Tag Archives: Modernism

Like last year, in a team of five, we ‘deliver’ a philosophy course for a large group of governance and management students, called ‘philosophy of management and organisation’. Its main subjects – freedom and responsibility in organizations – are reflected upon by reading texts from thinkers such as Arendt, Weber and Berlin, which offer ample opportunity for discussion. The other day we (the team) were discussing a session on Panopticism by Foucault, a chapter from his famous book Discipline and Punish – the Birth of the Prison. This book does provide a historical analysis of how the modern penitentiary system has arisen – in its earliest forms in the eighteenth century, but this seems just a pretext for proposing to search for the anonymous techniques of power that are at work in typically modern societies. While they are democratic, promote free trade, and garuantee personal liberties, below the surface there are ‘invisible’ networks of power. Networks, or systems, that streamline the energies that arise from the growing masses of people in modern societies. The explosively multiplied members of the human species are suppressed, led and dominated in modern times not like their premodern counterparts by visible and violent force, represented in the body of the king, but by ever so many subtle signposts that direct their lives.

The development of modern power systems can thus be seen to endanger politics as such, as the free public exchange of views and ideologies. Power systems proliferate on their own, so to speak, and gobble up what Arendt has called action: free dialogue to make decisions about shared life. Two main principles are at work in the modern power systems, we read in the Panopticum chapter: discipline and exclusion. In other metaphors: training and purification. What has to be prevented are uncontrollable situations that result from the pure fact that numbers of people are growing, and that they tend to live in ever closer contact in large agglomorations. Foucault points to the historical fact that the large and deadly epidemics that plagued Europe gave rise to the first attempts to purify and train societies in systematic ways, introducing the idea of quarantaine, of regulating movement, hygienic procedures, etcetera:

“Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.” (p. 198)

This sentence now struck me, and reminded me of another sentence, in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and produced the following train of thought. Specters of Marx speaks, among so many other things, about ‘clandestine’ immigration – describing the undocumented as part of the – anonymous – ‘new international’: those who, across borders, crossing borders, undermine the powers that be. In Derrida’s sentence, we can recognize the same double strategy of normalization:

“One should not rush to make of the clandestine immigrant an illegal alien or, what always risks coming down to the same thing, to domesticate him.” (p. 219)

Making illegal, excluding, ‘purifying’ society of him, or domesticating, training or disciplining him. And these ‘run the risk’ of coming down to the same, says Derrida: both becoming mechanisms to stop the fear of the stranger, who is understood to ‘contaminate’ and ‘undermine’ the modern power systems. Systems that regulate modern mass societies. What modern citizens of the earth fear in the ‘people who appear and disappear’, without stamp of approval, without passport, health insurance or work permit – those who even ‘live and die in disorder’ – is the breakdown of orderly society – where we, inhabitants of the panopticum, content prisoners of modernity so to speak, are barred in by the securities we know. Those who do not live in them, but use them, who transgress their rules by their very living, making their living from those systems while disrespecting and disregarding them – they create the chaos that modernity fears and always again tries to supress.

Foucault and Derrida are often characterized as ‘postmodern’ thinkers. This means no more or less than that they seem to have been able to look beyond the boundaries of the modernist panopticum – describing what is at work in it. They were not utopians, sketching a new vision for societies, for utopias only make sense in the modernist belief in designed societies. So what have they done in their works? They have, to my view, tried to open the eyes of ‘the Romans’ that their world is coming to an end, so that they may be prepared for something else. What kind of something else? Disorganization and disease? Rebellion and violence? Not necessarily. Perhaps something that is modest and immodest at the same time: the coming of a public space, a space of action, of politics in the true sense of the word: exchanging views and… perhaps not ideologies, but rather experiences. Next to the violence and loud language of today I see people working to repair and transform spaces meant for dialogue and connection, recreate them from the waste of crumbling power systems so to speak. An uncertain undertaking, as the future is, as always, open.

