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The Amnesia of the Modern: Arendt on the Role of Memory in the Constitution of the Political

Irene McMullin

Philosophical Topics, Volume 39, Number 2, Fall 2011, pp. 91-116 (Article)

Published by University of Arkansas Press

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The Amnesia of the Modern: Arendt on the Role of Memory in the Constitution of the Political

Irene McMullin
University of Essex

ABSTRACT. In this paper I consider the essential role that public memory

plays in the establishment and maintenance of the political arena and its space of appearance. Without this space and the shared memory that allows it to appear, Hannah Arendt argues, transience and nitude would consume the excellence of word and deedjust as the natural ruin of time consumes its mortal performer. The modern era displays a kind of mnemonic failure, however, a situation arising not only from technological developments that outsource memory but from several normative breakdowns that Arendt describes as characteristic of modernity. The consequence is the individuals loss of personal, living access to the communitys memories, and the communitys own failure to engage in the difcult choice of what counts as worthy of preservation. In failing to ask this question, however, the community abdicates responsibility for establishing the shared norms by which it will govern itself in times of crisis. In this paper I argue that the nature of modern social consciousness can be understood as a type of collective amnesia, a condition that undermines the very purpose and possibility of the political sphere as Arendt characterizes it. By amnesia I understand the condition of a failure in memory, and in the case of modernity, it refers


to a loss of the evaluative dimension of communal memory. I will argue that this modern failure of memory is due, ironically, to having too much of ita situation arising not only from technological developments but from several normative breakdowns that Arendt describes as characteristic of modernity. The consequence for the political arena has been the loss of substantive communal norms in favor of liberal democracys purely formal public standards, whereby diverse visions of the good life are protected by whatever formal procedural norms are necessary to enable a peaceful value pluralism. Despite liberal democracys obvious successes in this regard, this models normative barrenness has resulted in other problems problems evident, for example, in political gridlock and the so-called culture wars. In the absence of shared public norms for evaluating what should count as excellent human lives, citizens turn to competing private visions that regularly conflict conflicts that there are no public norms in place to adjudicate. The state neutrality characteristic of modernity is echoed in Arendts own sharp divide between the political and the social, since she excludes from the political arena many of the substantive questions about how to structure our livesan exclusion that is most problematic when it comes to establishing the institutions and practices through which we inculcate in our citizens the qualities necessary to carry out genuinely political words and deeds. Rather than eschewing the difficult work of establishing substantive communal normsas modernity has been wont to doI will suggest that a form of virtue ethical perfectionism could help overcome the mnemonic breakdown afflicting modernity.


Memory plays an important role in Arendts understanding of the political, since it is the faculty by which we recognize and preserve the uniqueness of the individual who reveals herself in word and deed. For Arendt, such speech and action establish the relationships between individuals that we call political. They reveal, above all, an individuals unique identity to the community of witnessesshowing who we are without mediation and without the ability to hide from those who see and respond to the assertion embodied therein: This is who I am. In speech and action we depend on the community to reflect back to us who we are. Word and deed thereby enable genuinely political exchange because they are the basis of a relationship-establishing encounter between individuals. It is for this reason that the recognition and commemoration of such individuality-revealing events of speech and action are central to the possibility of a flourishing political arena.1 The role of commemoration is particularly important, Arendt believes, because it normatively structures a political communitys identity. Art and history are the communitys shared memory of those actions deemed worthy of commemoration. One thinks here of the Iliad: arts commemoration of the Trojan heroes gives them an enduring place in the world and protects them from being forgotten.


A communitys history is its shared commemoration of those words and actions that it deems too important to its collective identity to be forgotten. Without such a shared historyand the normative stance embodied in the communitys decisions about what counts as memorablethe permanence of world necessary to shelter us from the elemental flux of nature is impossible. Exemplary acts serve to anchor a community around a vision of excellence; they provide a public model of what it means to be fully human. By choosing what words and deeds are worthy of remembrance, then, the community defines its identity.2 For the Greeks, this normative dimension was acknowledged explicitly insofar as they believed that the only form of permanency or immortality one could achieve lay in accomplishing such a degree of excellence that ones deeds would be remembered by the community for all time. Immortality, as the Greeks understood it, meant endurance in time, deathless life on this earth and in this world.3 Thus they deemed their gods immortalbut this did not mean an unchanging eternal existence in another realm, but rather an enduring life in this one. For the Greeks, this immortality typically characterized everything but humansthe gods and the cycle of nature had an enduring life in this world. Even plants and animals had a kind of immortality insofar as each species returned every year with the cycle of the seasons. Humans alone were considered the mortals, Arendt argues, because our individuality means that we cannot be understood solely in terms of our species beingas plants and animals arebut nor do we have the deathless status of gods. Human beings live time in a linear fashion; we have a distinct beginning and end. The only way in which mortals such as ourselves can achieve something like immortality, then, is through the communitys recognition and remembrance of our extraordinary deeds. Human action can only live on in the collective memory of the communitya fact that calls one forth into performing excellent actions worthy of such commemoration. Thus the emphasis falls not on survivala futile dreambut on individual excellence, since public commemoration was deemed the only way to escape the futility of individual mortal life. Those who cared too much for lifeplacing it above honor or excellence, for exampledemonstrated that they had not risen above the level of animals. Because of this intersection of publicity, excellence, commemoration, and personal identity, Arendt argues that the polis is to be understood as the space of collective memory; it is a kind of organized remembrance (HC, 198) serving as witness and archive for the activities of the great. Without this space of appearing and the public memory that gives it permanence, transience and finitude would consume the excellence of word and deedjust as the natural ruin of time consumes its mortal performer. The shared political domain thereby creates a scaffolding of permanence within the shifting course of time, a permanence accomplished through the artifacts and archives of a shared art and history, which transform the mortal actor into the immortal deed. Thus the most fragile of human behaviors word and deedboth depend on and enable the political arena. This founding/ founded relationship of action and political sphere takes place on the terrain of collective memory. Memorable action serves to establish and maintain a political


space: the very arena in which actions can be recognized and preserved as memorable. Action, in so far as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history (HC, 89).


What differentiates the modern from the ancient understanding of this political arena is in many ways what undermines its capacity to serve this role in the modern age. Modernity is characterized by the desire and the ability to record all events: a revolution in memory due in large measure to technological outsourcing.4 Technology allows us to archive everything, to record each passing moment and file it away in the artificial memory banks of the digital age. Indeed, even things that we want to forget are likely to return in the form of an e-mail or a cell phone photo.5 Though this artificial memory is typically understood solely as a boon for we creatures of limited memory, it is my contention that its overwhelming presence has contributed to a type of unrecognized breakdown or failure in memory. This is evident on the individual level in the fact that the act of recollecting is, for the most part, no longer considered important or relevant. Why learn something by rote when we can always look it up? The consequence of the modern outsourcing of memory is a type of generalized social amnesia in which failure and neglect of the active recollection dimension of memory is unrecognized because we assume that the passive cataloguing dimension of memory can cover its loss. What this amounts to, however, is that we as a species know a great deal, but we as individuals very rarely possess any of this knowledge in a living way. The distinction is a vital one since, left in the inert chambers of digital memory, knowledge fails to engage in the type of active comparison and recombination that occurs when it is left in the storehouse of the mind. We can always look it upbut this means it will never look us up, springing up on us in an unexpected moment and provoking an epiphany or innovation. This fact is particularly important to note when we consider that this generalized amnesia afflicts the community even when it comes to the history that supposedly embodies its self-understanding.6 Interestingly, a similar worry about cognitive outsourcing arose in the eighteenth century with the spread of the printed word. Figures throughout Europe were concerned that the onslaught of books would prevent deep and careful thinking, encouraging, instead, superficial knowledge of many (often useless) topics.7 This worry was exacerbated by the belief that excess publishing undermined normative constraints on what was deemed worthy of publication. The written word gradually came to encompass a range from Aristotle to People Magazine, opening the reading public to a much wider selection of texts from which they might choosea choice, we now know, that more often endorses the latter than the former. A twenty-first-century version of this same shift appears to be occurring with


