"Seen from the perspective of the "real" world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment."
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
I find this quote intriguing in that its reference to environments and environmental change speak to the fact that Arendt's philosophy was essentially an ecological one, indeed one that is profoundly media ecological. The quote appears in a section of The Life of the Mind entitled "Science and Common Sense," in which Arendt argues that the practice of science is quite distinct from thinking as a philosophical activity.
As she explains:
Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in every scientific enterprise, but it is a role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific.
Here Arendt invokes a variation on Gödel's incompleteness theorem in mathematics, noting that science cannot justify itself on scientific grounds, but rather must somehow depend on something outside of and beyond itself. Perhaps more to the point, science, especially as associated with empiricism, cannot be divorced from concrete reality, and does not function only in the abstract realm of ideas that Plato insisted was the only true reality.
The transformation of truth into mere verity results primarily from the fact that the scientist remains bound to the common sense by which we find our bearings in a world of appearances. Thinking withdraws radically and for its own sake from this world and its evidential nature, whereas science profits from a possible withdrawal for the sake of specific results.
It is certainly the case that scientific truth is always contingent, tentative, open to refutation, as Karl Popper explained. Scientific truth is never absolute, never anything more than a map of some other territory, a map that needs to be continually tested and reviewed, updated and revised, as Alfred Korzybski explained by way of establishing his discipline of general semantics. Even the so-called laws of nature and physics need not be considered immutable, but may be subject to change and evolution, as Lee Smolin argues in his insightful book, Time Reborn.
Scientists are engaged in the process of abstracting, insofar as they take the data gained by empirical investigation and make generalizations in the form of theories and hypotheses, but this process of induction cannot be divorced from concrete reality, from the world of appearances. Science may be used to test, challenge, and displace common sense, but it operates on the same level, as a distilled form of common sense, rather than something qualitatively different, a status Arendt reserves for the special activity of thinking associated with philosophy.
Arendt goes on to argue that both common sense and scientific speculation lack "the safeguards inherent in sheer thinking, namely thinking's critical capacity." This includes the capacity for moral judgment, which became horrifically evident by the ways in which Nazi Germany used science to justify its genocidal policies and actions. Auschwitz did not represent a retrieval of tribal violence, but one of the ultimate expressions of the scientific enterprise in action. And the same might be said of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, holding aside whatever might be said to justify the use of the atomic bomb to bring the Second World War to a speedy conclusion. In remaining close to the human lifeworld, science abandons the very capacity that makes us human, that makes human life and human consciousness unique.
The story of modern science is in fact a story of shifting alliances. Science begins as a branch of philosophy, as natural philosophy. Indeed, philosophy itself is generally understood to begin with the pre-Socratics sometimes referred to as Ionian physicists, i.e., Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, who first posited the concept of elements and atoms. Both science and philosophy therefore coalesce during the first century that followed the introduction of the Greek alphabet and the emergence of a literate culture in the ancient Greek colonies in Asia Minor.
And just as ancient science is alphabetic in its origins, modern science begins with typography, as the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explains in her exhaustive study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in Early Modern Europe. Simply by making the writings of natural philosophers easily available through the distribution of printed books, scholars were able to compare and contrast what different philosophers had to say about the natural world, and uncover their differences of opinion and contradictions. And this in turn spurned them on to find out for themselves which of various competing explanations are correct, where the truth lies, so that more reading led to even more empirical research, which in turn would have to be published, that is made public, via printing, for the purposes of testing and confirmation. And publication encouraged the formation of a scientific republic of letters, a typographically mediated virtual community.
Eisenstein notes that during the first century following Gutenberg, printed books gave Copernicus access to centuries of recorded observations of the movements of celestial objects, access not easily available to his predecessors. What is remarkable to consider is that the telescope was not invented in his lifetime, that the Polish astronomer arrived at his heliocentric view based only on what could be observed by the naked eye, by gazing up at the heavens, and down at the printed page. The typographic revolution that began in the 15th century was the necessary technological precondition for the Copernican revolution of the 16th century. The telescope as a tool to extend vision beyond its natural capabilities had not yet been invented, and was not required, although soon after its introduction Galileo was able to confirm the theory that Copernicus had put forth a century earlier.
