Aquadelic GT
The Message from Evolution

The Human Condition (6): The Modern Age

There are many events which stand at the threshold of what can be termed the Modern Age, but several in particular stood out in significance for Hannah Arendt. One of these was the conclusion of the process of exploration. We no longer live in a world which is in the process of being mapped – that task is now concluded. She also notes: “precisely when the immensity of available space on earth was discovered, the famous shrinkage of the globe began.” Arendt did not live to see the onset of the internet, which has driven the “small world” idea even further than she might have imagined. Along with this process has occurred a crisis of world alienation – it is as if the more we understand of the world as a whole, the more focussed we have become on ourselves. 

One consequence of this is the extension of prosperity and depression into world-wide phenomena. From the perspective of the West, we like to fool ourselves into believing that we have eliminated the “labouring poor”, the lower classes who used to drive the economy. On closer examination, we find that even where this claim can be validated we have simply moved the impoverished lower strata out of our own nations and onto the world stage. The prosperity of the great Western nations is in part supported on the back of the poverty of third world nations, who effectively provide slave labour to support Western prosperity.

Along with world alienation, another event (or sequence of events) is noted by Arendt of particular relevance – the discovery of the Archimedian point. Archimedes had said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Little did he suspect that such a point could be reached though the development of scientific knowledge! Beginning (Arendt argues) with Galileo’s telescope which delivered to human cognition “the secrets of the universe”, humanity entered into a new era where what had previously served as the model for reality fell away to be replaced by Cartesian doubt, the “school of suspicion”, as Nietzsche called it. 

Modern physics allows us to tap into forces which lie beyond our natural capacities – we can unleash the energy of the sun, initiate in a test tube the processes of cosmic evolution, and obtain velocities in particle accelerators which approach the speed of light. We may not be able to stand on Archimedes' point, as we are “still bound to the earth through the human condition”, but we have found a way to act on the earth “as though we dispose of it from outside… even at the risk of endangering the natural life process…” This earth alienation has become the hallmark of modern science in Arendt’s view.

Along with this has come changes to humanity's chosen priorities. Whereas once contemplation was seen as the highest human endeavour, the dawn of the modern age came with the rise of homo faber – with the onset of industrialisation, the new scientific mindset and the resultant instrumentalisation of the world. Before long, instead of focusing on what was being fabricated, humanity was instead creating processes to deliver consumables. Almost as soon as homo faber had risen to prominence, the position was abdicated to the animal laborans. This happened through many factors – the rise of the consumer society, indeed, the rise of the notion of society at all, since society demands of people that they abdicate their responsibility to the State as their natural caretaker.

One peculiar aspect of this transformation are the ideologies attached to scientific research into evolution. Rather than confirming the uniqueness of humanity, scientific study into our origins (and ideological inventions that emerged from that study) concluded by viewing humans as simply animals. Viewed from this perspective, the achievements of fabrication and contemplation were perceived as mere consequences of the life process. Arendt provides an image by which to consider this: “Milton was considered to have written his Paradise Lost for the same reasons and out of similar urges that compel the silkworm to produce silk.” Arendt did not live to experience the heinous culmination of this degradation of human value into the gene-centric ideology (“the selfish gene”) which, when taken outside of its valid scientific context, destroys the dignity of humanity by claiming the primacy not of people, but of the constituents of their biological construction.

This reduction of the stature of mankind to a perspective of mere animal nature (and since, into the perverse and largely misleading perspective of humanity as the puppet to genetics) eroded and destroyed the capacity for speech and action, and the dignity of fabrication, while simultaneously elevating the stature of the life process, and hence the importance of labour. Again, Arendt sees the consumer society as a labouring society; all other considerations have somehow become lost. In this new world, ironically only the scientists seem to be able to act in concert – yet do so in isolation from the rest of the world that they live within. The action of scientists, working as it does from the standpoint of the universe and not from the standpoint of humanity, achieve action but fail to maintain the public space wherein speech and action can be allowed to work, and thus guide the action taken.

Yet this outcome is by no means inevitable, at least as long as we can cling to the conditions of political freedom that make thought possible. The future of mankind depends on our capacity to exercise this thought, to use it as the foundation for speech, by which to determine the action we should take. Rather than abdicate the process of politics to the family-surrogate of society which is alleged to behave in our best interests, Arendt suggests we should wield our capacity for thought to recreate the public sphere, within which the true political process of speech and action between people can emerge. By so doing, we can regain control of our world, and perhaps undo the damage caused by the earth and world alienation which, in Arendt's view, have so characterised the age within which we live. 

A new serial begins in December.


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Thanx, Chris ;-)

There is a fantastic point there - that consuming is a form of labour. Wow! That actually gives you a great perspective on the current obsessive comsumerism of today (a temptation I have a hard time shaking).

It really changes you when you see cunsuming as nothing more than a socially acceptable way of creating work for yourself!

Keep up the good work :)

Thanks for the kind words!

This serial was far tougher to write than I thought it would be - "The Human Condition" is a challenging book, but it is also highly rewarding. I have really only managed to present a very scant précis of some of her ideas over the past few weeks.

Still, I hope that by presenting this content in serial form it was more accessible than my usual giant rambles. :)

Best wishes!

" The future of mankind depends on our capacity to exercise this thought"

Yes, and thought (and therefore action) is predicated on education, not the institutionalised version but simply acquisition of awareness. So here we have a method to involve the rest of society in the scientific process that you say uniquely maintains action. That is, people must acquire awareness of what it is that science actually means, and does. People must educate themselves. There lies a way to address the ethics of science as we discussed it a few posts ago by facilitating dialogue between practitioners (scientists) and sponsors (taxpayers).

Ben Goldacre has a theory, that I'm sure I've seen or expressed somewhere else, that the representation of science to the public occurs through a media run by Humanities people, who have a distorted understanding themselves and thus you get the 'next big discovery' paradigm of scientific reporting. Whereas in reality, science is usually only good when new discoveries become older, well-tested, and rather dull through acceptance. So the good scientists are reluctant to talk about speculative work, and bad scientists who don't mind such publicity are often touted as 'experts', which undermines the value of the work in the first place. 'Experts' in this sense are a myth anyway!

Finally, can we not say that anyone involved in any level of artistic work is engaged in action? I've not read Arendt but they seem like good candidates!?

zenBen: well you won't catch me arguing against education, but I don't think it's that likely we'll be able to move to a place where understanding of science is sufficiently widespread as to allow the public the capacity you suggest here. It's an interesting perspective on the ethics of science issue, though; I still feel that the solution to this problem must begin with the scientists in some way.

Your thoughts about Goldacre's suggestion are interesting; the media certainly does distort the representation of science in its tendancy to jump on "the next big thing" prematurely, but this is unlikely to change, even with better education. The problems with the media are practically a subject in and of themselves... :)

And finally, Arendt considers works of art to be the product of work; they are not action in Arendt's terms because they do not utilise the power generated when people act together. However, of course a work of art may inspire or influence action, but here we have become tangential. I don't think any work of art has ever been the stepping point for political action, but I could easily be wrong!

Best wishes!

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