Thursday, April 05, 2007

Philosophy and the Obsession with Privacy

A certain book on Hannah Arendt, by the political philosopher Seyla Benhabib concludes with a few interesting remarks about 're-thinking privacy'. In the light of those reflections one is thrown back upon Arendt's philosophizing about the 'public world' that has been debated and criticized for the last twenty years; the so-called recovery of the public world is obviously challenged from time to time by its older brother, the private world. This notion of privacy can hardly be more obscure in an age when we all live in the same 'world' and share a space therein, the spaces of the public and the private life are not hiearchically ordained as for example politics and family life were in the dogmatic theology. It is in a way true that Modernity is the alleged divorce of word and world, at times meaning that our linguistic apparatus to deal with the world is no longer befitting our everyday experiences, the Western humanity seems to have undergone 'emotional' changes since the rise of modernity in the 16th and 17th centuries, nowhere more decissively than in the breakdown of the community of believers in order to be replaced by the society of individuals.

Undoubtedly individuality marks a freedom from identity and by tour de force also from authenticity, this can be experienced for example with how the most interesting men and women in our society could hardly be clustered as authentic or 'true'; at the same time this individuality is not divorced from our thinking of ourselves - in terms of privacy and intimacy. It is the self what constitutes the standards against which all political and moral thinking measure the objects of the world, for the conception of the cosmos as in case of all Greek philosophy is no longer equiparable to our notion of 'world'. No modern philosophy speaks about the cosmos-world or the life-world but rather produces phenomenal (therefore in a way psychological, from the sources of consciousness) accounts of the branchtrees of non-hierarchical relationships present in the everyday (Hegel being the greatest exception to this thumbrule), yet in fact this notion of world strikes me of having such semantic heterogeneity not unlike when speaking of 'the soul'. Our world certainly does exist and it is nowhere to be located in the physis, in the processes of the old natural philosophies (which today work under the rubric of philosophy of science). Even the philosophies of 'nature' that appear every once in a while and albeit not without some mystical undertone (not integrating man in the 'natural world' but into it) are more concerned with problems of consciousness out of the sources of religion and culture than with the empirical observation of nature that survives in ancient philosophy.

This world of modernity is also one tempatively at risk all the time, one that can be potentially destroyed and that always existed before our life-time and will if not forever, at least for a while, continue after our death; what a terrible anxiety there is in realizing this! The anxiety has a philosophical name, metaphysics and theology - the only models of a 'world' that could be a 'home' for men, but both models have fallen into the most vexing disrepute. With the collapse of metaphysics and the disrepute of systematic theology we enter a world as toddlers which resembles a hotel more than a home, all commodities are interchangeable, the boundaries of the nations their narratives have slowly sunk - This was a necessary step, for it was at the foundation of modernity no other idea but 'freedom', first from God and then from everything else [!], once the blockade was removed humanity could breath in the most serene and naive tranquility, but only for the first five minutes. The result of the long history of uplifting Prometheus' burdens is that once the whole range of possibilities (all of them possible, the good and the bad, but none of them assured) opened before us we found ourselves completely lost in a world no longer our own, but 'everybody's'. In a comic way this was a second creation story in which right after having commanded the laws of this world (human rights, no longer 'divine' rights), the creators of the world watched to their own dismise how this world ate the wrong apple (human rights again). At any rate the God of the creation story didn't command the world anything, only Adam and Eve; but the world created in the Genesis means something else than ours, we have one partly human and partly worldly, namely a pan-consciousness that calls itself names.

The Cartesian doubt sets free this tradition of Penelopes weaving and unfinishing forever; but the danger is two-fold: If the divorce of thinking from experience is what assures the reliability of our observations, it also helps cancel both - They stand in vertical positions, and may then Providence help! because they can never encounter one another again. This is almost a fact of modern life, and the consequences of it for the 'Will' cannot be foreseen yet, the whole realm of legality, morality, ethics, judgement down to the simplest common sense cannot be guaranteed anymore; the philosophical trend of our days is an endless mourning of those old securities that in the general opinion, were never really such. Modernity cannot be predicted at all, we expect it to survive (just like the world of the old God survived willy-nilly and unmolested for as long as one is granted to believe) but we really do not know; furthermore, every attempt to predict Modernity and forcefully engage in the fulfillment of the eschaton has ended in a tragedy, with no simple exception to this rule - reason for which we can by no means confirm its universal validity, but I do have a gut feeling (and nothing else) that this is the state of affairs. Alienation is part of the functioning of Modernity, like its failure and disappointment... it belongs to its inner-narrative and to its hopefulness that is intuitively a hope beyond hope in the style of Benjamin. Modernity is the world's education in the sense that it represses, this repression has a philosophical name in Nietzsche: Neurosis. I would like to suggest a different name, Eros. Just because Eros is both the repression and the repressed.

