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Hannah Arendt and Digital Thinking

I’ve recently read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. It was a bestselling title on Amazon in 2017, a fact attributed to Trump’s election. But as the book makes clear totalitarian politics has no single or clear origin. No one event or act can be said to synthesise totalitarian politics. The Soviet Union and Third Reich were Frankenstein-like political systems. They were composites of imperialist, authoritarian and nationalist political ideas organised as mob violence. Violence is the essence of totalitarianism for Arendt. The value and utility of all other activities of political and social life are determined by their contribution to this goal. Violence becomes the end goal in a totalitarian system.

To say we live in Arendtian times therefore conjures a dystopian imaginary of society. Most potent of these imaginaries for our times is the mob willingly subjecting itself to tyranny; a wilful negation of the freedom to not know the future in exchange for the lie of security and safety. Why do I say this is the most potent? The answer lies in our media ecology. Arendt writes that mass media is not only a substitute for reality but becomes its own reality (2005, p.309). The experience of the human subject in this ecology becomes of less import than images in the creation of new political realities when media becomes the primary means of interpreting the world. The Arendtian citizen is first and foremost a moral agent who affects change through their actions. Thoughts, intentions, wishes or desires possess little political value if they do not dictate how the individual practices moral judgement in the public realm. If mental capacities do not dictate the will then they remain mere potentiates.

Moral judgement for Arendt is best practiced intersubjectively, which is to say the individual judges their actions based on the imagined effect they will have on others. Moral behaviour for Arendt can never be judged according to any fixed rules, precepts, or anything that can defined as an abstract authority; such abstractions could potentially lead to coercive behaviour, and thus the individual relinquishes their capacity for independent thought (Garsten, 2010, p.328). It is through such coercive methods that totalitarian states operate. The moral agent must always be in process for their judgements to be considered acts of independent thought. The media reality Arendt warns against endangers moral judgement by substituting intersubjective human contingency for immutable image. When a media imaginary of the ideal state and citizen becomes the basis for morality the seeds of a totalitarian politics are sewn in its diminution of immutable human experience:

The main effort of both the deceived group and the deceivers themselves is likely to be directed toward keeping the propaganda image intact, and this image is threatened less by the enemy and by real hostile interests than by those inside the group itself who have managed to escape its spell and insist on talking about facts or events that do not fit the image (Arendt, 2005, p.309).

Media images become objects of desire in a coercive political system. When images become ruptured from the intersubjective experience of individuals, the reality they represent can only be maintained by strengthening its grip on the public imagination. The strength of the grip is in inverse proportion to the human subject’s capacity to exercise true moral judgement, for as a system of control it cannot bear forms of thinking outside of itself. A system maintained by uniform thought collapses when the object of that thought becomes another moral agent, who presents as an immutable subject. The human in the totalitarian regime is a single body moving as one into a pre-destined future. Media act as containers of the body by communicating it as an ideology which trap publics inside limited spaces of thinking.

Leni Riefenstahl’s movie The Triumph of the Will meets Arendt’s criteria of the propaganda image in its portrayal of Hitler as an embodiment of the volk (Evans, 2006, pp.125-126). To give a more modern example of the propaganda image we can turn to modern Russia. Unlike the strong man imaginary of the Third Reich, the Kremlin’s propaganda is built on a system of illusory alternatives. Masha Gessen cites the state control of media and attacks on civil society as representing the obliteration of the boundary between state and society leaves citizens with few spaces to imagine alternative perspectives and ways of being (2017, pp. 291-295).  The international broadcaster RT (Russia Today) mixes pro-Kremlin stories and so-called unreported, explicitly anti-Western news items. This repertoire is designed to engender a cynical and hyper-ironic attitude amongst viewers, who are encouraged to treat the truth as purely a matter of competing perspectives. Peter Pomerantsev describes Putin’s Russia as a ‘postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends’ (2015, p.50). The imagination engenders moral thinking by allowing other realities to be represented in the mind of the individual. It is the imagination that propaganda is in a perpetual war against and is therefore a vital means by which we exercise moral agency.

