Thriving Theater in Italy’s Prisons

December 19, 2014 by

In this post I would like to focus on the emerging theater programs in Italy. Over the years, as a means of rehabilitation, the program has become so successful it has even overshadowered Italy’s real acting troupes. Their effort even came close to being nominated for an Oscar.

This example would resound very strongly with Foucault because of his extensive effort of reform in the French prison system. Much of ‘Discipline and Punish’ is concerned  with the prison and the panopticon as an expression of power. The physical separation of the prisoners and the surveillance of the gaurds is the  physical disciple that the prisoners have to face. Thus the mental discipline is instilled the prison time table; based on the quality of the prison/rehabilitation program is an example of the latent forms of power. The freedom granted through time for recreational activities might appear liberating at first. Yet, when there is free time in a schedule, it shows that freedom can be something that is given and then taken away. Freedom i in the short amount of time that it allowed in  the schedule disappears as the next activity begins. Furthermore, when considering the activities during free time, the prisoner is truly not free because he cannot do whatever he wants – he must adhere to what is acceptable in the prison environment.

Now let’s consider theater. Theater itself is a creative process; it requires an actor to change him/herself to fit a certain role. Through rigorous practice and memorization one can come close to a recreation/accurate reproduction of a role. The time and effort put into orchestraing the entire effort requires seriuos dedication. Judging by the success of the program each prisoner puts an ample amount of commitment into the performance.

Theater and the arts can have a profound effect on the mentality of a person. When considering the mental state of the prisoners one has to realize that many of these prisoners do not have much else to look forward to aside from the theater. Therefore the program is an example of Foucault’s biopwer because the profound influence theater has. The seemingly benign system pervades the mind and soul of the prisoners and they thus relinquish their own power willingly. The system works very effectively in the way that it allows for the ‘betterment’ and it does so in a way that resounds positively with the prisoners – there is no resistance to the program. In fact, some prisoners do not want to leave because  it gives them something to live for. When released, the prisoners have to try to redefine themselves in an context of a society that is not very welcoming towards ex cons. The prison theater gives the prisoners a new identity that allows them to thrive in an environment that they are comfortable in and have a community in.

The seeming concern with the prisoner’s artistic wellbeing shows the excercize of biopower in the way that the program get hte prisoners very inolved.  Moreover the latent power is in effect when each prisoner practices on his own time. Foucault’s theory would involve the prison to create a time table that would grant them time for recreation such as theater. Thus this is the most sinister form of power because it pervades the prisoners’ very soul – the acceptance of this art form as a means of rehabilitation has a deep effect on their psyche as this method seeks to condition the prisoners for life outside  the bars.


He knows when you’ve been sleeping; he knows when you’re awake

December 18, 2014 by

I guess in retrospect, this almost seems too obvious of a connection. You should read the whole article (Elf on a Shelf as training children to live with panopticism), but here’s one excerpt:

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.

The Panopticon in “The Wire”

December 15, 2014 by

The HBO series “The Wire” is one of my all time favorites.  Set in Baltimore, the show expertly portrays the legal system of the city and captures its relationship with urban crime.  One of the most significant and interesting aspects of this relationship is the almost constant theme of surveillance.  Director, David Simon, seems to obsess over the theory of the panopticon, with its methods of surveillance as well as efforts to battle against it from its subjects.

The panopticon is an architectural structure designed, ideally for prisons, to constantly surveil its tenants.  It consists of a surveillance room, surrounded on all sides by cells with one-way windows.  Using this central room, a watchman would have the ability to watch any cell at any given time.  Although this watchman could not physically observe all rooms at once, the prisoners’ knowledge that they might be under surveillance forces them to exhibit good behavior at all times.  In Discipline and Punish Foucault uses this building as a very effective metaphor for the structure of modern governments.  With the advancement in technology, we see our society becoming increasingly surveilled by the government. Streets being monitored by cameras, wiretaps on phones, and monitoring of peoples activity on the internet.  These are just a few techniques of many exercised by governments to invade the lives of citizens.  What is most important about these techniques of surveillance, and what Simon emphasizes in “The Wire”, is that all these forms of surveillance could be occurring in complete secrecy.  What results from this is an incredibly obedient society, following laws, which we otherwise would ignore, for the fear of being caught and punished.  When writing “The Wire”, Simon was certainly aware of this increasingly apparent aspect in our society.

