Monday, March 21, 2011

Hannah Arendt and The Economy Of The Imagination In Politcs

A number of months ago I was pondering the issue of privacy and bathrooms. I was curious about privacy, why we felt like we needed it, and what exactly it meant to ensure privacy. I concluded that what we were doing with bathroom stalls (and with privacy in general) was regulating the information that people had available to imagine us with. All social relations, I think, are about imagining people, imagining their thoughts and their emotions, imagining their mental world. The implication of this is that the quality of social interactions comes down to the flow of evidence about people's minds. At the time I dubbed this 'the economy of the imagination'. I put it this way: "The economy of the imagination is therefore the way that information circulates that allows individuals to imagine others, imagine themselves, and imagine others imagining themselves.... What I'm suggesting is that what holds me back from writing weird things is my knowledge that this writing will give other people certain ways of imagining my mind. But because other people exist only in my mind (at least right now, obviously, since I write this alone in my room, so no one could be here to judge me), it follows that my writing is being restricted not by people actually imagining me, but by me imagining how other people will imagine me. The economy of the imagination functions of the availability of information. Evidence of thought is the capital that allows the economy of the imagination to function."

It felt like a very interesting and fun thing to think about. How is it that social interactions work? What is this privacy business all about? What is this issue of reputation all about? How much do I care about how people me? About how I imagine them? And about how I imagine them to be imagining me?

As a personal and philosophical question I find it important and fascinating. But apart from being a fun bit of abstraction and a neat phrase, what practical or important implications does this notion of the economy of the imagination have?

Well I can say that personally it has a big effect on the way I interact with people. Because I deal with people primarily in terms of how I imagine them, and I imagine them imagining me, I am able to exert a little creativity into how I think about people. It frees me from irrational thoughts about people making fun of me, when clearly people often don't care enough to make fun of me. But apart from these personal implications, these effects on my relationships, what does the economy of the imagination mean in the larger world?

Well, I was wondering these things the other night when I was telling someone about this idea, and they remarked that it seemed pretty straight forward. I suppose it does. It should seem obvious that the social world functions because we are capable of imagining other people, and imagining other people imagining us. The imagination is everything for us. Or so much for us. We concluded that the idea is straight forward but perhaps I've been able to articulate it more clearly than most people.

The question still needs to be asked, though: how is this a useful analytical idea? What useful implications does it have? Sure, something like the economy of the imagination may exist, but so what?

Then I was reading Hannah Arendt and I had some ideas. Booya. Reading always takes me to new places and gives me new ideas. It is amazing. Sometimes I think to myself, 'gosh I don't know what to think about or what to write about'. And then I read a book and I'm like oh jesus look at all these new things to think. I should never underestimate the power of reading to prompt new thoughts.

But anyways, Hannah Arendt suddenly made me think about how the notion of the economy of the imagination may have larger political implications. I was reading her essay "Lying In Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers" and I started to think all about the economy of the imagination. The essay talks about the Pentagon papers are a top secret document that was officially titled United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense. Arendt says that "the basic issue raised by the papers is deception." It revealed that the government had systematically lied to congress and the American population about their involvement in the Vietnam war. Arendt says that the government was concerned primarily with maintaining their image as the most powerful nation in the world. She argues that since the Pentagon papers were "destined chiefly, if not exclusively, for domestic consumption, for propaganda at home, and especially for the purpose of deceiving Congress", it shows that "Image-making as global political–not world conquest, but victory in the battle 'to win the people's minds'-is indeed something new in the huge arsenal of human follies recored in history." That is the basic issue of the Pentagon papers and the topic of her essay. I haven't finished the essay yet, unfortunately. But Arendt is dealing with the way that the U.S. government lied in Vietnam primarily with the purpose of creating an image for their citizens and the international community.

So this has me thinking: What is it that the government is doing lying in this way? What does it mean to win the people's minds? How would one do that?

It occurred to me that this notion of the economy of the imagination might be a useful way to think of this stuff. What is the government doing if not carefully regulating the information that enters the economy of the imagination? They are trying to control the ways that people, both domestically and internationally, are capable of imagining their actions and intentions. It reminds me of Foucault in Discipline & Punish where I thought of layers of imagination and simulation: the government has to imagine the people imagining them, and the people imagine the government. But do the people imagine the government imagining them? In any case, it seems obvious that propaganda and lying by governments can totally be analyzed with this notion of the economy of the imagination. It is all about controlling the information that people have to imagine things.

It then made me think of Benedict Anderson's landmark book Imagined Communities. Anderson argues that the nation-state is essentially an imagined community in which people perceive themselves to be part of a larger group, of larger processes. Anderson believes that the nation-state became possible with the rise of print capitalism, and specifically, with the advent of newspapers. Newspapers allowed individuals to conceive of themselves as part of a larger process. The newspaper allowed them to imagine the larger processes going on in the world, and also allowed them to imagine other people reading and participating in the same global processes that they were reading about. People were finally able to imagine themselves as part of a larger community. The existence of the nation-state, according to Anderson, is fundamentally tied to the human capacity to imagine other people's minds. And before the advent of print-capitalism people never would have had the evidence required to imagine other people in such a complex and unified way.

This is one way in which I think I'm achieving an excellent synthesis between micro and macro. People like Anderson and Arendt are so very macro, so very abstract about large social processes. But my reading in theory of mind, and in the philosophy of the imagination has given me such a great perspective on their writing. I am able to take their very general writing, very macro writing about social processes, and ask myself if that makes sense based on what I know about individual minds. The level of individual minds cannot be neglected.

To wrap all of this up: I think that the idea of the economy of the imagination does indeed hold an analytical value that extends beyond the bathroom. Arendt makes it clear that what government's are doing is controlling the flow of information in the economy of the imagination. Furthermore, Anderson's analysis of the rise of nation-states can also be made intelligible in terms of the way that newspapers expanded the economy of the imagination to allow people to imagine themselves as a part of a larger community. I now have a renewed hope in this notion of the economy of the imagination as an analytical tool.

I also have a lot to say about the way that Arendt's work on lying in politics relates to Collingwood's work on the distinction between art and craft. I wonder how the economy of the imagination is effected by craft and by expression, respectively. I'll finish the essay and perhaps blog on these other issues. Arendt doesn't cite Benjamin. Most unfortunate.

This notion of the aestheticization of politics is proving elusive for me. I'll have to read more Benjamin.

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