The Political Universe re-opened

The ethics conference which I hope to visit in August has in it’s title ‘Ethics of an Open Future’. And furher it is on Climate Change and Sustainability. It should be on the major problems which face humanity, therefore (although one never knows whether this will remain so when academics start to talk shop). I chose to discuss there in my paper two rather radical books – Derrida’s 1993 study Specters of Marx and Marcuse’s 1964 work on One Dimensional Man. Both philosophers explicitly draw (among so many other sources) on the thought of Karl Marx, but do so in the most original manner, writing not as followers or disciples of the great nineteenth century analyst of his times, but as analysts of their own times, searching for tools to unhinge the silence that hides the current power structures. Should I write ‘silence’, or ‘innocence’?

Heidegger coined the word ‘Seinsvergessenheit’  which should mean a having-forgotten about being to such a degree that one has even forgotten the forgetfulness. To many a reader this will be vague, as it is hard to understand why we should be aware of ‘being’. Heidegger’s most original pupil, Hannah Arendt, used this idea of something lost and out of sight, and stuck it on a more urgent matter – the forgetting of politics, as a critical exchange between free human beings. As politics became, in the twentieth century, management of society instead of this critical exchange, she named this ‘Weltverlust’, loss of world. World meaning for her the public space which human beings create with each other when they exchange their different, perspectivated views. Differing, daring to discuss and criticize creates the ‘room to move’ for the human spirit, individually as well as in community.

Marcuse must have been inspired by her work when he titled the second chapter of his book ‘The Closing of the Political Universe’. Modern society, which measures it’s succes with an eye to it’s technological progress, blinds itself to this goal – ‘progress’. When technological progress is the ultimate goal, in industry, in consumption, as well as in scientific research and argumentation, society goes blind to the quality of human life – that is – to the idea that first fired the struggle for modernity: freedom. We have lost public space (to a great extent), as we live in a closed political universe. That is, when we have lost the possibility to criticize the principles by which our society propells itself into the future. One could also say that we live in a situation of a closed future. Slaves of progress, without any thought in our minds on where this should lead us…

And here comes the relationship with ethics: when we cannot criticize society for it’s goals, when we cannot discuss what we want in life as human beings, when we are, therefore, not free – we can neither be moral. A moral agent is supposed to be a free agent, and both Derrida in his mentioned work and Marcuse, have tried to show their contemporaries that we loose our morality when the political universe is closed. Their work is a work of titanic proportions, as they had to do away with the ideology of the Cold War (and it’s supposed ending in Derrida’s case) that had stifled the thought of an entire era. Re-opening the political universe is not an easy thing, and the majority of the work still has to be done. It means we have to disengage ourselves of the society of needs – of the economy of scarcity, that is, and of the metaphors of war which are used to support it. It is understandable that they went back to Marx, as his analysis of the economical universe is still worthy of further interpretation. Their search for words to articulate the hinge that decides on openness/freedom over against closure/repression – living our difference, our multi-dimensionality, our plurality – owes to my view more than said to that great twentieth century analyst of the political: Hannah Arendt. But that is not the point here – the point is that we can not reclaim our status of moral agents unless we decide to dare to be political once more.

Hannah Arendt The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press 1998 [originally published in 1958]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge 1994 [original French edition 1993]

Herbert Marcuse One Dimensional Man. Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Routledge 2002 [first edition 1964, second edition 1991]

  1. said:

    Beste Angela, Je stuk is niet iets om snel wat over te schrijven. Echt herkenning bij: ‘Vergeten dat je vergeet’, dat is praten over het onbewuste, of misschien het collectief onbewuste, niet zozeer dan het persoonlijke. Jung had het concept van collectief onbewustzijn. We raken verdwaald in de ingewikkeldheid van modern leven. Worden slaven zoals je zegt. Ja dat zie ik in het leven ook, ook in mezelf, dat je gauw verslaafd raakt aan wat wordt geprint in media en wat de kinderen op school nodig hebben. en hoe zij in de wereld staan. Ik heb geen kinderen maar dit hoor ik van vriendinnen. Dat anderen keuzes voor je maken, dat je je vrijheid dus gedeeltelijk kwijtraakt. Dat de society in progress, wat we technologisch kunnen, ook gaat bepalen wat we doen en hoe we ontwikkelen. Juist nu is vrijheid om te overdenken en authentieke besluitvorming gebaseerd op ethische principes nodig. Is dat wat je zegt? Ik begrijp niet helemaal, maar dat is mijn probleem omdat ik niet geschoold ben in deze taal en denken, ik begrijp niet of je het over de politiek hebt, Rutte en whatever, of dat je het over besluitvorming in kleine kring hebt. Goed stuk hoor. Ineke.

    Sent from my iPad

  2. onesis said:

    I very much like this piece Angela. I am only just discovering your blogs and delving into them. Here in your connection to Arendt I sense a much stronger connection I have with your thought than I discovered elsewhere, admirable as it is. I was arrested by Arendt’s 1958 book, in 1976 as an undergraduate student, the year she died although I did not know it then. I have always felt the need to think things through for myself, but with Arendt as a philosophical mentor, I have been bold enough to name my own project after the name she gave to her own: To think what we are doing. My project stretches back over 20 years, and is one of challenging injustices in relation to people I meet, as they are prepared to name them for me, and to invite my participation; this includes people with disability and aboriginal people.

    I no longer am prepared to say “we” are not free and “we” cannot be moral, just because the vast bulk of society is not free and cannot be moral. Who “we” are, in our various projects: Arendt’s, yours, mine, are people who are “initium” those who are willing to take initiative and act thoughtfully in the world.

    Thank you for your excellent blogs!

    David Turnbull

    • I am very happy with your reply, David – to learn about your project, which is a courageous one, I think; to hear about your connection with Arendt, who has written indispensable works; but especially with your final sentences: they put agency where it can be found: with those who try to think what they are doing or try to think from the standpoint of someone else (what Eichmann according to Arendt couldn’t) – you are right, I was writing in too skeptical a manner. Thanks for your appreciation!

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