“Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order.”
--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”
Hannah Arendt defines the cultural as that which gives testimony to the past and in preserving the past helps constitute our common world. A cultural object embodies the human goal of achieving “immortality,” which as Arendt explains in The Human Condition is not the same as eternal life or the biological propagation of the species. Immortality concerns the life of a people and is ultimately political. It refers to the particular type of transcendence afforded by political action. In “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt shows how culture has a political role insofar as it creates durable and lasting objects that contribute to the immortality of a people.
The danger Arendt confronts in “The Crisis in Culture” is that mass culture makes art disposable and thus threatens the political ability of cultural life to produce lasting and immortal objects. The source of her worry is not an invasion of culture by the low and the base, but a sort of cannibalization of culture by itself. The problem is that mass culture swallows culture and subsumes it under the rubric of need. The immortal is degraded to a biological necessity, to be endlessly consumed and reproduced. Durable cultural objects that constitute a meaningful political world are thereby consumed, eroding the common world that is the place of politics.
Arendt’s point is first that mass culture—like all culture under the sway of society— is too often confused with status, self-fulfillment, or entertainment. In the name of status or entertainment, cultural achievements are stripped down and repackaged as something to be consumed in the life process. She would argue that this happens every time Hamlet is made into a movie or the Iliad is condensed into a children’s edition. By making culture accessible for those who would use it to improve themselves, the mass-culture industry makes it less and less likely that we will ever confront the great works of our past in their most challenging form. Eventually, the watering down of once immortal works can make it difficult or impossible to perceive the importance of culture and cultural education for humanity and our common world.
However, Arendt does not offer simply a banal critique of reality television as fast-food. We might recognize a more insidious form of the risks she describes in the new intellectualism that marks the politics, or anti-politics of the tech milieu. What has been termed Silicon Valley’s anti-intellectualism should instead be understood as a forced colonization of the space potentially inhabited by the public intellectual.
The prophets of the tech world see themselves as fulfilling a social and political duty through enterprise. They unselfconsciously describe their creations as sources of liberation, democracy, and revolution. And yet they eschew politics. Their abnegation of overt political activity is comprehensible in that, for them, ‘politics’ is always already contained in the project of saving the world through technological progress.
We see such exemplars of technological cultural salvation all around us. Scholars and cultural figures are invited to lecture at the “campuses” of Apple and Google, and their ideas get digested into the business model or spit back out in the form of TED talks. Even Burning Man, originally a ‘counter-cultural’ annual desert festival with utopian pretensions, has been sucked into the vortex, such that Stanford Professor Fred Turner could give a powerpoint lecture titled, “Burning Man at Google: A cultural infrastructure for new media production.” The abstract for his article in New Media & Society is even more suggestive: “…this article explores the ways in which Burning Man’s bohemian ethos supports new forms of production emerging in Silicon Valley and especially at Google. It shows how elements of the Burning Man world – including the building of a sociotechnical commons, participation in project-based artistic labor and the fusion of social and professional interaction – help to shape and legitimate the collaborative manufacturing processes driving the growth of Google and other firms.” Turner’s conclusion virtually replicates Arendt’s differentiation between nineteenth century philistinism and the omniphagic nature of mass culture:
In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial era, the celebration of art provided an occasion for the display of wealth. In the 21st century, under conditions of commons-based peer production, it has become an occasion for its [i.e. wealth] creation.
The instrumentalization of culture within polite society has given way to the digestion and reconstitution of culture in the form of gadgets meant to increase convenience. Would-be cultural objects become rungs on the hamster wheel of life’s progress. Progress as the ultimate goal of technological cultural innovation is a vague concept because it is taken for granted due to the self-contained and self-enclosed nature of the industry. Where it is defined, it is demonstrated through examples, such as the implementation of the smart parking meter or the use of cloud networking in order to better administer services to San Francisco’s homeless population.
