Welcome to Philosopher Fridays! This series is designed to allow me to explore what I find interesting, inspiring, or even just thought-provoking about the philosophers I read. While I hope these entries can serve as an introduction to their star thinker, they are by no means meant to be comprehensive or representative of current scholarly opinion. Parts of this entry are drawn from one section of a paper I submitted for a graduate course on Ecofeminism.
ARENDT: Hannah Arendt is a familiar figure on this blog, as I’ve covered her early on in this series. In brief, Arendt follows the Periclean view that our life sustaining activities fall into three categories: Labor, Work, and Action, the goals of each to keep us alive in some way: when we labor, we protect our biological lives and preserve our species; when we work, we create semi-permanent objects beyond what nature provides, extending our influence beyond ourselves; and through action we create lasting impressions and memories that grant us a kind of immortality through fame. All of these activities depend on creation, life, change, and natality – the opposite of the still death of philosophical contemplation.
They also engender and require a sharp distinction between the public realm and the private home. As I’ve been reflecting on my past year of blogging, the issue of privacy has come up more than once, and I thought it time to devote a post to the topic. I often think about how much I should share here on this blog, and how much I learn about other bloggers in what they write. Sometimes, personal details can be helpful. Other times, they distract from the writer’s mission.
What was once a question reserved for celebrities and public figures is now an everyday question for anyone with regular access to an internet connection: How much of my life should I make public, and how much should I keep private?
And there’s no one better suited for this topic than Hannah Arendt.
In Arendt’s The Human Condition, there can be no politics without a public audience of some kind, a backdrop of plurality in front of which an individual can stand out qua individual – the polis, or the public sphere.
No human life, not even the life of the hermit in nature’s wilderness, is possible without a world which directly or indirectly testifies to the presences of other human beings. (Arendt, 22)
In order to do something truly political requires a deed that stands out amongst the crowd of deeds, and leaves a lasting impression that will be remembered in its individual difference. The public realm is thus the locus of speech, of equality, and of freedom.
In contrast, the domestic sphere is, for Arendt, meant to be strictly private and internal. The private sphere is the world of labor – effectively, the home, where we eat, sleep, raise our children, and sustain ourselves. This is where humans, no matter how individual or free they may be, care for their animal selves through common life-sustaining labor. But those living solely in the private realm, having no access to the world outside of it, are merely possessions with no political efficacy of their own:
What all Greek philosophers, no matter how opposed to polis life, took for granted is that freedom is exclusively located in the political realm, that necessity is primarily a pre political phenomenon, characteristic of the private household organization, and that force and violence are justified in this sphere because they are the only means to master necessity – for instance, but ruling over slaves – and to become free. (Arendt, 31)
The polis was distinguished from the household in that it knew only ‘equals’ whereas the household was the center of the strictest inequality. (Arendt, 32)
And to the point:
…To have no private place of one’s own (like a slave) meant to be no longer human. (Arendt, 64)
While Arendt writes poetically of the private realm as the only place where we can encounter true goodness (“Only goodness must go into absolute hiding and flee all appearance if it is not to be destroyed” (Arendt, 75), there is nothing unique to be accomplished in this realm, and as such there are no individuals to stand out amongst the crowd. The home is a space of biological urgency, respite, and life sustaining labor, while:
the realm of the polis, on the contrary, was the sphere of freedom, and if there was a relationship between these two spheres, it was a matter of course that the mastering of the necessities of life in the household was the condition for freedom of the polis. Under no circumstances could politics be only a means to protect society…. (Arendt, 30, 31).
Without the private home, we cannot be political agents out in the world, but neither can we be political if we dwell too deeply within it. It is axiomatically apolitical, and yet it sets the condition for political life. If we dissolve the two into each other, we lose both.
Blogging dissolves these lines.
WordPress is, in its own way, a polis where individuals can meet and exchange ideas, standing out, earning notoriety or fame or infamy by their contributions to the blogosphere. Some stand out more than others, some offer more personal information than other, but all of them allow us to simultaneously join the polis and stay in the safety of our own private homes. I write a lot about books and ideas and education and generally join into the public WordPress discourse more often than not, but I’ve also dipped into personal fare, talking about my writing habits, my collection of teapots, my frustrations, my goals, and more. I think a lot about how much detail I should share, considering both the integrity of my blog, and the integrity of my private space – my place of restoration. If I share too much, do I desacralize my private sphere? If I share too much, do I risk trivializing my writing?
I don’t personally have any answers to these questions, so I’ll turn back to Arendt. Her answer to both of my questions would likely be a resounding “yes.”
What we get when we dissolve these lines is, at best, the “enlargement of the private” (Arendt 52), better known as the Social realm, “…That curiously hybrid realm where private interests assume public significance that we call ‘society’” (Arendt 35).
This enlargement of the private, the enchantment, as it were, of a whole people, does not make it public, does not constitute a public realm, but on the contrary, means only that the public realm has almost completely receded, so that greatness has given way to charm everywhere; for while the public realm may be great, it cannot be charming precisely because it is unable to harbor the irrelevant (Arendt 52).
In the Social realm, there is neither political Action nor the respite of privacy. In blending what Arendt says ought to be separate, we effectively create the worst of both worlds: a Society of Laborers, where everything we do, in public and private, becomes centered around the activities required for sustaining life. All of our Work and even what think of as political Action becomes subjugated to our natural necessity (Arendt 46). When we make these necessities public, we lose the privacy needed to hide ubiquitous and repetitive life sustaining tasks, and we effectively become little more than our animal species. Says Arendt:
In ancient feeling the privative trait of privacy, indicated in the word itself, was all-important; it meant literally a state of being deprived of something, and even of the highest and most human of man’s capacities. A man who lived only a private life, who like the slave was not permitted to enter the public realm, or like the barbarian had chosen not to establish such a realm, was not fully human (Arendt 38)
And further, this makes it impossible to do or say anything truly meaningful, as all activities, both unique and ubiquitous become blended into idle curiosities, entertainments, and our “fifteen minutes of fame”. The unintentionally hilarious trailer for American Blogger – a documentary about fashion, beauty, and motherhood bloggers – exemplifies both the extreme trivialization of discourse and the utter dissolution of privacy Arendt fears. One of the women featured in the trailer says, with a straight face, ”If we’re not sharing it and we’re just keeping it private, why are we experiencing it?” As if there is no value to experiencing things privately. As if there is no difference between true political discourse and the ubiquitous everyday activities of life.
I don’t completely agree with Arendt here; I think there’s definitely a way to politicize the private sphere without necessarily degrading either, and I think there is a way to cultivate a social sphere without necessarily trivializing the political and desacralizing the private. I’ve seen plenty of blogs that accomplish both of these tasks with ease. But I do think that Arendt’s fears are worthy of consideration. Just because it isn’t a necessity doesn’t mean it isn’t a danger.