identity. You're a nobody. Therefore you get very tough. You have to prove that you are somebody, and so you become very violent. And so identity is always accompanied by violence. This seems paradoxical to you? Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. So it's only the threat to people's identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers, these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.
Adding McLuhan's insight to Arendt's commentary, we can equate identity with power, loss or lack of identity with a loss of power and impotency. Identity not only tells us who we are, it binds us together in common cause, as a group identity.
This brings us back to Kenneth Burke's view of rhetoric as a means to foster identification. Through the forging of a common identity, we create the basis for cooperation and consent, and therefore, in Arendt's sense, power.
When group identity breaks down, cooperation and consent go into decline (this sounds chillingly familiar, come to think of it), and the power of the state/government ebbs. Violence then becomes the means to compensate for it. On the other side of the coin, when individuals or groups do not feel that they are part of the larger group identity, and consequently may feel a loss or lack of identity in contrast to the majority, they may resort to violence as a means of compensation.
Bringing Burke back into play (and, for that matter, Alfred Korzybski), it becomes clear that power and identity are very much symbolic phenomena. Identity typically is established by having and/or gaining a name. When we share the same name, the same surname, or the same nationality-name, we indicate that we have a shared identity. That is why shifts in language and also bilingualism can be seen as a threat to identity (witness the overwhelming resistance to Spanish in the US, and the problem of Quebec in Canada, which McLuhan was trying to address). Power is a function of symbolic order, and identity is a function of symbolic assignment.
Anomie is the sociological term for lawlessness, for being an outlaw, rejecting society's laws and rules and norms. But it also means, in a sense, being without a name. Being nameless grants a license to kill, or otherwise commit violent acts that violate law, ethics, and morality. Anonymity reduces the barriers to violence, and distance aids in anonymity. It is harder to commit violence with one's bare hands than to pull the trigger of a gun, easier still to drop bombs from a plane, and easier still to push a button and launch a missile. Technology creates distance (as Max Frisch observed, it is the art of never having to experience the world), and grants a measure of anonymity.
Violence is a response to a lack of power. Technology is a response to a lack of power. Violence is a response to a lack of identity. Technology is a response to a lack of identity.
Lacking identity, the individual may try to make a name for himself or herself. This may involve achievement, typically through competition and success in surpassing others, which might be understood as a form of symbolic violence. But often enough, individuals make names for themselves through genuinely violent acts.
Violence is a response to loss of power/identity, but violence cannot restore power/identity, that is, cannot restore it to its previous state of being, its positive existence.
Violence can produce a new kind of power/identity, but only a negative form of identity/power, e.g., villainy/tyranny.
Technology is a response to loss of power/identity, but technology cannot restore power/identity, that is, cannot restore it to its previous state of being, its positive existence. Technology can produce a new kind of power/identity, but only a negative form of identity/power, e.g., villainy/tyranny.
Violence/technology/innovation is associated with the loss of our name/language/symbolic order. Violence/technology/innovation cannot restore our name/language/symbolic order.
Only we, as human beings, can bestow a name, can employ language. Only we, as human beings, can create an identity, can establish symbolic order. Only we, as human beings, can create power, and we have the potential to create power in a manner that Hannah Arendt would insist on, within an ethical framework, and grounded in peace, justice, and human rights.
Violence is divisive. Violence separates the hunters from the prey, the attacker from the target, the winner from the loser, the victor from the victim (as the saying goes, you're either one or the other, which represents a cynical worldview, of course). Violence is a zero sum game. Violence performed on one's self is internally divisive, but that's another story.
Technology is divisive. Technology separates the user from the used, the individual from the world, the actor from the acted upon, the subject from the object (technology objectifies the world, and the others who inhabit it).
Violence/technology is an I-It relationship, to use Martin Buber's terminology.
Power is unifying. Power brings together the ruler and the ruled, government and citizen, in consent and cooperation. Power binds us together (for good or for ill), in creating, maintaining, repairing, renewing, and revising the symbolic order.
Identity is unifying. Identity is a shared sense of self, group membership, imagined community, a common ground, a common name, an interconnectedness.
Power/identity is an I-You relationship, an I-You becoming Us.
All too often, power/identity is established through some larger form of divisiveness, a shared identity among insiders in contrast to outsiders, the identification of the other against which we define ourselves. Identity established through divisiveness is the same as power established through violence, it carries the seeds of its own disintegration, it is not sustainable. Divisiveness corrupts because any insider group can sense that they might, at some point, become outsiders, and that the only way to prevent this is to single out some other insider group and treat them as outsiders.
The problem before us is one that we have faced throughout our long history: How to overcome division and forge a truly unified identity. The name for this identity is no mystery: it is humanity. To achieve a global human identity there must be a global human power, a symbolic order, a mutual empowerment based on consent and cooperation.
Does this sound utopian? I am reminded of Buckminster Fuller's remark that we are in a race between utopia and oblivion. And even if it's not possible to achieve absolute unity, we certainly have made some significant progress towards that goal, and it certainly seems to me that we have the potential to make a great deal more progress if we have the will to do so.
And I think Hannah Arendt would agree that this positive sense of a will to power begins with thought, I believe she would agree with McLuhan that nothing is inevitable if we are willing to contemplate the possibilities and the consequences of our actions. And I think Arendt would say that we have to start by thinking, that it's only when we stop thinking that solutions seem hopelessly utopian and problems become insurmountable.
Dr. Lance Strate is Professor of Communication and Media Studies and Director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University. He is the author of Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, and On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology.
Click here to visit his blog.
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