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Penguin Books, 1977 [French original, 1975]

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

Finally I watched the film titled Hannah Arendt. I hesitated a long time, as I could not imagine the time had yet come for any filmmaker to understand and do justice to her life and thought. Who expects a biopic, as the title suggests, will be disappointed. The film is not about her life, nor about her intellectual and philosophical development. It orders some fragments of her life around this one event: her presence at and reporting about the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Not an unimportant event, but also not her most significant contribution to understanding our world, I think. More, the film does not analyze the process of her understanding the trial and of Eichmann, it focuses on the resistance that her thesis of ‘the banality of bureaucratic evil’ met, by Jews in Israel and the USA, and by those still believing in a final Victory over fascist evil. Essentially it provides a statement about this kind of evil, the statement that it expresses the troublesome aspects of modernism that we haven’t up till now been able to address. As such it is a film about our present time, more than one about the time of Hitler, or of Arendt.

Somewhere during Hannah Arendt someone warns the philosopher for the misconceptions that will arise over her work on Eichmann, saying something like: ‘following that line of thought, Hitler will become just a footnote in the history of modernism’. The one important line. Well, I do not think that Hitler will ever become a footnote in that history, as he represents one of the most crazy and gruesome expressions of it. But it becomes ever more clear to me that the opposition that we, children of postwar Europe, were made to believe in, that of Freedom over against Dictatorship was not the truth. It was a way to create a smoke curtain to keep us functioning in a political and economic system that has a lot in common with some main goals of nazi politics, as well as with state communism (the other dictatorial regime we were learned to be aware of). I wrote before on the false opposition of left and right that kept people in the seventies and eighties divided. Only now, when the true ugly face of the post-cold-war world is becoming clear – as it is systematically creating short, nasty and brutish lives for the most of mankind, while promising wealth and success to everone who is willing to play the game, is the time to see parallels between those systems, left and right, who created so much unfreedom for so many.

In a novel about the nazi camps I read just recently this interpretation: the camps wanted to learn its inhabitants that there was no relation between work and productivity, between crime and punishment, between your personal talents and what you could achieve or evade. You would be punished when you had done nothing wrong, you would be given work in the most ineffective conditions, and you would achieve nothing doing it, not even the security of survival. Although this system was used to kill people, it was more, and that has been said before: it tried to unlearn its victims (as well as those hired as perpetrators) normal human dignity, moral responsibility, as well as pride and joy in working – as all these aspects of a good human life were disowned, taken over by the system and made ridiculous. With the effect that Eichmann could say seriously: ‘I was just doing my job’. The cruelty of the nazi years was so intense and systematic, its racism so evident and central that one tends to see it as a unique horrific example of possible human evil, but all the same racism (or other forms of discrimination) and systematic cruelty are never absent in other oppressive systems. Nazi terror was an excess, an excessive experimentation to try to dehumanize people and make them puppets in some crazy production process: producing highways and cars as well as military machinery, chemicals to heal and to kill, bureaucrats and killers, and in the end corpses and more corpses.

With the difference that in the present system, in which states are losing more and more power to economical forces and their representatives, cruelty is more diffuse and not centralized as it might be in a dictatorial system, a lot of principles experimentally discovered by the early twentieth century dictators are still functioning to rule our lives: dehumanization, the taking away of responsibility, of dignity, of decency, of ownership of one’s talents and the produce of one’s work. These principles rule life in the richer parts of the world, but show their more gruesome effects in the poorer ones, of course. Hitler will never be a footnote. And the work of Hannah Arendt can only begin to be really understood in our time. The contribution of Arendt is well stated by Seyla Benhabib, who studied her life and work intensively: ‘Her work demonstrated how one can “think” about politics while resisting the temptation to system building. […] We read her today precisely because of the problematic distinctions and juxtapositions she creates, and not despite them; we read her because she helps us think politically, not because she answers our political questions.’ Because building systems and having an answer to questions proved to be part of the destructive and dehumanizing effects of modernism.

I referred to the film Hannah Arendt, 2013, directed by Margaretha von Trotta.

The work by Arendt which plays  a central role in it is Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, originally published in 1963.

