What Hannah Arendt refers to as work
is the fabrication of things, those objects which – by virtue of their
comparative permanence – create the “human artifice” within which we live.
Unlike the products of labour, which are consumed, the proper use of the
creations of homo faber does not cause them to disappear, and it is this
facet which “gives the human artifice the stability and solidity without which
it could not be relied upon to house the unstable and mortal creature which is
man.” We are talking, therefore, of things such as buildings, tools and art –
the many aspects of the human condition which may persist, even beyond the life
of their creators.
Fabrication in Arendt’s view is a process of reification – the taking of a concept and converting it to a physical thing. Key to the implications of work in Arendt’s terms is that this image or model that guides work “not only precedes it, but does not disappear with the finished product, which it survives intact, present, as it were, to lend itself to an infinite continuation of fabrication.” This idea has reached its culmination in the arrival of automation, which takes the reification process out of human hands and places it into the domain of machinery. Thus utility and beauty – the conventional standards of the world – become sidelined as objects are instead built according to the nature and limitations of the machines.
In doing so, a crisis of purpose occurs. In
the work of homo faber, Arendt asserts that “here it is indeed true that
the end justifies the means; it does more, it produces and organises them.” For
instance, in the creation of a wooden table, the end (a table) justifies both
the killing of the tree and the destroying of the wood. (In Arendt’s view, all
fabrication involves violence against natural processes – even the working of
metal still involves the interruption of a natural process, albeit the inconceivably
slow geological processes). Regrettably, this thinking in terms of ends and
means de-emphasises the role of humanity in these processes – if fabrication is
to be meaningful, the ultimate end must be humanity itself, else we are making
things solely for the purpose of making them.
Unlike the animal laborans, which can have no inherent public realm in and of itself, homo faber produces a distinct public space, but it is not the political realm. Rather, the public realm of homo faber is the exchange market. The danger of this, however, is that when the marketplace becomes the central focus of society (as in capitalism) the fabrication of things ceases to be about the creation of use objects, but rather of exchange objects – the utility or beauty of the things created becomes secondary to their monetary value.
Again, the purpose of the fabrication process
– serving humanity – has become lost. It is not that the marketplace is
inherently problematic, but rather that the shifting of the production process
to the creation of consumables (rather than lasting things) devalues the merits
of fabrication. One can take pride in a well-made thing, but a consumable is
merely fleeting. One of the many casualties in this shift of focus to a
consumer society are works of art which “because of their outstanding
permanence… are the most intensely worldly of tangible things.” In the
marketplace, however, art is only valued for its exchange value, and not for
its potential to enrich the spaces in which we live.
Arendt suggests that just as the animal
laborans needs the help of homo faber to ease the burden of labour
(by making tools) and provide a space to live (by erecting homes), so “acting
and speaking men need the help of homo faber in his highest capacity,
that is, the help of the artist, of poets and historiographers, of
monument-builders or writers, because without them the only product of their
activity, the story they enact and tell, would not survive at all.” A focus on “the driving necessity of
biological life and labour” or “the utilitarian instrumentalism of fabrication
and usage” denies our capacity for speech and action, by which we take control
of our world.
Next week: Action