Arendt on Life (Continued)

At times Arendt appears to believe (desire?) that action be “pure” in the same exact way that Kant tries to disengage (in Critique of Judgment) the aesthetic from any “interest.”  Action would be unmotivated, a pursuit purely for its own sake, unproductive.  That stance can seem a form of vitalism (ironically returning us to the “life” that Arendt is trying to spurn.)  Action for its own sake, in an almost Nietzschean way, is the outflow of the energy of the living being.  Taken a bit less mechanically, a bit more Romantically, this outflow can be considered “expressive.”  It manifests (in the space of appearances) the being form which it emanates.  There is more than a little expressionism in Arendt on action.  After all, she tells us action is identity disclosing; even more, she suggests that action is identity creating.  Like a speaker who doesn’t know what she thinks or believes before the words are spoken, the agent in Arendt discovers who she is in the act of acting.  The “natality” that Arendt ties to the “miracle” of acting is, first and foremost, the appearance of a unique being in the world.  “Plurality” is Arendt’s name for this singularity, for the fact that every living human (perhaps every living being, although Arendt probably believes only humans are capable of action) is distinctive.  The “world” in Arendt is diminished, its plurality compromised, if any single human is denied the “freedom” that enables “action.”  That is the over-riding sin of totalitarianism, its hostility to plurality, its attempt to reduce all human singularity to “the same.”

Pursuing this logic, “meaning” is the product of “action” being taken up by the community, which tells “stories” about the actions of its members.  We can’t know the meaning of our actions in advance (just as the consequences of action are also unpredictable).  Meaning is a communal product, dependent on what J. L. Austin calls “uptake.”  A good example is saying something unintentionally funny.  The fact that I didn’t mean it to be funny is under-determinative of the meaning that my statement acquires.  No one owns or can control the meaning of an action or a statement.  Rather, meaning unfolds in the intersubjective exchanges between people located in the world, in the space of appearances.  Thus, action both constitutes that space of appearances (as described in the last post) and initiates the interchanges that create meaning.  Here again Arendt seems Hegelian; although she doesn’t use the language of “recognition,” she does seem to believe that action and identity only acquire substance—a meaning, even a reality—when witnessed by others and taken up by them through some kind of response (debate, agreement, and story are all modes of response that her work considers).  Love of the world, then, is partly love for (and care of) the enabling conditions of selfhood.  If each being strives to persist in being (Spinoza’s conatus), then the world is required for that persistence to register (as it were), for it to be perceived, experienced.  Self-consciousness—the ability to understand that one is enjoying “freedom”—depends on the existence of the self in communication with others, an interaction that creates, even as it requires, “the world,” the polis.

The paradox, then, is that life (“bare life”) does not require the polis—which is the source of Arendt’s worry that life-obsessed humans will not love the world, will pursue the swinish pleasures of satisfying the necessities of bodily persistence, and neglect striving for meaning, freedom, and identity.  This is the element of aristocratic hauteur in her thought—not to mention an implied boundary between humans (capable of freedom and the self-conscious attachment to the worldly, political conditions of its achievement) and non-humans (governed by the relentless, unthinking pursuit of life’s necessities).  The non-humans labor, humans act.  Which has the disturbing Aristotelean corollary that humans who only labor are best understood as sub-human.

Action, then, is the guarantee of humanness, so it does have a product: the very distinction between a free life and a life tied to necessities.  Judith Butler, rightly in my view, objects at precisely this point that Arendt “naturalizes” a distinction that should, rather, be understood as produced by power.  (A basic application of the Foucualdian notion of “productive power.”)  It is human social arrangements, established and maintained by coercive and discursive power, that relegates some to a life of labor and others to the enjoyment of freedom.  Furthermore, the very distinction between labor and action is produced discursively to denigrate one form of human behavior over the other.  Cooking food is not inherently (“naturally”) and for all time ‘meaningless.”  The foodie revolution of the past thirty years attests to the ways that the meaning of activities shifts radically over time and in different social contexts.  There is plenty to say about how the emergence of celebrity chefs introduces new insidious distinctions into a practice (cooking and eating) common to all humans, but there can be no denying that the meaning of those practices has been considerably altered.  The status of Arendtian labor is hardly fixed in the ways she seems to think it is.  Meanings are much more fluid that her triad of “labor, work, and action” indicates.  (Several Arendt scholars have called that triad “ontological,” and see it as establishing the fundamental grounding of her argument in The Human Condition).  Her mistake was taking the ground as fixed, as non-mutable.

