“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.
“To be alive means to live in a world that preceded one’s own arrival and will survive one’s own departure. On this level of sheer being alive, appearance and disappearance, as they follow upon each other, are the primordial events, which as such mark out time, the time span between birth and death.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
I credit my undergraduate advisor, the late Kenneth Reshaur, for one of my obsessions: I refer to the crack in the spine, between the Work and the Action chapters that divides my undergraduate copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. That fissure finds sustenance in the passage above, which appears at the very beginning of Arendt’s “Thinking” volume of The Life of the Mind.
It is a telling quote for many reasons, not the least of which because in it, Arendt explicitly echoes Maurice Merleau Ponty’s treatment of “primordial perception” in some of his late writings on painting, but also because it testifies to Arendt’s relentless commitment to thinking as primordially bound to the phenomenality of life, and especially to the life of politics. Politics is, for Arendt, apparitional in nature. It regards the appearance of things, both human and inhuman. And to appear is also what it means to be alive. To be sure, for Arendt there is the fact of natality that regards a coming into life; but that differs from an appearance. Natality is of the order of the new; but an appearance persists regardless of its newness or oldness. We might say that an appearance is indifferent to qualities like newness or oldness. Hence Arendt’s emphasis on the sensoriality of appearances, their ingression, but also their departure. It is an unavoidable fact for her that peoples, things, events appear and disappear in the way in which the sound of a note or of a voice appears and then fades away; what Arendt appreciates about this primordial condition of sensoriality is that the appearance and disappearance of things marks a domain of sheer aliveness; “sheer” in the sense of not having qualifications or conditions for their bodying forth.
For Arendt, the sheerness of the apparitional world of politics means that appearances are not mere appearances. This fact marks, to my mind, her great friction with some aspects of the Platonic tradition from which she also draws. The aspectual alliteration of “sheer” and “mere” resonates with her emphasis on appearances as being a site of care. To be more precise, Arendt’s elaboration of a politics of appearances bespeaks a commitment to a curatorial disposition to the world that she associates with the ability to trust others to “tend and take care of a world of appearances” (The Crisis in Culture). To consider appearances as “mere” (as opposed to “sheer”) suggests a disregard for life itself, for the way in which, as she goes on to affirm a few paragraphs after the quote, “To be alive means to be possessed by an urge to self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness.” (The Life of Mind).
To be alive, in this sense, regards an urge to be felt, to be attended to by others. This is what the spectacle asks of the spectator: not so much “pay attention to me”, but “attend to what appears before you.” Such attention is what spurs on judgment, for Arendt, which is the activity sine qua non of “sharing-of-the-world-with-others” (Crisis in Culture). But before judgment may take place, before what captures our attentions can be morphed into thoughtful reflection, there is the sheerness of appearance that strikes at our curatorial dispositions.
And for Arendt, this primordial capacity to strike is disinterested.
What do I mean by this? Simply put, Arendt’s call to attend to the sheer appearance of the world forces us to come to terms with a domain of experience that precedes any and all capacities to formulate judgments, interests, and ideas: This is the primordial world of disinterest. And “disinterest” here does not mean either “indifferent” or “detached”; nor does this amount to a reassignment of the “Archimedean point.” On the contrary, the domain of disinterest is a domain of absorption and immersion in the facticity of lived sensations: it is the domain of the aesthetic that Arendt rightly identifies as the source of Kant’s political thought.
To recall, Kant’s crucial insight in the Critique of Judgment is that there can be no necessary conditions for something to count as beautiful, and hence there can be no rules for the category of the aesthetic. This is an insight that Kant borrows from Hume’s critique of consequentialism; but whereas for Hume, the heterogeneity that arises from the absence of necessity is a part of life, for Kant it is restricted to aesthetic experience as he defines it.
The aesthetic is the source of Kant’s political thought, then, not because the aesthetic provides normative guides to help us make judgments (it can’t), nor because there is anything specifically political about the beautiful (there can’t be because according to Kant aesthetic experience is disinterested in the sense of unqualifiable). Rather, the aesthetic is a source of political thinking, and political life in general, because it is only through aesthetic experience that one encounters a mode of valuing that is non-instrumental and not reducible to its use value. Indeed, aesthetic experience is that experience that annihilates our reliance on a sense of necessity; and it is precisely the annihilation of necessity – necessity being the concept that Arendt likens to the a-political qualities of the private and the social – which makes aesthetics and politics so intimately entangled for her.
