It was a spring afternoon in Central Park in New York City. The park was packed with people and buzzing with activity; two spirits were among the many enjoying the warmth of the sun. Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault were catching up on recent events and enjoying the people watching while lounging on the recently mowed grass.
“I love the spring in New York City. It’s interesting to watch humanity defrost from the winter blues,” said Arendt. “And especially here in the park, we get to watch how people are with others. We can see them as they reveal themselves to others while they do not even know who they are as individuals. As I’ve said in the past, ‘Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure, and this neither the doer of good works, who must be without self and preserve complete anonymity, nor the criminal, who must hide himself from others, can take upon themselves’ (Arendt: 180). I am not sure, but I would venture a guess that we have both types right here in this park. I also love being surrounded by all the greenery, the biological life of man, yet we can see the tops of buildings that he placed here, reminding us of the work that man has done.”
“Yes, the weather has a way of bringing souls together in space. And this park has the open space for mankind to enjoy. This space is not private but public; it is quite social and by all means in springtime, it is a leisurely space. As you know, I believe that ‘we do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable (sic) on one another’ (Foucault, Spaces: 23). I believe I would consider this spot a heterotopia. It sure seems to be a counter-site, ‘a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality’” (Foucault, Spaces: 24). Foucault continued, “It holds all sorts of people within its perimeters; and we can see those that are in crisis among the many that are enjoying the park. Over there is a pregnant woman, and to our right is an elderly couple. I would consider all three to be in what I like to call crisis heterotopia (Foucault, Spaces: 24). And look over there, on the bench, two gay men engrossed in conversation.”
“Now, now my friend,” Arendt responded. “How are we to know that they are gay? Wouldn’t we rather know who the men are rather than what they are? As I wrote years ago in my book The Human Condition, ‘The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or a ‘character’ in the old meaning of the word, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us’ (Arendt: 181). I am, however, curious as to the web of their relationship, and they are probably disclosing who they are to one another via their speech, which unfortunately for us, we cannot hear from this far away.”
“Well, one of them looks to me like someone I met on the train last week,” replied Foucault. “And you know my opinion of trains and their many relations. I believe ‘a train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which one can go from one point to another, and then it is also something that goes by’ (Foucault, Spaces: 24). The man I met was gay, as we tricked in the bathroom at Grand Central Station. I remember it well because he was carrying the same messenger bag with that Internet logo on it.”
Arendt smiled at the mention of the Internet. “I love that invention. Wish it had been around back in my day. Oh, the storytelling one can do via the web. As we both know, ‘the real story in which we are engaged as long as we live has no visible or invisible marker because it is not made’ (Arendt: 186). We can know the story of who someone is by what he allows us to know, his own biography as it were, with him as the hero. It certainly takes courage to speak out about one’s own story. As I wrote many years ago, ‘And his courage is not necessarily or even primarily related to a willingness to suffer the consequences; courage and even boldness are already present in leaving one’s private hiding place and showing who one is, in disclosing and exposing one’s self’” (Ibid). Arendt continued, “But with the Internet, one can now be anyone, really. Political and/or civic engagement is the norm on that medium. And stories spread like wildfire, whether true or not. Think about what just occurred with the Democratic Strategist, Hilary Rosen. She said something about the Republican candidate’s wife, and all heck broke loose. The Internet was all abuzz with the mistake made by Hilary Rosen.”
“Well,” responded Foucault. “What happened there is one of my pet peeves. What she said was completely taken out of context. One must know all of the situation as well as the words used prior to and after the offending phrase that everyone was upset about. As I said in my book, The Archeology of Knowledge, ‘The analysis of thought is always allegorical in relation to the discourse that it employs. Its question is unfailingly: what was being said in what was said? The analysis of the discursive field is orientated in a quite different way; we must grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrence; determine its condition of existence, fix at least its limits, establish its correlations with other statements that may be connected with it, and show what other forms of statement it excludes’ (Foucault, Knowledge: 7). With that in mind, had the media and all those blogs paid attention to my philosophy on this issue, the brouhaha would never have occurred.”
Foucault continued, “The Internet highway is a major space for word travel, and the added component of the cloud makes space even less of an issue. It has been a boon for politicians. And as we know, politics is not for the faint of heart. The Internet can spread things faster than anything else we saw in our time.” Arendt agreed, stating, “It certainly was a great piece of theater, the Hilary Rosen debacle. The way everyone jumped on the bandwagon to condemn someone who actually spoke the truth once one looked at the entirety of the situation. Yet that did not stop many from using it for their own goals. And this bit of political theater reminded me again of my salutation to action. As I wrote back then, ‘This is also why the theater is the political art par excellence; only there is the political sphere of human life transposed into art. By the same token, it is the only art whose sole subject is man in his relationships to others’ (Arendt: 188). And this was political theater with no need for a space to act it out in as that space is the ether that most of mankind uses to disseminate his message. The relationship to others is exponential on the World Wide Web.”
Foucault deliberated on this for a moment. “Perhaps I would have loved to have the Internet back in my day to afford me the ability to reach the masses. However, this tool can be abused if not handled correctly. There are relations between statements, and the Internet does not allow for that. People post every few hours or minutes with no regard to what they posted prior. There is no connection, and most folks are invisible. Some even post under fictitious names. I am reminded once again of my writing in The Archeology of Knowledge. In it I offered, ‘However banal it may be, however unimportant its consequences may appear to be, however quickly it may be forgotten after its appearance, however little heard or however badly deciphered we may suppose it to be, a state is always an event that neither the language (langue) nor the meaning can quite exhaust. It is certainly a strange event: first, because on the one hand it is linked to the gesture of writing or to the articulation of speech, and also on the other hand it opens up to itself a residual existence in the field of memory, or in the materiality of manuscripts, books, or any other form of recording; secondly, because, like every event, it is unique, yet subject to repetition, transformation, and reactivation; thirdly, because it is linked not only to situations that provoke it, and to the consequences that it gives rise to, but at the same time, and in accordance with a quite different modality, to the statements that precede and follow it’ (Foucault, Knowledge: 7). With the blogs and the postings that people tend to do on the spur of the moment, the before and after are not part of the parcel. In this arena, things do live on, they do get repeated and transformed as we saw with the Hilary Rosen event, but we have no ability to look at what the poster wrote an hour earlier on another blog. People are quite anonymous, and there are few heroes to point to in this medium.”
Arendt nodded, “ I agree, the medium can be both a blessing and a curse. But to be honest, we philosophers have more of a problem with that whole Twitter thing. How in the world can our work reside there? We are restricted to the number of characters used, and I have no idea how you or I could commit to such a travesty.”
Foucault laughed, “I concur, my friend, I concur.”
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 1958. University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. 1969. Pantheon Books, NYC.
Foucault, Michel. Of Other Spaces. 1986. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
Written for Prof. Monique Mironesco’s POLS 302: Political Philosophy / POLS 499: Directed Reading