In a recent New Yorker article on the tech revolutionaries, George Packer writes, “A favorite word in tech circles is ‘frictionless.’ It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world.” Progress here is the increasingly efficient administration of life.
When tech does leave its insular environment and direct its energies outward, its engagements reflect both its solipsism and focus on utility, which for Arendt go together. The Gates Foundation’s substantial investments in higher education impose the quantitatively verifiable standard of degree completion as the sole or main objective, which seems odd in itself, given Gates’ notoriety as a Harvard drop-out. The efforts of the Foundation aim less at placing Shakespeare in the hands of every fast-food worker, and more towards redirecting all of cultural education toward the development of a cheap version of utilitarian aptitude. Such tech intellectualism will ask, “What is the point of slaving over the so-called classics?” The claim is that the liberal arts vision of university education is inseparable from elitist designs, based on an exclusive definition of what ‘culture’ should be.
“What is the use?” is the wrong question, though, and it is tinged by the solipsistic mentality of a tech elite that dare not speak its name. The tech intellectual presents the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, despite the fact that capital gains in the sector bare a large burden of the blame for this country’s soaring rate of inequality. This false sense of equality fosters a naïve view of political and social issues. It also fuels tech’s hubristic desire to remake the world in its own image: Life is about frictionless success and efficient progress, and these can be realized via the technological fix. “It worked for us, what’s the matter with you?”
For Arendt, culture is not meant to be useful for employment or even the lofty purpose of self-cultivation; our relationship to culture nurtures our ability to make judgments. Kant’s discussion of taste and “common sense” informs her notion of the faculty of judgment in art and politics. In matters of taste, judging rests on the human ability to enlarge one’s mind and think with reference to an “anticipated communication with others” and “potential agreement.” Common sense, as she uses it, “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.” Culture and politics are linked in that both can only exist in a world that is shared. She writes:
Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.
That culture and politics are about enacting judgments, rather than truth or technique for the advancement of biological life, is a point that is clearly missed by the tech intellectuals. The establishment of utility as the sole goal of higher education represents only one section of a general lens through which the world appears only as a series of practical problems to be figured out. In this paradoxical utopia of mass accessibility, insulation, and narrow-mindedness, applied knowledge threatens to occupy and pervert culture at the expense of political action and care for our common world.
"How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress. "
Freeman Dyson, the eclectic physicist, took good aim at philosophy last week in a review of the silly book by Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?" An Existential Detective Story. Holt went around to "a portrait gallery of leading modern philosophers," and asked them the Leibnizian question: Why is there something rather than nothing?" The book offers their answers, along with biographical descriptions.
For Dyson, Holt's book "compels us to ask" these "ugly questions." First, "When and why did philosophy lose its bite?" Philosophers were, once important. In China, Confucius and his followers made a civilization. So too in Greece did Socrates and then the schools of Plato and Aristotle give birth to the western world. In the Christian era Jesus and Paul, then Aquinas and Augustine granted depth to dominant worldviews. Philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, and Leibniz were central figures in the scientific revolution, and philosophical minds like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Arendt (even if one was a philologist and the other two refused the name philosopher) have become central figures in the experience of nihilism. Against these towering figures, the "leading philosophers" in Holt's book cut a paltry figure. Here is Dyson:
Holt's philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant. At some time toward the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers faded from public life. Like the snark in Lewis Carroll's poem, they suddenly and silently vanished. So far as the general public was concerned, philosophers became invisible.
There are many reasons for the death of philosophy, some of which were behind Hannah Arendt's refusal to call herself a philosopher. Philosophy was born, at least in its Platonic variety, from out of the thinker's reaction to the death of Socrates. Confronted with the polis that put the thinker to death, Plato and Aristotle responded by retreating from the world into the world of ideas. Philosophical truth separated itself from worldly truths, and idealism was born. Realism was less a return to the world than a reactive fantasy to idealism. In both, the truths that were sought were otherworldly truths, disconnected to the world.