I cited from Seyla Benhabib The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, originally published in 2000, new edition in 2003.

After I published my book on Spirits, in november 2011, I was invited a lot for interviews in philosophical cafés. It was winter and during my walks in the dark and cold night back to the train station I considered, confused, the most frequent question that I was asked by my audience: ‘do you believe yourself that spirits exist?’ I was confused, as this question was not addressed by me in the book, and did not seem very relevant to me either. Not because I would think it to be a private matter what I believe, but because I did not deem it philosophically relevant. It is a question that creates – as it were – a short circuit in my head, being a nonsensical question for a philosopher. My answer to those who pose it is usually: ‘do you ever ask yourself whether you believe that your loved one exists?’ Which means: when you are in a relationship, the question of whether the other partner in the relationship exists is nonsensical, since you already live the relationship. And asking whether one believes that he or she exists is even more weird, as if my belief would be in any possible way relevant for the existence of someone or something.

Let me elaborate on this here. I will take a perhaps unexpected approach – not the direct one of trying to prove that the discussion of belief in existence is nonsensical, but the indirect one of asking why one would want to ask that question in the first place? Why is the question ‘do you believe that spirits exist?’ important to so many people (at least among the visitors of philosophical cafés)? When considering why people would bother about existence, on one of these dark wintery walks the thought came to me: they are concerned with a problem that is a survival (in the historical sense: a survival is a thing that has lost the function it had in another time but that is still around) from ancient Greek philosophy. For the ancient Greeks (and I will not try to explain why) one of the most important questions evolved around the phenomenon of change, or rather, decay: how can we be certain of something durable while everything changes constantly, and life forms that have originated and grown wither and disappear again? The concept of existence refers to this need to understand that anything whatsoever could endure this constant change: it means that some things withstands change and decay – at least temporarily. To say that this animal, say, exists, means that is has a certain durability as an individual, that we can trust it to be not only here in this moment, but in the following ones as well, and depending on its species, even for years or decades.

The concept of existence lost its importance when modern science entered the stage: a manner to understand and research the world that is interested in active force and effect. Science does not ask in the first place how it is philosophically possible that there are durable things in a world of change, it asks what things do, how they work, what effects they have on other things. Philosophically, modern science introduced the pragmatist outlook before pragmatist philosophy formulated what this is about. Within the pragmatist outlook the existence of things is irrelevant. ‘True is what works’ wrote William James, and he meant that our perception is focused on how things influence other things, how they effect them. So, when we talk about spirits, for a modern person (and the postmodern one is also still modern in my view), for one who lives in the framework of modern science and technology, the only interesting question is whether we experience some effect from those entities, not whether they endure among constant change. Constant change has transformed from being a problem, as it was for the ancients, into the steady background of our lives. We have accepted it, so to say, philosophically.

This leaves us with the question of ‘belief’ in existence. Why would it be interesting whether a philosopher, Angela Roothaan for instance, believed in the existence of spirits? One could only answer this question affirmatively if one does think a) that existence of some things (spirits) should be argued for, and b) that a philosophical argumentation for it cannot stand on its own, but needs the affirmation of an actual philosopher – which would seem a wobbly foundation to me. I do not think one wants a foundation for the existence of spirits (as I do not want one for the existence of my loved one). To my view the sceptical doubt which drove the reasoning of the ancient philosophers is no longer ours. We can still put ourselves in their place to some extent, as it is done in philosophy classes, when students are invited to think through the ancient texts. But their questions do not reflect our interests. We are not so much interested in explaining how some thing can withstand decay (an actual person, or a spirit as the remaining essence of a dead person), but in the force that emanates from some thing that has appeared in the world. The thing may wither, its force does not, as it has already effected everything with which it has been in contact. I do not believe in the existence of spirits, I see the effects, the trails if you wish (not trails that are dead reminders of some thing that has passed, but effective trails, that keep on influencing, like the waves in a pond hit by a stone) of some thing having appeared/disappeared.

A happy 2014 (a year that has appeared, although I might doubt its existence) to all my readers!