Yet the alienation is pivotal when speaking of the 'predictions' about Modernity made every once in a while; as in the totalitarian regimes there was a loss of 'personhood' represented in the blurry distinction between the public and the private, both of which temporarily disappear and so does with them the individual. But once again the standard of this measuring is not the world or the social world but the self. With the overarching inexorable demands of freedom the world is lost, and so it the self with it and in it. The political institutions are comically imaginary and there is nothing that seemly is capable of 'keeping' the world together but the actuality of human relationships. There is here also a serious misconception in the world of psychologies and introspections; with the change of social patters first at the end of the 19th century and more dramatically in the middle of the 20th with the relovutions of sex, feminism and gay liberation, a new concept is formed - it is not a new conception of 'love' but the idea of the relationship. The world can no longer offer enough stability so that most people live like 'in between hotel rooms' and usually the arrival of a 'partner' is seen as the source of everything that this world can offer positively: love, passion, stability, friendship, companionship, etc. and this misnomer that is ever-present in the popular culture is the root of modern disappointment with the 'self', attempting to gather fragmented memory and trauma into a totality of the self for which there are no warranties or whichever divine ordinances that be, if we are to believe in the end of history, philosophy, Christianity, monotheism, etc.

The citizen has everything that the open world can offer, everything but himself so that the Arendtian distinction between loneliness and solitude becomes a stumbling block here; because it is in solitude that I can keep myself company and in not being able to choose my own companionship at least I can tend it to myself. If I can't keep myself company this is a situation imposed from the outset, I'm in loneliness and as such I yearn for a companion, but problematically enough I cannot address a 'you' without having an 'I' to summon the others. In a broader sense the loneliness is also a problem of the whole society, for in the minute we've forsaken God (whatever that means) there're no witnesses for our good deeds and we doubt often whether we should commit them at all, we live trampled into the Self without having it at all, it's a dialectic of desire that can easily be found in the eternal 'confessing' of modern literature and poststructural theories. Then it proves honest to say that every man in a world only in the sense that every man is a prison. Then comes the claim for a recovery of the public spaces, a return to the Hellenic foundations of our political life - to which we stand closer and closer today than we do to the legacy of the French Enlightenment. In a way our European modernity collapsed with the extermination of the Jewish people in the death-factories and the sudden disappearance of all possible dissidents in the Soviet Gulag; our modernity is more Greek than it is French or German.

For the ancients the divisions between the public and the private spaces were secured on 'origins' for the Greeks and on 'tradition' for the Romans, on 'foundational narratives'. The assurance of public life and of discourse as in the model proposed by Lessing is the coinage of our worldliness itself, this 'speakability' of the world is already there in Plato, who despite opponents is really the foundation of 'our culture' and perhaps the most influential character in the memory of Western philosophy. In the modern world the public spaces are less structured than those of the ancients, and they rest not upon any divine rights but upon a form of legality that has been for long divorced from morality. The popular culture says that a life is only remarkable when it is lived on the spot of the public eye but this kind of life often turns shallow, it has nothing to hide or conceal, all the information is freely available and flows as easily as it lacks importance, yet these lives are remarkable only for the sake of unremarkability, so that a life lived entirely 'in public' can by no means be attached to responsibilities of the political and the moral kind. The public-only life is the standard of the mass man, the standard of his selfness, not of his world, and only in private people are summon to decide on public affairs, behind the scenes, so to speak moving the wunthering threads of history. As in the case of the Greeks there's no public space without private space, there's no political animal without eros.