Arendt described imagining as representative thinking, ‘thinking in my own identity where actually I am not’ (Arendt, 2005, p.303). Imagining alternative perspectives is a prerequisite for moral action because the imagination allows us to transcend the material conditions of reality. ‘[T]he principles by which we act and the criteria by which we judge and conduct our lives depend ultimately on the life of the mind. In short, they depend on the performance of these apparently profitless mental enterprises’ (Arendt, 1971, p.71). Performance in the imagination makes the future a perpetually potential space in its immutability, which is to say it’s unknowability. The unknowability of the future makes us free to create it. When we imagine we evoke what is absent in our minds. This absence is not a void but a space to exercise moral judgement (Arendt, 1971, p.77). But what is the effect on consensual perspectives of reality when individuation becomes the basis for measuring freedom?

In a recent editorial of TDR, Carol Martin stated ‘[a]rtists are creating new patterns of knowledge to make reality whole again’ (2017, p.8, emphasis added). The implication that reality has become fractured can be found in debates and discourses on post-truth politics. Much of the literature on post-truth emphasises the dangers to public discourse when people create online information silos. The internet is painted as a disruptor of human cognition in its capacity to immerse humans in virtual, inherently unreal worlds. In this way, post-truth has become a convenient but lazy shorthand for denoting a relativist approach to perceiving the world which assumes a pre-digital culture possessed absolute, unquestionable truths which dictated people’s actions. This is an ahistorical fallacy. As John Gray argues, the belief in an eternal truth is rooted in the Socratic philosophy that material reality is a shadow of the real:

Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same: there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect. When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions. They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away. True fulfilment lies in changeless things. An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity (2002, p.25).

The virtual reality of the internet becomes another illusion amongst the many illusory perspectives in the Socratic tradition. But the notion of a truthful reality existing outside of the contingencies of human perspective, which technology shapes as much as the natural environment and our senses do, is itself an illusion. The internet is a technology that is changing humanity in ways we are not fully cognizant of. In this way, it corresponds to all other technologies: ‘Technology is not something that humankind can control. It is an event that has befallen the world’ (Gray, 2002, p.14). The ultimate unknowability of the internet’s impact on humanity has resulted in anxieties expressed as post-truth politics and fake news. The idea of post-truth treats humans as a swarm who scour the world in search of the eternal. It fails to account for the fact that the value of truth is determined based on the contingencies of perspectival reality. Indeed, for Arendt, this is all to the good, for facts can be as coercive as propaganda:

The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking (2005, p.303).

Eternal truth is inherently oppressive in its homogeneity. Any sense of cohesive reality is contingent on many uncontrollable factors, especially those ones that are yet to occur. If reality feels broken it is because humans are adapting to the new reality produced by the digital. The pervasive connectivity the internet produces between people and documents turns social interaction into a discursive process of reality production.

For Matthew Causey, digital thinking constitutes an activist strategy of resistance against commodification, control and alienation in its rendering of the human subject as metamorphically reiterative. Trans-identities are ‘new models of a posthuman identity’ which ‘find an analog in the technologies of virtual avatars that exhibit a radical mutability in electronic duplications’ (Causey, 2016, p.434). Performing identities in digital spaces is the means by which new political, cultural, and social realities can be created. The logic of trans-identity is that an ever-increasing number of publicly performed identities produces an ever-increasing number of realities, thus rendering present reality changeable by the human subject; a necessary prerogative for emancipation. In this sense, the performance of trans-identities resonates with Arendt’s commitment to plurality in political thinking. Plurality for Arendt ‘is not centred on the creation and preservation of any one culture per se but on the importance of protecting the varied perspectivality and manifoldness of the world as it appears to human beings’ (Benhabib, 2010, p.10). To some degree, political discourse in digital networks is Arendtian in the internet’s ability to connect diverse perspectives and present them in a public forum. But it is important to remember that identity in digital and offline spaces are symbiotic entities. The human is but one of many communications nodes in the network. Moreover, we do not control the network.

