As I indicated in my post reporting on our fourth class session, Hannah Arendt’s work is at the center of my work on the social condition. Her position is most systematically presented in her book, The Human Condition. Our inquiry is a sociological, while hers was a philosophic anthropology (see Paul Ricoeur, Story and History, On Re-reading The Human Condition, Salmagundi 60, Spring/Summer 1983, p. 60-72). She was writing a fundamental critique of the modern world, particularly as it is understood by social scientists, with Marx playing a leading role. We, on the other hand, are more specifically focused and empirically oriented, as Iddo Tavory emphasized in his comment to my last post. We are seeking to understand the texture of modern social life, with a sense that a great deal of modern social science has flatten it out.

The flattening is a consequence of impatience, quick to show effects and successful constructions, not pondering the gap that exist between past and future, seduced by the apparent power of correlations, not appreciating the importance of making distinctions, confusing patterns perceived from an objective distance, with determinations, not appreciating that much of human life is far from mechanical, in Arendt’s terms, the consequence of action, not work or labor.

1. Between Past and Future

In considering Arendt and the social condition, I think the best starting point is the gap between the past and the future that is the present. Arendt observes:

“man…always lives in the interval between past and future, time is not a continuum, a flow of uninterrupted succession; it is broken in the middle, at the point where ‘he’ stands; and his standpoint is not the present as we usually understand it but rather a gap in time which ‘his’ constant fighting, ‘his’ making a stand against past and future, keeps in existence.” (Between Past and Future)

The gap, as Arendt understands it (reflecting on an image of Kafka), is the momentary space of uncertainty, where the complexity of human existence is addressed through action, where alternative outcomes are present depending on how “he” (i.e. each person) acts. It is the space for freedom. It is social dilemma as experienced in everyday life, both as it has historic significance and as it passes unnoticed by all except those who are immediately involved. We should note, following Tavory and Eliasoph, that this gap involves a rich variety of anticipations, situationally grounded, connected to status positions in a social order and fundamental cultural orderings, such as those of clocks and calendars.

I can illustrate the gap by reflecting on the making of this post that you read and I write. Up to this very moment, I know I want to write these reflections on Arendt and the social condition. I know what I want to convey, more or less, but I am not certain how I will express it, but as I express “it,” “it” takes shape in both expected and unexpected ways. My past leads me to my computer screen. What I do as I sit and type changes not only the text but also who I am, what it was that led me to the screen in the first place, shaping where I imagine I am going. My writing encounter is between past and future. The end result is an essay, this post, which I hope to include in an article co-authored with Tavory. It also will be the starting point of our class discussion on Arendt. It is important for us privately; its public significance depends on circumstances beyond our control. The point here: as I write I struggle with alternatives. I look for words. I discover unexpected insights, as I work to develop those motivating me. But in the end, there will be an artifact that may be consequential, beyond my anticipations and controls.

We act in our social world between past and future. We routinely go about the ordinary activities of our daily lives, and we also respond to the surprises that disrupt routines. We act pursuing competing interests and ideals. The consequence of action cannot be anticipated. They are not completely known. It is often a mess. The study of the social condition is the study of this messiness, as the messiness is characteristic of social institutions and movements, small group face to face and mediated global interactions, and interactions in between – in civil society and the state, in economic and cultural life. The messiness has an order, apparent especially after the act, and the courses of action taken have anticipated and unanticipated, desired and undesired consequences. Thinking about this point in our discussions last week, I declared that the study of the social condition is a sociology of muddling through. The advantage of this position for explaining order and change is I think worth noting and developing.

While finding correlation is a key intellectual endeavor of sociology and social science more generally, Arendt’s work emphasizes the importance of making sharp distinctions in understanding the human condition. The distinctions she makes illuminate our problem, the study of the social condition, as well. Fundamental is her distinctions between labor, work and action. Informative is her distinction between the public, the private and the social domains. Striking is her distinction between politics and coercion. Here some key points and quotes for discussion in the seminar and for further development. In effect, my class notes.

a. Labor, Work and Action

In Arendt’s account of the human condition, as we struggle with the gap between past and future, we actively engage the world we inherit through three distinct activities: labor, work and action.

“Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the body…The human condition of labor is life itself…

“Work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence…Work provides an “artificial world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings…The human condition of work is worldliness…

“Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world….This plurality is specifically the condition… of political life.” (The Human Condition, p.7)

b. Public, Private and the Social

“The term ‘public’ signifies two closely interrelated but not altogether identical phenomena:

It means, first, that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For, us appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others, as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality (p.50)…

Second, the term ‘public signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.” (p.52)

Clarifying through contrast: “The distinction between a private and a public sphere of life corresponds to the household and the political realms…”

Illuminating through reflection working against her general hierarchy: “love, in distinction from friendship, is killed, or rather extinguished, the moment it is displayed in public.” (p.51)

“The distinction between the private and the public realms, seen from the viewpoint of privacy rather than of the body politic, equals the distinction between things that should be shown and things that should be hidden.” (p.72)

And society is the confusion of the public and private, as she understands this, standing on the shoulders of the Ancient Greeks:

“The emergence of the social realm, which is neither private or public, strictly speaking, is a relatively new phenomenon whose origin coincided with the emergence of the modern age, and which found its political form in the nation – state.” (p.28)

“the rise of the rise of the household.” (p.33)

“The disappearance of the gulf that the ancients had to cross daily to transcend the narrow realm of the household and “rise’ into the realm of politics is an essentially modern phenomenon.” (p.33)

c. Politics and Coercion

Sociologists broadly understand an intimate connection between violence and politics. Although we may not be students of Mao when he declared “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” we do follow Weber’s more nuanced position. In his understanding, power is the ability of some person, call him “A” to get “B” to do what “A” wants. The most primitive way to accomplish this is through physical coercion (Mao’s gun), but more common is for this to be achieved through a process of legitimation, through authority. Weber highlights three sorts, as is well known: charismatic, traditional and bureaucratic (rational – legal) authority, which he recognizes are not distinct. Note: there has been a great deal of discussion about how the three types of authority are related, many applications to study the types comparatively and historically, near and far, but just about all political sociology accepts Weber’s understanding of power’s close connection with coercion. Arendt offers a radical alternative view. I have found it to be extremely fruitful in understanding a neglected dimension of political power, which she claims is politics as such.

She maintains:

“To be political, to live in the polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence. In the Greek self-understanding to force people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were prepolitical ways to deal with people outside of the polis, of home and family, where the household head ruled with uncontested, despotic powers or of life in the barbarian empires of Asia, whose despotism was frequently likened to the organization of the household.” (p.26)

We will discuss these quotations in class tomorrow. I hope by the time we finish the class will understand with me that in the gap between past and future there is not only existential choice, but politics, a politics that is the opposite of coercion.

Leave a Reply