Arendt’s politics of appearances, encapsulated in the quote from The Life of the Mind, thus speaks of the possibility of a life devoid of the force of necessity, and of things not having to go on as they have.
This is why she seems so resistant to the privative nature of the private, and the biologism of the social: what binds Arendt’s characterization of these entities (and I think it important to regard her use of these terms as characterizations and not descriptions), is their inexorable reliance on the force of necessity as sovereign.
For me, moreover, Arendt’s aesthetics of politics evokes the possibility of always having at one’s recourse the polemical claim that “this need not be”, that things need not continue in this way, that the continuity of any form of political subjectification is not necessary. This also means that the assembly of things – as they are at any one point in time – is not necessary in the manner in which an instrumental rationality demands that they must be. The possibility to admit of a resistance to necessity regards a curatorial disposition that attends to the sheer fact of appearance—of peoples, things, and events in the world. Such is the nature of Arendt’s politics of appearances.
In this post, academics and university faculty will be criticized. Railing against college professors has become a common pastime, one practiced almost exclusively by those who have been taught and mentored by those whom are now being criticized. It is thus only fair to say upfront that the college education in the United States is, in spite of its myriad flaws, still of incredible value and meaning to tens if not hundreds of thousands of students every year.
That said, too much of what our faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students.
This is a point that Jacques Berlinerblau makes in a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Observers of gentrification like to draw a distinction between needs and wants. Residents in an emerging neighborhood need dry cleaners, but it's wine bars they really want. The application of that insight to the humanities leads me to an unhappy conclusion: Our students, and the educated public at large, neither want us nor need us.
What is amazing is that not only do our students not want what we offer, but neither do our colleagues. It is an amazing and staggering truth that much of what academics write and publish is rarely, if ever, read. And if you want to really experience the problem, attend an academic conference some day, where you will see panels of scholars presenting their work, sometimes to 1 or 2 audience members. According to Berlinerblau, the average audience at academic conference panels is fourteen persons.
The standard response to such realizations is that scholarship is timeless. Its value may not be discovered for decades or even centuries until someone, somewhere, pulls down a dusty volume and reads something that changes the world. There is truth in such claims. When one goes digging in archives, there are pearls of wisdom to be found. What is more, the scholarly process consists of the accumulation of information and insight over generations. In other words, academic research is like basic scientific research, useless but useful in itself.
The problem with this argument is that such really original scholarship is rare and getting ever more rare. While there are exceptions, little original research is left to do in most fields of the humanities. Few important books are published each year. The vast majority are as derivative as they are unnecessary. We would all do well to read and think about the few important books (obviously there will be some disagreement and divergent schools) than to spend our time trying to establish our expertise by commenting on some small part of those books.
The result of the academic imperative of publish or perish is the increasing specialization that leads to the knowing more and more about less and less. This is the source of the irrelevance of much of humanities scholarship today.
As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant.
As a result—and it is hard to hear for many in the scholarly community—we simply don't need 200 medieval scholars in the United States or 300 Rawlsians or 400 Biblical scholars. It is important that Chaucer and Nietzsche are taught to university students; but the idea that every college and university needs a Chaucer and a Nietzsche scholar to teach Chaucer and Nietzsche is simply wrong. We should, of course, continue to support scholars, those whose work is to some extent scholarly innovative. But more needed are well-read and thoughtful teachers who can teach widely and write for a general audience.
To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
Hannah Arendt argues precisely for this connection between the humanities and politics in her essay The Crisis in Culture. Part Two of the essay addresses the political significance of culture, which she relates to humanism—both of which are said to be of Roman origin. The Romans, she writes, knew how to care for and cultivate the grandiose political and artistic creations of the Greeks. And it is a line from Pericles that forms the center of Arendt's reflections.
