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Ponts vs. Points: A model for reading
Posted By Joe Weil On May 2, 2012 @ 5:30 am In Arts & Society | No Comments
I was sitting on the throne a few minutes ago, reading Hannah Arendt’s Vita Activa, specifically the part called “The Location of Human Activities” and, as I was reading, I realized no one suggests to students how to converse with a book while they are reading it. We “receive” the information, highlight what we think is important (which I suppose is analogous to culling the herd) and re-read what we do not understand. But there is another way to read a book, and that is by allowing other texts we have read to intrude, to interrupt the text at hand, to gather the force of our past readings, and to hold a conversation with the work before us. This is somewhat how Coleridge read, his mind leaping between texts, and thoughts, and contexts–reading as a sort of extroverted comedy of manners.
I have not read Hannah Arendt in years, and I can admit that I am most familiar with what I’ll call her “buzz” concepts: The banality of evil, and the subject of labor and action. So I did what I always do when reading a non-narrative: I opened the book at random, in media res, and trusted in the gods of chance. This is what I first read:
although the distinction between private and public coincides with the opposition of necessity and freedom, of futility and permanence, and, finally, of shame and honor, it is by no means true that only the necessary, the futile, and the shameful have their proper place in the private realm.
So I’m looking that over and I think Kenneth Burke’s scene/act ratio, the “private realm” as a “scene” with certain actions both moral and immoral, or good and evil ,appropriate to it. I write down Google Kenneth Burke’s “Scene/act ratio.” But then another thing strikes me: “necessity and freedom, futility and honor” are not exactly perfect fits where opposites are concerned. Something may be “futile,” yet “permanent.” A better oppositional pairing would be permanence and change (or flux), which is the title of a book by Kenneth Burke. But Burke’s book is not on my mind. I wonder if in the original German (I think Arendt wrote this in German) these terms were in a more standard sense oppositional (binary, dualistic, take your pick). What is the antonym for permanence in German, and what is the antonym for futility? (Look them up, I think.) If she wrote this in English, then perhaps she has a reason for not using perfectly oppositional terms. Still, they seem to be structured for opposition, with freedom, permanence, and honor wearing the white hats, and necessity, futility, and shame wearing the black. We shall see, I think.
Finally, she claims that it is by no means true that only the necessary, the futile and the shameful (those banditos) have their place in the private realm. So I continue to see if she adds something:
The most elementary meaning of the two realms indicates that there are things that need to be hidden and others that need to be displayed publicly of they are to exist at all.” So my mind leaps to the age old adage/question: “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?
Somehow this seems relevant to me. But she is saying something different. Because “if they are to exist at all” is tagged onto the end of the sentence, does it refer only to “things that need to be displayed,” or to both things that need to be displayed and to things that need to be hidden? If she includes both, then she is saying something strange and provocative: “Some things must be hidden in order to exist.” I think “latent,” “percipient as possible correlations of things that exist as hidden, but they are not things so much as pure abstractions of things to be, or things not yet come to light.” I think “quintessential”–all that cannot be seen, and exists, not “in spite of” but because of it being hidden. My brain is starting to race, and I leap to Kant who said that moral actions done out of fear of punishment or public censure were not as moral as moral acts done out of the motivation to do good. Of course, we cannot see a person’s “motivation” except through clues, through implications. A man giving a thousand dollars to a beggar and a man giving a dime are not showing their motivation. The one giving a thousand might be doing it to show off, while the one giving a dime might be poor and unable to give more, but he is doing it out of the bottom of his heart (e.g., the widow’s mite; actually Christ never speaks of the widow’s motivation for giving all she had to live on. She may have done it out of fear of looking cheap. She may have done it hoping to purge herself of guilt. Who knows? We only know she gave all she had to live on.)
So I can’t remember where Kant speaks of this, and before I am even done with the first paragraph, I have Burke, the German language, dialectical opposition, an age old adage in the form of a question, the parable of the widow’s mite, and Immanuel Kant all joining me in the bathroom! It’s getting crowded here.
Universities will tell you not to leap like that. It’s unsystematic. It leads to “error.” It’s digression from the task at hand. Stay focused! We are taught to see the text before us as a singular performance, and to watch it accordingly, trying to understand its meaning and actions, and highlighting what we think is “important.” This is not how Midrash or Biblical commentaries work, and it is not how the human mind truly learns. To reduce learning to uber-focus is to go directly against the grain of pontification (building a pont, a bridge between disparate thoughts, feelings and actions). The brain limited to a single focus can become narrow in either the best or worst sense. Best sense: it is sharp and can cut through the text and leave all the most important points on the table while the other material (everything in the universe, including the parts of the text that are not highlighted) on the floor.
For someone who has a methodical type of mind and limited frame of reference, this may prove the best method. It is the best method for scholarship, but not always the best for theory. They are different. Scholars must plod. Theorists must leap. Unfortunately, most schools of higher learning take a dim view of leaping. They may even punish it and say, Kant, Jesus, Burke, old adages, the widows mite are all beside the point. Stick to the point!