Christianity furthered the divorce of philosophy from the world by imagining two distinct realms, the higher realm existing beyond the world. Science, too, taught that truth could only be found in a world of abstract reason, divorced from real things. Christianity and science together gave substance to the philosophical rebellion against the world. The result, as Dyson rightly notes, is that philosophy today is as abstract, worldly, and relevant as it is profound.
What Dyson doesn't explore is why philosophers of the past had such importance, even as they also thought about worlds of ideas. The answer cannot be that ideas had more import in the past than now. On the contrary, we live in an age more saturated in ideas than any other. More people today are college educated, literate, and knowledgeable of philosophy than at any period in the history of the world. Books like Holt's are proof positive of the profitable industry of philosophical trinkets. That is the paradox—at a time when philosophy is read by more people than ever, it is less impactful than it ever was.
One explanation for this paradox is nihilism—The devaluing or re-valuing of the highest values. The truth about truth turned out to be neither so simple nor singular as the philosophers had hoped. An attentive inquiry into the true and the good led not to certainty, but to ideology critique. For Nietzsche, truth, like the Christian God, was a human creation, and the first truth of our age is that we recognized it as such. That is the precondition for the death of God and the death of truth. Nihilism has not expunged ideas from our world, but multiplied them. When speaking about the "true" or the "good" or the "just," Christians, Platonists, and moralists no longer have the stage to themselves. They must now shout to be heard amongst the public relations managers, advertisers, immoralists, epicureans, anarchists, and born again Christians.
Dyson ignores this strain of philosophy. He does point out that Nietzsche was the last great philosopher, but then dismisses Heidegger who "lost his credibility in 1933" and even Wittgentstein who would remain silent if a woman attended his lectures until she would leave. And yet it is Heidegger who has given us the great literary masterpieces of the 20th century philosophy.
His work on technology (The Question Concerning Technik) and art (The Origins of the Work of Art) has been widely read in artistic, literary, and lay circles. It is hard to imagine a philosopher more engaged with the science and literature than Heidegger was. He read physics widely and co-taught courses at the house of the Swiss psychiatrist Medard Boss and also taught seminars with the German novelist Ernst Jünger.
It seems worthwhile to end with a poem of Heidegger's from his little book, Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens/From Out of the Experience of Thinking:
Drei Gefahren drohen dem Denken
Die gute und darum heilsame Gefahr ist die Nachbarschaft des singenden Dichters.
Die böse und darum schärfste Gefahr ist das Denken selber. Es muß gegen sich selbst denken, was es nur selten vermag.
Die schlechte und darum wirre Gefahr ist das Philosophieren.
Three dangers threaten thinking.
The good and thus healthy danger is the nearness of singing poetry.
The evil and thus sharpest danger is thinking itself. It must think against itself, something it can do only rarely.
The bad and thus confusing danger is philosophizing.
We were prepared Monday night at the Hannah Arendt Center's NYC hideout, huddled together with candles and a portable radio, as we toasted the storm over dinner with neighbors and friends. Thankfully, the Arendt Center's two homes at Bard College and in upper NYC both escaped the wrath of the hurricane. Many of our supporters and friends were not so lucky. Bard's High School/Early Colleges in lower Manhattan and Newark have suffered greatly. People's lives have been disrupted and many who are older or immobile are stranded without power, heat, and water as the temperatures drop. Our hearts and thoughts go out to all who are struggling to salvage homes, stay warm, and put your lives back together. We hope soon that you can return to normal lives.
When nature roars and our lives are disrupted, the question of normalcy comes to the fore. People want to get back to normal. We all do. It is amazing to me how important normalcy is. This is especially true when one has children. Routines govern our lives and also help structure our days. They give to the cruel world a patina of safety, predictability, and control. Even more than the learning my daughter does in school or the teaching I returned to at Bard on Tuesday, our daily life routines assert our control over our lives. Humans are creative creatures and we build the world in which we live. Moments when nature and life assert themselves remind us that we are also earthy creatures, whose mastery over the world is as incomplete as it is tenuous.