the rise of self-publishing. Editors once served as gatekeepers between would-be authors and the reading publiclax gatekeepers, perhaps, but gatekeepers nonetheless. The possibility of self-publishing on the Internet is doing away with even such minimal controls, as is the explosion of public venues such as blogs and Facebook. Such formats give anonymous individuals enormous power to make a matter of permanent public record whatever words or photos they choose. Though there are clearly beneficial aspects of this technological innovation and its near universal accessibility, there are also dangers associated with the anonymity and isolation of those who participate in a public sphere that has been colonized by social, rather than political, modes of interaction.8 Read in light of eighteenth-century worries about the corrupting influence of widespread book availability, complaints about the overabundance of unregulated information in the technological age might seem overwrought. But we should not be so quick to dismiss such worries, since the prevalence of easily consumable public information shapes not only the nature of the public arena, but also the thinking habits of those who consult it. Many of the texts that the average reader tackled in the eighteenth century were enormously intellectually challenging compared to the average readers choice of text todaythe former promoting a kind of cognitive engagement that cannot be emulated by lesser works.9 Not all texts are created equal, and many of the classical texts demand a kind of sustained attention and intellectual effort that is unnecessary when approaching most contemporary media. Indeed, encyclopedias and indexes became increasingly prevalent in the eighteenth centuryprecursors to Wikipedia and Googlein order to help readers cope with masses of information and lighten the cognitive load. Thus the process of digesting and organizing information has been increasingly outsourced, enabling readers to avoid the assessment and categorizationthe deep thinkingintrinsic to the taxing work of grasping meaning in the face of complexity. Further, the fragmentation of information characteristic of technology and its hyperlink-laden writing seems to confirm worries regarding the transformation in thinking promoted by such changes. Namely, whether these changes are undermining our capacity for the sustained attention necessary for deep thinking. For example, new research shows that computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly thirty-seven times an houra number illustrative of the fragmented attention operative even in the workplace.10 Though studies have not yet been conducted on the nature of pleasure reading using digital readers equipped with Internet access, anecdotally, at least, readers are reporting an inability to resist the temptation to regularly check Facebook or Twitter while (supposedly) immersed in a novel. As a result of this flood of constant stimuli, some argue that
The Webs hyperlinks that propel us from page to page, the blogs that reduce long articles to a more consumable line or two, and the tweets that condense thoughts to 140 characters have all created a culture of distraction. The very technologies that help us manage all of this information are undermining our ability to read with any depth or care. The


Web, according to some, is a deeply flawed medium that facilitates a less intensive, more superficial form of reading. When we read online, we browse, we scan, we skim.11

Most worrisome of all, there is growing evidence that such a transformation in our relationship to information affects the brain itself:
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitementa dopamine squirt that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored. (Richtel, Your Brain, 2010)

The most important finding for our purposes here, however, is the fact that the constant exposure to such varied stimulants appears to inhibit the reflective, evaluative dimension of the mind. Thus researchers at Stanford found that multitaskers tended to constantly search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work. Novelty, it seems, trumps other values:
The results also illustrate an age-old conflict in the brain, one that technology may be intensifying. A portion of the brain acts as a control tower, helping a person focus and set priorities. More primitive parts of the brain, like those that process sight and sound, demand that it pay attention to new information, bombarding the control tower when they are stimulated. (Richtel, Your Brain, 2010)

A similar overriding or loss of this evaluative dimension of thoughta compromised control towerhas been found in children with ADHD. For example, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, Elizabeth Lorch, notes a difference in childrens ability to comprehend televised stories. Though children with ADHD are able to recall facts just as well as other children, they are unable to understand the narrative or separate out what is important as well as their peers can. Why did an event happen, why did a character do thisthats where the comprehension and recall of children with A.D.H.D. tends to fall down, she said.12 In other words, they can retrieve isolated packets of information but fail to see the overarching narrative import of such data. What all of these cases point to is a pervasive transformation in our relationship to information and the technology that conveys it. A strange sort of amnesia appears to afflict modernityrather than loss of mere information, our condition speaks to the roots of the word amnesia and its connotations of oblivion; of lost meaning and mindfulness. Though we are only beginning to understand the ramifications of these changes to how we process and record informationchanges to which we cannot hope to do justice in this paperit seems clear that they will not be trivial when it comes to shaping the public arena and the citizens who act within it. When citizens no longer have a personal and living access to the shared memo-


ries of the community, when the capacity to categorize and evaluate events for importance and meaning is impaired, when the properly private concerns of the social arena invade the public space once reserved for political exchange, it becomes very difficult to establish or maintain the shared space of meaning in which the between of politics occurs. It is important to be clear, however, that this breakdown in social memory is not a simple consequence of the Internet and expanded computer storage; rather, it bespeaks a fundamental shift in how we now understand the role of memory. What is being lost is not merely bits of data but memorys evaluative quality. Because we can now chronicle all that transpires in an outsourced memory system, because we are increasingly engrossed by the fleeting rewards of the new sound bite or Twitter update and are not, therefore, required to sustain in memory a single complex idea or narrative arc, there is no need or ability to ask ourselves if something is worthy of preserving. But without this normative orientation toward what we commemorate, these words and actions can no longer serve as an anchor for the communitys collective identity. Such a transformation of the evaluative dimension of memory has occurred in the most everyday aspects of modern life. It is evident, for example, in the attitude toward photography one adopts upon shifting to digital camera use. The boundlessness of digital memory counteracts the limitationsand thus the requirement that one choose carefullyposed by traditional film. Suddenly all moments become worthy of photographing, and the limitlessness of computer memory banks means that one might as well keep every photo, regardless of redundancy, irrelevance, or quality. As we will see, this shift produces in miniature the very change evident on a larger scale in the public arena: namely, it increasingly produces a chronicle of lives that focuses on the everyday, the commonplaceand not on those moments of profound significance that stand out against the mundane backdrop and give to it its value and meaning. Memory has become indiscriminate where it was once forced to be selective. It is precisely this selectiveand thus evaluativedimension of memory, however, that allowed it to serve such a foundational role in the establishment and maintenance of the public arena. As we have seen, the Greeks understood action to be the exceptional mode in which those worthy of immortality achieved it through memorys protective embrace; communal memory was fundamentally normative insofar as its domain was precisely the unique, the exceptional. The subject matter of history is . . . the extraordinary.13 Those who were remembered were those worthy of remembrance, a function, perhaps, of ancient oral traditions in which there could be no distance between archive and access. What was granted precious space in the minds storehouse was only that which we could not allow ourselves to forget. In the digital age, however, there is simultaneously no place for forgetting and no ability to rememberall things are preserved in the boundless memory of machines, but no individual can recall them. The consequence is a loss of the intrinsically normative structure implicit in having to choose what ought to be remembered.


