The Politics of Susceptibility

xtro realm / Climate Imaginary Reader

When we speak about climate change and its more and more obvious presence in our lives, we also criticize our relationship to the Earth in two respects. Firstly, humans have exploited nature. Secondly, humans thought this kind of exploitation would never have consequences that could not be managed through human solutions. Accusing our species of exploiting nature implies the conviction that human beings aim to conquer and possess the Earth (understood as their natural surroundings). The second part of the critique points to the hidden arrogance in our natural belief that consequences are predictable and always under our control.

Both the past years‘ radical and irrevocable changes in climate and the current pandemic show the limits of possession and control. They teach us one lesson with certainty: human beings are not able to conquer the Earth to such an extent that it entirely becomes their puppet.

Kata Tranker: Treeplanting (2015) Syntopia exhibition, OFF-Biennale. Photo courtesy of the artist.

However, the proposed solutions for our current situation disturbingly resemble the logic that caused the problem in the first place. Exploitation implies the assumption that by doing “A” (destroying the jungle for agricultural purposes, for example) one will accomplish “B” – economical or financial gain. The connection between “A” and “B” is causality, which defines “A” as the means to “B” (the end). When we discuss how to avert the danger of a full-blown climate catastrophe we apply and reproduce the same logic. In order not to exceed a 1.5°C increase in average temperature, we must decrease our CO2 emissions by a given number. The final aims stay the same: our economy should not collapse; humanity should not become extinct. Despite goodwill and protective, concerned attempts at a different approach, our relationship with our environment has not changed. To our perception, the Earth and its ecosystems are still just an object whose changes affect humans negatively, and it is this negative impact that we must avoid at all costs.

Capitalism is known for producing objectifying relationships with one’s surroundings. This applies to both the environment and society. In this respect there is no difference in how people relate to each other and to nature, how they treat each other and the environment. The underlying problem unveiled in the permanent crises of the past few years (“the economic crisis”, “the refugee crisis”, “the climate crisis”, “the global crisis”) is a flaw in our relationships – our failure to imagine a world in which relating to somebody or something does not imply “a means to an end”, a world not dominated by humanity’s OCD, i.e. our obsessiveness with controlling every development and every living organism.

Through an investigation of Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy, the motifs of humans’ dominating relationship style can be observed and the roots of this exploitative rulership analyzed. Additionally, it must be noted that unpredictability is human condition and eliminating contingency1 does not create a safe and sound future but destroys our common world with certainty.

Modes of Activities

Hannah Arendt is one of 20th century’s most fascinating and most important political philosophers. The starting point of her thinking is never an abstract question (for example, “What is Being?”, “What is justice?”) but the horror, rejoicing, turbulence or curiosity one experiences when they expose themselves to the occurrences in the world without either a prefabricated range of interpretations or easily available answers. Arendt stresses time and again that philosophy and political philosophy need the experience of thaumazein2as their point of departure. Thaumazein is an occurrence and an event that the susceptible human being endures. By suffering through thaumazein humans are exposed to life’s plurality, to its unpredictability and to the insufficiency of their own answers, beliefs and certainties. Thinking originating from thaumazein is the opposite of cogito ergo sum since it does not approach the word from the self. On the contrary: human beings are part of an existing system only for a short period of time. In this system, which existed before the individual person and will continue to do so after their death, humans are exposed to certain experiences and incidents. By enduring these occurrences, one does not gain knowledge or produce science but establishes a relationship with the surrounding world. In the same way, Arendt did not found a particular political theory but created an oeuvre as an imprint of a thinking that had to endure disturbing, deeply moving experiences.

In The Human Condition, published in 1958, Arendt investigates how western philosophical thinking reduces human presence in the world to two modes of being: to activity (vita activa) or to passivity (vita contemplativa). Arendt argues that, due to this dichotomy, a whole tradition has disappeared which differentiated between specific forms of activity itself. What are we doing, asks Arendt, when we say we are doing something (being active)? As an answer to this question Arendt proposes three categories of activity: labor, work and action.

