I’ve recently read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. It was a bestselling title on Amazon in 2017, a fact attributed to Trump’s election. But as the book makes clear totalitarian politics has no single or clear origin. No one event or act can be said to synthesise totalitarian politics. The Soviet Union and Third Reich were Frankenstein-like political systems. They were composites of imperialist, authoritarian and nationalist political ideas organised as mob violence. Violence is the essence of totalitarianism for Arendt. The value and utility of all other activities of political and social life are determined by their contribution to this goal. Violence becomes the end goal in a totalitarian system.
To say we live in Arendtian times therefore conjures a dystopian imaginary of society. Most potent of these imaginaries for our times is the mob willingly subjecting itself to tyranny; a wilful negation of the freedom to not know the future in exchange for the lie of security and safety. Why do I say this is the most potent? The answer lies in our media ecology. Arendt writes that mass media is not only a substitute for reality but becomes its own reality (2005, p.309). The experience of the human subject in this ecology becomes of less import than images in the creation of new political realities when media becomes the primary means of interpreting the world. The Arendtian citizen is first and foremost a moral agent who affects change through their actions. Thoughts, intentions, wishes or desires possess little political value if they do not dictate how the individual practices moral judgement in the public realm. If mental capacities do not dictate the will then they remain mere potentiates.
Moral judgement for Arendt is best practiced intersubjectively, which is to say the individual judges their actions based on the imagined effect they will have on others. Moral behaviour for Arendt can never be judged according to any fixed rules, precepts, or anything that can defined as an abstract authority; such abstractions could potentially lead to coercive behaviour, and thus the individual relinquishes their capacity for independent thought (Garsten, 2010, p.328). It is through such coercive methods that totalitarian states operate. The moral agent must always be in process for their judgements to be considered acts of independent thought. The media reality Arendt warns against endangers moral judgement by substituting intersubjective human contingency for immutable image. When a media imaginary of the ideal state and citizen becomes the basis for morality the seeds of a totalitarian politics are sewn in its diminution of immutable human experience:
The main effort of both the deceived group and the deceivers themselves is likely to be directed toward keeping the propaganda image intact, and this image is threatened less by the enemy and by real hostile interests than by those inside the group itself who have managed to escape its spell and insist on talking about facts or events that do not fit the image (Arendt, 2005, p.309).
Media images become objects of desire in a coercive political system. When images become ruptured from the intersubjective experience of individuals, the reality they represent can only be maintained by strengthening its grip on the public imagination. The strength of the grip is in inverse proportion to the human subject’s capacity to exercise true moral judgement, for as a system of control it cannot bear forms of thinking outside of itself. A system maintained by uniform thought collapses when the object of that thought becomes another moral agent, who presents as an immutable subject. The human in the totalitarian regime is a single body moving as one into a pre-destined future. Media act as containers of the body by communicating it as an ideology which trap publics inside limited spaces of thinking.
Leni Riefenstahl’s movie The Triumph of the Will meets Arendt’s criteria of the propaganda image in its portrayal of Hitler as an embodiment of the volk (Evans, 2006, pp.125-126). To give a more modern example of the propaganda image we can turn to modern Russia. Unlike the strong man imaginary of the Third Reich, the Kremlin’s propaganda is built on a system of illusory alternatives. Masha Gessen cites the state control of media and attacks on civil society as representing the obliteration of the boundary between state and society leaves citizens with few spaces to imagine alternative perspectives and ways of being (2017, pp. 291-295). The international broadcaster RT (Russia Today) mixes pro-Kremlin stories and so-called unreported, explicitly anti-Western news items. This repertoire is designed to engender a cynical and hyper-ironic attitude amongst viewers, who are encouraged to treat the truth as purely a matter of competing perspectives. Peter Pomerantsev describes Putin’s Russia as a ‘postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends’ (2015, p.50). The imagination engenders moral thinking by allowing other realities to be represented in the mind of the individual. It is the imagination that propaganda is in a perpetual war against and is therefore a vital means by which we exercise moral agency.
Arendt described imagining as representative thinking, ‘thinking in my own identity where actually I am not’ (Arendt, 2005, p.303). Imagining alternative perspectives is a prerequisite for moral action because the imagination allows us to transcend the material conditions of reality. ‘[T]he principles by which we act and the criteria by which we judge and conduct our lives depend ultimately on the life of the mind. In short, they depend on the performance of these apparently profitless mental enterprises’ (Arendt, 1971, p.71). Performance in the imagination makes the future a perpetually potential space in its immutability, which is to say it’s unknowability. The unknowability of the future makes us free to create it. When we imagine we evoke what is absent in our minds. This absence is not a void but a space to exercise moral judgement (Arendt, 1971, p.77). But what is the effect on consensual perspectives of reality when individuation becomes the basis for measuring freedom?