In the first season of “The Wire” Simon uses the Low Rises to give us a good look at the complex systems the drug crews of Baltimore use to shroud their illegal activity.  The cash transaction is always handled by a separately than the “package.”  The dealers use pagers and pay phones, going far out of the way of convenience.  They use encoded phone numbers and language. They refuse to explicitly mention anything regarding their business except in secure, trusted locations.  When these lines of defense fall through, they manipulate the legal system in order to win court cases. Similar to the panopticon, the likelihood that a given moment is actually being surveilled is low, but the prospect alone is enough to encourage the constant vigilance which is required to evade the law. All these precautions are meant to safeguard in the event that they are being watched. This idea is so engrained in the urban culture that there seems to be an unbreakable rule among the community to never take part in the panopticon.  The “snitch” seems to be among the most dishonorable titles one can acquire.  Regardless of what is most beneficial for the individual, assisting the police in their investigation is by all means unacceptable.  “The Wire” shows this when a testifying witness against a murder is assassinated by a drug crew.

Simon also incorporates symbolism of the panopticon in various shots.  For instance, in the first shot following the credits of the first episode, the camera is angled at a security television surveying the two primary characters as they walk into a courthouse. This is an appropriate way to begin the series, as it immediately gives the viewer a feeling that the characters, even on the side of the law, are already under the influence of the panopticon.  Another significant symbol Simon uses is in the opening theme. In each of the 5 seasons, the series of shots and music that begin the episode changes.  However, each respective opening shares an identical shot of a boy throwing a rock at a surveillance camera, breaking its lens.  This reoccurring shot is clearly meant to stand out among the others and is a representation of the struggle to fight against the panopticon.  Here is a link to the video of the entire opening credits.  Pay attention to 1:15, where the previously said shot occurs. As you will see, the entire sequence is littered with symbolism referring to methods of surveillance.

The last connection I wanted to make is regarding a recent theme we talked about in class.  In “The Wire” we see constant advancement in the techniques used both by the panopticon and by those resisting it.  This progression is related to the notion that these two opposing forces actually support each other.  As the surveillance methods evolve, the drug crews become more efficient in evading the law.  As a result, both parties are continuously progressing in order to keep up with each other.

In “The Wire” David Simon creates an extremely curious relationship.  Viewers shift between supporting both sides.  Simon creates a dynamic causing you switch your support between both sides of the battle:  Between the ever-present  panoptic surveillance of the law and the evasive methods put out by the drug crews.

Observation in Foucault

December 11, 2014 by

Much of Foucault’s  repressive hypethesis deals with analyzing it’s effects and thus the  discourse and documentation of experience that followed. There are countless examples such as the Libertine  documentation of sexual experiences, the concept of the confessional, as well as the documentatons of trauma and mental illness (the theories of trauma) that would lend explanation to  criminal behavior. The Libertine documentation of sexuality as well as the heightened  discourse thereof was the end result of the attempt at repression of sexuality in society. Confession and self regulation took on a greater role, influencing the construction of institutions and correctional facilities.  Mental institutions were created in  order for doctors of the time to be have the opportunity to record data. There is a distinct pattern  in these events; each response is triggered by the knowledge that one is being observed.

Imposing censorship on sexaulity in Victorain times,  for example, caused for increased discourse. This shows several very interesting societal responses: on one hand there is secrecy, one is strictly discouraged from engaging in sexual activity. The discourse resulting from this kind of censorship shows that those participating have accepted the idea that engaging in this activity is not socially acceptable, however the documentation of it is the reaction to the idea that even the most intimate activity can be examined.  Presentation of one’s sexual experience was done in a matter that would be a reserved, contextual manner – even today one many are not comfortable with blatantly discussing sexuality. Thus one can say that those in that conversation must walk a fine line between self regulation and the observation of their peers. How will one be seen when this sensitive topic comes up? The speaker must worry about  the gaze of both his peers and the norm to ‘watch oneself.’