As Arendt argues in The Concept of History, modernity no longer understands action primarily in terms of its inherent excellenceits emerging, shining quality (Concept, 47) because we now understand actionlike the community memory that impassively records itas a type of normatively neutral process. This shift from a normative to a procedural interpretation of actionand the corresponding changes in communal and individual rememberingreflect, as we will see, massive changes in at least three major domains: science, economics, and religion. For Arendt, the kinds of technology-based changes that we have touched on above have much deeper roots, arising out of modernitys transformations of other aspects of public life.

With Copernicus came modernitys troubling realization that our capacity for straightforwardly knowing the world is by no means guaranteed; indeed, we moderns have come to see the disjunct between our representations and reality in-itself as so vast that it is unbridgeable not only by the senses, but, as Heisenberg foretold, by any human measure. The scientific drive for objectivity was a response to this profound world alienation and its corresponding fear that the answers of science will always remain replies to questions asked by men (Concept, 49)that everywhere we go we will not find truth but only ourselves.14 Driven by this anxiety, Arendt argues, science strives for a compensating objectivity in which all information is recorded without evaluation or discrimination; the scientist does not consider how the data being recorded will serve the project of living well, because to do so would only exacerbate the inherent anthropocentrism characteristic of all knowledge seeking. Nietzsche famously anticipates this view of science in the second of his Untimely Meditations15 and in The Gay Science,16 where he characterizes the scholarly quest for objectivity as the dusty pursuit of those who subsume individual striving for excellence to a project that models itself on the eternal and unchanging. Science demands that one commit ones life to understanding the minutiae of the universes indifferent turning. Because of this orientation to the eternal, Arendt argues, the scientific demand for objectivity when cataloguing facts differs profoundly from the impartiality demanded by history or poetry. The former involves a type of eradication of the self and the evaluative dimensionemphasizing, precisely, impartiality and nondiscrimination. Under the aegis of eternity, who are we to judge what is worthy of remembrance? In the latter, however, the evaluative dimension is not only present but required in order to trump those forms of partiality that would obscure it: the poets or historians impartiality lies in the acknowledgment of excellence in both friend and foe, Achilles and Hector. Art and history do not embody the inhuman objectivity of the sciences, but neither are they propaganda; they demand an atten-


tive commitment to a norm of excellence that transcends the individual or the parochial. Such impartiality does not mean abstention from bestowing either praise or blame (Concept, 51), as it does in scientific objectivity. Rather, this type of Homeric impartiality rested upon the assumption that great things are self-evident, shine by themselves (Concept, 52)a type of evaluative default position that is no longer available in the scientific age and its nonevaluative orientation to reality. With the shift from poetic impartiality to scientific objectivity, however, individual objects and events increasingly lose any sense of inherent meaningbecoming accidental byproducts of the overarching meaning-narratives provided by what Arendt refers to as a procedural understanding of reality:
Modern science was born when attention shifted from the search after the what to the investigation of how. This shift of emphasis is almost a matter of course if one assumes that man can know only what he has made himself, insofar as this assumption in turn implies that I know a thing whenever I understand how it has come into being. (Concept, 57).

In modernity the integrity of the individual object or eventthe whatis secondary to the knowledge of how it has come into being and how it can be manipulated or used.17 The modern fear that we can only truly know what we ourselves have made has facilitated the shift from merely understanding the processes of coming into being to beginning and manipulating these processes ourselves. Thus technology is the calling card of modernity, since it is a pursuit focused not on commemorating or understanding what is deemed excellent, but on manipulating and changing what we view as value-neutral processes. It is here that the human capacity for action finds its distinctively modern form. Processes unleashed by humanity on naturethe essence of technology for Arendtinvolve the same type of unpredictability as other forms of human action. What characterizes this thoroughly modern form of action, however, is the total disconnect that this unpredictability and spontaneity now have from the unique self-showing of the individual concerned with excellence. The ancient understanding of action, according to Arendt, was defined by the agonal spirit, the passionate drive to show ones self in measuring up against others (HC, 194). In action, one depended on the community to reveal the identity that ones action manifested. In modernity, however, process has taken over. Procedural understandings of reality divide the act from the actorwho is no longer viewed as the creative source of the act but is now only another stage in a process taken to be greater than those who facilitate it. This procedural understanding of reality also serves to separate the act from the witnessing presence of those who evaluate its excellence and shape their community around the memory of its exemplarity. The emphasis is on the how rather than the what and the whether. Such technological processes are particularly dangerous, then, because they insert human unpredictability into nature while decoupling it both from the individual responsibility of the actor and the


evaluative stance of the witnessing community. The consequence is losing our normative grasp on the activities we perform, while experiencing them as not genuinely attributable to us. But without such a normative framework, technological processesand the value-neutral information on which they restcannot provide the shared political structure once enabled by individual words and deeds. As Arendt notes:
The moment man approaches this process in order to escape the haphazard character of the particular, in order to find meaningorder and necessityhis effort is rebutted by the answer from all sides: any order, any necessity, any meaning you wish to impose will do. (Concept, 89)

Any meaning will do because the procedural relationship to reality bases its standard of success merely on use-value and the consistency of ones processstandards, history shows us, that accommodate any number of abhorrent policies. The danger that technology poses threatens not only the natural world, but the political arena as well, since decoupling the normative dimension of action from its spontaneity and unpredictability threatens to destroy actions capacity for revealing human individuality and for establishing the between of political relationships that is built on this condition of revealed individuality. When actions are simply moments in anonymous processes that can be equally useful depending on ones interpretive stance, the condition for human self-showingand the community that commemorates its appearingis lost: no activity can become excellent if the world does not provide a proper space for its exercise (HC, 49). The loss of the normative dimension of action and memory can only be understood as a loss of the capacity for genuinely political life. This condition is only exacerbated by the fact that the conceptual frameworks through which science accomplishes its objectivity, and technology enacts its transformative procedures, are largely unavailable to the understanding of the average person: we are unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do (HC, 3). The consequence is that we become slaves to our own know-how; our inability to even conceptualize what is happening means that we can no longer meaningfully discuss the question of whether we ought to transform our own condition through this or that procedure. One thinks of the Large Hadron Collider and the early worries that it might spawn baby black holesa threat whose highly esoteric nature forecloses the possibility of meaningful political discourse among non-experts. Thus Arendt claims that in modernity we are in a situation in which
Speech is no longer meaningful. For the sciences today have been forced to adopt a language of mathematical symbols which, though it was originally meant only as an abbreviation for spoken statements, now contains statements that in no way can be translated back into speech. (HC, 4)

Even the organization of public information is now shaped using procedures over which we have little control. As Chad Wellmon points out, Googles search algo-


rithms are ways of filtering and structuring public informationalgorithmic filters that are both inherently normative and yet generally unavailable for public understanding or revision:
From its beginnings at Stanford, the PageRank algorithm modeled the normative value of one page over another. It was concerned not simply with questions of completeness or managerial efficiency, but of value. It exploited the often-overlooked fact that hyperlinks . . . not only connected document to document, but offered an implicit evaluation. The technology of the hyperlink, like the footnote, is not neutral but laden with normative evaluations. (Wellmon 2012)

