“The shift from the ‘why’ and ‘what’ to the ‘how’ implies that the actual objects of knowledge can no longer be things or eternal motions but must be processes, and that the object of science is no longer nature or the universe but the history, the story of the coming into being, of nature or life or the universe....Nature, because it could be known only in processes which human ingenuity, the ingeniousness of homo faber, could repeat and remake in the experiment, became a process, and all particular natural things derived their significance and meaning solely from their function in the over-all process. In the place of the concept of Being we now find the concept of Process. And whereas it is in the nature of Being to appear and thus disclose itself, it is in the nature of Process to remain invisible, to be something whose existence can only be inferred from the presence of certain phenomena.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Bookending Arendt’s consideration of the human condition “from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears” is her invocation of several “events, ” which she took to be emblematic of the modern world launched by the atomic explosions of the 1940s and the threshold of the modern age that preceded it by several centuries. The event she invokes in the opening pages is the launch of Sputnik in 1957; its companion events are named in the last chapter of the book--the discovery of America, the Reformation, and the invention of the telescope and the development of a new science.
Not once mentioned in The Human Condition, but, as Mary Dietz argued so persuasively in her Turning Operations, palpably present as a “felt absence,” is the event of the Shoah, the “hellish experiment” of the SS concentration camps, which is memorialized today, Yom HaShoah. Reading Arendt’s commentaries on the discovery of the Archimedean point and its application in modern science with the palpably present but textually absent event of the Holocaust in mind sheds new light on the significance of her cautionary tale about the worrying implications of the new techno-science of algorithms and quantum physics and its understanding of nature produced through the experiment.
What happens, she seems to be asking, when the meaning of all “particular things” derives solely from “their function in the over-all process”? If nature in all of its aspects is understood as the inter- (or intra-) related aspects of the overall life process of the universe, does then human existence, as part of nature, become merely one part of that larger process, differing perhaps in degree, but not kind, from any other part?
Recently, “new materialist” philosophers have lauded this so-called “posthumanist” conceptualization of existence, arguing that the anthropocentrism anchoring earlier modern philosophies—Arendt implicitly placed among them?—arbitrarily separates humans from the rest of nature and positions them as masters in charge of the world (universe). By contrast, a diverse range of thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, William Connolly, Diana Coole, and Cary Wolfe have drawn on a variety of philosophical and scientific traditions to re-appropriate and “post-modernize” some form of vitalism. The result is a reformulation of an ontology of process—what Connolly calls “a world of becoming”—as the most accurate way to understand matter’s dynamic and eternal self-unfolding. And, consequentially, it also entails transforming agency from a human capacity of “the will” with its related intentions to a theory of agency of “multiple degrees and sites...flowing from simple natural processes, to human beings and collective social assemblages” with each level and site containing “traces and remnants from the levels from which it evolved,” which “affect [agency’s] operation.” (Connolly, A World Becoming, p. 22, emphasis added). The advantage of a “philosophy/faith of radical immanence or immanent realism,” Connolly argues, is its ability to engage the “human predicament”: “how to negotiate life, without hubris or existential resentment, in a world that is neither providential nor susceptible to consummate mastery. We must explore how to invest existential affirmation in such a world, even as we strive to fend off its worst dangers.”
An implicit ethic of aiming to take better care of the world, “to fold a spirit of presumptive generosity for the diversity of life into your conduct” by not becoming too enamored with human agency resides in this philosophy/faith. In the entanglements she explores between human and non-human materiality—a “heterogeneous monism of vibrant bodies” —one can discern similar ethical concerns in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. “It seems necessary and impossible to rewrite the default grammar of agency, a grammar that assigns activity to people and passivity to things.” Conceptualizing nature as “an active becoming, a creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new” Bennett affirms a “vital materiality [that] congeals into bodies, bodies that seek to persevere or prolong their run,” (p. 118, emphasis in the original) where “bodies” connotes all forms of matter. And she contends that this vital materialism can “enhance the prospects for a more sustainability-oriented public.” Yet, without some normative criteria for discerning the ways this new materialism can work toward “sustainability,” it is by no means obvious how either a declaration of faith in the “radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the non-human” or having greater “attentiveness to the indispensable foreignness that we are” would lead to a change in political direction toward more gratitude and away from more destructive patterns of production and consumption. The recognition of our vulnerability could just as easily lead to renewed efforts to truncate or even eradicate the “foreignness” within.