In the restricted literate culture of medieval Europe, the idea took hold that there are two books to be studied in an effort to discern the divine will, and mind: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Both books were seen as sources of knowledge that can be unlocked by a process of reading and interpretation. It was grammar, the ancient study of language, which became one third of the trivium, the foundational curriculum of the medieval university, that became the basis of modern science, and not dialectic or logic, that is, pure thinking, which is the source of the philosophic tradition, as Marshall McLuhan noted in The Classical Trivium. The medieval schoolmen of course placed scripture in the primary position, whereas modern science situates truth in the book of nature alone.
The publication of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum in 1620 first formalized the separation of science from philosophy within print culture, but the divorce was finalized during the 19th century, coinciding with the industrial revolution, as researchers became known as scientists rather than natural philosophers. In place of the alliance with philosophy, science came to be associated with technology; before this time, technology, and engineering, often referred to as mechanics, represented entirely different lines of inquiry, utterly practical, often intuitive rather than systematic. Mechanics was part of the world of work rather than that of action, to use the terms Arendt introduced in The Human Condition, which is to say that it was seen as the work of the hand rather than the mind. By the end of 19th century, scientific discovery emerged as the main the source of major technological breakthroughs, rather than innovation springing fully formed from the tinkering of inventors, and it became necessary to distinguish between applied science and theoretical science, the latter nonetheless still tied to the world of appearances.
Today, the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, has become a major buzzword in education, a major emphasis in particular for higher education, and a major concern in regards to economic competitiveness. We might well take note of how recent this combination of fields and disciplines really is, insofar as mathematics represents pure logic and highly abstract forms of thought, and science once was a purely philosophical enterprise, both aspects of the life of the mind. Technology and engineering, on the other hand, for most of our history took the form of arts and crafts, part of the world of appearances.
The convergence of science and technology also had much to do with scientists' increasing reliance on scientific instruments for their investigations, a trend increasingly prevalent following the introduction of both the telescope and the microscope in the early 17th century, a trend even more apparent from the 19th century on. The laboratory is in fact another such instrument, a technology whose function is to provide precisely controlled conditions, beyond its role as a facility for the storage and use of other scientific instruments. Scientific instruments are media that extend our senses and allow us to see the world in new ways, therefore altering our experience of our environment, while the discoveries they lead to provide us with the means of altering our environments physically. And the laboratory is an instrument that provides us with a total environment, enclosed, controlled, isolated from the world to become in effect the world. It is a micro-environment where experimental changes can be made that anticipate changes that can be made to the macro-environment we regularly inhabit.
The split between science and philosophy can also be characterized as a division between the eye and the ear. Modern science, as intimately bound up in typography, is associated with visualism, the idea that seeing is believing, that truth is based on vision, that knowledge can be displayed visually as an organized set of facts, rather than the product of ongoing dialogue, and debate. McLuhan noted the importance of the fixed point of view as a by-product of training the eye to read, and Walter Ong studied the paradigm-shift in education attributed to Peter Ramus, who introduced pedagogical methods we would today associated with textbooks, outlining, and the visual display of information. Philosophy has not been immune to this influence, but retains a connection to the oral-aural mode through the method of Socratic dialogue, and by way of an understanding of the history of ideas as an ongoing conversation. Arendt, in The Human Condition, explained action, the realm of words, as a social phenomenon, one based on dialogic exchanges of ideas and opinions, not a solitary matter of looking things up. And thinking, which she elevates above the scientific enterprise in The Life of the Mind, is mostly a matter of an inner dialogue, or monologue if you prefer, of hearing oneself think, of silent speech, and not of a mental form of writing out words or imaginary reading. We talk things out, to others and/or to ourselves.
Science, on the other hand, is all about visible representations, as words, numbers, illustrations, tables, graphs, charts, diagrams, etc. And it is the investigation of visible phenomena, or otherwise of phenomena that can be rendered visible through scientific instruments. Acoustic phenomena can only be dealt with scientifically by being turned into a visual measurement, either of numbers or of lines going up and down to depict sound waves. The same is true for the other senses; smell, taste, and touch can only be dealt with scientifically though visual representation. Science cannot deal with any sense other than sight on its own terms, but always requires an act of translation into visual form. Thus, Arendt notes that modern science, being so intimately bound up in the world of appearances, is often concerned with making the invisible visible:
That modern science, always hunting for manifestations of the invisible—atoms, molecules, particles, cells, genes—should have added to the world a spectacular, unprecedented quantity of new perceptible things is only seemingly paradoxical.