Unlike the imaginary of the public square, digital spaces have no parameters or fixed centre. The metaphor of the cloud as an information repository is apt for its metamorphic connotations. The danger of thinking like a network in politics is that all subjects (including humans) are classified according to how identity is expressed. Trans-identities by their very nature are always in process which never exist as distinct presences within the network, rendering their performative-selves as mutable agents in the discourse. The Arendtian notion of responsibility depends on the individual defining themselves against the mob as means of resisting the irrepresible movement of ideology. The radicalism of trans-identities should not undermine the vitality individuated presence creates within political discourse. A constantly shape-shifting subject makes the intersubjective relations public discourse depends on impossible to function.

References

Arendt, H. (1981) The Life of the Mind. London: Harcourt

Arendt, H. (2005) ‘Truth and Politics’ in Medina, J. and Wood, D. (eds.) Truth. Engagements Across Philosophical Traditions. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Arendt, H. (2017) The Origins of Totalitarianism. London: Penguin

Benhabib, S. (2010) (ed.) ‘Introduction’ in Politics in Dark Times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Causey, M. (2016) ‘Postdigital Performance’. Theatre Journal, 68:3, pp.427-441

Evans, R. (2006) The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939. London: Penguin

Garsten, B. (2010) ‘The Elusiveness of Arendtian Judgement’ in Benhabib, S. (ed.) Politics in Dark Times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Gessen, M. (2017) The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. London: Granta Books

Gray, J. (2002) Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. London: Granta Books

Martin, C. (2017) ‘Reclaiming the Real:Introduction’. The Drama Review/TDR, 61:4, p.8

Pomerantsev, P. (2015) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia. London: Faber & Faber

Invitation to R&D Meeting Archiving the Choreographic Machine: Sensuous Geographies

‘Archiving the Choreographic Machine: Sensuous Geographies’ is an interdisciplinary project investigating the medium of VR as a performance documentation tool. The project team Professor Sarah Rubidge, Dr Lyn Robinson and Dr Joseph Dunne-Howrie have organised the meeting to discuss the technical requirements of producing a VR version of Sensuous Geographies,a choreosonic installation devised by choreographer Sarah Rubidge and composer Alistair Macdonald. We are also looking for partners who possess the relevant technical and artistic expertise in producing a VR prototype performance document. It is hoped that the meeting will provide an opportunity to discuss potential collaborations, but rest assured attendance will not be considered as an agreement to partner with us.

If you would like to attend the meeting please write to Joseph Dunne-Howrie at joseph.dunne-howrie@city.ac.uk. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

We have a limited budget to cover basic travel costs for those travelling from outside of London. Lunch will be provided.

Please note that this event is not a symposium with audience and speakers. The meeting will be of interest to those with experience and knowledge of performance documentation, VR and interactive media. If you know of someone with an interest in this area please pass this email on to them.

Here is a schedule for the day:

Event: R&D Meeting ‘Archiving the Choreographic Machine: Sensuous Geographies

Date and Time: Tuesday 26th March 10:30-16:15

Venue: Room C103

Tait Building

City, University of London

Northampton Square, Clerkenwell, London

EC1V 0HB

Purpose

The meeting will bring together specialists in performance documentation and VR to discuss how a document can be read/experienced kinaesthetically.  The team wish to understand what the technical requirements of building a VR document prototype are and investigate methods of preserving recorded live artworks in digital formats. The research context of the project concerns extant metadata processes for the preservation of time-based media projects and methodologies for documenting performative events.

Schedule

10:30 – 10:45

Welcome and introductions

10:45 – 11:15

SR presents background information on Sensuous Geographies.