These evaluations are not genuinely public and contestable, howeverthey are not open to the dialogue and discourse definitive of the political sphere. Rather, they are anonymous processes in which we participate merely as undifferentiated units. They are automatic normative frameworks established by defaultresponsive not to deliberation and shared reasons but to millions of isolated choices. Such aggregated choices determine what will count as valuableand thereby shape the algorithms normative filternot through public discourse but through private preferences. Thus questions of value and authority are functions of and subject to the purported wisdom of the digital crowd that is itself a normalized product of an algorithmic calculation of value and authority (Wellmon 2012).18 What Arendt wants us to recognize, then, is that in such modern structures we are faced with fundamentally political issues about what we ought to value and how we ought to act, but they are political issues that have been made inaccessible to the political sphere. They are political questions because they will have profound effects on the quality of our public lives and relationships, but they are simultaneously unavailable as political questions because they are governed by processes that cannot even be discussed intelligently except by those experts whose very mode of expertise is predicated on the non-evaluative stance of data collection and procedures of organization, not on the evaluative stance of commemoration. We can thus see this as a variation of the problem of memory discussed above, in which a value-neutral archival memory has usurped normatively fraught access memory. Though we as a nation or species have accumulated a great deal of scientific knowledge, its inaccessibility to the general populationwhich must make political decisions on its basisis only growing.19

Arendt further argues that this procedural understanding of reality and the corresponding failure in the evaluative dimension of memory characterizes the modern economic condition as well. It was once the case that the average worker had to hold in thought and memory those qualities essential to the creation of the desired object; fabrication occurred as a type of reification of the remembered essence of


the thing. Such a holding in thought of the things essential qualities demanded memory in its full normative senseassessing and maintaining only that which was deemed necessary for the objects creation. In the modern condition of automation, however, contemporary workers need not even be aware oflet alone determine and hold in memorythe essential character of that toward which they are working. This shift in the economic face of human life is echoed in the consumer, who trades one thing for the next in a constant exchange of disposable goods. As Arendt notes in The Human Condition, rapid industrialization constantly kills off the things of yesterday to produce todays objects (HC, 52). Indeed, the culture of consumption relies on modernitys ability to shift what were once products of work into the domain of labor. The work/labor distinction is not simply a function of how much faster we consume labor products as opposed to work products, however. The consumption objects of labor have destruction inherent in their identitythey are designed to be consumed, used up. Though work objects are also used up eventually over time, they are (supposedly) designed not to be. But in modernity, Arendt argues, this distinction is being lost. Our work objectscomputers, houses, shoes, have destruction inherent in their identity in the sense that they are designed to become obsolete in the face of the new and improved. Indeed, a faulty memory is the markets greatest ally here, since it encourages the consumer to believe that the happiness promised in the glossy packaging of product C will not be as empty as it was when she consumed products A and B.20 In such a condition, the objects of production cannot hope to provide the type of worldly permanence necessary to maintain a stable public sphere, precisely because such stability would undermine the economic aim of constant exchange. The cyclic movement of labor has infected the realm of workan arena where the permanency of works products once provided a framework in which linear time the precondition for memoryreplaced the cyclic rhythm of nature. The appearance of someone uniquely newwhat Arendt calls human natalitycan only occur against a backdrop of permanence in terms of which newness is recognizable as such. The quicksand of modern consumerism erodes the constancy that work objects once provided, and in doing so erodes the capacity for the political arena and the self-showing of individuality that defines it. One can recognize this loss of stability in some of the art forms most representative of the modern eraperformance art and installation art. Though the workobject status of art once provided a kind of temporal stabilityits timelessness it now takes the form of one-off performances or events, thereby becoming as transient as the other objects of consumption. Without the impetus of physical necessity to focus its attentionsomething increasingly absent in the modern Westthis cyclic movement of the consumers demand for novelty both undermines the constancy of the public edifice and encourages individuals to have the attention spans of goldfish. On this reading, contemporary conditions like ADHD are not accidentalthey are the thoroughly modern way in which cyclic temporal-


ity and the interchangeability of nature have colonized the space in which constancy and linearity should appear. Only in the linear time opened up by constancy can the actions of a unique self appear and be judged worthy of commemoration in memory. This loss of attention span is not simply a medical problem, then, but a profoundly moral and political one. As Arendt notes in The Life of the Mind:
Moreover, by fixing our mind on what to see or hear, we tell our memory what to remember and our intellect what to understand, what object to go after in search of knowledge . . . . In other words, the Will, by virtue of attention, first unites our sense organs with the real world in a meaningful way, and then drags, as it were, this outside world in to ourselves and prepares it for further mental operations: to be remembered, to be understood, to be asserted or denied.21

The economy of consumption strips producer and consumer alike of the possibility of creating and living within the worldly constancy necessary for a shared political space. It constrains us, instead, to the metabolic structure of cyclic nature. In doing so it both encourages and arises out of the amnesia characteristic of the modern era, undermining the possibility of the kind of stable backdrop necessary to foreground anything genuinely new and memorable.

Modernitys abstention from normative assessment and the commemoration that grants such assessment its distinctively political role is a feature not only of profound changes in science and economics, but is due in large measure to the prevalence of Christian otherworldliness and egalitarianism. With its emphasis on a heavenly dimension accessible to all, the notion of human immortality is no longer relevant to this world. Christianity transfers the normative assessment of who achieves immortality to another life and another judgethereby stripping the evaluative role from the community of remembering witnesses. This emphasis on the immortality of all mortals marked a major shift away from the profoundly normative Greek view that only the few will be worthy of immortalitya limitedness built into the public remembrance that constituted immortality for the Greeks. As Arendt notes, the Christian view simply exacerbated the change instigated by Plato, who dismissed the desire for worldly immortality by claiming that it could be guaranteed not by greatness but simply by offspring. But this attitude, Arendt argues, is merely the conviction of the animal laborans and its species mentality, which moves within the cycles of nature and for whom life is the highest of all goods (HC, 208)a claim deeply foreign to Achilles and his ilk. As Charles Taylor notes in Sources of the Self, the Christian belief in the equal value of all persons has been taken to an extreme in the modern era, which is characterized above all by its emphasis on avoiding suffering and the affirmation of


ordinary life . . . the life of production and family.22 This public affirmation of the ordinary and the accessible to all requires us to put the evaluative memory of the public arena in abeyanceevident, for example, in the virulent rejection of elitism and the average persons insistence on his right to his opinion. This celebration of the average is nowhere more evident than in reality TVthe perfect representative of an era in which mediocrity has taken over the public place once reserved for excellence. Indeed, when we attempt to determine who our contemporary actors are, the answer is that they are precisely actors. What better exemplars for a society in which the individual can be interchangeably fitted into different processes? Our desire for something more from these manifestations of excellenceour hope that their exemplarity is somehow genuinefuels the voracious interest in the private lives of stars. We look for something more behind the faade, some sign of the individual excellence that would justify this communal attention and commemoration. This hope is generally disappointed, and the actor is continually experienced as being ordinary and banal just like the rest of us. Such a discovery only fuels the modern conviction that ultimately everyone just is ordinary that the excellence we crave is not a genuine possibility, at least, not in this world. Arendt notes an example of the contemporary elevation of the ordinary when she speaks of the French, who have become enchanted with small things: greatness has given way to charm everywhere; for while the public realm may be great, it cannot be charming precisely because it is unable to harbor the irrelevant (HC, 52). What such assessments of irrelevance require are standards of excellence according to which words and deeds are publicly judged and sometimes excluded from the public sphere because they are found wanting of the seriousness to which that sphere should be committed. What it requires, further, is a judging public that maintains these standards and bestows only on excellent deeds the type of recognition that can be granted by the witnessing public alone.23


