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The Human Condition: Studium and punctum

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I am taking a look at a photograph of her, taken presumably in her fifties or sixties. The first thing I see is her hand holding a cigarette. It is only after a while that I actually see her, but my sight rests neither on her face nor on her eyes nor on the necklace. Instead, as it does time and again when I study this image, it gravitates towards the hand with the cigarette. And the more I look at them, the more they become one, and as they do, they cease to be a part of the human body holding an object – they turn into a single abstract shape. A split second later the hand reappears: resting at ease, almost nonchalant, between one drag and another. And then again: this pure geometry of black and white patches. The strangest of images. Fluctuating between what I know it is and the abstraction lurking beneath the representation.

*

In his reflections on photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes introduces a distinction between a studium and a punctum. A studium of a photograph is the sphere of the purely factual; it is the familiar in any image we can (in principle) discover and decipher. A punctum, however, is the unusual, a flash disturbing our familiar logic.

*

The hand I inspect belongs to Hannah Arendt. It holds one of the thousands of cigarettes she, a heavy smoker, must have smoked in the course of her life. If I try to take a comme il faut look at what in fact is her en face portrait, I can study the familiar figure of one of the most extraordinary thinkers of the twentieth century. What I know about her speaks to me through the photograph: She was born in Hannover on the 14th of October 1906. She spent her childhood in Kant’s city, Königsberg, then she moved to study philosophy and ancient Greek in Marburg, Heidelberg and Freiburg with ones like Bultmann, Heidegger and Jaspers. In 1933, fleeing Nazism, she emigrated to France, in 1943 she found herself in the United States, where she devoted her time to lecturing at numerous universities. And to writing. She died in New York City at the age of 69, on the 4th of December 1975.

*

It is already as an émigré that she wrote her most celebrated works: The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem. Although it is The Origins, which Le Monde named among the hundred most significant books of the past century, it is The Human Condition, published in 1958, which is usually considered to be her opus magnum. Stubbornly defying classifications, it is a work where anthropology, political science, history of ideas and a good number of kindred disciplines meet in one overarching narrative. This real mosaic of a book explains well why Arendt’s thought has frequently been characterised as „idiosyncratic“, though „syncretic“, too, would be fitting. The book’s principal, though not necessarily explicit theme, is the phenomenon of human plurality, analysed with the help of carefully defined notions of labour, work and action. However one sees it, The Human Condition is a work of theory, a rightful member of academic curricula and over 50.000 results rich query on Jstor. It is a ‚think‘ book, as W. H. Auden called it1. And yet, it has a second, concealed nature.

*

The spheres circumscribed by the Barthesian distinction do not seem to me to be exclusive to photography only, but universal enough to help to make sense of other, also non-photographic encounters. Not because it would be (in principle) possible to project them on virtually any encountered, but because sometimes the encountered irresistibly offers itself as a studium or a punctum.

*

The secret appeal of The Human Condition lies in what is not immediately apparent about it. Reading it, I was prepared to go through another classic work in political theory, but I soon sensed that it offers me an alternative reading. On top of the knowledge of Arendt’s political thought I was seeking, I discovered a peculiar investment, this peculiar intimacy comparable only to one I had experienced partaking2 in the lot of Meursault, or Walter Faber, or Geoffrey Firmin. I suddenly discovered that beneath the purely theoretical dimension there lurked another one, one which was, for lack of a better word, distinctively human. I cared for and participated in the text; I was invested not as a student, but as a person. In a word, I realised, I felt like I was reading a novel.

*

To seek the punctum would be to reverse the inner logic of its manifestations. One can only come across it, by chance. To put it in Heideggerian terms, if the studium belongs to curiosity [die Neugier], then the punctum sounds in the registers of the awe [thauma]. It is a happening, it knows no master. Its encounter is often accompanied by a habitual, mundane impulse: to dismiss it as the odd one out, as the slip of one’s perception, as the unworthy of one’s attention. One cannot seek it, but one can, if encountered, preserve it.

*

I was well aware that Arendt’s book was not a novel. Yet, instead of dismissing this awkward suggestion (too genuine, too intense for that), I kept playing with the fantastic consequences it implied. If it is a novel, then Arendt is the narrator, of course. But so are Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Marx, Nietzsche, co-presenting the story of the main protagonist. It was the protagonist, however, who kept escaping me, who keeps escaping me still today. I know that technically there is none. Yet, I cannot help but sense his (her?) presence. I would simply call this non-person a human essence if essences didn’t belong to the intangible. And whoever it is, he (she?) is… concrete. I follow closely along3 as this strange persona inhabits the Earth through all the peripeteias of human history from the times of ancient Greece to the atomic age. But I follow as a person, I do not feel the need to study (this need is abolished).

*

Hannah ArendtBarthes: ‚[…] occasionally (but alas all too rarely) a „detail“ attracts me. I feel that its mere presence changes my reading […]‘. It is always within my powers to decide to and undo the change, return to the sphere of the studium, be civilised. But this would require dismissing the punctum. So, for the most part, I choose not to. Used to the idea of reading fiction through the prism of theory, I am too fascinated with this rare chance to read theory through the prism of a novel. And it is this possibility I do not want to dismiss, it is too unusual of a treat. Like Arendt’s hand turning into abstraction: I want to stick to the disturbance, even if I am not sure why should I, nor what I could gain by this idiosyncrasy of mine. Nothing, most likely. But then, if I do not try, I’ll never find out.

  1. W. H. Auden (1959): ‘Thinking What We Are Doing
  2. In the sense of Heideggerian mitgehen
  3. See note 2.

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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