Hannah Arendt On Our Creations’ Independent Lives

In ‘Remarks to the American Society of Christian Ethics’ (Library of Congress MSS Box 70, p. 011828)¹,   Hannah Arendt notes,

Each time you write something and send it out into the world and it becomes public, obviously everybody is free to do with it what he pleases, and this is as it should be. I do not have any quarrel with this. You should not try to hold your hand now on whatever may happen to what you have been thinking for yourself. You should rather try to learn from what other people do with it.

In a post responding to David Simon‘s complaints about viewer’s ‘misinterpretations’ of his The Wire, I had written:

[T]here is something rather quaint and old-fashioned in the suggestion that viewers are getting it wrong, that they misconceived the show, that there is, so to speak, some sort of gap between their understanding and take on the show and the meaning that Simon intended, and that this is a crucial lacunae….once the show was made and released, any kind of control [Simon] might have exerted over its meaning was gone. The show doesn’t exist in some autonomous region of meaning that Simon controls access to; it is in a place where its meaning is constructed actively by its spectators and in many ways by the larger world that it is embedded in.

Arendt’s remarks obviously apply to the business of interpreting artistic works–just like they do to other creations of the human mind like philosophical theories of politics and morality. Once ‘made,’ once theorized, and sent ‘out there,’ they have a life of their own, now subject to the hermeneutical sensibilities and strategies of those who come into contact with them; these encounters are mediated by the interests and inclinations and prejudices of the work’s interpreters (as Gadamer would have noted), by the history of the world that has intervened in the period between the creation of the work and its reception by others. To attempt to reclaim the work, to insist on the primacy of the creator’s vision at the cost of others, to regulate how the work may be thought of and more ambitiously, modified to produce derivative works–these are acts of hubris, of vainglory. The openness of such works to a series of rebirths and reinvigorations prepares it for its encounter with greatness; its ability to entertain multiple ‘readings,’ to provide room for fertile exploration with every new generation, these mark a work out as a ‘classic’ one; indeed, such fecundity in the face of repeated exegesis is perhaps the most enduring condition of the ‘classic.’

Arendt’s remarks are cited by Margaret Conovan in her ‘Introduction’ in Arendt’s The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, p. xx) as she claims that this difficult but rich work will continue to endure precisely because it affords its readers so much opportunity for their own idiosyncratic encounters with the text and its theses. My discussions with my students this semester–as we read Arendt’s book together–will, I think, bolster Conovan’s assertions.

Nice Try NSA-Defenders (Not!)

There are two very bad arguments and one rather illiterate confusion making the rounds in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal. I’ll consider each of them briefly.

First, we have the ‘it was legal’ argument: the surveillance was sanctioned by the Patriot Act, approved by FISA courts, and Congress was in the loop etc. Now, the elementary distinction between legality and morality, between what the law permits and proscribes and what we might consider the right thing to do is just that: elementary. The undergraduates in my Philosophy of Law classes don’t need to be introduced to the distinction between natural law and positive law or to the assigned readings which inquire into our supposed obligations to the law to understand and know this difference. Their lived lives have given them ample proof of this gap as have the most basic history lessons. (Slavery is everyone’s favorite example but many more can be found rather easily.) Indeed, why would we ever have impassioned debates about ‘bad laws’ that need to be revised if the ‘it’s legal’ argument was such a clincher?

Furthermore, the folks complaining about the NSA surveillance are not just complaining about the legality of this eavesdropping and surveillance: they are suggesting the application of some laws is an onerous imposition on them, one that grants the government too much power. They are suggesting this is a moment when the laws of the land require revisitation. This is especially true of the obnoxious Patriot Act. (In another context, consider the draconian Digital Millenium Copyright Act.) Or consider that FISA courts routinely approve all requests made to them, and that the NSA has seven days in which to mine data before it applies for a warrant. All of this is legal. Is it problematic? We could talk about it so long as we aren’t shut up by the ‘its legal’ argument.

