Hannah Arendt Explains Why Democracies Need to Safeguard the Free Press & Truth … to Defend Themselves Against Dictators and Their Lies

Image by Bernd Schwabe, via Wikimedia Commons

Two of the most trenchant and enduring critics of authoritarianism, Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, were also both German Jews who emigrated to the U.S. to escape the Nazis. The Marxist Adorno saw fascist tendencies everywhere in his new country. Decades before Noam Chomsky coined the concept, he argued that all mass media under advanced capitalism served one particular purpose: manufacturing consent.

Arendt landed on a different part of the political spectrum, drawing her philosophy from Aristotle and St. Augustine. Classical democratic ideals and an ethics of moral responsibility informed her belief in the central importance of shared reality in a functioning civil society—of a press that is free not only to publish what it wishes, but to take responsibility for telling the truth, without which democracy becomes impossible.

A press that disseminates half-truths and propaganda, Arendt argued, is not a feature of liberalism but a sign of authoritarian rule. “Totalitarian rulers organize… mass sentiment,” she told French writer Roger Errera in 1974, “and by organizing it articulate it, and by articulating it make the people somehow love it. They were told before, thou should not kill; and they didn’t kill. Now they are told, thou shalt kill; and although they think it’s very difficult to kill, they do it because it’s now part of the code of behavior.”

This breakdown of moral norms, Arendt argued, can occur “the moment we no longer have a free press.” The problem, however, is more complicated than mass media that spreads lies. Echoing ideas developed in her 1951 study The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explained that “lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows.”

Bombarded with contradictory and often incredible claims, people become cynical and give up trying to understand anything. “And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.” The statement was anything but theoretical. It's an empirical observation from much recent 20th century history.

Arendt’s thought developed in relation to totalitarian regimes that actively censored, controlled, and micromanaged the press to achieve specific ends. She does not address the current situation in which we find ourselves—though Adorno certainly did: a press controlled not directly by the government but by an increasingly few, and increasingly monolithic and powerful, number of corporations, all with vested interests in policy direction that preserves and expands their influence.

The examples of undue influence multiply. One might consider the recently approved Gannett-Gatehouse merger, which brought together two of the biggest news publishers in the country and may “speed the demise of local news,” as Michael Posner writes at Forbes, thereby further opening the doors for rumor, speculation, and targeted disinformation. But in such a condition, we are not powerless as individuals, Arendt argued, even if the preconditions for a democratic society are undermined.

Though the facts may be confused or obscured, we retain the capacity for moral judgment, for assessing deeper truths about the character of those in power. “In acting and speaking,” she wrote in 1975’s The Human Condition, “men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities…. This disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is—his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide—is implicit in everything somebody says and does.”

Even if democratic institutions let the free press fail, Arendt argued, we each bear a personal responsibility under authoritarian rule to judge and to act—or to refuse—in an ethics predicated on what she called, after Socrates, the “silent dialogue between me and myself.”

Read Arendt's full passage on the free press and truth below:

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

via Michio Kakutani

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Is Higher Consciousness?: How We Can Transcend Our Petty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deeper Wisdom

Each of us has a normal state of mind, as well as our own way of reaching a different state of mind. As the School of Life video above reminds us, such habits go back quite deep into recorded history, to the eras when, then as now, "Hindu sages, Christian monks and Buddhist ascetics" spoke of "reaching moments of ‘higher consciousness’ – through meditation or chanting, fasting or pilgrimages." In recent years, the practice of meditation has spread even, and perhaps especially, among those of us who don't subscribe to Buddhism, or indeed to any religion at all. Periodic fasting has come to be seen as a necessity in certain circles of wealthy first-worlders, as has "dopamine fasting" among those who feel their minds compromised by the distractions of high technology and social media. (And one needs only glance at that social media to see how seriously some of us are taking our pilgrimages.)

Still, on top of our mountain, deep into our sitting-and-breathing sessions, or even after having consumed our mind-altering substance of choice, we do feel, if only for a moment, that something has changed within us. We understand things we don't even consider understanding in our normal state of mind, "where what we are principally concerned with is ourselves, our survival and our own success, narrowly defined."