Arendt might well have noted the continuity between the modern activity of making the invisible visible as an act of translation, and the medieval alchemist's search for methods of achieving material transformation, the translation of one substance into another. She does note that the use of scientific instruments are a means of extending natural functions, paralleling McLuhan's characterization of media as extensions of body and biology:
In order to prove or disprove its hypotheses… and to discover what makes things work, it [modern science] began to imitate the working processes of nature. For that purpose it produced the countless and enormously complex implements with which to force the non-appearing to appear (if only as an instrument-reading in the laboratory), as that was the sole means the scientist had to persuade himself of its reality. Modern technology was born in the laboratory, but this was not because scientists wanted to produce appliances or change the world. No matter how far their theories leave common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning behind, they must finally come back to some form of it or lose all sense of realness in the object of their investigation.
Note here the close connection between reality, that is, our conception of reality, and what lends someone the aura of authenticity, as Walter Benjamin would put it, is dependent on the visual sense, on the phenomenon being translated into the world of appearances (the aura as opposed to the aural). It is no accident then that there is a close connection in biblical literature and the Hebrew language between the words for spirit and soul, and the words for invisible but audible phenomena such as wind and breath, breath in turn being the basis of speech (and this is not unique to Hebraic culture or vocabulary). It is at this point that Arendt resumes her commentary on the function of the controlled environment:
And this return is possible only via the man-made, artificial world of the laboratory, where that which does not appear of its own accord is forced to appear and to disclose itself. Technology, the "plumber's" work held in some contempt by the scientist, who sees practical applicability as a mere by-product of his own efforts, introduces scientific findings, made in "unparalleled insulation… from the demands of the laity and of everyday life," into the everyday world of appearances and renders them accessible to common-sense experience; but this is possible only because the scientists themselves are ultimately dependent on that experience.
We now reach the point in the text where the quote I began this essay with appears, as Arendt writes:
Seen from the perspective of the "real" world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment; and the cognitive processes using the human abilities of thinking and fabricating as means to their end are indeed the most refined modes of common-sense reasoning. The activity of knowing is no less related to our sense of reality and no less a world-building activity than the building of houses.
Again, for Arendt, science and common sense both are distinct in this way from the activity of pure thinking, which can provide a sorely needed critical function. But her insight as to the function of the laboratory as an environment in which the invisible is made visible is important in that this helps us to understand that the laboratory is, in fact, what McLuhan referred to as a counter-environment or anti-environment.
In our everyday environment, the environment itself tends to be invisible, if not literally so, then functionally insofar as whatever fades into the background tends to fall out of our perceptual awareness or is otherwise ignored. Anything that becomes part of our routine falls into this category, becoming environmental, and therefore subliminal. And this includes our media, technology, and symbol systems, insofar as they are part of our everyday world. We do pay attention to them when they are brand new and unfamiliar, but once their novelty wears off they become part of the background, unless they malfunction or breakdown. In the absence of such conditions, we need an anti-environment to provide a contrast through which we can recognize the things we take for granted in our world, to provide a place to stand from which we can observe our situation from the outside in, from a relatively objective stance. We are, in effect, sleepwalkers in our everyday environment, and entering into an anti-environment is a way to wake us up, to enhance awareness and consciousness of our surroundings. This occurs, in a haphazard way, when we return home after spending time experiencing another culture, as for a brief time much of what was once routinized about own culture suddenly seems strange and arbitrary to us. The effect wears off relatively quickly, however, although the after-effects of broadening our minds in this way can be significant.
The controlled environment of the laboratory helps to focus our attention on phenomena that are otherwise invisible to us, either because they are taken for granted, or because they require specialized instrumentation to be rendered visible. It is not just that such phenomena are brought into the world of appearances, however, but also that they are made into objects of concerted study, to be recorded, described, measured, experimented upon, etc.
