Between Past and Future: The Crisis in Culture. Its Social and Its Political Significance
Hannah Arendt starts this chapter (Chapter 6) with the comment that the new phenomenon of mass culture, which is a culture of mass society, is of growing concern among intellectuals, to the extent that she sees a crisis in culture. She discusses this problem of a crisis in culture in terms of its social and political significance, in what I have come to realise is her usual thought-provoking way, challenging the reader to think in the gap between past and future.
For Arendt, culture helps to create the world. This humanly created world is made up of durable, lasting, non-consumable things that occupy our attention and make our world meaningful and lasting; things such as monuments, paintings, poems. The threat to this enduring and lasting world comes from the rise of consumerism and mass society, where people have excess time for leisure and entertainment, and the means to purchase this. The more society consumes cultural goods, the more it transforms culture into entertainment. The crisis in culture in terms of its social significance began when society started to monopolise culture, and people wanted to use culture for their own purposes and to increase their social status (p.198). The most effective way to do this is to loot the history of culture, and to make things accessible to the masses not just by reproducing them, as in printing many copies of a book, which Arendt is not opposed to, but by changing them, as in making films of a book, or translating a book, such that the original, lasting, durable book is in danger of being lost. Arendt writes that we risk losing these lasting cultural objects which give a sense of durability and continuity in our world by changing them and turning them into entertainment (reduced to kitsch in reproduction, p.204); we lose the sense of taking care of our world. This threat to the enduring and lasting world, which is how Arendt explains culture, is for her, the social significance of the crisis of culture.
“The point is that a consumer’s society cannot possibly know how to take care of a world and the things which belong exclusively to the space of worldly appearances, because its central attitude toward all objects, the attitude of consumption, spells ruin to everything it touches.” (p.208)
“This earthly home becomes a world in the proper sense of the word only when the totality of fabricated things is so organized that it can resist the consuming life process of the people dwelling in it, and this outlast them. Only where such survival is assured do we speak of culture, and only where we are confronted with things which exist independently of all utilitarian and functional references, and whose quality remains always the same do we speak of works of art.” (p.206)
Moving on to a discussion of the political significance of the crisis of culture, Arendt writes:
“Generally speaking, culture indicates that the public realm, which is rendered politically secure by men of action, offers its space of display to those things whose essence it is to appear and to be beautiful. In other words, culture indicates that art and politics, their conflicts and tensions notwithstanding, are interrelated and even mutually dependent. …….. The common element connecting art and politics is that they both are phenomena of the public world.” (p.215)
The political significance of the crisis of culture, comes, for Arendt from a loss of judgement. Culture, and to be cultivated, involves judgement. In all political judgement there is the need for agreement, a common sense of what is beautiful. To have a political culture we have to see the world in a common way, and have a common sense. “Judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.” (p.218). We have to produce this through acts of judgement that woo (Kant) and persuade us that the judgements are meaningful and important. Political judgements are aesthetic not just logical; they are judgements of taste, not rooted in absolute truth. They humanise culture. For political judgement we must put ourselves in the space of many perspectives to create a public political common sense.
The loss of judgement equates to the loss of ability to make common sense (i.e. sense that is commonly held between people) judgements and, as such, is a threat to the lasting, durable, common nature of our society. Political culture means that we make a judgement to embrace a common truth, not because it’s true, but because it is who we are, and it unites us as a people (see Chapter 7 Truth and Politics). Politics for Arendt is not about truth, but about opinions and judgements. The crisis in political culture is when we put truth above friendship, above commonality, above respect. Politics requires fidelity to friendship over truth. Today we often see that both sides in a political argument claim they are speaking the truth, when actually they are arguing over judgements about opinion. Opinions are not truth. Certain opinions over time can become common sense in a political society. They are not true in a logical sense, but become common truths in our world. Arendt calls these prejudices, which can sometimes be taken as a political truth.
“Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken in it, as well as how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.” (p. 219/20)
Hannah Arendt’s concern is with worldliness; to give the world lasting durability. She places value on worldliness because there is a certain humanity to a world that is immortal. Part of what it means to be human is to belong to a world in which you can act in public in ways that matter. The crisis in culture matters. Culture is those goods that all of us come to recognise as worth preserving. The rise of mass society and multi-cultural society makes this process harder, politically and socially, and may well no longer be possible.
As with all the chapters in this book, this has been a fascinating chapter to engage with and think about. The irony …. that I am reading a translation of Hannah Arendt’s book, that I watched the film Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta last weekend, and that I have found the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College video discussion on this chapter very thought provoking …. is not lost on me! I have relied on resources other than Arendt’s original work to engage with her ideas, the very action that she claims is leading to a crisis in culture.
To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .
- Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics
- Introduction to “The Crisis in Culture” by Hannah Arendt. https://youtu.be/tvR7yrrod0A (27.07 mins)
- Reading Group Discussion. “The Crisis in Culture” by Hannah Arendt. https://youtu.be/VbkkgeZOmhI (1.32.40 mins)
Source of image: https://www.alejandradeargos.com/index.php/en/artp/41817-hannah-arendt-20th-century