When we occupy this "lower consciousness," we "strike back when we’re hit, blame others, quell any stray questions that lack immediate relevance, fail to free-associate and stick closely to a flattering image of who we are and where we are heading." But when we enter a state of "higher consciousness," however we define it, "the mind moves beyond its particular self-interests and cravings. We start to think of other people in a more imaginative way."

When we rise from lower to higher consciousness, we find it much harder to think of our fellow human beings as enemies. "Rather than criticize and attack, we are free to imagine that their behavior is driven by pressures derived from their own more primitive minds, which they are generally in no position to tell us about." The more time we spend in our higher consciousness, the more we "develop the ability to explain others’ actions by their distress, rather than simply in terms of how it affects us. We perceive that the appropriate response to humanity is not fear, cynicism or aggression, but always — when we can manage it — love." When our consciousness reaches the proper altitude, "the world reveals itself as quite different: a place of suffering and misguided effort, full of people striving to be heard and lashing out against others, but also a place of tenderness and longing, beauty and touching vulnerability. The fitting response is universal sympathy and kindness."

This may all come across as a bit new-age, sounding "maddeningly vague, wishy washy, touchy-feely – and, for want of a better word, annoying." But the concept of higher consciousness is variously interpreted not just across cultural and religious traditions but in scientific research as well, where we find a sharp distinction drawn between the neocortex, "the seat of imagination, empathy and impartial judgement," and the "reptilian mind" below. This suggests that we'd benefit from understanding states of higher consciousness as fully as we can, as well as trying to "make the most of them when they arise, and harvest their insights for the time when we require them most" — that is to say, the rest of our ordinary lives, especially their most stressful, trying moments. The instinctive, unimaginative defensiveness of the lower consciousness does have strengths of its own, but we can't take advantage of them unless we learn to put it in its place.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Seven Road-Tested Habits of Effective Artists

Fifteen years ago, a young construction worker named Andrew Price went in search of free 3d software to help him achieve his goal of rendering a 3D car.

He stumbled onto Blender, a just-the-ticket open source software that helps users with every aspect of 3D creation—modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing, and motion tracking.

Price describes his early learning style as "playing it by ear,” sampling tutorials, some of which he couldn’t be bothered to complete.

Desire for freelance gigs led him to forge a new identity, that of a Blender Guru, whose tutorials, podcasts, and articles would help other new users get the hang of the software.

But it wasn’t declaring himself an expert that ultimately improved his artistic skills. It was holding his own feet over the fire by placing a bet with his younger cousin, who stood to gain $1000 if Price failed to rack up 1,000 “likes” by posting 2D drawings to ArtStation within a 6-month period.

(If he succeeded—which he did, 3 days before his self-imposed deadline—his cousin owed him nothing. Loss aversion proved to be a more powerful motivator than any carrot on a stick…)

In order to snag the requisite likes, Price found that he needed to revise some habits and commit to a more robust daily practice, a journey he detailed in a presentation at the 2016 Blender Conference.

Price confesses that the challenge taught him much about drawing and painting, but even more about having an effective artistic practice. His seven rules apply to any number of creative forms:


Andrew Price’s Rules for an Effective Artist Practice:

  1. Practice Daily

A number of prolific artists have subscribed to this belief over the years, including novelist (and mother!) JK Rowling, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, autobiographical performer Mike Birbligia, and memoirist David Sedaris.

If you feel too fried to uphold your end of the bargain, pretend to go easy on yourself with a little trick Price picked up from music producer Rick Rubin: Do the absolute minimum. You’ll likely find that performing the minimum positions you to do much more than that. Your resistance is not so much to the doing as it is to the embarking.

  1. Quantity over Perfectionism Masquerading as Quality

This harkens back to Rule Number One. Who are we to say which of our works will be judged worthy. Just keep putting it out there—remember it’s all practice, and law of averages favors those whose output is, like Picasso’s, prodigious. Don’t stand in the way of progress by splitting a single work’s endless hairs.