McLuhan emphasized the role of art as an anti-environment. The art museum, for example, is a controlled environment, and the painting that we encounter there has the potential to make us see things we had never seen before, by which I mean not just objects depicted that are unfamiliar to us, but familiar objects depicted in unfamiliar ways. In this way, works of art are instruments that can help us to see the world in new and different ways, help us to see, to use our senses and perceive in new and different ways. McLuhan believed that artists served as a kind of distant early warning system, borrowing cold war terminology to refer to their ability to anticipate changes occurring in the present that most others are not aware of. He was fond of the Ezra Pound quote that the artist is the antenna of the race, and Kurt Vonnegut expressed a similar sentiment in describing the writer as a canary in a coal mine. We may further consider the art museum or gallery or library as a controlled environment, a laboratory of sorts, and note the parallel in the idea of art as the anticipation of a changed environment.
There are other anti-environments as well. Houses of worship function in this way, often because they are based on earlier eras and different cultures, and otherwise are constructed to remove us out of our everyday environment, and help us to see the world in a different light. They are in some way dedicated to making the invisible world of the spirit visible to us through the use of sacred symbols and objects, even for religions whose concept of God is one that is entirely outside of the world of appearances. Sanctuaries might therefore be considered laboratories used for moral, ethical, and sacred discovery, experimentation, and development, and places where changed environments are also anticipated, in the form of spiritual enlightenment and the pursuit of social justice. This also suggests that the scientific laboratory might be viewed, in a certain sense, as a sacred space, along the lines that Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane.
The school and the classroom are also anti-environments, or at least ought to be, as Neil Postman argued in Teaching as a Conserving Activity. Students are sequestered away from the everyday environment, into a controlled situation where the world they live in can be studied and understood, and phenomena that are taken for granted can be brought into conscious awareness. It is indeed a place where the invisible can be made visible. In this sense, the school and the classroom are laboratories for learning, although the metaphor can be problematic when it used to imply that the school is only about the world of appearances, and all that is needed is to let students discover that world for themselves. Exploration is indeed essential, and discovery is an important component of learning. But the school is also a place where we may engage in the critical activity of pure thinking, of critical reasoning, of dialogue and disputation.
The classroom is more than a laboratory, or at least it must become more than a laboratory, or the educational enterprise will be incomplete. The school ought to be an anti-environment, not only in regard to the everyday world of appearances and common sense, but also to that special world dominated by STEM, by science, technology, engineering and math. We need the classroom to be an anti-environment for a world subject to a flood of entertainment and information, we need it to be a language-based anti-environment for a world increasingly overwhelmed by images and numbers. We need an anti-environment where words can take precedence, where reading and writing can be balanced by speech and conversation, where reason, thinking, and thinking about thinking can allow for critical evaluation of common sense and common science alike. Only then can schools be engaged in something more than just adjusting students to take their place in a changed and changing environment, integrating them within the technological system, as components of that system, as Jacques Ellul observed in The Technological Society. Only then can schools help students to change the environment itself, not just through scientific and technological innovation, but through the exercise of values other than the technological imperative of efficiency, to make things better, more human, more life-affirming.
The anti-environment that we so desperately need is what Hannah Arendt might well have called a laboratory of the mind.
Ernst Cassirer is an oft-neglected thinker in contemporary continental philosophy. He is typically eclipsed by Martin Heidegger, whom he faced in the now famous disputation at Davos, Switzerland in the spring of 1929, which had such a dramatic effect on continental philosophy that the young Emmanuel Levinas, who attended the debate, felt as if he were "present at the creation and end of the world". In spite of Cassirer's attempt to make his three-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-1929) more accessible to an English speaking audience through a concise redaction in An Essay on Man (1944), he remains a marginal figure in contemporary philosophy.
However, Ned Curthoys, a researcher at the Australian National University's School of Cultural Inquiry, has recently recovered a latent conversation between Cassirer and Hannah Arendt that casts new light on the impact and significance of his work.
Arendt's vigorous annotations in her copy of Cassirer's An Essay on Man indicate that she was a diligent and consistent reader of Cassirer. Her personal library housed in the Arendt Collection at Bard College contains over a dozen titles by Cassirer. Most Cassirer’s works in Arendt's personal library contain heavy annotations and marginalia, which suggest a critical and substantive engagement with Cassirer's work. Although Arendt's references to Cassirer in her major works are sparse—once in her essay "The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern" in Between Past and Future, and four times in The Human Condition—it is clear that Cassirer had an influence on Arendt's postwar writings. The question is: What was the extent of this influence?
