By Hans Teerds
“Wherever men come together, in whatever numbers, public interests come into play.… And the Public Realm is formed. In America where there are still spontaneous associations, which then disband again – the kind of associations already described by Tocqueville – you can see this very clearly. Some public interests concerns a specific group of people, those in a neighborhood or even in just one house or in a city or in some other sort of group. Then these people will convene, and they are very capable of acting publicly in these matters – for they have an overview of them.”
-- Hannah Arendt, “What Remains? The Language Remains” [interview with Günther Gaus]
In a neighborhood in Amsterdam where we lived, a group of neighbors joined forces in order to halt a little playground’s deterioration. The playground had been maintained for decades by the public services of the municipality. However, in the last decade, due to budget cuts and a changing perspective on the role of a municipality within urban society, the playground slowly but surely went into decay. Despite the closing of the fences, the playground was still in heavy use. So the neighbors decided to do something. A committee was set up, a list of volunteers formed, and a letter to the municipality written. And it succeeded: the municipality in the end embraced this initiative and was able to push aside all formalistic and bureaucratic procedures. The neighboring committee was allowed to open up the playground on Wednesday afternoons for when the kids arrived home from school. On the weekends, they were also allowed to operate a cabin next to the sandpit, from which they could loan buckets, shovels, and small bikes to the kids; sell coffee and tea to comfort the parents; and on hot-summer days provide ice cream to be enjoyed by all. A new spirit has also run through the playground: the playground equipment has been refurbished and new materials have been bought. Today this place is very popular – the sandpit almost overcrowded – and there are enough volunteers to fill the schedule of keeping an eye on the playground and to lend out materials.
“What is Politics?” is the question taken up by a conference co-sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center and the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles earlier this month. Hannah Arendt dedicated her work to the reinvention of the public realm and to freedom in political action. Today, as in the 1960s, her ideas inspire theoretical debates as well as civil political initiatives.
The conference, with lectures by experts on Hannah Arendt’s work, focused on the influence of her European-American experience and the particular importance of transcultural exchange in Arendt’s theory of political action. Speakers included Marie Luise Knott, Anson Rabinbach; Princeton University, Peg Birmingham; DePaul University, Robert Harrison; Stanford University, Martín Plot; California Institute of the Arts, Wolfgang Heuer; Freie Universität Berlin, and Roger Berkowitz; Bard College. Most of the talks were videotaped and are now online. They are your weekend read. Happy Thanksgiving.
“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.
Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints….This process of representation does not blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere else, and hence look upon the world from a different perspective; this is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.
-Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics” in Between Past and Future, p. 241
In response to the shootings in Aurora, Colorado in July, President Obama had this to say:
While we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living. The people we lost in Aurora loved and they were loved….They had hopes for the future and they had dreams that were not yet fulfilled. And if there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile…What matters at the end of the day is not the small things; it’s not the trivial things…Ultimately it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.
This speech was disturbing for a number of reasons. Yes, it was full of clichés and tired appeals to the hopes and futures of people who are nothing but a vague idea to Obama’s audience. But most disturbing of all was the fact that it revealed the response of the country’s highest public official to a breakdown of public safety was essentially a complete abdication of responsibility for the public.
In this speech, Obama refuses to articulate what Arendt calls political thought, instead luxuriating in the experience of empathy and asking the audience to the do same. The problem with speaking and thinking of politics as a sphere in which individuals must try “to be or to feel like somebody else,” as Arendt saw it, is that feeling with another does nothing to acknowledge and maintain the plurality that is so necessary to politics. In empathy, one remains isolated and alone as an individual, albeit an individual with a different set of emotional experiences than what one had before. In this instance, Obama puts himself into the shoes of those individuals who lost family and friends in the shooting and asks his Florida audience to do the same. In so doing, he transforms the event from one that confronts the American polity with questions about our shared public space—about national gun control laws and issues connected to the lack of appropriate physical and mental health care—into a question of the appropriate personal response to loss. Seen in this light, it is not at all surprising that the President would conclude his speech by telling the audience that he and his wife will hug their daughters a bit more tightly that night.
Characterizing what is surely a public problem into an issue of bedtime rituals among family members reveals not only the extent to which politics has given way to personal concerns, but also the unhappy possibility that not even our political leaders are able to move beyond personal concerns to take responsibility for the public as a whole.
It is tempting to interpret Arendt’s quote as an admonition to individuals to reveal themselves in political action. This understanding of Arendtian politics and action is the most familiar one and Arendt’s language of “being and thinking in my own identity” certainly evokes the language of personal courage she uses to describe the political actor in The Human Condition. There she ascribes to the decision to enter politics a courage that is necessary to bring to the public light one’s thoughts and deeds as undeniably one’s own and to “ris[e] into sight from some darker ground” (The Human Condition, 71).
But these lines of “Truth and Politics” strongly suggest that the public appearance one makes as an individual must somehow be tied intimately to other people. What one reveals, in other words, is not oneself in one’s personal sentiments, but rather one’s opinion, which necessarily takes into account the viewpoints of other people. The rising from a dark ground into the light of the public is less about revealing oneself in all one’s uniqueness and more about situating or orienting oneself within a realm of others from whom one may or may not differ. It is for this reason, I think, that Arendt considers empathy to be destructive of politics. In empathy, we appropriate the other to collapse the distance between us that would make possible our orientation in the world. One cannot be “oriented” in the absence of external markers against which one can orient oneself.
The consequences of reading politics as a world of empathetic individuals are dire. Empathy makes it easy to justify the appropriation of others’ lives and perspectives as one’s own. In the name of feeling with the victim, we can often leave the victim even more impoverished than he was before the outpouring of empathy. The loss suffered by those in Aurora has become the sadness and pain of those for whom the victims of the shooting, both living and dead, were really nothing but examples of our country’s political failure. On top of what these victims had already lost, it is possible that they might also lose ownership of the event. Such an appropriation has implications beyond the aesthetic or moral. The political problem with Obama’s speech is not simply that he did not reveal himself or that he appropriated the suffering of the Colorado victims. It is that his empathy allowed him to refuse to take responsibility for the community as a whole and it made it easy for the rest of us to do the same and to do so with a clear conscience. Taking care of one’s community and one’s neighbors is measured by the degree to which one can take care of the imagined personal pains of others, not one’s response to the institutional and other structural conditions that have made such events so commonplace in this country.
Arendt’s distinction between engaging with the viewpoints of others and feeling with another is ultimately a foundation for political responsibility, not just courageous action understood independently of one’s responsibility to the public world. To the extent that politics requires courage, it requires courage not simply to reveal oneself in a crude individualism, but to take responsibility for the big questions of our community. There is of course nothing wrong with hugging one’s children at night. But to define one’s political self in this act and to ask others do so as well is to shirk one’s responsibility for the community and to tell us that such an abdication of responsibility is not only acceptable, but also laudable because it is “human” and feeling. This might not be a necessary consequence of empathy, but, as Arendt tells us, it is an inherent possibility and a threat.