Nonetheless, although these and other accounts call for a reconceptualization of concepts of agency and of causality, none pushes as far toward a productivist/performative account of matter and meaning as does Karen Barad’s theory of “agential realism.” Drawing out the implications of Niels Bohr’s quantum mechanics, Barad develops a theory of how “subjects” and “objects” are produced as apparently separable entities by “specific material configurings of the world” which enact “boundaries, properties, and meanings.” And, in her conceptualization, “meaning is not a human-based notion; rather meaning is an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility...Intelligibility is not an inherent characteristic of humans but a feature of the world in its differential becoming. The world articulates itself differently...[H]uman concepts or experimental practices are not foundational to the nature of phenomena. ” The world is immanently real and matter immanently materializes.
At first glance, this posthumanist understanding of reality seems consistent with Arendt’s own critique of Cartesian dualism and Newtonian physics and her understanding of the implicitly conditioned nature of human existence. “Men are conditioned beings because everything they come into 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.” Nonetheless, there is a profound difference between them. For Barad, “world” is not Arendt’s humanly built habitat, the domain of homo faber (which does not necessarily entail mastery of nature, but always involves a certain amount of violence done to nature, even to the point of “degrading nature and the world into mere means, robbing both of their independent dignity.” (H.C., p. 156, emphasis added.) “World” is matter, the physical, ever-changing reality of an inherently active, “larger material configuration of the world and it ongoing open-ended articulation.” Or is it?
Since this world is made demonstrably real or determinate only through the design of the right experiment to measure the effects of, or marks on, bodies, or “measuring agencies” (such as a photographic plate) made or produced by “measured objects” (such as electrons), the physical nature of this reality becomes an effect of the experiment itself. Despite the fact that Barad insists that “phenomena do not require cognizing minds for their existence” and that technoscientific practices merely manifest “an expression of the objective existence of particular material phenomena” (p. 361), the importance of the well-crafted scientific experiment to establishing the fact of matter looms large.
Why worry about the experiment as the basis for determining the nature of nature, including so-called “human nature? For Arendt, the answer was clear: “The world of the experiment seems always capable of becoming a man-made reality, and this, while it may increase man’s power of making and acting, even of creating a world, far beyond what any previous age dared imagine...unfortunately puts man back once more—and now even more forcefully—into the prison of his own mind, into the limitations of patterns he himself has created...[A] universe construed according to the behavior of nature in the experiment and in accordance with the very principles which man can translate technically into a working reality lacks all possible representation...With the disappearance of the sensually given world, the transcendent world disappears as well, and with it the possibility of transcending the material world in concept and thought.”
The transcendence of representationalism does not trouble Barad, who sees “representation” as a process of reflection or mirroring hopelessly entangled with an outmoded “geometrical optics of externality.” But for Arendt, appearance matters, and not in the sense that a subject discloses some inner core of being through her speaking and doing, but in the sense that what is given to the senses of perception—and not just to the sense of vision—is the basis for constructing a world in common. The loss of this “sensually given world” found its monstrous enactment in the world of the extermination camps, which Arendt saw as “special laboratories to carry through its experiment in total domination.”
If there is a residual humanism in Arendt’s theorizing it is not the simplistic anthropocentrism, which takes “man as the measure of all things,” a position she implicitly rejects, especially in her critique of instrumentalism. Rather, she insists that “the modes of human cognition [science among them] applicable to things with ‘natural’ qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?” (H.C., p. 11, emphasis in the original) And then there is the question of responsibility.
We may be unable to control the effects of the actions we set in motion, or, in Barad’s words, “the various ontological entanglements that materiality entails.”
But no undifferentiated assignation of agency to matter, or material sedimentations of the past “ingrained in the body’s becoming” can release us humans from the differential burden of consciousness and memory that is attached to something we call the practice of judgment. And no appeal to an “ethical call...written into the very matter of all being and becoming” will settle the question of judgment, of what is to be done. There may be no place to detach ourselves from responsibility, but how to act in the face of it is by no means given by the fact of entanglement itself. What if “everything is possible.”?
-Kathleen B. Jones
Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and where deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Arendt’s conception of power is one of the most subtle and elusive features of her political theory. Here Arendt poses the problem of power in terms of power’s loss, of powerlessness, which is also what she calls “the death of political communities.”
What is powerlessness? What, exactly, is lost when power is lost?
There are many ways to become powerless in the world of twenty-first century politics. In the United States we often imagine that citizens would be powerless without their constitutional rights – the vote, free speech, due process. In and around the world’s many war zones, the loss of military protection seems to produce a very different kind of powerlessness, one that is linked to both our physical vulnerability to violence as human beings and the persistence of violence between sovereign states (and within them.) There is also the powerlessness that seems to follow from the dislocations or migrations of peoples, a condition that Arendt calls mass homelessness, which may come from the movement of peoples across borders or the redrawing of borders across peoples. Poverty appears to be another form of powerlessness altogether, one that disrupts our capacity to appropriate nonhuman nature through labor and work and thereby sustain our lives. Arendt argues that mass destitution, alongside mass homelessness, is a form of powerlessness that is peculiar to the political condition of the modern age.