Curthoys has recently taken up this question and offers a persuasive argument that Arendt's philosophy of history and her philosophical anthropology were shaped significantly by her reading of Cassirer. Curthoys' early essays on Arendt explored the political significance of narrative in her work and her use of "thought-figures," like Charlie Chaplin, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Isak Dinesen, all of whom attempted to subvert the authoritative discourses of their times by means of counter-narratives. Curthoys discerns the marks of a German émigré consciousness in Arendt's postwar writings that suggests an intellectual dialogue with other German émigrés like Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer. He foregrounds Arendt's status as a conscious pariah and engages in a postcolonial reading of her work that highlights her development of a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric metanarratives of her age.
More recently, Curthoys has begun excavating a latent conversation between Arendt and Cassirer. In his essay, "The Pathos and Promise of Counter-History: Hannah Arendt and Ernst Cassirer's German-Jewish Historical Consciousness" (in Power, Judgment, and Political Evil,), Curthoys explores Arendt's philosophy of history, and argues that she found a "counter-history" in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer that allowed her to challenge the Eurocentric discourse on history that had rendered her an outsider, a pariah. It is precisely this location outside the dominant identities and political narratives of Europe, Curthoys avers, that served as Arendt's Ansatzpunkt, or starting point, and allowed her to engage in a recursive investigation of history.
What is most significant in this essay is Curthoys' claim that Arendt's engagement with Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms" was instrumental in the development of her philosophy of history, and his suggestion that it led to her reconsider Cassirer's defense of neo-Kantianism in the Davos debate, a reconsideration that Curthoys sees as the impetus for Arendt's return to Kant in her final years. This engagement was not a wholesale adoption of Cassirer's approach to history, Curthoys argues, but a critical and creative renewal of his thought.
Curthoys has extended this exploration of the connection between Arendt and Cassirer in a subsequent article titled, "Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and the Twentieth-Century Revival of Philosophical Anthropology." Curthoys argues that Arendt's focus on philosophical anthropology in The Human Condition, Men in Dark Times, The Life of the Mind, and her final lectures on Kant is the result of her ongoing critical engagement with Cassirer's work. At the heart of this article is Curthoys’ assertion that Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms is refracted in Arendt's notion of a common world. Cassirer had argued in his Philosophie der symbolischen Formen that human beings are symbolic animals that express themselves in systems of signs, which mediate reality in networks of meaning. These systems of signs take form in language, myth, religion, art, science, and history. Readers of Patchen Markell's "Arendt's Work: On the Architecture of The Human Condition" will recall his claim that "work" plays a mediating role, which resonates with Cassirer's notion of symbolic forms.
Curthoys' investigation and recovery of the intellectual conversation between Arendt and Cassirer is compelling, but more needs to be done to make this influence explicit. Curthoys' new book The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer's and Hannah Arendt's Hidden Conversation (Forthcoming in September 2013, Berghahn Books) promises to offer more evidence for Arendt's creative development of Cassirer's thought. Curthoys' research opens up a new line of inquiry into the wider connections between Arendt and the German-Jewish intellectual tradition and offers further confirmation of her fidelity to Jewish thought in general.
-John Douglas Macready (University of Dallas)
“And wonder what you’ve missed”
- W. H. Auden, as quoted in Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind
At the end of the second-to-last chapter of the Thinking section of The Life of the Mind , Hannah Arendt quotes two stanzas from W. H. Auden’s poem As I Walked Out One Evening, the first of which is the following:
O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.
Arendt thus ends a chapter containing no prior reference to Auden with two significant quotes by him, offering no further comment of her own. This lies in stark contrast to her treatment of the quote from The Tempest, which directly precedes the Auden quote; she relates Shakespeare’s metaphors very clearly to the subject matter of the chapter. Why, then, do Auden and his quotes have free rein?
In her essay “Remembering Wystan H. Auden,” written shortly after Auden’s death, Arendt describes their relationship as “very good friends but not intimate friends.” The rest of her tribute reveals her profound respect for Auden not just as a friend, but also as a writer and thinker. This respect is further indicated by their letter exchanges and the vast collection of Auden’s books in Arendt’s personal library; and it is reciprocated by Auden, who in 1959 reviewed The Human Condition for the magazine Encounter, describing within it the “jealous possessiveness” he experienced due to the close connection he felt with the book. Years later, Arendt dedicated her lecture Thinking and Moral Considerations to Auden. Shakespeare’s presence is to be noted in both this lecture and Auden’s essay The Fallen City. Some Reflections on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”, upon which Arendt voiced her opinions in a letter to Auden. Arendt’s placement of the Shakespeare and Auden quotes in close proximity to each other in The Life of the Mind creates an illumination of each text by the other, as we will see later.