What these profound changes in science, economics, and religion demonstrate is that the modern condition of malfunctioning evaluative memory is hardly accidental but arises, rather, from modernitys profound transformations in self-understanding. Neither, however, is this condition benign. The ethical and political implications of this shift are of course evident in the total political breakdown we see in Totalitarianism. With respect to this connection Arendt makes particular note of Eichmanns disturbing lack of a communal memory. What he remembered were things almost exclusively specific to his own life narrative; he never fit this narrative into an overarching public sphere in which events had a greater significance than those of his own life. Eichmanns memory, jumping with great ease over the years . . . was certainly not controlled by chronological order, but it was not simply


erratic. It was like a storehouse, filled with human-interest stories of the worst type.24 What he remembered, notes Arendt, were events like bowling with his superiorsnot mass deportations to death camps. For Arendt, Eichmanns amnesia is not accidental, for memory is above all the faculty by which we recognize and preserve the uniqueparticularly the uniqueness of the individual person publicly showing herself forth in excellence. Totalitarianism attempts to eradicate memory for this very reason; memory poses a threat to understanding the world in terms of anonymous world-historical processes in which there is a constant dynamic transformation toward the new and improved and the individual is to be viewed solely as a tool in the service of this world-historical project. Evaluative memory expresses a value-constancy and focus on the individual making herself public that is at odds with the decoupling of actor from responsibility that is characteristic of such procedural thinking. Arendt makes note of the role of amnesia in totalitarianism when she observes of Stalinist Russia: as for the gift of memory so dangerous to totalitarian rule, foreign observers feel that if it is true that elephants never forget, Russians seem to us to be the very opposite of elephants.25 Eichmann and the totalitarian erosion of memory that facilitated his condition are extreme examples of the role that remembrance plays in the maintenance or destruction of the normative public arena. It is clear, however, that more recentand subtlerforms of this type of mnemonic distortion threaten modern liberal democracies, which appear to suffer from too much and too little memory. Recording all in the undifferentiated gray of economic interchangeability, scientific objectivity, and Christian equality, we forget nothingbut neither do we build community around a shared commitment to a normative sense of what is worth remembering: a task that involves establishing and maintaining a shared vision of the good life through the public choice of what to remember and what to forget; of whom to honor and whom to allow to be claimed by the forgetfulness of time. As Nietzsche notes in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, forgetting, too, is essential for meaningful action, because
A living thing can be healthy, strong and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon . . . cheerfulness, the good conscience, the joyful deed, confidence in the futureall of them depend, in the case of the individual as of a nation, on the existence of a line dividing the bright and discernible from the unilluminable and dark; on ones being just as able to forget at the right time as to remember at the right time (63).

As Nietzsche liked to remind us, forgetting is itself a kind of activity, a function of active choosingof what to honor with our attention and what to let go.26 In making such choices, we establish the horizons in terms of which we orient our lives; we define for ourselves what counts as health, strength, and fruitfulnessthereby giving meaning and direction to our striving. Jorge Luis Borgess story, Funes, the Memorious, makes this point clear through the eyes of a man incapable of forgetting: without selective rememberingwhich means selective forgetting, ones life is


without bearings.27 In modernity, the forgetting inherent in such an evaluative understanding of remembranceits normativityis being replaced with the mass recording of facts and the wholesale acceptance of all words and deeds as equally worthy of commemoration.


What such evaluative remembrance could look like for we moderns is hard to imagine, then, considering the long erosion of this evaluative dimension. A return to the fixed meaning narratives of the past is hardly an option considering the fact that such narratives have typically denied political life and social power to huge swathes of humanityessentially deeming the actions of many people inherently unmemorable. Returning to such traditional standards is no solution, then, but neither is ignoring the problem of evaluative memory failure that afflicts us, since the possibility of establishing a genuine community depends upon it. We are faced anew with the question: from what standpoint can we characterize certain human actions as exemplary, when we have lost the legitimating meta-narratives by which such things have been judged in the past?28 In what sense can we understand Arendts claim that great words and deeds possess an enduring quality of their own (HC, 208)? We can see modernitys attempt to answer this issue when we recall Arendts claim from the beginning, namely, that Action, in so far as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history (HC, 89). Action creates its own remembrance not simply because its inherent excellence provokes communal approbation, but because certain actions serve to first bring people into community. As Arendt reminds us, The public realm, the space within the world which men need in order to appear at all, is therefore more specifically the work of man than is the work of his hands or the labor of his body (HC, 208). Exemplary action not only finds recognition within existing communities, then, but also creates communitiesit provokes identity-founding commemorative works of art and history because the community calls out for narratives that document and explain the relationships that have arisen in the face of such action. Action may create its own remembrance because it inaugurates and preserves communities of memory. It motivates community; it does not simply enjoy an established communitys affirmation. This point illustrates modernitys political response to the problem of normativity we have been articulating namely, that exemplary action cannot be recognized as such because we have carefully bracketed or destroyed many of the standards of assessment necessary to distinguish the memorable from the simply recorded in memory. Modernitys response to this problema very Arendtian response, it turns outhas been to count as excellent those actions that contribute to making a public space possible.


But what kind of action enables and preserves a public space of appearing in this way? The modern answer to this question has been profoundly shaped by the transformations in the public sphere that we have discussed abovethe emphasis on the equality of persons, the growth of procedural interpretations of reality, and the dominance of patterns of continual creation. The result is liberal democracies characterized by state neutrality and proceduralism, the equal rights of all citizens, and the emphasis on individual autonomy in pursuing plural visions of the good life. On this view, the public sphere is an arena of equals engaged in the process of constantly creating and recreating the conditions necessary for such a public space. In other words, in the face of the erosion of communal norms of excellence outlined above, modernity has responded by producing a set of political standards governing the form, not the content, of the public arena. These are not substantive norms articulating a robust vision of the good life, but operation constraints that avoid taking any kind of unified normative stand. They are rules governing only the procedure of politics itself. This conception of politics finds some resonance in Arendts own work. George Kateb notes that for Arendt, political action is talk about politics.29 What counts as exemplary action therefore includes those acts that make the political process more transparent and accountable, acts that open up public deliberation to those who have been excluded, and acts that promote the continuous maintenance of a genuinely public space. Politics is about the creation of the conditions that make [politics] possible or with the preservation of those conditions (Kateb 1983, 17). Excellent action of this kind institutes, enriches, and maintains a community of remembrance because it instantiates the behaviors necessary for being in communitynamely, the public acknowledgment of the unique identities of others and the form of civic life in which such acknowledgment can occur. As Dana Vila puts it, politics must be about itself, in the sense that its primary concern must always be the health of this public sphere and the particular way of being together it makes possible (Aristotle, Arendt, and Action, 41). The political sphere occurs when the communitys identity can be contested in a noncoercive fashion. Thus the liberal democratic state requires a set of procedural values around which it encourages the entire community to orient itself: the meta-values of participation, inclusion, and equality on which the possibility of such liberal democratic value pluralism is founded.30 It promotes debate among competing visions of the good life, but in doing so it cannot maintain a purely anormative stance. Rather, liberal democracies endorse formal, procedural norms (and the institutions that embody them), thereby enabling modernitys value pluralism without falling into complete moral relativism. In the absence of such procedural values, joint action would become impossible. Liberalisms universal framing norms thus enable the possibility of a genuinely public sphere in which all citizens can appear to each other and act in unison, despite continued fundamental disagreements on the nature of the good life.