As I wish you all a return to normalcy, I am aware that for some of you there is a kind of joy or even elation amidst the chaos. As much as we yearn for normal life, it is more often the comradeship found in extremis that stands out as the happiest and most meaningful moments of our lives.
Hannah Arendt knew this fellowship of disaster all-too well. A Jew in Germany, she was arrested twice, first in Germany and then later in France. She lived through Nazism and McCarthyism as well as the early days of the Atomic Bomb. Few knew as deeply as she did the need for the secure place of a home, a private place where one could live securely, in private, and think in solitude. The walls of our homes as well as the walls that encircle our cities and nations are, Arendt saw, essential foundations for human life. They structure our private lives and offer a space for public engagement.
And yet Arendt worried too about the numbing effects of normal life and glorified the experience of public action that accompanies natural as well as man-made catastrophes. In writing of the French resistance after the war, she was acutely aware of the way that tragedy could and often did open the door to human action. She writes of the French resistance fighters:
The collapse of France, to them a totally unexpected event, had emptied, from one day to the next, the political scene of their country, leaving it to the puppet-like antics of knaves or fools, and they who as a matter of course had never participated in the official business of the Third Republic were sucked into politics as though with the force of a vacuum. Thus, without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute willy-nilly a public realm where - without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe - all relevant business in the affairs of the country was transacted in deed and word.
In the midst of disaster, the French resistance found the joy of public action, of fighting and risking their lives for something that mattered. And during this struggle, the poet Rene Char saw the paradoxical situation, that the tragedy of French defeat and the victory of the Nazi's—events that not only disrupted his normal and everyday existence but threatened his life—had given his life more meaning than it had ever had. In the midst of the conflict, Char wrote: "If I survive, I know that I shall have to break with the aroma of those essential years, silently reject (not repress) my treasure".
In other words, Char knew that the treasure of public freedom found in resistance—the experience of acting publicly in meaningful and surprising ways, and thus the experience of freedom—was incompatible with a return to normal life. Once the horror of the war ended, so too would the weightiness of a life in which freedom and action were everyday experiences. And that was indeed the case. As Arendt writes: "After a few short years they were liberated [...] and thrown back into what they now knew to be the weightless irrelevance of their personal affairs."
It is something else for those who do not return, as many did not during the war and as many will not in the deadly wake of Hurricane Sandy. For them and their loved ones there is pain and loss. For the rest of us, there is normal life.
As we return, thankfully, to the welcome weightlessness of our personal lives, many of us will carry with us the aroma of even brief moments of communal fellowship, when we helped a stranger, overcame flood waters, snuggled in blankets and layers of clothes to stay warm, or struggled to start a generator. These moments, sometimes painful and even dangerous, will, if we are fortunate, become memories of our resilience and human capacities, often forgotten, to make do in extreme situations.
For those with time to reflect on the storm, here are a few of the best writings I have come across this week from those trying to make sense and find solace amidst the storm.
Walter Russell Mead has an exceptional essay reflecting on the power of nature and the fragility of human life.
But events like this don’t come out of nowhere. Sandy isn’t an irruption of abnormality into a sane and sensible world; it is a reminder of what the world really is like. Human beings want to build lives that exclude what we can’t control — but we can’t.
Hurricane Sandy is many things; one of those things is a symbol. The day is coming for all of us when a storm enters our happy, busy lives and throws them into utter disarray. The job on which everything depends can disappear. That relationship that holds everything together can fall apart. The doctor can call and say the test results are not good. All of these things can happen to anybody; something like this will happen to us all.
Somewhere in the future, each of us has an inescapable appointment with irresistible force. For each one of us, the waters will someday rise, the winds spin out of control, the roof will come off the house and the power will go out for good.