Second, we have the vampire ‘if you have nothing to hide, then what do you have to worry about’ argument – it simply refuses to die. No matter how many times it is explained that privacy is not about the hiding of secrets but about the creation of a space within which a certain kind of human flourishing can take place, this hoary nonsequitur is dragged out and flogged for all it is worth. But let me try real quick: we need privacy because without it, very basic forms of life would not be possible. An important example of this is the personal relationship. For these to be built, maintained and enriched, privacy is required. We do not generate and sustain intimacy–emotional and sexual–under observation and analysis; we do so far away from the madding crowd. I am not doing anything illegal or secretive in the maintenance of my personal relationships but I would still like their details to be private. Hopefully, that’s clear. (Who am I kidding?)

Lastly, there is a dangerous conflation between paper records and electronic records. For instance, David Simon, the latest to join the ‘relax, its legal and being done to protect us’ brigade, runs an analogy with the Baltimore wiretaps carried out by the local police and concludes:

Here, too, the Verizon data corresponds to the sheets and sheets of printouts of calls from the Baltimore pay phones, obtainable with a court order and without any demonstration of probable cause against any specific individual.

Except that it doesn’t. Those ‘sheets and sheets’ do not correspond to the billions of digital records obtained from Verizon, which can be stored indefinitely and subjected to data analysis in a way that the hard-copy data cannot.

These arguments will be made again and again in this context; might as well get some brief refutations out there.

David Simon is a Little Too Proprietary About The Wire

David Simon has made some waves recently in a series of interviews regarding the Wire (here; here; and here), viewer’s relationships to it (and its characters). I’m not going to repeat or reproduce Simon’s remarks here; please do chase down the links. But in a nutshell: Simon (was) is unhappy about the ‘pop’ understanding of the Wire that seems to have made its way into our broader culture, a function, he thinks of its late uptake by a whole viewer demographic that wasn’t around when the show was struggling with ratings, an understanding that is obsessed about characters rather than the overarching theme or narrative, and that ‘misunderstands’ the show.

Simon’s remarks are peculiar for several reasons. For one, there is something rather quaint and old-fashioned in the suggestion that viewers are getting it wrong, that they misconceived the show, that there is, so to speak, some sort of gap between their understanding and take on the show and the meaning that Simon intended, and that this is a crucial lacunae. I hate to break the news to Simon, but once the show was made and released, any kind of control that he might have exerted over its meaning was gone. The show doesn’t exist in some autonomous region of meaning that Simon controls access to; it is in a place where its meaning is constructed actively by its spectators and in many ways by the larger world that it is embedded in.

What if, during the fourth season,  a fierce Diane RavitchMichelle Rhee-type debate had been  dominating airwaves elsewhere? Wouldn’t viewers of the Wire have had a very different interpretation of the show’s characters and action in that period? Is this something Simon could control or even cater for in his writing and direction? What if California and Washington had legalized marijuana during the third season? Would that not have affected viewers’ understandings of that season’s themes? This co-construction of meaning is a well-established trope in our understanding of how artworks acquire and establish traction. Simon might have had a vision and meaning for the show but having decided to give it to  viewers he must realize the work isn’t his anymore in any meaningful sense of the word.

The other peculiar point in Simon’s interview is his insistence that the Wire is a long-form story, that it is a coherent whole, and that it be understood as such and that the episodic reaction to it so typical of the long-running series relationship with its fans, gets it wrong. But Simon chose to work in a particular medium that afforded him freedom for lengthy development of character and plot.  The periodic release of the episodes meant–just as above–that their meaning was always going to be constructed over a period of time, subject always to those sort of short-term reactions typical of the television show. Why would Simon be surprised or upset by this? The Wire was the best television show ever and a great story. But those that watched also made it.

Side note: Much as I liked the Wire, I think Simon needs a reality check if he thinks his work was nothing but gritty realism (not that he ever makes any such claim in those interviews above but there is a kind of insistence on his having provided a social documentary). McNulty is a cliché in some ways; Omar, no matter how fascinating a character, is an implausible one; the drug markets in season three were ridiculous; the fifth season’s McNulty-creation of the serial killer was by far some of the most contrived story-telling I’ve ever seen. Simon might think he had transcended every single genre in making the Wire but he didn’t.