I Am Born Again
From Radiohead’s Just video
Immediately following World War II, political and social philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) penned a three-volume investigation into the origins of totalitarian power. Covering the trial of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” and in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem she suggested that the bureaucratizing of barbarism—the meetings, memos, uniforms, and schedules that Eichmann described during his trial—blunts the psychological power of violence, allowing normal people to facilitate horrific ends. Arendt’s treatise On Violence and her earlier study of modern political subjectivity, The Human Condition, offer the best interrogation of the philosophical concepts of power and violence.
In The Human Condition, the philosophical concept of action is the fundamental element of politics. Action is made possible only by the “human condition of plurality,” and allows humans to begin anew, to create new possibilities and break with the mistakes of the past. (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, second edition University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 7) Arendt calls the possibility to create the new in action “natality”, in reference to the new beginning of human birth: the concept is all over OK Computer. The air crash survivor in “Lucky” says “It’s gonna be a glorious day! / I feel my luck could change.” Similarly, after having emerged unscathed from a car crash on album opener “Airbag” Yorke proclaims: “I am born again.” These near-death experiences create a space for the narrator in each song to realize his capacity to act again in society, as if he was given a second chance at life.
The power of these emotions is the power of “the new beginning inherent in birth” (Arendt, p. 9), a power that presupposes a plurality of social actors. Arendt says “power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse” (p. 200). Power can only exist within community, within the human plurality that is the presupposition of politics. It cannot exist without both the support and existence of the populace. When the tyrant forces his subjects to kneel before him, his power is actualized by the kneeling itself, by the action of the populace, and not by a power that is independent of social relations.
This means that tyrannical power is essentially only the obedience of the people; it is not a thing or substance or supernatural power held by the tyrant or the dictator. As Arendt defines it in On Violence, power is “never the property of an individual,” but is rather the ability of humanity “to act in concert.” (Hannah Arendt, On Violence Harcourt Brace, 1970, p. 44) In fact, when we use the phrase “in power”, we are actually referring to a leader “being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name” (p. 44). For Arendt, power is ultimately the social relation between political subjects that keeps any leader, dictator or democratically-elected president (even Supreme Court-installed president), for lack of a better term, in power.
They Do It to Yourself
In the famous video for “Just”, a man lies on the sidewalk, refusing to get up despite the protests and requests of passers-by and police officers. He tells us (via subtitles) that he cannot tell everyone why he is lying down on the street. When finally forcefully pressed, he breaks down and gives the reason for his bizarre action to those surrounding him. The subtitles cut out for this revelation, leaving us in the dark as to what the man says. As the video ends, an aerial shot of the street now reveals that everyone is now lying prostrate on the sidewalk alongside of the man.
Most react, I think, by supposing that the power here is in what the man says. After all, everyone is standing before he speaks his piece and then lying on the ground after they hear him. But Arendt would say power is not found in the man’s words, but in everyone’s reaction to those words. If the man had said something ridiculous like “I know aliens will swoop down and capture us unless we lie down right now,” the spectators could easily have passed it off as lunacy and gone about their business. But the fact that everyone lies down in active response to these words makes them, even if they are supposedly nonsensical, incredibly powerful. For Arendt, it is in a plural action like social obedience where power finds its essence. The fact that the viewer of “Just” never knows what the man says, in fact, underscores Arendt’s interpretation: power is not in singular word, but in plural deed.
What does this say about Acton’s aphorism? As our look at “Just” shows, Arendt might respond that it is not power itself that corrupts, since power is ultimately not a thing but a group action. It is rather that power allows the possibility of corruption in the political sphere. Arendt’s definition of power is not pejorative; power is not necessarily bad or evil. Instead, power creates a space for good or bad political action —we don’t know whether what the man said is good or bad, but we do know group action was taken, and therefore power was exercised. When it comes to a moral decision on power, then, it is up to the group, to the populace, to decide whether or not to obey, follow, and empower. If the people don’t want the loonies taking over, as “Go to Sleep” opines, then they must not participate in empowering them. Or, in the visual language of “Just”, they shouldn’t lie down.
George Reisch is the series editor for Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series. He received a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Chicago in 1995 and teaches philosophy at the School for Continuing Studies at Northwestern University. His book, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.
Brandon Forbes is a freelance writer in Chicago who often covers indie rock and is co-editor of Radiohead and Philosophy (Open Court Publishing Company).