The Periclean citation is translated (in part) by Arendt to say: "We love beauty within the limits of political judgment." The judgment of beauty, of culture, and of art is, Pericles says, limited by the political judgment of the people. There is, in other words, an intimate connection between culture and politics. In culture, we make judgments of taste and thus learn the faculty of judgment so necessary for politics. And political judgment, in turn, limits and guides our cultural judgments.
What unites culture and politics is that they are "both phenomena of the public world." Judgment, the primary faculty of politics, is discovered, nurtured, and practiced in the world of culture and the judgment of taste. What the study of culture through the humanities offers, therefore, is an orientation towards a common world that is known and understood through a common sense. The humanities, Arendt argues, are crucial for the development and preservation of common sense—something that is unfortunately all-too-lacking in much humanities scholarship today.
What this means is that teaching the humanities is absolutely essential for politics—and as long as that is the case, there will be a rationale for residential colleges and universities. The mania for distance learning today is understandable. Education is, in many cases, too expensive. Much could be done more cheaply and efficiently at colleges. And this will happen. Colleges will, increasingly, bring computers and the Internet into their curricula. But as powerful as the Internet is, and as useful as it is as a replacement for passive learning in large lectures, it is not yet a substitute for face-to-face learning that takes place at a college or university. The learning that takes place in the hallways, offices, and dining halls when students live, eat, and breathe their coursework over four years is simply fundamentally different from taking a course online in one's free time. As exciting as technology is, it is important to remember that education is, at its best, not about transmitting information but about inspiring thinking.
Berlinerblau thinks that what will save the humanities is better training in pedagogy. He writes:
As for the tools, let's look at it this way. Much as we try to foist "critical thinking skills" on undergraduates, I suggest we impart critical communication skills to our master's and doctoral students. That means teaching them how to teach, how to write, how to speak in public. It also means equipping them with an understanding that scholarly knowledge is no longer locked up in journals and class lectures. Spry and free, it now travels digitally, where it may intersect with an infinitely larger and more diverse audience. The communicative competences I extoll are only infrequently part of our genetic endowment. They don't come naturally to many people—which is precisely what sets the true humanist apart from the many. She or he is someone you always want to speak with, listen to, and read, someone who always teaches you something, blows your mind, singes your feathers. To render complexity with clarity and style—that is our heroism.
The focus on pedagogy is a mistake and comes from the basic flawed assumption that the problem with the humanities is that the professors aren't good communicators. It may be true that professors communicate poorly, but the real problem is deeper. If generations of secondary school teachers trained in pedagogy have taught us anything it is that pedagogical teaching is not useful. Authority in the classroom comes from knowledge and insight, not from pedagogical techniques or theories.
The pressing issue is less pedagogy than the fact that what most professors know is so specialized as to be irrelevant. What is needed is not better pedagogical training, but a more broad and erudite training, one that focuses less on original research and academic publishing and instead demands reading widely and writing aimed at an educated yet popular audience. What we need, in other words, are academics who read widely with excitement and inspiration and speak to the interested public.
More professors should be blogging and writing in public-interest journals. They should be reviewing literature rather than each other's books and, shockingly, they should be writing fewer academic monographs.
To say that the humanities should engage the world does not mean that the humanities should be politicized. The politicization of the humanities has shorn them of their authority and their claim to being true or beautiful. Humanities scholarship can only serve as an incubator for judgment when it is independent from social and political interests. But political independence is not the same as political sterility. Humanities scholarship can, and must, teach us to see and know our world as it is.
There are few essays that better express the worldly importance of the humanities than Hannah Arendt's The Crisis of Culture. It is worth reading and re-reading it. On this hot summer weekend, do yourself that favor.
“What in thinking only occasionally and quasi-metaphorically happens, to retreat from the world of appearances, takes place in aging and dying as an appearance… in this sense thinking is an anticipation of dying (ceasing, ‘to cease to be among men’) just as action in the sense of ‘to make a beginning’ is a repetition of birth.”