Alex Koppelmann reminds us of "Sandy's Forgotten," in an essay on the residents of The Baruch House, a public housing project that has been deeply impacted by the storm.
The people who live at the Baruch Houses were supposed to have evacuated before Sandy hit. Some did. Many did not, though, often because they had no good place to go. They are still there, without power, water, or any visible help from any government agency; city, state, or federal—other than some people from the city Housing Authority who’d come by to pump water out of flooded basements. Everywhere you walk in the neighborhood, fire hydrants have been turned into makeshift wells, with lines of people waiting, bottles and jugs in hand.
Downtown, hundreds of thousands of people remain without power. Many of them—usually those who live in buildings that stand six stories or higher, and there are plenty of those—are without running water as well. Public transportation remains limited. The subway is not running below Thirty-fourth Street, and on Wednesday night the M.T.A. temporarily suspended all bus service below Twenty-third Street; given their explanation of that decision, it seems likely that service will be suspended at night for as long as downtown remains dark. There are still very few ways for the people who live down there to get information about their situation—there is little or no cell phone service, and, of course, there is no television without electricity, though there are pay phones and some people, presumably, have battery-powered radios, though who knows how long those will last—so some are still wandering the streets inquiring of anyone who might know something. And it’s getting cold; temperatures dipped into the low forties overnight, and they’re not supposed to top the low fifties today.
The people I saw around the Baruch Houses seemed upbeat, an attitude noted by Reverend Leo Lawrence, who works at the nearby Dewitt Reformed Church. “It seems to me that it’s the first time I’ve seen so much cooperation between people, stores, everything,” he said. “It’s much more neighborly.” He thought most would try to wait the situation out. Asked why he hadn’t evacuated, he seemed surprised at the question. “Where would I go?” he asked.
Michael Specter makes the connection between Hurricane Sandy and climate change:
Some people will deny anything that displeases or scares them: unusual pain in their chests, unwanted lumps beneath their skin, or the fact that humans share ancestry with apes are a few examples. Another is climate change. There are people who could watch a hurricane like Sandy blow out of the Atlantic every other day and blame it on anything but human activity. They are like those who, having been diagnosed with diabetes, eat donuts for breakfast. There’s not much to do about them.
Unfortunately, that leads us to another type of denialism, more understandable, but possibly just as pernicious: the refusal to accept that we are edging up to the point where extraordinary measures will be required to lessen the impact of a climactic disaster. The best way to deal with climate change has been obvious for years: cut greenhouse-gas emissions severely. We haven’t done that. In 2010, for example, carbon emissions rose by six per cent—the largest such increase on record. (The data for 2011 is not yet final, but most researchers believe the numbers have continued their upward arc.)
Roger Pielke Jr. refutes those who are too quick to assert that we are suffering a spike in extreme weather events.
To put things into even starker perspective, consider that from August 1954 through August 1955, the East Coast saw three different storms make landfall—Carol, Hazel and Diane—that in 2012 each would have caused about twice as much damage as Sandy.
While it's hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. is currently in an extended and intense hurricane "drought." The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century.
Then again, Pielke's numbers may be quite wrong, as Mark Zandi suggests today. I give you Pielke's essay not because of his climate change skepticism, but rather as one example of the ways people are trying to make sense of the world in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's devastation. For those affected by the storm, we here at the Hannah Arendt Center wish you and your loved ones a quick return to normal life.
I am adding this essay by the painter Allen Hirsch, which appeared Saturday, November 3.
The chill and gloom in the air of our SoHo loft had made little difference to my daughter (“Daddy, when will I have Facebook?!”), although now, after two days, the desperation in her voice was slowly changing to resignation. This has been the longest period in her teenage life without an Internet connection. I shrugged my shoulders in the candlelight. I myself was as cut off as she was and had no way of knowing.
The blackout reminded many of us of how drastically the Internet and our myriad electronic devices have changed our lives. When the lights went out, we felt ourselves also losing power, as if we were part of the same flowing electricity that lit up the city.