It’s interesting to note that in this specific situation there are three forms of observers;  the speaker, those conversing, and the relation of the speaker’s lucid experience versus it’s validity in the observer that has been instilled in the speaker himself.  At an early age children are watched and taught self discipline when it comes to certain innapropriate behaviors. In the Victorian ages schools were separated for girls and boys and set up in a way that would give children the feeling that they are observed. Thus the combination of the parents  and institutions  controlling the children’s activity results in the creation of the child being an observer of himself. Thus this shows that there are two observers in the relationship: the school  and the child. The child abides the rules and behaves appropriately and the adult in authority is observing the child’s behavior. As the child grows and becomes more independent he gradually internalizes the gaze of that adult. The important factor in the process is that there is no escape from the gaze – it is either imposed by society or imposed by self regulation.

Similarly, with the construction of the panopticon the prisoners themselves had no escape from the gaze of the warden. Over time the gaze of authority was internalized by the prisoners because of the layout in which the prisoner knew that he was being observed but could not see the warden. Thus the gaze becomes inescapable as it is internalized by the prisoners.  Therefore in this relationship the creation of the interal observer and internal self observation is revealed. Thus there is the relationship of the unseen all seeing authority, the prisoner seeking that is, literally looking for the person in authority and, finding none, creating a representation of this authority in himself.

These are examples of the implied relationship that Foucault’s writing has a strong emphasis on. Foucault’s repressive hypothesis criticized the workings of an inescapable, ever vigilant system which  constantly observes  its subjects to such a degree that they have no choice but to internalize the gaze and become forever self regulating.

Personally, the most frightening example is the documentation of new psychological theories and mental imbalances versus the self monitoring response of the individual. With the emerging amount of studies and discovery of new mental illness one can’t help but wonder if psychologists are creating these terms in order to administer various techniques/cures that would make eccentric and unique individuals, [or those that have not fully internalized the self regulating system] who could potentially challenge the system, complacent.  The latent form of power that is involved in diagnosing certian problems and imbalances heavily encourage the individual at self examination of one’s actions and behavior in context of the vigilant, authoritative system. Thus, when the idiosyncratic actions of an individual who is excluded and labelled by society is examined in context of a society obsessed with self medication and supposed normalcy. [This is by no means to delegitimize the seriuosness of actual mental illness; this is simply to point out the situation in which individuals can be coerced by over self regulation into worries about their behavior after laternt forms of power taken over.]

Self Regulation: Weber vs Foucault

December 8, 2014 by

In this post I would like to discuss the similarities between Weber and Foucault.  Recall that Weber  came up with with the theory of the spirit of capitalism which motivated one to be more diligent and consider  opportunity costs when seeking accumulation of profit. This is deeply rooted in a Protestant ethic that work is valued above all and that good behavior, rationality, and efficiency leads to good credit which therefore leads to money, the semblance of virtue. Thus, this forces the individual hyper organize, discipline and observe oneself in order to effectively gain capital. Foucault has similar aspects in his theory  that true power displays itself not in authority, but in the authority one has when law that originally external has been organized in such a way that the subject internalized, and was able to inflict the law on oneself, so to speak, thus creating a state of heightened self regulation.

Both Weber and Foucault have a strong emphasis on the idea that when one is discipled enough to have control and audit one’s actions in a way that  makes . Weber’s hypothesis on the Protestant work ethic claims that self monitoring must exist in order to satisfy one’s material needs. The Protestant work ethic itself originated in the idea that in order to glorify God one must fill up the day with work such as manual labor and prayer. Since the religious aspect of the is no longer in context in our society today, the approach towards work has remained. Effectiveness has to be internalized in order to survive a harsh, competitive capitalist society. Every minute wasted  not working results in the loss of material gain, therefore micromanagement of one’s own time results.

