Books Discussed in this Section
Hannah Arendt ( 1958) The Human Condition The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
To the extent that collective labor depends upon the quantification of laborers and their interchangeability, while collaborative work depends upon the qualification of the worker and his non-replaceability, the essential nature of collective action is human plurality—the twofold character of equality and distinction:
Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction. If men were not equal, they could neither understand each other and those who came before them nor plan for the future and foresee the needs of those who will come after them. If men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.
Human distinctness is not the same as otherness—the curious quality of alteritas possessed by everything that is and therefore … a universal character of Being, transcending every particular quality. Otherness, it is true is an important aspect of plurality, the reason why all our definitions are distinctions, why we are unable to say what anything is without distinguishing it from something else. In man, otherness, which he shares with everything that is, and distinctness which he shares with everything alive, become uniqueness, and human plurality is the paradoxical plurality of unique beings.
For Arendt, the defining characteristic of action is political, that is, related to the polis “as it grew out of and remained rooted in the Greek pre-polis experience … of what makes it worthwhile for men to live together, namely the ‘sharing of words and deeds…” The polis constituting the “space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things, but make their appearance explicitly.”
The pre-polis experience of the Greeks, wherever and whenever men of action could escape the necessities of labor, revealed the disturbing boundlessness of human action in which the “actor is never merely a ‘doer’ but also at the same time a suffer” of his deeds; where the actor may encompass his own deeds but suffers consequences that are boundless because he acts “in a medium where every reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes;” and where “the smallest act in the most limited circumstance bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.”
That deeds posses such enormous capacity for endurance, superior to every other man-made product, could be a matter of pride if men were able to bear its burden of irreversibility and unpredictability, from which the action derives its very strength. That this is impossible, men have always known. They have known that he who acts never quite knows what he is doing, that he always becomes “guilty” of consequences he never intended or even foresaw, that no matter how disastrous and unexpected the consequences of his deed, he can never undo it, that the process he starts is never consummated unequivocally in one single deed or event, and that its very meaning never discloses itself to the actor but only to the backwards glance of the historian who himself does not act.
Therefore for the early Greeks, the space of the polis had a two-fold shape: 1) the boundaries of the body politic constituted by rules of participation and governance that might “offer some protection against the inherent boundlessness of action” and the polis – “the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together.”
Political action therefore is the ways in which men and women “show up” not as laborers, or actors(sufferers)—the one subject to all the cyclic processes of life, the other subject to the boundless action-reaction processes—but rather emerge as subjects, subject only to other subjects. The conviction of political action is foremost the appearance of these subject-to-subject relationships, the creation and preservation of the space(s) of their appearances—which can be shown to constitute the fundamental condition of human freedom. For there, and only there, in this space where men and women “show up” as subjects, to and for themselves as well as other subjects in equal proportion, are found the conditions of human freedom.
Yet, paradoxically, as Arendt points out, “Nowhere … does man appear to be less free [italics mine] than in those capacities whose very essence is freedom and in that realm which owes its existence to nobody and nothing but men.” Such is the case whenever we despair of the realm of human affairs its web of human relationships in the pursuit of individual sovereignty. If among the spheres of the vitae activae – this is also true—then the realm of human freedom is not assured by the pursuit of sovereignty of any kind—regional, national, corporate—rather, freedom is defeated wherever the conviction of sovereignty prevails. If so, one might consider the following proposition:
The fundamental encounter of subject-to-subject in a shared subjective space, is the limiting quantum of freedom.