One can question, however, whether the formal procedural values implemented in modern liberal democracies have beenor will be, given appropriate deliberative expansionssufficient for coping with conditions of conflict. The liberal approachwhereby the state remains normatively neutral among visions of the good life and only endorses those minimal procedural values necessary for such neutrality to be maintainedfaces two significant problems. First, liberal democracys very success tends to undermine itits rhetoric of rights, relativism, and inclusion allows the standards that it endorses to appear as one value set among others, thereby obscuring the unique necessity of these standards for creating a public sphere in which such value pluralism is possible. Such standards cannot be allowed to lapse to the status of one voice among the many that compete for recognition in the public sphere, since they are, on the contrary, its very condition of possibility. What these standards demand is a witnessing public that takes responsibility for such a shared evaluative stance. It is here that we must note the most profound consequence of the procedural view of reality discussed abovenamely, the loss of a sense of personal connection to or responsibility for anonymous processes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sense of powerlessness and disconnection that the average citizen feels in relation to her political institutions and its processes. The consequence of such a disconnect from the concrete meaning of the liberal narrative is the gradual erosion of the public sphere in favor of the private. Indeed, it is for this very reason that in On Revolution Arendt rejects representative democracy in favor of a highly participatory system of citizen councils. Only through direct self-governance will people have genuine political freedom, she argues, since participation in political dialogue and institutions is itself the highest manifestation of that freedom.31 Indeed, the true value of these procedural norms can only be recognizedand thus meaningfully championedby those engaged in the deliberations. By emphasizing a more robustly participatory system, Arendt hopes to combat the decoupling of responsibility from process characteristic of modernity.32 Nevertheless, Arendts vision of a more participatory political sphere in which competing visions of the good life are publicly contested is open to the same worry voiced about liberal democracies in general: namely, whether such procedural values can provide the unity and direction necessary for a genuine community capable of joint action. Once institutions are in place that grant all persons uncoerced participation in political deliberations, liberal democracy offers very little in the way of ideals of excellence around which the community can orient itself. The formality and minimalism of the liberal vision thus means that it struggles to compete with the meaning narratives of the private sphere. It is no accident that the claims of race or religion continue to provide a much more robust ideal of human excellence around which people unite and self-identify than the merely formal inclusion principles of liberal democracy. In this sense the liberal vision has not succeeded in providing a compelling narrative by which to direct a communitys shared self-


creationa problem that is evident in the culture wars characterizing contemporary American politics. Once everyone has been granted a seat at the table, we find that we have very little to talk about: the result being a flight from the public to the private sphere. Though liberal democratic values have, to a certain extent, succeeded in founding and maintaining a space of public deliberation, then,33 we can see here a version of the same problem that was articulated abovethe inability to move from an objectivity that records all information to an impartiality that endorses excellence wherever it is to be found. Modernitys political structures have succeeded quite admirably at the former approach by viewing all persons as equals and granting everyone a place in the deliberations, but it seems unable to create a public standard by which to assess the value of the different contributions that are made to those deliberations. How, then, are we to choose the exemplars of excellence around which the community shapes its identity and determines how to direct joint action? Can the community legitimately endorse a more robust vision of what excellent human lives look likein other words, can it recover the evaluative dimension of memory that has been damaged by the advent of modernity without running afoul of the moral univocity or cultural imperialism that such state neutrality was designed to avoid? Arendts own distinction between the social and the political places her view squarely within this problematic terrain, since she claims that the political arena is in a sense self-contained; that all social questionsall questions concerning the necessities of life or the private concerns of individualsshould properly be excluded from the political sphere and its exclusive attention to speech and action about the founding and enabling of that sphere.34 She designates such a narrowly circumscribed area for politics that much of what we would now consider political questions would, for Arendt, fall into the realm of the socialincluding many questions of poverty, identity, and justice. Thus Dana Vila notes, for example, that Even if one could separate these complexly intertwined strands, what would be left for citizens to talk about once such extrapolitical topics as wage justice, racial and gender inequality, social welfare issues, and the environment have been excluded?35 Or, as Hanna Pitkin puts it: What keeps these citizens together as a body? . . . what is it that they talk about in the endless palaver of the agora?36 This issue seems to be particularly problematic when we consider the fact that answering these social questions about the shape and meaning of the necessities that bind usand how to escape themappears to be a prerequisite for producing citizens with the autonomy required for political speech and action at all. Thus a fundamental issueand one that complicates Arendts social/political dichotomyis how we are to produce and maintain citizens capable of political action in the first place. Answering this questionin other words, establishing the conditions that promote the development of such citizenswill demand a shared evaluative stance whereby the community chooses to enable those institutions, practices, and values that foster autonomous agency. Though such a project can still be deemed genuinely political in the sense that it requires public deliberation and


action aimed at strengthening the political arena and its actorsi.e., it is about the public sphere itselfit is a form of political action in which the community must deliberate about the shape that a citizens private life must take in order to be genuinely capable of public life. As such, it requires an expansion of Arendts notion of the properly political.37 A natural partner in this regard might be found in the work of contemporary perfectionists, who contend that visions of the good life can be plural and open to public deliberation without requiring state neutrality or the Arendtian effort to bar social questions from the domain of the properly political.38 As Joseph Raz puts it, the objective ought to be a perfectionist moral pluralism:
A pluralism of many forms of the good which are admitted to be so many valuable expressions of peoples nature, but pluralism which allows that certain conceptions of the good are worthless and demeaning, and that political action may and should be taken to eradicate or at least curtail them. (1986, 133)

In other words, a perfectionist moral pluralism would involve adopting a shared normative stance establishing parameters within which contenders for the good life must fall. Though such parameters would have to be sufficiently wide to accommodate a diverse array of such candidates, they would also have to be more robust than the merely formal, procedural norms that are endorsed by liberal democratic theory and that are implicit in Arendts social/political distinction. There has been a great deal of debate regarding the basis of the standard by which the worthiness of certain conceptions of the good could be legitimately assessed as suchsome perfectionists basing their claims on theories of human nature and others on lists of objective goods.39 Though examining their relative merits is beyond the scope of this discussion, it seems that Arendts nostalgia for the Greeks may find its natural expression in a variant of the human nature view endorsed by neo-Aristotelians such as McDowell, Foot, MacIntyre, Hursthouse, and Nussbaum. In other words, by uncovering certain universal truths about the conditions that must be in place to allow for human flourishingconditions that go beyond the mere procedural constraints characteristic of neutral liberal statesa community establishes a set of evaluative norms around which it can shape its shared identity and promote the growth of its citizens into properly political interlocutors. Invocations of human nature may lead Arendtians to worry about a return to the dangerous terrain of totalitarianism. But such an approach need not override the uniqueness that Arendt took to be so central to her account of politics, since assessing human excellence and the conditions that will allow it to appear requires us to consider not only what we share with other humans but also what is unique to each individual. As Mark LeBar notes in Eudaimonist Autonomy,40 this is in keeping with Aristotles claim that our well-being is relative to us, for example, in Nichomachean Ethics II.6, where Aristotle points out that the right diet will be human-specific but will also depend on the specifics of whether one is a profes-


sional athlete, sick, etc.41 In other words, it will consists of an interplay between universal conditions and the specificity of their particular manifestations. Such a virtue ethical approach appears to be an ideal fit for expanding on Arendts position in this regard, insofar as it refuses to endorse codifiable universal rules, but rather emphasizes the role of the unique exemplar whose actions serve as a model of human excellence. Such exemplary thinking is the calling card of political judgment for Arendt:
One may encounter or think of some table that one judges to be the best possible table and take this table as the example of how tables actually should be: the exemplary table (example comes from eximere, to single out some particular). This exemplar is and remains a particular that in its very particularity reveals the generality that otherwise could not be defined. Courage is like Achilles, Etc.42

