Reclaiming Distinctions in the Light of Plurality and Natality

Public and Private

For Arendt, the private space is where necessities are dealt with and the public space is where men— and I will add women[1]—enjoy plurality and freedom, through the revelatory character of speech and action: “life without speech and without action […] has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men” (Arendt 1959, p. 157). In her view, the public is loaded with more ontological dignity than the private, because it is where freedom can be experienced.

The private, as still visible in the etymology, meant originally to be deprived from being among equals. Nowadays, privacy is hardly understood as “being deprived” from anything! On the contrary: freedom is more on the side of the private, and the rule of law on the side of the public. Property is associated with wealth and accumulation, while property and wealth used to be only the pre-condition for engaging in the public realm. Action has been substituted by behaviours, or by fabrication. In tyranny, as in mass society, “men have become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them” (Arendt 1959, p. 53).

Freedom has changed sides: privacy is now perceived as one way to protect freedom, while publicity is more perceived as the realm of constraints (rule of law, accountability, transparency, justification, surveillance, etc…), than as the realm of enjoying plurality and freedom.

It is interesting to note that Arendt attributes the dissolution of the public/private distinction and the profound change of their meaning to political modernity. In her terms, the invasion of the social in the public realm, in the form of the nation state, which can be seen as a huge household, joined up with the ancestral “great temptation, for men of action no less than for men of thought, to find a substitute for action in the hope that the realm of human affairs may escape the haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents” (Arendt 1959, p. 197). The Arendtian axiomatic reset is not about going back to the Greek polis: push ing labour and work out of the public sphere, and concentrating politics on action only is not a credible option in the twenty-first century. However, the Arendtian tripartition of the vita activa in labour, work and action remains inspirational as it reminds us that labour (and necessity) and work (and causality) cannot account for the totality of the human experience: action (and plurality and freedom) has to have a place! For Arendt, the meaning of politics is freedom. If indeed, omnipotence and omniscience were a possibility, there would be no room for politics, as politics is precisely the place where we experience the noblest part of the human condition, i.e. plurality and natality. In the vita activa of the twenty-first century, the labour-work-action tripartition should not be seen hierarchically, i.e., with action, the public and the agora on the top and labour, the private and the home on the bottom: instead, labour, work and action form a trio generating a 3D-space. Failing to recognize action as a third dimension ends up in a degenerative perception of the human condition and a flattening of the human experience.

Arendt mapped the private/public distinction with idealized representations of the home and the agora as they were supposed to be in Greek Antiquity. There and then, the private was the household, the place where women and slaves took care of the necessities of life, while the public was the space where men, freed from the necessities of life, could experience freedom, among equals. It is obvious that the public/private distinction does not correspond anymore to the distinction agora/home. It is my view that the public/private distinction can most usefully be redescribed in the twenty-first century by indexing it primarily on the freedom/necessity polarity, and by leaving aside the space distinction (household vs. agora), or the gender or social one (men vs. women and slaves).

With that in mind, the private realm is where and when humans are bound by necessity, deprived from appearance among equals, and thereby, confined in a prepolitical, infra-human life, while the public realm is where and when human beings experience plurality, i.e. equality, specificity and reflectivity, notably through speech and action. The experience of appearing to others as a who or as a what has little to do with the place where the relationship takes place. Consequently, the distinction between the public and the private has more to do with what is at stake in the relationship rather than where it takes place.

If we are considered, not as ourselves, but as a number (ID-number), an attribute (the amount of wealth, or a set of skills) or as a function (a consumer, a parent, a job holder), this is not a public appearance, but rather a private setting even if the relationship is between a so-called private entity and a so-called public entity. Indeed, then, the who does not matter; there is no plurality, but only functional interactions that can be modelled, calculated, and anticipated. This functional approach to relationships is close to what was meant by being confined in the home, as the home is the metaphor for the place where persons, instead of appearing to others for who they are, are confined to fulfilling the tasks they are expected to.

Arendt recognizes that plurality can best be experienced at city-level. “The larger the population in any given body politic, the more likely it will be the social rather than the political that constitutes the public realm” (Arendt 1959, p. 39). The Nation-State is where conformity and mass behaviour substitutes for plurality. This can then only be worse for continental organisations, such as the EU, or for global governance bodies, such as the UN! With big numbers, plurality degenerates into mere and unendorsed interdependence, while natality and its inherent openness and unpredictability are perceived only under the categories of uncertainty and risk.

  • [1] The gender reading of Arendt is a most interesting issue that is not addressed in this contribution. Those interested may enjoy Feminist Interpretations of Arendt, edited by Bonnie Honig (1995. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.).
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