Gotham Diary:
Position Papers
16 April 2014

Hannah Arendt everywhere…

Even at the Lost Kingdoms exhibition at the Museum, which I took in at a “preview” last night. (The show has already opened to the public.) I felt her presence beside me, respectful and very much prepared to discover something remarkable, but also somewhat impatient, as I was, to be done with it.

Lost Kingdoms gathers objects — statuary mostly, but also architectural elements — excavated from sites in Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, that reflect the spread of Indian religions to those regions a long time ago. Most of the objects date from the Sixth to the Ninth Century, and most were locally produced. There are Buddhas and bodhisattvas, Vishnus and Shivas, in sandstone and copper alloy. (The works in stone are large, but badly weathered; the works in metal are small, but in pretty good shape.) The religions that these images represent were taken up, not very systematically one imagines, by the rulers of long-vanished kingdoms, and their wealthier subjects. One of the pieces that sticks in my mind is the head of a “male devotee” of one or another of the gods. With his intriguing turban, his “earplug” ornament, and his pleased expression — he smiles like a child who is about to be given an ice-cream cone — he has a lot more going for him than the bland divinities. I don’t know why I kept imagining the bloody slaughter of the defeated in the temples where these statues once stood.

Lost Kingdoms is no display of Yankee loot. Almost every wall card named a museum from one of the Southeast Asian nations as the owner. Perhaps because I was simply underwhelmed by the exhibition itself, I began to see it as the wing of a diplomatic stunt of some kind. After all, the United States has been on very bad terms if not actually at war with half of the contributing countries. And in my lifetime, too.

As usual, the postcards were disappointing. Museum postcards go for the timeless and avoid the quirky. Quirkier than anything in the Lost Kingdoms show are the makara, or “aquatic monsters,” that grace the ends of lintels. These creatures are all jaw, studded with big, blunt teeth. Seen in profile, they show one enormous eye, and they seem to rest on one foot, but that is all there is too them: they exist solely to devour. But they look very jolly, and I’m sure that Will would be tickled, not frightened, by them. But I am not going to buy the catalogue just to get a picture of them.

I thought of the worlds for which these objects were created, worlds of meaning, culture, architecture, government, and so on — all of them, like most human worlds, incomplete worlds, by Arendt’s standards, because they lacked any kind of political space — any forum for political action, discussed by equals and launched by courageous individuals. When The Human Condition came out, in 1958, many readers felt that Arendt had succumbed to nostalgia for The Glory That Was Greece. Her relentless but not analytical references to “the polis” and to its free, but slave-owning, citizens could indeed at times take on the “inspiring” quality of a mural in a public building. But for Arendt, the polis was the first attempt in human history at her political ideal, the republic, and, as a thinker making use of history, but not actually a historian (except, of course, of thought itself), Arendt was free to treat the polis as an ideal — as if it had actually been realized and sustained.

One of the many things that I am stewing over is Arendt’s understanding of power. Power is a problem that, like poverty, has always been with us, but perhaps, again like poverty, a problem that we might continually shrink. Almost everything that goes wrong in government can be attributed to the unwillingness of human beings to relinquish power. (Government, I say; not politics.) I have always tended to regard power as a kind of energy source, not very unlike electricity, over which people in power — whether elected or appointed (or self-appointed) — have control. Arendt has already shown me how stupid this is. Power is not something “out there” that some people are allowed to harness. No: power comes from people themselves, and its manifestations are as different as people themselves. Power is a manifestation of the plurality of human beings: when we say that X is a powerful man, “powerful” is just as general and non-specific, as devoid of comparative detail, as is the predicate in X is a human being.

Then there is the apparent paradox inherent in Montesquieu’s understanding of balanced powers.

Power can be stopped and still kept intact only by power, so that the principle of the separation of power not only provides a guarantee against the monopolization of power by one part of the government but actually provides a kind of mechanism, built into the very heart of government, through which new power is constantly generated, without, however, being able to overgrow and expand to the detriment of other centres or sources of power. (On Revolution, 142-3)

Arendt writes here as if power were indeed a current; Montesquieu almost certainly saw it in the Newtonian terms that were so glamorous in his day. But what I’m puzzling over is whether the quoted passage supports the idea that power can be created to arrest abuses of power. (Only abuses of power involve actual violence.) I think that it does. And I think that the best generator of power-checking power is the local council.

What local council, you ask — quite rightly. Local councils are at present a negligible force in representative democracies. Where they exist, it is usually to sound and express a consensus regarding local affairs. As such, they are far from uninfluential, but their operations are of no general interest. But why should there not be a plethora of local councils devoted to the consideration of such extreme if occult sources of power as the rules by which our two federal legislative chambers govern themselves? These councils would not have the power to alter those rules directly, but I surmise that they might well develop the power to persuade that changes be made.

I can imagine a council for everything, in one or more of which everyone possessed of at least normal intelligence participates.

And I imagine that, a few social gatherings of these councils aside (so as to put faces on names — and so much more that is important about shaking someone’s hand), the business of these councils would be conducted online. Online, not because of the relative convenience, but because the product of every council’s deliberations would be a position paper, modeled perhaps on the Declaration of Independence. (The discussion of the position would be conducted as a series of annotated drafts.) Conclusions and resolutions would be stated clearly, as unambiguously as possible, and in as friendly a spirit as possible (and by “friendly” I do not mean “nice.”). Then they would be circulated to other councils undertaking similar deliberations.  The endorsement of and amendment by every council of any such statement would increase its power — the power, that is, of all its supporters. A point to stress is that these ongoing councils would not resemble popular demonstrations or protest marches. Councils would be myriad and endless, interesting but rarely exciting. They would largely replace “political news,” and certainly wipe away the disgrace of political advertising.

There is nothing in the federal constitution, by the way, that would prohibit the “election” of representatives in this manner.

I myself am considering the establishment of a Committee on Public Manners, whose first position paper would cover the use of handheld electronic devices in public. Not only is there a need for such a manifesto, but the its composition would impel the spread of that expanded consciousness that Arendt is always thanking Kant for discussing: the ability to see things from the point of view of someone else.