-Hannah Arendt, -Denktagebuch, p. 792
One of the wonderful aspects of reading the Denktagebuch is its peculiar intimacy. As with so much of Arendt’s way of thinking about the world, it is a kind of intimacy which is familiar, but unique and strange enough to make us rethink the place of that category in our lives, how we sense it and find it meaningful. The sense of intimacy is present from the very first entry – a long, fluid contemplation of responsiveness and evil written in the wake of her first visit to Germany (and Heidegger) after the war – to the last, when the notebooks trail off into a bare succession of dates and places.
It infuses each echo of her published work with a sense of its interconnection with a hundred fragmentary thoughts, occasions, meditations, and struggles. The Denktagebuch helps renew the liveliness of Arendt’s work as not just a set of arguments, but a profound, rich sensibility, a sensibility in the double sense of a way of sensing what is going on in the world around us, and the dense world-experience of a human, a thinker, a woman, a writer who set herself the gravid task of thinking what we are doing.
Of course, the intimacy found in Arendt’s notebooks was never going to be quite what we usually think of when we use the term. In general, Arendt’s is not a thought that we associate with intimacy. On the contrary, what distinguishes Arendt’s writing, even on the most personal topics, is its resolute publicity, its unwavering concern for what is common, what is shared, and what is political in writing: its specific capacity to make things appear to others. This resolutely public (or perhaps simply political) character to her analysis was a commitment that got her into trouble repeatedly when she moved into topics which were, for her American audience and beyond, violently emotionally charged. A consistent refrain, in the hostile reception of both the Eichmann essays for The New Yorker and “Reflections on Little Rock” in Dissent, was the apparent coldness or withdrawal with which her critics saw her as treating desperately dear subjects. So perhaps it is unsurprising that the peculiar intimacy of the Denktagebuch, even in the time when it was a quasi-private record for her own uses, was what might be called by the paradoxical name of political intimacy, the intimacy specific to what she calls here a “world of appearances.” What can intimacy even mean in a sensibility staunchly committed to rejecting our historical prioritization of the internal (the soul, the mind, the self) over our external lives of appearing to and acting with others?
This passage comes from a section of the Denktagebuch that not only provides an idea of what that form of intimacy might be, but does so in a way that brings out the intimacy already present throughout her work. The 27th notebook is the last substantive one, and it is saturated with thoughts about ends. The two senses of the word in English and German weave in and out of her entries: both purposes – the purposes of thought, of philosophy, of acting, of being in the world – and finality, conclusions, ultimately death itself. At times, there is a deep, almost bitter sadness to the omnipresence of the end in this notebook. She concludes in one entry with Kant’s thoughts in Critique of Judgment about the ends of human life that “no one would go through life again of their own free will.” At other times, there is an old contentment with the prospect of the end, as when she writes that “death is the price we the living pay for having lived. To not want to pay this price, is miserable.” Birth, natality, the human capacity to bring something new into the world was always central to Arendt’s idea of a public and action. Here, death and thought appear together for the first time as the inverse, a retreat initially in mind and then in body from the world in which we write the stories of our lives with others. And the idea of thought as death’s companion, and our companion in the end, gives the first hint of what this uniquely Arendtian intimacy-in-publicity holds.
The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s un-ended work, gives us glimpses of something that comes out even more strongly in the Denktagebuch. In the life-process of Arendt’s thought there seems to be a constant attempt to return to what was put aside, to reckon with, and to a certain extent, redeem the things that at first glance in the earlier works seemed like ideas and practices that were supposed to be the problem or the threat. Her stunning elegies for Heidegger and Brecht – both neither pardon nor disavowal – reflect this process of problematization and partial redemption, turned from the analysis of concepts to telling the stories of lives lost. We should all be so lucky. And so it is here, in the Denktagebuch, in the case of endfulness and end-orientation. In a whole series of the earlier works, this end-orientation was the thing that most threatened what was supposed to be the Arendtian good, whether it was action or culture or the public itself. It was always the baunism of workers (The Human Condition) or philistines (“The Crisis in Culture”) that was the thing that threatened to remove from action and the political life what was peculiar to it. But in this section Arendt returns to the scene to do something like right by ends, to think about whether or not there is a place for endfulness and what that place might be.