In order to unfold the meaning of the quote from As I Walked Out One Evening, however, one should consider the poem in its entirety. As two stanzas excerpted from a 15-stanza whole and presented without context, their meaning appears at first glance to be rather abstract. The poem focuses on humankind’s fight against time, explored mostly through a song sung by “a lover,” which the speaker of the poem overhears. This bears strong relation to one of the main questions explored by Arendt in her chapter: that of the position of the thinking ego in time, and its constant battle against both the past and the future. However, while Arendt concentrates on temporal freedom within the present realm of thought, which exists in an area bound to but not trapped in the midst of this battle, Auden’s focus is on the inevitability of “Time”, which is capitalized as such and portrayed as an ever more malignant force of nature. The description of the “crowds upon the pavement” as “fields of harvest wheat” in the first stanza already hints at death, evoking the Grim Reaper and time as a sickle on its way to sever our lives. The first explicit reference to Time appears in the sixth stanza:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
This context sheds light on the two stanzas quoted by Arendt. Even the exclamation “O” increases in its significance; one hears in the background of one’s mind odes from literary practices of centuries past, and ruminates on the continuity of traditions, considering Time’s role in it as both a destructive and constructive force, especially in light of Arendt’s own ruminations regarding the discontinuity of “the Roman trinity that for thousands of years united religion, authority, and tradition.” Her related notion of a “fragmented past” resonates with the second of the two stanzas by Auden: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead.”
The reiteration of the words “plunge” and “stare” in the first quoted stanza leads one to consider the significance of repetition, a technique that Auden employs throughout the poem, in the context of time. Repetition can be perceived as a loop of time, giving it a plurality (for example, describing the word as being used two times) while also somewhat of a stationary character, since physical time has elapsed but mental time has not, instead revolving around itself and meditating on the same idea in a suspended state. Auden’s poem thus offers us another way of approaching Arendt’s consideration of time as experienced by the thinking ego.
The physical imagery employed by Auden reveals water to be an especially powerful metaphor for time. The poem concludes with: “The clocks had ceased their chiming,/And the deep river ran on,” portraying the constancy of time, ever running, even when our own human efforts to measure or control time have stopped or failed. The eighth stanza also contains a subtle evocation of water: “In headaches and in worry/Vaguely life leaks away”; in this context, our personal lifetime is the water that we cannot imperviously contain. This aids our understanding of the image of water in the basin in the first quoted stanza. Containing water in the basin represents our attempts to control and preserve time in a human construct, but, despite all these efforts, we cannot grasp time in our hands, no matter how deeply we “plunge” our hands into the water. Instead we can only “stare, stare” at our reflection, and “wonder what you’ve missed”. These four words are possibly the key to unlocking the relationship between this poem and The Life of the Mind. The physical reflection of oneself in the basin’s water prompts a mental reflection on the passage of time; time is once again suspended as our thinking ego considers our past. But perhaps Time is even more malevolent, in that while we stare at our reflection (the verb “stare” itself having rather stern connotations, in contrast to words such as “look” or “gaze”), physical time is still passing, and we are consequently “miss[ing]” even more of or from our lives as we try to deduce what the past has already robbed from us.
In her interpretation of the Tempest quote preceding the Auden citation, Arendt presents a rather different view of the water-time metaphor. The sea here represents an infinite expanse of time containing “fragments from the past”, the “pearls” and “coral” that do not pass away but are modified by the time they spend in the sea. As two stanzas extracted from an entirety of fifteen, Arendt presents Auden’s words as “pearls” and invites us to play a part in the continuity of this poem and the thinking ego within it, saving it and treasuring its “sea-change” through the generations.