In a recent editorial of TDR, Carol Martin stated ‘[a]rtists are creating new patterns of knowledge to make reality whole again’ (2017, p.8, emphasis added). The implication that reality has become fractured can be found in debates and discourses on post-truth politics. Much of the literature on post-truth emphasises the dangers to public discourse when people create online information silos. The internet is painted as a disruptor of human cognition in its capacity to immerse humans in virtual, inherently unreal worlds. In this way, post-truth has become a convenient but lazy shorthand for denoting a relativist approach to perceiving the world which assumes a pre-digital culture possessed absolute, unquestionable truths which dictated people’s actions. This is an ahistorical fallacy. As John Gray argues, the belief in an eternal truth is rooted in the Socratic philosophy that material reality is a shadow of the real:
Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same: there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect. When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions. They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away. True fulfilment lies in changeless things. An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity (2002, p.25).
The virtual reality of the internet becomes another illusion amongst the many illusory perspectives in the Socratic tradition. But the notion of a truthful reality existing outside of the contingencies of human perspective, which technology shapes as much as the natural environment and our senses do, is itself an illusion. The internet is a technology that is changing humanity in ways we are not fully cognizant of. In this way, it corresponds to all other technologies: ‘Technology is not something that humankind can control. It is an event that has befallen the world’ (Gray, 2002, p.14). The ultimate unknowability of the internet’s impact on humanity has resulted in anxieties expressed as post-truth politics and fake news. The idea of post-truth treats humans as a swarm who scour the world in search of the eternal. It fails to account for the fact that the value of truth is determined based on the contingencies of perspectival reality. Indeed, for Arendt, this is all to the good, for facts can be as coercive as propaganda:
The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking (2005, p.303).
Eternal truth is inherently oppressive in its homogeneity. Any sense of cohesive reality is contingent on many uncontrollable factors, especially those ones that are yet to occur. If reality feels broken it is because humans are adapting to the new reality produced by the digital. The pervasive connectivity the internet produces between people and documents turns social interaction into a discursive process of reality production.
For Matthew Causey, digital thinking constitutes an activist strategy of resistance against commodification, control and alienation in its rendering of the human subject as metamorphically reiterative. Trans-identities are ‘new models of a posthuman identity’ which ‘find an analog in the technologies of virtual avatars that exhibit a radical mutability in electronic duplications’ (Causey, 2016, p.434). Performing identities in digital spaces is the means by which new political, cultural, and social realities can be created. The logic of trans-identity is that an ever-increasing number of publicly performed identities produces an ever-increasing number of realities, thus rendering present reality changeable by the human subject; a necessary prerogative for emancipation. In this sense, the performance of trans-identities resonates with Arendt’s commitment to plurality in political thinking. Plurality for Arendt ‘is not centred on the creation and preservation of any one culture per se but on the importance of protecting the varied perspectivality and manifoldness of the world as it appears to human beings’ (Benhabib, 2010, p.10). To some degree, political discourse in digital networks is Arendtian in the internet’s ability to connect diverse perspectives and present them in a public forum. But it is important to remember that identity in digital and offline spaces are symbiotic entities. The human is but one of many communications nodes in the network. Moreover, we do not control the network.
Unlike the imaginary of the public square, digital spaces have no parameters or fixed centre. The metaphor of the cloud as an information repository is apt for its metamorphic connotations. The danger of thinking like a network in politics is that all subjects (including humans) are classified according to how identity is expressed. Trans-identities by their very nature are always in process which never exist as distinct presences within the network, rendering their performative-selves as mutable agents in the discourse. The Arendtian notion of responsibility depends on the individual defining themselves against the mob as means of resisting the irrepresible movement of ideology. The radicalism of trans-identities should not undermine the vitality individuated presence creates within political discourse. A constantly shape-shifting subject makes the intersubjective relations public discourse depends on impossible to function.
Arendt, H. (1981) The Life of the Mind. London: Harcourt
Arendt, H. (2005) ‘Truth and Politics’ in Medina, J. and Wood, D. (eds.) Truth. Engagements Across Philosophical Traditions. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
Arendt, H. (2017) The Origins of Totalitarianism. London: Penguin
Benhabib, S. (2010) (ed.) ‘Introduction’ in Politics in Dark Times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Causey, M. (2016) ‘Postdigital Performance’. Theatre Journal, 68:3, pp.427-441
Evans, R. (2006) The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939. London: Penguin
Garsten, B. (2010) ‘The Elusiveness of Arendtian Judgement’ in Benhabib, S. (ed.) Politics in Dark Times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Gessen, M. (2017) The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. London: Granta Books
Gray, J. (2002) Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. London: Granta Books
Martin, C. (2017) ‘Reclaiming the Real:Introduction’. The Drama Review/TDR, 61:4, p.8
Pomerantsev, P. (2015) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia. London: Faber & Faber