Foucault’s ideas on self monitoring is the result of his idea of power that is instilled through organization of people, such as the organization  of prisoners in the panopticon. Eventually, because of the structure of the building each prisoner is forced to self examine one’s behavior because he knows that he is being watched by a force he himself cannot see. No matter what the behavior is, there is no escape from the observer. Even when the system of cruel and unusual physical punishment has ceased the panopticon structure of prisons remained and with that remained the institution of constant observation. In rehabilitation time tables, for example,  the observation and organization of the prisoner’s time has proven to be one of the strongest ways to instill self monitoring. When the prison is given time to reflect and analyze one’s actions he must do so in a specific context which is usually that which is presented by the person in  charge of the activity, thus the person in power. Therefore when constructing the time table the individual who is constructing it must include free time for the prisoner to give the idea that he was granted momentary freedom, when in fact the freedom itself is limited by time and the person in power.

Furthermore Foucault’s repressive hypothesis is another example of self monitoring due to the censorship. The idea that sexuality must be repressed triggers two societal  reactions. On one hand, the repression results in the lack of overt conversation on the topic thus the self observation and prevention of one’s desire to reference to the subject in any way. Or, more commonly, discourse heightens which  makes the people participating in the discourse aware of their own actions and the way the information is presented, in order to conform with the appropriate presentation of information about intimate activity. In either reaction the repression that each individual must  cope with has been internalized after years of societal conditioning i.e. institutions to prevent allegedly illicit behavior.

Both theorists have a strong emphasis on self observation and extreme organization. While Weber is concerned  with the organization of time and gaining capital, Foucault focuses on self observation as the result of legal punishment/legal rehabilitation.  Weber is deals with the translation of organization of time from a religious context to a capitalist context. Capitalism itself is the power which forces the people to behave in a materialistic way;  one begins  to construct a tight, coordinated schedule in order to survive and earn his place in the world. Foucault present the idea of self regulation that results from the ultimate control of power which originated from the so-called freedom that it grants its people. Both theories show similar patterns in which there is a critique of artificially latent power – capitalism supposedly gives us the freedom to choose to how to gain/spend money, and the power involved in time tables/legal systems gives prisoners ‘leisure time.’ The relationship between the observer and the observed is blurred when the observed internalize a constant, critical self analysis.



Competitive Vs. Non-Competive Environments

December 5, 2014 by

This is a post going way back to Weber and the concept of work efficiency.  It is in response to a comment Sam made on my previous blog post.  Sam brought up the idea of noncompetitive gamified environments, and how they might be preferable over the alternative cutthroat competitive environment. Here is a link to the comment

Your comment on a non-competitive gamified work environment raises an interesting point.  The competitive environment certainly pits people against each other and the objectives become focused around winning rather than simply doing good work.  Obviously, when two people are competing to win, good work will inevitably follow. Yet there is certainly a moral conflict that occurs in this type of environment.  People are inclined to feel that we should be communal and cooperative with one another rather than competitive.

Non-competitive environments generally feel much more secure.  People have more control over their work and lifestyle. Although it is much more pleasant, non-competition can never achieve the same level of productivity and efficiency as the alternative.  Our Concept of Power class incorporates a non-competitive system.  We are given assignments which we then can complete it to receive the reward.  Other classmate’s achievements do not serve as a factor in this work-reward system. On the other hand,  if our professor were to add a competitive aspect and offer double points for the best final paper, the quality of writing would skyrocket among the entire class.

So why isn’t our class structured in this way?  If competition instigates higher quality work, wouldn’t professor Mackin want us to battle royal in order to produce the epitome of student papers?  There are two main reasons: the natural desire to avoid conflict, and the harsh impact competition has on those who fail.  Competitiveness is in essence conflict.  Competition can be enjoyable when put in non-serious aspects of life.  But in the context of work, where there is a bit more at stake, competition gains considerable risk.  In the same way people desire to avoid conflict in Hobbes’ “state of nature” scenario, people are unwilling to enter into competitive work so as to maintain a sense of security.  The other significantly negative effect competition can have is the way it disables the lower performing half.  Since winning is the central goal in competition, those who cannot perform well in their work, or even just those who have low self esteem can become completely unproductive. If someone were to preemptively make the judgement that their own work wouldn’t be good enough, than competition would actually cause them to become less efficient.