“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 contrast to the inorganic thereness of lifeless matter, living beings are not mere appearances. To be alive means to be possessed by an urge toward self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness. Living things make their appearance like actors on a stage set for them.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, vol. 1: Thinking
Political theorists are likely to associate the phrase the “urge to self-display” with a characteristically “Arendtian” politics. But here, Arendt takes self-display to characterize something much more basic and fundamental—the sheer life of human beings. Despite Arendt’s imagery of the actor appearing on a stage, self-display does not seem at all to invoke the greatness of individuality or of heroic deeds. It is merely the “fact of one’s own appearingness.” What could Arendt mean by characterizing human life by the fact of appearing, and what does it mean to say that human beings, as opposed to “lifeless matter” makes their appearance?
In The Life of the Mind, Arendt describes the phenomenon of appearing as human beings’ appearing to others in a way that is subject to the particular perspective of the spectator.
“To appear,” she writes, “always means to seem to others, and this seeming varies according to the standpoint and perspective of the spectator”. In this interpretation, the fact of appearingness is a fact of the world in which we live; it is the fact of plurality and the irreducibility of perspectives that signals that men, not Man, populate the world.
But the fact of appearance also has a moral and political significance that goes beyond this almost formal description of the dual position of subjectivity and objectivity that human beings occupy with respect to one another. If we turn to Origins of Totalitarianism, a text that is not often read in connection with The Life of the Mind, we are confronted with a striking and terrifying picture of the loss of appearingness, which confronts us fully with the implications of Arendt’s characterization of human beings as beings who must make their appearance.
In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt uses the term “rightlessness” to describe the condition of European Jews under the Third Reich. In that regime, Jews were not merely “deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion,” but made so irrelevant that “nobody wants even to oppress them”. The ultimate expression of invisibility was the genocide in the death camps of the Final Solution. However, the effectiveness of these camps in rendering people invisible did not lie simply in the physical destruction of millions. The camps sought to destroy what Arendt called the “moral man,” or that aspect of human beings that is subject to moral judgment and valuation. This term attaches not to moral behavior, but to the presence of individual human beings in the world that makes it possible to see them as individuals in the first place.
In the camps, the boundary between life and death and between individuals was so attenuated that it was nearly impossible to distinguish any one person from another, living or dead. The invisibility of individuals this lack of boundaries engendered was so thoroughgoing that it obscured even the most heroic of deaths: “[i]t belonged among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don’t permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr’s death for their convictions….The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity”. Even the most heroic of acts was disposed of simply and without regard or comment, just as those deaths that occurred daily, and both were made invisible along with the individuals in and through whom these deaths occurred.
The crucial point is not that death was made routine, but that the camps ensured that with these deaths any marker of the victim’s having ever been alive also disappeared along with him. The individual prisoner was barely distinguished from the others and seen only as one in a series in which his exact position was irrelevant. As a group, the prisoners were invisible to the world, and as individuals, they were invisible to the world and to one another as distinct people.
The result was an attenuation of the line that separates the lives of individuals as they have lived it from mere physical life and death and the elimination of the world as a stage on which individuals could make their appearance. And in the absence of this stage, death could be nothing more than a “seal on the fact that he had never really existed”.
Making one’s appearance in the world, as an actor does on a stage, is not about being extraordinary. Nor is it a merely formal description of how human beings perceive the world around them and are perceived by other human beings. Rather, appearingness is the essential condition of being recognized as a member of the community of human beings and the world and of being treated accordingly. As the events of the past century have made strikingly clear, appearingness is a condition that we could lose or of which we could be stripped. Our condition of humanity is something that we must create—create by making our appearance in the world. Arendt’s words about our basic condition of appearance alerts us to the dangers of invisibility and should make us suspicious of any situation in which people exist in a condition of invisibility.
In our own time, the Occupy Wall Street movement has helped to bring to light some of those who have been made invisible in poverty. This act of opening up a space in which an individual might make their appearance in the world is, I think, one of the movement’s greatest accomplishments. And a politics of visibility is not just about our own visibility or our own great accomplishments, but about creating stages upon which people can make their appearance and exposing and tearing down those scaffoldings that bar some from entering these stages.
If we see the OWS movement as a politics of appearance, then the albeit valid criticisms about the lack of a definite agenda and the like do seem to lose some of their force. But this does not mean that the movement is a success in Arendt’s terms. The movement has certainly brought us to the stage, but what we all—the invisible and the visible—do with this opening and how we make our appearance onto it remains the political question that only the individual actors, and not any movement, can and must answer.