But points themselves are abstractions. What is the point of sticking to the point? It is a good thing for a scholar or an accountant not to be creative. The dyslogistic term for creative is nonsense and bullshit. But I am not afraid of looking foolish. After all, I am reading and thinking all this on the toilet. Am I devoid of system? Not at all, but my system of active, leaping reading is against the grain of academic learning. I can do it privately, in the silence of my mind, but God forbid I should post it on Facebook. So, I have not yet gotten through the first paragraph and I have the following list:
- Google Burke’s scene act ration.
- Google German words.
- Consider Kant on morality and motivation.
- Consider the widows mite as an act of public charity whose motivation is hidden, and can only exist if it is hidden.
- Wait for Hannah to say what may be added to necessity, futility and shame in the private realm.
Well, Hannah never tells us what may be added. At least not immediately. She goes right back to mentioning the two realms of private and public. Her main focus is location, not what might be added, but I’m a little pissed off at her. She is teasing me. Get to the point Hannah! What can be added? What can be added? I read on:
If we look at these things, regardless of where we find them in any given civilization, we shall see that each human activity points to its proper location in the world.
That’s not an easy sentence. First off, what are “these things” we are looking at? The realm of private and public? If so, then she is saying that “regardless of where we may find them in civilization” ( no matter where they are), we shall see that each human activity points its proper location in the world. So let’s assume “these things” means private and public realms. I place that where “these things” are:
If we look at the private and public realms, regardless of where we find them in any given civilization, we shall see that each human activity points to its proper location in the world.
Is each human activity to be understood as a subset of public and private realms, as an “Act” in the scene of the public and private? But if it doesn’t matter where they are in a given civilization, then how the hell can their activities point out their proper location in the world? Well, that’s tough. I like to wrestle. I’m sweating on the throne. Wrestling with half-said things that only get expanded on a hundred pages later is half the fun of theory and philosophy. A philosophy that has no loose ends allows no room for further thought. It is, itself, a closed system.
But I am a little angry here. Damn it, Hannah, are you saying that we do not know the realms of private and public except by their activities? Are you saying that only then do we know their proper location? If so, so be it. I don’t know. The jury is out. Now here I am at a loss. She is either saying that, or she has just transformed “realms” (scenes) of public and private into action/activities of public and private. That makes sense. The words scene and act are meant to be confused (look at drama). There are places where action becomes scenic (as in making the scene), and there are actions which embody certain “Scenes.” Of all the odd thoughts that come into my mind at this moment I remember a story by John Updike “A&P” in which two girls walk in from the beach, in bikinis, to buy, if I remember correctly, a can of sardines. On the beach, their wardrobe is “appropriate,” but, in the glaring light of the A&P they create a stir. So what is inappropriate? Their action? Or the scene of their action. Or are they a scene? (Think of the cliché “making a scene”). I file this odd thought away. It is tied in to attitude to a scene/act, and how one perceives a scene and the actions appropriate to it. Bikini on a beach? Appropriate. Bikini under the glaring light of a supermarket in the early sixties? Public lewdness. I think that when I bring Hannah Arndt to one of the groups in my class, I will have them read the Updike story and relate it to “the location of human activities.” So I read on:
This is true for the chief activities of the Vita Activa (Active life), labor, work, and action; but there is one, admittedly extreme, example of this phenomenon, whose advantage for illustration is that it played a considerable role in political theory.
We have reached the end of the first paragraph. Now I am waiting for two things: 1. What is added to necessity, futility, and shame? 2. What is this one example that plays a considerable role in political theory? Well, actually, I am waiting for a third: what are those things which must be hidden in order to exist?
Goodness in an absolute sense is what Hannah leads the next paragraph off with, as distinguished from the “good-for” or the “excellent” in Greek and Roman Antiquity. She says goodness in this sense became known only with the rise of Christianity. Oh my God, my digressions were intuitions. I trusted my meandering and look! I might be on to something! Is goodness the thing added to the private realm in addition to necessity, futility, and shame? I read further, and yes! So Hannah is not merely making oppositional pairs. She goes on to say that the Christian idea of goodness in an absolute sense survived the expected “last days,” the “eschatological expectations” of the coming end times. It survived the Roman empire, and the “other worldliness” on which it is based had another root (beyond waiting for the end times) perhaps more intimately related to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. She writes in the third paragraph:
The one activity taught by Jesus in word and deed is the activity of goodness, and goodness obviously harbors a tendency to hide from being seen or heard.
So necessity, futility, shame, and goodness! These things exist only by being hidden from public view. That seems to be the gist. I have part of my questions answered. She continues:
Christian hostility toward the public realm, the tendency at least of early Christians to lead a life as far removed from the public realm as possible, can also be understood as a self-evident consequence of devotion to good works, independent of all beliefs and expectations. For it is manifest that the moment a good work becomes known and public, it loses its specific character of goodness, of being done for nothing but goodness sake [I think Gratis, grace, for good alone]. When goodness appears openly, it is no longer goodness, though it may still be useful [Kant's use criteria and distinction between moral and truly moral] as organized charity or an act of solidarity. [Because I have spent my life reading the Gospels I think “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”].