So it is a trade off.  I think that the competitive environment– productive but seemingly unhealthy for the soul– is certainly a more bourgeoisie tactic, and con-competitive work can be seen as a more traditionalist tactic.

On a final note, music finds itself in an interesting paradox regarding this subject.  As much as I hate the fact, we all know music has become one of the most competitive professions. Yet I can’t think of anything more cooperative.  We work so hard in order to beat out the competition, but when it comes to performing we reach a deeper level of communication with our colleagues.  Music is very passionate and soulful, yet saturated with cutthroat attitudes.  I think because of competition, musicianship has reached a higher level than ever before, but i’m curious to hear peoples opinions as to what extent music suffers from this competitive vibe.

Arendt and ‘Clicktivism’

November 19, 2014 by

We all have that friend on Facebook who persistently posts feminist articles, along with a self-righteous statement, cleverly crafted to reflect their colorful personality and hint their political views. Or that one Tumblr user who will not stop reblogging pictures of sad puppies to ‘raise awareness’ for animal abuse.  ‘All you need to do is click to donate just $5 to the [insert name here] Foundation.’  We usually  ignore it and scroll down to the next post.

Often times we see posts in social media about war, political injustice, abuse and violence our first reaction is the obvious  empathy and disturbance followed by a frantic youtube search for cute animals.  The internet gives us the opportunity to gawk at, shudder, and then subsequently flee from the situation whereas fifty years ago there was no such escape – the news was simply television, radio, and newspaper. God forbid, life gets out of hand and you can bury your nose in a book. The internet has nurtured our complacency and allowed for individual conscience to flourish. On social media we seek to assuade our conscience by reblogging, reposting, commenting, etc to give an impression of our compassion to the issue, however it does not serve much purpose than to further circulate the information and spread the word. Not to deny the importance of  ‘raising awareness,’ but seldom does recognition of an issue push for public political action.

Take the KONY 2012 campaign. Thanks to social media the attention it recieved was immense and had potential to be a huge turn out for international actvism. Millions of people watched the campaign video, pledged to get involved in ‘Invisible Children’ fundraisers  and so on. However the presentation and poor organization of information prevented the campaign from leaving the internet. What’s left of KONY 2012 are the stickers and  a whole lot of controversy.

Or, more recently, the ALS ice bucket challenge. How many people who did the ice bucket challenge actually donated to the cause? Many who doused themselves did so or had to donate $100 to the ALS Foundation. So, yes, indeed it ‘raised awareness’  – and all the wealthy celebrities got involved and donated most of the money. But this is the ultimate example of collective conscience. We douse ourselves for ‘visibility’ – we are feeding our own egos while simultaneously supposedly helping this cause. I am certainly not one to argue against the effectiveness or decry the effect/effort put into this internet movement. This is simply to point out the danger of ‘click-to-donate’  activism.

Whatever the cause is there is the common phenomenon of the information spreading like wildfire and then a quick burnout; no activism seen outside the computer screen. There is a visible international response  but no follow up, therefore rendering public politics innefective. Therefore much of our ‘clicktivism’ is us acting in compassion and/or perhaps conscience, yet rarely do we decide to take matters beyond making an online donation. “Here, as elsewhere, conscience is unpolitical. It is not primarily interested in the world where the wrong is committed or in the  consequences that the wrong will have for the future of the world.” [Arendt p60].  What Arendt states here is that there is that conscience and the duty of being a good citizen are separate. Being a good citizen would require political action and the functioning of individuals in concert to represent a cause.

The problem that lies in ‘clicktivism’ or social media activism is that it does not involve genuine engagement in poitics in context of participation and public demonstration. Participatory democracy, in which individual citizens directly make political decisions about policies relevant to them, is becoming obsolete thanks to social media. Thus it  further damages politics by allowing private consumption/advertising and the propigation of the citizens personal beliefs rather than promoting facts. The basis of many social media interactions are emotional, which allows for apolitical activity such as conscience  to continue. Conscience is then manipulated in  a way that prioritizes  consumption before conscientious objection.