In this notebook, thought is the dominion of ends, and the spontaneous, undetermined originality of action and the titanic worldly power of understanding find their end in thought’s retreat from the world’s appearances. Even in her darkest moments of facing the end this is not a tragedy to be mourned: it is simply the price of doing and being and living with others, the inescapable departure point of a world that we enter “confronted with what appears only once, with the sensuously perceptible” (780). After all, as Arendt cautions, action would disappear from the world in the moment of its enactment without being taken up and made a part of our collective story by a process of end-making. This necessary grave of the end gives the Human Condition in particular a different kind of normative bent than we might otherwise read in it – almost an odd kind of Platonism – in which it no longer appears that the natural instrumentality of work threatens everything around it, at least not simply so. Endfulness too has its place, indeed all of these familiar categories (labor, action, the social, the private) in their place are both necessary and productive. It is only those places where the messily amalgamated categories of our living in the world inevitably cross and mix that dangers, but perhaps also possibilities, are produced: every untidy palisade and nook of the shared world in which we can appear to each other.
This is, in the end, the sole place where that uniquely Arendtian sense of intimacy, a political intimacy, can exist. The intimacy of the Denktagebuch, which is no less present in Arendt’s confrontation with totalitarianism and is beautifully echoed in the struggles of those on this site with issues like the punishment of George Zimmerman and the decimations wrought by homophobic schooling systems, is not an intimacy of distilled selves but an intimacy of our selves with our world, an intimacy with what is shared and what forms, for good or for terrible ill, the fabric of what we can experience together. Arendt shows us what it means to be unblinkingly, meaningfully, at times painfully intimate with the human world. To engage in Arendtian politics is to enter into a relationship of intimacy, an intimacy with the terrible and the evil as much as with the beautiful and the good, and to find through that intimacy what we can do and who we can be with each other. And that intimacy, for Arendt, is what makes it possible for us to bear our ends.
“The Garden of the Prophet”, Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s posthumous book, included the poem “Pity the Nation”, his most famous and that ends with the following stanza: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”
“Pity the Nation” might well be an eight-stanza history of Lebanon: Fullness of beliefs and emptiness of religion, acclaiming the bully as hero, not raising its voice except in funerals, boasting not except among ruins, welcoming rulers with trumpeting only in order to farewell them with hooting and welcome another with more trumpeting; more than anything stands out the division into fragments, each one acting as a nation or in the name of the nation.
Already in 1860’s geopolitical conflicts in the region were translated into bitter sectarian conflicts that continued throughout independence, only to be further marred by the creation of the neighboring State of Israel. The weak political leadership of the different sects looked elsewhere than Lebanon to enter larger alliances that could further consolidate their power and quickly enough the central government began to lose control and the sectarian violence deteriorated into a civil war lasting nearly twenty years.
The history of the Lebanese civil war is rather well known, and though remarkable it was in terms of the actors involved, what is even more remarkable is the ways that the Lebanese found to negotiate their former conflicts and rehabilitate the public sphere in order to move on from a turbulent past into a future plagued by open wounds and uncertainties.
Nowhere is the legacy of the war more visible than in the city of Beirut, whose status as a cosmopolitan regional hub wasn’t born out of planning but rather the obvious accidental consequence of a very troubled past.
Craig Larkin outlined in his paper “Reconstructing and Deconstructing Beirut: Space, Memory and Lebanese Youth” some of the reasons behind Lebanon’s dynamism: A mountain refugee for religious minorities; a forged compromise of colonial powers and indigenous elites; a republic of tribes and villages; a cosmopolitan mercantile power-sharing enclave; a playground for the rich; a battle ground for religious and political ideologies; a fusion and combustion of the Arab East and the Christian West; an improbable, precarious, fragmented, shattered, torn nation.
All of these elements convened at once in Beirut in pre-war times: The city grew along the lines of quarters – usually of different religious communities – that developed an inclusive space for all after 1879 when a public garden was launched in the “bourj” (Martyrs’ Square) and the area evolved into a urban hub for all types of public activities.
During the civil war it was precisely this area what split the city in two and along the lines of which militia fighting was drawn, separating the city between East and West Beirut, and shifting the once mixed population. The end of the war, with its permanent calls for dialogue and reconciliation, surprisingly, did nothing to change the demographic status quo of the war.