Many other kinds of powerlessness can be added to this list. The list is disturbing not only for its variety and length, but also because the felt urgency of each danger invites us to elevate one or two above the others, so that we risk settling for powerlessness of several kinds in order to secure power in one or two “emergency” domains. We choose between the power of kill lists and drone strikes and the power of due process for Americans accused of terrorism. We weigh our powerlessness in the face of global warming against the powerlessness caused by the Great Recession, where the hoped-for “recovery” will be defined by consumption-led “growth,” rendered tangible by lower gas prices and more crowded shopping malls. Or, we may think that US power in the globalizing world of free trade and faster capital flows is dependent upon “securing our national borders,” achieved through the quasi-militarization of immigration enforcement. Hard choices are the stuff of politics - they are supposed to be what power is all about - but the dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world. Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.
The death of the body politic, which can only occur by way of the powerlessness of politics itself, is Arendt’s main concern in the above quote. In contrast to Hobbes, Rousseau, Weber, and Habermas, among others, Arendt distinguishes power from domination, strength, rationality, propaganda, and violence. Located within the open and common world of human speech and action, power reveals its ethical and political limits when it is overcome by deception, empty words, destruction, and “brutality.” Rooted in the human conditions of natality and plurality, and constituted by the gathered actions of many in a public space of appearance, power exists only in its actualization through speech and deed. Like action, power depends upon the public self-disclosure of actors in historical time. Actors acting together with other actors generate power. Yet because we do not know “who” we disclose ourselves to be in the course of collective action, or what the effects of our actions will turn out to mean in the web of human stories, power itself is always “boundless and unpredictable,” which in part explains its peculiar force. Given its boundlessness and unpredictability, power cannot be stored up for emergencies, like weapons or food and water, nor kept in place through fixed territories, as with national sovereignty. Power therefore co-exists only uneasily with machpolitik. Power can overcome violence and strength through the gathered voices and acts of the many; it can also be destroyed (but not replaced) through the dispersal of the many and the dissolution of the space of appearance. In-between gathering and dispersal, power is preserved through what Arendt calls “organization,” the laws, traditions, habits, and institutions that sustain the space of appearance during those interims when actors disperse temporarily and withdraw back into the private realm, only to reappear later.
For Arendt, the loss of power is the loss of our capacity to act with others in a way that generates, sustains, and discloses a common world. Powerlessness is marked by the receding of public spaces. This may occur, for example, through the gentle decline of a formally constituted public realm into the technocratic shadows of the social, or through the brutal sovereign repression of spontaneously emergent spaces of appearance. In both cases, our ethical and political incapacities to act together, and the philosophical inability to recognize power when we see it, are at the root of modern political powerlessness. Power-seekers, on Arendt’s view, would be well advised to cultivate a deeper political appreciation for both the immaterial force and fragility of human natality, plurality, and public space, which will be lost when power is mistaken for its rivals, like reason, strength, violence, or sovereignty.
In a short entry in her Denktagebuch from 1956, Arendt offers a gnomic reflection on Antigone:
Ad Orff, Antigone: Als sei alles darauf angelegt, uns zum Ertönen zu bringen. Wir aber verschliessen uns, verstummen und klagen nicht. Antigone- die klagende, tönende menschliche Stimme, in der alles offenbar wird.
Ad Orff, Antigone: As if all was set out to bring us to sound. But we lock up, fall silent, and do not lament. Antigone – the lamenting, sounding human voice, in which all becomes revealed. (Notebook XXII, February 1956, Denktagebuch)
The entry first caught my attention because while Arendt often refers to literature (favorite authors include Kafka and Rilke), she rarely refers to specific musical pieces in her published work. Here she reacts to the opera Antigonae by Carl Orff.
Orff had composed for the Nazis, who received his Carmina Burana with incredible adulation, and underwent denazification after the war. Antigonae of 1949 is a minimalist work, first in the everyday sense that it sets Hölderlin's translation of the drama to song with little instrumental accompaniment. In this regard it highlights the translation's inherent musicality on the level of form (rhythms and rhymes in the text) and content (we see how at a number of moments the drama turns on references to singing, crying, tone, and lament). Orff's opera can also be described as minimalist in the more precise sense that when the orchestra does emerge, it often plays looping interludes that remind one of the repetitive avant-garde phrasings that Steve Reich would popularize in the 1960s.