Despite the particularity of the exemplars around which it orients its identity, then, the community is tasked with assessing the general normative import of those exemplars for shaping its actions and institutionsa process that is not self-evident but requires deliberation and debate. This fact need not lead us to assume that anything goes, however, particularly when read in light of the task of producing political actors capable of this very deliberation. Arendts use of Kants Third Critique in her work on political judgment is instructive here. Kant characterizes aesthetic judgment as a response to exemplar-based rather than deductive rulesin other words, it is a responsivity to the normative universal expressed within the particular. When one claims this is beautifuli.e., makes an aesthetic judgmentone is not simply expressing a personal opinion or soliciting debate. Rather, one is making a normative claim whereby one calls on others to recognize that they ought to take aesthetic pleasure in it. The basis of the ought is the idea that there is a communal sense (sensus communis): common human faculties that enable us to experience the same kinds of things as valuable or pleasurable. In Kants case, these shared faculties can be presupposed in our interlocutors because they are necessary for cognizing in general. Insofar as other people are experiencers like we are, we can assume their capacity to judge the same things to be beautiful as we doaesthetic judgments are inherently public because we are calling on the human community to do so (Kant 5:29293). Arendts notion of political judgment takes up Kants work on judgment and similarly rejects the notion that judgmentin her case, political judgmentcan be codified according to rules.43 But also like Kant, Arendtian political judgments reference to other perceivers must involve more than merely taking the perspectives of others into consideration; rather, it requires the attempt to find a kind of general norm to govern experiences that nevertheless do not fall neatly under universal rules. Such acts of judgment do not produce codifiable rules, but they nevertheless attempt to render or respond to a kind of normative universality. That is, in acts of political judgment one says to the community: you ought to find this instance of action exemplary and memorablean instance of eudaimonia in which to take


pleasureeven though there is no general rule from which this particular ought can be straightforwardly derived. The normative force of the ought arises from ones sense that the other members of the community share capacities that should be triggered in a certain way in the face of this particular instance. As Kant recognizes, however, the capacity to take pleasure in the beautiful is not automatically developed; just because we can share such normatively weighted experiences doesnt mean that we all already do. Rather, good judgmentthe aesthetic and political capacity to uncover the universal within the particular while maintaining its particularitymust be learned. Though Kant and Arendt tend to speak of this learning primarily in terms of distancing oneself from ones specificityan ability intimately linked to the ability to put oneself in the other persons shoes44it is my contention that virtue ethics and its emphasis on establishing the conditions necessary to become agents capable of such broadmindedness and objectivity offers a valuable supplement to this view. In other words, recognizing certain lives as exemplary instances of eudaimonia and thus worthy of commemoration requires not only public deliberation about specific instances of excellent action, but public deliberation about the conditions that must be in place to create and maintain citizens capable of broadmindedness, of making public their private experiences through language, and of participating in the practice of asking for and giving reasons. Thus framing norms must be in place not only when it comes to establishing the conditions of political dialogueequality, inclusion, etc.but also in terms of answering the more substantive questions regarding human nature and how to overcome constraints that prevent citizens from becoming political actors. By examining in greater detail the conditions and institutions that must be in place to enable the unique personhood that Arendt valued to actually appear in the world, we can combine some of the best intuitions of both perfectionist and liberal approaches. The focus, in other words, must be on how to shape the world such that we promote agency; an objective that will require the social/political distinctionalong with the procedural/substantive distinctionto become more complex than perhaps Arendt and liberal theorists have realized. Despite our best hopes, human beings are not born capable of political action. The practical rationality and capacity for responsibility and reflection necessary for genuinely free political action demand that certain social conditions are in place if these universal human capacities are to be enabledincluding conditions related to education, diet, finances, and family dynamics. This does not mean that Arendts political/social distinction need be abandoned altogether, however. After all, what characterizes the political arena for Arendt is the fact that it is about public institutions and relationships that transcend the private interests of individuals. If we take the universal capacity to participate in the political arena to be a fundamental human goal, we can adopt a shared evaluative stance according to which certain words and deeds are deemed more memorable than othersnamely, those that facilitate the appearance in the world of citizens capable of genuinely political action. By combining a developmen-


tal framework rooted in eudaimonist conceptions of human agency with the institutional safeguards embodied in liberal democratic rights and deliberation about how such a universal value framework is to be realized in a particular political milieumany of modernitys political problems can be avoided. Such an approach is only possible, however, if we are willing to reclaim the evaluative role of public memory, recognizing, as the Greeks did, that the words and deeds we choose to commemorate in art and history are those that define the communitys identity and institute a set of shared values. We would do well not to forget it.

1. Dana Vila makes a case for the way in which Aristotle and Arendt are united in their commitment to the idea that community serves as a foundation for action: For Aristotle, the political association is bound not simply by interests, but by shared norms, purposes, and a harmony in basic judgments. Arendts definition of action as acting together seems to imply a similar conception (Arendt, Aristotle, and Action, in Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political, 35). 2. One is reminded of recent developments in Texas regarding school textbook choices by the Texas State Board of Education, which is overwhelmingly conservative and has chosen to include in the history books such events as the conservative Contract with America while dropping references to liberal politicians such as Edward Kennedy. In doing so, the communitys value system is written into its very history. See Russell Shortos How Christian Were the Founders? New York Times, February 11, 2010. 3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 18. Further citations of this work will be given in the text and referenced as HC. 4. See Memory, National Geographic Magazine, November 2007. 5. This is turning out to be a particularly pressing problem for teens, who often explore their developing sexuality on-line without realizing the permanent digital record that this leaves. The case of Amanda Todd is a sad example of this, since she committed suicide after her topless photo was posted online and its continued on-line accessibility to her peers led to merciless bullying (Bullied Teen Leaves Behind Chilling YouTube Video, ABC News Online, October 12, 2012). 6. Susan Jacoby makes note of this in The Age of American Unreason (New York: Vintage Books, 2008) where she recounts her experiences as a New Yorker on September 11. As she walked home after the attacks she stopped into a bar where she overheard two men, neatly dressed in suits, discussing the events. This is just like Pearl Harbor, one of the men said. The other asked, What is Pearl Harbor? That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War, the first man replied. Such obliviousness to the communitys own historycoupled with the inevitable ignorance of ones own obliviousnessseems to be a defining feature of modernity and contributes to the erosion of the public arena. It is regularly on display, for example, in the many contradictory invocations of the Constitution and the alleged motivations of the founding fathers. 7. See Johann Georg Heinzmanns Appell an meine Nation: ber die Pest der deutschen Literatur (Bern: 1795). Immanuel Kant similarly complains that excessive publishing may be ruining reading in Philosophical Encyclopedia, 29:30, in Kants Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Knigliche Preuische (later Deutsche) Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1902present). 8. Arendt discusses this distinction at length, particularly in The Human Condition. Modernity, she argues, is characterized by a condition in which the public sphere is no longer preserved for deliberation about matters of collective concern, but has become inundated by social issues that were once considered private. The loss of this distinction between public and private is clearly exacerbated by the advent of the Internet. 9. For example, researchers from the University of Liverpool found that the complexity of language


10. 11.



14. 15. 16. 17.




21. 22.



found in Shakespearean plays poses an extraordinary mental challenge: it causes the brain to become positively excited. See Bard boosts brain, researchers say (CBC News Web page. Monday, December 18, 2006). It should be noted, however, that this point is complicated by the fact that literacy rates nearly doubled from the seventeenth to eighteenth century. See James Van Horn Meltons The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 8182. Matt Richtel, Your Brain on Computers: Attached to Technology and Paying a Price, New York Times, June 6, 2010. Chad Wellmon, Why Google Isnt Making Us Stupid . . . or Smart, Hedgehog Review 14, no. 1 (Spring 2012). Wellmon himself argues otherwise, noting that hyperlink technology is modeled on the Enlightenment footnote structure and thus the assumption that technology is (purely) destructive in this regard is unfounded. Nevertheless, one could make the case that the volume of information and the speed with which it can be accessed in the digital age makes for a difference in kind. Perri Klass, M.D., Fixated by Screens, but Seemingly Nothing Else, New York Times, May 9, 2011. I do not mean to suggest that the scientific community is in agreement about the cause of ADHD, though there appears to be a growing consensus that it is (at the very least) worsened by exposure to modern technology. Hannah Arendt, The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern, in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), 4190, 42. Further citations of this work will be given in the text and referenced as Concept. See also Hannah Arendt, The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man, in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), 26582. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, Untimely Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 59123, 63. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). The similarities to Martin Heideggers Question Concerning Technology and his notion of standing reserve are evident here. Heideggers essay can be found in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1983), 335. One can see the problematic nature of this structure in certain subpages of Reddit such as Jailbait and Creepshots, for example, in which the choices of thousands of anonymous Internet users have endorsed and thus perpetuated Web sites dedicated to the sexual exploitation of underage girls. The anonymity of these sitescoupled with the structure of the algorithm of choiceproduce a condition in which certain values are publicly normalized without opening that value system to the political arena and its structures of reason-giving and public evaluation. One thinks of the debates about climate change. Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus, vast numbers of American citizens are unable to reach the political conclusion that follows from that scientific data. Guy De Bord discusses this in some detail in The Society of the Spectacle, where he suggests that modernity is characterized by the tendency to prefer the image to the thing itself (New York: AKPress, 2006). Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, ed. Mary McCarthy (Orlando: Harcourt, 1978), 100. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1992), 13. See in particular Section III: The Affirmation of Ordinary Life, 211304. Further citations of this work will be given in the text and referenced as Sources of the Self. Every activity performed in public can attain an excellence never matched in privacy; for excellence, by definition, the presence of others is always required, and this presence needs the formality of the public, constituted by ones peers, it cannot be the casual, familiar presence of ones equals or inferiors (HC, 49). Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 81.


25. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando: Harcourt, 1994), 434. 26. Arendt discusses forgiveness as the way in which others can choose to release us from the past in our private lives. See Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive in The Human Condition, 23643. 27. Jorge Luis Borges, Funes, the Memorious, in Labyrinths, ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 2007), 5966. 28. See Jean-Francois Lyotards The Post-modern Condition on this issue (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). 29. George Kateb, Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983), 17. 30. Jrgen Habermas has examined this issue in particular detail, insisting on the necessity of foundational norms such as respect, equality, and reciprocity. See, for example: Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Boston: MIT Press, 1996) and The Theory of Communicative Action: Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984) and The Theory of Communicative Action: Volume 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987). In addition to Habermass work, see also John Rawls, Karl Otto Apel, and Jacques Derrida as representatives of this view. As Thomas Nagel points out, even the supposed value neutrality of Rawlss original positionthe paradigm of liberal democratic neutrality politicsdepends on a certain conception of the good (see Thomas Nagel, Rawls on Justice, in Reading Rawls, ed. N. Daniels [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975], 89). Nevertheless, the conception of the good that serves to legitimate and maintain Rawlss liberal democratic state is meant to apply merely to the procedures of decision making, and not to the substantive reasons motivating its citizens. See John Rawls, Political Liberalism, Section 4.2. In contrast, thinkers like Richard Rorty, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and, to a certain extent, Michael Walzer in Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983), have insisted that even such formal or procedural accounts of practical rationality cannot separate one from more substantive value commitments. Charles Taylor discusses the universal spread of these liberal democratic values in Sources of the Self, particularly in Section V: Subtler Languages, 393494. 31. See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 231, 267. Margaret Canovan views this approach as nostalgic and dangerously elitist in Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 237. Jeffrey C. Isaac (Oases in the Desert: Hannah Arendt on Democratic Politics, Political Science Review 88, no. 1 [1992]: 15668) and James Muldoon (The Lost Treasure of Arendts Council System in Critical Horizons 12, no. 3 [2011]: 396417) attempt to defend the notion of citizen councils to varying degrees. 32. Seyla Benhabib suggests that this move is inspired by Arendts respect for German salon culture in The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996). 33. This should not be taken to mean that no more progress toward implementing liberal democratic values is possibleor that there are not significant impediments to its perfect implementation. As Charles Taylor notes: What can sustain this continuing drive? What can enable us to transcend in this way the limits we normally observe to human moral action? These limits are obvious enough. They include our restricted sympathies, our understandable self-preoccupation, and the common human tendency to define ones identity in opposition to some adversary or out group (Sources of the Self, 398). 34. Arendts most thorough discussion of this distinction can be found in The Human Condition, Section II, The Public and the Private Realm, 2278. She also discusses it in Public Rights and Private Interests (in M. Mooney and F. Stuber, eds., Small Comforts for Hard Times: Humanists on Public Policy [New York: Columbia University Press, 1977]). For helpful commentary, see Richard Bernstein, Rethinking the Social and the Political (in Philosophical Profiles [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986], 23859, and Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt [Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996]). 35. Vila, 36. 36. Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, Justice: On Relating Private and Public, Political Theory 9, no. 3 (1981): 32752, 336.


37. For further discussion of these issues, see Daniel Coles article, A Defense of Hannah Arendts Reflections on Little Rock, in this volume. 38. See, for example, George Shers Beyond Neutrality: Perfectionism and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) and Joseph Razs The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)particularly the section entitled Anti-Perfectionism, where Raz shows that a commitment to perfectionist morality is not in fact incompatible with the fairness constraints of liberal neutrality as articulated by Rawlss A Theory of Justice. 39. In The Three Faces of Flourishing (Social Philosophy and Policy 16 [1999]: 4471), Tom Hurka describes the human nature view of flourishing as a commitment to valuing the development of at least some subset of the properties essential to humans. These are the properties any being must have to count as human (48). Hurkas own view is an objective list view. See Tom Hurka, Virtue, Vice, and Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). 40. American Philosophical Quarterly 42, no. 3 (2005): 17183. 41. Martha Nussbaum similarly argues that the virtues can be deemed universal value commitments despite cultural differences in implementation insofar as they are all responses aimed at solving certain general problems endemic to the human condition. See Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach (in The Quality of Life, ed. Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993], 24269). 42. Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kants Political Philosophy, ed. Ronald Beiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 77. 43. Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kants Political Philosophy, 13. 44. For example: A man [is] of a broad-minded way of thinking if he sets himself apart from the subjective private conditions of the judgment, within which so many others are as if bracketed, and reflects on his own judgment from a universal standpoint (which he can only determine by putting himself into the standpoint of others (Kant 5:295). Similarly, Arendt: the it-pleases-or-displeases-me, which as a feeling seems so utterly private and noncommunicative, is actually rooted in this community sense and is therefore open to communication once it has been transformed by reflection, which takes all others and their feelings into account. The validity of these judgments never has the validity of cognitive or scientific propositions, which are not judgments, properly speaking (Lectures on Kants Political Philosophy, 72).