  1. Steal Without Ripping Off

Immerse yourself in the creative brilliance of those you admire. Then profit off your own improved efforts, a practice advocated by the likes of musician David Bowie, computer visionary Steve Jobs, and artist/social commentator Banksy.

  1. Educate Yourself

As a stand-alone, that old chestnut about practice making perfect is not sufficient to the task. Whether you seek out online tutorials, as Price did, enroll in a class, or designate a mentor, a conscientious commitment to study your craft will help you to better master it.

  1. Give yourself a break

Banging your head against the wall is not good for your brain. Price celebrates author Stephen King’s practice of giving the first draft of a new novel six weeks to marinate. Your break may be shorter. Three days may be ample to juice you up creatively. Just make sure it’s in your calendar to get back to it.

  1. Seek Feedback

Filmmaker Taika Waititirapper Kanye Westand the big gorillas at Pixar are not threatened by others' opinions. Seek them out. You may learn something.

  1. Create What You Want To

Passion projects are the key to creative longevity and pleasurable process. Don’t cater to a fickle public, or the shifting sands of fashion. Pursue the sorts of things that interest you.

Implicit in Price’s seven commandments is the notion that something may have to budge—your nightly cocktails, the number of hours spent on social media, that extra half hour in bed after the alarm goes off... Don’t neglect your familial or civic obligations, but neither should you shortchange your art. Life’s too short.

Read the transcript of Andrew Price's Blender Conference presentation here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, December 9 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Dennison’s Christmas Book (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Flowchart of Philosophical Novels: Reading Recommendations from Haruki Murakami to Don DeLillo

Do you want to read a philosophical novel? Sure, we all do. But the question of exactly what kind of philosophical novel you want to read, let alone which individual book, isn't quite so easily answered. But now a professional has come to the rescue: "Ben Roth, a philosopher who teaches in the Harvard College Writing Program, has put together a kind of flowchart recommending philosophical novels and stories," reports Daily Nous' Justin Weinberg. "With categories like 'about a philosopher,' 'by a Ph.D.,' 'horror,' 'the complications of history,' and many more, the chart is pretty big."

The choices you make in navigating it could land you on the work of a writer from one of a variety of countries, one of several eras, and one of a capacious range of definitions of "philosophical." If you take the word in the sense of a novel's being about or steeped in the work of a particular philosopher, Roth recommends books like Thomas Bernhard's Correction (Wittgenstein) and Teju Cole's Open City (Benjamin and Barthes). Elsewhere on the map he also includes novels written by philosophically credentialed academics like William Gass, Iris Murdoch, and Anuk Arudpragasam.

If you prefer novels where "fiction writers drop into straight essayistic mode," Roth offers a choice between the easy mode of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and the hard mode of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. (If you just wanted to read about a bunch of philosophy students, well, there's always Donna Tartt's The Secret History.)

To those who go in for more "novelly novels," as Geoff Dyer (a known Bernhard enthusiast and author of some pretty philosophical fiction himself) memorably put it, Roth presents more forks in the road: Would you like to read science fiction? Existentialism? Postmodernism? A book free of -isms entirely, or anyway as free as possible?

Your answers to those questions and others could have you reading anything from J.G. Ballard's Crash ("body horror") to Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea ("mid-century French classic") to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (postmodern, encyclopedic, on addiction). Other choices may lead you to selections less obviously involved with philosophy: J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, or Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Of course, you may not want to read a philosophical novel at all: you may want to read philosophical short stories, in which case Roth recommends such form-defining figures as Edgar Allan Poe, writer of "disturbing stories"; Lydia Davis, writer of "short stories" (emphasis his); and Jorge Luis Borges, writer of "awe-inducing stories."

