Public stages for a Bios-politikos
In Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition she describes how an active life is composed of three elements: labour, work and political action. Labour is a non-natural activity of man’s exigency, work provides an “artificiality” to the world of things (all of those that differ from the natural) and action is the only human activity that happens without a mediation between things or material; it belongs to the human condition of plurality such that we inhabit a social world.
During birth of the city-state man would receive, in addition to his private life, a kind of second life—bios politikos—a duty of free men of the polis (the city-state) to “make politics” in order to be known and recognised. From then on every man belonged to two orders of existence and the distinction between between what belonged to him (idion)’1 and what was communal (koinon)’2 was established.
Yet it was man that was public and woman the keeper of the private which accorded a much lower status in Greek life.
The distinction between these realms quite clearly emphasises a distinction between things that should be shown and things that should be hidden. Only in the modern age, with its rebellion against social protocols, have we discovered how rich and manifold the realm of the hidden is, as it bears conditions of intimacy. But it is striking that from the beginning of history to our own time it has always been the Human Side of human existence that was parried into privacy; all things connected with the necessity of life itself, serving the subsistence of the individual and the survival of the species. Hidden away too, were slaves who with their bodies administer to the [bodily] needs of life, and women who with their bodies guarantee the physical survival of the species; hidden away because their lives were “laborious” solely devoted to bodily functions (Arendt 1958).
Further evolution of public and private life we owe to the political sensibility of the Roman people who, unlike the Greeks, never sacrificed the private to the public, but on the contrary understood that these two realms could exist only in the form of coexistence.
Primitive example of undefined privacy: digital 3D reproduction of Chauvet caves of Southern France as appeared in Wegner Herzog´s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The cave´s raw nature represents both a 30.000 years old public space (perhaps for communal rites) and a home.
Only in the 5th century B.C. Ancient Greek writers orientated the nature of the oikos or home (the basic unit of society and considered by Aristotle as a community that satisfied daily needs) with the polis (which was the city, citizenship or body of citizens). Greek Tragic theatre was the vehicle by which these two realms were addressed and in particular the conflicting interests in terms of property. Both the oikos and polis desired to be states of autarchy; self-sufficient rejecting any external help. The conflicts between the two lead to the structural decay of the society.
Oikos vs Polis: The conflicted nature of the oikos and the polis comes from the distinction of the property. On the left: Interior of a Russian Yurt, a unit for an autarchical and nomadic life. On the right: Second Life suburbia, units for a life based on virtual assets accumulation, conflicting with the fundamentals of the “commons” in the polis. Sourced from everyculture and slifefantastic.
The term oikos is contemporarily used to describe groups that are formed through friendships or acquaintances’3. Several dozen to several hundred people may be included in this definition but the quality of time spent with one another is extremely limited. Each individual has a primary group that includes relatives and friends who relate to the individual through work, recreation, hobbies, or neighbours. The modern oikos, however, includes people that share some sort of social interaction, be it through conversation etc. for at least a few hours per week. The definition is reserved only for those whom quality (face-to-face) time is devoted can be said to be a part of an oikos.
The idea of publicness is originally linked with the idea of nudity, which is an exclusive human characteristic. In Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Babylonian imagery, females were depicted nude to represent maternity and fertility. See Venus of Willendorf’s buttocks, her belly and breasts and how they have been voluptuously represented; a sincere depiction of health, wellbeing and social comfortability. They are pieces of art that nowadays could act as political statements.
On the left: Representations of Venus of Willendorf seen in Werner Herzog´s Cave of Forgotten Dream. On the right: Dancing by the Poolside, collage by Fatimah Tuggar. We can consider the representations of Venus on the left as representations of Publicness through nudity, whereas on the right, social and cultural codes construct the forms of private self.
Erwin Wurm working with Austrian lingerie brand Palmers. Subverted intimacy & anonymity.
Nowadays, the ultimate public stage is the net. Like the Chauvet cave’s immaterial other half. Nudity is dressed up in anonymity. The net is a stage where the issue of privacy is as complex as in the Chauvet caves where it is hard to manage the distinction between the two.
Mitropoulos, A. 2009, “Oikopolitics, and Storms” in Global South, pp.18
Arendt, Hannah, 1958, “La condicion humana”. [Trans. Ramon Gil Novales]. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 72
1Idion: Also, Idiot- The private person. Of lower purpose, goodness, rationality, and worth than the Polites or public citizen who belonged to and participated in the city.
2Koinon: meaning “common” and interpreted as “commonwealth”, “league” or “federation”.
3Max Weber M., Roth G., Wittich C., 1978 “Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, Los Angeles, pp. 348
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