Losing this power, however, also reminded my daughter and me of what we have left. Having “nothing better to do” can be a meaningful and sobering experience. While the darkness made us feel our vulnerabilities, it also illuminated the possibilities that we forgot were always within it.
"The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, and both have in common that they attempt to put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly. It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable."
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
George Zimmerman returned to jail last week, two days after his bond was revoked for intentionally deceiving the court about his financial situation. The speed and promptness of this re-incarceration stands in marked contrast to the six weeks that passed between Zimmerman's lethal shooting of Trayvon Martin, and his arrest and arraignment on charges of second-degree murder.
During these six weeks, it was astonishing to many people that given the Sanford Police department’s astonishing failure to investigate the case properly, and the application of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” defense, Zimmerman was apparently immune to prosecution (even as similar cases produced vastly different outcomes). Troubled by not simply this fact, but also the explicitly and implicitly racialized context of the case, I found myself deeply invested in seeing Zimmerman arrested, tried, and ultimately punished.
And yet at the same time, as a scholar of punishment in the United States, I hold a deep distrust in a broken criminal justice system that has historically been an instrument in the foundation and maintenance of white supremacy as a political system. As put eloquently at the blog, Low End Theory, "[I]n appealing to the power of the police to arrest, and to the power of the courts to sentence Zimmerman, we also make heard a message that we might otherwise hesitate to send: namely, that we believe that these institutions—the police, the courts, the law—are institutions capable of delivering the justice we want."
Even if we assume that these are institutions capable of delivering such justice, they are nevertheless predicated on the idea that justice can be delivered through punishing. If we are to "think what we are doing" in terms of punishment and our desire to achieve justice through it, we might do well to revisit Arendt's account of the relationship between punishment and forgiveness.
In The Human Condition, Arendt positions punishment as an alternative to forgiveness, which in turn is defined as similar to promising and the opposite of vengeance. All actions, Arendt argues, are necessarily unpredictable and irreversible. We cannot know with certainty what will happen as a result of our actions, nor can we undo them. These two uncomfortable facts about action might otherwise paralyze us from doing anything, but thankfully we have the ability to make promises about the uncertain future and to both seek and grant forgiveness, absolving past harms. Were it not for these faculties we would be unable to reconcile our own finite existence with the fundamental plurality of the human condition. Without forgiveness in particular, we would be forever "confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer's apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell" (237).
Forgiveness can resolve the fact of irreversibility because, Arendt succinctly notes, it is able to put "an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly" (241). This is what distinguishes forgiveness from vengeance. Vengeance is nothing more than the "re-acting against an original trespassing" (240). It is predictable and certain, a “natural” and “automatic reaction.” It cannot be a new action, but only the continuation of the original transgression. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is an action par excellence, done freely rather than necessarily. Forgiveness is unpredictable and uncertain. If forgiveness is forced, it doesn't really count. One can only ask for forgiveness; one can never demand it. As such, forgiveness can allow us to begin anew in the face of a transgression because it is "the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven" (241).
But what does it mean for punishment to be “the alternative” to this? Can punishment possibly do the same transcendent work for us? If we seek justice through punishment, can such punitive justice ever be the grounds for natality and freedom?
While we typically affirm the justness of punishment by its distinction from vengeance, it nevertheless must be intimately tied to the specific transgression if it is to be justified. Just punishments must "fit" the specific transgression and excessive, cruel, or unusual punishments are thought to be transgressions themselves. Unlike forgiveness, just punishment must be predictable and certain, applied automatically and universally if it is to be effective and non-arbitrary. Moreover, if our desire for punishment itself becomes automatic and mechanical, this too marks punishment as reactive rather than free. When we find ourselves automatically turning to punishment in response to transgressions, we not only signal a belief that some set of punitive institutions can render justice, but we also reveal a desire similar to the desire for vengeance: a continuation of the transgression.