“While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (200).
To read this line from The Human Condition in the wake of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, or in the midst of the Occupations that have radiated from Zuccotti Park across the United States and beyond, might be invigorating: aren’t both of these events expressions of power in Arendt’s sense, instances of the unpredictable human capacity to break out of the daily mire of authoritarianism or of capitalism and, acting in concert, to begin something new?
It might also be depressing, since Arendt seems to remind us of the fleetingness of this kind of power, which flashes up in a moment of action but then vanishes, leaving old forces of more familiar kinds—army officers, professional politicians hungry for Wall Street money—to reassert themselves.
But wait. Let’s allow ourselves to be a little more puzzled by what Arendt says here about power and action: “Power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.” On the one hand, it’s clear enough why Arendt would say this: she wants to underscore the distance between her use of the word “power” and some other, much more familiar ones. She doesn’t mean, as Weberian social scientists might, the capacity to control or influence others by virtue of the possession of some durable resource like money or guns. Perhaps she doesn’t even mean a “capacity” at all, in the sense of a state of unactualized readiness that precedes and enables an action: after all, action is supposed to be miraculous, so to think of it in Aristotelian terms simply as the actualization of a pre-existing potentiality might be, as she says much later, in The Life of the Mind, to “deny the future as an authentic tense.” She marks her distance from both of these uses of “power” by making power and action coeval. But, on the other hand, if power springs up between people when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse—if, as she says, seemingly echoing the Megarians whom Aristotle criticizes in the Metaphysics, power “exists only in its actualization”—then what is power but a synonym for action itself? Why has Arendt bothered to retain the term at all?
Notice, however, that Arendt does not quite say that power vanishes as soon as the action stops. Instead, she says that it vanishes the moment people disperse;
and this fact is apparently meant to distinguish power from the “space of appearance,” which, it seems, does disappear as soon as the action stops. On the preceding page of The Human Condition, Arendt had written that that “the space of appearance comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action,” and added: “its peculiarity is that, unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, it does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men...but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves.” So the arrest of an activity is not yet the dispersal of persons. And that means that power is not quite redundantly congruent with action after all. If we look for a little bit of Arendtian power to exist in the split-second before an action starts, we won’t find it, because power in her sense does not precede and explain the moment of action’s initiation. It does, however, survive or outlast it. Power is, as she says, what “keeps people together after the fleeting moment of action has passed.” It is what gives action duration, what draws a spontaneous flash of novelty on the part of a single agent (archein) out into a course of action in which others—some of the lingering, undispersed witnesses to the initial event—join, and which they extend and continue (prattein).
If we really wanted to look at events like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square or the Occupy movement through an Arendtian lens, then, our first step should be to stop talking about them as though they were simply moments, and as though the challenge were to find a way of prolonging or institutionalizing them without sacrificing their radical, disruptive force. Such representations falsely collapse the duration of these events into an instant, and they falsely suppose that their power lay in their momentariness.
Quite the contrary: one of the most striking things about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, after all, was simply that they continued, even when many observers thought, whether with hope or with fear, that they were sure to dissipate in the face of violence, or the threat of violence, or simple exhaustion (indeed, they lasted long enough that the demonstrators had to improvise ways of organizing the performance of the rhythmic tasks associated with the maintenance of the human body—feeding, disposing of waste—that some austere versions of Arendtianism would exclude from politics). Likewise, the Occupation in lower Manhattan is now approaching two months old; it has an infrastructure and an organization, even if it is not organization on the military model of a chain of command; and it evidently has power in Arendt’s sense: the power to sustain itself over time, to attract new participants and observers, to refuse dispersal, to resist arrest. Its power lies, in part, in the way it orients its participants and observers toward the curiously hybrid status of its little bit of territory: a privately owned but publicly accessible park, not just a symbol but an instance of the intersection of corporate and state power, put on display and put under pressure by the ongoing presence of the Occupiers, which tests the limits of that promise of publicity. By organizing the attention of its participants and observers in this way, the Occupation has already, in its very existence and duration, transformed our sense of the shape of the world to which we belong, and of what is imaginable in it. That is hardly everything; but it is not nothing. The snow is coming: will they disperse? —will we?
Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago