Sunday, November 27, 2011

Violence and Technology

So, last week I attended a public lecture at Fordham University given by Richard Bernstein, a philosopher on the faculty of the New School, the subject of the lecture being "Hannah Arendt on Power and Violence" and the sponsor being Fordham's Philosophy Department.

The lecture began with some discussion of who Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was, e.g., German-Jewish intellectual, had an affair with Martin Heidegger when she was an 18-year-old student and he was a married professor in his 30s, wrote her dissertation on St. Augustine, escaped from Nazi Germany before things got really bad, met and became friends with Walter Benjamin in Paris, unlike Benjamin was able to escape to the United States, and famously wrote about totalitarianism, and the trial of Adolf Eichmann (architect of the Nazi concentration camps) and the banality of evil.  Of course, that's just a cursory summary of a rich and eventful life.

I joined a few of my colleagues from the Philosophy Department at Fordham and met with Bernstein prior to the lecture for some discussion, and he mentioned that, although Arendt was not a practicing Jew, at the end she asked that someone say Kaddish for her at her funeral.  Admittedly, it's not all that unheard of for folks to suddenly get religion when the end is near (no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes), and for individuals who have been disconnected from their traditions to suddenly want to reconnect.  But what I found poignant about this request is that she asked for someone, rather than someone specific, which I take to be a sign of isolation in that typically it would be the immediate family who would say the prayer. And you might contrast this to the Roman Catholic phenomenon of making confession on your death bed, in the hopes of gaining absolution.  In Judaism, what might be considered the equivalent of absolution is a social rather than individualistic matter, it comes from having been a good enough person that others care enough about you to say Kaddish on your behalf.

No doubt, there were many who said Kaddish on her behalf, not the least on account of the significant work during and after World War II on behalf of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and in general as a political philosopher with a strong sense of social justice.

And that brings me back to Bernstein's lecture, the main part of which was a summary of an influential essay that Arendt wrote for the New York Review of Books back in 1969, entitled, "Reflections on Violence" (which can be read online, hence the link).  The lecture also included Bernstein's commentary on the essay's shortcomings (e.g., her idea of violence is limited to political violence) and relevance, including how well it relates to contemporary events such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements.  I myself read the essay prior to the lecture, having been sent the link by my philosophy colleagues.

And if you haven't read it already, I do recommend it.  It's clear that Arendt wrote the essay in response to the escalating violence occurring in the United States during the late 1960s, which included increasingly more violent antiwar demonstrations, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the rise of militant movements especially within the African-American community, and rioting in inner city slums, which caused harm especially to African-American populations.  No doubt, the escalation of violence bore some similarity to the rise of Nazism in Germany, motivating this essay.

I won't reproduce this rather lengthy essay in its entirety here, but I do want to note some salient points.

To begin with, Arendt thinks it's important to distinguish between violence and power (as well as force and strength).  Violence, unlike power, is technological in nature--violence "always needs implements" so that

the revolution in technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the question of means and ends, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means, which it both justifies and needs. Since the end of human action, in contrast with the products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.

Now that sounds awfully media ecological, doesn't it?  For all intents and purposes, she is saying that the means (aka medium) is the message!

Arendt goes on to note that traditionally, violence has been seen as an instrument of power, but that technological advances in warfare (she mentions the possibility of robot soldiers!), weapons of mass destruction (especially biological weapons that can be used by small groups rather than large states), and guerrilla warfare (and what we now call terrorism) have led to a reversal of that relationship.  In many ways, this is a very prescient observation:

What all these very uncomfortable novelties add up to is a reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers. The amount of violence at the disposal of a given country may no longer be a reliable indication of that country's strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power. This again bears an ominous similarity to one of the oldest insights of political science, namely that power cannot be measured by wealth, that an abundance of wealth may erode power, that riches are particularly dangerous for the power and well-being of republics.

Arendt also goes on to make a similar point about the use of violence for revolutionary aims.  Noting the leftist leanings of the baby boomer generation (e.g., the hippies), she points out that

this is the first generation that grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb, and it inherited from the generation of its fathers the experience of a massive intrusion of criminal violence into politics - they learned in high school and in college about concentration and extermination camps, about genocide and torture, about the wholesale slaughter of civilians in war, without which modern military operations are no longer possible even if they remain restricted to "conventional" weapons.

But noting the then recent shift to militancy within "the movement" (as it was known), she again invokes a key critique of the technological environment and its discontents:

Their behavior has been blamed on all kinds of social and psychological causes, some of which we shall have to discuss later. Still, it seems absurd, especially in view of the global character of the phenomenon, to ignore the most obvious and perhaps the most potent factor in this development, for which moreover no precedent and no analogy exist - the fact that, in general, technological progress seems in so many instances to lead straight to disaster, and, in particular, the proliferation of techniques and machines which, far from only threatening certain classes with unemployment, menaces the very existence of whole nations and, conceivably, of all mankind. It is only natural that the new generation should live with greater awareness of the possibility of doomsday than those "over thirty," not because they are younger but because this was their first decisive experience in the world. If you ask a member of this generation two simple questions: "How do you wish the world to be in fifty years?" and "What do you want your life to be like five years from now?" the answers are quite often preceded by a "Provided that there is still a world," and "Provided I am still alive."

That sense of pessimism became very much characteristic of the 1970s, and continued into the 1980s, eventually dispelled by Reagen's rhetoric of optimism, economic recovery, and the fall of the Soviet bloc, but also coincided with the revolution in personal computing that in turn led to the rise of the internet.  Has that sense of pessimism returned anew, in the post 9/11 decade where concern about terrorism, warfare, and the loss of liberty are still present, and especially in light of the financial disaster of 2008 that continues to affect the global economy?  Are movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street leading the way to increased freedom and justice both in the world?  Or are they a prelude to increased violence?

I think Hannah Arendt at least helps us to formulate some important questions, and reminds us that however unpredictable the ends may be, we would do well to pay close attention to the means being employed.

There is also some common ground between Arendt and Marshall McLuhan, a point first brought to my attention by my old classmate Paul Lippert, who was also in attendance at Bernstein's lecture.  For Arendt, violence requires technology.  For McLuhan, technology is a form of violence.  The relationship between the two is certainly worth considering, even in relation to the seemingly benign technologies we refer to as new media.  What is the violence that they do, to our political arrangements, our economic and financial arrangements, our social organization and way of life?

There is more to discuss about Arendt's essay and Bernstein's lecture, about the relationship between violence and power, but I'm going to save it for another post, and sign off here, for now.

1 comment:

Mike Plugh said...

Very interesting.

I suppose her thoughts would include things like drone warfare and other recent technological powers that barely require human participation at all. Likewise the recent use of pepper spray, taxers, and MRADs on civilian populations.

Something about her lament reminds me of Mumford, and I suppose there's a note of resignation to the way things could be if only we cared enough about the humanism of our science, but don' least not enough.

I recently assigned (as part of the text we use) Jared Diamond's "Easter's End" to my Academic Reading Across Disciplines class. Something in the Arendt sentiments strikes me as similar...