The miracle of the ordinary

November 11, 2014 by

It has become something of an ongoing joke in class that I have a tendency to emphasize how bleak everything is. I suppose it’s true. One can hardly spend large amounts of time studying the world of human affairs without becoming aware of the extraordinary levels stupidity, mendacity, and violence at work in how humans conduct themselves. Arendt was perhaps more aware of this than most of us; having lived through the rise of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, she knew quite well just how awful people–even supposedly civilized and moral ones–could be. Still, one of the things that is most interesting about her is that she insists not just on looking at the awfulness of human affairs squarely, but also insists on thinking about how to remain politically and morally responsible even in dark times.

Consider the following passage, which comes from her book, The Human Condition:

Without the disclosure of the agent in the act, action loses its specific character and becomes one achievement among others. It is then, indeed, no less a means to an end than making is a means to produce an object. This happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side and against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed “mere talk,” simply one more means toward an end whether it serves to deceive the enemy or to dazzle everybody with propaganda (180).

As in all things with Arendt, there are a great many things going on in the passage (e.g., the reference to the “disclosure of the agent in the act” would take quite a while to explain; her claim, in short, is that it is through genuine action that we create/disclose who we are, as opposed to what we are); however, I want to highlight one core aspect, which is the interplay between the “miraculous” and the “ordinary” in this passage. Let us note first that, in the first sentence, Arendt is alluding to the idea that action is not just one achievement among others; to be sure, it can become this when “human togetherness is lost” (her example of this loss of togetherness–modern warfare–is interesting; on the one hand, the loss of togetherness is obvious in the sense that we are no longer together with the enemy, but even among “us”–the friends–this togetherness is lost. In becoming unified against “them,” plurality is lost. The space “in between” disappears as we become a unity).

Nevertheless, her language is quite clear: the “specific character” of action is to be something different from other achievements–different from, say, making a chair or cleaning the house. How is it different? Well, like violence, making a chair is instrumental; one does X, Y, and Z to achieve some specific end (the chair). Action, by contrast, has no pre-defined end; indeed, it is “open-ended,” in the sense that the meaning of my action depends upon how others receive and interpret my action (We can clearly see this in, for instance, in Jesus’s action to be crucified; the meaning of this action has clearly been interpreted and reinterpreted over the millennia. The action that inspired, say, the civil rights protesters was interpreted by Torquemada to support the persecution and torture of heretics. Whatever Jesus might have meant by his action, it is clear that he isn’t actually in control of how others respond to it). Action is connected to a form of speech that is not aimed at deception or dazzling with propaganda, but toward disclosing the actor, forming (or re-forming) a group, on creating something new in the social world.

Now, let us recall Arendt’s conception of power, which describes as an action in concert. Let us also note what makes this action in concert possible: in “On Violence,” Arendt notes that power (action in concert) derives its legitimacy from the “initial getting together rather than from any action that might follow.” In other places, for instance in her book On Revolution, Arendt makes it clear that this initial getting together is legitimate insofar as it is based on free and sincere promises. So we can say that legitimate power is a form of action in concert that arises on the basis of free and sincere promising. What is interesting here, however, is that promise-making is a rather ordinary activity. Action in concert–which as we see in the quoted paragraph above is extraordinary–is deeply connected to something rather everyday and mundane.