The reconstruction of Beirut, and particularly of its historical downtown, was taken up in 1994 by private venture Solidere (Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth), established by then prime minister Rafik Hariri – later assassinated – at a time when the Lebanese state was still too weak and could not appropriately pass strong judgments in order to punish war criminals and effect a true social reconciliation in Lebanese society.
The solution then – as aptly described by Sune Haugbolle in his book “War and Memory in Lebanon”- was a vision of national unity, imagined or imaginary, through which Hariri’s capitalism seized the day with a state-sponsored amnesia in which reconciliation was limited to the private sphere and a vision reigned in which the most important thing was to leave the past behind.
The price that Beirut had to pay for this nominally was the actual destruction of what had been formerly the sole equivalent of a physical public realm. The obvious lack of interest in social reconciliation eliminated the possibility of true interaction between the different communities and this was further consolidated by the total absence of shared public areas. The forces and powers of the state were incorporated into Hariri’s capital and became identical with it.
The reconstruction of Beirut wasn’t so much an exercise in reconstruction as it was the total remaking of a symbolic part of the city that closed off the vaults of the past to interpretation in order to replace the immediate past with two equally disturbing symptoms of amnesia: The absolute past and the absolute future. The motto “Beirut: Ancient City of the Future” was coined and before the reconstruction even began, a large part of the area was demolished; in fact, much more than had been destroyed during the entire war.
The futuristic landscape entirely absent of public spaces – consisting mostly of prohibitively expensive residential towers and an exclusive shopping district – was coupled with an interest to preserve Beirut’s ancient heritage – ruins from Roman and Phoenician times – in order to create a model of a city that was entirely disconnected, even physically, from the vast majority of Beirut and created yet new sources of segregation and division.
Solidere’s concept envisioned a “Beirut reborn” in which the past informs the future, doing precisely what prominent Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury expressed: “It completely bypasses the present. It evokes and links the past and the future, but shrugs off any notion of the present.”
But Beirut shows a different picture in which the present rises as it self-destructs: The ambitiously wealthy downtown is contrasted to a city with poverty looming close to 35% and where news of buildings collapsing because of inadequate infrastructure is not uncommon.
At the same time the ghost of sectarianism is a living reality: What had been checkpoints and militia roadblocks during the civil war have now been replaced by subtle division lines that can be experienced by anyone who travels through the city: Posters of different sect leaders, graffiti and other religious and political icons serve the exact same function and give the unavoidable impression of a city deeply divided that echoes Lebanon’s political landscape.
Acts of memory have become commonplace in response not only to Hariri’s capitalism but to the entire political establishment, however they remain at the level of demanding what no Lebanese movement or faction has ever done: To step up to the challenge of opening public spaces in which there can be social reconciliation; namely, the acceptance that a court of justice cannot punish an entire country in which all groups involved bear responsibility.
Artists on the other hand have remained trapped in two narratives that equally defy the gist of the present: Either the total view of Lebanon through the eyes of the war or the Oriental Romanticism of the pre-republican Lebanon that is identical with the Western fantasies about the Middle East. Khoury says elsewhere: “Beirut has a false relationship with its past, characterized by a superficially Arabocentric kind of nostalgia.” What is remarkable here is the absence of the present.
Recently, I elaborated in “War and Memory in Lebanon” about the challenges posed by Hannah Arendt’s ideas on forgiveness and reconciliation in postwar Lebanon in the context of Tajaddod’s interactive exhibit “Another Memory”, however I want to turn my attention now to Beirut’s relationship to the public space.
Arendt conceived of the public realm as a space produced by particular forms of citizen interaction, where citizens engage in the unpredictable self-disclosure typical of political action, properly conceived, and strengthen the bonds between them in order to sustain this selfsame space.
She writes in The Human Condition:
The term public signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it. This world, however, is not identical with the earth or with nature, and the limited space for the movement of men and the general condition of organic life. It is related, rather, to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together. 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 who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.
Under the conditions of a common world, reality is not guaranteed primarily by the “common nature” of all men who constitute it, but rather by the fact that, differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.
