Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Arendt and Sennett

I've been re-reading in a protracted, fragmentary way Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) which I first got onto years ago after a good book architecture (George Baird, The Space of Appearance) made heavy reference to and drew its title from it. I know I've read it before from my pencil markings but, as seems normally to be the case these days, remember none of the things I’d marked -- in fact I almost might as well not have read it. Not quite, though I suspect my vague general impressions come from Baird’s quotes, not the book itself.

I was reading the section on homo faber, man the maker, about the craftsman, as opposed to homo laborans who just labours, producing things like food or laundered sheets that are consumed almost as soon as produced. Arendt makes a distinction between work and labour, the products of the former being ephemeral, those of the latter lasting, often, longer than their maker’s life and contributing to the ‘human artifice’ or made world that is there before we arrive in it and survives after our death.

Other European languages, she points out, make the same distinction. Labour is associated with childbirth, travail -- French travail. Work can be a verb or a noun, including a count noun (with singular and plural works), in French too: oeuvre, les oeuvres -- which reminds me that literary and artistic and scholarly works are part of the human artifice too, though whether she counts them as the product of homo faber too I’m not sure.

For our lives to be meaningful we need an intelligible world -- ‘human artifice’ -- in which to participate, and our works, deeds and words need to be seen and heard by others, our polis, our society, in the space of appearance.

Her homo faber is mainly the craftsman who makes things with hands and tools, and her account of him (and her, as we have to supply throughout -- she was writing before gender awareness got into philosophy) struck me as in some ways unconvincing. It doesn’t matter how for now. So I found myself wondering if Richard Sennett knew of her views or had anything to say about them in his own book The Craftsman -- which again I owned and had, apparently, read in part (though, again, without any recall of the bits I’d marked).

So I look at Sennett’s Prologue and what’s the first sentence I read:

‘Just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the days in 1962 when the world was on the brink of atomic war, I ran into my teacher Hannah Arendt on the street’

on the Upper West Side in New York, it turns out. And the whole book, as I'm embarrassed not to have remembered, was an argument that Arendt had got it wrong about the craftsman.

I've heard Sennett speak at the London School of Economics, where he was until he retired, about the house that Wittgenstein designed for his sister in Vienna. He’d been round the house sketching and measuring Wittgenstein’s crazy design, including such features as doorknobs exactly half way up the door for the sake of geometrical neatness.

So I have personally a student of Hannah Arendt who was a student and lover of Heidegger who was an assistant to Husserl who studied under Brentano (who unfortunately was a student of no-one I've heard of and a Catholic priest into the bargain, thus ending my backwards chain.)

On the grounds of that pedigree, at least its part back to about 1870, I reckon I deserve a bit more respect. (I certainly can’t claim it for my memory.)

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