Everything that is, must appear, and nothing can appear without a shape of its own…
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
The book is under attack. A recent article in The New Atlantis begins by calling the book “modernity’s quintessential technology,” but reports that “now that the rustle of the book’s turning page competes with the flicker of the screen’s twitching pixel, we must consider the possibility that the book may not be around much longer,” and asks “If it isn’t — if we choose to replace the book…what does it tell us about ourselves that we may soon retire this most remarkable, five-hundred-year-old technology?” The book’s future at the university is also uncertain. Even as student surveys consistently show preference for the “real thing,” a shift of emphasis towards the e-text is discernible in library catalogs and, increasingly, basic course requirements. Since 2009, roughly thirty major universities have joined a pilot program requiring the purchase of e-text in lieu of textbooks for select courses.
The challenge for those driven to distraction by these developments is to articulate, in reasonably urgent and suitably political terms, what might otherwise seem a vague and idiosyncratic sense of loss—loss of depth and of a world—in an age of digital information. To this purpose, Christine Rosen in the aforementioned article quotes Hannah Arendt: “The printed book is the ‘transformation of the intangible into the tangibility of things,’ as Hannah Arendt put it; it is imagined and lived action and speech turned into palpable remembrance.”
The quote comes from a section of Arendt’s The Human Condition called “The Thing-Character of the World.” There Arendt distinguishes the products of labor, work, and action in their distinct roles in the making of the world. What distinguishes the first two—the products of labor and work—is that while the former (e.g. “a bread”), being “needed by our bodies…but without stability,” are destined to “appear and disappear” through “incessant consumption,” the latter (e.g. “a table”), “Viewed as part of the world…guarantee the permanence and durability without which a world would not be possible at all.” Though the products of work “wear” over time through use, they do not regularly “disappear”—indeed, Arendt says later in The Human Condition that without their stability the human artifice “could never be a reliable home for men”; that without the fabrication of houses, chairs, tables, tools, bridges and the like—the world would assume “the sublime indifference of untouched nature,” and our dwelling within it (to the extent that such a term would be appropriate) would mean substantially less.
The products of work, in turn, bear a special relationship to “the ‘products’ of action and speech, which together constitute the fabric of human relationships and affairs.” Because the latter “do not ‘produce,’ bring forth anything…In order to become worldly things…they must first be seen, heard, and remembered and then transformed, reified as it were, into things—into sayings of poetry, the written page or the printed book, into paintings or sculpture, into all sorts of records, documents, and monuments.” Human remembrance of action and speech may sustain the “factual world of human affairs” for a short while, but ultimately “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent,” things which survive long after the act and actor.
Seeing all this, the problem of books remains a perplexing one—for on one hand, if the written word simply compensates for the frailty of human remembrance, might a digital text serve the same purpose? On the other hand, if standard mass produced books hardly qualify as singular “works of art” (which Arendt calls “the most intensely worldly of all tangible things” because they endure both despite and because they have no use value) our only alternative is to accord books the same status as Arendt’s “chair,” a worldly artifact which stays in the world not only because it is durable, but because it is useful. This, however, only begets the original question of why use the book in the first place, rather than a digital copy? Absent any rare or singular artistic value to a particular volume, there seems no clear reason to preserve the book. To exit this conundrum, it seems one must explain why reification of the word in particular into a tangible thing is important.
In a recent article in Philosophy and Literature Jonathan Brent offers one answer. He writes that “‘Content’ is not simply ‘content.’ It has a form and a wrapper. If we do not recognize this, we risk making a fundamental mistake.” Books, says Brent, with their “spines, headbands, prefaces (and sometimes postfaces), appendices, running feet, footnotes, headnotes, shoulders…heads…[and] tails,” are not only “‘content’ but…unique embodiments and transmitters of a life beyond themselves[.]”
Moreover “The characters, of which words are made, are not a graven image but engraved images made originally with an instrument that in Greek was called a kharakter.” Thus the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants—a sentence—“cuts into us at the point where the flesh and word become one.” In the same spirit, one might add, did God give unto Moses “two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”
For Arendt, the reification of words serves a purpose less reliant on the rugged idea of kharacter, and more on Brent’s colorful sense of “form and wrapper.” Indeed, for Arendt it is precisely the “form and wrapper” which give the ordinary products of work—the useful but otherwise expendable artifacts of the world—a far more profound and ultimately political importance:
“The man-made world of things,” Arendt concludes Section 23 of The Human Condition (“The Permanence of the World and the Work of Art,” and the last section of the chapter on “Work”), “the human artifice erected by homo faber, becomes a home for mortal men, whose stability will endure and outlast the ever-changing movement of their lives and actions, only insomuch as it transcends both the sheer functionalism of things produced for consumption and the sheer utility of objects produced for use.” In other words, notwithstanding that the durable objects of the world first exist, and then persist in the world largely because of their use value, in appearing before humans they also achieve a value and meaning independent of instrumental concerns—a value and meaning in and of themselves. Arendt prepares this point some lines earlier: “Everything that is,” she writes, “must appear, and nothing can appear without a shape of its own; hence there is in fact no thing that does not in some way transcend its functional use, and its transcendence, its beauty or ugliness, is identical with appearing publicly and being seen. By the same token, namely, its sheer worldly existence, everything also transcends the sphere of pure instrumentality…are judged not only according to the subjective needs of men but by the objective standards of the world where they will find their place[.]”
Here Arendt, in a manner not as apparent in her later appropriation of Kant (where she attaches judgment to the sense of taste), suggests a direct connection between the possibility for political judgment and the sense of sight. The appearance of product of work in public not only establishes the thing as thing, but engenders an aesthetic quality that transcends its use value, thus giving the world itself a firmer grounding than mere utility. Moreover, the appearance of the thing in public functions like Arendt’s famous “table” which at once relates and separates humans, not only in space, but also (as Arendt’s own desk continues to do in the classroom at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center) across time. In the case of books, it is not only the physical binding that appears in public, but just as importantly the great words and deeds contained within in which, through the tangible presence of the book, also enter the everyday world of appearances.
Hannah Arendt, as is well known, was a student of Martin Heidegger. In his essay “The Thing” Heidegger wrote that “the Old High German word thing means a gathering, and specifically a gathering to deliberate on a matter under discussion, a contested matter.” Furthermore “thing or dinc…is suited as no other word to translate properly the Roman word res, that which is pertinent, which has a bearing,” as in res publica which means, “not the state, but that which, known to everyone, concerns everybody and is therefore deliberated in public.” In this context Heidegger warned that while “Thinging is the nearing of the world,” the “frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness.” The abolition of all distances fashioned by modern technology, in other words, threatens to eliminate the minimal distance required for things to appear in public in a manner that is both in-between and connecting of individuals. Thus, Heidegger warned, at a time in which “All distances in time and space are shrinking,” and man receives “instant information” and witnesses “the abolition of every possibility of remoteness,” the paradoxical result will be “the failure of nearness to materialize in consequence of the abolition of all distances[.]”
Such passages evoke a famous moment in The Human Condition previously alluded to, where Arendt writes that “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 those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.” Books—old-fashioned, time faded, coffee-stained books—are part of that world of things that, like Arendt’s table, constitute the in-between that relates and separates men. Seen through the lens of Heidegger and Arendt, the problem facing the digital age—of which the vanishing of books is but one exemplary form—is whether the world itself, and the worldly in-between with its attendant plurality mediated by things that appear and endure, can itself endure; or alternatively, whether a world is still possible, and if so what kind, among humans related and separated no longer by things, but by pixel screens and antennae.