This common world which Arendt discusses is a man-made phenomenon that occurs in between men naturally rather than dictated by one man alone, and this variety of “crafted” worlds is typical not only of totalitarian regimes but of any situation – political or otherwise – in which the spontaneity of human action is taken away in order to be replaced with an ideal situation in which the unpredictability of action is traded for calculations.
One of those situations in which human action is calculated is the privatization of the public realm, as has been elaborated by Mark Willson in his paper “Enacting public space: Arendt, citizenship and the city” where he makes the case for the importance of citizenship practices within the shared space of the city and how the political implications of the privatization of the public space always result in the weakening of participatory democracy.
Willson brings up recent work of Margaret Kohn (2004) which is immediately relevant to the case of Beirut: “Even when members of different groups do not engage in formal political discussion, expose to others may help offset the mutual fear and suspicion fostered by segregation. It is difficult to feel solidarity with strangers if we never inhabit places that are shared with people who are different.”
The privatization of downtown Beirut and the area surrounding Martyrs’ Square isn’t simply a question of neo-liberal economy but an attempt to dovetail and manipulate the public space into an artificial arena of consumption.
On the other hand, alternative public spaces have existed in Beirut through the war years and not limited to downtown; Larkin for example brings up the case of Hamra, home to the prestigious American University in Beirut and where the lack of urban planning and official governance enabled the development of a creative environment, allowing greater room for contested post-war visions and plural identities.
Cross-sectarian platforms do exist in Lebanese society (among them, Tajaddod is but one example) and there has been something of a resurrection of a secular movement, however at the level of the state, representation remains largely sectarian as it was from the times of French edict of 1936, after which people had to declare membership in one of the religious communities to receive the right to citizenship. Many aspects of life are still largely determined by sect.
But the consequence of this is that the fragile balance remains in spite of the official narrative of reconciliation between past and future, and without present; proof of the above is that recent clashes in the north of the country quickly spread to Beirut and brought up the anxiety of the civil war years in an environment in which people are acutely aware that the balance may break at the slightest disturbance.
It is highly unlikely that the current political leadership will be able to resolve the sectarian conflict at the heart of Lebanon’s turbulent history since they rose – against all odds – out of the sectarian conflicts and are indebted to the status quo for their power and authority in representing large sections of the Lebanese population.
A public space reinvented on a policy of amnesia isn’t only a limited public realm but also the gentrification of an entire location of memory into an elitist museum, closing not only the past but also the future. A student interviewed by Larkin expressed it best: “The redevelopment involved a covering or hiding of the memory of the war, and in this sense it’s unreal. You can’t talk just of Romans and Phoenicians and our great heritage, without mentioning militias, kidnapping and bombs.”
Even though the historical downtown isn’t the only of Solidere’s ventures (that include also the failed Elyssar plan in southern Beirut) it would be of course an unfair assessment to say that Solidere alone is responsible for the gap in the Lebanese memory. Bernard Khoury comes to mind again when he says the obvious: “Could anything more be demanded of a private company when the country as a whole is incapable of writing its own history? It’s very sad now that in school books history stops in 1975.”
Lourdes Martinez-Garrido articulated it very well in her “Beirut Reconstruction: A Missed Opportunity for Conflict Resolution” (Al Nakhlah, Fall 2008): The Lebanese civil war resolved none of the conditions that generated the initial confrontation. Like any other type of violence, it generated fear, suffering and destruction. In the process of recovery, there was no political plan for social reconstruction.
Finally, the attempted reconstruction of Beirut – though an apparent success – has decidedly turned its own heritage and culture into a “product”, usually a product of entertainment for everyone but those who suffered the war, into a touristic souvenir. This is what Hannah Arendt warned about in “The Crisis in Culture”:
Mass culture comes into being when mass society seizes upon cultural objects, and its danger is that the life process of society (which like all biological processes insatiably draws everything available into the cycle of its metabolism) will literally consume cultural objects, eat them up, and destroy them.
The Lebanese heritage that has survived millennia of wars might yet not survive a couple of decades of amnesia and disappear altogether with the public realm. As these risks loom close, the proponents of doom will seek shelter in the past and the proponents of progress will seek shelter in the future, all while the present will continue, unfortunately, to pity the nation.