Dawn Johnston and Kristoff Steinruck
June 2 - July 2, 2011
Opening reception: Thursday June 2, 7-10pm
Read R.M. Vaughan's review of FREE INFORMATION here (second section).
The information provided in the message was clear in its delivery,
She could not keep pace with the inundation of water: “The wallpaper is still wet, and books are piled on the floor,” Mary McCarthy wrote. “There are two workmen on the balcony outside my window who keep passing back and forth through the apartment, leaving a wet trail (though we’ve put newspapers down)—it is raining again, hard. Well, I guess it is better than being robbed.” 1.
This excerpt is from a correspondence between two friends of different pasts and temperaments. Mary McCarthy (1912-1989), iconoclastic author and critic was writing to emigree political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). After an early misunderstanding when they first met in a bar in 1944, McCarthy and Arendt became close. The result was an epistolary romance for 26 years lasting until Arendt’s death from a heart attack in 1975.
“This morning,” McCarthy continued in her letter—“on the BBC, we hear that [President Gerald] Ford has pardoned Nixon. I.e., the cover-up continues.” While the newspapers were spread on the floor trying to prevent further water damage, the radio played on. A soft wall here, an inconsistent texture there. “I have let myself go; quastschen ins Unreine, let your German teacher translate it,” Arendt replied to McCarthy. “I somehow hope that the disaster or inundation has made you forget your dark thoughts.” And then: “Incidentally, I am not so sure that I’d rather be inundated than be robbed. About the latter one can hardly do anything—which is always a relief.”
For Arendt, reality is never neat; it has “has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.” 2. It was only recently that Arendt had herself been the victim of a robbery, and she knew the perverse results of an inundation of a different kind. In 1971 she published her essay Lying in Politics, a response to the publication of The Pentagon Papers. Military analyst and bureaucrat Daniel Ellsberg smuggled out the 4000 page-plus documents precipitating a constitutional crisis and substantially eroding public support for the Vietnam War. Arendt noted at the time the philosophical and political ramifications therein. Instead of focusing on the debate between secrecy and transparency—a debate that today would include the spate of Wikileaks disclosures and the accompanying platitudes of transparency found within our culture of exposure—it was the lie as a form of action that Arendt focused in on.
As a philosophical conundrum there is a fundamental parallel between lying and action, for the political liar wishes to alter what exists. It is a kind of action and assertion of new beginnings and events: contingent futures. Arendt argued that while the deliberate falsehood is one that deals with contingent facts the professional problem solvers within the Pentagon hardly had the “patience to wait until theories and hypothetical explanations are verified or denied by facts.” 3. Their tactic was instead to fit their reality into theory, and in doing so they would mentally rid themselves of its contingency. More than the simple dilution of factual history with deception, the danger of this form of lie is in its wholesale replacement of reality and true political beginnings. And as Arendt repeatedly stressed, to act is to begin with uncertainty anew.
Yet in her melancholic quip to McCarthy, Hannah Arendt also recognized the sheer difficulty of acting in such an inundated time. In needing to respond to that which we differently and surely find ourselves in; a time when information ‘seeps into our mental space like water into a basement.’ For Arendt, one had to resist paralysis and militate against thoughtlessness. Here the marginal concept of friendship—the space between two people—can play an organizing role. Arendt placed a high regard on friendship throughout her life. It signifies equal—but not necessarily like-minded—partners in a common community where ideas are debated and assertions defamiliarized. The space is not one’s own. It is neither strictly public nor private but a unique discursive sphere at once plentiful and scarce. With its examples and insights into the nature of politics, friendship is not only a metaphor for public activities but offers a site of resistance to the tide of prescription.
“To expect truth to come from thinking,” Arendt once wrote, “signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know.”4. Misappropriating the call to ‘free information’, it is worth asking what if information was instead freed from knowledge? From cognition and calculation? Furthermore, if thinking—with its quest for meaning—is antithetical to knowledge, then the activity of thought must be proffered: familiar and unknown, together and bottomless.
Kevin Rodgers, 2011
1. Brightman, Carol, Ed. Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995: 364-366.