Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Rien faire comme un bête"

Revulsion at the “futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time” runs through Arendt's Human Condition [1958; Chicago: University Of Chicago P, 1998], 8). Dana Villa argues that political activity serves a mission for Arendt beyond the maintenance of the public sphere in that it bestows existence with a “meaning” that she fears it otherwise lacks. “Arendt affirms action,” he writes, “the ‘sharing of words and deeds’ on a public stage,’ because it provides a source of meaning—a justification of existence” (“Modernity, Alienation, and Critique,” in Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of the Political, ed. Craig Calhoun and John McGowan [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997], 180). This justification, and not just democracy, is therefore threatened when modernity “destroys the conditions necessary if political action is to fulfill its existential vocation.” Arendt points out that the pre-Socratic polis is so anxious for this kind of justification that it repeats “the distinction between man and animal” within “the human species itself”: it considers “only the best (aristoi)” who act and work in the public spirit to be fully human, while “the others, content with whatever pleasures nature will yield them, live and die like animals” (HC 19). Arendt attributes this sentiment to Heraclitus, fragment B29: “αἱρεῦνται γὰρ ἒν ἀντὶ ἀπάντων οἱ ἄριστοι, κλέος ἀέναον θνητῶν· οἱ δὲ πολλοὶ κεκόρηνται ὄκωσπερ κτήνεα”; in another translation, “the many gorge themselves like cattle.” The example of “cattle [κτήνεα]” is interesting, since cattle are quite directly human creations and the vacuity of their existence depends historically on the founding of “human” society. At issue here is contempt for “the others” via contempt for “animals,” the category created by the creation of the “human.” Although Arendt does not, like the Greeks she studies, withhold humanity from her too easily sated contemporaries, she agrees in principle with a possible distinction on this basis between human and nonhuman Homo sapiens:

if the ideal were already in existence and we were truly nothing but members of a consumers’ society, we would no longer live in a world at all but simply be driven by a process in whose ever-recurring cycles things appear and disappear, manifest themselves and vanish, never to last long enough to surround the life process in their midst . . . . without being at home in the midst of things whose durability makes them fit for use and for erecting a world whose very permanence stands in direct constrast to life, this life would never be human. (HC 134-135)

At times like these labor seems to be wrong for Arendt not because it exhausts the individual without recompense but because it channels energy away from the work and action that alleviate what she thinks of as meaninglessness. The opposite of the meaningless in Arendt is always the “human,” which she locates in culture and politics in “direct contrast to life.” Thus the classical philosopher’s special contempt for those who pass up the chance for work and action, and content themselves with forgettable experiences. the no longer exploited being would no longer feel the need to build a world. The idea of living free of the compensatory drive to "work," to culture, is a figure of fulfillment that Arendt does not know what to do with: to her, “the futility of mortal life,” “living and dying like animals,” seems to be as dreadful as expropriative life.

Adorno touches on the non-cultural, non-laboring aspect of living that Arendt fears when instead of invoking society’s expropriation of labor, he invokes the loss of “pleasure” (Lust) that is the other side of labor and the possibility it overshadows:

The problem is that the quantum of pleasure [Lustquantum], if I may be permitted to speak in such bluntly rationalistic terms, that individuals are required to sacrifice is not subsequently returned to them in a different form, as ought to be the case according to the underlying rational principle. Instead, this entire process of admonition only exists in order to preserve society as a whole. With very few exceptions, individual human beings do not in fact profit from their acts of renunciation—and even where they appear to do so we may enquire whether they truly profited. … The equivalent reward it [society] always promises never arrives, and so in a very profound and radical sense the interest of the individual and of all individual human beings diverges from that of humanity as a whole. (Problems of Moral Philosophy, ed. Thomas Schroder, trans. Rodney Livingstone [New York: Polity, 2000], 138-139. Thanks to ET for the Lustquantum.)

Adorno is able to consider society’s effect on the individual differently--bringing in the new term of pleasure--because he is able to separate laboring life from “meaningless” living and hence the expropriation of labor from the renunciation of pleasure. For they are different even if they are two aspects of the same phenomenon. His curious phrase “quantum of pleasure” connotes fleeting enjoyments and respites, and suggests that pleasure bears a curious relationship to economy because, although the environment can be made inhospitable to it and although it can be deferred or evaded, it cannot be exchanged, returned, or even simply expended, because it cannot be saved.

Arendt's fear that "meaninglessness" would appear in place of expropriation and its compensations, if there was neither labor, work, nor action, is answered by the disappearance of “meaninglessness” along with “meaning.” What would appear instead is something that the notions of the meaningless and the animal obstruct. So, Adorno suggests that the “futility of mortal life” appears as futile only in comparison to a work and labor that actually precede it (Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life [1951], trans. E.F.N. Jephcott [London: Verso, 1978], 175). Similarly, he finds that the suggestion that “the goal of an emancipated society” is “the fulfillment of human possibilities or the richness of life” reflects the current “mode of human conduct adapted to production as an end in itself” (MM 156). Adorno, who may seem to be in love with alienation for its preservation of oppositional identity, opposes “the savage spread of the social” to feared indolence, and finds meaninglessness a screen for “freedom”:

Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the consquest of strange stars. A mankind which no longer knows want will begin to have an inkling of the delusory, futile nature of all the arrangements hitherto made in order to escape want, which used wealth to reproduce want on a larger scale. Enjoyment itself would be affected . . . . Rien faire comme une bête, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, “being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfillment,” might take the place of process, act, satisfaction, and so truly keep the promise of dialectical logic that it would culminate in its origin. (MM 156-157)

Such passages of utopian writing describe nonpejoratively the environment that Arendt fears would evolve from consumer society, in which “things appear and disappear, manifest themselves and vanish” without “erecting a world whose very permanence stands in direct contrast to life” and in which existence is not human. In consumer society, life is not human because it is constantly subject to the life process, consuming and being consumed. In the utopian society, in contrast, things “appear and disappear” because experience is no longer bound to be meaningful or meaningless. In our current and very justifiable anger at the demise of democracy, one thing not to mourn for, perhaps, is the fading intelligibility of “futility” as a reason not to do or not to think something. In the failing procedural state, it becomes more difficult to limit oneself to “meaningful” actions. As Gayatri Spivak points out, “a perception of meaninglessness . . . assume[s] a preliminary understanding of what meaning in/of history might be” (In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics [New York: Routledge, 1988], 129.) In the loss of the illusion of such a grasp of the meaningful, a chance arises that the possibilities of forgettable living--without value and worthlessness; without humans and animals; without culture and labor; without meaningfulness and meaninglessness--can begin to operative in the interstices of value-laden life, and provide a purchase point in their irrelevance to criticize the dual sources of value: reproduction and work alike. Arendt’s phrases run clearly enough to expose for a moment the potential of the forgettable living that she submerges in The Human Condition for the reason that it really is not human.

photo: Urique, Chihuahua

1 comment:

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