The Death of the Public

Hannah Arendt was a master at making distinctions. One of her most enlightening is the distinction between the public, the social, and the private.

The public is where men (the gendered pronoun is intended because the concept of the public realm rose out of the experience of the Greek polis, consisting exclusively of man) act and speak in their individuality with each other. It is the place of equality, for no one possesses truth—that compulsive force which soars above men—but only opinion, doxa: what appears to me (dokein moi), the unique view of the world that I have in virtue of my singular position within it. Opinion is equal because, in contrast with truth, it requires a listening, a debating, an evaluating and re-evaluating. It does not win a priori, but relies on the “forceless force” of the argument to persuade. Opinion is Socrates, truth is Plato, and this is why Plato so wanted to destroy the Public with his political philosophy of the Philosopher King. (Note, also, that the public is always acting out in the open which can be remembered and turned into stories. This quality differs it from lively debates between friends in the tranquility of the household/salon.)

The private is the domain of the family. It is the place of labor, and therefore, re-production. It, like the life-process itself (c.f. Schrödinger), fights against the cosmic law of entropy—it cleans, it cooks, it reproduces. It moves circularly, doing all the dirty work, in contrast to the singular actions that is to be memorialized in the public. The social (mind you, the woman realized this 50 years before social media!) is the place of salons. It arose with the bourgeoisie and, in contrast with the public, equalizes but does not make people distinct. (Arendt clearly did not like it.) For within the social, you are not a person, but a member of a certain group. You do not have your own beliefs, but, by virtue of your class, your beliefs are already endowed unto you.

(There is also another special category of the oasis, a place of refuge, though not of escape, when there is no potential for the public. It, at least as I read it, is a particular subset of the private that does not concern itself with re-production. But this would take us too far. The quote: “In the isolation of the artist, in the solitude of the philosopher, in the inherently worldless relationship between human beings as it exists in love and sometimes in friendship — when one heart reaches out directly to the other, as in friendship, or when the in-between, the world, goes up in flames, as in love. Without the intactness of these oases we would not know how to breathe, and political scientists should know this.“)

Now comes the evaluative paragraph: The public seems to be dead. There is no speaking in public with others qua individual. People are either reduced to the social, either by joining certain mass protest movements, shouting or posting on instagram, or withdrawing into the space of the private, where one does not speak for noise is just as good as silence—we need only observe that a significant number of citizens in a democracy do not vote.) With the death of the public, comes the withering of freedom—conceptualized not as freedom of locomotion, freedom of the will, or freedom of choice, but freedom to act, to appear, to be meaningful, to matter.

But that is just that. I, to be honest, is not so much an Arendtian on the point of the public, and does not really care about the its death. Talking to friends, reading, thinking, is good enough for me. But maybe I’m just a creature of the times.

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