Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The futility of action and speech: Arendt and "The Inner Light"

Hannah Arendt in "The Human Condition" (first published in 1958) notes that human language has a deeply-embedded distinction between 'labor' and 'work' in terms of the durability of what they produce: labor producing consumable goods of no real duration and work being oriented toward tools and other 'use objects' of a more lasting sort. As she develops in her work, this distinction has critical significance in the nature of human beings and the shape of social structures which we, in 'modern' society and theory, often muddy and ignore to our dissatisfaction. Setting that aside for the moment, what of human action and speech? Are they simply another kind of labor to be organized and tuned (as e.g. Marx lumps them), more like works oriented toward a goal or end-product, or something different?

"Distinguished from both, consumer goods and use obects, there are finally the 'products' of action and speech, which together constitute the fabric of human relationships and affairs. Left to themselves,they lack not only the tangibility of the other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption...
"In order to become wordly things, that is, deeds and facts and events and patterns of thoughts or ideas, they must first be seen, heard, and remembered and then transformed, reified as it were, itno things--- into sayings of poetry, the written page or the printed book, into paintings or sculpture, into all forms of documents, records, or monuments." --Hannah Arendt, "The Human Condition", 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press (via Scribd). 2019. Section 12.

This 'reification' is necessary to bring things of the mind, which are inherently other-worldly, into the world and give them a place: to make them 'real'. Without it, they--- thoughts, dreams, people, even whole societies--- disappear as if they had never been.

"Without going out of my door
I can know all things on Earth
Without looking out of my window
I could know the ways of Heaven
The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows" --- Beatles, "The Inner Light"

Contrary to the Beatles, or the Tao te Ching verses they based that song on, that kind of 'knowledge' means very little. One must commit oneself, paying with risk and pain, to understand anything, to grok in its fullness and make it a part of oneself. One must then pay a further cost to reify that experience, to make it a part of the world. The reflection of meditation may be necessary--- the digestion of the soup--- but it is not sufficient, is neither the beginning nor the end of the process.
What was the "product" of the Ressikan community in "The Inner Light" [Star Trek Next Generation episode, Season 5, 1992]? How did Picard (or anyone else!) know that his experience of a long dead alien civilization was 'real'? Picard could not merely view a world from afar and understand its inhabitants; he had to commit something to them, risk with them, share their joys, suffer alongside them. The experience had to change him, as it clearly did, in a way visible to others. Likely one of the best Star Trek episodes ever, it disproves the very premise of the song that inspired it and of the Tao te Ching verses.

It is not possible to 'understand' the world without being a part of it: even God Himself seemingly could not stand at a distance without experiencing, suffering, sharing, and reifying in exactly this way.

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