According to Arendt, labor’s purpose is biological life’s preservation, that is, satisfying bodily necessities which recur cyclically and instantly. As long as the body is alive, hunger and satisfaction supersede each other time and again. The same applies to exhaustion and recovery. Labor’s underlying logic is consumption. The human body uses up nature’s resources, consumes them, leeches them out for its own biological functioning. Bodies in this respect are part of nature: the environment is for animals and plants also a resource for self-preservation. They consume these natural resources until they perish. Additionally, they depend on their environment in order to maintain their own biological life processes.

Work, on the contrary, strives for durability. Its final products exceed individual human lives and connect generations to each other. It establishes a cultural and material realm which lasts beyond a single lifespan. In Arendt’s view, work is, for example, making a chair, building a home or writing a novel that becomes part of the (literary) canon. Due to work, light is shed on another part of the world: whilst labor regards the word as a resource for consumption and self-preservation, work sustains it. Work is not repetitive or cyclical but goal-oriented. It approaches its final aim by applying means-end logic: a hammer is a means for nailing into a beam, the nail in the beam is a means for building a roof, a roof is a means for protecting the house from rain and storms. Work is a productive activity and establishes relationships in the mode of causality. It generates means in order to arrive at the final goal which exceeds and determines the process of work itself. Certainly, these aims could be useful. However, Arendt stresses that there is no work without violence. In order to produce a table, one needs to chop down trees. Michelangelo’s David would not be possible without demolishing the original piece of marble. Philosophers or authors articulating and writing sentences violate the free-flowing stream of thoughts. Causality itself is violence in a world which naturally does not fulfill the means-end logic but is subject to biological life’s necessities and therefore consumes, i.e., erases the environment. Striving for durability also implies violence because naturally nothing is permanent – life expires and disappears always.

Both labor and work are externally determined forms of activity. Since biological life’s preservation demands regular satisfaction, labor is defined by necessity. Biological life compels one to eat. Work is governed by the logic of cause-effect (causality) and means-end. This applies in the same way for the carpenter as for the composer. The word is consumed and worn-out during labor by work it is sustained and becomes predictable.

For Arendt, the third form of activity is action. Action is radically different from labor and work because of the absence of labor’s coercion and necessity and work’s causality. Action is, in Arendt’s argumentation, the expression and manifestation of natality, i.e., of human beings’ ontologically inherent freedom. As a demographic term, natality marks the number of newborns in a population. Arendt turns this notion into an ontological term: it refers to the fact that every human being comes into this world as a newborn, and is thus a new beginning. The newborn did not cause its own existence – life’s emergence is unpredictable and unforeseeable. Due to the fact of their own birth, men embody a new beginning. The new (fresh start) is incarnated through and in them. Therefore, similarly to other characteristics and abilities, every human being carries within themselves the new and the capacity to initiate a new beginning in the world. The new occurs through action. It cannot be derived from necessity or from causality: it is unpredictable, unforeseeable, its consequences are erratic, hence it destabilizes the ruling power.3

Miklós Erdély : Unguarded Money, 1956, Photo: Fortepan

By introducing action as a form of activity which expresses freedom, Arendt points out an extremely important insight: contingency is not nature’s characteristic but men’s.4 The ecosystem has its own order: biological life is a cyclical movement between life and death and strives for states of equilibrium. Since men carry within themselves the possibility of the new, they are unpredictable beings. By acting they can liberate themselves from life’s necessity. However, the potentiality of action is evidence for an unpredictable future. Contingency is a human characteristic it is human condition and causes unpredictability in the world. Commenting on the invention of the atomic bomb and on the conquest of outer space (the moon landing), Arendt emphasizes a basic misunderstanding. Whilst men aim to liberate themselves from their earth-bound biological necessities by technical and scientific progress, they do not actually become independent rulers of life but start to destroy the functioning system which is not only their home but also the precondition of their life by infecting it with their own unpredictability.

Contingency: The price we pay for freedom

Action reveals the ambiguous nature of unpredictability and probability. Contingency is on the one hand a destabilizing factor and indicates uncertainty, vulnerability and that human beings are exposed to and impacted by the occurrences in their surroundings. On the other hand, it also marks the liberating force which challenges the status quo, breaks free from oppression and offers an alternative to familiar, automatic processes. Action sheds light on human freedom. Freedom can not exist without unpredictability.

