Notes on Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, chapters 42-45

Some background: Arendt’s Jewish identity was central to her thinking, as is demonstrated by the anthology, The Jewish Writings, which includes notably articles she wrote for the American Jewish periodical Aufbau. It is in these writings that we see her develop her thoughts on totalitarianism, modernity, utilitarianism (or life as the highest good as she sometimes puts it), sovereignty, etc. As a refugee and concentration camp escapee, Arendt, who was trained under some of the greatest German thinkers of her time (Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers), turned her attention to politics. Agamben is right in his assessment of Arendt’s originality and courage as a political thinker:

Almost twenty years before The History of Sexuality, Hannah Arendt had already analyzed the process that brings homo laborans – and, with it, biological life as such – gradually to occupy the very center of the political scene of modernity. In The Human Condition, Arendt attributes the transformation and decadence of the political realm in modern societies to this very primacy of life over political action. That Foucault was able to begin his study of biopolitics with no reference to Arendt’s work … bears witness to the difficulties and resistances that thinking had to encounter in this area. And it is most likely these very difficulties that account for the curious fact that Arendt establishes no connection between her research in The Human Condition and the penetrating analysis she had previously devoted to totalitarian power…  (Homo Sacer, 3, 4)

I disagree with Agamben, though, on the point that Arendt makes no connection between her two projects, best represented in The Human Condition and Origins. In describing the subsumption of the public world (the commons) by the private, and thus the transformation of both into the social, Arendt explains, “The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective” (THC, 58). It is this very death of the central human condition of plurality that is destroyed by totalitarianism – as Arendt often mentions, and one should especially see her Life of the Mind or her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy for this, the cogito is a flawed formulation of the human; she posits cogitamus (in this, Arendt follows Heidegger’s criticism of Descartes in Being and Time). Decisively, on the issue of whether she is aware of the intersections of her two projects, Arendt writes in Origins,

Isolated man who lost his place in the political realm of action is deserted by the world of things as well, if he is no longer recognized as homo faber but treated as animal laborans whose necessary “metabolism with nature” is of concern to no one. Isolation then becomes loneliness. Tyranny based on isolation generally leaves the productive capacities of man intact; a tyranny over “laborers,” however, as for instance the rule over slaves in antiquity, would automatically be a rule over lonely, not only isolated, men and tend to be totalitarian. (612)

See p. 628 of Origins as well.

Ch. 42: “The Reversal Within the Vita Activa and the Victory of Homo Faber

This reversal within the vita activa only occurs after a previous reversal, the vita activa for the contemplativa. Earlier in THC Arendt claims that the first reversal is in the form of contemplation replacing action (in the ancient Greek and Roman sense), that is, the historical shift from antiquity to the middle ages. The shift from the medieval to the modern age is typified by the shift from vita contemplativa to homo faber, (301) and not back to the “man” of action, bios politicos.

295 – scientific progress and manufacture of new tools and instruments intimately linked. C.f. Tronti and Read on transformations of technology. C.f. Foucault, power/knowledge.

Arendt sees this as due to the valorization of homo faber in place of the life of contemplation. Activities of homo faber, building and fabricating.

296 – “In place of the concept of Being we now see the concept of process.” Everything is intelligiblIte in terms of its place in over-all process of life, not excluding people, thus the biopolitical significance. So unleashing of modern modes of production signal shift in importance from end products to the means themselves. Arendt commonly emphasizes modern world-alienation and the destruction and de-emphasis of human, common world of humans (as opposed to Marx’s emphasis on self-alienation). Shift from science’s questions being “why” and “what” to being “how.” C.f. p. 304.

297-299 – The success of homo faber in the modern age is also the success of the idea, championed by Descartes but by no means created by him, that humans can only know what they create themselves.

Arendt delves into a lengthy description of the connection in antiquity between the contemplative life and work or fabrication. It is the eternal form of an object which the work of homo faber instantiates. This becomes important for understanding the shift in modern age from work to labor.

Ch. 43: “The Defeat of Homo Faber and the Principle of Happiness”

306 – rise of utilitarianism, man as measure of all things, and importance of productive capacity seen as indicative of rise of homo faber as these are its main principles. But why then did animal laborans succeed homo faber? Why did history not stop here?

307 – Homo faber is concerned with “fixed and permanent standards and measurements.” Do we need Bataille and Weber before him for us to know that this was due in part to the teleology of the catholic church, and the switch from a focus on the ends of production and a static economy to the continual reinvestment into the productive process itself and thus to a dynamic economy owed greatly to the reformation?

Anyways, labor is just this purely productive process that cares not for the ends and thus is a step beyond homo faber. Earlier in THC Arendt explains that work can, in all languages in which it appears, is both a verb and a noun, but labor is not used as a noun.

308 – criticism of 19th c. utilitarianism. History of utilitarianism’s shift from being a principle of use value which has as its telos a world independent of humans in which humans “appear” and “reveal themselves” to being “the principle of the greatest happiness” as in Bentham or J.S. Mill. The former’s “what this is useful for” is something outside of the production process, the “world,” while the latter’s is the production process itself  at the expense of all else: “the ultimate standard of measurement is not utility and usage at all, but “happiness,” that is, the amount of pain and pleasure experienced in the production or in the consumption of things.” (309)

311 – Bentham’s “utilitarianism” should be looked at in its historical context. True aim was not pleasure or lack of pain but the “guaranty of the survival of mankind.” Bentham’s panopticon design is but one example of the social engineering which typifies biopower – political economics run through and through with further formulations and legislative suggestions. Arendt claims on p. 29 that political economy would have been considered a “contradiction in terms” by the ancients since politics occurred in the public realm and the necessities of life had to be violently transcended through the subjection of slaves and a family in the private realm in order to “rise” to the freedom of the public (see also p. 42 in the notes for more on political economy/Adam Smith). Utilitarianism = “life philosophy in its most vulgar form”

Ch. 44: “Life as the Highest Good”

313-316 – life as he highest good of “man” mediated historically through the Christian “immortality of individual life” creed.

Ch. 45: “The Victory of the Animal Laborans”

321 – “rise of society,” “life of the species” asserts itself politically. Man-kind is defined by Arendt earlier in the book as “man” qua species. Action disappears, which is an individual occurrence but can only happen in the presence of others, of “men” not “man-kind.” Marx is complicit in this process as well, she argues. His dialectical materialism, like Hegel’s dialectics, creates a tension between action and nature/history, as these are viewed as processes with determinate stages and a determinate end. Arendt is highly critical of this totalizing, ideological strand of both of their thinking, though instead of being merely theoretically critical, she also views their positions as being symptomatic of a more generalized historical and cultural shift.

322 – Arendt consistently refers to the modern age’s discovery of the Archimedean point. What does this mean? It means that through our will to know, we have alienated ourselves from the very world we wished to gain knowledge of. It seems to mean that the only way to have power over something is to alienate yourself from it, to estrange the “two terms” the subject and object by in fact creating this division. In this, again, she is following Heidegger in Being and Time in his transcendence of the subject/object dyad, if not following him all the way, applying these thoughts to the problems she’s dealing with. Anyways, this is a very useful concept in understanding the progression of power into biopower; for it takes removal from and a vantage point over and against the life which one wishes to organize which allows the processes to both be created and to be viewed. In this sense, man-kind behaves.


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