Saturday, April 3, 2010

Arendt and Truth and Politics

Because of Martin Jay’s The Virtues of Mendacity, I sat down today to read Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics.” I am very glad that I did, but I do wish that I'd started with the Arendt. Much of what Jay was doing, and why he was interested in certain questions and not others, would have then been clearer.

“Truth and Politics” is, as Jay points out, very much Arendt struggling with herself, raising issues that she is unable to contain in any definitive way. One point that Arendt touches, and that one might ask Jay to have dealt with in more detail, is, “the question of numbers” (pg 235 – I’m using the text as reprinted in Between Past and Future). This is salient in terms of the distinction between fact and opinion. Arendt contrasts the repressive capacities of the totalitarian states with the troubling tendencies of free countries,

to the extent to which unwelcome factual truths are tolerated in free countries they are often, consciously or unconsciously, transformed into opinions—as though the fact of Germany’s support of Hitler or of France’s collapse before the German armies in 1940 or of Vatican policies during the Second World War were not a matter of historical record by a matter of opinion. Since such factual truths concern issues of immediate political relevance, there is more at stake here than the perhaps inevitable tension between two ways of life within the framework of a common and commonly recognized reality. What is at stake here is this common and factual reality itself, and this is indeed a political problem of the first order. (236-7)

From this it follows that, “factual always related to other people: it concerns events and circumstance in which many are exists only to the extent that it is spoken about...It is political by nature” (238). These are the kind of sensible observations about which one doesn’t quite know what to do. Certainly not, it seems to me, follow Enrique Dussel’s advice and institute a ministry of truth(-telling in the media). Most interesting in this connection is the historical distance that separates Arendt and Dussel, which we might shorthand as the difference between the experience of totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

As I say, Arendt raises but never really grapples with the special problem that collectivity poses for truth. She of course points to the well attested fact that reasonable ethical principles for an individual cannot be followed by a polity—the relevant one here being Socrates’ ‘it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.’ If it seems clear than a politician, whose task is to act in the best interests of a polity, cannot abide by this principle, it is less clear to me that the polity itself is obliged to disregard it. Indeed, it seems to me that the eminently political problem of the establishment of collective norms and ideals is crucial to the question of truth—although perhaps it is a rational rather than a factual truth—and is not something Arendt approaches. It seems that for her, collective norms are simply aggregates of individual ones: “that all men are created equal is not self-evident nor can it be proved. We hold this opinion because freedom is possible only among equals, and we believe that the joys and gratifications of free company are to be preferred to the doubtful pleasures of holding domination” (247). Ethical ideals may become collective, for Arendt, only by undergoing a process of what we might call de-philosophication. This might be the gap between the philosophical and the literary. Ethical principles exist, but ethics is learned through example. Examples need not be physical, although they often are—they can be literary (Young Werther!)

For Arendt, truth-telling is not an action. It is purely reflective. In this it is like political thought, which is representative, and therefore not active. Lying, on the other hand, is an action. Ordinary language philosophy would no doubt have something to say here: truth is simply constative, while a lie is inherently performative—it assumes a whole range of things not assumed by the simple recitation of truth. That’s the story. I’m not sure that truth-telling as a specific kind of action is really any less freighted down with implied context than lying. (Doesn’t Doing Things with Words begin with the admission that, in fact, all language is performative? Or is this a willful miss-remembering on my part?) According to Arendt, though, truth-telling only takes on political meaning in specific circumstances: “Only where a community has embarked upon organized lying on principle, and not only with respect to particulars, can truthfulness as such...become a political factor of the first order” (251). This is the image of totalitarianism. It points to my major question about this essay, one that is very often asked and less often satisfactorily answered: do not contemporary forms of information distribution radical change the situation?

An important foil, in Jay’s book, to the Arendtian perspective, is the ‘aesthetic’ mode of political thought represented in this case by Pierre Rosanvallon and Jacques Rancière. I think it may be significant, in this comparison, that Arendt’s metaphorical construction of truth and the political are tactile, physical, whereas the ‘aesthetic’ (the quotation marks are there because the usage is a little out of the ordinary) is dominated by metaphors of visuality or of discourse.