Life in Arendt, then, can be seen as having two different drives: the first one is to sustain itself by securing the necessities (food, shelter) required to survive, the second if to secure meaning and freedom.  She is afraid pursuit of the first will overwhelm a desire to satisfy the second.  But she rather muddies the water by trying to describe the action that would secure meaning and freedom as unmotivated, taking freedom to mean something we are not compelled to do, but only do for its own sake.  Thus, she is 1) not clear about the motives that underlie “free action,” and 2) afraid that under- or un-motivated “action” will not be attractive enough, not be compelling enough, to insure that humans actually undertake it.

Finally, Arendt introduces yet another motive for love of the world.  The polis is not only a space of appearances that allows us to acquire a meaningful identity through the interaction with others, but also a form of “organized remembrance.”  It turns out that she believes we have a deep desire to leave a trace of our existence, that our response to a self-consciousness about death (suggesting, again, that knowing we will die distinguished humans from other living creatures) is to create a social structure that allows for (hardly guarantees) we will be remembered.  That drive for remembrance underwrites actions that aim to be memorable; in short, we crave fame.  We want to be the stuff of stories, to exist in the mouths of others.  We should love the world because only something that persists after our own lives are over can provide a means toward our being remembered after our deaths.  Machiavellian virtú, which Arendt associates with virtuosity, is the agonistic striving to be memorable, to be extraordinary, which is inevitably competitive and comparative.  Arendt appears to endorse the fierce competitiveness of the Greek heroes of The Iliad, even though it seems plausible to me to see their boasts and insults as hyper-masculine and sadly adolescent posturings that justify an aggression that is hardly appealing.  Not every one gets to be remembered; only the great.

Two final comments: life, Arendt seems to be saying, is only fully satisfying if we can claim a victory over death insofar as we will be remembered after our life is done.  Thus, even as she denigrates “life” as the supreme motive, she ends up wanting a victory of life over death—and uses “action” as a means to garner that victory.  It is, it seems, not so easy to banish “life” as the supreme motive.  Instead, what really seems to be the crux is not “life” versus “non-life,” but (instead) bodily life versus some notion of a “higher” (more meaningful, more self-conscious) life.  We are invested in “life”—and, even more, in our own individual life and its persistence.  In the “higher” form, that investment entails a stake in achieving an identity through action in the space of appearances, and in having that unique identity, recognized (minimally) and admired (maximally) during our lifetimes and remembered after our deaths.

Still, even if we conclude that Arendt cannot banish life as fully from our imagination of the polis as she wants to do, we can accept the performative paradox that troubles her as worthy of some worry, even though I take her anxieties on this score overblown.  We ensure the survival of a language every time we use it to communicate.  A language exists and persists by virtue of its being used; nothing else secures that existence.  Yet speakers of the language only contribute to its survival inadvertently.  In talking with others, I am not aiming to keep my language alive.  Of course, in some circumstances, a language can be seen as endangered and various linguistic activities can be undertaken with the explicit aim of preserving the language. But in a thriving speech community, with a large number of members, no one is speaking with the purpose of preserving the language. (In this vein, I would argue that grammarians, those who teach language in schools, are, in fact, futilely trying to hold back the changes internal—and inevitable—to any language in use.  But that’s another story).

Arendt’s worry seems to be that, in pursuing life, the persistence of the space of appearances, the public square that is the polis, will not be insured.  Unlike a language that survives precisely because it is being used, the space of appearances might disappear because people lose their taste for “public happiness.”  The split she introduces between labor and action, a split between pursuing necessities and acting freely, means that “bare life” could proceed (maybe even flourish) in the absence of action, the loss of “the world.”  Maybe we will (as a species) lose our longing for fame, our desire to be remembered after our deaths.  Again, the hint of an aristocratic melancholy at the disappearance of “honor” as a motivating factor for the bourgeoisie lingers in Arendt’s work.  If “getting and spending” comes to be the all in all, “the world” will be lost—and with it any hope to be remembered.

  1. Enough for now. I will try to think about “honor” in subsequent posts.

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