Therefore: “take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them.” Goodness can exist only when it is not perceived, not even by its author; whoever sees himself performing a good work is no longer good, but at best a useful member of society or a dutiful member of a church. Therefore: “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand is doeth.”
Bingo! I have let my mind digress to other texts while I read. I have read closely, but I have also read intuitively and through a series of digressions–of Midrash and commentary. This has lead me to anticipate Arendt’s moves before they appear on the page. It looks like magic, but it isn’t.
So here’s my break down:
- Scholarship: incremental and focused learning.
- Theory: Learning how to leap and conjecture, to be creative and risk taking.
- Pont–consciousness, the consciousness that creates bridges between disparate texts, and thereby mitigates the worst dangers of leaping, and circumvents the worst sort of incremental narrowness. It’s a hybrid of scholarship and theory.
Of course, I had read some Kant, and the story “A&P” (which I am sure Hannah will somehow make relevant at some point). I have read Burke extensively. I have not read much Kant, or much Arendt, but enough to make leaps. I have read the Bible all my life, probably the whole of it a hundred times.
But there are still some loose ends here: how can goodness be included with necessity, futility, and shame? Isn’t that odd? Arendt answers that very question in the next paragraph:
It may be this curious negative quality of goodness, the lack of out-ward phenomenal manifestation, that makes Jesus of Nazareth’s appearance in history such a profoundly paradoxical event; it certainly seems to be the reason why he thought and taught no man can be good… the same conviction finds its expression in the Talmudic story of the thirty-six righteous men, for the sake of whom God saves the world and who are also known to nobody, least of all to themselves. We are reminded of Socrates’ great insight that no man can be wise, out of which love for wisdom, or philo-sophy, was born; the whole life story of Jesus seems to testify how love for goodness arises out of the insight that no man can be good.
Before I read these third and fourth paragraphs I was ready to clobber Hannah Arndt for saying “goodness” was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. I was going to argue that the “love of goodness” and the impossibility of goodness save through God is at the heart of his teaching. Hannah made this unnecessary.
The point of all this is to teach you an alternative way to read texts. You may say: “but Joe, I don’t know the books you do… I lack the reading to do what you do.” But there are the texts of your own life experience, of television shows, of entertainments, from which you can meet the text before you. In point of fact, we all do this. We bring whole, often conflicting worlds to a text. This is my point: trust your intuition. Do not consider your digressions unimportant. Note them, follow them up. I now could take these three paragraphs and make a reading list:
- Kant’s philosophy of morals
- Scene/act ratio in Burke, and its relation to both the story of “A&P” and the narrator’s own hidden motives, and his own hidden good that is not recognized as good, or ceases to be good the moment he becomes righteous about it.
- The relation of goodness to necessity, futility and shame in terms of the saintly practices of mortification, repentance, fasting, and persecution (St. John of the Cross).
Is Arendt right that goodness ceases to be goodness once it is public? If so, is it because its public expression then obscures its hidden motives? What about the public works and charities of churches and universities. By this schema of goodness as a hidden act, must all such public work be perceived as being suspect? What is the “good” in public works? (read The Prince, especially the part on public good works). Arendt continues to say that both wisdom and goodness cancel themselves out the moment they are aware of themselves as wisdom or goodness. What does that say about public institutions of learning or religion? Consider the word “toward” in relation to not being good or wise, but Loving and moving toward the good and wise.
I could go on. Knowing me, I will go on. This is how I read. It is always how I read. It is an alternative to the usual style of study. If I teach this work of Arendt, I will break a group of six into readings of Burke, Kant, the Gospel, the writings of St. John of The Cross, The Prince, and the story “A&P.” They will have Arendt’s work in common, but they will each read one of these separate works and then they will relate them to Arendt’s “the Location of Human Activities.” I will leave it open to them whether or not they wish to read the whole of the Vita Activa. If they do, Emma Goldman, Simone Weil’s ideas of necessity and physical labor can all be brought in. I now have a whole world of possibility out of three paragraphs, rather than reading an entire text and having no possibilities at all.
- Kenneth Burke’s scene/act ratio in relation to Updike’s story “A&P” (you can throw Kant in there, too).
- Location in Hannah Arndt’s Vita Activa and how it might relate to the old saying in real estate : “Location, location, location.” (make a bridge between the tenets of real estate and its selling tactics and that of philosophy—especially Hannah Arendt).
- A study of A Doll’s House by Ibsen in relation to what Hannah Arendt says about goodness being impossible once it is a public act (the relationship between public “goodness” and keeping up appearances).
- A paper in which a poem is analyzed for its private thread of goodness.
This is one way of reading different than the usual methods. I went to the bathroom and came out with part of my course. I am often accused of lacking structure, but very complex or intuitive structures can appear to be unstructured. Chaos appears to be unstructured and yet chaotic form is only a more complex structure. It is randomness that is unstructured–not chaos. Tell me if you think what I have done here is closer to randomness or to the more complex structures of chaos? I swear that I did not read ahead. Intuition is not magic, but rather quick pattern recognition informed by educated hunches that refer back to other moments, other times. It is the ability we have to somehow know the whole or its possibility through a single piece. Intuition is not a rational function, yet it is at the heart of all scientific as well as literary creativity.
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