This, I want to suggest, is not an error or a contradiction; rather, part of what Arendt is trying to do is to orient us toward a recognition of the extraordinary in ordinary life. When we look at the world from this point of view, we can see that ordinary practices–promise keeping, speaking, and so on–can take on heroic or extraordinary dimensions. Action and speech sustains the social fabric, or maintains political reality, often in the face of extraordinary pressures to undo or destroy it.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean: In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt describes the remarkable case of a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt. Schmidt ended up providing significant material support to the Jewish underground resistance movement in Poland. His actions were eventually discovered, and he was executed by the Germans in the spring of 1942. Arendt’s discussion of Schmidt is, I think, quite telling. One of the arguments frequently made by Germans in the aftermath of the war is that they didn’t resist the Nazis because such resistance would have been useless. Not only, the argument goes, would it have failed to achieve any real changes, but the resistance most likely would simply have been fully forgotten: it is in the nature of totalitarian regimes not just to purge all resistance but consign it to oblivion–to make sure that all traces of resistance are forgotten. Arendt counters this argument in the following way:

It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June 1942 on, to erase all traces of the massacres…were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places, but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation (pp. 232-233, emphasis in original).

Anton Schmidt’s actions were at once ordinary and extraordinary: nothing could be more ordinary and normal than helping another in need, in acting morally and with integrity; yet under conditions of terror, these ordinary acts become miraculous. Schmidt seemed to understand this. In his letters to his wife, he explained his actions by describing how he felt when he saw his fellow soldiers murdering children: “You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them.” And he added, “I only acted as a human being and desired doing harm to no one.” With these words we can see why Arendt thought that only goodness has any “depth,” that only goodness was interesting. In the face of overwhelming social pressure and violence, Schmidt remained true to the core moral principle, “thou shalt not kill,” and this adherence is truly remarkable and worth thinking about.

And this is why his actions were not (and are not) in vain. In acting in ways that disclosed his integrity, in acting to maintain the social fabric, in reproducing human togetherness, he in fact achieved something extraordinary. Indeed, he achieved perhaps even the greatest thing humans can achieve in this world: he made the world fit for human habitation; he reminded us, in other words, that humans are still free, that we can still act, and that we can always maintain our integrity and our responsibility.

This, it seems to me, cuts to the heart of Arendt’s preoccupations. She wants to understand how action, power, and politics–how human activity, in short–can make this world still a place worth living in. All times humans have lived have been “dark times,” we might say. The question, then, is how we can act in ways that provide some light in that darkness.

Bernie Sanders Channels his Inner Arendt

November 8, 2014 by

In the wake of the recent midterm elections, I thought I would share this interview with the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders (Sanders characterizes himself as a socialist, but in this interview he channels the idea of participatory democracy). The interview is around 25 minutes long, though you can read the transcript if you’d prefer. One key moment in the interview is this:

BILL MOYERS: How do you make the Hillary wing of the Democratic Party pay attention to the power of a populist message unless you’re in the debates in 2016, when most of the public is paying attention to political messages?

BERNIE SANDERS: This has been my political experience. When you rally the grassroots of the country or the city or of your state, when people begin to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough. We want to do well by our kids. We want to protect the environment. We believe we should join the rest of the world in terms of having health care for all, single-payer health care for all, et cetera, et cetera.’

When people begin to move, the people on top will follow them. So, whether it’s Hillary or anybody else, what we have got to do is mobilize the American people in a way that we have not seen in recent history around a progressive agenda. Bill, every poll that I have seen, when they ask the American people, what is the most important issue that you’re concerned about? You know what they say? Jobs and the economy.

How come we are not investing heavily in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. $1 trillion invested in rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, rail creates 13 million decent-paying jobs. You know what? The American people want us to do that. They want us to raise the minimum wage. So, you need a very strong agenda. You need a mechanism. And you’ve asked a hard question. Easier to say than to do, to rally people around that agenda. And once you do that, things will take care of itself.

BILL MOYERS: This is what Barack Obama did in 2008. He asked people to take over the Democratic Party, progressives and populists, everyday people that you describe in your speech out in Richmond. He asked those people to come in and, elect me and we’ll do just exactly what Bernie Sanders would do if he were president. Hasn’t happened.

BERNIE SANDERS: I have lot of respect for Barack Obama. But, his biggest mistake is that, after running a brilliant campaign in 2008, where millions of people in fact were galvanized, young people, people of color came out and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make some real change.’ The day after the election he said, okay, thank you very much. Now I’m going to work inside the Beltway and we’re going to start negotiating with Republicans and all that stuff. The simple truth is, in my view, nothing gets done unless millions and millions of people will demand it. Politics is 365 days a year.