Borges and quite a few other names on Roth's philosophical-novel flowchart also appear in critic David Auerbach's "Inquest on Left-Brained Literature," a revealing look at the authors read by "engineers with a literary bent." Both also include Don DeLillo, whose work Auerbach characterizes as making "heavy use of phantasmagoria, complemented by very sophisticated narrative construction," and "simple, visceral, classical themes approached in [a] flashy, novel way." Roth, for his part, describes DeLillo's White Noise as his "favorite book ever." Elsewhere on the flowchart, to the philosophical literature enthusiast who's read everything he offers "the most underrated philosophical novel of all time," Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe. No, I haven't heard of it either, but I have to admit that it keeps good company.

via Daily Nous

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Simulation Theory Explained In Three Animated Videos

The idea that we are software emanations in a vast, unimaginably complex computer simulation may carry more dizzying philosophical, ethical, and psychological implications than any other metaphysical assumption. It is not, however, quite a new idea, even if machines sophisticated enough to make worlds are only now conceivable. We see ancient sages speculate that solid matter is no more than some sort of graphical (tactile, etc.) user interface originating from the mind of a master coder.

We see a similar idea in the immaterialism of 18th century British empiricist George Berkeley. And where would science fiction be—especially the hallucinatory sci-fi of Philip K. Dick—without varieties of the simulation theory? The TED-Ed lesson on simulation theory, above, by University of Maryland physicist Zohreh Davoudi (animated by Eoin Duffy) opens with a quote from Dick: “This is a cardboard universe, and if you lean too long or too heavily against it, you fall through.”

In Dick’s world, this happens frequently. But if our reality were a simulation, how could we possibly step outside it to confirm? Provable or not, the theory is endlessly compelling. Davoudi walks us through a couple of fascinating scientific attempts to “fall through” by theorizing the evidence we might expect to find if the universe is made of code.

For one thing, there would probably be glitches. To correct for errors, “the simulators could adjust the constants in the laws of nature.” Tiny shifts, perhaps undetectable with current instruments, could signal heuristic revisions. Other theoretical approaches involve using subatomic particles to detect the finite limits of the godlike computer’s power.

Would finding shifts in physical laws prove a simulation. No. And in any case, our entire species could have come and gone before any such shifts have taken place. We cannot presume that humans are the chosen beneficiaries of the simulated universe. Maybe we’re prototypes. Maybe our solar system is someone’s side project. Wouldn’t the simulators notice us figuring it out and prevent us from doing so? (They would, presumably, be watching.)

And why should the great computer have anything resembling the computational limitations of our own machines, Davoudi asks. After all, if it exists outside the universe as we know it and created its physical laws, it’s safe to assume that it exists in a different universe with entirely different laws, which we might never begin to understand. If your mind falls into pools of infinite regress when contemplating the idea—aided by consciousness-raising substances or otherwise—you won’t find anywhere safe to land in the other simulation videos here, from Vox and philosophy YouTube channel Kurzgesagt. But you might begin to see the concept as a little more plausible, and maybe more unsettling, than before.

Elon Musk, for example, drawing on the work of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, suggests that the simulators are not extra-dimensional beings (or whatever), but hyper-sophisticated future humans running Sim versions of their past. This version also becomes the philosophical equivalent of mise en abyme as ancestor simulations, run on other planets, create their own simulations, ship them offworld, and so forth....

You can go as far down this rabbit hole as you like. Or, you can do as Samuel Johnson supposedly did when he heard Bishop Berkeley claim that matter didn’t exist. Kick the nearest heavy object and shout, “I refute it thus!”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

An Animated Michael Sandel Explains How Meritocracy Degrades Our Democracy

Imagine if governments and institutions took their policy directives straight from George Orwell’s 1984 or Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” We might veer distressingly close to many a literary dystopia in these times, with duckspeak taking over all the discourse. But some lines—bans on thinking or non-procreative sex, or seriously proposing to eat babies—have not yet been crossed.

When it comes, however, to meritocracy—a term that originated in a 1958 satirical dystopian novel by British sociologist Michael Young—it can seem as if the political class had taken fiction as manifesto. Young himself wrote in 2001, “much that was predicted has already come about. It is highly unlikely the prime minister has read the book, but he has caught on to the word without realizing the dangers of what he is advocating.”

In Young's historical analysis, what began as an allegedly democratic impulse, a means of breaking up hereditary castes, became itself a way to solidify and entrench a ruling hierarchy. “The new class has the means at hand,” wrote Young, “and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.” (Wealthy people bribing their children's way into elite institutions comes to mind.) Equal opportunity for those who work hard and play by the rules doesn’t actually obtain in the real world, meritocracy's critics demonstrate—prominent among them the man who coined the term “meritocracy.”