But the concept of the private doesn't entail only individual privacy, individuality... but in general terms it is applied to institutions and functions, the private is part of the public and it does not necessarily lives 'hiding', but rather and only 'not in the public', meaning that its goods are not common properties to all, even though my life is a private matter and I might freely decide whether to take it or not whenever I temptatively attempt to 'take' other person's life I am subjected to the public punishment. There's 'privacy' in my 'home', albeit this can be also a 'publicly-owned' location, I am in 'public' whenever outing with a lover, but then I experience 'private conversations'. Here I introduce two additional concepts to the discussion on 'private' and 'public'; namely 'intimacy' and 'anonimity'. The private realm is composed of manifold institutions that assure public life, but in these institutions usually private men are rather anonymous than public and in a romantic relationship I have more 'intimacy' than I have 'privacy', after all friends might always come by in the middle of the night and yet I can't have intimacy with myself. As an anonymous person I am not a private, for I might engage in multiple 'casual stands' without divulging my name or real marital status but I can never be 'anonymous' among my friends, therefore as an 'anonymous' person I am always in public, while 'anonymous' relationships are not necessarily 'intimate'. Intimacy and anonimity are two terms whose relationship is not as dialectical as that in between public and private, and in fact because the blurry differentiation between public and private most of our everyday experiences are turned into intimate or anonymous - in both cases we can't attain them by ourselves, we need the company of others.

While this might hold true, the traditional concept of privacy has become one of the most unspoken but important concerns of modern political philosophy, as though recovering the public world depend on recovering our privacy. The obsession is by no means philosophical, a great deal of industry is devoted nowadays to protect people's privacy and 'private details' of a person's life usually happen to strike media more often than their public achievements or failures. But this exposure of privacy is always public, and privacy has become not only a key political issue but a public concern. As long as man is no longer at home anwhere no more his intimacy is not only contingency-dependant but also movable, and his privacy secured only in anonimity from the public. The obsession with privacy is my opinion a symptom of the lack of 'I-ness' of the postmodern age. The recovery of the I is not tactical device, but it is the assurance that the standard to measure the frameworks of our political life is the world and not us, like in Machievelli, reason for which he remains perhaps one of the most important theoreticians of Western political life. Augustine thought that the concept of the world is actually not just the objects therein, but also the lovers of the world, the 'I', 'you', 'we', 'they'. Only on the security of the self can the world become the standard again, and for as long as the self will remain 'broken apart' it can not only lack love for itself but for the world, a confession of the 'I' in every instance of our lifetime is a betrayal of the 'I' itself.

There's no love in anonimity, and the tragedy of the loss of the Self is that it has become the only concern of our age and therefore the least useful of all, because that 'self' remains quite anonymous and is usually not a good partner for conversation nor in the company of other neither in solitude. The Self has replaced the coherence of metaphysics and theology to provide a model for a 'home', but it is quite an anonymous character and cannot be held responsible for anything before the political institutions, it doesn't have a public or private face. Its only ground is freedom from everything else, and that's exactly where the coherence can never be attained, because this foundation is not a narrative or a creation story, it is not an assurance of mortality or immortality, it is not a dialectical dialogue between life and death nor a hermeneutic tool. On the recovery of plurality (in the sense that even the lives of the saints are lived in the company of others, as Augustine pointed out) depends the possibility for the individuality, and while only extreme individuals have been proved to have a 'taste' in the Kantian sense for weightful decisions in the realms of ethics and politics this is of very little use if I live in a world where I stand all alone by myself and cannot see 'me', because after all the work of art has no effect in the world if I am condemned to be the only spectator. Political philosophy isn't much different, it needs a world which I can't provide myself, I need to come into it and then just as naturally leave it, and of which I'm free to think in whichever way it pleases me, but my intuition and faith is that if I understand this world to be the Augustinian desert or that endless 'hotel room' rather than the best of all possible worlds, I would certainly prefer to stay anonymous rather than public or private, and await the next world.

My problem (and my fear) is that because I live in Modernity which is a world significantly different from others, because it's 'our' world with all the frustration it has undoubtedly come with, our human project, we must 'deify' it as our last destination not because it might ever be, but because we have no other and might as well never reach it, and cases in point of what the next world of Modernity might look like are more often than not ones in which we might find this earthly life not just impossible to live with like it is the case of our current situation, but however also impossible to die. It strikes me as a better choice and chance, to choose a 'no return point' to live with, than to have one impossed and then perhaps God might not be once again, able to answer any more questions.


Arendt, H. 'Some Questions of Moral Philosophy', in 'Responsibility & Judgment', Shocken Books, New York, 2003.
- 'Von der Menschlichkeit in finsteren Zeiten: Rede über Lessing', Piper, München, 1960.
Benhabib, S. 'The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt', SAGE, London, 1996.
Heller, A. 'A Theory of Modernity', Blackwell, Oxford, 1999.
Lehmann, S. Conversations, Jerusalem, 2007.

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