JDH and LR discuss their interest in documentation from LIS and performance perspective

11:15-12:15

Guests give 10 minute presentations on their work with VR and/or performance documentation. Topics may include but are not limited to:

•           How documents can be experienced kinaesthetically

•           Available methods/approaches are already available to record participatory performances

12:15 – 12:45

Discussion concerning research context(s) of the project

12:45-13:30

Lunch

13:30 -14:15

Break out into three groups. JDH, LR and SG to lead discussion into:

•           Technical requirements for VR documentation

•           Potential of documents in performance practice and audience participation

•           Methods of generating and capturing user-generated data

•           Interacting in virtual environments

14:15-15:15

Feedback and discussion. Identify key technical requirements of building a VR prototype

15:15 – 16:00

Next steps

16:00-16:15

Closing comments

Research for Operation Black Antler Project

I’m currently researching identity and the far right for a project I’ll (hopefully) be starting soon on Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s piece  ‘Operation Black Antler‘. I just finished ‘The Road to Somewhere’ by David Goodhart and am now 60 pages into ‘The Strange Death of Europe’ by Douglas Murray. The focus of both books is quite different (Murray’s is explicitly cultural, whilst Goodhart takes a more analytical approach based on pollling), but the argument that racism – pure, unadulterated hatred for people of colour – does not exist is a common thread in both books.

Goodhart genuinely seems to think we have reached a post-racial consensus on immigration, bizzarrely citing UKIP as proof (anyone remember Farage’s comment about Africans with HIV and the Breaking Point poster?). His model of the Somewhere citizen essentialises working class communities into centre-right liberal caricatures,where racial animus is just a fact of life and should be read as a measure of belonging.

Murray, at the more extreme end of the spectrum, defines mass immigration as the displacement of one culture with another and only recognises racism when it manifests in a national event such as the Notting Hill Riots in the late 1950s. I’m curious to see what he will say about the EDL. I suspect racism won’t feature too heavily in his analysis of a gang of street fascists.

I struggle to see how either author expects post-Brexit Britain to achieve a greater level of cultural harmony when it denies the scale, veracity or even existence of ingrained racial prejudices. Despite their protestations, I can’t shake the feeling that they believe in their heart of hearts that a cultural re-set to an imagined past is inevitable and desirable.

Imagine…

Imagine browsing a bookshelf in a library or bookshop.

Now imagine a performace that browsed the world looking for audiences. It scans the shelves for peoplebooks, glancing at titlefaces.

Occasionally, an attractive fontface makes it stop.

Picking up the peoplebook, it opens it wide and takes a look at the wordorgans, flicking the skinpages looking for information.

Stopping at a wordorgan, the performance runs its finger over the skingpage leaving a perffinger print on the wordorgan, an imprint of time.

Performance is a browsing body picking up bodywords to flick through.

Flicking through bodies and picking out the bits it likes.

This body

Reading an extract of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, we stand around the room looking at Janey’s dream map.

We put the body of text on a mortuary slab and exhume it’s remains to make a new body out of words, a way of using writing to mark the outline of the absence…

This body is cock

This body is desire

This body is sad

This body is water

This body is a stream

This body is a corpse

This body is feeling

This body is running

This body is alone

This body needs to be alone

This body wants

This body is lying

This body needs lies

This body’s friend is a liar

This body is dying

This body wants

This body is moving

This body has friends

This body is touching touching touching

This body wants love

This body hates

This body is in a room

This body is dreaming

This body is paranoid

This body likes tears

This body is a tear, a tear

This body breaks

This body is in a prison

This body is walking in the city

This body is buried

This body is digging

This body hides

This body needs

This body is alive

This body is useless, worn out, past it

This body is on the brink

This body knows something terrible

This body looks

This body is obliterating

This body is shattered knackered battered clattered

This body is fresh

This body is ripe for plucking

This body is out there, man

This body is wanting to die

This body is smiling

This body is finished

This body is waiting for him you it me them her to stop

This body is hurting

This body is hurt

This body is in your pain

This body is needing pain

This body is searching for the perfect lover

This body is sucking

This body is sleeping

This body is draining the juice out of him

This body is licking the sweat

This body is drinking the dirt

This body is dirty dirt

This body wants it

This body is peddle to the metal

This body is grinding its bones

This body is a clock

This body is a fairy tale

This body is growing

This body does not exist

This body flinches

This body needs me

This body is a bad joke