BILL MOYERS: Not just voting?

BERNIE SANDERS: Exactly. And anyone, you can have the best person in the world as president of the United States, that person will accomplish nothing unless millions of people are standing behind him or her. Just an example, Bill, everybody, all the young people in this country are worried about student debt. The fact that hundreds of thousands of young people can’t even afford to go to college.

You have a million people, a million young people marching on Washington saying, there’s a vote coming up. And if you vote the wrong way, we know who you are. We actually are paying attention. You aren’t going to get reelected. We will lower the cost of college substantially and deal with the student debt crisis. It will not happen. It will not happen unless millions of people are activated.

The Arendtian notion of power here is quite obvious. There is a tendency, he argues, for people to think that social change occurs primarily through passing laws or getting courts to recognize various rights. In contrast to this, Sanders claims that passing a law is often only the beginning of a political conflict, not its end. Consider the ACA (also known as “Obamacare”). The law as passed in 2010; since then, the Republican party has taken every step it can to get rid of it. They have tried to repeal it and to get the court system to declare it to be illegal. But they have also taken steps to make sure that its implementation is unsuccessful (for instance, states where Republicans have majorities have not enacted the insurance exchanges the law calls for, thus requiring the Federal government to set them up instead; similarly, many Republican-controlled states have refused federal money to extend Medicaid coverage to the poor). In other words, for better or for worse (I make no judgment here), the Republican party has mobilized its supporters to treat the passage of the ACA as the start of an ongoing political battle. Sanders, in effect, is arguing that the Democrats need to do the same thing. If you want more spending to improve infrastructure, create better health care, or increase support for education (thus reducing student loan debt), we cannot wait for political leaders to spontaneously decide to do so. There must instead be the organization and generation of public power.

Of course, the trouble here is that this kind of power cannot (by definition) be fostered or administered from above. Moreover, for various reasons, almost no one has any experience in organizing or developing such power. We don’t even know where to begin, and so we have no “taste” for action, its joys and its obstacles. In this respect, Sanders’ comments might (or might not) be inspiring, but they also seem peculiarly hollow, at least to me. People have been making the point Sanders is articulating here for decades, but it’s still not entirely clear what precisely one could do to foster the kind of action he’s calling for.


Civil Disobedience

October 30, 2014 by

In this post, I would like to engage in the post on civil disobedience in Hong Kong and analyze the movement in reference to Arendt’s article on civil disobedience.


The atmosphere in Hong Kong is quite unstable, because the downtown area is occupied by people protesting against the government, and indirectly against the PRC government, for not providing a democratic election method for the election of the Hong Kong chief governor in 2017.


It is interesting to see that this disobedience movement is unique in its own way, and it actually differs a little from the definitions and descriptions provided by Arendt. This is due to the unique status of Hong Kong and the unprecedented situation it faces now.


First of all, the demand of the protesters is not the demand of minority group. The demand for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, I suppose, is basically willed by the majority of the Hong Kong people who participate in politics (others who do not participate in politics do not care about this issue and do not have a stance). This is different from the type analyzed by Arendt, and the one lead by M.L. King. This cannot be said as the minority view of the Hong Kong people inside the bigger China, because this is totally Hong Kong’s own affair. Moreover, most people in other parts of China do not know well about this movement, because the media in China is heavily censored.


This obedience movement is essentially the protest against an unjust government, be it the Hong Kong government or the higher PRC government. The officials in these two bodies of government are not democratically elected, and Hong Kong people are resentful towards their government (in other part of China many people do not even know that their government can be bad). Note that the basic law of Hong Kong (the mini constitution of Hong Kong), which states things that could potentially hinder the development of universal suffrage, is not a law that is designed or willed by Hong Kong people themselves. The PRC government simply promulgated the law coercively. There is no such bonding and association that the law could bring to people.


The whole situation is basically about the coercive power being acted unwillingly upon a group of people, and the two parties, the power and the coerced, are not bonded on any mutual ground. This is different from the kind of disobedience Arendt describes.