Hannah Arendt and “raising awareness” – the suffering of others as a Veblen good

“I do a lot of good work for charity, but I don’t like to sing about it”

The hopes for liberation via technology are just hopes, and though efforts such as (PRODUCT) RED seem admirable, they are ultimately redundant. What is this but an effort at social signalling? At the very least, it is using the suffering of others as a bauble, to demonstrate how supposedly “engaged” one is. It allows us to indulge in armchair misery tourism. If you have one of those red iPods, what is the best scenario one can hope for? I see it playing out as follows. You walk around, with your iPod, listening to it, and it stays in your pocket. Perhaps one day you meet friends and you take it out of your pocket, and they might say “hey, nice colour”. “Yeah, some of the money from this goes to an AIDS charity.” “Cool.”

And. That’s. It. I am not making a binary argument. I am not saying don’t buy these products. Nor am I saying that this shouldn’t exist. Nor am I saying that Apple is somehow evil for manipulating social efforts as a means to a corporate end – they are a corporation, and that is to be expected. What I am questioning is the value of this. Do we need our awareness raised any more than it has been? I have altitude sickness as it is. If there is somebody out there who doesn’t know about the decimation of millions as a result of AIDS and HIV, is a new sliver of technology from Apple going to change that? There are arguments galore about whether this is but another way to expand a market, another p.r. stunt. How much actually goes to charities? These are all the usual points that can be made, and have been made at length.

The notion of “consciousness raising” is a product of the 60’s, and it worked for a while. There were things that people didn’t know about, but telling people about what they should be aware of only gets you so far. After a while people get tired. I think of the joke that goes something like this. At a U2 concert and Bono asks the audience for some quiet. Then in the silence, he starts to slowly clap his hands. Holding the audience in total silence, he says into the microphone… “Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies.” Then a voice from near the front pierces the silence… “Well stop fucking clapping then!” Snopes says this didn’t happen, but as Slavoj Žižek points out when he uses jokes, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. It’s a form of Bono fatigue. Jane Fonda was similarly a victim of this, when she became known as “Hanoi Jane“. The point is not that what such stars are saying is necessarily wrong, or untrue, or not worth articulating, but rather it is that people take umbrage when they feel they are being pontificated to/at. It is easy then for one to become cynical about charity.

Hannah Arendt‘s theory of action is a useful tool in any analysis of the above cluster of problems. She describes political reality, and so is concerned with “what makes the world go round”, the ‘is’ of reality rather than the ‘ought’ which we often get bogged down in. This viewpoint is usually to be found in a rather more cynical, Realpolitik context, and so that it can be applied on the side of liberation, solidarity, and all those other nice things is what I think makes Arendt so refreshing. There are obvious parallel’s with Sartre’s notions of authenticity, bad faith, mauvaise foi, but Arendt restricts her analysis giving it a distinct force of compression. I will break it down into the following points (courtesy of my undergrad notes):

  1. Nothing is independent of how it is perceived.
  2. I cannot judge my own actions. I rely upon others, the context of my social reality to reveal to me how I appear.
  3. What I intend to do cannot be different from what I am perceived to want to do.
  4. To work on how I want to be, I must first work on others’ perception of me.
  5. Praising the good or being aware of it will make it disappear. This leaves no means of fostering it in myself or others.

The problem here is with the disjunction between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’. This is an argument which has been repeated time and again, and is central to much of phenomenology as well as the ‘ordinary language’ school of analytic philosophy, noting the frequent discrepancy between the world of appearance and the medium of words that supports thinking. Arendt’s take is somewhat different. This is actually to say that reality is social reality; there is no ‘reality’ hiding behind appearance.

This space of appearance relies on our willingness to risk a apart of ourselves, i.e. to surrender our solipsistic autonomy in our definition of self. In this space, we cannot know nor guarantee how we will be perceived. What Arendt seems to aim at illuminating, however, is that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cannot be said to be a part of this realm, because goodness and badness do not qualify actions essentially. Here Arendt seems to be stepping back from morality, but rather she combines it with ethics, because to remain in the world with others presupposes a modicum of ‘good’ choices. We do not have carte blanche to murder at will, but we do have the responsibility of choice. So then, we start to think of ourselves as being in the realm of appearance, but we cannot bring ethics or morality into this realm.

The other aspect of this analysis is basically epistemological, for actions in the world are complex, and given that we are not omniscient, we cannot know what the implications of a given action will be. We rely upon the context of our culture to guide us, especially when we are growing up (thus the the authority of elders over the youth in a culture is basically a heuristic to aid their moral/ethical education – but this authority necessarily has a time limit). We are born into a particular culture, and we can only alter this fact with great difficulty – if at all.

Further to this is the fact that there are many things that I cannot do without being seen to do them. This is the idea of performativity. Our actions rely upon communication, and communication takes place in a social context. Some forms of communication simply do not make sense unless they are explicitly considered in this light, thus Austin’s notion of the “performative utterance” from whence this idea developed. Examples are promising, agreeing, accusing, voting, etc. I need to be seen to do these things. 

So far so Arendt 101. Returning to “raising awareness” after all this, what is the next stage in our analysis? Do we have the conceptual apparatus at our disposal to move on beyond this description of things as they stand right now? Arendt allows us to describe our activities in such a way that we can understand that we cannot turn the moral good into goods to be sold. At best, we can use the idea of appearance to show that the whole bank of efforts at raising awareness is effectively bankrupt. It is a manipulation of others, turning them into a means at our own aggrandisement in the world where we appear in front of our peers. We wish to use others to elevate ourselves.

The distance between the intention supposedly ‘behind’ the act, and the act itself, is collapsed. This is the above point about not being able to import morality and ethics into the space of appearance. The actual effect of your buying of a bracelet to raise awareness of the importance of awareness elevation is zero, unless the money goes directly to whatever programme it is supposedly raising funds for. This does not allow for administration or marketing.

Appearance, not coincidentally, is also the realm of ideas and practices which the marketing of sparkly shards of technology such as the red iPod relies upon, but it is also central to all campaigns. The marketing paradigm has covered all things with its slick of oily zero-sum-game logic. It supposes that there is a finite amount of awareness, and all attempts to draw attention to the charitable hobby-horse of the week must be grabby and sparkly. It presupposes that the most useful thing we can do is to monetize a thing. If in doubt, sell it! (Here Arendt’s theory of work, rather than the theory of action, is of most relevance, but space doesn’t allow me to go into this.)

I used the phrase Veblen Good in the title primarily because it is evocative, but this is not entirely accurate, because what happens in this situation is quite complex. This notion of the suffering of others being deployed as a form of status-seeking (and we can define charity, raising awareness, etc. thus unless the activity so defined as charitable etc. directly alleviates part of the problem) is simply exploitation. All this, however, are but the symptoms of the main issue, and Arendt lets us see what this problem really is, though it may still be unclear what I am actually proposing here.

The reason for this is that Arendt’s theory of action repudiates the standard notion of utility, of instructions, of direction, of ethical praise and blame. Her analysis of the space of appearance is predicated on how the world actually is, and with this her view of charity might be boiled down to the following: stop talking about it, and get on with it. If there is a problem, and we have the option of “raising awareness”, it is better to delineate the elements of this problem. There’s a problem? Fine. Anybody can point their finger. If you want to help, start aiming towards a solution. Even after you have raised all the awareness in the world that you can, you still have to go and do something about it. So there is a new terrible disease? Continue funding universities adequately so that they can use their academic and intellectual independence to find a cure, rather than making all hopes of a cure reliant upon the vagaries of the market. Arendt dares us to refuse the hegemony of a market logic to say that there are some things that are not to be sold.

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