Arendt often turns to art as a free space in which to voice philosophical and political questions in the modern age. Readers compelled by her approach might be inspired by the entry on Orff to look for other passages addressing music that would compliment her better known aesthetic analyses.
At a local level, the entry also raises a question: how would Arendt read Sophocles's Antigone? Patchen Markell offers one suggestion when he links Sophocles and Arendt in a “countertradition of thought about recognition” in his book Bound by Recognition. Markell casts a skeptical eye on the equation of identity and justice and offers an alternative mapping which is open to asymmetry and values finitude. In doing so he suggests a possible approach to this entry that notices the uncanny relation of the “we” and Antigone through the instrument of the voice.
The first line of the entry starts with the “we”– presumably the spectators of the opera and perhaps humanity more broadly – and centers on the German term “Ertönen,” which could be translated as “to ring out,” “to sound,” “resound,” or “chime.” It indicates expression, and even a move to freedom. In the next sentence though, this potential for liberation evaporates and “we” fall silent. It ultimately fails at the possibility, even apparent necessity of “klagen,” a term which contains the powerful double meaning of 1) “moan,” “lament,” “wail,” and 2) “litigate,” “file a suit,” “go to law.” Unlike us, Antigone's voice does ring out, she does lament, and in her lament she takes on the law.
Arendt describes Antigone's voice as the “human voice,” but her description leads us to think in the direction of the questioning of the essence of the human in first stasimon (often referred to as the “ode to man”). Roger Berkowitz connects the deinon (wondrous / terrible) in this ode to Arendt's concern over the “danger that we might so fully create and make our artificial world that we endanger that quality of human life which is subject to fate, nature, and chance” in his article in The Fortnightly Review.
In terms of the question of recognition, Arendt's note on Orff draws our attention to those sections of the drama where Antigone pushes against the inhuman, such as when the guard describes her shriek at the sight of her brother's unburried body as “a distressing painful cry, just like a bird/ who’s seen an empty nest, its fledglings gone.” Later, she sings a long lament to her tomb and dead family, as if those who remain alive are nothing to her. The minimalist loops of Orff's music might indicate something of the energy that insists on living when one has nothing to live for or is even condemned to death. These sections are strikingly different from the over-the-top triumphalism of Carmina Burana, which hounds popular culture in movies and commercials to this day. They suggest persistence rather than victory, or perhaps even a paradoxical continuation in an explicit condition of defeat.
Antigone is the voice, Arendt tells us. We seem to recognize it as our own, even if the total meaning of the “all” that would be the content of our realization remains out of reach.
Academics ignore novelists at their peril. Especially in the case of Marilynne Robinson. Robinson's novels are extraordinary (my favorite is Gilead) but her essays are equally illuminating. Take for instance her most recent offering "A Common Faith" published by Guernica.
One hazards to simplify an essay whose essential thrust is to oppose simplification. Robinson begins with the common yet startling observation that "the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe." She then proceeds to show how scientists and academics, not to mention columnists and commentators, set out to simplify human life and explain it in accordance with theories such as capitalism and Darwinism.
Both capitalism and Darwinism are examples of what Robinson calls "simple faiths:" truths that we are so attracted to that we hold to their veracity and power even in the face of facts to the contrary. The capitalist, for example, assumes that human beings are driven by a desire for wealth, profit, and efficiency. This in spite of thousands of years of human history filled with examples of altruism and non-capitalist motivations. And Darwinists insist that human beings are essentially animals, adapted for relative advantages in survival. In doing so, they ignore or downplay all those aspects of humanity like art, religion, and the human spirit that seem to have only tenuous contributions to human survival and yet are nevertheless part of human being.
Both capitalism and Darwinism are part of what Robinson calls Simple Faiths, common faiths we embrace with a moralistic devotion even in the face of evidence to the contrary. There is, she writes, an "urge, driven by righteousness and indignation, to conform reality to theory." Later Robinson adds:
My point is that our civilization has recently chosen to identify itself with a wildly oversimple model of human nature and behavior and then is stymied or infuriated by evidence that the models don't fit.
The demand for a consistent worldview in the face of facts to the contrary is one of the central features of totalitarianism. A mendacious consistency is, in Arendt's telling, a product of the homelessness and loneliness of the modern age and the desire to find meaning in belonging to a movement, an ideology, that gives our lives sense and significance.
If one wants to find examples of the ways that the deep desire for simple coherency continues to operate in our world, reading Marilynne Robinson's "A Common Faith" is a great place to start. As the sun shines and spring springs, print out this essay and make it your weekend read.