I should defend my claims. Arendt describes facts and events early in the essay as “the very texture of the political realm” (231). Later, discussing the possibility of ‘the big lie,’ Arendt again uses the word ‘texture,’ this time comparing a lie to “a hole in the fabric of factuality” (253). The wonderful last lines of the essay are, “conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us” (264). Truth, that is, is that which can be touched and felt; we use it to cloth the nakedness of our existential condition, and when we engage in political struggle, it is the rocky ground on which we plant our feet.

Rancière’s perspective on the political is quite different. His ‘aesthetics’ is the partition of the visible, the making-visible of new subjects, the making-audible of new voices—in order to disagree, we must already consider one another speaking beings. This is a radically different way of conceiving politics. Rancière is not, I think, very interested in the issue of ‘truth.’ Rosanvallon, who is different from Rancière in many ways, is also not very interested in truth as such, but he does use little factual truths to build up a notion of politics as a discursively constructed field of possibilities that is not unlike the one that Rancière approaches from, shall we say, the direction of rational truth.

What both of these notions of politics share is a sort of placeless-ness, an abstract ‘public’ that is perhaps more substantial for Arendt than for, say, Rancière, but is none the less singular for both. I wonder if the real challenge that we face today in the apparent unification and massification of communication is not really the abolition of this abstract and singular place of the public. This is an argument I heard made long ago by Cass Sunstein, and although I know he has been much abused, his lecture made an impression on me, and seems to me still an important point. There is no public sphere, because there is no one place into which everyone must enter in order to hold an opinion. Mass democracy does not just mean, as Arendt and so many of her generation worried, that techniques of psychological control by a central government would become powerful means of political self-deception. Today, to the degree that the production and partition of ‘factual knowledge’ is autonomous and radically democratic, the process of generating and evaluating such knowledge becomes political to an absolute degree. In fact, today in a way never before possible, it seems to me that our political allegiances are broadly identical with the screens we use to evaluate incoming fact-claims. Certainly identity and political position are bound up in surprising (dare I say, early-modern) ways, it seems to me that this is closely related to the situation that one’s politics always precedes one’s ‘decision to believe.’

The simple fact that the above description of ‘our’ condition seems plausible to me at all is why I find that the final pages of Arendt’s essay sound as though she is attempting to convince herself of what she knows not to be true. Speaking of the independent judiciary and, above all, the academy, Arendt says, “it can hardly be denied that, at least in constitutionally rules countries, the political realm has recognized, even in the event of conflict, that it has a stake in the existence of men and institutions over which it has no power” (261). It is gratifying, although not perhaps practically convincing except in an ideal sense, to read Arendt say that, although the technical achievements of the academic technical sciences are enormous, “the historical sciences and the humanities, which are supposed to find out, stand guard over, and interpret factual truth and human documents, are politically of greater relevance” (261).

Rather than saying that Arendt is attempting to convince herself of what is clearly not the case, perhaps it is better to say that she has here driven her own line of thinking to its contradictory conclusion. The academic ward of truth has a crucial political function, but is not itself political. In what must be a pointed dig at Wittgenstein, Arendt says, “reality is different from, and more than, the totality of facts and events, which, anyhow, is unascertainable” (261). Facts and events (interesting distinction, given that the invasion of Belgium by German in 1914, surely an event, is one of her examples of fact) make up the texture of the political. The historian—and the novelist’s—task is “the transformation of the given raw material of sheer happenstance,” that is, to fuse these facts and events into narratives. Arendt glosses this herself as, perhaps, with Aristotle, the cathartic function of the poet—to cleanse men of emotions so that they may act, but also, “the political function of the to teach acceptance of things as they are” (262)—this acceptance is preparatory to judgment and then action; but does that make any sense? Can politics really require that one stops and judges objectively? Can that be what Arendt means? That the answer is at least a little complicated is suggested by who she identifies as the origin of objectivity: Homer. In the equal portrayal of Greek and Trojan—“Homeric impartiality” (263)—,she says, is the origin of the objective historical account. If, to push her a little, it is really Homer who made the earth and the sky, then perhaps there still exists in the power of fictionality some residual spark of the great poet’s capacity to manufacture the conditions of action?

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