According to Arendt, modernity has only inherited two of the above-discussed forms of vita activa: more precisely, work’s way of relating to surroundings (means-end logic and causality) and labor’s goal (self-preservation). Hence, everything that surrounds men has become a means to their biological well-being. There to offer repletion and pleasure, it is a resource men consume, digest or hoard. Nature is no longer home for the species called human, but the environment which humans imbibe whilst ignoring the ecosystem’s self-preservative needs.

Capitalist consumer society knows no other modality than satisfying labor’s goal by work’s means. Labor and work even define how we understand vita contemplativa, the opposite of doing. Contemplation and meditation are now part of a mindfulness culture which aims to reduce stress, improve mental health and increase individual productivity by using as its means elements of a traditionally spiritual praxis. There is no place for a form of contemplation which would not just mean ”to be passive” or ”to suspend doing”, but would exceed and overstep the boundaries defined by the underlying logic of labor and work; an alternative and subversive state that embodies a different way of relating to our surroundings, a relationship to the environment which is not defined by men. On the contrary, a state in which men expose themselves to the occurrences in, and endure impulses from, their surroundings – a relationship in which men bear and suffer and do not control.

Labor’s aim (individual biological self-preservation) and work’s logic (causality and means-end) as the only remnants of a vita activa imply twofold consequences. First, individual biological well-being as the final aim degrades the environment to a resource for pleasure and consumption and nothing else. Valuable are the things men can possess, digest or hoard. Relating in this way to one’s surroundings means that the environment is not a living, communicating, equal partner but a means to men’s satisfaction, a host that can be used until it is drained. This applies to both interpersonal interactions and to men’s relationship with nature. It is only by possession that one can ensure their resources are always available for their pleasure. The owner of the resources is the beneficiary. Hence, if labor’s aim (individual well-being) becomes the highest good, it can be successfully achieved only by taking possession of resources, occupying and exploiting or hoarding them.

Second, each and every factor that does not serve as a useful tool for instant gratification is an obstacle and needs to be eliminated. Therefore, maximizing benefit implies removing unpredictability. However, excluding contingency also means destroying freedom because contingency can only be prohibited through the subordination of unpredictable factors (for example, the environment or another human being). In Arendt’s view, sovereignty and freedom can not exist simultaneously. Where one can fully unfold and exercise their own will someone else has to be subjected to it. Unlimited freedom for the few is the oppression of the many. Freedom means the limitation of one’s volition by other human beings’ freedom. Freedom is not possible without permanent negotiation, without self-restriction and without challenging the familiar. However, without freedom no world worth living in is possible – a world which displays the plurality of being, a world in which other people and the environment are one’s equal partners, not the means to a self-interested end. Both changes in circumstances and men’s unpredictability are freedom’s necessary concomitants. Eliminating contingency ensures neither safety, nor soundness and economic prosperity for all. Conversely, it always causes exploitation and submission. Since human beings carry contingency within themselves, action will sooner or later emerge and challenge the iron rules – a belief which Arendt, despite 20th century’s world wars and concentration camps, never abandoned.

Modes of Relating

Implementing Arendt’s categories of vita activa, I argue that the roots of human beings’ dominating, possessive and exploitative behavior lie in the narrowing of their range of activities. The only activity we are able to imagine is a means to an end, even if this end is rest or charity. The end goal is always connected to our well-being and pleasure and is determined by the logic of causality.

In order to maximize benefit, we degrade our surroundings to a predictable, obedient and useful tool and ignore the fact that we are destroying an independent (eco)system by infusing it with our unpredictability. Quick changes and unforeseeable turning points are human characteristics due to human freedom. This freedom is horrifying because it confronts men with the unknown time and again. By striving for a predictable, safe environment (by relating to it in exploitative and oppressive ways) we try to escape our own intrinsic unpredictability and the fact that we are exposed to the unpredictability of life. Hence, freedom ceases to be the liberating action of the many which could challenge rulers and break free from oppression, and becomes another form of individual pleasure supporting the status quo. Since contingency and unpredictability are the conditions of our existence, we can not flee from them. By conquering and dominating our surroundings we try to establish a safety net. However, this will never be more than an illusion at best: a temporary, passing state.