For punishment to do the same work as forgiveness–stepping outside and beyond the logic of the original transgression and starting something new–it would seemingly have to be arbitrary rather than regular, and therefore lose a key part of its character as just punishment. For punishment to be both predictable and also capable of starting something new, it would have to be as difficult to embrace as forgiveness, such that it, like forgiveness, might be able to free both the punished and the punisher from the past transgression.
The heart of the difficulty is that we remain caught between the act and the actor, of the task of responding to the unpredictability and irreversibility of actions, when the subject of either forgiveness or punishment is the actor. In this sense, forgiving and punishing both publicly declare that some particular action belongs to a particular actor. For Arendt, we must remember that there is nothing self-evident or automatic about the authorship of actions. In so far as an action "reveals" an agent, Arendt writes, "this agent is not an author or a producer" in isolation from others (184). Punishing and forgiving do not simply "hold" a person responsible for their actions, but rather, in concert with their actions, they produce them as responsible subjects for those actions. Forgiveness, Arendt insists, is thus "always an eminently personal ... affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it" (241). If forgiveness is able to bring an end to the transgression and free both the forgiver and the forgiven by beginning something new, it is because it establishes a new relationship between those persons.
But forgiveness is only able to "undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing," because of this translation from action to agent. When a specific agent is assigned responsibility (or takes responsibility for an action that has turned out badly), one need not forgive the bad act, but rather the person. Forgiveness produces responsible subjects on both sides of the exchange. But when punishment makes this same translation, as Michel Foucault demonstrates, it has historically done so through producing a kind of criminal subjectivity that on the one hand treats the agent as a free subject (responsible for their bad acts) and on the other hand, as a pathological object (irresponsible and thus in need of incarceration and discipline). The relationship established between persons through punishment is neither symmetrical, novel, nor personal. Instead, it purchases the punisher’s freedom through condemning the other to unfreedom. Where forgiveness is a productive success, punishment is a productive failure.
What Arendt seems to recognize in the paradoxical relationship between punishment and forgiveness is that even if punishment is an "alternative" to forgiveness, it nevertheless cannot be a substitute for it. What does it mean, then, that we find ourselves unable to forgive that which we cannot punish, and that we cannot punish that which is unforgivable? In part, it means that we might require institutions of punishment if we have any hope of being able to choose forgiveness. And our desire for punishment might be, in part, a desire for the possibility of forgiveness. Punishment, even as it might fail to resolve the predicament of action, might be the condition of possibility of that resolution. But to exercise it would be fall into the trap of vengeance and unfreedom.
That George Zimmerman appeared, for six long weeks, to be not simply unpunished but immune from punishment carries the mark of a kind of immunity from responsibility that serves as the "hallmark" of "radical evil" (241). In the face of such immunity for the killing of another human–to find ourselves powerless to act–is to be confronted not simply with a bad action, but with an offense that "transcends the realm of human affairs" (241). As Robert Gooding-Williams notes, the evil of this automatic immunity afforded to Zimmerman is neither accidental or novel in the U.S., but is deeply connected to who Trayvon Martin was: a young black man living in a nation that historically deputized all non-black persons as executors of the federal fugitive slave law. For Zimmerman to be automatically deputized to kill Trayvon Martin–to be unpunishable for Martin’s death–would affirm the persistence of the radical evil of chattel slavery in a new form.
But even if our desire for punishment reflects a desire toward forgiveness, the danger of punishment as vengeance follows as well. The same punitive institutions, in order to be just, push us toward the logic of simple reaction, rather than action, of predictability and necessity, rather than natality and freedom. It is worth noting that there are currently more black men supervised by the criminal justice system than were held in slavery in 1850. Our regular and automated reliance on punishment to do the work of justice might itself be both necessary for justice, and yet also itself a radical evil, masked by the notion that it can do the same work as forgiveness.
-Andrew T. Dilts