One problem, as Harvard’s Michael Sandel frames it in the short RSA animated video above, is an ancient one, characterized by a very ancient word. “Meritocratic hubris,” he says, “the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success,” causes them to “forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.” Accidents of birth are ignored in a hyper-individualist ideology that insists on narcissistic notions of self-made people and a just world (for them).

“The smug conviction that those on the top deserve their fate” comes with its inevitable corollary—“those on the bottom deserve theirs too,” no matter the historical, political, and economic circumstances beyond their control, and no matter how hard they might work or how talented they may be. Meritocracy obviates the idea, Sandel says, that “there but for the grace of God or accidents of fortune go I,” which promoted a healthy degree of humility and an acceptance of life's contingency.

Sandel sees meritocratic attitudes as corrosive to democracy, describing their effects in his upcoming book The Tyranny of Merit. Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits, another ivy league academic and heir to Michael Young's critique, has also just released a book (The Meritocracy Trap) decrying meritocracy. He describes the system as a “trap” in which “upward mobility has become a fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite.”

Markovitz, who holds two degrees from Yale and a doctorate from Oxford, admits at The Atlantic that most of his students “unnervingly resemble my younger self: They are, overwhelmingly, products of professional parents and high-class universities.” Once an advocate of the idea of meritocracy as a democratic force, he now argues that its promises “exclude everyone outside of a narrow elite…. Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity.”

According to Michael Young, meritocracy’s tireless first critic and theorist (he adapted his satire from his 1955 dissertation), “those judged to have merit of a particular kind,” whether they truly have it or not, always had the potential, as he wrote in The Guardian, to “harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” A class that further dispossessed and disempowered those viewed as losers in the endless rounds of competition for social worth.

Young died in 2002. We can only imagine what he would have made of the exponential extremes of inequality in 2019. A utopian socialist and tireless educator, he also became an MP in the House of Lords and a baron in 1978. Perhaps his new position gave him further vantage to see how “with the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; a time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Would Michel Foucault Think of Social Media, Fake News & Our Post Truth World?

During the late 70s, Michel Foucault gave a series of lectures at the College de France in which he defined the concept of biopolitics, an idea Rachel Adams calls “political rationality which takes the administration of life and populations as its subject.” These ideas have come to have even more resonance in the spread of biometric identification systems and militarized population control policies.

Foucault begins his lecture series on biopolitics with an account of the birth of Neoliberalism, the engineered privatization of public goods and services and the concentration of capital and power into the hands of a few. “Everything I do,” he once said, “I do in order that it might be of use.” What would he have to say about the current situation? asks the BBC video above, a political landscape permeated by fake news, accusations of fake news, and the general admission that we are now "post truth"?

In some sense, Foucault, argued, we have always lived in such a world—not one in which real news and actual truth did not exist, but in which we are conditioned through language to adopt ideological perspectives that may have little to do with fact. What counts as knowledge, Foucault showed, gets authenticated to serve the interests of power. Later in his career, he saw more space for resistance and self-transformation emerge in power relations—and he would have seen such spaces in social media too, the video claims.

After his infamous acid trip in Death Valley, Foucault reportedly (and self-reportedly) returned a changed man, with a much less gloomy, claustrophobic outlook. The earlier Foucault may have emphasized the totalizing mechanisms of surveillance and control in social media, perhaps to the exclusion of any potential for liberation. The video doesn’t make these distinctions between early and late or give us much in the way of a history of his thought, though it acknowledges how critically important history was to Foucault himself.

We can’t know that he would say any of the things attributed to him here. He was a contrarian thinker, who “didn’t believe in all-embracing theories to explain the world,” the narrator admits. Perhaps he would have seen social media as technical elaboration of biopower: harvesting personal data, tracking everyone’s location, getting us all to watch each other. Or as a version of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, in which we never know when someone's watching us, so we internalize the control system. These are some of the prisons, Foucault might say, that appear under regimes of “security, territory, population.”

The video features Angie Hobbs, Professor of Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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