Rulership is contradictory not just to freedom but also to the possibility of real relationships. Possession implies an owner and a property, a master and a servant or slave. This kind of connection isolates both parties involved. Labor and work do not connect us with the environment – they use it. Certainly, they are necessary, legitimate and relevant parts of human life. However, when they determine our entire lives and make us forget the potentiality of action, they become toxic. Action as an expression of human freedom enables relationships. For action,unpredictability does not need to be eliminated since it is the precondition of liberation.

Integrating contingency into our collective imagination would mean that we no longer define it and try to avoid it as the opposite of safety. Contingency and unpredictability would become a communication channel between men and their surroundings, updating their relationship constantly. Thus, men would no longer be the “Head of the Earth”, but a recipient who is susceptible to their surroundings. Furthermore, they would not develop plans in order to secure their power but would answer to particular situations and impulses occurring in the environment. Commanding, possessing and using produce one-way connections without the possibility of experiencing the joys of truly relating to each other. By accepting contingency as human condition men would not only experience collective freedom, but could also enjoy being part of an ecosystem whose countless members by a plurality of relationships all weave the net to which human perception refers as reality.


Translated by Hela Hecker.


Héla Hecker got her doctoral degree from the Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg. She was research assistant at Humboldt-University Berlin and at the DFG-research group “Self-making. Practices of subjectivation in historical and interdisciplinary perspective”. She was visiting scholar at The New School for Social Research / Politics Department and fellow at the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry. Her dissertation focuses on the relevance of emotional phenomena to politics in Hannah Arendt’s work and will be published in Spring 2021.


The Climate Imaginary Reader is edited by the members of xtro realm artist group, Rita Süveges and Anna Zilahi, editor of visual material is Gideon Horváth.


Climate Imaginary Reader

Preface – by Anna Zilahi
The World as Contingent Space – by Anna Zilahi
The Politics of Susceptibility – by Héla Hecker
Climate Change, COVID-19, and the Space Cabin: A Politics of Care in the Shadow of Space Colonization – by Réka Patrícia Gál
Between Two Giants: Materialism and the Social Imaginary in the Energy (Transitions) of Hungary – by John Szabo
Beyond the Postcard: an Ecocritical Inquiry on Images of Nature – by Rita Süveges
The Long March through Social Imagination – by Márk Losoncz


Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah: The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.


Notes

1 Ostensibly, Arendt never used the term “contingency”. Her choices of expression are ”infinite improbability” and “unpredictability”. This paper uses “contingency” and “unpredictability” as synonyms in order to stress their manifold meanings as occurrence, incident, event and the realization of something no one could imagine before.

2 Thaumazein is a Greek term Arendt borrows from Plato. It marks a state of shocked wonder, of an incident which confronts the philosopher with life’s horrifying uncertainty and the inadequacy of human perception and thinking.

3Action in Arendtian terminology implies the political, which is a realm without any form of subjection. It is free from hierarchy, necessity and causality.

4This does not mean that the existence of the universe and our earthly life are not caused by coincidence. However, it echoes what network theory biologists state: the ecosystem strives for a state of equilibrium and has its own regulating mechanisms for achieving it. Human activities cause harm to this self-sufficient system to such an extent that it becomes unpredictable, random and extremely changeable. That human impact on the functioning of the ecosystem can be no longer ignored is expressed in the semiofficial term for a new geological epoch: Anthropocene.

4 This does not mean that the existence of the universe and our earthly life are not caused by coincidence. However, it echoes what network theory biologists state: the ecosystem strives for a state of equilibrium and has its own regulating mechanisms for achieving it. Human activities cause harm to this self-sufficient system to such an extent that it becomes unpredictable, random and extremely changeable. That human impact on the functioning of the ecosystem can be no longer ignored is expressed in the semiofficial term for a new geological epoch: Anthropocene.

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